Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

In case you can't tell, Kate Morton is one of my new favorite authors, and her new novel The Distant Hours does not disappoint. Alternating between the nineties and World War II-era England, the novel tells the story of Edie, a thirtysomething editor at a small publishing house who's never felt as though she fit into her family. She's just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and can't seem to find a way to tell her parents what's happened, so she ignores it. As she's grappling with this, a lost letter to her mother comes to light, which provokes a violent reaction in her normally unflappable mother's composure, and Edie resolves to find out more. Her quest takes her to the Kentish countryside, where an ancient stone castle called Milderhurst shelters three spinster sisters, the last scions of a pedigreed family, and who also sheltered Edie's mother as a schoolgirl evacuee during the Blitz. Mum won't agree to discuss the matter, so Edie is left on her own to find out why her mother never speaks of her evacuation--what happened to make her try to shut out the past? Edie quickly finds herself caught up in a tale of love, loss, and sorrow as she gets closer to uncovering the answers she seeks.

Morton's style is noticeably different in The Distant Hours, though she has demonstrated a gift for writing in disparate voices for her various narrators in both The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden. Here, however, Edie's voice is rambling and at times distractingly distracted from the point at hand. At first I found it off-putting, but I quickly came to see that Edie's mind really worked that way, and I became more engrossed. Morton kept me guessing until the end with certain questions and their answers--which did not disappoint.

However, I would have liked some more closure or development for Edie on the romance front. The break-up with her boyfriend and her inability to tell her parents for months is presented as a big issue that never gets resolved. A possible romance is hinted at but not explored. Also, a novel within the novel plays a pivotal role, but the text itself only gets a small reveal. I would have very much liked to see more of that meta text.

All in all, a solid read. Better than The Forgotten Garden? I would have to say no. But excellent nonetheless.

The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but World War II is one of my favorite time periods to read about, partly due to the fact that both my grandfathers served in WWII--my mum's dad as a bomber pilot in Europe and my dad's dad as a sailor in the Pacific. It fascinates me. I also love mysteries, and The Dead of Winter brings together both in an extremely satisfying way.

It's winter 1944 and the year is winding down toward Christmas; though the Blitz ended years earlier, London still enforces blackouts at night and the rubble-filled shells of once happy homes still crouch all over the city. A volunteer blackout watchman bumps into a young woman--presumably foreign, due to her accent--hurrying along her way with an air of unease about her. After the watchman returns from a break in a pub from the frigid night, he stumbles across the girl again. Literally. She's been killed, but none of her possessions have been taken. Scotland Yard, at first inclined to dismiss it as a random murder, begins to investigate more closely when the girl's employer, a former policeman retired to the country, steps in to lend a hand and discovers links to jewelry thefts and assassinations on the Continent and at home.

Airth possesses that rare gift of being able to lead the reader along by the nose, guiding both the characters and the audience to what seems the perfect conclusion, only to reveal a particularly important tidbit that turns everything one thought on its head. Numerous twists left me thoroughly engaged in the novel and eager for more!

Highly recommended to fans of whodunits and history buffs alike.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Having already been introduced to Scott's novels in college, namely The Antiquary, I was a bit hesitant to begin Ivanhoe, expecting more of the same--overblown prose, historical inaccuracies, and a vague sense of self-indulgent pomposity. Ivanhoe certainly doesn't disappoint in that regard, but these same traits are actually a blessing to the narrative: the prose gives grandeur to the royal characters and the chivalric heroes, the historical inaccuracies demonstrate the pervasive and mutating nature of myths and legendary characters, and the pomposity fits right into the milieu of Norman England, a world of tournaments and dramatic favor-throwing.

The tale is relatively straightforward: Norman nobles and Saxon peasants (for the most part) coexist uneasily in England, without even the benefit of a crowned sovereign given that Richard the Lionhearted is being held prisoner by Leopold of Austria and Young John is gunning for the throne. A huge tournament held in the north-central part of the country, used as a smokescreen by John and his cronies to distract from their attempts to get John crowned, attracts a huge melting pot of characters, including a frighteningly passionate Templar, a Jewish moneylender and his astonishingly beautiful daughter, a Saxon thane and his ward, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and even Robin Hood (though sadly, no Sheriff of Nottingham). As one group manipulates another for their own gain, be it monetary or amorous, true natures are revealed and the question of loyalty to one's identity and heritage, one's country, and one's leaders are examined in great detail.

