Comfort Reading: An unplanned review

So much for one book per week. My ambitious new year’s resolution hadn’t counted on the combination of a stomach flu + packing up my entire house + another bleepin’ stomach flu. I stressed over missing the first week, then just decided to let go. I will make up for it with a few double-review weeks. I promise. (not to mention the fact that two of my previous reviews have been for trilogies. I knew I should have banked those reviews for unexpected downtime!)

But let’s move on, to a review of a trilogy of books I did not expect to include here. Part of the stress involved in not feeling well while trying to coordinate a move and a major renovation meant that even when I did have downtime, I did not want to read. Correction: I didn’t want to read anything in my current to-be-read pile. I am halfway through Moby Dick, and Alexander MacLeod’s “Light Lifting.” But couldn’t pick up either.

Saturday night, exhausted and cranky, I decided it was time for a comfort read, and I took myself to the top shelf of the bookcase in the spare room, where I keep all the books I like to go back to in times of stress. My choice that night: Emily of New Moon – which of course led to reading Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest.

Author: L.M. Montgomery
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Date: 1923/1925/1927
ISBN-10: 0770427715
ISBN-13: 978-0770427719

Now, if you aren’t an L.M. Montgomery fan, based solely on an overexposure to Anne Shirley (who I adore, but I can still understand the sentiment) don’t be quick to judge Emily. Any fan of Montgomery’s work I talk to will eventually admit that Emily is her most interesting heroine, and I would argue that this trilogy is her most well-written series.

Emily is an orphan, living a beautiful PEI farmhouse house with two older women (and an elder cousin as well). She longs to be a famous writer. But her similarity to Anne ends there. Emily is so much more real. She knows herself better. She knows her heart better.  She does not compromise. She makes some very bad choices and actually has to live with the consequences (everything in the Anne books just turns out so peachy-keen all the time).

And the secondary characters are fantastic. Mr. Carpenter, the alcoholic schoolteacher, prone to abusive tirades but loved nonetheless. Dean Priest, lame, hunchbacked and bitter – borderline pedophilic (is that a word?). There are references and descriptions of death and scandal that would never have been touched in Avonlea – even a shocking reference to domestic violence that I had never picked up on until this most recent read-through.

“People were never right in saying I was Anne. But in some respects, they will be right if they write me down as Emily.” ~ L.M. Montgomery

The Emily books will take you away to the magical innocent world that only Montgomery can create, but then shake you up every now and then, as if to remind you that Montgomery’s life was no picnic. Montgomery was copying her early journals while writing Emily, and the events of her own life strongly influenced the plot.

In summary – completely worth reading, even if you aren’t an Anne Shirley fan. There’s a definite touch of that style, but a far more readable series.

Note: There is an Emily of New Moon TV series. I am not a fan.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Paperback: 406 pages

Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 29, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1439169012

ISBN-13: 978-1439169018

I might as well admit before I start that I have a bit of a thing for cemeteries. If that makes me weird, well it isn’t the only thing that does. There was a small cemetery just around the bend from the house I grew up in, and as a child I would often wander over to look around, read the headstones, and wonder about the people lying below while I munched on the blueberries growing above. I wasn’t living in Halifax long before I discovered the magic that is the Old Burying Ground, and have spent many an afternoon strolling through.

As such, it should be no surprise that I was so taken in by a book that centres in and near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery. (Side note: This past fall my aunt Alice loaned me the non-fiction book  Necropolis: London and Its Dead and thus I was  primed on the history and significance of London’s burial grounds. You never know when such knowledge might come in handy.)

Her Fearful Symmetry begins with the death of Elspeth Noblin. Elspeth has been estranged from her twin sister Edie for more than 20 years, and has no other family living. She leaves her flat (with its view of and back entrance to Highgate Cemetery), her money and all of her belongings to the twin daughters of her twin sister – with one caveat: they must live in the flat together for one year before they can inherit it, and their parents may not set foot in the flat during this time.

The 21-year-old but maddeningly infantile twins, Julie and Valentina, move from Chicago to London to take over the flat, and while there meet and befriend their aunt’s former lover and downstairs neighbour, Robert and their  obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic upstairs neighbour Martin. Oh, and Aunt Elspeth, who though dead is still inhabiting her old flat.

A bit nutty? Perhaps. But fascinating. The twins interactions with the new city, their new friends, their aunt and each other reveal much about themselves, their upbringing and the trouble between their mother and her sister. In fact, it was the relationship between both sets of sisters that most fascinated me. There was co-dependence and manipulation, but also a deep attachment, love and life-long connection.

