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


12.22–The Lace Reader

12.22–The Lace Reader

Not the best cover for the book, but it’s the cover I own, so I stayed faithful.

I would like to take this moment and say thank you to Brunonia Barry for writing a beautiful, haunting, intelligent novel that I found impossible to put down. Barry’s The Lace Reader is an elegant novel that packed an incredible amount of good things into less than 400 pages.  I think the best way to write this is to compile a list.

1. Character

The novel is mostly in first person, and its narrator, Towner Whitney, admits on the first page that she is unreliable, warning readers to warily trust her recounting of events. As if to prove this, she admits that her name isn’t even really Towner, but is, in fact, Sophya.  She is a woman who has health problems of multiple sorts, but whose mental health is by far the most abysmal of all.  It is clear she suffers from delusions and depression, though the reader does not discover how serious these are until the end of the novel.  She and most of the other important characters are very well-developed. May, her mother, is an agoraphobic feminist who houses abused women on a secluded island. Eva, her great-aunt, has the gift of Sight, which she channels through the patterns in the lace that she makes.  Cal, the villain, is a cult leader who has a special vendetta against Towner and the rest of her family.  Towner, despite her infinite flaws and her many weaknesses, is a protagonist I had no problems getting behind.  She deserved my empathy, and I cared for her as I would a long-suffering friend.

Thank you Google Images for filling in the gaps of my experience.

2. Setting

Although it is for the most part set in Salem, Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, Barry plays with time a lot, utilizing hallucinations, flashbacks, and dreams to enhance the story.  Still, the majority of these focuses on this beautiful section of the northeastern coast of the United States.  In the case of this novel, the location is very much vital to setting a mood, and the characters are all products of their physical place in space.  For instance, one of the supporting characters is a witch.  Some even believe that Eva is a witch, as well as the rest of the Whitney women.  Towner, her brother, and her love-interest are all expert sailors, and these play a significant part in the plot.  The history of Salem helps bolster the plot and set a tone for the entire novel, which is often one of suspicion, gloom, and religious persecution.  A great deal of it happens on a fictional island that is only accessible by one ramp, controlled by Towner’s reclusive mother–the perfect setting for the development and perpetuation of agoraphobia.

3. Plot

This is, of course, the most important. At least to most people, although a novel rich in plot but lacking everything else would be rather unpleasant to read. After all, who cares what happens to a character that isn’t believable?  But Barry’s characters are, and so her rich plot is very much appreciated.  Towner receives a call from her brother, who asks that she  return to Salem from California because her great-aunt Eva has gone missing.  Her return forces her to face dark family secrets and memories that she has attempted to subdue by running all the way across the country.  Things escalate, as they tend to do, and…well, I won’t say anymore.  Just know that it’s a little mystery and suspense, a little mysticism and magic, and a lot of family drama.

4. Twist

There are lots of mini-twists in the middle that I really did not see coming. But holy cow, the end took my breath away.  Just be ready to get slammed in the chest with surprise.  And don’t go looking for it. Allowing yourself to get caught off guard is part of what is so magical about this novel.

Can you see your future?

A lot of people will expect witchcraft or fortune-telling to figure prominently in the novel. While Towner and Eva do seem to have a special talent for foresight, Towner spends much of the book hiding from these talents.  Do not expect this novel to focus heavily on the paranormal or the supernatural.  Those things are plot devices and make for interesting setting and premise, but the novel is truly about families reconnecting, old wounds healing, truths being revealed, and troubled minds being put at ease.  It is a beautiful novel, though often very sad, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a novel that keeps the pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and I wish there was more!


12.21–The Princess Bride

12.21–The Princess Bride

After years of wanting to read this book, I finally got around to it! Sadly, it was the e-reader version I bought when I was going to Ireland and planning on not buying books/lugging books in my backpack (which I did anyway).  This was the first real e-book I’d ever read, and it really took away from the reading experience. I cannot stand them! It also took me five months because I didn’t want to pick up my stupid phone and “read.”