Over all, a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. Definitely one of Scott's most approachable novels.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Novels don't always fare well in translation. Take the Harry Potter books, for example. For whatever reason, Gallimard decided to let its translator paraphrase big sections of the stories for no reason whatsoever and vice versa. Question mark? Silk is an Italian novel that in my opinion must have lost a LOT in translation based on the advance praise on the back cover, lauding its hypnotic language and enthralling story.

Not so much for me.

The hypnotic quality of the prose came close to putting me to sleep, to be honest. Baricco evidently repeated verbatim different sections of his narrative when similar events reoccurred, including the main character's repeated journeys to Japan to procure silkworm eggs (hence the title). At first it was a charming representation of how compartmentalized and routine his life is, but then it got boring quickly.

The plot also left me cold. Herve Joncour, silkworm buyer in mid-nineteenth-century southern France, must find a new supply of eggs since the Mediterranean producers have all got the same problem: an incurable disease that kills the worms and produces substandard silk or none at all. Pushed by his partners, Joncour embarks on a long trip to Japan to purchase the eggs, where he deals with a feudal Japanese lord who has a European woman as one of his friends with benefits (the exact nature of their relationship is never divulged). Joncour becomes obsessed with her in his quiet way, drifting away from his wife and clouding his own thoughts.

The rather bitter ending does nothing to redeem the short novel, but instead prompts the reader to be grateful his or her life is not quite so bleak. Thank goodness. I'd pass this one over.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

Imagine, if you will, that the story in Genesis of children born to fallen angels and human women was true: after one passing reference in the Bible, these "giants," called Nephilim, disappeared from view. Or did they? Danielle Trussoni's Angelology explores the nefarious influence the Nephilim have had on history since the Flood, killing and oppressing with wanton and inhuman cruelty. To combat their hold on human civilization, scholars have obsessively studied the Nephilim, forming angelological societies dedicated to freeing humanity from Nephilistic control. At the center of this struggle is the Lyre of Orpheus, which originally belonged to Michael the Archangel, and which was given to the fallen angels in their prison beneath the Rhodopes Mountains in the Balkans. This celestial instrument has the power to manipulate matter, and in the hands of the Nephilim, it could cause unimaginable destruction. It's up to one young woman, a nun in a convent in upstate New York and heir to a long heritage of angelological families, to piece together the puzzle of the lyre's whereabouts and prevent the Nephilim from realizing their own devices.

I was very intrigued by the premise of the novel, and found myself quickly engrossed. The style and the narrative structure, making much use of flashbacks and epistolary features, are quite reminiscent of Elizabeth Kostova's novels, particularly The Historian. Ultimately, however, the climax of the novel feels rushed and the reader isn't given sufficient detail to clearly follow the final events. Points of view switch with abandon and there are no markers to guide the reader through the pivotal last pages of the story. That being said, if you prefer your books with nebulous finales and like to imagine for yourself the ultimate outcome, this book may be a good candidate for your list. Trussoni's world is fully realized and features compelling characters--for the most part.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Fall of Rome by Michael Curtis Ford

You all know by now that I love historical fiction, but the majority of the books I read from that genre follow fictional people whose lives intersect with famous luminaries and events. The Fall of Rome dramatizes exactly what the title purports--the last legs of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century AD, told from the perspectives of two Hunnish men, Odoacer and his brother Onulf, sons of a general and confidant of Attila the Hun. Their lives become intertwined with that of Orestes, a Germanic aide to Attila with a Roman wife, who first betrays the Huns by stealing Attila's grave goods and then proceeds to ladder-climb his way to the top of the Roman chain of command, swapping allegiances as he pleases and managing to come out on the best side of events regardless of what happens. Odoacer and Onulf vow revenge on Orestes, and though they go their separate ways to deal with their choice, fate brings them back together and into repeated contact with their sworn enemy.

I've always had a fascination for ancient Rome, so it was thrilling to read about its fall through the eyes of its final conquerors (Odoacer became king of Italy after killing Orestes and deposing Orestes' teenage son, the last emperor of Western Rome, Romulus Augustus). Historical skirmishes and campaigns are told with careful attention to detail and accuracy, painting a vivid picture of life in the Empire as it crumbled to pieces. That being said, the level of detail may be off-putting to some readers. I found myself skimming through certain passages of conflict because they didn't hold my attention--though I'm willing to bet they would play out great on screen.

