Monday, July 29, 2013

THE HOLY ROAD

Review of THE HOLY ROAD by GINN HALE
(second in THE RIFTER series, based on a review copy)

This is one of those books that had me eager with anticipation before I even started reading. Hale has become one of my favorite authors and, while surprises are great as well, it’s always a wonderful feeling starting a book with the certainty that you’ll love it.

Hale includes a useful summary at the beginning each section for those who need refreshing. Though it’s been a while, I found the characters and story memorable enough that I didn’t really need the paragraph-long reminders, but I appreciated them nonetheless.

For as much as the first half of the book, the story feels significantly slower than in THE SHATTERED GATES. While “slow” tends to have a negative connotation when describing a book, I certainly don’t mean it as a criticism here. Hale’s a gifted writer who makes her characters feel real and then makes me desperately care for them. The end result is that I care about everything, even smaller moments in their lives. I recall a point when I was reading THE SHATTERED GATES, a scene in which John, Laurie, and Bill are eating a meal, and suddenly I looked up from the book and thought, “How on earth am I this invested in a scene with characters sitting around eating and chatting?” The answer: because I care so much about these people. Not to imply that everything early in THE HOLY ROAD is as simplistic as mealtime, but John’s weariness feels almost tangible. He’s been in this other world for years, searching for a way home for years. In any battle, whether for your life, your love, your dream, etc. the results often come down to how hard you’re willing to work - whether you will do literally anything or whether you reach a point when you decide whatever you’re fighting for isn’t worth this much effort. John has immersed himself in a new life, an entire identity that feels like a fraud, all in effort of one day finding a way back to his world. At least for me, the fear that John’s reservoir of determination might finally be running dry and that he would ultimately give up his effort to return home propelled the first part of the book.

As in THE SHATTERED GATES, there’s a big switch halfway through the novel - to a different time and a slightly different cast. The pace jerks into high speed a little before that, with a devastating conclusion to the first part of the book, and then the tension stays taunt throughout the second part.

The magic confused me a little in the second part of the book. However, I’ve found Hale to be one of those authors who will reward my loyalty if I simply have faith. Every piece fits together at the right moment and I need to trust that she will show me the whole picture if only I make peace with only seeing jumbled snippets at the moment. I did eventually work through the element that confused me, though I still find it a bit of a mind bender. (Especially since Hale understates things rather than repeatedly explaining them with excruciating - and sometimes insulting - explicitness. I prefer subtly, but it can make the reader doubt their interpretations.) Nevertheless, I admire the unique magic system and how thoroughly she’s considered the implications. Once you grasp what’s going on, it raises so many interesting questions. Complicated, but worth it.

The book builds to an intense, high stakes climax and a brutally enthralling ending. I never predicated what slams into the characters and the reader from around the corner and the intensity with which I felt everything took me by surprise. Hale’s also one of the few authors who can write cliffhanger endings that don’t bug me. You can click here to read my full discussion post about my feelings on cliffhangers, but in short what usually distinguishes my love or hate reaction is how much information is being withheld. Hale’s cliffhangers tend to be more of the emotional variety. We know exactly what happened, but not what comes next yet or how the characters will cope. It’s only a cliffhanger if you care about the characters enough, not because of what the author isn’t telling you. Book three comes out in October and already I can’t wait!

Friday, July 26, 2013

TANIS RIDEOUT

 
Interview with TANIS RIDEOUT

Tanis Rideout is a poet and writer living and working in Toronto. In the fall of 2005 she released her first full-length book of poetry DELINEATION, exploring the lives and loves of comic book super-heroines, which was praised as a “tantalizing, harrowing read.” In 2006 she was named the Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario by the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and toured with the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie to draw attention to environmental justice issues on the lake. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous quarterlies and magazines and received grants from local and national arts councils.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Julian Barnes most recent book LEVELS OF LIFE – which was beautiful and painful. And I’m about to start one of Kate Atkinson’s mysteries. I’ve also got a number of research books on the go.

What first sparked your interest in writing? 

I always loved books, but it never really occurred to me that writing could be something I could do until sometime in university. I wrote terrible angst-y poems in high school, of course, but I think pretty much everyone did. 