Anyway, the book was pretty good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would.  I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this because a lot of people love the book as well as the film. Since everyone has seen the movie at least 500 times, I won’t go too deeply into the synopsis.  Everything that happened in the film happened in the book, though obviously in much more detail.  A few include:

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The dialogue in the book is fairly close to that of the film.  You get a lot more backstory on all the characters though. Much more on Inigo, for instance. The reader is privy to the death of his father.

Mawage

This guy was actually written with that hilarious speech impediment that we all love to imitate.

Here is the kiss that blew all other kisses away.  Don’t you just love them?

Ok, enough of that.  The novel is a lot more political than the film. Goldman writes as if he has simply abridged the narrative of the famous S. Morgenstern, the Florinese author who wrote The Princess Bride as a political and social satire. This gets really confusing at times.  Of course, the reader figures Goldman’s asides are also fictional, but he is extremely convincing, mostly because he tells anecdotes from his own life and the events leading up to his decision to abridge the old text.  He screws with reality  throughout the book and it frustrated me at times. It did, however, make it memorable.

I was really impressed that the movie was so close to the novel. I suppose that’s because Goldman worked on the movie too.  But the dialogue, especially the most famous lines, were almost exactly the same.  It gave the novel the same whimsy and frivolity of the movie.  The story, too, is the same we know and love, though more in-depth histories and rivalries of Florin and Guilder are present.

If Goldman had ended it with the escape of Westley, Buttercup, Inigo, and Fezzik from Prince Humperdink, it would have been the perfect ending.  However, there is the epilogue, or sequel (I’m not sure which), called “Buttercup’s Baby.” It’s a stupid name, for one.  Secondly, the plot is ridiculous. It plays with time entirely too much.  And it goes virtually nowhere. Also, there’s a pseudo-sex-scene between Westley and Buttercup and it sort of shatters their image of youthful and pure romance.

In the end, I did enjoy it, simply due to its similarities to the film that I adore.  But there are things that distracted from the story itself and I really wished they hadn’t been there.  While it was a clever way to write the novel, and I’ll admit I’ve never seen anything like it before, it was still fairly irritating at times.  I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but only because I felt guilty for rating it any lower. However, no matter the weird narrative, The Princess Bride will always hold a special place in my heart.

 


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?

12.19–Frankenstein

12.19–Frankenstein

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So sorry I’ve been out of it lately. I’ve been job hunting, and we all know how fun that is. Also, I’ve been creating a new domain all my own, www.BibliographyBlog.com, and that’s taken some work.  But I’m back! And hopefully back to normal.

Obviously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein needs no introduction.  It is read every year by perhaps millions of kids all over the globe (or it’s supposed to be…we all know teenagers don’t love to read the things they’re told to read). This, then, is less of a review and more of my reactions to the text.

In school, I loved studying the Romantics.  As bombastic, long-winded, and miserable as they are, I felt at that time that I identified with them.  In some ways I still feel that way, but it is mostly their regard for nature and their hope for escape from the complicated society of man that I feel.  The melodramatic sorrow is something I’ve mostly left behind. Still, I love the Romantics.  In the center of this movement exists Gothic literature, and at the center of this–perhaps the most famous work of Gothic literature–is Frankenstein.

The incredible thing is that this enduring work of literature and the infinitely infamous monster therein were created by a teenaged girl as the answer to a challenge by her older husband and friends.  For those that do not know the history of the novel, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy visited Lord Byron in Switzerland.  One night, Byron proposed a challenge to the poets residing in his home: create a ghost story.  For days Mary strained her brain in an attempt to come up with something good enough to compete with the Romantic titans around her.  According to Mary herself, she was visited by the specter of the very monster she would proceed to create, and out of that visitation arose one of the greatest stories of all time.  It has been adapted for the screen more than any other work of fiction in history. It certainly makes one reflect on our present society.  It was written by a teenager, and most teenagers now can’t even read it.

The text itself is beautiful, and utterly different from what most people think they know of it.  There is not much of a description of the monster himself, and what does exist is nothing like the public’s common conception of him. He is large, yes, and ugly.  But he is extremely smart, well-spoken, and very fast.  He possesses super-human strength, but his massive size seems to reflect the massive heart within him, capable of great love, or of great sorrow and hatred.  Sadly, it is this last emotion that he settles upon in the end, after his creator has rejected and betrayed him. Events do not move swiftly and the novel is not packed with action. As with any good work of Romantic literature, it is mostly self-reflection, thoughts on the great beauty of the surrounding landscape or the nature of man and beast, or long passages of “woe is me” written in about 14,000 different ways.

