Friday, August 15, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

So, back to historical fiction—young adult historical fiction. I haven’t read a YA historical in a while so it was time. And this was a good one!

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross is an interesting and original look at late 1800's Paris from the point of view of a strong, intelligent young woman named Maude Pichon. Maude, a country girl from Brittany, fled an arranged marriage to a middle-aged butcher to seek the excitement of city life. She wanted to explore what the world had to offer, little understanding the world didn’t offer much to a poor girl except hard labor.

Then she stumbles upon an advertisement from the Durandeau Agency looking for young women for undemanding work. She applies and is offered a job before she knows what she is being hired to do. As soon as she realizes what is expected of her, she is appalled. She is to be a "repoussoir."

Wealthy women who wished to stand out in a crowd would hire foils—companions who were plain to downright ugly. These companions were to accompany them to social events to make them appear more attractive by comparison.

Maude is shocked and hurt to realize she’s unattractive enough to be hired as one of these foils, but she is desperate enough to take the job. She is hired by the cold-hearted Countess Dubern who needs a companion for her daughter, Isabelle.

Isabelle is not so unattractive that she needs a "foil," but Isabelle is headstrong and rebellious and in danger of ruining her own season by insufficient attention to the importance of attracting a husband. Maude is to befriend her, spy on her, and report back to the countess. The countess is paying her. But how far down this path can Maude go?

Paris in the 1880's is a fascinating time, and Maude is in the thick of it. Isabelle, too, is an interesting character with a mind of her own. Maude’s demeaning job and Isabelle’s struggle to lead an independent life despite her mother’s determination to see her appropriately married off demonstrate the difficulties women faced in the nineteenth century. Fiction allows a bit of leeway with the resolutions. You’ll root for these women and their friendship. And it’s Paris.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Thanks to my library’s New Fiction newsletter, I requested A Man Called Ove, a debut novel by Swedish blogger and columnist Fredrik Backman. This is sweet, contemporary, "book-group" fiction along the lines of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Ove is a middle-aged man who has never had much use for people and who doesn’t like change. He has been set in his ways since he was a child. His life has been hard, but he has gotten by in a very self-reliant fashion and he doesn’t understand why others can’t do the same. The only person he has ever loved, or so he believes, was his wife, Sonja. But Sonja died six months earlier and Ove is determined to join her.

However, on the day he has appointed to end his life, new neighbors upset his plans by backing over his mailbox with their moving van. Ove is introduced to a quite pregnant and forceful Iranian woman, her incompetent husband (the "Lanky One"), and their two daughters, ages 3 and 7. Against his will, Ove is forced to become useful to them and, before he knows what has hit him, he realizes there are a few more things that need straightening out before he can go be with his wife.

Ove’s story unfolds in a series of short chapters that reveal his backstory: the tale of his courtship and marriage to Sonja, the good and the bad, as well as the ups and downs of the one friendship he had with a neighbor that soured over the years. These chapters alternate with the story moving forward, where Ove’s continuing attempts to kill himself are thwarted by the various needs of others.

Although Ove is not a likeable character early on, he becomes first understandable and then admirable and finally sympathetic. The vignettes work to charm the reader. Although some of the situations are a bit over the top, and some are a little too predictable, it isn’t really the specifics of the plotting that carry this story but rather the loveliness of the interactions of the characters. If you’re looking for a warm novel with a "feel-good" sentiment, this is an entertaining read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The pile of books I want to read seems to grow by the day, so it isn’t as if I needed to go out of my way to find an entire category of books that I’ve been neglecting. But I do feel bad that I’m so limited to English-language writers. There is a whole world of wonderful literature out there that I just ignore. Every once in a while I read a translation of some old classic, but what about new books from other countries? What about new historical fiction that is being produced in...say...France? I’m completely missing out on all those books!

Well, not all those books. There is a company called Open Road Media that has a variety of digital media ventures, including foreign translations. One of their imprints is Publishers Square, which brings French authors to U.S. markets. Through Netgalley, I had the opportunity to read a translation of a French historical novel, and it was a treat.