One day in class I had this sudden visceral understanding that someone had written the book I was reading, which seems really obvious, but I don’t think I’d really thought much about it before. I decided to try writing myself.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love when something slots in to place, when you realise if you do something in particular it will align a bunch of your thoughts and ideas. When it’s going well – it’s an enjoyable place to be. And I love research quite a bit. If I could just research and not have to do anything with it I’d be quite happy.

What I like the least are the days that are full of self-doubt and questioning – when you’re so deep in to something you can’t see it anymore and the only choice is to keep stumbling through.

I’ve learned that’s just part of the process, but I don’t like it!

Tell us a little about your writing process.

I have to write a lot. I’m not much of a planner – so I write to figure out what I want to say, who my characters are, that kind of thing. I often write a great number of pages before I even figure out what the heck it is I want to do.

For the most part I try and write through a draft before I really start to muck around with it or show it to people, but sometimes that changes. 

Once I have a huge stack of paper then I try and make some sense of it and just keep going back over it, smoothing it out, shuffling it around until I can’t go any further. That’s when I need someone else to come in and give me their thoughts.

What are your passions?

I tend to be quite obsessive so I’ll grab on to different things at different times. I love travel and food. I love the water. 

I love story and narrative. I love arguing about all of those things.

And writing – probably over all.

What inspires you?

Other people inspire me – seeing my friends work hard and put books out. Really fantastic writing – if I get stuck writing wise I’ll grab something off the shelf and read until it kicks me back in to gear.

How was ABOVE ALL THINGS born?

Years ago I worked at an outdoor equipment store and one of my co-workers was obsessed with all things Everest. He would bring in videos to show in the store – documentaries, that kind of thing – and I was just stunned by them – I couldn’t understand why people would try and climb Everest. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on, which led me pretty quickly to the early expeditions and I just got swept up in the romance of it, and by George Mallory. I had to write about him to get him out of my head.

Did the book require a lot of research?

I did do a lot of research – when I started I didn’t know anything about climbing or Everest, especially in the 1920s. I read everything I could get my hands on at the library, online, in stores.
Eventually I was lucky enough to be able to go to England for a while and had access to personal letters between George and Ruth, and official documents from the expedition.

As I said – I love this part, though – it’s fun and it’s always surprising what you learn and how you can use it to colour a story.

Is it hard finding the right balance between fact and fiction?

I knew from the very beginning I wanted to tell a fictional version of this story. There are so many fantastic non-fiction works out there about Everest and about Mallory, there wasn’t anything I could add to that. I was interested in the types of characters who might be in these situations, I want to get at an emotional truth more than a factual one. For me story and believability were the most important things.

Did you enjoy writing either Ruth or George’s perspective more than the other?

It’s funny – there were times when I loved and times when I hated both sections. I think, in general I found Ruth more difficult to write. She was so much more constrained by time and place that finding a way to keep her story as compelling as George’s was quite a challenge.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

To read everything and to keep at it. There’s a lot of rejection – but keep writing, write to get better. Be critical of your own work – let other people read it and listen to what they have to say. You have to actively want to get better, so you can’t be too precious about your own work.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I just recently put out a book of poems called ARGUMENTS WITH THE LAKEabout Marilyn Bell’s historic swim across Lake Ontario.

Monday, July 22, 2013

RUN LIKE A GIRL


Review of RUN LIKE A GIRL: HOW STRONG WOMEN MAKE HAPPY LIVES by MINA SAMUELS
(review based on advance reading copy)

I’m still only recently discovering how much I enjoy reading nonfiction for leisure, so this one probably sat in my to-read pile for much longer than it should, despite strong suspicions that I would relish the subject matter. Let’s do the math: 1. It’s a book and I do love me some books, 2. It focuses on working out/fitness/athletics, another subject/pastime that’s very important to me, 3. It’s geared specifically to women and how physical strength can encourage and maintain emotional strength. In retrospect, I should have started reading this the very moment I received a copy. Indeed, once I finally began RUN LIKE A GIRL I related immediately and already adored the book before the end of chapter one.

As Samuels mentions, athletics have an innate benefit because your accomplishments and improvements can be easily measured. It’s easy for people, and women in particular, to dismiss their own feats, whether to themselves or other people. With working out it’s hard to overlook the steady increase in how far or fast you can run, how much you can lift, or how your form and skill has improved in a particular sport or activity.