Highly recommended for Rome enthusiasts and history buffs!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Last Ember by Daniel Levin

I've already confessed to a weakness for Dan Brownian novels, so the latest one I've read shouldn't come as a surprise choice to anyone--and the subject matter of choice is of particular interest to me. The Last Ember features a young American lawyer named Jonathan Marcus, a former classics student, now a corporate lawyer, summoned mysteriously to Rome in order to testify in an antiquities case regarding broken pieces of the Forma Urbis, a stone map of ancient Rome. His opposite number, Dr. Emili Travia, former girlfriend of Jonathan, quickly becomes involved in the mysterious reason for his visit, a millennia-old cover-up regarding the true fate of the Menorah of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, long believed to have been brought back to Rome by Titus and then lost to history. Jonathan and Emili must struggle against corrupt police, nefarious artifact destruction around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and even Jonathan's past in order to uncover the truth and preserve the past, using Flavius Josephus's writings to bring light to the mystery.

Levin, a Harvard-educated man, writes well and constructs a great narrative with compelling characters who are actually three-dimensional, unlike some of his counterparts in the Dan Brownian world. The novel appears to be meticulously researched, full of classical quotations and fascinating information, and while obviously a work of fiction gains a great sense of reality from the details woven into the story.

Highly recommended for fans of history as well as lovers of Dan Brown!

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Having read The Forgotten Garden earlier this month and given that I loved it, I thought it a good idea to check out Kate Morton's first novel. The House at Riverton tells the story of Grace Reeves, who worked in the Riverton household as a young domestic during World War I, is in 1999 living out her last days in a nursing home. Out of the blue, a young woman directing a film about a tragedy that occurred on the house's grounds contacts her, asking for her input on the project, which conjures up strong and long-repressed memories of Grace's time as a servant at Riverton. Feeling that she ought to finally tell someone what happened the night of the tragedy, Grace begins recording a series of audio tapes that she sends to her missing grandson, hoping the tale will bring him back to his family.

In the acknowledgments and notes at the end of the novel, Morton mentions that one of her aims in writing the book was to incorporate some of the elements of the Gothic novel: the past haunting the present, as Grace's memories begin to do, making it difficult for her to distinguish what is happening and what has happened; the idea that deep family secrets must always end up uncovered; and the narrative device of flashback. Morton makes excellent use of these tropes while still maintaining a mainly linear chronology, and the story is compelling, especially as we learn that despite Grace's early belief in the order of things (namely that she is a servant and the Riverton family are above her station), she goes on to become an archaeologist and live her own life, independent of a servile identity that she had previously cultivated so carefully.

I definitely enjoyed The House at Riverton; however, it lacks somewhat the polish that The Forgotten Garden can claim, and generally has a less compelling narrative in that the main action revolves around a life of servitude. Nevertheless, the level of service and devotion demonstrated by Grace and the other servants is inspiring in its selflessness.

All in all, if you enjoy Kate Morton's style, this is a good read, and if you find historical fiction from unusual perspectives fascinating, this will also be an excellent choice.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Heroes of Olympus, Book One: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

For those of you out there who have read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, this new continuation of those books was one I couldn't pass up. I really enjoyed the updating of the Greek mythos by transplanting the gods and demigods to America, and the positive life lessons and encouragement Riordan gives to his young readers as he addresses topics like ADHD, dyslexia, and self-image.

That being said, The Lost Hero picks up a few months after the end of the Titan War as recounted in The Last Olympian, the final book in the Percy Jackson series--though we don't know that at the start. The book opens with a teenage boy named Jason awaking in a school bus surrounded by people he doesn't know. Oh, and he's got complete amnesia, and only knows his own name because the girl sitting next to him claim's she his girlfriend, and the guy across from her is supposedly his best friend. After being attacked by vengeful wind spirits, Jason, Piper, and Leo are transported to Camp Half-Blood, where Jason discovers he and his friends feature in a new Great Prophecy, and that while his fellow campers are Greek demigods, he may be the offspring of the Roman incarnation of a particular deity. The kids race across the States to accomplish their task, each wrangling with their own inner struggles as they attempt to fulfill their destiny. Did I mention that Percy Jackson is missing? Uh oh.