The Wharf of Chartrons by Jean-Paul Malaval is set primarily in Bordeaux just before and during World War I. Two cousins, David Pierrebrune and Gaspard Madelbos, make the decision to break with their families, but not with family tradition, and set up a vineyard in Bordeaux. They come from a long line of winemakers in ChantegrĂȘle. However, diseased vines and old family hatreds have poisoned that area. The young men want to start fresh.

It’s difficult to break into the wine-making business in Bordeaux, where large vintners are already established. It takes money and connections, things the two cousins are lacking. Except that they do know a wealthy, well-connected engineer named Geoffrey Castillard. Castillard is a ruthless businessman who made his fortune in railroads. Now he is interested in investing in wine. He fronts over half the money for the venture. Before they even start, control is taken out of the hands of the honest young wine makers. But maybe that’s for the best given their naivety?

The story follows the rise of their vineyard and the compromises the men make to succeed. Wine-making is not the pure venture they initially imagined. It’s a dirty business built on bribery, corruption and deceit. Gaspard becomes the protegĂ© of the wheeler-dealer Castillard, and finds that he is adept at such business dealings himself. David is much more a man of the land. He stubbornly pretends not to know what is going on. Maybe he doesn’t. But he is very reliant on Gaspard’s salesmanship. And Gaspard relies on David to produce a fine quality wine.

As their winery develops, the two men eventually meet women and fall in love, but those relationships follow two very different courses.

The novel is rather oddly compelling. It is a very interesting look at the politics of turn-of-the-century wine-making in France. The novel paints a picture of corrupt practices and petty local politicians and a concern for profit above all else. The art of wine-making is somewhat left behind, but not the love of wine production.

It’s an interesting story and it held my interest because I wanted to see if they could make a success of the vineyard and how it would survive the economic changes brought on by the war. But it did read awkwardly for a novel. I’m not sure whether it was because it was a translation or whether it’s because the author started his writing career as a journalist, but the book has a very journalistic flavor. The narrator reports on the story. What happens to each of the characters is related in a flat almost monotone way, whether they are buying a piece of property, burying a parent, or consummating a long-desired adulterous affair. The characters seemed to be necessary props for the historical setting. The historical setting was very interesting, but I never did come around to caring about the characters. Usually historical novels work on me the other way around. I get emotionally invested in the characters even when the author doesn’t do a particularly good job of emphasizing the importance of the historical setting.

So if you’re interested in a different perspective on pre-WWI and WWI France or interested in the history of wine-making, particularly the business of French wines, have a look at The Wharf of Chartrons.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Every Ugly Word by Aimee L. Salter

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Last November, I reviewed a heart-wrenching contemporary YA novel titled Breakable by Aimee L. Salter. The book focuses on the very real and all-too prevalent issue of bullying and the life-long effect it can have on people whose victimization begins in childhood or teen years.

This wonderful novel has been re-released (with some changes) as Every Ugly Word, published by Alloy Entertainment. It’s available today from Amazon.com!

Every Ugly Word follows seventeen-year-old Ashley, who has been bullied for years by a clique of fellow students who used to be her friends. The daily torment escalates when Ashley’s one remaining friend, a handsome and popular boy named Matt, begins to date one of the worst of the bullies, a nasty scheming girl named Karyn. Karyn is able to hide her true personality from Matt, who is blinded by her pretty face and popularity.

Ashley has been quite desperately in love with Matt for a long while. In addition to a friendship that has lasted since they were children, they also share a passion and talent for art. This skill brings them closer and also offers them an outlet for expression as they go through personal crises. (All is not well with Matt, either.)

Things were difficult enough for Ashley when Matt saw her just as a friend, but when he starts going out with Karyn, it’s more than Ashley can take. Karyn and the rest of the crew are all too aware of Ashley’s feelings and use this as additional ammunition against her.

There is one other person in Ashley’s corner. For years, she has been communicating with her future self, "Older Me," whom she can see in mirrors. Ashley wants "Older Me" to guide her through the impending crisis, but as the bullying spirals out of control, she is less sure her older self is able to help. Meanwhile, the voice we see of the older Ashley is growing more desperate and more determined that the course of younger Ashley’s fate must be different from her own, but how?

