Monday, November 30, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Bostonians by Henry James

After finishing a YA fantasy adventure that was unexpectedly plodding, I needed something completely different. I grabbed The Bostonians by Henry James from my TBR-pile. Not much happens in this intensely inward-looking novel, but it is oddly compelling, demonstrating once again how great writing can draw you in.

Olive Chancellor embodies the word spinster. A youngish, unmarried and glad-to-be-so feminist of comfortable means, an inhabitant of the late 1800s Boston upper society who shuns all that, Olive reaches out to a southern cousin. Basil Ransom has moved from Mississippi to New York to try his luck. (Doesn’t that name scream villain?) A young, handsome lawyer, Basil isn’t having much success in the big city; he comes to Boston to meet her. The mismatched pair don’t hit it off. Olive takes him to a meeting, regretting that she invited him, where a renowned feminist speaker will be holding forth. There, Basil and Olive are treated to the debut of the beautiful, charming ingenue, Verena Tarrant, who gives an impromptu speech on women’s rights and the suppression thereof. Olive and Basil are both immediately smitten.

Basil must return to New York, where his fortunes continue to decline. He becomes more and more resentful and curmudgeonly. He becomes more and more convinced of the rightness of his antiquated views and is perturbed that no one wants to hear them.

Olive, meanwhile, takes young Verena under her wing. Verena is charming but not particularly educated and Olive means to remedy that. She also wants to be sure that the attractive girl is not swayed from the path by any of the young men who have discovered her charms. They love to hear her talk, even if they essentially ignore the content of her speech. Olive wants her to vow she will never marry, but at the same time, wants her to make the decision for herself, not only to please her mentor.

The novel is an in-depth psychological study of these characters who become caricatures of the ideas they represent. As unpleasant as they are, and surrounded by people who are equally un-admirable, they nevertheless ground a story that I had to keep watching unfold. Naturally, Basil and Verena’s paths cross again, and he is able to weasel his way into her confidence. For some unfathomable reason, Verena falls for him.

Olive was overbearing and possessive, so it is not Verena’s escape from her influence that is distressing, but rather her flight to so repugnant a man. Still, Verena is as shallow as a puddle. A pretty mouthpiece for Olive’s cause, she never possessed the courage of her convictions.

This is supposed to be one of Henry James’ funniest novels, and it’s true, the irony, particularly at the beginning of the book, is quite amusing. Eventually though, the cynicism wears away the gentle irony, and the novel becomes sad. You want to believe these stereotypes are overdrawn, but in truth, they are more likely spot on.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

If you like historical romance but are looking for something a little bit different, try The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig.

There’s a new trend where writers within genres will band together to write a novel, usually as an interconnected set of short stories. I’ve been intrigued by how this works, so I was happy to be approved for this book through Netgalley. In this tri-authored novel, transitions between who wrote what are seamless, even though it comprises three separate but interwoven tales.

Set in three time periods, Kate in 1944, Lucy in 1920, and Olive in 1892, we hear the stories of the love lives of daughter, mother, and grandmother. Strong women all, they become increasingly independent as history permits, and class distinctions wear away (but do not completely disappear.)

The women are all remarkably beautiful and strongly identifiable as related, with daughter and grandmother resembling each other so much that they could be mistaken for one another, a fact that is at the heart of the story.

Each woman loves and is loved by a man with whom she should not be involved for varying reasons. The men are also clearly related to one another in some way, and that mystery drives the overarching plot.

It’s sometimes hard to keep the characters straight because their relationships are so similar–eerily similar–but it became easier for me when I thought of them by time period rather than by name or progression of the individual love stories. Then it fell into place.

The three interwoven tales center around a hidden room at the top of a mansion, a room that holds secrets for each of the women. Following them as they work through misunderstandings and mistakes in order to conclude with the requisite happily-ever-after is a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass the reading hours.

Monday, November 16, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I won’t succeed this year in finishing the Back-to-the-Classics challenge and I’m very annoyed with myself. I had such good intentions starting out. But I had to get at least halfway through, so I decided to read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, as my twentieth-century classic. I’ve heard that this is one of those books that true bibliophiles should read. And my kids studied it in school, making it even more imperative that I read it.