I don’t have a twin, but I do have a sister only a year older than me, who I went through twelve years of school with, shared a room, shared the same group of friends, shared apartments till I was twenty (and still share my house whenever D is away, which is often). We share a name for Pete’s sake – same name, two different languages. On top of this, I have a younger sister, my mom had NINE sisters and my dad has six.  So needless to say, the interaction of sisters in fiction and film is of great interest to me, and I get very annoyed when it is done poorly. This was done well. Which is not to say they belong in an after-school special, or were at all like Tash & I. They were rather awful really. But it was still so believable.

If there was anything about the novel I didn’t like it was the development Elspeth’s character. Or the lack of development. By the end of the book you come to realize she is cruel and manipulating, but there is no gradual revelation of this. She is presented as quiet and studious in the beginning, and then with one comment, Robert mentions her controlling nature, and it seems everything she does from that point onward is from a completely different character.

Still, I really enjoyed the novel. It gave me chills. It made me sad. It made me angry. It flirted with cliché a few times, but always pulled up in time. The characters were hopelessly and endearingly flawed, each in their own way. It played with the paranormal and our belief of how death works – but only a little. And perhaps the best part: it was completely different from her last novel, which I also loved, The Time Traveller’s Wife. I want to recommend it to everyone – well I do recommend it to everyone – but I feel I need to tell you that no one else I have talked to who read it or tried to read it has enjoyed it. Might just be more evidence for my strange literary tastes.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Feb 10 2009)

ISBN-10: 0385665822

ISBN-13: 978-0385665827

Late in January, I was perusing the “upcoming releases” on a major book-selling website, and came across the title A Red Herring Without Mustard, a murder mystery with an 11-year old detective. It just had to be looked into. I quickly discovered this was actually the third book in a series about the incorrigible Flavia DeLuce.

I immediately noted the author’s name and the title of the other books, and added them to my “to-be-read” list. The next day, I get an invite to the February book club meeting which read:

The Sweetness at The Bottom of the Pie

So, everyone was wishing there was a lighter read on the list, and I happened to have this one in my purse. Gina called quorum and so here we are. The opening drew me in and I am quite enjoying this little murder mystery so far…

I missed book club because of a family event, and still they picked the one book I just decided I had to read. Serendipitous, no?

This was a fun book to read. Flavia is a perfect heroine. I was always wondering what she was going to do next. There has not been such a precocious young girl in fiction since Anne Shirley. I cheered for her, I felt for her, I wished she would stop getting herself into such ridiculous situations. But I did love reading about her.

While the amusing thoughts and deductions of the heroine kept me reading, I just didn’t get into the story, or the style. It is written about an 11-year-old, but it is not a children’s, or even young adult book. The grammar and vocabulary didn’t seem to match the plot. Also, the family relationships were just not believable. I know he was going for overly exaggerated discord between the sisters, and the stereotypical emotionally distant father, but they were all so cold, it was hard to root for anyone.

I am intrigued enough by Flavia, and glimpses into her father’s character that I will likely read more. I’ve been trying to get back into mystery reads, which I used to love, and maybe this is the series I need to get that started.

Review: The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier

In response to my review of the Hunger Games Trilogy, there were several recommendations for continued reading. “If you liked this, you will love…”

Already having a considerably long “to be read” list, it generally takes me ages to get around to a recommended book, and I often forget about it before I get a chance to read it. But when my aunt Esther recommended I try the Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier, and her recommendation was quickly seconded by her daughter, I was intrigued. Esther has recommended many books to me over the years (including one of my top 5 favourites, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Prodigal Summer) and I think it is safe to say her taste is as close to mine as anyone else I know.

 

Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Tor Books (April 18 2000)

ISBN-10: 031284879X

ISBN-13: 978-0312848798

 

 

Book One is Daughter of the Forest – a name that sounded very familiar, and with good reason. There was a copy on the bookshelf in my spare room. One of many books sent my way by helpful family and friends many years ago, when I was home sick or hospitalized. There are still a few kicking around that for one reason or another, I hadn’t read, yet wasn’t ready to clear off the shelf. I know each will have its day.

Daughter of the Forest is an eerily familiar tale, based loosely on the story of The Six Swans (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, also retold by Hans Christian Andersen and others). I do love the weaving of traditional stories into new works, and this was done so well I almost didn’t realize I had read the tale before.