When I reached the part about a woman whose mother often asks the question, “What’s the point?” and Samuels’ further speculation that this isn’t a question athletic men receive, I wished the author was sitting next to me so I could look up and exclaim, “EXACTLY!” or perhaps even give her a hug. For those starting to wonder about me specifically, I do tend to workout every day or near that (I hear something about rest days being good for you.) and it’s high on the list of what’s important to me. (Okay, books still win out, though.) I love running, yoga, weight lifting, and as of writing this review am doing my third round of a program called Insanity. People have frequently explained to me (usually other women) that if I want to be skinny I should just eat less. That all this working out is “unnecessary.” To which I respond as calmly as I can: “I don’t want to be skinny; I want to be fit.”

Did you know women’s salaries are still far lower than men’s - looking at the same jobs and ranks? Of course, you did. At least I hope so. I think of that as fairly common knowledge. However, did you know that psychological studies found that if a man asks for a raise and doesn’t get it he is more often than not still respected for taking the initiative to stand up for himself and assert his worth…whereas if a woman asks for a raise and doesn’t get it she is more often than not begrudged for even asking, resented for not appreciating what she has and not being a team player, etc. Here’s another one. Did you know that - as of this book’s publication in March 2011 - women still weren’t allowed in ski jumping in the Olympics? (In fact, only a few months after the book’s publication, the Olympic Committee finally voted to allow women ski jumpers in the upcoming 2014 program.) When Samuels lists the reasons cited for omitting women, it all sounds like far too familiar vague rubbish. Her theory is that since underweight or even anorexic men tend to dominate that sport, naturally smaller women actually have a chance of easily beating out the men and that’s something for which many people still aren’t ready. (See Samuels’ entire discussion about men who hate being “chicked” aka being beaten by a girl.)

So see those lovely, lengthy paragraphs above mentioning all sorts of fascinating topics for discussion? Yeah, that’s all in the first chapter. And I’m hardly listing everything!

Samuels peppers her book with personal stories and case histories and, while I think I still would have been intrigued by the pure facts, this approach certainly adds to her book’s appeal. It’s one thing to say I fit in with a certain study’s findings and quite another to read a quote from a specific women talking about her life and say I fit in with her.

When Samuels discusses how early experiences can shape a woman’s attitude towards athletics, the personal stories from individual women especially helped shape her point. Some women were discouraged from their eagerness to participate in physical activities while others had the benefit of supportive mentors. Looking back at my own experience, I’ve been lucky to have numerous amazing P.E. teachers and coaches. In fact, I often found myself confused about the evil P.E. teacher trope found in so many stories, whether television, movie, or book. In the fictional world, often when you say you can’t and the P.E. teacher insists you can, they’re just being mean and dense. However, in my experience whenever I said, “I can’t!” and my P.E. teacher or coach insisted,” You can!” turns out they were right - and the very fact that they believed I could do better even when I didn’t spurred me to try harder.

There’s some important advice in these pages as well, including a lengthy portion on something I need to hear again and again and not just in relation to athletic activities: don’t focus on what you didn’t do but on what you did. Samuels shares a story in which she completed a marathon but far from her desired time. She felt so discouraged that she refused to take the completion medal the volunteer tried to hand her. Later she realized that she had set her goal unrealistically high, which set herself up for failure and drained accomplishment from the admirable act of completing the marathon. She also later discusses the importance of measuring your accomplishments by yourself. Though this book focuses specifically on females in athletics the thesis is hardly, “So go out there and beat all the boys!” Don’t measure yourself by males nor by your most athletic female friends, your family or your workout buddy. In fact, this kind of behavior is often what discourages people, not just women, from any attempts to enter a certain athletic field. They look at professional athletes or their friend who has been running/doing yoga for decades and think, “I can’t do that.” Ask yourself: what’s an accomplishment for you?

Given that this is a book geared more towards women rather than athletics in general, there’s an entire chapter focused on the relationships between men and women and how they can help or harm women’s relationships with their favorite sports and workout activities. Lots of personal stories here, both from women talking about men who have been supportive and men who have, well, not. About fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, male friends, mentors, etc.

