Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Title: A Northern Light
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Graphia
Published: 2004
Pages: 408

Rating - 8 out of 10

Nestled in New York's Adirondack Mountains in 1906, Mattie has begun a new job at an expensive hotel. After spending so many years trapped working on her father's dismal farm lands, she feels intoxicated and frightened at her new-found freedom. A gifted writer, she is accepted to Barnard College in New York City, and yet feels held back by a responsibility to help her impoverished family and a budding romance with a local boy.

This honest, powerful book really surprised me. I had picked up another YA novel expecting some light reading, but Donnelly writes with mature, pitch-perfect depth and force. She doesn't shy away from the gritty aspects of poverty, murder, racism, and more. One of the most striking scenes in the book was one in which Mattie assists a local midwife in a particularly bloody childbirth.
The heroine's problems, feeling torn between her family and furthering herself at school rang true, and Mattie is a refreshingly honest, believable voice.

The book is loosely inspired by the true murder of Grace Brown, and by Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," which I haven't read yet.

A perfect, highly recommended book. Just gorgeous.

Review: The Foreigners by Maxine Swann

Title: The Foreigners
Author: Maxine Swann
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Riverhead
Published: 2011
Pages: 272

Rating: 7 out of 10

In The Foreigners, a young American woman travels to Argentina to live abroad in the glamorous, exotic city of Buenos Aires. Upon her arrival, she is introduced to an eclectic cast of characters, including a gay stripper / medical student, a lustrous and vibrant Argentinian woman, an Austrian high society girl, and a wealthy older man. The book wanders through various experiences that the main character has with both these people and with the city itself.

I chose to request this book solely based off of its setting. Buenos Aires is a city that I desperately want to travel to someday. Though I am unable to say exactly how accurate the author was, I certainly got a sense of her version of the city. I fell in love with the setting - or, the distinct flavor and atmosphere of the setting - more than any other aspect of the book.

My second reason for enjoying this book was that it was strange, atypical, and at times a bit dark, especially farther toward the end, as Daisy and her friend Leonora actively work to slowly bring about the psychological ruin of a normal older man - seemingly for no reason other than that of a coolly observed experiment.

As much as I enjoyed it, the story was not without its flaws. The book did not have much focus, and the writing was average. The characters were interesting and memorable, but not extraordinary. In the beginning, Swann sets up a storyline about the main character coming to Buenos Aires to investigate the failing of the water system, but this plot is later discarded and forgotten. One characters' happy ending was a bit too neat and unconvincing. And yet somehow, I absolutely loved this book. Somehow, with all its quirks and strangeness and periods of tedium (for example, lingering on the main character fixing a broken appliance), it added up to something beautifully lyrical and realistic.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Review: Prophecy by S.J. Parris

Title: Prophecy
Author: S.J. Parris
Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Doubleday
Published: 2011
Pages: 384

Rating: 6 out of 10

The 2nd book in the series of mysteries following Giordano Bruno, a former monk now turned detective / writer / philosopher / spy, leaves Oxford University and brings us to Whitehall Palace in London. The year is 1583, a year that astrologers proclaim will bring about great tragedy. Bruno, who is still working for the Queen's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, is sent to befriend and reside with the family of a suspicious French ambassador, who may or may not be plotting to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne in place of Elizabeth. Only a few nights after arriving, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting is murdered, and soon afterward, another. Bruno embarks upon a feverish search to find the killer...

I enjoyed this book in the series, and felt that it was a good continuation of the first one. We do get to know our hero Bruno a bit more as his character is filled out, which I had mentioned in my review of Heresy. Bruno is still, as a sub-plot, seeking the lost Copernicus volume, which he believes contains revolutionary secrets about philosophy and astronomy.

I enjoyed seeing more of Walsingham, who I have always thought a fascinating historical figure. And Merritt portrayed him just right, in my opinion.
Bruno also becomes a close friend of John Dee, the famed scholar, and I had to re-read the decadent descriptions of his house and library a couple times. It sounded as if my dream house was being described - beautiful books absolutely everywhere.

On the negative side, this book is very similar to the first one. I have to admit that I do often have this complaint about a lot of mystery series, because they all just seem so repetitive. People solve a mystery, the end. Book 2 - people solve a mystery, the end. Book 3...
Mystery series that I have enjoyed in the past, I realize, all have strong main characters, inventive plots (not just the same mystery every time), and a progressive plot to the series that involves a bigger picture than this and that mystery.
So far, Bruno isn't a strong enough character for me to say that he really comes alive in the stories. As for inventive plots, this one seemed like a repeat of book one, except in a different setting. Bruno is still spying on some people, and solving crimes that have religious, symbolic undertones, as people try to dissuade him from his sleuthing. As for an overarching plot that encompasses the series in its entirety, though we are only on book 2, I would guess that that isn't very existent here either. Sure, Bruno is still looking for that book, but it would have to be something bigger than that.

Yet again, I was annoyed by the females of the story, notably the red-haired lady in waiting that Bruno begins feeling attracted to after she helps him collect evidence about the killer's first victim. Unlike with Sophia of "Heresy," nothing ever actually happens with girl two. However, she still felt so very obligatory, as if the author felt that she had to throw in a pretty girl somewhere along the lines. Like Sophia, the redhead (I have forgotten her name, as you can see) is also conveniently thrown out of the story later on, though it had looked as if she was being set up to become a major character. At least her exit wasn't so tailored and ridiculous as Sophia's, though.

Despite having quite a few complaints about this book, I still enjoyed reading it. For all of my saying it was too similar to the first installment (which I hold with, nonetheless), I enjoyed the two about the same. It was quickly paced and interesting, and the musings about philosophy and astronomy and religious politics of the day were very interesting.

Perhaps I will read Bruno's next adventure, but it would have to be something new and completely different to the first two books.

Review: Annie Between the States by L.M. Elliott

Title: Annie, Between the States
Author: L.M. Elliott
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Katherine Teegan Books
Published: 2006
Pages: 544

Rating - 8 out of 10

In Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Annie Sinclair's life changes as the Civil War overtakes her home. Loyal to her beloved state, Annie never doubts her Confederate loyalties until she begins to fall in love with a young Union lieutenant.

I don't make any effort to hide the fact that I absolutely loathe the Civil War. Maybe it's because I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in Richmond, Virginia, where discussion of the Civil War was akin to starting a heated political discussion in which you may or may not declare yourself a Muslim Communist. There were frequent, impassioned discussions about it in the papers. Confederate flags fluttered from the beams of front porches. At a history class in university, students raged on and on about the secession. But even before all that, I never found the time period all that interesting. I like my history old - the Middle Ages is generally my cutoff point. 

Anyways, I am far from a Civil War enthusiast. However, of all the books on the setting that I have read, this one is without doubt the best. I absolutely loved this book, so much so that it earned a couple of re-reads from me, another rare exception.

Elliott has written a strong and powerful story, with the perfect blend of accurate history and well written fiction. I love the main character Annie Sinclair, who was feisty without simply being a modern girl dressed in Antebellum-era clothes, as is all too common in historical fiction. Seeing her grow up and develop as a character was part of what made this book so very good. 

Richly drawn, complex and detailed. 
L.M. Elliot is an amazing author, and I look forward to reading all of her books. Highly recommended.

Review: The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee

Title: The Scandal of the Season
Author: Sophie Gee
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scribner
Published: 2007
Pages: 368

Rating: 3 out of 10

Lately, quite a few fluffy pieces of historical drivel have been making their way onto my reading lists. It is all due to my well meaning decision to stop judging books by their covers so strictly. This one is unfortunately the latest addition to my accidental and lamentable trend.

It is a "story behind the story" type of book, based on events that supposedly inspire the poet Alexander Pope to write The Rape of the Lock. Here, Alexander is still a struggling writer searching for literary recognition in 1700's London, and longing after the love of his childhood friend Teresa. The future subject of his famous poem is to be Arabella Fermor, a young and stunningly gorgeous debutante. Arabella finds herself drawn to Robert, a rakish man who she knows she would do well to avoid. The two begin a scandalous affair.

What a mess this book was, from start to finish. It was exasperating and annoying. The moment I finished it, I slammed it down onto my 'discard' pile with a smack.

There was not a single character that I ever even mildly liked or wanted to hear more about. Alexander was insufferable, and whenever I glimpsed his name appearing frequently on the pages ahead, I groaned and thought to myself 'please no, please no...' He was a show off and a know it all, very sure of himself in a grating sort of way. Every character in this book seemed to always be trying so desperately to be sharp and witty, Alexander most of all. Rather than dazzle me with his wit, Alexander only inspired utter contempt from me. I hope that this doesn't cloud my opinions when I read some of the real Pope's work one day.

