Friday, December 30, 2011

Divergent

In a dystopian America, all citizens of the city that used to be Chicago are divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless. Those who value knowledge above all else are the Erudite; those who value selflessness: Abnegation; peace and harmony: Amity; truth: Candor, and those who place courage above all other virtues are the Dauntless. At the age of 16, each citizen must choose which faction she will belong to for the rest of her life with the help of an aptitude test (reminiscent of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter). Beatrice must choose for herself this year. Along with the rest of the 16-year-olds, she will make a choice that will determine the path of the rest of her life. But she must make her decision alone, because she has a secret... one that may lead to her own death if revealed.

[*MINOR SPOILER*: I don't think I'm giving anything away to reveal that Beatrice selects Dauntless. Really, that's a no-brainer. Would you want to read a book in which the 16-year-old heroine chooses to be a SCHOLAR for the rest of her life? someone who never tells a lie? Come on, we all saw that coming.]

Veronica Roth wrote Divergent when she was 22. TWENTY-TWO. Reading this from the ripe old vantage of 28, I find this especially impressive. But never mind about the author, let's get to the boy. This boy named Four with the mysterious nickname who has left a swath of swooning females across high schools and book blogs all over America. I don't know why. I mean, he's just tall and tattooed... and dark... and bad... Ahem. So count me into that number and watch as I descend into giggling mania. Four is one of the things that I find freshest about this book. He's not bad in the way that a villain is bad, or that Heathcliff is bad. He's not kind or gentle, but he's good. But there's not much room in this dystopia for gentleness. Enough of my blubbering, here he is in the words of Beatrice:

He is not sweet or gentle or particularly kind. But he is smart and brave, and even though he saved me, he treated me like I was strong. 

I didn't connect to Beatrice in the same way that I immediately loved Four. I found myself doubting her thoughts and reactions. I don't find it necessary for me to relate to a character to enjoy a book. I may be  flattering myself here, but I can't relate to Scarlett O'Hara or Catherine Earnshaw, and yet I love the books from which those devious wenches come. But I didn't connect with Beatrice and that affected my reading. For a short book, I want to love the heroine and the hero and I want to love them from the first page because there is less time for plot and character development. That only worked for me with Four's entrance. Apparently I am more lenient on a character with a Y chromosome and tattoos.

Grade: 3/5 stars. Divergent leaves me waffling. If I had never read The Hunger Games trilogy and if I had never been introduced to a boy wizard with a lightning-bolt scar, I might have loved this book.  I devoured it anyway, but, disappointingly, it wasn't as fully realized as the Panem that Suzanne Collins created or as fully fleshed as Harry Potter (not the boy--he was skinny--I mean the series). I can't help but judge Divergent by these YA favorites.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top Ten Favorite Books of 2011

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish
My favorite books of 2011 in 25 words or less. (There are lots of hyphenated words to enable me to keep it under the limit.) YOU should read these books (in random order):

1. The Bronze Horseman Trilogy (The Bronze Horseman, Tatiana and Alexander, The Summer Garden) by Paullina Simons. A captivating love story beginning in WWII Soviet Union, spanning continents and decades. You'll laugh. You'll cry. But always, you'll root for Tatia and Shura. 

2. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Set in Depression-era South. One man's corruption; another man's redemption. Some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read.

3. In the Woods by Tana French. Team of detectives solving the murder case of a child in Ireland. Suspenseful and thrilling. Fresh and beautiful writing.

4. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. Best YA novel of the year! Legend of water-horses comes to life. Subtle love story and to-die-for prose.

5. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Based on Biblical book of Hosea and set in Gold Rush California. One man's beautiful and forgiving love for the prostitute he married.

6. The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes. Amnesia, adultery, car crashes, love letters, overbearing husband, earnest lover, divorce, freedom. partings, reunions.

7. The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly. Ultimate good-girl/bad-boy romance set in turn-of-the-century London. Sid is a gangster; India is a goody-two-shoes doctor. Inexplicably they fall into enduring love.

8. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. The story of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife. Paris in the 1920s: art, booze, and love. Real and heartbreaking.

9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. A must for book-lovers. Coming-of-age story of Francie told in a compelling and vivid voice.

10. Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Based on the medieval story of Joanna--King John's illegitimate daughter--and her marriage to Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales. Well-written and well-researched. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

In the Woods

Rob Ryan has finally attained his dream job as detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. He's got the wardrobe, the loyal partner, and the sarcastic attitude that all say that he's made it... until the day that he and his partner, Cassie Maddox, randomly get assigned to a case that may destroy the life that Rob has created. It's the rape/murder case of Katy Devlin, a 12-year-old girl found in the Dublin suburb of Knocknaree. Twenty years previous, there was another criminal case in that same neighborhood, in that same wood. Twenty years ago, three children went into the wood to play, as per their usual routine. Two--Peter and Jamie--were never seen again, and the third child, Adam Robert Ryan, was found clinging to a tree in terror, unable to remember what had happened to his friends. The case had been closed for years, no leads were found, Adam became Rob, moved away and grew up, and no one but his trusted partner knows the secret trauma of his past. Will Katy's murder shed light on Rob's own case? Will his memory from that long ago day return to help him or to haunt him? Or will the truth remain locked away in Rob's memory forever? 

The book begins with Rob's warning to the reader: "What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this--two things: I crave truth. And I lie." Shiver me timbers! We could have a case of an Unreliable Narrator here and we know it right off the bat--from the get-go--straight from the horse's mouth! (Are those enough idioms for you?) At the tender age of twelve, I first felt the sting of the betrayal of an unreliable narrator in an Agatha Christie book. I won't reveal the title, for fear that I will ruin the book for any of you mystery lovers out there, but let's just say that in one of Dame Agatha Christie's mysteries, the narrator is the killer! Oh, the horror! 

The Unreliable Narrator is still an idea so intriguing and horrifying to me that as soon as I read Rob's disclosure, I felt anew a shiver of anxiety. But I determined that my heart had recovered enough from its prepubescent betrayal to read In the Woods. I was ready to trust again. And even though Rob warned me about his predilection to lie--and even though he told me not to--I fell in love with him anyway.  Despite his chain smoking, heavy drinking, and damaged psyche, I couldn't resist his tall ranginess, his loner vibe, and his image of bad-ass cop.

I bought this book on vacation and described it to Nathan in a book "show-and-tell," the likes of which he must frequently endure. (It's an even trade; I have to listen to detailed descriptions of hunting implements and expeditions.) But anyway, this "show-and-tell" must have enticed him, because Nathan stole the book, disappeared for three days with it and returned it to me, disgruntled. When I finished it, I wasn't disgruntled, although I survived some severe emotional devastation along the way. So for any of you readers out there--in order to avoid a similar disgruntlement with this delicious book--here's my disclosure to remember along with Rob's: don't be too sucked in to the blurb on the back cover. This isn't so much the story of the boy "gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers"--but rather, it's the story of the man that boy became: his flaws and fears, his mistakes and triumphs.

Tana French writes exquisitely. I was completely enthralled by Rob's narrative voice and by the cadence and beauty of her words. French created a can't-put-it-down story, but the depth of the characters and the freshness of the dialogue equal the quality of the plot. And that's a rare and wonderful thing. Two of my favorite passages:

The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other's hands. 

I know I said that I always choose the anticlimactic over the irrevocable, and yes of course what I meant was that I have always been a coward, but I lied: not always, there was that night, there was that one time.

Nathan's Grade: 3/5 stars. Awesome until the ending, which was disappointing.