I found myself intrigued by the relatively brief mention of exercise bulimia. While I hadn’t heard the specific terminology before, being around a lot of gyms and fit-orientated people I’m familiar with the behavior. It’s when a goal of fitness becomes an unhealthy obsession. When working out is seen purely as a way to purge calories and the aim becomes not so much actual fitness but to work out as much as physically possible…and beyond.

Samuels made me change my mind about workout skirts, too. She admits to a time when she judged women who arrived at a marathon in a skirt. Skirts aren’t for working out! she would think. Then a woman she knew who designs sportswear encouraged her to at least give one a try. Samuels did and immediately understood the appeal. Realizing I had the same reaction to seeing women arriving to a workout in a skirt (and that I already had plans to buy more workout clothes with a friend that very same day!), I picked up my first workout skirt. It is soooo comfortable. I’m hardly going to ditch my workout pants and shorts for a wardrobe of all skirts, but I, too, understand their appeal now and that women who wear them aren’t necessarily choosing style over comfort.

I could go on. For the record, I haven’t been outlining the whole book here. For every topic I mention, there are dozens I haven’t. Last, though, I want to say how much RUN LIKE A GIRL inspired me. It’s hardly a dull recitation of facts. It’s relatable, empowering, and uplifting. I found myself wishing more than once that this book came on audiobook, because I would eagerly listen to snippets again and again before workouts to pump myself up!

Friday, July 19, 2013

SIEGE AND STORM


Review of SIEGE AND STORM by LEIGH BARDUGO
(second in the GRISHA trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

I adored the first book in this trilogy, SHADOW AND BONE, so SEIGE AND STORM had a lot to live up to. I admit that the prologue threw me. Alina and Mal are referred to as “the girl” and “the boy” (and then again in the epilogue). I didn’t understand the goal behind writing in a way that distances the reader from characters towards whom they already feel very close. However, once I reached Chapter 1, the story hooked me near immediately. For starters, I had certain predictions about where this book might go and felt immensely pleased when something I expected to happen near the end happened in the first chapter. Needless to say, SIEGE AND STORM is extremely fast paced.

Bardugo also introduces plenty of new characters, another factor that helps book two avoid the dreaded middle book syndrome. Sadly for Alina, though, she doesn’t make many clear friends right away. Rather she meets dozens of people who could be either friends or enemies and she better guess right - no pressure.

As in SHADOW AND BONE, I found relating to Alina easy and natural. She’s caught between a rock and a hard place. She might be one of the most powerful people in this fictional world and yet she feels trapped by her own gift. Everyone wants something from her and she doubts she’s capable of the miracles strangers expect. There’s a part of her that wants to flee to a quiet, cozy hermit lifestyle except she knows that without her particular magic her country will doubtless fall into the hands of the Darkling. She feels forced by her power into taking more responsibility than she wants and grows increasingly lonely as she absorbs the Darkling’s warning that there are no other people in the world like the two of them, no other people who could possibly understand them.

The only aspect that dragged the book down for me is all the romance drama. I was thrilled when Bardugo united Alina and Mal near the end of book one, because I hoped that meant they would stay together through the rest of the series and, even if they have their fights or disagreements, the plot would focus far more on politics rather than will-they, won’t-they. Most of SIEGE AND STORM involves driving a wedge between Alina and Mal (so we can play more will-they, won’t-they fix their relationship). What particularly frustrated me about this development is that for two people who claim to be so madly in love with each other, they don’t make any effort to save the relationship. Their problems are such that could be avoided or resolved if they simply communicated, but instead neither one bothers to fight for the other. Also, this may very well be me reading too much into it, but I caught a whiff of subtext that Alina - as the woman - is waiting for Mal - as the man - to fix the relationship. I kept mentally urging her to take action rather than wait around for him to do so.

The way the romance plays out may be my main complaint about SIEGE AND STORM, but it’s significant enough that it does distract throughout the whole book. Still I loved the introduction of so many new characters, especially since they’re hardly labeled “good guy,” “bad guy,” “good guy,” “bad guy,” etc. They’re each people with their own priorities and goals and Alina has to sort through the tangled mess of feelings, signals, hints, suspicions, and so forth to make her own decisions about whom to trust.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A GAME OF THRONES


Review of A GAME OF THRONES by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
(first in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