The real main character, Arabella, seemed intriguing at first, when she was still off scene somewhere, but once we get to her part of the story, she quickly loses all this. She is described as "the beauty of her age," and everyone seems captivated by her looks. Few paragraphs were allowed to pass by without the reader being reminded of how gorgeous Arabella is. This pretty much always annoys me, but of course it is possible for a girl to be stunningly beautiful. However, it was also convenient to the plot for her to be viewed as undesirable for not having a huge fortune. There is also a big to-do over her love interest, Robert, probably not being interested. Of course he won't be, he would never be interested in her, the most beautiful girl in London. I mean, who would be? And the author is always woefully pointing out to us that no one really wants Arabella. Why? She's so beautiful it's intimidating. Oh, I see, what a common problem... It seemed like the author wanted both - the ultimate desirable goddess, and the poor reject - in one character. It seemed conflicting to me and didn't work one bit.

The romance story here fell flat. This is probably because it wasn't really a romance plot at all, just sex. I found it annoying that Robert is portrayed as such a gentlemanly hero, when really he is just getting free sex from (in case you forgot) "the most beautiful girl in London."
I also found in annoying and unlikely that Arabella would so willingly and lightly give up her virginity, and thus her entire reputation, on this fling. Even if she had been so carried away by her passions, surely it would have been a bit more difficult for her to sneak out and meet Robert. But she never appears to come across any problems there. At one point she even just shows up randomly at his house in the middle of the night.

All of the parties that took up so much of the book were dull. It was all just a lot of "and she wore this, and he danced with this girl, and that girl said this, and guess which famous author was there...?!" It sounded like a gossip column at times, except about boring people I didn't care about.

The author often switches from character to character, taking us into Alexander's perspective and then to Robert's, who leads us to Arabella's words, and other such arrangements. It would be convenient, except that she was incapable of pulling it off.

Something that especially annoyed me was how Gee made all of her characters try so hard to be sharp and witty. Subtlety is the key to a good, hilarious satire - but Gee instead feels the need to throw satire at us for pages and pages. I just wanted to snap the book shut and read a real satire before my mind was contaminated by faux-satire overload. The characters are always referencing how witty they all are, and Gee is constantly describing her character's personalities or conversations with that very same (overused) word, but I never see any evidence of this. All I saw were stupid people who talk in the most forced, stilted conversation I have ever heard of, and then try to pass it all off as brilliance just by calling it so.

Well, I suppose that by the time anyone has finished reading this they will have assumed that I didn't like it one bit. Normally I try to find at least something I like about a book, but I honestly couldn't come up with anything here.

Review: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Title: The American Heiress
Author: Daisy Goodwin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Headline Review
Published: 2010
Pages: 480

Rating: 1 out of 10

Set in both New York and England during the Gilded Age, this book follows the story of Cora Cash, a beautiful heiress famous for being the wealthiest young lady in America. Her scheming socialite mother only wants one last thing for her daughter: a title. And so, Cora is sent to England to find a husband of nobility, where she finds herself soon engaged to Duke Ivor of Wareham.

My Last Duchess (later published in the U.S. as The American Heiress) was a weakly written, predictable, and insipid book that I was only too happy to eliminate from my shelves.

The first thing that annoyed me was the author's constant throwing about of stilted descriptions of grandeur, obviously meant to be impressive. Rather than give the book an atmosphere of elegance and wealth (which is what normally comes to mind at the mention of the Gilded Age), I simply felt that she was tossing names and sums of money about at random.
An example from the first few pages:

The Cash household had its own Hall of Mirrors, which the visitors who had been to Versailles pronounced even more spectacular than the original.

Rather than show us the finery that the heroine is privileged to, Goodwin only ever tells us. Everyone in the book is aghast at the fact that the Cash family has their own trans-Atlantic steamer, and then the author throws in the fact that Cora brought along eight of her favorite horses on the voyage. But we never actually 'see' this ship for ourselves, or get a description of it. We are simply told that it is enormously expensive, and that's all that we really need to know.
Cora is constantly referred to as "the richest girl in the world," or "an American princess," or "a billionaire."
It just all seemed so very over the top and silly.

All of the characters are neglected, even the main character of Cora. I never liked her - at the beginning, she was a spoiled, foolish girl. At the end, she was the same.
She says to a man at one point: "Would you like to kiss me? Most men want to, but I am just too rich."
I certainly never felt that I got to know her. In the first few chapters, the reader is given the impression that she is a strong-willed girl longing to break free of her mother's controlling grasp. It could have been an interesting plot development, but it is dropped within the first twenty pages.

Cora's mother seemed set to become a major, interesting character, but she fell out of the plot entirely less than halfway through. Much the same for Teddy, a love interest of Cora's, who leaves and then weakly re-enters the book later on without ever being in much focus.

None of the characters were focused on enough, and none of their relationships made very much sense to me.

The supposed "romance" between the Duke, Ivo, and Cora was trivial and uninspiring. In fact, I would have to say that no love ever existed between them, and nor is it ever likely to.
Cora conveniently (but utterly by chance) takes a fall off her horse while riding through the Duke's property. Also by chance, he happens to stumble across her and rescue her.
Before they have shared even twenty minutes together, they are engaged. The society and gossip papers of two continents are obsessed with the couple's wedding, but they themselves approach it nonchalantly. The book seemed to always be highlighting the fact that their relationship lacked passion, and was cool and distanced - boring, even. I assumed that this was some sort of set-up so that Cora could leave Ivo in the end, and realize that wanting a title was no excuse to marry someone, but it turned out that it was just the way that their relationship was. Despite their obvious lack of any chemistry, the book insists that they love each other.

There is a revelation at the end of brothers falling in love with the same woman, who cheated on both of them, leading one brother to attempt suicide. His brother encouraged him, but then tried to save him, but failed, and convinced himself that he had killed his sibling, then went on to convince himself that the woman had actually made him kill his sibling, whilst both hating and loving her. The woman, to make the man angry, married a rich man, who was another sibling...
All this boggling information was dumped on the reader in exactly this manor - rushed and nonsensical. Perhaps if it had been built up, and written with a bit of finesse and talent, it would have been interesting.
But here, it was so B-grade soap opera, I skimmed the paragraph without even trying to make sense of it all.

This was an extremely obvious, shakily written book that was sorely in need of an editor. Not recommended. Just no.

Review: The Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett

Title: The Lilies of the Field
Author: William E. Barrett
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
First published: 1962
Pages: 128

Rating: 3 out of 10 stars

Though I hadn't heard of it before, I came across this small book in the classics section at my library. Based on the fact that obviously someone felt it deserved classic status, I took it home to read. And let me just say that I certainly am not in the same opinion as whoever labeled this book "classic."

The Lilies of the Field is about a man named Homer Smith, a former GI, who now lives doing odd jobs and enjoying the freedom of the road and sleeping in his station wagon. However, all of this changes when he meets a group of German nuns. They give Homer a few jobs, and they strike up an odd sort of friendship with him. Homer soon discovers, however, that the nuns have plans for him. They want a chapel, and they prayed for a means to get one, and Homer showed up. Naturally, he will build their chapel. Homer resists at first, but somehow the nuns convince him. As the chapel grows, Homer gains a sense of pride in his work. The building of the chapel is revered by the town as a miracle.

This book isn't exactly my type of reading. It's the type of storyline that I am highly unlikely to ever enjoy. And so, due to my predisposed and entirely expected disliking for this book, I feel obliged to highlight some good points first.

At some rare moments, the writing of this book was pretty. It was simple and spare, as if the author was trying to use as few words as possible. Everything was stated in a factual sort of way, and once in awhile the frankness of the wording was enjoyable. I can see how some readers may find it charming, or even beautiful.

I also liked the nuns, especially Mother Maria Marthe, the leader of the band of sisters. Like the rest of the nuns, she speaks barely any English, so her character is left to be filled in by mostly actions, tones of voice, and facial expressions. She was a commanding, slightly grumpy, bossy old woman who was endearing in how stuffy she was. The scene where she tells Homer certain Bible verses to look up, in an effort to speak to him, was funny, and actually quite a creative idea on her part. I found it comical that she steers him toward the verses about about "not storing up earthly treasures" when he asks for payment early on in the story. It seemed presumptive and unfair on her part, but I don't believe that she did it with any malice.

So now that I have come up with some things I liked about the book... I have to say that I couldn't possibly think of any other good points.

The character of Homer was extremely irritating, in my opinion. He was not all that bright, and his feelings were often muted by the story. Rather than have much of a character at all, he seems a mouthpiece for the story itself. The author obviously expects (or rather, hopes) that the reader has a similar mindset to his main character: reluctant in the beginning, and inspired by the end.