My Grade: 4/5 stars. Interesting story, but the true treasure was the depth of character development and the exquisite writing. This would be a great pick for a book club, because even days after finishing it, I'm still pondering and wondering.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Nonesuch

Ancilla Trent is a governess and a spinster at the ripe old age of 26. Miss Trent has successfully suppressed any youthful romantic dreams she may have had and has instead made the education of her young ward her life's purpose. Never has she felt even the faintest stirring in her heart for any man... until she meets the Nonesuch. The Nonesuch, as he is called, is Sir Waldo Hawkridge, a confirmed bachelor, who is touted for his athletic achievements, wit, handsomeness, and his overall masculine perfection. Indeed, that is the very definition of a nonesuch: unrivaled, an ideal, a paragon. Despite her attempts at remaining aloof, and much to his own surprise, Miss Trent and the Nonesuch find themselves perfectly matched in intellect and humor, and find themselves in love. But in true Regency romance fashion, the road to happy-ever-after is hampered by social gaffes, trivial misunderstandings, and a tangled web of snooty meddling characters and their affairs.

I've made an attempt to discover some literary oldie-but-goodies. I noticed this year that there is a gap in my reading roughly the size of a large part of the 20th century. Other than books that have been deemed "classics" from that era, I have hardly paid any attention to period bestsellers or other popular works from the decades spanning roughly from 1930 to 1970. So I've read a few this year: Anya Seton's Katherine is still a hugely popular book and a great historical romance. Andersonville by MacKinlay Cantor won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 (Admittedly, I've kinda lost steam on this one.) Georgette Heyer was greatly prolific and wrote popular romances and thrillers for nearly 50 years. I've encountered references to her books for a long time, so I selected The Nonesuch at random, for no other reason than I liked the title. What a silly word! And what does it mean? 

The Nonesuch showcased an amazing mastery of dialogue. Naturally, it's dialogue befitting Regency-era people, but Heyer immaculately captures realism and timing in her characters' voices. I could just picture Tiffany Wield, Miss Trent's spoiled hellion of a ward, shrieking in another tantrum, and The Nonesuch's bemused response, followed by Miss Trent's suppressed giggle. The character development in a novel of this kind is rarely the writer's focus; The Nonesuch is a story driven by dialogue, but through it and the vivid depictions of the interactions between characters, the reader can discern much about each character's feelings and motivations.

Ancilla Trent and Sir Waldo Hawkridge are two of the most likeable characters I've ever encountered. Ancilla tries valiantly to curb her blossoming feelings for the Nonesuch. I love this! I dare you not to giggle:

She decided that her wisest course would be to put him out of her mind. After reaching this conclusion she lay thinking about him until at last she fell asleep. 

Their flirtation and affection for each other was obvious from the first, and had me positively grinning while I read.

She did her best to stifle it, but he caught the sound of the tiny choke of her laughter in her throat, and said appreciatively: "Do you know, I think that of all your idiosyncrasies, that choke you give, when you are determined not to laugh, is the one that most enchants me. I wish you will do it again!"
And Ancilla: 
You are an atrocious person! Since the day I met you I have become steadily more depraved!

Grade: 4/5 stars. Further proof that readers love when the wallflower finally gets what she deserves: a good man. Funny and fun and light and sweet. 



Friday, December 16, 2011

Birdsong


Englishman Stephen Wraysford is alone in the world. On a business trip to France, he stays with the family of the owner of a local textile mill and quickly becomes infatuated with his lovely and ethereal wife. Stephen and Isabelle begin a heated affair that marks Stephen's life forever, even to the bloody and muddied trenches of World War One.

The book begins in 1910 with the adulterous affair between Stephen and Isabelle, but the majority of the book takes place in the trenches in France during the Great War. And this is NOT a love story, no matter what list this may be included on at Goodreads or what it might say in the blurb on the back cover. This is the story of war. Of the enduring toughness of the human spirit and of one man's quest to survive. 

Birdsong was unlike any other book I've ever read. It was critically acclaimed when first published in 1993 and boasts many rabid fans, but here's the weird thing: the New York Times described it as "dispassionate" in its review. And that wasn't a criticism, just a statement. There really is no better word to describe the tone of Faulks' writing. Faulks wrote a story that included some of the most fundamental elements of life: love and death, war and sex, and did it dispassionately--though not unsympathetically--but with distance. In the reading of it, I felt like I was watching a movie with a gauzy film over the projector to shield me from undiluted brutality and horror.