I knew a few things going in. 1) 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper (books) will burn. In this futurist/dystopic story, the protagonist, Montag, is a book burner until he sees the light. And 2) the story doesn’t end well.

I dived in.

The future world created by Bradbury is ruled by noise and distraction, constant movement and large, wall-sized T.V.’s that dull people’s brains with constant sound bites. There are wars going on endlessly, but no one pays them any mind. In order to ensure that the masses are "happy," books have been banned. The thinking and emotional range inspired by books are the real targets.

Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books and the houses of those who harbor the contraband. He takes a perverse pleasure in his job, but he’s discontent. His wife, wholly absorbed by the emptiness of the world she lives in, is also miserable but too numbed to realize it. One day, Montag meets a teenage girl who refuses to participate in the mass numbing. It starts him thinking. Then, while burning a house along with its occupant, Montag steals one of the books he is supposed to destroy. This may not be the first time he has done this. But this time, it’s transformative. He starts reading.

While this awakens Montag, it sets in motion a series of tragedies for those around him. Or maybe he releases them from the tragedy of their lives. But he can no longer go on as he did.

Fahrenheit 451 is a fast read and there are parts that are vividly exciting. There is no subtlety to the message, but subtlety is not really needed. It’s one of those dystopias that leads a reader to draw parallels with what is happening today–and cringe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Susanna Kearsley has been on my must-read list for a while now. Unfortunately, my must-read list is so long that I’ve been slow getting around to her. Thanks to Netgalley, I had an excuse to bump one of her novels to the front of the list: A Desperate Fortune, released earlier this year.

The book provides two stories in one. First, there is the contemporary romance. Sara Thomas is a computer programmer with Asperger’s, who has not had much success with her love life. Or her life, for that matter. She doesn’t work well in teams and so is currently between jobs. Her cousin Jacqui is the opposite. An editor who works with famous authors, Jacqui is a people person. Jacqui has always considered herself Sara’s protector. (She was the one who helped guide Sara to her diagnosis.) Now, Jacqui is helping Sara find a job. One of her writers needs help decoding an old diary that was written in a cipher. Sara has to go to Paris to do it because the woman who owns the diary won’t release it to be studied.

With some trepidation, Sara takes on the job and settles in with the woman who owns the diary, her housekeeper, and the next door neighbor, Luc. Luc is gorgeous and extremely supportive. Sara discovers the key to the cipher and decodes the diary. Along the way, she falls for Luc.

The meat of the story is what is contained in the diary. Mary Dundas is the daughter of Jacobites, but she has been raised in the safety of her aunt and uncle’s house, away from court intrigues. Her older brother, who she has not seen in many years, sends for her out of the blue. Thrilled to feel she was finally remembered by the family that abandoned her, she soon finds out that her brother is not really inviting her into his home. Rather, he has volunteered her for a secret mission–to help a mysterious man, a Jacobite, hide from English foes.

Mary is to go to Paris and pose as this man’s sister. This is more difficult than it seems. A dangerous-looking stranger is living across the street, watching them. And no one discusses what is really going on. When someone betrays the whereabouts of the Jacobite, Mary is forced to flee along with him. They are accompanied by her chaperone and by a fierce, cold, bodyguard--Hugh MacPherson, who is an accomplished killer.

The small group is in constant danger as they make their way to southern France and then to Rome, seeking protection from the exiled would-be king.

Mary shows herself to be a strong, clever, loyal woman, up to all the challenges thrown at them, including the possibility of falling in love.

The sweeping scope of the novel meant it was a bit slow to get going as all the pieces were set in place. However, once I got caught up in it, I couldn’t put it down.

Im general, I steer away from dual narrative novels where one of the storylines is contemporary, using either a diary or other framing device or time travel in order to direct the reader into the historical part of the book. I tend to like my historical fiction straight up and the contemporary parts fall flat. In this book also, I was a bit impatient with Sara’s story, which hinged so much on her Asperger’s that it almost seemed like a lesson on the syndrome. However, Mary’s story made it all worthwhile. It’s an exciting adventure and beautiful romance.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston is a spellbinding YA fantasy. I love retellings of old classical stories, so this new adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) caught my attention. It’s beautifully done.

