Giant’s Bread // by Mary Westmacott

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//published 1930//

In my quest to read all of Agatha Christie’s books (may or may not be achievable), I included on my list the six novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott.  I expected these books to be different from Christie’s other fare (why else would she use a different name, other than to escape expectations?), but I was still surprised to find how heavy Giant’s Bread was.

Our story opens in London, with the opening night of a new opera.  Strange, wild, artistic, innovative, alluring – it is a musical the likes of which have never been seen or heard before.  The rest of the novel leads us to that opening night: how did such an opera come to be written?

Our story follows Vernon Deyre, a “poor little rich” boy, who is raised with everyone money can buy and very few of the things money can’t.  Lonely, imaginative, and sensitive, Vernon is a rather unusual male protagonist, being neither brave nor strong.  Vernon becomes friends with his cousin, Josephine (“Joe”), who comes to live with them, and later their neighbor, Sebastian, a young Jewish boy (which, between the wars, was an important facet of one’s character).  In adulthood, Jane is added to the mix as well.

The book is really about all four of these individuals.  The focus is on Vernon, but we learn a great deal about the other three as well.  Even just seeing Vernon through the eyes of the other characters gives us insight into those individuals.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Giant’s Bread.  It was, on the whole, quite depressing.  I didn’t really like any of the four main characters, although Sebastian had his moments.  It was definitely a character-study story.  The plot was minimal and involved a lot of Vernon’s feelings.  I’m also not completely sure what Christie/Westmacott was trying to say.  In the end, Vernon sacrifices everything for his genius, and I’m not sure that I agree with the decision.

There were some good moments in this book, and the writing was solid.  But it really comes back to the concept of “a novel” and the fact that, generally, I hate them.  Constantly depressing, everyone’s worst features emphasized, no redemption.  In the end, everyone is weak, and all four of the characters succumb to their particular weakness.  In my mind, this book would have been much better if the characters had instead learned to recognize and overcome their deficiencies, instead of being destroyed by them.

A 2/5.  I intend to read at least one more of her novels, but honestly, if it’s as depressing of a ride as this one, I may skip the rest!

Cold Spell

//by Jackson Pearce//published 2013//

16039122This is a fairy tale retelling, and one that I didn’t particularly enjoy.  For me, it was a book that felt a little disjointed and difficult to follow at times.  I never really felt a lot of empathy for the heroine, and the friendships she made along the way seemed to go from zero to “wow I completely trust you with my life” within about five minutes.  Combined with more or less no explanations on the how the rules of this world work, Cold Spell was ultimately a 2/5 for me.

HOWEVER I will caveat that, once again, it appears that this book is part of a series.  It is, in fact, the fourth of a series that currently has four titles.  Even though reading the synopses for the other titles doesn’t make it sound as though they flow together, it is possible that there were overlapping characters/concepts from earlier titles that would have made Cold Spell a little more readable.

But the truth of the matter is that if a book is part of a series, and it needs to be read within the context of that series, FREAKING PUT IT SOMEWHERE ON THE COVER.  Or maybe a page around the title page.  I don’t care where, but SOMEWHERE make it obvious that there are other books I need to read first.  I am running into this problem more and more often and it is SO. AGGRAVATING.

Anyway.  Okay, so this is supposedly a retelling of the “The Snow Queen,” but it isn’t really, because it really isn’t anything like “The Snow Queen,” except a woman with a lot of power over snow kidnaps a young and handsome man.  Kai, the victim, has been Ginny’s (the heroine) best friend since they were very small.   Kai is a very talented musician from a fairly wealthy family, while Ginny is an average girl from an average family.  Kai lives with his grandma in an apartment building that his grandma owns; Ginny and her mother live in the building as well.  Kai’s grandmother disapproves of Kai’s friendship with Ginny.  Ginny and Kai don’t care, and, now that they are in their senior year of high school, they are planning to move to New York together so Kai can study music and they can be together!  Forever!  True love!