This book is amazing. Riordan really outdid himself in expanding his universe and deepening the mystery of his earlier Percy Jackson novels. Bringing out the Roman side of the Greek gods and goddesses was also a stroke of genius, allowing for an even more complicated picture of the interaction between the gods and mortals. I particularly enjoyed the teens' visit to Quebec City, given that I lived there for a while, and note that the cover depicts the Chateau Frontenac in Old Town Quebec, where a certain god of the winds has set up residence in the penthouse suite.

All in all, an excellent read, particularly for fans of Greek mythology and those who enjoyed the Percy Jackson books.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

I've been eagerly awaiting this book--the second in a projected quartet called The Caster Chronicles--since I read the first volume, Beautiful Creatures, back over the summer. I was so eager, in fact, that when I arrived at the Union Station Barnes & Noble, the booksellers had yet to put the books out on the shelves. It was, after all, the first day the book was available for purchase.

The books are set in a sleep Southern town in South Carolina, where the grits are cheesy and the people wave Confederate flags, and everything is always the same. Ethan Wate, the youngest scion of a family that's been holed up in the same town for generations, dreams of getting away until he meets Lena Duchannes, a mysterious girl who's come to live with her creepy uncle, the town's resident social pariah and enigma. As Ethan and Lena begin a relationship, Ethan learns more and more about Lena and her uncle's secrets, the town's shady history, and his own family's closeted skeletons. With endearing characters, vivid settings, and an original "universe" (for the fantasy/sci-fi novice, that refers to the rules and conventions of a fictional world), readers get sucked into Ethan and Lena's lives and find themselves thinking about this unlikely couple even when the book is finished.

Like I said, I was super excited for Beautiful Darkness to come out. So, did it live up to my expectations? Definitely. Plenty of surprises, twists, and unexpected appearances made this next book a thrilling and exceptional read. For those who have read Beautiful Creatures, some people we thought were dead aren't--or aren't exactly. Other characters who we thought we understood aren't quite all they previously appeared. And the secrets of Gatlin have only gotten deeper and more impenetrable. No more spoilers!

A Must Read for everyone, particularly if you haven't gotten into this series yet. Pick up Beautiful Creatures and get your rear in gear!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Marks of Cain by Tom Knox

In a departure from yesterday's review comes a title I just finished this morning before lunch--one that I probably wouldn't recommend to anyone except my sister, who loves to read adrenaline-pumping-style books regardless of their relative merit. That may be a little overgeneralized, but as I once said, I'm allowed to make generalizations when I'm standing on a chair. Or blogging from my personal literary soapbox. Which is, in my imagination, somewhat chair-like.

Anyhow, I will admit to generally enjoying the perusal of Dan Brown-esque novels (which are currently rather ubiquitous), and while I loved The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I didn't love The Lost Symbol (too cookie-cutter and similar to his last novels, plus I guessed the "big" revelation that is so essential to Brown's plots). Steve Berry, however, a lesser known but more prolific writer in the same style, also attempts to tackle similarly interesting issues but without the somewhat self-conscious desire to stir up talk about sensitive issues.

Tom Knox (which is a pen name for a British journalist) seems to write his books in order to provoke controversy. His earlier novel, The Genesis Secret, took a religious concept, mixed in some modern science, added a suitably manly protagonist, and dolloped a fair bit of sex and profanity to finish the job. The same thing goes on in The Marks of Cain, which drags in everything from medieval witch burnings to eugenics to the Holocaust to genetic diseases, with a result about as mixed as the ingredients. The plot goes something like this: David Martinez, orphaned at fifteen, is called to his dying Spanish grandfather's hospital bed to receive a well worn map and a vague confession about the past that prompts him to follow the route laid out on the old atlas--with the help of a cool couple million dollars his grandpop had lying around. Meanwhile, Simon Quinn, mediocre journalist extraordinaire, is investigating brutally cruel murders in and around Britain ... the only link being the victims' origins in the Basque country of southern France and northern Spain. As Martinez follows the trail, he meets a beautiful blond Jewish woman, runs afoul of a cannibalistic ETA terrorist, and generally gets to travel unglamorously to Germany and Namibia.

