The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist

I spent a few weeks in YA-land in November, so I read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton to escape from that trap. Sometimes it is hard to leave YA-land.

“On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her splendid new home is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant and leaves Nella alone with his sister, the fearsome Marin.

Nella’s life unexpectedly changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish it, she engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie ways.

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand and fear the escalating dangers around them. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?” Indiebound

Overall impression: I really liked this book. It was skillfully written, with beautiful scene-setting and elegant character-building. Nella is a complicated protagonist, and one cannot help but sympathize with her as she tells her story. She is a girl for whom options are incredibly limited, so she does what people expect her to do and marries a man of means. This action comes with a certain set of expectations for her, but she soon realizes that nothing in the Brandt house is as it seems, and nothing goes as expected. Though things are difficult for her at first, she finds a way to cope, thrive, and love her new home. The reader cannot help but admire her for her wherewithal and yet pity her for her limited circumstances.

17th Century Amsterdam is a fascinating and someone dangerous place. I read a lot of historical fiction set in Britain, so it was nice to get away from that and read something historical from the point of view of a different culture. Nella finds life in the city of canals very different from the country town in which she grew up, and as she explores its culture, streets, and customs, so do the readers.

The most intriguing element of Amsterdam in this story, however, is one mysterious house where no one ever answers the door to Nella’s knock, marked by a strange symbol. Sometimes curtains move in an upstairs window. Somehow, despite this, the miniature figurines she desires are delivered to her regardless of her putting in her order or not. The reader and Nella both wonder and eventually obsesses about the Miniaturist. Who is it? Does he have special powers? Can he see the future, or does he imbue his figurines with the ability to change as Nella’s story changes? Nella must face and seek to answer these questions at the same time that she must adjust to the very normal changes faced by women without many choices and the very real dangers faced by a prominent household in times of turmoil dominated by faith.

This is a book that is slightly under-hyped in my opinion and could get lost in the shuffle of all the over-hyped books being released every Tuesday. I highly recommend this unique and interesting novel for fans of historical fiction and magical realism.

12.25–Labyrinth

12.25–Labyrinth

For those of you hoping I’d be reviewing the David Bowie movie or something along those lines, I’m sorry to disappoint you! No, this is definitely a book.

The novel jumps back and forth between 2005 southern France, and the same location in the 13th century.  Alaïs and Alice are the same person living in two entirely different times–Alaïs in the ancient past and Alice in modern France.  While volunteering at an archeological dig, Alice discovers artifacts in a cave that launch her on the path toward her destiny–a picture of a labyrinth painted on the cave wall, a stone ring, and the skeletons of two people long-deceased.  The story then takes off almost like a Dan Brown novel (a bunch of baddies going after an ancient and mystical secret and leaving a huge trail of bodies that somehow no one really notices), centered around several things, namely the quest for the Grail and the Inquisition in Europe.

In part, it was this that confused me. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel that much, and now that I think about it, it may have been the fact that I couldn’t pin down a central focus.  The jacket text makes it seem as though it’s more about the persecution of a sect known as the Cathars in France in the 13th century, who were considered heretics by the Catholic Church and were hunted down and burned.  In reality, this is merely setting for the shadowy, secretly-embarked-upon quest for the Grail, the truth about which is known by a very small group of people.  I suppose, though, that there was too much detail about the Cathars, and it got confusing keeping track of who wanted to kill the main characters because they were heretics, and who wanted to kill them because they were the protectors of the Grail.  There was too much conflict coming from every side, and it made me go cross-eyed.

It was a decent story, but I didn’t love it.  Alaïs and the people in her time were well-written and interesting, but Alice and the modern counterparts of the people from the past were somewhat lame.  Alice herself was a bit of a bimbo, and I didn’t really feel her personality matched all of the actions she was required to take.  If it had been real life, she would have been the first to give up her secrets and die…just saying.  The bad guys, with the exception of maybe one, were also kind of…not scary.  There was no moment when I was like, “Oh no! They’ll find the Grail first!” or “Oh no, he’s actually going to kill that dude!”  It was more like, “Ok, I know exactly where this is going…” and I ended up being right.

Overall, I thought the premise and the period in history about which Mosse chose to write were interesting and unique.  I appreciated that about the novel, at least.  But the rest of it–plot, characters, believability–all fell flat for me and made it difficult to get excited about picking up the book and reading more. And those are the most important parts of the books, so that super stinks :/ Sorry guys! Hopefully the next book will be a humdinger! It’s about Doctor Who! How could it not be?

I cried when I found out he was married


12.20–Tumbleweeds

12.20–Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds is the second novel by Leila Meacham, whose novel Roses was a NYT Bestseller a few years ago. Roses I did not read, but Tumbleweeds is the novel of choice for a book club being hosted by my mother and me, so I figured I should probably read it.

It is entertaining, certainly.  The story line is tense and, at times, unutterably sad.  It follows the story of Catherine Ann Benson, who is orphaned at age 11 when her parents die in a car accident. She is uprooted from her posh life in California and becomes the ward of her grandmother in the Texas Panhandle.  At school, she is “adopted” by two other orphans, Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell, a popular and handsome pair of best friends.  The trio become inseparable all through high school, until one tragedy and a series of misunderstandings threaten to rip their friendship to pieces and scatter them to the winds.

The premise is your classic love triangle.  Obviously, with two boys and one girl, someone is going to be hurt and left out.  It was predictable in that way.  There were a lot of moments that I wanted to throttle Trey, for his ridiculous assumptions and his stubborn hard-heartedness.  Poor Cathy is the most sympathetic character, and seems to be the only innocent bystander in the whole mess of the novel.  It is entertaining, certainly.  Meacham creates enough mystery and tension to make the reader want to reach the very last page just to find out what secrets everyone is keeping.