Every Ugly Word is a fast-paced read with memorable characters. Salter is able to get inside Ashley’s head to show both the emotional frailty and the resilience of a teenager who has been victimized for years but who retains the capacity for a strong and generous love. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of a girl in crisis and a powerful book about the long-lasting effects of bullying. The re-released version is even more readable than the original and I was just as engrossed the second time around.

To learn more, check out Aimee’s website at: Aimee L. Salter- author.

Friday, July 25, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: radiation days. the rollicking, lighthearted story of a man and his cancer by Lynn Hoffman

radiation days. the rollicking, lighthearted story of a man and his cancer by Lynn Hoffman is a lovely book that demonstrates the art and the value of living in the moment. The author is a novelist/poet, a chef, a professor of culinary arts, and a wine and beer connoisseur. A couple years ago (how long now?) he became a blogger–journaling his way through his year-long experience as a man with cancer.

As someone whose life revolves around the appreciation of food and wine (and beer), it was particularly cruel of Fate to strike Hoffman with cancer of the throat. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation that, for a long time, destroyed his sense of taste. He had a hard time swallowing and talking (particularly problematic for a teacher.) In the book, which builds on Hoffman’s blog posts, he explores how losing something so fundamental affected not just his life but potentially his identity. He has good days and bad days and some truly terrifying days, but each vignette shows how he retained a wonder and a curiosity about something that seemed to propel him onward to what will come next. Hoffman’s voice animates the book with a sincere warmth and gratitude (interspersed with occasional bits of frustration tempered with humor) that make the reader understand why the friends he is so appreciative of are so devoted to him.

This is a cancer memoir, but there’s more to it than that. Despite the all-absorbing job it is to be a cancer patient, Hoffman manages to go on living his life. He pays attention to the little things and shows us that they are, in fact, the big things. He points out the problem with "the bucket list." You shouldn’t wait until you’re dying to make a list of things you want to do. Get out and do them. He reminds us of the importance of friends, kindness, generosity. Of course we all know this, but he puts it all in a context that lets the message sink in a little more. Oh, also, get your kids an HPV vaccine.

radiation days is not just a book that I would recommend to someone who is facing a cancer diagnosis or to a family member of someone in that position. It’s a life philosophy book. We shouldn’t have to have a cancer diagnosis to appreciate life, but we’re generally so busy rushing through it that we don’t stop to look for the good in what we are experiencing right now. In the book, Hoffman mentions how much he loves teaching, one of his professions, and it was clearly helpful in his healing process that he was able to get out and teach classes as he was recuperating. Well, he’s teaching still. This is not a hit-you-over-the-head-with-its-sermon kind of book. It’s more gentle than that. Hoffman shows by example how each day is precious, cancer or not. It shouldn’t be so hard for me to remember that!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Phew! I’ve finished another of my Back-to-the-Classics challenge books, hosted by Books and Chocolate. This was my "Classic about War" choice: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. When I was making my selections, I looked into this book and read that it was set during World War II in a British colony on the coast of West Africa. The fact that it is wartime influences the plot of the book, but I thought the war would play a bigger role than it does. (How can a WWII book have so little to do with the war?) I chose it for the unusual setting and because I’ve never read Greene. It was a difficult but ultimately rewarding book.

The sad hero of the story is Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a West African coastal town. While the heat, humidity, and colonial social structure are vividly described, I never quite got the sense of where this was actually taking place. (Although it is apparently supposed to be Sierra Leone.) Scobie is scrupulously honest and does his job with a plodding efficiency. He has been assistant commissioner for fifteen years and everyone considers him to be a good man. The commissioner trusts him. However, this counts for nothing since, as the book opens, the commissioner is retiring and someone else is being named to replace him.

Scobie is at a weary stage in his life and doesn’t take the news too badly. But he is upset for his wife. Louise is lonely, depressed, and bored. She came to this town to be with her husband but never intended to be stuck there for so many years. She doesn’t fit in socially. And, she and Scobie have grown apart. Also, they had a daughter who died. So she’s miserable, and learning that her husband was passed over for promotion—humiliated—will be the last straw.