Something about this book that bothered me was the nun's attitude. When Homer does some jobs for them in the beginning (mending fences and such), they practically refuse to pay him. Yes, they are poor, but shouldn't they have made it clear to Homer that he was working for free beforehand? Perhaps their English wasn't good enough for that, but after the matter of payment was made clear by Homer, shouldn't they have shown some regret, or apologies? The author doesn't seem to think it a very big deal, but it was practically stealing.
Homer also works tirelessly on the nun's chapel after this. He is their answer to prayer, and they can work him as hard as they like, for no pay.
I got this sense through-out the story, and it was not a comforting one.

Review: The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

Title: The Confession of Katherine Howard
Author: Suzannah Dunn
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2011
Pages: 320

Rating: 3 out of 10

This brief story recounts portions of Katherine Howard's girlhood, as well as her days as queen and her disastrous fate. It is told from the viewpoint of Cat, a naive girl who grew up with Katherine and now serves as her lady in waiting.

The book starts out ominously:
"I was thinking... this is who we are: the perfect queen and her faithful retinue. Now, I wish I could go back, patter over the lavish carpets to tap us on the shoulders, whisper in our ears and get us out alive." (page 4)
I found this to be a good example of Dunn's writing. Almost well written, but not quite. The potential is there, but an amateur quality remains. In actuality, the above sentence is relatively flattering, being more eloquent than most others in the book, but it still doesn't exactly fit. First of all, Cat never views Katherine as "the perfect queen," and with good reason. And who in the world "patters" over carpets?? I suppose next will be carpeted tap-dancing.

Worse than people's shoes tapping on carpets is the modern style of Dunn's writing. There is a whole lot of sex talk between the girls, and while I don't doubt that girls of any time period are capable of being curious, their wishful conversations sounded just a bit too unrealistic.

Something that greatly annoyed me was that the main character Cat is so drastically overlooked. She remained definitively faceless and without personality for the entire story. Coming into the book, I didn't read the back cover, and I had been assuming that Katherine Howard would be the narrator. When it became clear that the story was being told by someone else, I kept thinking that on the next page, this person would introduce herself and reveal her identity. But she didn't until about page 50!
Her name is never, ever mentioned until quite far in, and we have to guess for ourselves that she is the queen's lady in waiting or maid or something of that nature.
I got a strong impression that the author expected readers to just know that our main character was "Cat Tilney, ladies maid" from the description on the back cover. And absolutely no book should rely on that, in my opinion.

In the same way of forgetting to mention her own main character's name, Suzannah Dunn fails to mention or feature a lot of other things, too.
Before Cat and Katherine come to court, they appear to enjoy gossiping about the latest royal news with their friends. As girls, they hear about the queen being taken away and replaced by a new one, who is later beheaded.
Of course, I know who they are talking about - Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Later, they converse about Anne of Cleves as well. But it struck me as very strange that they would never once mention any names. Anne Boleyn's name is not featured once in the entirety of the novel, and neither are any other of Katherine's many predecessors.
Katherine's affair with Thomas Culpepper is mentioned often, but we never actually "see" him. He is mentioned, but never featured in any scenes, turning him into just a name of some guy.
The words "London" and "England" seem to be avoided. Absolutely no sense of setting is given whatsoever, which is always a major negative point for me, especially with historical fiction, and especially with historical fiction that deals with royalty. Kings and queens are ingrained so deeply in their countries and their cultures, a writer ought to find it impossible not to mention them.
I can't fathom why the author seemed to go out of her way to avoid specific names and titles, but it certainly didn't do any favors for the story.

Before this one, the only other book that I had read that prominently focused on Katherine Howard was Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance. Though I know that Gregory is not exactly known for her accuracy, I have to say that that book is leagues better than this one.
I also felt that Gregory's Katherine was much more believable and probable: a beautiful, flirtatious, silly girl who is ignorant and not all that intelligent.
Here, Dunn's Katherine is described as not being all that pretty or charming. She seems a grim, flinty girl who is wise beyond her years, mysterious, and ever so solemn - a stark opposite of Gregory's version.
But it doesn't seem to fit the history - Henry VIII had just left the plain, solemn Anne of Cleves looking for something more entertaining, and chose Katherine. Why would he choose another ugly girl with a grey personality? And why would a wise, cunningly intelligent girl make herself so easy to trap by continuing an affair with the king's favorite? Perhaps this could be excused if Katherine was written as being desperately in love with Thomas, but she wasn't. Katherine struck me as an un-feeling, passionless girl.
So, the entire persona of Katherine didn't ever seem right to me, always a bit off.

After the culmination of events with Katherine being investigated, the book ends rather suddenly. It would be easy for a reader not educated on the events to miss the fact that Katherine was actually executed.
The historical note at the end focuses far more on the executions of Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper, for some reason.

Since I have now said so many negative things about the book, I am trying to think of a positive one.
I suppose that I did like how I finished reflecting to myself how unlikely a contestant Katherine was for the throne. Unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn, she was never groomed and pushed to catch the court's eye, and grew up as practically a commoner. As she talks about news, faraway at court, she obviously doesn't see herself ever becoming one of those people she hears about.

The book wasn't actually quite so terrible as my review probably makes it sound. It was easy to read, and moved at a quick enough pace (though it did get bogged down whenever there was a flashback to girlhood days). It was definitely below average, but I didn't hate it.

The Confession of Katherine Howard was a book that I simply didn't have strong feelings for either way - though if I did, they would be more likely to lean toward negativity. Don't expect any of the characters to have strong identities, or the events any gravity, either. Like the vapid main character, this was a dry book vacant of personality.

Review: The Pindar Diamond by Katie Hickman

Title: The Pindar Diamond
Author: Katie Hickman
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 2010
Pages: 288

Rating: 3 out of 10

I was really looking forward to this book. It just sounds so exciting! A mysterious woman washes up out of the sea, a supposedly cursed diamond is being tracked down, with which some nuns may be involved, and it's set in Venice. What could go wrong?

The opening lines, in which the mystery woman describes drowning, really caught my attention. I got the impression that the author carefully thought about what such an awful thing must be like, and the short section of a chapter, less than a page long, seemed almost poetic in how terrible it was.
In the next chapter, we are introduced to two traveling circus acrobats, Maryam and Elena. I loved the first descriptions of the characters, and the description of the tired little village that they come across had me reading the words in admiration. Hickman really brought to life the setting, and all on the first few pages!
I settled in, eager to get to know these characters.

However, it was not to be. The scene switches almost immediately to an entirely different set of the characters - who are the predominant ones in the story.
They were quite confusing, especially in the beginning. But even toward the end, I was still a bit confused about what was going on with them.
The author calls all the characters by both their first and last names at random. It wasn't until pretty far along in the book that I realized that "Pindar" and "Paul" were actually the same person, Paul Pindar.
Also, the characters relied almost solely on dialogue when first introduced. They dive right in to talking about some very in depth, weighty matters, which only confused me more.

Still bewildered and trying to figure out exactly who was doing what with which person, and what last name went with what first name, I was whisked away to another setting.

In this one, we meet a young, pretty nun in training named Annetta. She has trouble following all of the rules, such as not having friends and giving up her embroidered slippers.
Annetta was one of my favorite characters, even though I could never really manage to feel close to her.

This book was extremely good for about five to ten pages. The author does an extraordinarily praiseworthy job of setting up the scenery, describing the details, and really giving us a feeling of the place she has introduced.
However, the rest of this book was not so amazing.

There were many problems, the most important of which being: by the time I was a bit over 75% finished with the book, I looked at the number of pages and thought incredulously "When ever will the actual plot be introduced?"
Well, it never was.
Before beginning the book, I read and savored the description on the back cover (something I do when I'm anticipating a very good book). I had thought to myself that it sounded like an amazing story, but when I went back and looked over it, I realized that it was in fact relatively vague. The only possible plot lines I could make out were: A troupe of acrobats trying to care for a mysterious woman, or a man trying to find his beloved.
Both of these were involved in the story, but no, they certainly couldn't be called a plot.
It's a shame, because there were really a lot of great elements here. Venice! My favorite city, especially when set in historical fiction, and in the 1600's, no less! I was very disappointed to find that the city itself was barely mentioned, much less described.

The acrobats and the woman from the sea show up again over halfway through the book, just in time to neatly deliver a shocking secret about the woman's identity (an extremely obvious and predictable secret, that is). However, even if I hadn't guessed this by the fifth chapter, I wouldn't have really cared. The reader never gets a chance to know the mystery woman, or to wonder who she is. So, when we do find out, it's no revelation.

In the reading guide of this book, it describes a certain character as "a sinister villain." I thought "huh? He was a villain?" Sure, he makes some sort of evil speech at the end, but he wasn't a very prominent character.