While somewhat thought-provoking and set in exotic locales, this lacks all of the sparkle of other Dan Brown wannabes, substituting violence and sex for plot holes. It was fascinating to see how the background of eugenics had a direct influence on the Holocaust--if I can trust the background scholarship. (The jury is out on that one.) Overall, I wouldn't recommend it except for a case of extreme airport boredom.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

It's not every day that I come across a book I love so much that I recommend it to everyone I have the chance to. This novel is one of those rare volumes that I think everybody ought to read.

The Forgotten Garden tells the story of Nell Andrews, an Australian woman living a happy life, young and engaged and carefree, until her father tells her on her twenty-first birthday that he isn't her father: he found her on the docks in Maryborough, Australia, when she was four years old with no memories and knowing only that she had crossed the ocean on a liner from another country. The harbormaster (her father) and his wife adopt the girl, naming her after their aunt Eleanor and keeping her origins a secret. Nell is understandably devastated, and feeling a stranger in her adoptive family, she withdraws further and further away from them. The narrative weaves back and forth between her traumatic sea voyage, her married life, and her golden years, detailing her quest to discover who she is and where she came from, and her only clues lie in a suitcase that her father found with her, containing a book of fairy tales written by a little-known English author. The novel goes even further, narrating Nell's granddaughter Cassandra's efforts to follow in her grandmother's footsteps after Nell dies with the mystery still elusive. Cassandra ends up learning more than she bargained for about her grandmother, about herself, and about life.

Kate Morton has a true talent for making characters come to life on the page. I cared more about and felt closer to these characters, despite the distance of third-person narrative, than I did to some first-person narrators in books I've read recently, including Andrew Marlow of Kostova's The Swan Thieves. The interweaving of past, present, and future narratives may leave some readers wrong-footed, but the story flows as if the narrative were perfectly linear and even feels logical. But the thing I loved most about this book is the gripping depiction of relationships. After all, the book's central thrust is the concept of identity, of coming to terms with one's origins and family, and nothing illustrates our identity better than our interactions with others.

Truly, this book is one for the ages. I highly recommend it to everyone. The Forgotten Garden is my first Must Read Title of this blog--and I eagerly await Kate Morton's next novel, due out in November!

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Now, I'm a sucker for good historical fiction. That's why I love writers like Ann Rinaldi, who do an amazing job of integrating compelling fictional stories with historical fact and circumstance. Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill, proves to have a gift for this kind of writing. I'm also a sucker for anything set in the early colonial era, whether in America or Britain, as I find that period fascinating.

This novel, set around the time of the 1612 witch hunt in Pendle, an area in northwestern England's Lancashire, explores the life of one Elizabeth Southerns, known popularly as Mother Demdike. An illegitimate daughter of a local nobleman, Bess Southerns spends her life begging for charity from her newly Protestant (and newly stingy) fellow townspeople, while she finds herself longing for the "old religion" of Catholicism mixed with country superstition. As the narrative progresses, she discovers that she possesses a gift for blessing and healing--by using the Latin prayers of Catholicism--and becomes known as a cunning woman, the good counterpart of a medieval witch. When circumstances force Bess to choose between keeping her gift above reproach, never using it to curse, and helping the ravished daughter of a dear friend, she sets in motion a downward spiral that destroys the sense of community in her Pendle town and ultimately brings her and her family under suspicion of witchcraft.

Sharratt has that rare gift of bringing long-ago times and people to life; mimicking carefully speech peculiarities of the time and even terms of endearment common amongst these people, the novel feels as authentic as if it were Bess and her granddaughter Alizon themselves telling the tale to us from beyond the grave. Readers will quickly become accustomed to words and turns of phrase and find themselves enthralled by this gritty yet magical picture of life on the fringes of respectable medieval English society.

Reading Daughters of the Witching Hill was especially interesting when taken into account that the Pilgrims were at this very time (about 1613) preparing their exodus to the New World, where eighty years later they would have their own set of witch hunts and trials. Did the Pilgrims hear stories of the Pendle witch hunts? Or did they perhaps sympathize with James I's fear of witchcraft, as recorded in his manual on "Daemonology"? Whatever the answer, the links there are rather compelling and the common elements--including children condemning adults to hanging--certainly warrant consideration of the connection.