I almost didn’t review this one. There are a couple of reasons why I won’t review book. The most obvious is that I didn’t like the book. However, sometimes I find books that I honestly did enjoy, but I still have so much criticism that it would look like a negative review. I go for sincerity in my reviews, so if something bugged me I want to be candid with any potential readers. If a lot of things bugged me, it doesn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy the book but it starts looking less and less convincing in review format. Last, I tend to avoid classics and hugely popular authors. For example, I recently re-read both THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and some Jane Austen novels and passed on reviewing those. As you may have guessed, A GAME OF THRONES falls in the latter category. Popularity is a relative concept, but - especially since the television spinoff - most people have at least heard of this series. One of the purposes of my reviews is to spread the word about great books, especially those that might not be getting the attention they deserve. While I hardly think my endorsement will help A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE climb the next notch on the popularity ladder, another purpose of my reviews is because I enjoy writing them so even if this series doesn’t need any extra addition here are my thoughts on A GAME OF THRONES:

Not that I expected anything different, but it was clear right from the start that this would be a complex story with so many characters that I might struggle remembering who’s who. Nevertheless, I invested in the characters quickly and rather indiscriminately. It didn’t really matter whether I saw any of myself in a character, admired them, liked or disliked them, considered them a villain or comic relief, Martin makes every segment enjoyable reading, every character and conflict interesting. I’ll admit there were a few moments when I struggled keeping track of this huge cast, but that tended to occur more with periphery characters. “First circle” characters stayed in my mind pretty vividly, even though it was indeed a notably huge first circle. Also I read numerous books a time. Usually this habit doesn’t confuse me as much as people might think, but this was the first time I’ve read a book that I thought probably required my monogamous attention.

I liked the quick, short chapters alternating between so many different perspectives. That structure certainly grabs the reader early. With so many characters, Martin has no need to fill space lingering on slower parts. We bounce from dramatic scene to dramatic scene playing out all over the place and leave the more mundane moments, days, months, etc. to the imagination. That being said, I didn’t feel really hooked until about 100 pages in. Hard to say why, but my best guess is with so many characters it took longer for me to ease from interested to connected.

Another reason I often avoid reviewing classics and wildly popular books is because my opinion is unavoidably tainted by everything I’ve heard before reading the book myself. In this case, while I did love this book it still suffered from all the times someone has told be it’s the absolute best thing they have ever read. Too much to live up to! Not to mention that it all comes down to taste. Secondly, I’d been warned many a time about all the deaths. One in particular had already been spoiled for me. The result: I don’t think I invested as much in the characters as I would have if I read this book without hearing a word about it beforehand. Expecting some beloved characters to die, I guarded my heart accordingly and, thus, didn’t feel any deaths as strongly as I might have otherwise.

I was very curious to see how a big a role magic would play in the story. I ticked off its absence (or subtlety) as I read: no magic in the first four chapters, none in the first hundred pages. Honestly, this whole first book seems to be setting up the reintroduction of magic into this world for the rest of the series! I’m both amused and impressed that Martin could so successfully market a fantasy book with so little fantasy, but that probably helps its appeal for the non-fantasy readers not to mention that everyone’s simply looking for a great story. And this is indeed a great story.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Random Acts of Reading - Change as a Theme


I'm a guest blogger for Random House's blog - Random Acts of Reading. Click here to check out this month's post about books we recommend with change as a prominent theme.

THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS


Review of THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by RAE CARSON
(first in the FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

I knew I would love this book, so I’m not really sure how it kept falling down on my to-read list. Regardless, the voice hooked me even faster than I expected (near immediately) and it didn’t take long for me to mentally chastise myself for waiting so long to read this!

Perhaps my reasons for procrastination include the fear that THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I've heard this book raved about by all sorts of people and sometimes that kind of praise only sets you up for a fall from your own impossible expectations. I won't further this trend by heaping such outlandish compliments on the book that my readers suspect generous exaggeration, but I will say that - while I expected certain assets - some of the book's strengths took me by surprise.

I didn’t expected such a complex, formula-defying story, for one thing. I could never predict what would happen next. For starters, the first chapter opens with the marriage of our heroine Elisa to a charming and handsome king. Wait...isn't that the ending of most fairy tales? Of course, the conflict has hardly begun. Their marriage soon proves a rather...unusual arrangement and it doesn't take long for both Elisa and the reader to discover that everyone, including those she loves and trusts, has been keeping her in the dark. Fast on the heels of that realization we learn along with Elisa that her ignorance stretches far beyond herself to a world nothing like what she's been taught.