Then Kai’s grandma dies really abruptly and in swoops Mora, an incredibly beautiful and rich young woman, who bespells Kai and sweeps him away.  Ginny is determined that something is wrong with the whole situation, so she sets off in pursuit and engages in many adventures before finally catching up with Mona and Kai for the final showdown.

Here’s the thing: I never really liked Ginny.  I didn’t dislike her, either.  She just…  was.  Even though she is the narrator, and I have access to her feelings and thoughts, she still felt like a sort of stiff character.  Even though she theoretically grows and becomes stronger as she learns to be her own person, instead of someone co-dependent on Kai, it felt more like that change was external more than internal, if that makes sense.  Like, she was doing the things, but I never felt like she really got it on the inside, even though Pearce had her think/say all the right things.

The other thing that really annoyed me was how Ginny would just so happen to run into people, and those people would just so happen to be the perfect people to help her and even though Ginny is super suspicious and running for her life she would just so happen decide that they were worth trusting after all and then it would just so happen that they are actually perfect people!  Wow!  Imagine!  Like the one couple Ginny runs into and they hang out for like a day or maybe two and then she is thinking about just continuing to live with them indefinitely??!  What?!

The world building was a huge problem for me, and, like I said, may have been better if I had read the other three books that I DIDN’T KNOW EXISTED SINCE THEY AREN’T LISTED ANYWHERE ON OR IN THE BOOK, but as far as my reading went, it was terrible.  We get little snippets of Mona and her story/motivation, but it’s never really fully explained.  (Werewolves? They want her back?  She becomes one?  She kind of is one?  Not sure?)  Ginny meets up with these gypsy people, and we don’t really ever get a story about them, either.  There werewolf-hunting brothers just randomly show up with minimal back story, too.

Despite all of that, I’ve definitely read worse.  While I wasn’t hungry to return to Cold Spell when I wasn’t reading, I didn’t dread it, either.  And I did want to find out what happened to Ginny.  (And I kept kind of hoping that I was going to get some answers.)  There were even a few decent conversations, if you could get yourself to ignore the fact that they were happening between to virtual strangers who apparently found it completely natural to confide in each other.

“What do you do?”

“I…” I trail off.  …  “I don’t really do anything.”

“Don’t do anything,” Ella asks, drumming her fingers on the sofa, “or don’t do anything yet?”

I smile.  “Is there a difference?”

“Huge difference,” she says.  “People who don’t do anything annoy me.  People who don’t do anything yet excite me, because they can potentially do everything.”

But in the end, even a few good conversational snippets weren’t enough to pull Cold Spell out of it’s below-average rating.  So a 2/5, and maybe that’ll teach ’em to not mention that a book is part of a series!

Wild Goose Chase

//by Terri Thayer//published 2008//

1033658So I’m always on the lookout for a new cozy mystery series.  Cozy mysteries are kind of my favorites… just enough thinking for my reading.  :-D  So when Wild Goose Chase came up on my library website as “recommended”, I thought I would give it a whirl.  Unfortunately, a choppy story, whiny heroine, predictable conclusion, and overall annoying cast of characters left this book at a 2/5, and left me with no particular desire to read any further in the series.

Our story opens at a quilting convention in California.  Our heroine, Dewey, (also the narrator) has recently inherited her mother’s quilting shop, and is now facing her first convention as the shop owner.  Since Dewey’s mother died very suddenly in a car accident, Dewey is still working through a lot of emotion surrounding her mother’s death (a LOT of emotion).   Dewey’s never really been into the whole quilting thing – she works with computers – and isn’t sure if the store is something she wants to carry on, despite the fact that it has been in her family for generations (although it wasn’t originally a quilting store, just a regular store).

Okay, first off, this story was just, honestly, boring.  So much of it was about Dewey’s feelings – and she has a lot of feelings.  Like, it’s totally understandable that she’s stressed about her mother’s sudden death, and that she thinks about her mother a lot, but her constant angsting about whether or not she should sell the store, whether or not her mother wanted her to carry on with the store, etc., was annoying.