Highly recommended to historical fiction buffs and average readers alike.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I must confess that I am a Hawthorne devotee for the most part ... though given that his body of work is so small, that doesn't mean much in terms of heavy reading. I loved The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown," enjoying the 20/20 hindsight narrative voice Hawthorne loves to use and the sometimes overblown language. I expected I would enjoy The House of the Seven Gables as much as those, if not hopefully more.

The novel follows the fortunes of one Pyncheon family somewhere in New England, the last remaining scions of a once prosperous clan with Puritan origins, whose first head, one Colonel Pyncheon, deeply coveted a piece of land belonging to another man. Faced with his neighbor's refusal to sell the plot, Colonel Pyncheon orchestrated a blow that eventually got the man killed and got himself the land. Supposed to be cursed by his wizard neighbor, Pyncheon built himself a large timbered home with seven gables (hence the title) but only had a little time to enjoy it before being found mysteriously dead in his study in the midst of a family gathering.

Readers meet Hepzibah Pyncheon, a spinsterly recluse who, up against her own insolvency, determines to open a penny store from her home in the House of the Seven Gables, despite her possibly clinical agoraphobia and xenophobia. She is allowed to live in the House by the kindly (or not-so kindly) graces of her cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, who cares little for the House or for his poor relations. But the character the readers will care about the most is their young cousin Phoebe, who comes to live with Hepzibah and brightens her life and that of her mentally disturbed brother, Clifford, who later returns home from a mental institution.

The novel explores their lives and woes, but does so in a dreadfully gloomy way--some might say, characteristically Hawthorne. However, it is in an entirely different spectrum than the gloom of The Scarlet Letter; whereas we have a cultural impression of Puritan New England as being gray and rather dour, Seven Gables takes place in the present of the novel's publication, about 1850, well into the beginning of American prosperity. It as is if the cultural haunting of his Puritan ancestors that Hawthorne is said to have dwelled upon permeates the entire narrative and beglooms it and the reader both. This novel may very well have been Hawthorne's attempt to excise this cultural guilt he felt. Again, in contrast with The Scarlet Letter, the moralizing and elevated language here seem to stiltify rather than enhance the story.

Overall, I would recommend this to Hawthorne lovers and those who enjoy a gloomy read every so often.

Green Jasper / Blaze of Silver by K.M. Grant

My cousin Sherilyn recommended these books to me, parts two and three of a trilogy, and since the first book, Blood Red Horse, didn't disappoint, I was excited to read these two. The entire de Granville trilogy follows the eponymous Norman French family during the reign of Richard the Lionhearted as he gears up to take part in the Third Crusade. Sir Thomas de Granville, a widower, has two sons called Gavin and Will, as well as a ward named Eleanor or Ellie, whom both the boys have a soft spot for. As Will begins his knighthood training, he is given a great horse--albeit one that isn't quite so "great" in terms of size--a blood red horse with an uncanny ability to empathize with human feelings and to inspire those same humans all around him, whom Will names Hosanna. As the de Granville men travel with Richard to the Holy Land, Hosanna becomes a rallying point for many of the English troops, and when he is captured by Kamil, Saladin's young orphaned protege and vowed Christian killer, he does the same for the Muslim soldiers he encounters, even tempering Kamil's bloodthirsty impulses at various times. However, as the events of the Third Crusade unfold and the terrible aftermath for those abroad with Richard and those at home is realized, Hosanna's ability to help his humans through their tragedy is thoroughly tested.

These books were definitely a joy to read--well researched, immersive, and fun. Grant's style is certainly approachable and also certainly written for teens, given that these are YA novels. Those who have no interest in war or horses may find these tough to get into, but even those with only lukewarm interest in those fields should find these books a worthwhile read.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

So ... I am REALLY not very good with consistency. Anyhow, that means that I'll be doing several postings today to try and catch up.

Elizabeth Kostova's second novel, The Swan Thieves, carries on with much of the same characteristics of her earlier The Historian, which melded historical background about the Romanian Vlad the Impaler with Dracula legends--including a preponderance of action told through flashbacks, a modified epistolary format, and a certain detachment from the reader as a result. Since the main character of The Historian was trying to discover the true story about her father, it worked really well.