Even with a handful of other exciting plot elements thrown in (stolen diamonds, escaped Arabian harem girls, the gambling underworld, dept collectors, courtesans of fading beauty), the author still couldn't draw up a plot.

There were also some things that didn't make sense in the book, which I'll list briefly here. (SPOILERS ahead!)

- A jewel buyer is talking about how he would pay a fortune just to touch the famous "Sultan's Blue" diamond, but on the next page he is vehemently saying that he wouldn't even touch it, because it can bring only trouble.

- Carew is looking Annetta over, and is somehow able to tell that she has a slender waist and a "nice rump." But wouldn't her nun's habit make this impossible?

- I hate badly written romances. And there was definitely one here. Annetta meets Carew rather pleasantly - he grabs her, pretends to try to strangle her in the dark, and then offers to "service her" there in the abbey garden. After that, she hates him, which really just means that she is crazy over him, and by the end, they are weeping, falling down at each others feet, presumably hopelessly in love. What? They were only in each others company for a total of about 15 minutes, over three visits!
And, to add to this, their relationship (if it can be called such) is based almost entirely on sexual harrassment. Carew makes lewd gestures simulating sex in Annetta's direction before he even meets her. Once he does meet her, he undresses her visually, and then of course, there is the scene in the garden where he attacks her. What is wrong with this picture? A lot.

- When Annetta stays out late, there is a convenient cover-up about the nuns all having "slept late." All of them. This is hundreds of women. And they all over slept. The author obviously just didn't want Annetta to get caught, but couldn't think of a logical way to go about this.

- The entire thing with The Aviary Gate. I didn't know that this was a sequel, or I would have read the other book first. No where does it say that this is a sequel - but it should have! You really have to have read the first book in order to understand a lot of what happens in this one, especially toward the end.

- (SPOILERS) Maryam and the "mermaid" baby are killed? How did the baby die? And why? Oh, let me guess... They will turn out to be alive in the sequel. Just wait and see.

- So Paul sees Celia, but doesn't recognize her, he just thinks that she resembles Celia. Then, he is certain it is her. It just really didn't seem to make sense to me, how one minute he was certain it wasn't her, and the next minute he is, without giving a reason.

And the characters also disappointed me. I felt that I only got to touch upon them briefly, and there was no one in the story that I ever particularly was rooting for, or cared about. Maryam is the only character who I really sympathized with, but this was not so much because Hickman wrote a good character, but because she wrote us such a sad background for the giantess. Even when she died, I felt no remorse.
John Carew was cast as the the typical roguish bad boy that all the women go crazy over. What is this with men assaulting the heroine and getting rewarded with eternal love? He sneaks up behind her, grabs her, and strangles her! Later, he says that he did this because he "wanted to frighten her." Does this sound like a good guy? And yet, he is cast as very much the hero.

So, there were obviously many problems with this story.
However, for some reason, I did enjoy it. It always compelled me to read on, and I may even keep it.
Despite so horribly ruining her plot, the author is good at describing things (when she bothers), and at keeping events moving along at a good pace.

This book had a lot of potential, but sadly, it did not live up to it. I may read The Aviary Gate in hopes that it will be better, but this one was nothing special.

Review: Flatland by Edwin Abbott

Title: Flatland
Author: Edwin Abbott
Genre: Literary / Science Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First Published: 1884
Pages: 103

Rating: 9 out of 10

I ventured into reading this book a bit nervously. I love a good satire, and I love books written in the 1800's, but wasn't sure what to expect from this one in particular.
After all... A novel about - math?

However, I was pleasantly surprised. No, more than that. I was absolutely blown away. I couldn't take my eyes off the pages!

Flatland is one of those atypical novels that at times reads like a historical commentary. Much like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or The Silmarillion, it factually and sensibly creates another world so organized and meticulously constructed, the reader feels privileged to a glimpse into some strange, newly discovered world.

Edwin A. Abbott is a genius thinker - not only did he manage to draw for the reader a detailed world (complete with culture, social customs, history, and so on), but it is one that is unparalleled. This book takes the idea of "originality" - not so easy a thing to master - to an entirely new level.
His descriptions of first a two-dimensional world, and then a one-dimensional world, make sense. Not an easy concept to grasp - but Abbott sums it up perfectly. There are even rudimentary drawings scattered through-out the book, in case the reader isn't quite getting it.

The book is split into two parts. I enjoyed Part I the best - it described life in the main character's world of Flatland and two dimensions.
It read as half textbook, half science fiction novel, and had me completely fascinated all of the way. Abbott's writing is precise and careful. Obviously the man was a mathematician. The second part is about the two other dimensions - a one-dimensional world, and a three-dimensional world. Again, the author describes these to the reader very well.

I loved the satire elements to this story, especially concerning gender, class, and narrow-mindedness. "Flatland" is a masterpiece. I wish that the author's other works were not so hard to find.

Review: Maid Marian by Ella Watson

Title: Maid Marian
Author: Elsa Watson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Published: 2005
Pages: 314

Rating: 7 out of 10

I began reading this book with reluctance. After all, the story of Robin Hood has been told so many times, and I was mostly expecting this one to be just another Robin Hood book.
However, I was pleasantly surprised right from the beginning. Elsa Watson's writing is grounded, realistic, and elegant. I really felt as if I was there in her medieval world. The vivid setting and the fact that I love the Middle Ages prompted me to read the entire book in one sitting.

The story is about Marian Fitzwater, a girl whose young fiancee died when she was a child. Now, her fiancee's mother, the deceptive Lady Pernelle, is vying to convince Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine that she can rightfully take over Marian's lands. As Eleanor prepares to have Marian married off into a loveless arranged marriage, Marian sees no choice other than to flee along with her beloved maid. From there, she ends up joining the band of Robin Hood, a roguish outlaw, and finds herself falling in love.

Something that I loved about this story is that it doesn't try to be a re-telling of Robin Hood. It isn't about Robin, it's about Marian. The author has truly created a new character, who isn't defined or characterized by Robin or the legend that she is a part of.
All of the characters had their own personality. Marian's was well written, and I loved her loyal maid. Robin's character wasn't exactly original (it's exactly what anyone would expect from the well-known outlaw) but he wasn't awful, and I liked him. It was also interesting that the author portrayed Eleanor of Aquitaine in a less than favorable light.

The only thing that I didn't like about the story was a section in the plot that I didn't think made much sense. Robin is about to go and fight a vicious battle that he may not live through. Marian begs him to stay, because she wouldn't be able to bear it if he were to be killed. Of course, Robin goes anyways, and Marian is so outraged, she decides to leave without warning. She wanders aimlessly through the country, disguised as a peasant, and ends up living with a kindly poor woman and her family. I thought that this was all rather dramatic. And yes, the woman that Marian met was very likable and a well written minor character, but there is no point to her or Marian's departure and journey. All of that has absolutely nothing to do with anything. Wouldn't it have been more exciting to have Marian sneak off to join the fight? Or have the men return, but without Robin, so she has to go find him? Save him, maybe?
But no. Instead the author decides to send her on a pointless journey across the country.
And then, one day, Robin himself shows up! Tada! He's alive! He and Marian joyfully ride back to Sherwood Forest.
I have to say, this seemed highly unlikely to me, even a bit suspect. I kept hoping that there was some secret plot detail that the author hadn't revealed yet - How exactly did Robin find Marian? Did someone in the village tell him? What about the family she was staying with?
But no. All pointless.

However, thankfully Elsa Watson is brilliant at spinning characters off of her descriptions of rolling hills and lush countryside. Through out the book, the prose and details are wonderful. I will certainly be looking for more of her work, for this very reason. Whether pointless or relevant, all the characters were believable, especially the female ones. And her writing is graceful but without becoming unrealistic or overly dramatic.

This is a great book that I recommend. Most likely, you won't even notice the plot detour. Watson's writing is just too pretty to mind.

Review: The Silver Rose by Susan Carroll

Title: The Silver Rose
Author: Susan Carroll
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 2006
Pages: 515

Rating: 2 out of 10

The Silver Rose opens with Miri Cheney, the youngest of her sisters, just having arrived back at Faire Isle, her beloved home. However, trouble arises almost immediately after her arrival when Simon Aristide, a man she once loved before he betrayed her, shows up unexpectedly. He tells her about a new evil force of witches that are rising, led by a mysterious unknown woman called the Silver Rose. Despite misgivings about how much she can trust Simon, Miri follows him on his quest, and finds herself falling in love with him again.

I got this book at Goodwill, and found that it was the third in a series. However, I don't think that these books have to be read in chronological order, because relevant events from the other two books were explained satisfactorily.