She also has a lot of feelings about the love interest, Buster.  Buster is apparently an old family friend, but he drops into the story out of absolutely no where, and then all of a sudden they’re having sex.  Like…  okay?  Even though Dewey explains that they’ve known each other for years and the “sudden” part was just realizing that they want to be more than friends, I, as the reader,  had virtually no opportunity to connect them as a couple before they’re already shagging, and it felt sudden and weird, not to mention completely pointless as to the rest of the story.  Buster is also a policeman and is connected to the investigation, and the next day, when another murder occurs, suddenly he’s ignoring Dewey and blaming her because he decided to skive off and shag instead of hanging around the quilting show (?????)

The murder itself is completely random, and Dewey is only connected to it by chance, and there’s absolutely no reason for her to care about this murder at all, but she just keeps going along.  She has zero connection to the actual investigation, so the whole pursuit of the mystery angle feels awkward – we’re only getting Dewey’s incredibly amateurish view of the whole situation, and have no idea what’s actually going on.  The murder only really gets solved because the murderer virtually confesses to Dewey the whole thing – not because Dewey has made any brilliant deductions.

Dewey’s sister-in-law is just a dreadful person, and we have to listen to her and Dewey bicker for the entire book, plus listen to Dewey’s internal monologue on the subject.  So boring.

Dewey decides almost immediately that she wants to sell the shop, so she spends most of the book trying to find someone to buy it, then, suddenly, in the end is all like, “No, actually, I love it!  I’m going with it!”  Nothing about Dewey’s ownership of the store felt natural or made any sense, and her shift from wanting nothing to do with the shop to completely embracing it felt forced and weird.

Okay, I’m concluding with a SERIOUS SPOILER LIKE I AM TELLING YOU WHO THE MURDERER IS so if my amazing review has made you want to dash out and read this book STOP READING NOW OR YOU WILL KNOW THE ANSWER although I figured out the answer pretty early on because it’s painfully obvious, except I kept thinking, That can’t really be it because there are so many reasons that it doesn’t actually make sense for this person to be the murderer.  I genuinely rolled my eyes in pain when the murderer was revealed.  Here’s the deal:  Dewey is going to visit the murder victim in her hotel room.  In the hallway, Dewey meets the murder victim’s friend/coworker, Myra.  Myra is bringing the victim lunch.  Myra doesn’t want Dewey to bother the victim; Dewey basically forces her way into the room, and they find the victim dead.  Myra is overwrought.  She drops the tray.  She throws up.  She sits in the bathroom and is sick while they’re waiting for the police.  Myra is also the murderer.  If Myra is the murderer, why is she coming back to the hotel room with a tray all alone?  Why would she want to be the person to “discover” the murder if she is the one who committed it?  This makes no sense to me.  You would think she’d be thrilled to have Dewey along as a witness to the fact that the victim was already dead.  If Myra committed the murder, why does the sight of it suddenly make her violently ill?  And those are just the reasons from the actual scene of the crime that made it not make sense.  Basically, Myra’s entire motivation makes no sense.

So yeah.  This book had its moments where the dialogue was good, and the writing was fine, but overall I was not impressed.  I didn’t really like anyone, and their motivations seemed completely arbitrary to me.  Dewey and Buster’s relationship made no sense. Buster’s complete abandonment of Dewey and blaming her for his slackery made me feel like he was a total jerk, not someone I wanted to see the heroine with.  Dewey’s family is scattered and unsupportive, and her sister-in-law – gah!  I really wanted to like Wild Goose Chase, because cozy mysteries can be so much fun, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  2/5.

China Dolls

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by Lisa See

Published 2014

So I’ve been reading a lot of books set in the first half of the twentieth century.  One of these days I’ll move past World War II in my (very very very slow) study of twentieth century history, but there is just so much about the world wars and the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, and I keep finding books that look so interesting from those decades so…….