Sorcha, youngest child and only daughter of the Sevenwaters family, watches her brothers be turned into swans by their evil stepmother, and is cursed herself. She must live in complete silence, while she spins and weaves six shirts from stinging nettles in order to break the curse on her brothers.  Add to this a long-standing family feud fought in both Ireland and Britain, and you’ve got a fantastic fantasy novel. The bond between the siblings, and their devotion to one another as they endure one hardship after another was heartbreaking.

 

Hardcover: 462 pages

Publisher: Tor Books (May 1 2001)

ISBN-10: 0312848803

ISBN-13: 978-0312848804

 

 

Book Two, Son of the Shadows, takes place a generation later, as Sorcha’s daughters continue to shape the family’s destiny. Eldest daughter Niamh is sent away to a strategic marriage with an important but cruel ally, and cannot forgive her family for the choice they made for her. Meanwhile, younger daughter Liadan is kidnapped by the gang of her family’s enemy, The Painted Man, and in the process learns about the darker consequences of the choices her parents made 20 years earlier.

 

Hardcover: 528 pages

Publisher: Tor Books (Mar 5 2002)

ISBN-10: 0312848811

ISBN-13: 978-0312848811

 

 

In the final* novel, Child of the Prophecy, Liadan’s son is identified as the man the Sevenwaters family has been waiting for. The one who will finally win back the sacred lands the family was entrusted to guard. War is only months away, and with the Child of the Prophecy on their side, Sevenwaters cannot lose. What they don’t know, is that after fleeing her marriage many years ago, Niamh also had a daughter, and her daughter has an important role to play before the saga is over.

I am of two minds about fantasy novels. I love a good one, and can disappear for days at a time when one has caught my attention. But there is just so much bad fantasy out there, that I have a hard time identifying myself as a fan of the genre, which inevitably leads to people listing book after book that I didn’t like enough to get past the first few chapters (or worse, the back cover). Recommendations from trusted sources are necessary for this genre! Thank you Esther & Allison, I thoroughly enjoyed the Sevenwaters books, and look forward to more.

* While originally written as a trilogy, two more books have been added: Seer of Sevenwaters, and Heir of Sevenwaters. I will be checking these out soon, and hope they are as good as the earlier stories.

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Publisher: Faber and Faber (Mar 3 2005)
Pages: 272
ISBN-10: 0571224113
ISBN-13: 978-0571224111

Never Let Me Go is set in England in the late 1990s and is narrated by Kathy. Kathy has been working as a carer for more than 11 years, an unusually long time, but her term will be ending soon.

Kathy looks after organ donors, and her patients do exceptionally well, for repeat donors. Yes, repeat donors. The first clue that there is something odd about the book comes early on, when you realize Kathy’s patients are only allowed to stop donating when they ‘complete,’ which the reader soon begins to realize means ‘die.’

Because of her success as a carer, Kathy has been allowed to choose some of the patients she cares for and has chosen to work with old friends Tommy and Ruth. This leads to stories from her days at Hailsham. Hailsham at first appears a prestigious boarding school, but again it becomes apparent things aren’t normal here either. None of the students seem to have parents. Teachers are referred to as ‘guardians.’ Students know almost nothing about the outside world.

As Kathy reminisces about her days as a student and deals with the present, it becomes chillingly clear what status she, Tommy and Ruth hold in society and exactly what kind of school Hailsham was.

I had heard this book was a bit slow, but I was gripped from the first few paragraphs. I do have a but of a love affair with dystopian fiction, so it was perhaps a given that I would enjoy the book, but I didn’t expect to love it the way I did. A fantastic story. Well told. If I gave stars, this would get five of them.

When I finished the novel I rushed out to rent the new film, staring Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightly and Andrew Garfield. Also very good, but lacks a lot of the back story. Read the novel first.

Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Category: Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Published Date: Sept. 14, 2008, Sept. 1 2009, Aug. 24, 2010

ISBN-10: 0439023483, 0439023491, 0439023513

ISBN-13: 978-0439023481, 978-0439023498, 978-0439023511

I guess technically, this is three books this week, not one, but I have a habit of looking at a series as one book, in parts.

Having finished a few long and/or dark books in the last few weeks, and starting to read Moby Dick – very long and a more difficult read, I was looking for something easy. My sister-in-law had been talking up this series when I chatted with her over Christmas, so last Thursday I bought the e-book version at lunch. Before I got back to work at 1:30 I had read 37% of it. It was exactly the addictive, easy-but-not-simple read I was looking for.

