The Valley of the Horses by Jean M Auel

Banished by the Clan, Ayla strikes out on her own, looking to find a mate of her own kind, one of “the Others” (Cro-Magnon man) to accept her into his family. When still alone after months of travel, Ayla settles in a cave near the river, thus beginning an astonishing series of first discoveries for mankind: domesticating animals, riding horses, building a horse cart, starting fire with flint, end more. And when you think nothing can top her ingenuity, she discovers an extremely handsome and well endowed young man. Go Ayla.

Having enjoyed but not been blown away by Clan of the Cave Bear, I had high hopes for improvement with book 2 in the Earth’s Children  series. It started well. I was actually really enjoying the first half of the book. Yes, you are required to suspend belief somewhat, to think that Ayla is so smart that she discovers just about everything. But I could do that. It is supposed to be representative, to show the reader how early man may have discovered such technologies. You don’t have to take it literally.

Then there was Jondolar. It was clear with the double plot line that Ayla and Jondolar were bound to meet at some point, and while I wanted it to happen, I think my biggest problem was that I really didn’t like him much. Too perfect. Too arrogant yet annoyingly and unbelievably self-conscious.

And then there was the sex. I was briefly taken in by their mind-blowing sex. Briefly. There is such a thing as too mind-blowing. This was impossibly good, and poorly written at that. If I want a bodice-ripper, I know where to find one. Auel should have stuck with her strengths – meticulously researched historical fiction.

Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Crown (Nov 27 2001)
ISBN-10: 0609610988
ISBN-13: 978-0609610985

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Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Working as a governess to teach and raise the spoiled rich children of England’s upper class, Agnes Grey discovers what it means to be invisible. Unappreciated and unacknowledged by those she works for and among, she struggles to hold onto her morals and her sense of self.

Her father’s dreams and impractical business plans slowly lead her family to financial ruin, so at the age of nineteen, Agnes begs to be allowed to take a position as a governess and earn her own keep. Filled with dreams of inspiring young minds and earning the love and devotion of the children entrusted to her, she soon discovers that her lack of social status leads to a lonely and empty life among the higher class families who employ her.

The novel is highly autobiographical, and at least one incident was later admitted by Charlotte Brontë as taken directly from Anne’s experiences as a governess.

As a huge fan of the work of the other Brontë sisters, most notably Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had hoped another Brontë novel would prove as darkly gothic as the others – in this I was disappointed. Had I done any advance research, I may have discovered that Agnes Grey was described by the critic George Moore as having “all the qualities of Jane Austen.” I am not an Austen fan. I could have been warned.

While there is nothing specifically wrong with Agnes Grey, it is a classic example of the moralising Victorian novel, and as such while well written and interesting (enough that I read it on one sitting), it was not particularly exciting (I read it while flying, and had nothing else to distract me).

Paperback: 248 pages

First Published: Thomas Cautlby Newby, December 1847

Current Edition: Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN-10: 0192834789

ISBN-13: 978-0192834782

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

Helen Knightly is less shocked that she killed her mother than she is shocked to be calling her ex-husband to help her cover it up. Oh, it wasn’t planned, but it was done, so she calmly cleans her, strips her, and places her in the freezer  to “keep” while she seduces her best friend’s 30-year old son. And that’s all before you hit the 100 page mark, ladies and gentlemen.

You know, sometimes you read a book that presents the darkness within people in a realistic way, whether teaching an outright moral lesson or merely giving insight into why good people may sometimes do bad things? This is not one of those books. This is just all darkness.

I bought my copy years ago, shortly after it was published, having enjoyed The Lovely Bones very much (see: a dark story, but with some lightness to balance and make it palatable). Since then, it has sat on my shelf unread and ignored as school work, book club books and trendy reads were always picked first. I had not read a single review or talked to anyone else who had read it. I had no idea what I was getting into.

This should have been a better book. There was so much potential in the story. I read it in just two sittings because there was so much I wanted to know, and I was so sure it was in there somewhere. It was not. I am beyond disappointed.

There were beautiful lines and insights:

“She looked up at me and smiled. ‘Bitch,’ she said. The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip wire to the truth, as if they can see beneath the skin you hide in.”

And then there was absolute crap:

“This was not the first time I had been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.”

(WTF? IT has a face?)

We never understand Helen’s motivation. As the story unravels, rather than empathize, I found myself liking her less and less. Even sympathizing with the batty mother from time to time. (She was obviously mentally ill. Have you considered not hiding her from the world and maybe getting her some help?)

Best I can say about this one: I’m glad I finally read it.

Hardcover: 352 pages

Publisher: Picador  (October 16th 2007)

ISBN-10: 0330451324

ISBN-13:  9780330451321

Note: I don’t typically write negative reviews. They just don’t interest me. This book however was on my 2011 TBR Challenge list, and as such I had committed to reviewing it.