I admire Elisa in many ways and she exemplifies why this book made such an impression on so many people. She redefines strength as we commonly see it. She's not a warrior, though she has her physically impressive moments. She's not cruel and aches at the harsh decisions she must make for both her own survival and the paradoxical concept of fighting for peace. I also loved her relationship with the bratty prince, a dynamic that brings out the best in both of them.

I’ve heard this book critiqued for tying Elisa's character arch with her weight loss. As I have yet to mention, Elisa is not only notably overweight but possibly probably even obese. (Perspective leaves some wiggle room in interpreting her exact figure.) Knowing from the start that the themes of obesity and overeating in this book have received mixed reviews, I approached them with an analytical mind. Personally, I felt mixed reviews within myself. Sometimes I nodded along, thinking, "Yes, yes, wonderfully approached," and other times I shook my head, thinking, "Well, that's reinforcing a fallacy." I definitely disagree with the complaints regarding Elisa losing weight as she gains self-esteem, because the former isn't what's causing the latter. Elisa goes on a physically and emotionally grueling journey (yes, I'm trying to avoid spoilers), which 1. changes her physically and 2. changes her emotionally. I think there's some confusion regarding cause and effect. Two things did bug me a little, though: how much Elisa eats and how much she thinks about food. Of course, a lot of these judgments come down to our own relationship with food along with what we perceive as normal, which explains why certain things bother some people and not others. I at least consider these two elements I’m going to discuss common misunderstandings. First, it doesn't take nearly as much food intake to sustain a certain weight as to gain weight. Because overweight people are often judged as gluttons, there's the assumption that they're constantly stuffing their faces. Not true. While it is factual that the calories required to sustain your current weight increase as your weight goes up, not by as much as the general opinion seems to believe. Again, it's all about perspective and interpretation, but the way Elisa's eating habits are portrayed led me to feel she would be rapidly gaining weight, not just staying heavy. Second, there's the belief that people who overeat think about food all the time. There are moments in the book when Elisa's life is in danger and her thoughts go to her food cravings. Now a psychologist or someone who has experiences closer to Elisa's (that would be a combination of overeating habits and life-threatening circumstances) might be more qualified on this matter than myself, but I scoffed at the idea that Elisa would be thinking about pastries in her potentially final moments. Setting aside every little thing that rubbed me the wrong way but didn’t annoy other people and vice versa, I intensely admire Carson for braving this territory. Even if we’re critiquing how she handled these themes, their presence in the book encourages important discussions we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Time for a bit of a tangent. It irked me that THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS has a whitewashed cover. (For those unfamiliar with the term, whitewashing - in this context - refers to when a white person is put on the cover of a book that stars, well, not a white person.) I assumed Elisa to be Latina based on the terminology and names, though race is never explicitly stated (probably because this is a fictional world). However, both her weight and very dark skin color are stated in no uncertain terms and yet the girl on the cover is very skinny and very pale. I could certainly go on about this topic, but I'll save that for a longer post another day and leave it at my disappointment to see Elisa misrepresented.

My last complaint has to do with character deaths. Don't worry; I won't spoil anything. Some prominent characters do die in this book, more than one. It is a war, after all. Two deaths in particular frustrated me, because I had been thinking only pages earlier, "I like this character, but they're not quite as fleshed out as I want. I hope they and their relationship with Elisa develops more over the course of the trilogy" and then BAM! - dead. Very unsatisfying.

What makes THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS amazing is the girl of the title - Elisa. She's a pretty remarkable young woman right from the beginning, but once she’s jolted out of her comfort zone she becomes an astonishing force. I can’t wait to see what’s next for her.

Monday, July 8, 2013

FINDING CAMLANN


Review of FINDING CAMLANN by SEAN PIDGEON
(review based on advance reading copy)

This book has a fantasy feel without actually being fantasy, probably a great part of why it appealed to me, an avid fantasy reader! It draws on the legend of King Arthur, so no surprise about the fantasy feel. When archaeologists make some dramatic discoveries, theories - naturally - differ, but the potential connection to a real King Arthur leads to speculation that, even if it’s far more intellectual, still put me in mind of the childlike desire to believe in magic.