The secrets are what got to me the most.  No one tells the truth until the very end of the novel.  Lives have been ruined, and the poor people of the town of Kersey all have to move on and get over one thing or another.  In the beginning it seems that Kersey is an idyllic heaven and nothing can go wrong. But the secrets kept by its citizens, most especially its two golden boys, are what tear it apart.  With the exception of Cathy and some of the older people, there is no one who is really likable or trustworthy.  It is melodramatic and reminds me of a Lifetime movie.  In fact, I would not be surprised to see

Tumbleweeds

Based on the novel by Leila Meacham

A Lifetime Original Movie

sometime.  Except I don’t watch Lifetime, so maybe not.

The prose leaves something to be desired as well.  It’s very juvenile–not at all as if it was written by a veteran novelist.  While the narration is always done in omnitient third-person, it follows different characters after they all split up and go their separate ways. In the chapters that follow the men, especially Trey, Meacham seems as if she is trying entirely too hard to simulate a male’s tone of voice and manner of speaking.  It is not at all natural, and this was a real problem for me when reading the novel.  I understand it is a special and somewhat unique skill to smoothly portray the voice of the opposite sex, but sadly Meacham failed more than most at this.  In a novel that predominantly about men, this is a problem.  Also, some of her sentences forced me to read them two, three, or four times, just to discern the meaning.  Dialect and accent are great things to write within dialog, but including colloquial phrases in the narration just adds to the feeling that neither you nor your editor know grammar very well.

I read the novel quickly, so there must have been something I enjoyed about it.  I didn’t hate all the characters.  Cathy manages to turn her situation around and make a decent life out of the misfortune that befalls her in her youth, and for that I admire her. John Caldwell is a great character, and I greatly admire almost everything about him–the exception being his extreme piety, which caused the story to veer wildly from where I wanted it to go. Meacham also created a web of intrigue so thick that it kept me interested despite the fact that the characters were mostly completely unbelievable.

I wish I had more good things to say about this book, especially because my mother read it before me and was raving about how good it was. For plot it was pretty good, but everything else came up lacking, and there are vital things like character and tone that cannot be overlooked. But maybe I’m in the super-picky minority.  Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

12.5–The Pillars of the Earth

12.5–The Pillars of the Earth

As promised, a review on a bestseller. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is fantastic. It took me forever to read because it’s nearly a thousand pages long and I worked 12+ hour days all last week. What time I didn’t spend working I spent sleeping, so I did not accomplish much on the book. Still, I read every spare moment I had, including the ride to work and a little bit after shifts when I should have been sleeping (more).  It was fantastic, and I hated putting it down as much as I was forced to last week.

To give a synopsis is an incredibly difficult task, as the novel is long and covers almost the entire lifespan of the characters.  The entire plot is based around the construction of a magnificent cathedral at Kingsbridge Priory in England.  There is no end to the political intrigue and clerical corruption, and the lines between good and evil are very clearly defined.  William Hamleigh, the most notorious baddie I’ve encountered in ages, is an ever-present destructive force, and repeatedly obstructs the process of the cathedral and the happiness of the good characters. Among those we root for are: Prior Phillip, Tom Builder, Ellen (Tom’s wife), Jack, and Aliena.  Tom especially is a character that invites the reader to love him. He is strong and sweet and honorable, though perhaps a little too naive and trusting at times.  Ellen and Aliena are strong women who blaze their own trail, and are smarter than most of the men around them.  Jack inherits Tom’s sweetness and gentle strength, and becomes one of the most lovable characters in the entire novel.  All these characters’ stories begin apart from one another’s, and Follett slowly brings them together to entangle them irrevocably.

Follett’s characters are well developed and beautiful.  His plot is intricate and masterfully crafted.  I was disappointed, however, with the slight predictability of it.  Please do no misunderstand. I adored this novel and wanted to read it every spare second I had, even if I only accomplished one page.  But I found myself being able to predict what would happen, or at least that something would happen.  I understand that an author must do things to keep his novel interesting–one cannot fault Follet for that.  Still, the pattern of up, down, up, down, up, down was a little too formulaic and regular.  I found myself frustrated that the characters I loved could not simply settle down and find happiness.  None of the evil-doers were given what they deserved! I wanted William Hamleigh to die painfully and shamefully, but this hope was repeatedly foiled.  Follet kept me on the edge of my seat, but half the time it was out of anger and the desire to see the enemy brought low.  I have mixed feelings about these emotions he evoked in me.  One the one hand, they made me mad, but on the other, they kept me engaged in the story and enticed me to learn more. Perhaps this is the mark of a truly masterful author?

Another thing that did very much impress me was his research and knowledge of the time period about which he is writing.  I learned so much about medieval life, architecture, and engineering.  I learned what I flying buttress is! I had no idea that early cathedrals were thick, stocky structures with tiny windows.  Nor did I ever think about the origins of stained glass.  Sounds nerdy to get excited over such things, perhaps, but I’ve never denied the fact that I’m a nerd.  Any new opportunity to learn something about history or the development of humankind and its technologies, especially if it’s in the form of narrative, is welcome to me.  I truly enjoyed this book not simply for its plot, but its heavily researched descriptions and its ability to teach me something new.

If you can take on the daunting task of reading through 983 pages of minuscule text, I highly recommend this book. It has a little bit of everything: history, romance, drama, violence, corruption, and the enduring promise that good will always trump evil, even though the odds seem impossible and hope is often lost.  A great read, and well worth its popularity.  Thanks to Lauren for bumping this up to the top of my reading list!