That being said, I certainly won't be reading the other books in this series. The Silver Rose was simply pathetic. There were so many things wrong with it, I began taking notes on a note card that was serving as my bookmark. By the time I was only a few chapters in, the card was full.

Overall, this book was cheaply written, void of any depth, power or skill. If I had to guess, I would say that the writer's influences came from Harlequin romances. I felt painfully surrounded by corniness, awful writing, and predictable romance plot-lines constantly.

The characters were dreadful, one sided, lifeless sketches. The main character, Miri, annoyed me to no end. She is supposedly twenty-six or around there (I forget the exact number), and yet she acts more like a sixteen year old, which I how I pictured her. She was cast with the unfortunate cliche of the typical "girls-don't-need-boys!" attitude, and I can assure you that it was far from well done. I kept asking myself how Miri could possibly be so naive and stupid (though the book describes her as wise; her only flaw being a bit too trusting). It did not take me long to figure out that it wasn't Miri, it was the author.
Simon Aristide, the supporting character with the second biggest role in the story, was also the exact same man that can be found in thousands of other stories. He was cast as the equally cliche ruggedly handsome tough-guy with a dark side, but actually turns out to be a very caring, sensitive man underneath. I wasn't impressed.
I won't go on, but suffice it to say that all of the characters made for quite uninteresting reading.

And right from the very beginning, there are problems with the plot.
Here are some of them...

- Miri thinks about Simon (and is discussing him with a friend) randomly after ten years of hearing nothing from him, and then, lo and behold, he shows up that very day!
- Miri's cat warns her to hide because Simon can't track her, but Simon does track her, and then once he is close the cat leads him right in front of Miri's cabin to "trap him," which he escapes from minutes later.
- The book tells us that the reason Simon found Miri was because she didn't follow her sister's advice about not attracting attention on Faire Isle (meaning, by standing up for a young girl), but how could Simon hear about that within a few hours, and why would anyone care all that much?
- A woman is weeping and wanting to die because she hears that Miri may have been killed. Why doesn't she just walk over to her cottage and see?
- Miri adamantly refuses to believe Simon's story about the Silver Rose, but suddenly does a few minutes later after he shows her a weapon one of their witches carried. It could have been anyone's. An exceptional weapon doesn't mean that his story is true. Why is she so stupid not to think of this?
- In the middle of the night, Simon is forced to journey to Catherine's castle to receive orders, which are all very badly thought through on the author's part, and then returns to the inn he was staying at in time for Miri to never even know he was gone. This just seemed pretty suspicious to me.
- Simon and Miri kiss three times and the author is still telling us that nothing is going on between them and trying to surprise us by having them kiss again... oh, how unexpected.
- Miri is supposedly some sort of strong warrior sorceress (which we, by the way, never see any evidence of in the story), but when Martin and Simon are about to fight, all she can do is stand there and whine "Oh, stop. Oh, please don't. Please don't do it."

There are more, but I don't want to give away spoilers in case anyone is still determined to actually read it.

And there's more! (I could go on and on). Just things that annoyed me, or that I didn't like...

- Constant stammering! Constant! It was so aggravating I wanted to scribble out all of those extra letters. I couldn't possibly read another book by this author, at risk of hearing another "T-the" or "c-can't."
- Disturbing analogies and word usage in the romance scenes. Maybe the author was trying to make it seem rougher, or sexier... I don't know. Whatever she was attempting, all she did was make me grimace at her choice of words. Things are always described as "assaulted her skin with his hands..." or, the worst, "plundered her mouth..." Plundered? That must be the absolute worst description of kissing I've ever heard of. Also, Martin frequently called himself Miri's "slave." Too many times. Is that supposed to be romantic?
- The back cover of this book led me to believe that this was historical fiction with a touch of fantasy. Please do not be fooled. This book is all fantasy. The only thing historical about it is throwing in a random year and some names of people in history.
- The character of Carole was all over the place. She simply did whatever was most convenient for the plot, and pretty much nothing that she did made any sense.
- Faire Isle is an island made up of women. Women make the rules and the decisions, and have more rights there. There are only a few men. First of all, this seemed very cliche to me. Also, every woman on the island apparently has a family. Don't they need men for that...?
- Miri's first crush was Simon, ten years ago. He betrayed her, and she supposedly moved on. And all that time, she has had no other crushes, no other lovers, and is still a virgin when she and Simon later make love? Hmm...
- Just one more. The author tries to throw a curve ball by introducing the character of Martin into the story. I predicted she would do just that as soon as I read that Miri's sisters suggested she settle down and marry a certain boy who was head over heels for her. So just as Miri and Simon are falling in love (toward the end of the book), Martin appears at the perfect timing. Does the writer honestly think that she is fooling us into believing that there is a love triangle emerging?
And Martin goes on to be a major part of the climax and ending of the story, after only appearing so late... shouldn't he have been built up a bit more if he was so important?

Overall, I would advise you not to waste your time on this awfully written book.

Review: Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

Title: Fear and Trembling
Author: Amelie Nothomb
Genre: Literary / Memoir
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
First Published: 1999 (as Stupeur et tremblements)
Pages: 144

This is a gem of a little book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading!
Part novella and part memoir, it is based on the true experiences of the author, Amelie Nothomb. She is a Belgian woman who goes to work for a Japanese company. Even though she is knows Japanese customs inside and out, and is fluent in the language, she finds herself continually making cultural blunders, and gaining the hatred of her superiors despite her efforts to reverse their opinion of her. Despite the lack of reciprocal feelings, Amelie is fascinated and deeply loyal to her direct supervisor, the beautiful and confident Fubuki Mori, with whom she shares a tumultuous relationship.
This book is easy to read, but has a sort of simplistic beauty to it that leaves it without need for fancy wording or flowery prose.
Nothomb is a brilliant writer, and she peppers her story with dashes of culture, insight, clever wording. Without taking up much space, every character is strong and distinctive.
I loved the sense of Japanese culture, so deeply ingrained in its people, that this book showed a glimpse of.
I will remember this book for a long while, and I am looking forward to reading more by Amelie-San.

Review: Outlaw by Agnus Donald

Title: Outlaw
Author: Agnus Donald
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Published: 2011
Pages: 352

Rating: 5 out of 10

Outlaw tells the familiar story of Robin Hood in a new light. In 12th Century England, Robin is revered as a sort of rogue king by the people of the land. After a young man named Alan is caught stealing, he is taken in by the band of outlaws and begins training as a swordsman.

In this book, Robin Hood is not a merry adventurer, and even the basic premise of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is mostly taken out. Instead, Robin is truly like a king, not in the sense of majesty and glorification, but in the sense that with his power comes much responsibility and decisions to which, many times, there are no right answers. The men constantly trying to capture him could be viewed as enemies perpetually trying to steal his "throne." Even though the details are never explicitly spelled out, it appears that Robin offers to protect villages in exchange for taxation rights. Those who disobey his laws are punished severely. We don't see that much of the inner-workings of Robin's "reign," so I am not sure how successful it is proving. But in one memorable scene, Robin and his men come upon a smoldering village that has been raided and burnt down. A woman tells him spitefully that he promised to protect them.

I didn't dislike this book, or particularly like it either. I got through it quickly and easily, and the pacing was quick, with a lot of action. Though I was never bored, I always felt a sort of distance from the story.

First of all, I didn't really like the main character Alan. He is the typical warrior-in-training: over eager for battle and glory, falls in love for the first time, shows talent of course, attracts the eye of Robin Hood for his skills, and thus thinks himself quite important and goes around for the rest of the book acting like a noble (but not battle hardened) man.
In many situations, he takes drastic measures with ordinary problems. When he needs money, he steals an enormous ruby from a man who is hospitably letting him stay in his home. When he considers paying a prostitute to help him lose his virginity, he actually does so right away, and then a second time again. When a boy taunts and annoys him, Alan intentionally tries to get him killed by accusing him of betraying his father.
I thought that he took things quite far, and was surprised at the end to see none of this come back with any consequences.

*Spoilers, you can skip the rest of this paragraph* The boy who taunted him, Guy, was a bully and not a likable character, but so what? He wasn't that bad, and Alan should have just shrugged and moved on. Instead, he falsely accuses the boy of serious crime and plants evidence to back up his claim. Later, when they meet up again, he volunteers to duel the boy in front of Robin's band. I expected him to defeat the bully, but to show mercy and not actually kill him. So much for that - not only does Alan kill him, he whispers into the dying boy's ear that he was the one who planted false evidence on him, and to take that knowledge to Hell.
Gosh! Were a few taunts about Alan not being manly really worthy of all that? I was pretty surprised, and kept wondering if there was some hideously evil side to the bully that I had missed.