I picked up China Dolls in hopes of reading about a different culture in the 1930’s leading into the war.  From the dust jacket:

San Francisco, 1938:  A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities.  Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub.  Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes.  Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade.  The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes.  When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams.  But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

The book is told in first person (thankfully past tense!), but the narrative is split between all three of the main characters.  For  me, this didn’t work for two reasons.  The first was that even though these three girls are very different in personality, goals, and background, their voices sound incredibly similar.  And I think the reason for that is my second reason for not liking the narrative style – all three are very reserved.  Usually, the point of a first-person narrative is that we get to hear the thoughts and ideas and prejudices and dreams of the narrator.  But See gives us very little of that.  I think that this book would have been much better written in third person.

A slightly spoilery reason is that someone in this book is not actually Chinese, but Japanese.  After Pearl Harbor, many Japanese were put into camps (a horrible blot on our history, and one I’ve been interested in learning more about since I read Concentration Camps USAand part of the reason I picked up this book to begin with), so when one of our three  narrators is betrayed, it’s a big deal.  We don’t know who the betrayer is, but one of the other narrators is blamed.  To me, this is a classic example – the tension of the book could have been much, much higher in third person.  As it is, we already know that the girl who has been accused isn’t the  betrayer, so the tension is gone.

None of these girls were particularly likable for me.  All three are rather ruthlessly ambitious, and the lack of personal thoughts means that, as a reader, I don’t really understand a lot of what drives them.  Plus, I’ve never been any kind of performer, so the intensity of the desire to be dancers is lost on me.

While there were interesting glimmers of American-Chinese culture, See also seems to assume, at some level, that we already know a lot of about what’s going on.  As someone who knows virtually nothing about this culture, I could have used a a few more explanations – but, once again, the first-person narrative prevents that from being a natural part of the story.

There’s also this whole weird love-triangle situation that seems pretty unnecessary and strange to me.  Because the boy involved is not Asian, I think we could have had plenty of drama by just focusing on how taboo it was for a “white” person be romantically involved with, well, anyone not considered white.

Overall, it felt like there were a lot of really intriguing cultural issues that could have been explored, but instead we ended up with a novel that basically could have been about three white girls, except for the part where one of them gets thrown into a concentration camp (and even that part of the story is really glossed over – I was hoping, since I was stuck listening to three narrators, that I would at least get some intriguing material of daily life inside the camp, but instead we basically don’t hear from that voice the entire time she’s in the camp so).

While this was a fine story, and I’m sure many people love it, I have found more and more that I rarely enjoy a book that has “A Novel” printed on the front.  They end up covering far too much time, with depressing undertones, little redemption, and not a lot of creativity or challenge.  China Dolls fit the basic novel-writing premise.  Instead of pursuing intriguing cultural differences and helping the reader to understand what it was like to be a Chinese (or Japanese) American leading into the war, we got a tired love triangle in impersonal first-person narration.  The story was meh and the character development weak, leaving me with a 2/5.

Bidding for Love

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by Kate Fforde

Published 2005

This was a book that I almost really liked…

20’something Flora Stanza unexpectedly inherits 51% of a family business – an antique auction house in the country.  Although Flora knows nothing about antiques or country living, she decides to take the plunge.  Her cousin, Charles, who owns the other 49%, has been managing the business for several years with the assistance of his fiancee, Annabelle.  Flora thinks she has never met a stuffier couple, but because her cat is having kittens she can’t go back (???  the whole kitten thing seemed weak to me.  The fact that she had sublet her London flat made a much more believable reason for sticking around, but that was glossed over in favor of the fact that the cat had just had kittens…), so she ends up taking up residence in a very isolated cottage owned by Annabelle.

This was really, really close to be a super-fun fluff book.  I actually liked Flora (despite her obsession with clothes), and many of secondary characters were a lot of fun.  The dialogue was engaging, and the story moved right along.  But for me, there wasn’t very clear character development, and that frustrated me.