This was a new experience for me: to be affected by a book devoid of passion, without a depth of feeling. I normally rate a book based on the feeling it evokes in me: the more I laugh, cry, or rage with anger--the more I feel--I view that book a masterpiece and its author a genius. During Stephen's affair with Isabelle, I wanted to see more passion, I wanted to know what they were feeling. What was it about Stephen that made Isabelle forsake her vows? Why did Isabelle captivate Stephen so? The answers to these questions are never answered and an impenetrable fog hovers over their whole relationship. However, when Stephen, in the trenches, faces the very real possibility of death with each new day, I was grateful for the previously established distance that Faulks had created. 

Never have I read a more gritty and moving portrayal of war and what it means to be in one. World War One was really the first war in which men were dispensable, in which fighting tactics changed and a man became a tool rather than a soldier. Faulks explores the psychological effects of war, of the toll it takes on a man to see his friends and brothers fall and yet somehow, against all odds, find himself still standing. The passages describing Stephen's fear, his instinct during battle, and his ravenous lust to live were powerful, beautiful passages. 

Here is Stephen, psychologically preparing himself for a battle at dawn, when he will climb out of the trench, over the earthworks, and charge the enemy line beneath a hail of bullets and shells:

Alone, as he had wanted to be, Stephen began the journey down into himself that would end at dawn. He looked carefully at his body and remembered the things his hands had touched; he looked at the prints of his fingertips and laid the back of his hand against the soft membrane of his lips... He closed his eyes tight and thought of his earliest memories of his mother, of her hands, the sound and scent of her. He wrapped himself in the cloak of his remembered world, hoping he would be safe in it where no shells or bullets could reach him. He swallowed, and felt the familiar feeling of his tongue and throat. It was the same flesh he had had as an innocent boy. Surely they would not let anything happen to it now. His renewed love of the world made the prospect of leaving it unbearable.


Grade: 3/5 stars. Grim, but compelling. This was pretty tedious to get through, but it is one of those books in which the story's climax makes everything else worthwhile.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Vintage Affair

Phoebe's life has fallen apart. She recently broke off her engagement and her best friend has died tragically young.  Nothing goes right for her until she takes refuge in the new boutique she has just opened that specializes in vintage clothing. It's a place where clothes--and memories--are cherished.  Phoebe can't explain why some dresses were meant for certain women or why a dress might choose its owner. But these things happen in Village Vintage. These clothes empower, heal, and restore. Because of her shop, Phoebe finally begins to repair her own life, ultimately finding peace with her past and embracing the hope of a future filled with love... and vintage clothes. 

Admittedly, my style sense runs more along the lines of Old-Na-vy rather than Bal-en-ci-a-ga. (But isn't Balenciaga possibly the funnest word that could ever roll off of your tongue?) I'm not interested in fashion and I think that money is better spent on books and vacations than on high-end clothes and bags. (In fact, this may be the reason that my husband married me.) But I can appreciate the luxurious and lavish descriptions of vintage clothes in A Vintage Affair. The details are so vibrant that Wolff creates the same sensuous* effect for clothes that Julia Child did for food in My Life in France. Julia Child had my nose twitching and my mouth salivating. Wolff makes me long to run my own fingers over lovely draping fabrics. 

If you are reading on the bus, in the airport, or downtown outside on your lunch break, you might find me peering surreptitiously over your shoulder, trying to see what book you're holding. Book-stalking is a lovely supplement to one of my favorite activities: people-watching. If I know the book and love it, I might start a conversation with you, if you seem amenable to tucking your bookmark between the pages and talking to a manic bibliophile. And if you recommend a book to me, I'll probably read it, if only so I can then talk about it with you. And I love to engage Barnes and Noble employees in literary discussions. Once I entered into a good-natured argument with a cashier who processed my order and then asked me to wait so that she could help the next customer. She gave him his change and immediately turned back to me to resume our discussion. (By the way, it was an Outlander-related disagreement.) I read A Vintage Affair because of a recommendation of a girl with a lovely Creole accent who worked at a Barnes and Noble in Baton Rouge, LA. 