The heroine is unnamed. In fact, most of the characters are unnamed except for the king, Lo-Melkhiin. Others are referred to by their relationships to the protagonist or to the king. Names of other important characters have to do with the tasks they perform. It lends an air of other-worldliness to the fantasy. That, and the other first person voice in the story is that of the demon possessing Lo-Melkhiin.

It is the demon who has turned the king into a powerful man, able to rule in a way that keeps the men safe and enriches them. But their prosperity has a price. The king is entitled to a bride, and he has had more than three hundred of them, all of whom died within days to weeks of their marriage. The demon destroys them, sucking power from their fear and from what he has done to the king.

The men in his domain have grown used to the need to sacrifice their daughters. The rule is that he can only choose one wife from each of the villages and can not return for another until he has taken one from every village in the land. The women are not so resigned.

When he comes to the village of the heroine, everyone expects that he will take her sister, a girl of striking beauty. But the protagonist tricks him into taking her instead. This sacrifice is the beginning of her power, because the sister left behind builds an altar to her. As time wears on, the story of her bravery builds, and all the women in the land are sending her power with their prayers.

She needs this strength to resist the demon. Day after day, she lives to see another and her power grows. But so does his.

Although expecting the story to conform to some degree with its model, and that the protagonist will win, preserving her life, there is enough divergence to keep the story compelling. The demon is brutal, remorseless, and strong. If there is a good man left inside Lo-Melkhiin’s body, he is cowed enough by all that has happened that the heroine can expect no help from him.

Magic permeates the story. It’s woven in well enough that the use of it does not come across as a deus ex machina to resolve the crisis. The language is lovely and helps bring the reader into this strange, magical world. A retelling that is original enough to be more than a retelling—fantasy readers should enjoy this charming tale.

Monday, November 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

I’ve just (finally) finished Desert Queen. The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach. The title pretty much says it all, and is good preparation for the biography. This is our history/historical fiction book group’s next book, and it should generate some lively discussion.

Gertrude Bell was an amazing person. Brilliant, well-traveled, fluent in multiple languages, and extraordinarily self-confident, she blazed trails where few Europeans and no Victorian-era women had ever been. Fascinated by the Middle East, she began her career as an archaeologist, visiting, mapping and writing about several important ancient sites. She ventured out among the Arabs, meeting and befriending them. Her physical stamina and mental capabilities were truly astounding.

At the outbreak of WWI, Great Britain needed information about the Middle East. She had already broken so much ground that, despite being female, she was drawn into Britain’s Intelligence Service and served, throughout the war, as a collector of vital information. She advised the men in charge, whether they wanted her opinions or not. After the war, she continued on in a semi-official to official capacity and was instrumental in drawing the boundaries for nascent nations. She pretty much hand-chose Iraq’s first king.

This is all important history and helps the reader to understand why things are such a mess today. It was hardly a stable area even before the English and French meddled in their affairs, but such a messy bit of meddling--necessary, of course, in order to ensure access to Middle Eastern Oil--was unlikely to have a nice, clean outcome.

Wallach packs a lot into this book. At times, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees as the big picture is obscured by somewhat repetitive detail. It’s almost a day-by-day account of the "notables" Bell took coffee with and dazzled with her intelligence. Numerous excerpts from her letters home are interspersed. She dotes on her father and seems desperate to impress him with her success in establishing herself as a "Person." Wallace also plays up, in sometimes jarringly melodramatic prose, the details of Bell’s unhappy love life.

In the end, despite Bell’s impressiveness and the importance of the history, it was a slow read. Hailed as the definitive biography of Gertrude Bell, this book is worth the effort for those who want a full account. If you just want to familiarize yourself with this important historical figure, the afterword summarizes the highlights in about 4 ½ pages.

And I’ve now concluded the nonfiction challenge!