Another thing that I thought was very much missing from the story was a detailing of how Robin's band and rule actually worked. We see people paying him taxes in a scene at the beginning, and we see him doling out punishment. We see him fighting a lot of battles. But these are only the thinnest shades of the establishment and keeping of a kingdom, even such a small one.

For a few chapters, Alan is sent to court as a spy, and there he meets Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is depicted as prickly and strict, but fair. I was surprised that she appears to know all about Lady Marie-Anne (Donald's Maid Marian) being engaged to Robin. And Marie-Anne is one of her ladies in waiting. Eleanor even seems to know that recently, Marie-Anne went to see Robin. If he is such an enemy of the official rulers of England, why would the Queen not appear to care about this?

There were some other minor things that I disliked, one of them being the flashback style this book tried. I couldn't see any point to it. Alan, as an old man, is reminiscing about his time as a young outlaw. But there were only a handful of scenes in which it switches to him as a grandfather, literally about three. In one of them, he is frantically trying to save the life of his grandson. The change was jarringly sudden, coming right at the beginning of a new chapter and talking about "my grandson." With no indication that the time has changed, I was confused for a second. We don't know his grandson, and it certainly has nothing to do with the plot, so why do we need to know about how high his fever is?
Alan also speaks in French one time to a music tutor. As a lowly peasant, he wouldn't have known French unless he perhaps originally lived there. He refers to Tuck as "Friar Tuck" most of the time, except for randomly calling him the French "frère" only once. What...
And then, I disliked the romance/sex immensely. Alan "falls in love" with Robin's betrothed, Lady Marie-Anne, even though we never see them interact or speak to each other. It seemed so silly to me. And the entire thing with Kat, the town whore who Alan sleeps with twice, annoyed me.
A pagan ritual in the middle seemed not to mesh with the rest of the story, since even though it was vividly described, was never mentioned again. Paganism had nothing to do with the book anywhere except for in those paragraphs, though the book does focus a lot of attention on Robin's religious views, which are far from Christian.

I understand what the author wanted to do here - write a grittier, more realistic Robin Hood tale without glorification. I got a sense of that from the story, but I don't feel that Donald fleshed out his idea to the true promise it had, and it was a very good idea.

The ending didn't leave me with that satisfied sense of conclusion, and rather than tie things up in a good finish, it leaves things open for the sequel. But it wasn't a cliffhanger ending, thankfully, or else this book would have been knocked down a star.

An average book, but based on the writing, general premise, and steady action I would say that the sequel has potential to be better.

Review: A Dog with No Tail by Hamdi Abu Golayyel

Title: A Dog with No Tail: A Modern Arabic Novel
Author: Hamdi Abu Golayyel
Genre: Literature
Publisher: American University in Cairo Press
Published: 2009
Pages: 160

Rating: 3 out of 10

This book was nothing like what I was expecting, or rather hoping, it to be, which is probably part of the reason for my disliking it. However, I don't think that the low rating I am giving it was undeserved.

The book jumps clumsily from scene to scene, and I was having trouble seeing how all of these things were related. Sometimes the author would describe childhood, and then adulthood, and then junior high, and then... Well, something else. I was never entirely sure what he was trying to get across to the reader. The scattered lack of structure to this book was at times bewildering, and at times frustrating.

Another confusing thing was that I was unsure whether this was an autobiography or a work of fiction. Perhaps it is a bit of both? I would find it hard to believe that out of all the names the author could have chosen for a character, it had to be Hamdi (his own name). In fact, he even mentioned that the name is an unusual one.

I would not be surprised if this book was partly, if not entirely, a reflection of the author's own life. The only thing that I enjoyed about this book was how realistic it was. As a setting, I never caught even the slightest glimpse of a vivid modern day Egypt, which really really disappointed me.
However, the reader does see a simple, honest portrayal of the main character. He is not made any grander, any more exciting, or any better of a person that what is realistic.

Although it is great for Golayyel to write a heartfelt, human main character, I often wished that he hadn't.
First of all, I did not like the character. The book started off with him smoking a joint, which pretty much left little hope for me warming to him. The rest of the story didn't help, and I began to strongly dislike him fairly early in the story, after this paragraph:

"I... resolved to overcharge him: if he agreed, he agreed. If he didn't he could go to hell.
'A meter's seven pounds,' I said, 'and seven sevens make forty-seven.'
'You mean forty-nine. Plus a pound from me makes it a square fifty.'
I wavered between delight at his generosity and resentment at his generosity and regretted not charging him more."

(pg 20).

How selfish, unreasonable, and ungrateful!

Another reason that I wish that the author had not concentrated so hard on writing a completely realistic book was because it was just that - too realistic. Not that I especially mind delving into a character's head, but couldn't something have happened? Couldn't there have been some sort of problem that the plot revolved around?

Well, that would have been pretty hard to do, I suppose, because there was no plot. None whatsoever.

All of these things plus a few more annoyances, such as the use of slang ("cramping his style"), bad poetry, and chapter titles that tried so hard to be clever and failed (I Reach Out My Hand and Blush That My Hand Reaches Out), were enough to convince me to put this book into my discard pile.

Review: Sovay by Celia Rees

Title: To Catch a Pirate
Author: Jade Parker
Genre: YA / Historical Fiction
Publisher: Point
Published: 2007
Pages: 320

Rating - 2 out of 10

Within the first few pages, I knew that getting into this book had been a mistake. The book is set in 1783 England, and yet there is nothing about Sovay that would lead you to believe she is a product of her time period. She is entirely modern. The first scene is a hurried mess of man-bashing and casual robbery, and I couldn't help but roll my eyes. And things grow progressively worse from there.

The plot that Rees sets up in the beginning unravels pretty soon afterward, and the book then proceeds to wander aimlessly toward the last chapter. In attempts to distract you from the fact that the book is going nowhere, it throws supposed adventure and excitement in your face every few pages, as if to dare you to possibly be bored amidst all the highway robberies, secret identities, trifling make-out sessions, occult activities, traveling, prisons, and war. Also, introducing new characters every other chapter, only to have them disappear in a few more, seemed a popular trend here.

The result is a jarring, disjointed story that read as if three already bad books had just been crammed into one very bad one.

As I said above, Sovay was anything but a convincing portrayal of a young woman raised in 1700's England. I don't care if her father is "liberal" and "modern," she was an inaccurate heroine for her setting. Besides this, she is incredibly annoying. She is spoiled and impulsive, determined to get everything that she wants. Men fall all over her, and she strews behind countless broken hearts in her wake. Personally, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

Rees also has the annoying habit of introducing possible romances in the main character's path, and then letting them come to nothing. Sovay conveniently ends up meeting a brand new character and falling for him a few chapters before the book is over, as if Rees realized that she'd gotten to the end of her book with no dashing young man at the heroine's side. This book is sloppily put together, a long string of events that, while not boring in and of themselves, are just unrelated and pointless.

It's a shame, because Celia Rees is such a talented author, and can do far better. If you want to read a good book, read one of her earlier books, Pirates!
This one is just a waste of your time. 

Review: Pan by Knut Hamsun

Title: Pan
Author: Knut Hamsun
Genre: Literature / Classics
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published: 1894
Pages: 160

Rating: 7 out of 10

Norwegian author Knut Hamsun has created in Pan a whimsical, nostalgically dream-like story of strange, quaint characters set against a gorgeous forest background.

In 1853 Norway, outside the town of Sirilund, a young man named Glahn lives in a small hut with his faithful dog Aesop. He lives in harmony with nature, and his lonely life suits him perfectly until he meets a bewitching young girl named Edvarda.

I just loved, loved the descriptions of Glahn's forest. Much of the first third or so of the book is full of them - gorgeous prose and beautiful lines. I kept picturing the wood as something like a fairy-tale Rivendell from the Lord of the Rings movies.
I loved these descriptions so much, it elevated the book an entire star. Without them, the book could never have been the same.

Lately, entirely by chance, I have been reading a lot of those unique, "weird" types of books. J.G. Ballard, A Clockwork Orange, etc. And I think that I am coming to see that unique and inventive does not always equal an amazing book - at least not in my opinion, it seems.
Well, this wasn't quite amazing, but I really, really liked it. Fresh, original, and creative.

There were some strange parts, too, that gave this book a quirky side - some good, some bad.
I'm all for living off the land and respecting nature, but Glahn's connection with the forest got so deep sometimes that it was strange. He thinks of a rock as his friend, and at one point he concentrates very hard on a random twig fallen on the forest floor. He pities it so much for having broken off of its tree, he starts to get teary eyed. Wow.