So, what’s to like about the novel? After all, it’s full of sorrow and tragedy and wrath and destruction. To start, language.  Call me a nerd (I’m totally ok with that), but nothing really gets to me like beautiful, elevated language.  In Mary Shelley’s time, people spoke and wrote in a way that is elegant and thoughtful.  There is a lot of vocabulary in the book that was unknown to me, and I like to think I have a somewhat expanded vocabulary. Both Frankenstein and his monster are bombastic and loquacious. The monster tells a story that lasts for several chapters. Though it could have been shortened drastically, the language is so mesmerizing in its eloquence that one hardly notices the passing of the pages.

Frankenstein’s story, similar to those of the infamous Doctor Faustus or Lord Byron’s Manfred, tells of a man who seeks knowledge far above what man is entitled to know of the universe.  He seeks to create human life, but the unnamed forces of nature do not seem to appreciate this, nor does Frankenstein truly understand how to do so, and his experiment goes horribly wrong.  As with other Gothic heroes, Frankenstein is extremely melodramatic. It is possible for him to solve his own problem in one of several ways, but he must choose to focus on something other than how horrible is the abomination he has created.  Sadly, he cannot move past the hideousness of the creature and the things it does when it is hurt and lonely. He loses everything and everyone he loves due to his single-mindedness, and the creature pulls Frankenstein down to the creature’s own level: completely alone and devoid of happiness. Frankenstein is punished for his arrogance and ambition by powers much greater than himself.  It is this epic human struggle, so common throughout this literary movement, that I find so emotional and compelling. Having never seen any of the numerous Frankenstein adaptations, I had virtually no concept of what the story contained (excepting the obvious). It was extremely intense and stressful for me to read this book, as I knew that nothing good could happen, but I couldn’t help but hope anyway!

I loved this book. The fact that a girl so young could write such an enduring and tempestuous work–one that caused numerous powerful emotions to arise within me–is incredible, and I admire young Mary Shelley greatly for her brilliant work.  It is so unbelievably beautiful.

 

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!

12.4–The First Apostle

12.4–The First Apostle

This is  definitely a poolside read, or in the case of our Texas”winter” when poolside is a not-so-distant-but-still-not-here concept, a bathtub book.  It is quick and easy, and a little below my intelligence level (pardon my elitism).

James Becker is apparently an aspiring Dan Brown.  The book is another conspiracy novel in which the Vatican is hiding a massive, powerful, world-view-altering secret from the unsuspecting masses.  The implication is that this secret will shake the very foundation of Christianity right out from under the believers’ feet.  Though still irritating, I no longer find this type of novel offensive.

The novel opens with the unintentional murder of a British housewife, living alone in a mansion in Italy while her husband travels for business.  The murderers have broken into her house to investigate a Latin inscription her builders uncovered during renovations to the house.  After her death is ruled accidental by Italian police, her husband and his friend, a police officer named Bronson, follow the trail of clues missed by the Italian police which indicate that Jackie’s death did involve foul play.  This trail leads them to repeated encounters with the Italian mafia, across European borders, and deep into the hills and caves surrounding Rome in pursuit of this “earth-shaking” secret.

The plot sounds exciting, and it is a good quick read. Unfortunately the novel is a bit too predictable and cliche, making it difficult to enjoy fully.  There was never anything truly absorbing about it. The characters were not deep enough for me to care about.  Nor was the plot at all believable.  Every solution to every problem was a bit too convenient and far fetched, which did nothing to encourage the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

Other than that, there isn’t too much to say on the book.  If anyone does want to read it, I would hate to give any of the “twists” away, though the reader will likely be able to guess them for themselves.  As I close, I must apologize for the selection of books I’ve made this year, and for my slow reading.  Not many of my reviews have been encouraging.  I’m in the process of reading a best seller right now, and I’m really hoping that I will be able to give you some shining praise for it, so as to inspire you to rush out and pick it up!