In The Swan Thieves, the main character, a psychiatrist named Andrew Marlow, finds his world turned upside down when a new patient arrives at the hospital after having attacked a painting at the National Gallery in Washington DC. It turns out the man is a painter with a long history of instability--and won't talk to anyone, but simply paints in silence. Marlow finds himself quickly becoming obsessed with finding out what provoked his patient to attacking a painting, and with the help of some 19th-century letters and some of the women his patient loved and left, Marlow inches closer to uncovering his patient's true history in the midst of a hundred-year-old mystery in the heart of the French Impressionist era.

Kostova's prose is elegant as always--beautiful turns of phrase and gorgeous diction--but the elevated style of her narrator's polished speech and the chronological distance from the events of the novel (Marlow is looking back ten years after the fact) combine to leave the reader somewhat detached from the novel. It makes it that much more difficult to care about the characters from such a distant narrative, as do Marlow's own somewhat repressed emotions.

I certainly enjoyed The Swan Thieves and definitely recommend it, especially to those with an interest in art and internal ruminations--but I would guess that many will be put off by the relatively slow pacing and psychological bent of the novel.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New direction--and first review

Dear friends,

Owing to my inability to maintain disciplined habits, I am turning to a new way of chronicling my life: book reviews. Until I can begin to find meaningful or at least interesting things to tell the world about myself and my life, I'll settle for interesting things in the books I'm reading. The goal is to post a review of every book I read starting today. Fortunately, I just finished one.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I'll be honest: I picked this up because I loved The Time Traveler's Wife. I loved the reality of the characters, the quirky invention of chrono-impairment and the unlikely charm of a romance lived haphazardly. Despite what I would term melodramatic tendencies of Niffenegger and an oversharing quality about the intimate scenes, I fell in love with her prose, her characters, and the bittersweet ending.

Niffenegger's second novel follows Valentina and Julia Poole, mirror twins--meaning that while they resemble each other minutely, Valentina's anatomy is truly a mirror reflection of her sister's, down to the heart on the right side of her chest. When their aunt Elspeth, Mom's own mysteriously estranged twin sister, dies and leaves her flat in London overlooking Highgate Cemetery and all her possessions to the girls with the stipulation that they live in it for a year before selling it and that their parents not be allowed to set foot in it. After having failed in so many ventures, stubborn Julia and ethereal Valentina brave the British unknown, discovering many things about love, the next life, and their own family's mysterious connections with the help of their fellow flat-dwellers: OCD sufferer Martin, whose inability to leave the apartment led to his wife leaving, and Robert, Aunt Elspeth's former lover, bogged down in a thesis on the cemetery and his lingering feelings for his dead girlfriend.

I don't want to spoil the ending or tell too much about the story, but a central idea of Niffenegger's fictional conception of death is a waiting period where the soul is trapped, formless, in the confines of its former home. Aunt Elspeth dies only to find herself insubstantial and bound within her apartment, watching as her twin nieces begin new lives in the ruins of her old one. Though the concept begins intriguingly, something about it becomes very quickly pedestrian. There is no originality or vivacity to it like that which characterized the chrono-impairment of The Time Traveler's Wife. But above all, the biggest problem with Her Fearful Symmetry is its lack of satisfying answers. The BIG question that the novel ostensibly revolves around--why the Misses Poole's mother and aunt haven't spoken in years--has an answer that I guessed early on, and lacked impact when I finally had it confirmed. Other questions I found equally important, if not more so, than this one (like the importance of the cemetery, besides for atmosphere, as well as the cryptic quote-title riffed from Blake's "Tiger Tiger") remain unanswered.

The overall impression I came away with was one of bleak outlooks and hopelessness. It doesn't help that the novel was set in rainy, foggy London, but the sparkling prose I so enjoyed in Niffenegger's first offering was substituted for what felt as stolid and bland as an English breakfast. The delicate relationships forged in the novel seem tenuous at best, and those who ultimately find what they are seeking for are the least likely and perhaps least likable of the characters--Julie, with Martin's son Theo; mama Edie and papa Jack, in a rekindled romance despite the novel's opener; and Martin himself, whose separation from his wife ends with him slowly rehabilitating from his OCD and her remembering why she had sacrificed for so many years to stay with him. Other than this shining example of redemption, the novel ends on a decidedly sour note for many of the characters.

If you're a die-hard Niffenegger fan, go ahead and give this a read. You may find yourself--as I did--wondering when the novel is going to end, and for more casual fans, you'll probably want to give this a pass. If you're feeling depressed, this will only add to your melancholia.