If Glahn is strange, his lover Edvarda is more on the creepy, obsessive side. When first introduced, she seems to be quite shy, so it's a shock (to both the reader and to Glahn himself) when she brazenly kisses him in front of all her friends, and announces that she doesn't want to chase anyone else. Sneaking about outside people's houses at night seems to be a specialty of hers, and she does it more than once. The first time, she admits to Glahn that she was watching his house all night, saying "Yes, it was me. I was near you once more. I am so fond of you." How very creepy.
After a brief obsessive sort of relationship, Edvarda appears to cast Glahn aside, but we are never really sure. She is selfish and extremely jealous, as well as very unpredictable. She appears to have fallen for another man, but by the end I wasn't really sure. I don't think even she was.

Glahn's other lover, Eva, is a good contrast to Edvarda. The similarity in their names convinced me that the author wrote the two women to be separate versions of each other. Like their names, Eva is simpler and more "normal" than Edvarda.

*Spoilers in this paragraph* I absolutely hated that Glahn would shoot Aesop! It was so pointless and cruel, and all just to prove a point to Edvarda! I hated him after that.

All in all, I would probably try Hamsun again even though I disliked this book. I really was very impressed with his enchanting descriptions of the woodlands. Before Hamsun became a successful writer, he led a humble life as a farmer, and you can tell that he knows about the beauty of nature. Lucky for him - it really made the book for me.

Review: Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

Title: Falling Angels
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Plume
Published: 2002
Pages: 336

Rating - 9 out of 10

I absolutely loved Girl with a Pearl Earring, so I finally decided to read this one, now that it had sat on my shelf for a few years untouched. To think that such a book had been in my possession unread for so long!

"Falling Angels" is the story of two families in Victorian England, who live next door to each other. Both rivalry and friendship are involved in the Coleman and the Waterhouse's delicately strained relationship, and the reader watches the members of the families change and grow up over the years.

I loved how Chevalier wrote from different character's points of view, even occasionally through the voices of more minor characters. It really filled out the story and made the people and scenes of her book come alive.
And, the book seemed to wander along with the carefree ease of two of its main characters - silly, sheltered girls. Not much happened. Mrs. Waterhouse worries about Mrs. Coleman's home decor being superior to hers, a feisty in-law tries to take over care of the household, two young girls develop a friendship. Not the most riveting of events.
But about halfway through, I was suddenly unable to put the book down. I had fallen in love with the characters, and felt as if they were my longtime friends. This is a story of people who grow to feel wholly real. A story of life (and death), and a group of people trying to make their way through the two.

I found the slightly Gothic feel to this book a curious, memorable aspect. The book opens with Queen Victoria's death, and ends with King Edward's. A prominent scene is the graveyard. Instead of playing tea parties and doll houses, the two young girls in this book (Livy and Maude) play there daily. Their best friend is a young gravedigger, and instead of looking through books of ponies and kittens, they enjoy perusing tombstones.
I loved the character development of Maude's mother, Kitty Coleman. We see her introduced as a lively, beautiful young woman and slide into selfishness and neglect of her daughter, though for a good cause - the Suffragist Movement, which provides the author with a complex, fine lined sub-plot that she pulls off flawlessly.
Even more minor characters, such as the cook, or Maude's snooty grandmother, are realistic and memorable.
I love how all of the characters in this book came to life.

As much as I loved Girl with a Pearl Earring, this one surpasses it easily. What a beautiful, gracefully powerful book.

Review: Rainwater by Sandra Brown

Title: Rainwater
Author: Sandra Brown
Genre: Historical Fiction / Drama
Publisher: Gallery Books
Published: 2009
Pages: 272

Rating: 2 out of 10

In Texas during the Great Depression, a new boarder comes to stay at young single-mother Ella Barron's boarding house. His name is David Rainwater, and he has a tragic secret - he is terminally ill and has only a few more months to live. In addition to becoming well liked and respected both in town and amongst the other boarders, David begins to work with Ella's autistic young son Solly.

This book was obviously written to be a heartwarming, sentimental story that plays on the reader's emotions.
I normally dislike overly sappy books like this, and I refuse to touch another Nicholas Sparks for that very reason. This one is much the same.

I had to laugh at the conversation in this book, particularly between the two most prominent characters, Ella and David. At first I didn't notice anything amiss, save that they tended to speak shortly and to-the-point. But after awhile, I noticed that everything they said seemed to go along these all too similar lines: someone is praised, and they reject it, and the other person rejects that, and so on until they just give up.
Here is a (made up) example:
Ella - You are so good to help me wash the dishes.
David - No I'm not.
Ella - Yes, you are good to do it.
David - It's no big deal, actually, so it doesn't even matter.
Ella - It matters to me.
David - I'm doing this for myself. I needed something to do. So it isn't a favor, I'm not a good guy, okay?!
Ella - You are such a good guy.
David - *silence*
This is not an actual conversation, but seriously, it isn't even that big of an exaggeration. And you find this exact same structure to whatever they say all through the book. Once I noticed it one time, I noticed it on every page the characters were together.

A major plot point to this book is about the government helping farming families by culling some of their cattle. Apparently, farmers herds were growing too large, and they couldn't afford to feed and care for how many animals they had. They tried to sell their livestock, but there were no buyers, and so their cattle were starving and proving useless for meat selling.
To help, the government stepped in and said they would buy a certain percentage of the farmer's cattle, and kill them (as they didn't exactly want to start a Presidential cattle herd). It makes sense, and it seemed logical.
However, this book very heavily paints it as a bad thing. It is portrayed as government help gone wrong. But however much Brown kept telling us how the 'bad' government was coming to cruelly shoot down the poor animals, I just didn't see it this way. They weren't just sweeping in and murdering family pets, they were buying virtually value-less property and making a stronger herd for these farmers. It makes sense.
Here, the farmers get a call from the government to set up a day to come by. (Notice that these people set up a day, completely willingly, with the government. No force, no unexpected running in and shooting everyone down). Then, they do the necessary deed and leave. But for some reason, all of these farmers feel the need to stand on their front porches, on the verge of tears, and watch the cows be shot, with their own children and wives as well. One man takes out a gun. Another man tells us pitifully about how a calf was shot but not killed, and just laid there for hours bleeding and in pain. In other words, they wallow in self pity for a thing that they themselves arranged.
The only negative aspect of the entire set-up is that a local troublemaker drops in on many of these government dealings, with his mind made up to stir up mischief. But he isn't a part of the government.
I was hoping that the author would provide a historical note at the end, perhaps explaining why exactly she had such an unexplained, ominous view of the government aid, but there was not. Not surprising, as this is a bestseller, after all, and was handcrafted to be one.

Another thing I found very off about this story was the element of romance. It was sweet, but David Rainwater is painted as such an honorable, self-sacrificial, good man, that it didn't seem to fit. He is certainly not selfish. He is, in fact, perfect to a fault. He knows that he is terminally ill, and will soon die. But even so, he leads Ella into developing feelings for him, and the two fall in love. He is the one to encourage this in the first place, when he says about the ending of A Farewell to Arms, that however sad he knew the ending was going to be, he would never have deprived himself of the beauty of the story. He then asks Ella "Would you?"
Not once does David express guilt at cultivating a relationship with Ella, or try to push her away. It just seemed so out of character.

I try to give at least one good point about even my most hated books... Well, I suppose that I occasionally did like the homey, quaint atmosphere that this book imparted. It was rustic and sweet-tea sweet.

An average book. If you like Nicholas Sparks or other such sappy things and don't mind amateur writing, you'll enjoy this book. But if you're searching for literature, look elsewhere.

Review: The Trespass by Barbara Ewing

Title: The Trespass
Author: Barbara Ewing
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Published: 2003
Pages: 416

Rating: 5 out of 10

A cholera epidemic is sweeping over 1849 London, and though the scientific cause remains mostly a mystery, there are many who are blaming the contaminated water supply. The wealthy owner of the water company, Sir Charles Cooper, meanwhile sends his favorite daughter, the beautiful Harriet, away to the country while her less favored sister Mary stays behind in the disease-ridden city. Harriet misses her older sister fiercely, but cannot bear the thought of returning to her father's house. There is a dark secret there that she cannot speak of to anyone. When Mary is struck by the cholera, Harriet must take matters into her own hands as her father's nightly visits become more frequent, and makes a daring plan to escape to the other end of the world.

I was interested to learn about the colonization of New Zealand, which is something that I haven't come across in fiction before.
I also loved the brooding atmosphere to this book, though it isn't quite as Gothic and chilly as the cover suggested.