The strong, natural writing makes this an easy read. I did find the pacing quite slow, however, and even caught myself skimming, something I try to avoid. With most King Arthur-inspired stories there’s a certain amount of predictability as history repeats itself to some degree. FINDING CAMLANN is no exception there with noticeable parallels to King Arthur lore, though I will say it’s far more its own story than I expected.

I also wanted less focus on the will-they-won’t-they potential affair between Donald and Julia. Their romantic connection never really clicked for me, which limited my investment in anything that might happen between them. They do, nonetheless, have an engaging connection, if not so much romantically, and reading their dialogue makes their shared passions almost contagious. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

ABOVE ALL THINGS


Review of ABOVE ALL THINGS by TANIS RIDEOUT
(review based on an advance reading copy)

In this historical novel, Rideout mines George Mallory's 1924 push to be the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The story alternates between George's journey and his wife Ruth, who waits anxiously back home for his safe return. 

The writing felt more flowery and indulgent rather than crisp and purposeful. It's atmospheric, though, and I could certainly plug my senses into whatever the characters experienced. In general, I consider ABOVE ALL THINGS as a gentle story. Rather than ratcheted-up suspense and drama, we have understated moments (even those that are quite dramatic) reminding us that much of this unusual, taxing routine is mundane for George and Ruth.

The story's also quite slow, successfully capturing the mood but often at lengthy means. In short, George is climbing the mountain - with all the physical and emotional stress (as well as cold and more cold) that implies - and Ruth is lonely - both missing and worrying about her husband.

Ruth really wastes away without George. They have three children and I often felt grateful for that fact on her behalf, because I suspect that without those children relying on her she literally would stay in bed all day, day after day, curled in a self-pitying ball. While I can certainly understand and relate to both Ruth's longing and her concern, I frequently felt frustrated that she lets those things so consume her.

Near the end, it surprised me how much I had invested in the story. I've mentioned "sneak attack" books before and by that I mean books in which I don't feel particularly gripped by the story and yet when a climatic moment arrives I suddenly realize how slowly but entirely these characters have won me over...and how much I care. Now those who know their history already know how things turn out for Mallory, but I confess to either being completely unaware or having stuffed that information too far back in my mind to recall. When George reaches that point, so close to the top - so wondrously, dangerously close - I felt everything. I read this book little by little over the course of a few months, but clung to those last few chapters desperately hoping for George to either make the summit or recognize his own stubborn pride and turn back before it’s too late.

Monday, July 1, 2013

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE


Review of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by MARIA SEMPLE
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This book hardly jumped out at me from the shelves as something I would love, but enough people told me how much they enjoyed it that I finally took the chance. (Also, Semple’s biography reveals she was one of the writers for the television show, Arrested Development, which I love and that certainly peaked my interest.) Now I’m here to tell the next string of people on the fence about WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE that it lives up to the hype.

Right off, you’ll notice the unusual format Semple uses to tell this story, mostly through snippets and chunks from emails and other correspondence. Most people I know who have read this book sing its praises, but the few who feel more apathetic all say it's because they couldn’t get past the structure. For me, it wasn’t an issue. If you’re worried this method leaves the story scattered or unclear, that’s not the case at all. Once the book absorbed me (which only took a few pages) I forgot all about the format.

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is weird and hilarious and serious all at the time, with well-measured doses of each always delivered at the proper times. ‘Hilarious’ is the novel’s strongest hook, but the ‘serious’ sneaks up on you with more poignancy and insight than one might expect from something so insanely funny.

The plot’s tricky to describe and may even trivialize the book’s genius when summarized, because really it’s the characters and the humor that make this story special, not a “wow-that-sounds-so-unique” elevator pitch. As the title implies the story leads up to the disappearance of Bernadette: wife, mother, and either remarkably quirky individual or absolute lunatic. Said disappearance actually happens quite late in the book with most of the novel comprising of an amusing suburban dispute escalating until you’re not quite sure how things snowballed this intensely.

Since WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE snags the reader with humor, the emotional resonance really took me by surprise. At first pieces of wisdom pop up here and there between the absurdity, but the ratio subtly shifts over the course of the story until by the end we’re left mostly with raw emotion and little laughter. Loved the merriment. Loved the sincerity. Loved the book.