SPOILERS BELOW BUT NOT REALLY BECAUSE IT’S A SERIOUS CHICK FLICK AND YOU WILL FIGURE THIS ALL OUT WITHIN THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS OF THE BOOK ANYWAY –

It’s pretty obvious that Flora ends up falling in love with Charles, although she doesn’t realize it herself at first.  She and Charles are distant cousins, so it’s cool, but she keeps calling him her cousin, and everyone calls him her cousin, so it feels super strange that she’s going to end up with him.  Even though Charles and Annabelle aren’t actually married yet, and they come to realize that their engagement was really just a habit, not because they were ever in love, I still don’t like the way that it unwinds – it feels really awkward (to my old-fashioned sensibilities, anyway) that Charles is living with/presumably sleeping with Annabelle even though he has fallen madly in love with Flora.

Annabelle is her own enigma.  It’s as though Fforde couldn’t decide what she should be like.  Literally, I had no idea what Annabelle was going to say/do next, and not in a good way.  There was no consistency to her character, and I never did figure out if I was supposed to like her, hate her, be indifferent towards her…  she would be super possessive of Charles at one moment, and then not at all the next.  She cheats on him like crazy with the crazy hippy dude, William (more on him in a minute), but tells Flora to stay away from Charles.  Literally, in one chapter she confronts Flora and tells Flora how Annabelle’s dad is the one who loaned Charles a bunch of money to help the business so Charles can’t be with Flora no matter what and then IN THE VERY NEXT CHAPTER Annabelle has eloped with William.   How does that make sense AT ALL??  She spends the whole book being super snooty, and Flora goes on and on (in her mind) about how Annabelle and Charles won’t suit, and it’s partially because Annabelle is such a spoiled rich girl, but in the end Annabelle purposely throws her lot with a hippy who lives in a trailer and makes most of his meals by harvesting wild food in the woods?  Annabelle gave me whiplash the entire book and made it hard for me to get into the groove of the story overall.

William – okay, so Flora is living way out in the middle of NOWHERE and she wakes up one morning and there is a STRANGE MAN IN HER HOUSE and because she doesn’t get “creepy” vibes off of him, she just goes with it?  Because he makes her coffee?  W H A T ?!?!  And William continues to live with her off and on throughout the summer because he spends lots of time living in the woods and he’s a total hippy but his character is just super strange and a little too random to fit into the story.  Flora’s immediate acceptance of him and the way he just lives there whenever and she’s cool with it and it’s okay because they aren’t attracted to each other so it’s all good …  it was just weird.

And then there’s Henry.  He’s the guy Flora is SUPPOSED to fall in love with.  He’s young and good looking and super flirtatious.  He’s also divorced because he cheated on his wife.  Everyone warns Flora away from him, but she keeps dating him anyway even though she doesn’t really like him.  Henry’s character was basically whatever it needed to be to make the story move along; his character was SO flat and dull and completely pointless.

And then one of the things I liked about this book was how there weren’t any sex scenes.  A little smooching, a little innuendo, that’s fine, but I don’t need all the details, you know?  And then, WHAM right at the end, she sneaks it in.  Super disappointing and, to me, completely unnecessary.  For me, a happy wedding is a way more satisfying conclusion to a love story than a shag scene.  And even though Flora and Charles are planning to get married (eventually), it’s just not the same.  It lacked the real commitment – after all, Charles has been engaged to Annabelle for years, and didn’t end up marrying HER.  I’m not convinced that they’re really in it to win it.

So, in conclusion, this book was a combination of flat characters and morals too modern for me to really enjoy it.  A fine read, fluff, a lot of funny dialogue, but not one I’m going to add to my personal library.  2/5.