Other things are going on, too. A new man has come to town, Wilson. Although he’s supposed to be an accountant, he is actually a government spy. Wilson takes a liking to Louise and, therefore, a disliking to Scobie. And there are two Syrians, cousins, who are rivals and who try to play the British to their own advantage. One of them, Yusef, attaches himself to Scobie.

Scobie’s main difficulty is that he feels responsible for keeping Louise happy (an impossible task) as much as for keeping the peace in the town. He doesn’t love her anymore. He pities her. She is so upset by his lack of advancement that she can no longer bear to stay there. In order to help her leave, he needs money to book her passage on a ship. The bank won’t lend him a sufficient sum, so he is forced to borrow it from Yusef. Accepting money from one of the Syrians is not a wise move. Even though it’s a loan with interest, it puts him under obligation and it makes him look suspicious.

His wife sails away. While she’s gone, a lifeboat carrying a few survivors from a shipwrecked boat (casualties from the war) arrive. (There is evidence throughout the book that there is a war going on. They have black-outs at night. They are aware of the far-off fighting. They worry about ships arriving safely at their destinations. They have censors checking their mail and telegrams. And one of Scobie’s jobs is searching ships for diamonds and other contraband or coded messages that might be important to the Germans. But the war still seems very far away and peripheral to the story.) Anyway, the lifeboat arrives, and with it, Helen Rolt.

Helen was a nineteen-year-old newlywed who set out on the ship with her husband. Now she is a nineteen-year-old widow. Scobie takes to visiting her, as do some of the other villagers. But it’s Scobie who makes her feel safe. And then, they begin an affair.

This can’t end well. The man who has been so straight and honest all his life is slipping. Although he thinks he loves Helen, he begins finding similarities between Helen and Louise and before long, he pities her and finds himself trapped by her as well. Then Louise returns, and things go downhill even faster. Scobie is not built for deceit.

Woven throughout is Scobie’s struggle with Catholicism. It both sustains him and oppresses him.

The book was difficult to read partly because of the writing style. The omniscient narrator made me feel too distant from the characters. They were all sort of disembodied. It was so distant that I was uninterested. It was one of those books that I could stop reading mid-paragraph to go do something else.

It was also difficult because there was a lot of aimlessness in the book. I got the sense that these people were leading very dull lives. (Even with war, spying, adultery. . .their lives were pretty dull.) That may have been the point. Scobie would have much preferred being left alone to having found Helen Rolt. Falling in love, or finding a replacement woman to pity, gave him a brief period of happiness but it didn’t last. Still, it was Scobie’s downfall, his spiraling out of control, that made the book interesting. His struggle to reconcile things that could not be reconciled is what make this book tragic and oddly beautiful.

Since this book has been on my shelf forever, I’m also adding it to my TBR pile challenge hosted by Bookish.

Monday, July 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

So it seems I have a bit of an addiction. After reading Pere Goriot, I went to choose my next book. We were heading out on vacation, so I had some plane and car time to fill. I packed my next Back to the Classics challenge book, but for the plane ride, I took along The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan.

I recently finished the Riyria Revelations trilogy and found that I wasn’t ready to emerge from that fantasy world just yet, even though the story was over. Sullivan must have gotten a lot of positive feedback from fans, because he continued with the story, but backtracked. He wrote a prequel—The Riyria Chronicles. There are two volumes to this part of the story. Book 1 is The Crown Tower and Book 2 is The Rose and the Thorn.

The Crown Tower tells the story of how the two protagonists, Hadrian and Royce, are first thrown together. Arcadius, a professor of lore (magic) at the university, has enough sway over them both to compel them to complete a task for him—an impossible task. They have to steal a book for him that is kept locked in an impregnable fortress, the Crown Tower. Hadrian and Royce are strangers, but it doesn’t take long for them to realize how much they dislike and distrust one another. But they can’t succeed unless they work together. It’s a blast watching how they do.

Having read the first trilogy, I know how the story will end. The characters are familiar ones. I know the outcome of their mission because the outline of the plot was given as backstory in the Revelations trilogy. But that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. It was fun to spend more time with these guys and have the details of their past fleshed out.

I have The Rose and the Thorn left, but I’m holding off and reading something else first. It’s the last of the books and I don’t want them to end!