The Hunger Games is a young-adult science fiction dystopian trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. Our heroine is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives with her mother and sister in District 12 of the country of Panem – all that remains of what we now call North America. The 12 districts of Panem are controlled by a powerful government located in the central city called simply The Capitol. The Hunger Games of the title are an annual televised reality-show type event where one boy and one girl from each district are chosen to fight to the death, in a gruesome reminder that The Capitol holds the power, and not even children are beyond their reach. (This is in retaliation for an uprising by the districts, many decades earlier.)

When her 12-year-old sister is chosen to represent District 12, Katniss volunteers to replace her, and is sent off to The Capitol to compete, along with District 12’s other champion, Peeta Mellark. They are not friends, but many years earlier, Peeta saved the lives of Katniss and her family with a gift of food. So Peeta and Katniss struggle to trust and help each other survive the Games, with the knowledge that only one can survive in the end, which may mean killing one another before it is over.

That’s only the beginning of the first book – and I can’t tell you much more without spoiling it. Of course, with three books you can assume our heroine survives. Does she ever. Katniss is one of the most inspiring female characters I have read in young adult fiction. Collins has created an amazingly strong feminine character. She’s smart. She’s resourceful. She fights to the death. Even the typical love-triangle plot doesn’t turn her into a confused young girl stereotype. She is far from perfect, and could stand to put a little more trust in her instincts and in her friends, but given her life history it is not surprising that she doesn’t.

Simply put, these books were amazing. They took the dark themes of war, survival, tyranny and death and yet played out a beautiful story of friendship, loyalty and perseverance. Despite being written for a young audience, no theme was off-limits – except perhaps sex. Characters were remarkably chaste, despite all the kissing going on. (I remember reading books where teens had sex, or at least some serious making out and temptation. Is that not OK anymore? Particularly when compared to how realistic the rest of the interactions were.)

What struck me the most was the attitude towards war and killing. With the exception of a few characters, all struggle with the realities of taking another life. Whether it happened during the Games or later during the uprising, characters feel the killing, and deal with what can only be symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Violence is not glossed-over. It is not simplified. Characters deal with guilt and loss in very real ways. Also, with the exception of a few characters who are clearly meant to personify good and evil, all characters have a depth not usually seen in this genre. They question their own motivations. They change their opinions on matters, and change them again. They learn and grow based on what is happening around them.

If I can criticise anything it would be that by the end of book three I was beginning to be overwhelmed by just how many bad things are happening. I almost feel the story could have ended 2-3 chapters sooner, that some of the final battles and catastrophes were not necessary. I don’t know which I would choose to cut, only that I found myself wondering if it was ever going to end. And then it did, and I was devastated, because the story was so good I wanted it to continue.

Some of the fault there may also be mine. I read all three books in three days. I just couldn’t stop reading. Perhaps if I had paced myself better, if I’d had to wait for the release of the 3rd book, the ending would have seemed more fitting. Regardless, all three books are well worth the read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet

Paperback: 1008 pages

Publisher: Signet, June 29, 2010 (Originally published by William Morrow, New York in 1989)

ISBN-10: 045123281X

ISBN-13: 978-0451232816

I read this book last spring, on a whim. Honestly, there was a “buy three, get one free” sale, and I was buying three… so I searched the shop for something that looked interesting, that I may not have otherwise bought.

This is a hard review to write, as my feelings are mixed. I loved the story and sped through the 1000+ pages in less than a week. I like historical fiction, particularly stories that span generations like this. The building of the church fascinated me. It was a great idea… but just not a great book. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but let me try to explain.

I found it very poorly written. The characters were thin and one-dimensional: either all-good, or all-evil. The plot needed work. And I just couldn’t shake the idea that Follet really didn’t understand the 12th century. Sure he may have done his research and had extensive background knowledge, but he just didn’t seem to “get it.” It was like reading about modern-day characters, wearing old-fashioned clothes (seriously, how many times did you need to specify he was wearing a tunic?) and lacking in technology. They just would not have spoken and interacted the same way in that time.

Also, and forgive me if I sound like a prude because I am not, but the book was unnecessarily violent, particularly in its treatment of women. There was just no need for so many vivid, detailed descriptions of violent rape. Describe one to get your “this guy is evil” point across, and let us use our imagination on the rest. Please.

That said, would I recommend the book? Yes – but with a caveat. It is not great literature. Not all books are. If you enjoy historical fiction, and like a good story, it’s the book for you. Otherwise, pass.

Or, check out the mini-series playing this month on CBC. I did not find out about this until I’d already missed two episodes, but thanks to the CBC website, I can catch up, and so can you. I would typically suggest you read the book first, as a movie always lacks the depth of the novel, but as depth is what I found this novel lacking, I don’t expect it to be an issue.