Dido & Pa

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1986

In the last account of Dido’s adventures, The Cuckoo Tree, Dido runs into her father.  A staunch Hanoverian (in Aiken’s AU, the Scottish James III, and then his son, Richard, are on the throne; an underground political group desires to bring the German Hanoverian to rule over Britain instead, and most of the plots in the Wolves Chronicles are based on a Hanoverian plot of some kind), Mr. Twite is also a passionate musician.  The rest of Dido’s family (except for her older sister who eloped in Black Hearts in Battersea), was killed in an explosion (a literal backfire of a Hanoverian plan), so Dido is surprised to find her father alive and well, traveling under various assumed names to avoid arrest.

Well, Mr. Twite kidnaps his own daughter and spirits her away to London to be used as a pawn in the latest political scheme.  Per usual, the part of the book that I enjoyed was Dido herself.  She has developed, through the course of these books, from a rather aggravating urchin in Black Hearts to an intelligent, practical, humorous young woman.  But the rest of the book was just as confusing and verging-on-disturbing as the other more recent books in the series.

First off, we find that Dido’s father is living with a prostitute, with whom he had apparently been having an affair for many years.  The way that it is presented seemed, to me, a bit out of place in children’s book.  (Please keep in mind that many of my criticisms for these books are because they are published as children’s books; I think that a great deal of the material is very dark and almost morbid – not the type of material I’d like to hand any child, really.)  The other regular occupant of the household is Isadora, or Is, who is constantly referred to by Twite and his mistress as “the Slut.”  (I was relieved to find, however, that common British slang uses “slut” as a slovenly woman, not necessarily one who is sexually promiscuous, which is how the word is most often used here in the States; Is seemed far too young for the latter definition to apply with any kind of appropriateness.)  Is is abused, neglected, starved, and beaten, all quite callously.  Dido alone cares, but in many ways even Is herself has given up on life, and it’s a bit creepy.

Throughout the story, several people are rather brutally knocked off, and in the end, even Dido’s own father is killed pretty gruesomely, as he is pursued and beaten by a horde of angry street children (who have discovered that he was willing to let Dido die for the sake of his own preservation), and left, unconscious, to be eaten by the wolves that are invading London.

A stone flew, and hit him in the mouth.

“Come, come now!”  said Mr. Twite, wiping away mud, and possibly a tooth.   …

Another stone flew, and then several more.  Mr. Twite began to run.  He raced into the park, followed by the whole crowd of children.  They yelled and flung objects – anything they could pick up – eggs, oranges, shoes.  Mr. Twite ran desperately across the park toward the river; but the storm of stones, shoes, and other articles became fiercer and fiercer.  At last, under it, he crumpled and fell to the ground.

At the sight of his fall, the children halted.  The looked at him doubtfully from a distance.  He still stirred feebly and moaned.

… “We’d best leave him be.  He ain’t much hurt – I don’t think.  He’ll pick hisself up, soon as we’re gone.  We don’t want the beaks arter us, saying we done him in.  We never.  He’s just a bit dazed, like.”

Everyone agreed.  Without wasting a moment, the crowd of lollpoops [street children] took themselves off, disappearing speedily along alleys and narrow streets …  in five minutes the park was empty, except for Mr. Twite.

But the wolves had come across the river … they found Mr. Twite lying among the missiles that had stunned him and they quite soon finished off what the children had begun.

Not exactly lighthearted fun.  That whole scene was quite abrupt, too.  I had no expectations of Mr. Twite’s sudden demise, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as just that morning he had heartlessly witnessed the complete destruction of the house of his mistress and seemed to display only relief that the burden of keeping her happy could be shed.

There were other things that seemed strangely unexplained, like how the lead villain apparently was being kept alive somehow by Twite’s music, so when Twite didn’t show up to play, he died.

And before their aghast eyes the margrave [that’s the villain] began to shrink, to shrivel and dwindle; the lips pulled back from the teeth, the jaw fell open, the eyes glazed and filmed; witha  final rattling gasp, which sounded like a wild ironic cackle, the patient writhed from head to foot and lay lifeless on his bed.  And not merely lifeless: from the appearance, the chill, and the dreadful dank odor of the body, anyone just arriving in the room would conclude that it had been dead for several days, if not weeks.