Grade: 3/5 stars. It's not likely that I'll be back in Louisiana any time soon just to talk to my new Cajun friend about her recommendation. But in the midst of reading some heavy war literature, A Vintage Affair was a welcome light read that affirmed forgiveness and new beginnings. And the merits of going vintage. 

* Though similar, the words sensuous and sensual have very different connotations.
The following scene took place on January 1, 2011:

My mom (with nostalgia): Remember when we went to the Rose Parade? What a sensual experience!

My dad: Well, I'm not sure what YOU were doing. But to me it was a sensuous experience.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Redeeming Love

"Find a whore and marry her." These are God's words to the prophet Hosea. That sorta gets your attention when you're riffling through your Old Testament. Hosea's marriage to a faithless wife was an allegory of God's unending love and forgiveness for His people, who promiscuously sought other gods and turned their backs on Him. Even when his wife leaves him to return to prostitution, Hosea retrieves her, forgives her, and loves her still. It's a powerful story... it doesn't need further explanation. Needless to say, it's humbling to think of myself as the faithless prostitute, turning repeatedly from God, only to be sought after and forgiven again and again.

In Redeeming Love, Francine Rivers retells the Biblical story against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush. Angel is a high-priced prostitute in Pair-a-Dice, (I'm just now realizing that that name is a pun...) California. Sold into sexual slavery at eight, prostitution is the only life she has known. Now, her life at eighteen is devoid of all goodness. Years of abuse have created an embittered woman, resigned and hardened to her life, until Michael Hosea visits her at the brothel. He pays for her company, but doesn't touch her body... he wants only to talk. He comes, night after night, because he wants to save her, love her, and marry her. Finally, in desperation, Angel concedes to marriage and returns to Michael's farm as his wife. The demons that haunt Angel cause her to doubt her newfound happiness and Michael's love. She is dirty and so used; why does she deserve the love of a good man? Like her Biblical counterpart, she whores herself again and again, but Michael--like Hosea, like God--never wavers in his love, remaining faithful, patient and relentless. He fights for and forgives his Beloved. 

I mentioned recently that I have resisted this book for years... a decade perhaps? I overdosed on Christian historical fiction in approximately 1999, after consuming tens of formulaic romances that eventually fell frustratingly flat for me. By the time I attended a small Christian college in Ohio, I was more interested in literature. I consumed The Color Purple, Tender is the Night, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Anna Karenina. But the only book that girls seemed to rave about was Redeeming Love. And I realize that this is revealing me to be a total book snob, but I thought to myself, "I have moved beyond that. To great literature. Hello? Anna Karenina?"

So, now, I humbly admit the error of my book-snobbish ways. Need I repeat that? Redeeming Love is an amazing book and I was WRONG. I loved this book and I should have read it long ago. The story of Hosea in itself is a powerful story, and this Gold-Rush retelling was no less moving. Angel's repeated return to sin is heartbreaking. Michael weeping alone in the barn, his heart broken, betrayed by his Beloved, is heart-wrenching. 

Partly, Redeeming Love was so powerful because the issue of sex is addressed in forthright and beautiful ways. This was so refreshing for a Christian romance, in which the curtain usually drops just after the heroine says yes to a proposal of a marriage. My curious adolescent mind always heaved a sigh of frustration: "Come on, don't stop there!" Redeeming Love, while obviously discreet, addresses the sexual passion between Michael and Angel in a lovely way. Michael is a virgin at 26, and has saved himself for the right woman; it makes it even more powerful that the right woman has turned out to be a prostitute. Michael is tender and gentle with his wife, but unabashed in his desire for her. Through his reverent treatment of her, Angel sees that what she had before only known as ugly, was meant by God to be beautiful. In marriage, sex is an act of love, not of degradation or sin. 