I liked the plot's main points, but it all seemed quite untidy. The element of the putrid water supply for London being a carrier of sickness, while the wealthy water company owner sits back and does nothing, seemed a good little background point. It is focused on heavily in the first few pages, and then forgotten save for one character's comment about it later on.
In the beginning of the book, Harriet is sent away to her aunt and uncle's house in the country, in order to be safe from London's sickness. I suppose the book could be split into thirds - Harriet's time in the country, her time back at home, and her time in New Zealand. Her time in the country seemed pretty irrelevant, though. It introduced us to quite a lot of characters, who seemed poised to become major personalities in the book, and who Harriet becomes quite fond of. However, once she leaves, all but one disappear from the story completely. Also, I wondered a bit at Harriet's abusive father sending her away. Wouldn't it be more plausible that he would selfishly keep her in London for his own sake?

Harriet's sexually abusive father never came across to me as quite the villain that he should have. I expected a tension and a darkness to it all, but I never felt at all that he was evil, more just a half-hearted, weak attempt at "bad." And since the author made Harriet decide never to speak or think of these incidents, they have no impact on the reader except for what we can imagine to ourselves. Harriet's day-time interactions with her father are formal and stiff, but far from ominous. Her terrible night-time ones are never actually witnessed, because her father gives her laudanum so that she is never awake while he is there.
On one hand, this is YA Fiction, and explicit sex scenes of such a dark nature probably aren't necessary for the age group. But on the other hand, much could have been done with Harriet's emotions, and it doesn't seem right that we never get to see into her head about how she truly feels and is affected by this abuse.

Mary's death also seemed a bit hurried to me, though I am pretty sure that Ewing was simply trying to let the reader feel some of the shock that Harriet was. Anyhow, Harriet's reaction to her sister's passing away came across as genuine.

This book is alright. There were plenty of things that could have been tidied up, but 5 stars (out of 10) for a historical topic I've never read about before, a dark undertone, and quick pacing.

Review: Lady of Monkton by Elizabeth Byrd

Title: Lady of Monkton
Author: Elizabeth Byrd
Publisher: MacMillan
Published: 1975
Pages: 224

Rating: 2 out of 10 stars

In 1460 Scotland, young Catherine Grandison is married off by proxy to a man whom she has never seen. She has no idea if he is young or old, cruel or kind, or anything else about him.
After becoming the new lady of his estate, Monkton, she does her best to adjust to her life there while waiting for his return home.
In the months she spends waiting to meet her mysterious husband, Catherine befriends a strange man who professes to be a doctor, experiences the Plague, makes friends and enemies, and finds herself beginning a love affair with a priest, Symon.

I picked this book out of a trash bin, and read it the next day. Though I certainly believe that no book deserves to be thrown away, I admit that I can't blame whoever put it there.

This book was horridly written, and I am sorry that I wasted an hour on it.

Every character is flat and lifeless, either seeming stupid and unpredictable or seeming like nothing at all - just a textbook person who is there because they must be, nothing more.

The heroine Catherine was my least favorite. What little character the author did manage to breathe into her was a bad one. She shows little concern over the flurry of events that take place within two paragraphs of beginning the book. Her father dies, she is placed into an arranged marriage, she is taken away from her home and placed in a new one, and married. It is a lot, to be sure, but Catherine seems not to mind. She never shows the slightest grief over any of this, not even her father's death. The only worry she has is that her new husband, Roger, may be ugly, or very old.
She is a very stupid girl who falls in love with a selfish, conniving man. Yes, her naivety may excuse her a bit, but she shows herself through out the affair to be weak willed and pathetic.
Also, I found it ridiculous that she "loves" three different men in this book. Symon gets the majority of it, but at the end, she loves another man, and then within a few pages, she loves someone else.

The character of Symon could have been interesting. He is a priest who preys upon Catherine's loneliness and innocence and persuades her to sleep with him again and again. It is obvious what his trick is, but we never see any of his character. He simply doesn't seem to be there, it is just words.

The character of Mistress Adam was built up as if she is going to be the villain. It is hinted that she may be a witch, or that she murdered Douglas's first wife, or that she secretly loves Douglas and wants him for herself. Many things are hinted at, but they never become anything at all. She simply disappears toward the end of the story, never having done anything at all.

This makes the book void of any conflict or villains. I was incredulous at the build-up of Mistress Adam, followed by her being tossed aside.
It was as if you know the entire book that some dangerous storm is approaching, closer, closer, closer...
And then!
It's gone. Oh, it was never coming at all. Sorry. Tricked you!

Why on earth the author made the writing decisions she did, I cannot comprehend. Would it have been so hard to at least write a scene where Mistress Adam threatens Catherine in any way? Professes twisted love for Douglas? Anything?
But alas, nothing of the sort.

Even when the Plague strikes Monkton, a few pages lightly mentioned it, but it never comes to anything.
It was as if the author was too afraid to ever let anything bad happen to her characters, or anything even close to it.

The only conflicts in this book were these:
- Robert may not be handsome. Oh my, just imagine!
- Someone may find out that Catherine has a lover, and Symon may not even love her.

The second could have at least been made into some tragic love story, I suppose, but it was simply too badly written to be inspiring or interesting.

And lastly, what was this with Michael Scot being a time traveler? Apparently he has lived for thousands of years, and has met kings and queens throughout the ages, and is now in Monkton. There was absolutely NO POINT to add this sci-fi element into historical fiction! Besides him, there is nothing fantastical to the story. And his being a "time traveler" did not even affect the plot. If he had simply been a wise, traveling healer or perhaps a former royal physician in exile, it would have worked out the same way.
I am thinking up these possibilities off the top of my head. And yet nothing of the sort ever occurred to the author.

What a waste of a book!

Review: Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Title: Lady Audley's Secret
Author: Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Genre: Classics / Mystery
First published: 1862
Pages: 496

Rating: 7 out of 10

For some reason, I wasn't expecting much out of this classic novel, and it sat on my shelves for more than just a few months. However, once I started reading, I couldn't put Lady Audley's Secret down.

A beautiful young woman named Lucy has recently married Sir Michael Audley, a rich older man, and comes to stay at the prestigious Audley Court Manor. Sir Audley's daughter is jealous of her new rival, but everyone else seems fascinated and delighted at the new little mistress.
But when Sir Michael's nephew Robert and his friend George Talboys come to stay, strange things begin to happen.
Talboys mysteriously disappears one day, and no one seems to have the slightest idea where he has gone.
Robert sets out to find him, but the trail that the mystery leads him down becomes increasingly darker and shocking.

Written in 1862, this book was much more lightly written and easy to get through than other contemporary books of that time, such as the works of the Bronte sisters. I noticed this at once, and I found it very entertaining.

The characters of this book are quite well drawn, and it is, not surprisingly, Lady Audley who is most memorable. She is a perfectly beautiful and charming young woman who would have been, in her time, the ideal lady. That is, from an outsider's point of view. As the story progresses, we see that behind her mask of sweetness, she hides a much darker, terrible nature. Braddon gives us clues of this early on, which are not all that difficult to catch. For example, the unfinished painting of her, in which she is depicted as a "beautiful fiend." It seems that the artist who painted Lucy saw beyond her pretty smile and further into her true nature. It is also mentioned that Lucy does not like happy tunes, but rather "somber and melancholy" music. Despite being extremely interesting, however, I left the story still wanting to see a bit more into Lady Audley's darker side. She is not the main character, but rather the villain, so we do not spend so many scenes with her as the title may suggest. We are able to assume her malicious and twisted thoughts, because we learn of her actions. However, I never really 'felt' these crimes enough.

I loved the character of Robert Audley, who is a smooth and normally quite lazy barrister. He seemed arrogant and irritating in the beginning, and I couldn't help but picture him as an older Malfoy (from the Harry Potter books - their characters follow me no matter what I read!). However, by the end of the book, he had become a very likable character. If a book must have a main character, it would certainly be Robert, and most of the book follows his actions as he searches for his friend. His relentless loyalty to George Talboys was admirable, and the manner in which he deals with his discoveries is thoughtful to his uncle while still seeking justice.

The pacing of this book was well done and made it easy to continue reading. Short chapters were normally left off in cliff-hangers, since the story was first published in serial form.

I loved the chilly Gothic elements to this book, described just as Gothic passages should be - dark, foreboding, mysterious, with just a touch of strange beauty.
The descriptions of the Audley manor were my favorite, and I really got a sense of the setting. What better house for this mystery than a very old, oddly built mansion with secret passageways?

If you are one of those people who loves trying to figure out the outcome of a mystery before the detective does - look no further. You will definitely be able to quickly realize the culprit here, as the author makes it quite obvious.
However, for this particular story, it worked, and never affected my interest in the plot.
Though it is obvious who is responsible for George's disappearance, and why, we are still left wondering about how.
In a way, knowing before Robert does makes the story even more engaging. I felt as if I had seen the end of a movie and now decided to watch the rest of it. I knew what would happen, but I wanted to see how the characters would make the discovery.

This book certainly exceeded my expectations, and I am looking forward to discovering more of Braddon's work.