Wait, what?  SHE NEVER EXPLAINS WHY.  Was he some kind of zombie, kept alive by the magical music of Twite?  There was never a sense of otherwordliness about him until his death, and that’s all we get, this strange implication that he’d been walking dead for a long time, and then we just move on, still confused and clueless.  (Or at least I was.  Maybe I’m completely dense and bad at these books?)

Overall, I can see these books appealing to and being enjoyed by some.  And Wolves of Willoughby Chase is still one of my childhood favorites.  But these later adventures in the Wolves Chronicles have just been a bit too dark, morbid, and confusing for my personal tastes.  Dido and Pa was a Paperback Swap find, and I do believe that it will be posted there again soon.  2/5.

Fortune’s Folly

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by Deva Fagan

Published 2009

Sometimes, I like to choose random books that Goodreads thinks I would like.  Ironically, I’m really bad at remember to update my Goodreads account, so sometimes its suggestions are a little off the wall.  Anyway, this one looked reasonable–a fairy tale-ish book for younger readers–so I gave it a try.

Sadly, though, I didn’t find a great deal to love about this book.  Fortunata has struggled to keep her father going since the death of his wife (her mother).  Once an amazing shoe-maker, her father lost his talents.  Once his wife died, the elves who had always come to tidy his workbench at night ceased to appear, and he is convinced that until they return, his skills will be lacking.  Fortunata (who also narrates the story… another mark against it, as I am innately prejudiced against first-person narratives), however, knows that there never were magic elves–it was simply her mother, slipping down to the workshop every night to clean things up.

Now, let us pause a moment.  Doesn’t it seem like the logical thing to do would be for Fortunata to simply take over her mother’s task?  Instead, she tries her best to sell the terrible shoes her father is making.  Eventually, they end up having to run away from town, blah blah blah, their donkey gets stolen by a wicket traveling amusement-wagon owner, and Fortunata and her father are forced to travel with them as Fortunata becomes the fortune-teller’s assistant.

FINALLY about a third or more into the book, we get to the main story, where Fortunata gives a fortune to a prince and has to travel with him to see if it comes true (and it has to come true, or else or father’s life is forfeit).

While I enjoyed some of the dialogue and characters, overall this book seemed lacking in direction.  Fortunata spends the entire book believing that the saints and magic (all the same, which also annoyed me, even in a fictional world) were just a bunch of hooey.  But sometimes, things that are inexplicable do happen.  Even so, Fortunata never really seems to change her mind, even while these things are never explained.  It was as though the author herself wasn’t sure whether or not magic exists in Fortunata’s world.

There were way too many villains.  There was the evil dude who disposed a random king in another city (who also happened to be the evil dude from the first chapter).  There was the evil wagon-owner.  There were his evil henchmen.  There was an evil princess (two, actually).  There was an evil witch (? her story makes her the victim, but she leaves them locked in a cage and then they steal stuff from her and once again you aren’t really sure who was supposed to be wrong or right and we never address that whole thing again really; it was just a tool so we could explain why the princess is evil, except we don’t believe in magic, right? So it doesn’t really explain it, unless magic actually is a thing…???).

Fortunata makes a living out of lying.  Her fortune telling is all a deception and she knows it.  The prince falls in love with her, but everything about her is a lie, and she never seems really apologetic about that (I mean, she says sorry, but more like she’s sorry that he had to find out about her lies, not that she told them in the first place).  I guess that, in the end, that was what really made this book unpalatable to me.  It was as though the moral of the story was, “Everyone lies, so lie when you have to, and try to not get caught.”

I’ll give it a 2/5.  It didn’t actually make my eyes bleed, but most certainly did not inspire me to seek out any of Fagan’s other works.