The references to the prophet Hosea were obvious; the book jacket reveals it to be a retelling of the prophet's story and Michael himself shares the story with Angel. So I think I would have preferred a little more subtlety in the naming of Michael's character. It's not like Angel was named Gomer, which was the name of the wife of the prophet of old. I think the story speaks for itself without the overkill of the surname of Hosea.

Grade: 4.5/5 stars. Beautiful, moving, passionate, heart-breaking, amazing. There. That wasn't very snobby, now was it?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Scottish Prisoner


I am unequal to the task of summarizing over 9,000 pages of conflict into a concise paragraph to set up where The Scottish Prisoner fits in the whole of Gabaldon's massive canon of delicious tomes. 

Let's just say: 1) read the Outlander series; and 2) the events in this latest Gabaldon take place during a gap in Voyager, and is in itself a continuation of Lord John Grey's story. This book has the exquisite double-whammy of featuring both Lord John and our favorite Highland warrior, the strapping Jamie Fraser (the Scottish prisoner of the title), who currently is serving his sentence as a traitor to the Crown as a groom at the estate of friends of Lord John.

The last we saw Lord John and Jamie together (in the sequence in which this story fits) was in an uncomfortable scene in a stable in which an angry declaration of desire was made, a punch was thrown, a well-formed nose narrowly avoided smashing, and readers blushed in libraries and living rooms across the world. That is: Lord John declared and defended his passion for the decidedly non-reciprocating Jamie Fraser, who threw a punch that would have crushed Lord John's handsome face had he not wisely checked himself at the last second, and RachelKiwi blushed on her love-seat.

Now, Lord John, who spends his life spying, soldiering, solving mysteries, and pining over Jamie Fraser, has again found himself embroiled in a criminal investigation. His current case will undoubtedly result in the court-martial of a high-ranking military man, but on closer investigation, the case seems entwined with a Jacobite conspiracy. This is where our (and Lord John's) favorite Jacobite comes in. Jamie is summoned to translate a Gaelic poem that may have an encoded message about another imminent Rising, with the goal of reclaiming the English throne for the Catholic Stuarts. Jamie and Lord John must forge an uneasy alliance--each with his own motivation--to untangle the web of murder, politics, and espionage.

Lord John and Jamie--though in effect master and slave, conquerer and conquered--once had a cautious friendship founded on mutual respect, which was ruined by John's passionate avowal of love for Jamie. (This must prove, once-and-for-all, that Jamie is indeed irresistible.) In The Scottish Prisoner, what has been sundered is tentatively repaired, leading Jamie and Lord John back to a fragile friendship.

Readers of the Outlander series will remember that Lord John raises Jamie's illegitimate son, William. The sacrifice, trust, and heartache of this situation make the eventual deep friendship between Jamie and Lord John one of the most moving relationships of the series. Despite the obvious difference in orientation, they are remarkably alike. Both were born to be lords, though Jamie's lordship was taken from him after the English conquest of the Highlands. They are military men with great courage and leadership qualities. And both men are fiercely loyal and honorable. A promise is a promise. And when Jamie entrusts his only (known) living child into his friend's keeping, he knows that William will know the love of a good man. Happily, The Scottish Prisoner explores the flowering of that friendship in its infancy--finally, they can embrace friendship as equals. TSP answers some of the tantalizing how? why? and when? questions that readers may wonder over after Voyager.

The Lord John books feature His Lordship in swashbuckling adventures, solving mysteries, and wielding swords in battle. Great adventure reading, to be sure, but what was particularly glorious about The Scottish Prisoner was being transported again into the muscled arms of Jamie Fraser. Um, I mean into the intricate and interesting world Gabaldon has created and populated with such unforgettable and lovable characters. 

Grade: 4/5 stars. This was a great fix to fuel my Gabaldon addiction until the publication of Written in My Own Heart's Blood.