Bitter Greens // by Kate Forsyth

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//published 2012//

So this is my first official 2017 read – my other reviews this week have been of books I actually read the last week of December.  It was quite the book to start things with – almost 500 pages of me not being completely convinced that I liked the book.  In the end, a pretty solid 3/5 read for me, although this book had an extremely satisfying ending, so that boosted it up to a 3.5.

Bitter Greens is several stories in one.  The first story is that of Charlotte-Rose, in late 1600’s France.  She tells her story in first person, and at the beginning of the book, she has been exiled from court and sent to a poor convent, where things are pretty miserable.  There, she meets one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina.  This sister begins to tell Charlotte-Rose a story about a young girl a hundred years earlier who lived in Italy, who was kidnapped  by a witch and imprisoned in a tower.  And then, part way through that story, we start also getting the perspective of the witch as well.

Despite the multiple layers, each story was so distinct that I didn’t have any trouble telling them apart.  And Forsyth would usually spend a few chapters with one character before switching to another, so we got each of the different stories in large chunks.  Charlotte-Rose was telling her own story in first person, both what was currently happening to her in the convent, and about different episodes in her past that led to her being exiled there.  Seraphina’s Rapunzel tale was told in third person, which made sense, but I was confused because the witch’s story was being told in first person.  The Rapunzel story felt natural because we knew where it was coming from – Charlotte-Rose is hearing it from Seraphina – but where was the witch’s perspective coming from?  It added a good layer to the overall story, but felt a little awkward.

This was another story that just sort of assumed that magic and witches and whatnot are real things that happen.  And, just like when I read The Shapeshifters, I found myself completely accepting Forsyth’s version of history – that a spell and bathing in blood could make a woman stay young; that a curse and some hair and a bat’s wing could force a man to desire you; that you could torment a man with a curse and make him die from the terror of his own dreams.

There were a lot of things about this book that I liked.  The setting is done very well.  The terror and uncertainty of all three of the time periods really came across, especially in France when only Catholicism is legal and everyone must join the church or die.

Charlotte-Rose and the Rapunzel character (Margherita in this story) were likable and tangible.  I also appreciated how Forsyth even managed to make the witch into not exactly a sympathetic character, but one whose perspective you could at least understand.  Charlotte-Rose is based on a real person as well, and Forsyth gives us some extra information – just enough – at the beginning and end of the book.

However, the problem was that this book was basically about sex, the repression of women, and the way that those repressed women can use sex to control the  men around them.  All the sex got very old very quickly, and there was a lot of it.  I found myself flipping pages frequently looking for the next actual bit of the story.  Everyone was a whore, or related to a whore, or acted like a whore (by their standards, not mine).  And like I get the fact that at these various time periods there weren’t really any options for women except for marriage, a convent, or prostitution, but still.  It felt like I was being beat over the head with this fact on every page as the women bemoaned their lack of choices, and then went on to continue manipulating the men in their lives by giving or withholding sex.  I just was totally over all the descriptions of sex.  I really feel like I can walk into a room without being overcome with lust for someone in said room, but that didn’t seem like something that ever happened to one of Forsyth’s characters.

I’ve also realized that I just have an issue with the actual story of Rapunzel.  In the story, Rapunzel is locked in the tower, immured from society and social knowledge.  When the prince starts hanging out with her, he has sex with her despite the fact that she doesn’t really know anything about it or what it means or that it leads to babies, and that’s just really creepy to me.  This book was the same, and I don’t blame the book – it’s the original story that’s creepy!  Actually, I felt like Forsyth handled it a little better than some, except for the fact for no reason that I could understand we also had to have this bit with Margherita having her first period and I’m not going to go into details here but I just never really want to hear about menstrual blood or people touching menstrual blood and I don’t understand why novels act like they have to get into the nitty gritty detail to  prove that they’re serious about writing about women.  I mean, please.  So that was super weird.

But the ending!  I dragged a bit through this book.  It’s a bit of a chunk of a book and since I was terribly excited about it, I mostly left it sitting at my spot at the counter where we eat our meals, and would read it whenever I was eating.  So it took me a few days to get through it and I was feeling fairly ambivalent towards everyone, assuming that Forsyth was going to do the traditional Novel thing and kill everyone off and/or leave them in hopeless misery for the rest of their lives.  Instead, while they didn’t all necessarily get happy endings, they at least got logical and satisfying ones.  I really liked the way that things came together in the end.  I felt like all of the women in the story had changed and grown.  And despite hundreds of pages of sex and sex being the only thing women can do, in the end it actually seemed like each of the main characters had grown past that, to find their true selves.

So as I said, a 3.5/5.  This was pretty good historical fiction with intriguing characters, and if there had been about 80% less sex, I think this book would have received a 4/5, especially with the satisfactory ending.  I heard about this book from both Sophie and Lady Fancifull, and I definitely recommend checking out their reviews as well.

Terms & Conditions // by Robert Glancy

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//published 2014//

I don’t know exactly what I expected from Terms & Conditions, but I think it delivered.  This story had an innovative format that I found completely addictive.  I actually ended up liking the main character, and while bits of the story were rather depressing, the ending was solid and at least somewhat optimistic, which I appreciate.

I don’t even really know exactly how to describe this book.  The main character, Frank (or possibly Franklyn), has been in a terrible car accident and is suffering from amnesia.  Frank has spent his life working in the family law firm, and his job is to write all the terms and conditions – the small print at the bottom of the contracts – the stuff that no one reads.

The book is divided into very short chapters that mostly start with “Terms and Conditions of __________”.  Then there are a few pages (or just one) of Frank talking about the subject (e.g., life, me, senses, coffee, and my wife are the first five sections).  However, the entirety of each chapter is riddled with footnotes – and if you dared to skip them, you would miss the whole story.  Which, in a way, is the point.

I can see how the format would be extremely aggravating to some people.  However, I felt that Glancy pulled it off.  The footnotes are always situated in a position in the sentence or paragraph that makes it easy to glance down and read the addition without breaking the rhythm of what is happening.  I personally ended up loving the format. I loved the short, snappy sections.  I liked the way that they had a heading, then a summary sentence, and then Frank’s thoughts on the topic.

Terms & Conditions of Coffee:  Its taste never lives up to the promise of its aroma.

Terms & Conditions of the Spleen:  You can live without it but it makes life just a little bit harder.

Terms & Conditions of Meetings:  They’re never about work.

Terms & Conditions of Warnings: They usually come without warning.

Terms & Conditions of a Prenuptial Agreement:  It’s just a postnuptial disagreement waiting to happen.

Really, my only problem with this format came down to font size.  Because so much of the story is fine print, it’s literally in fine print – and I could legit only read this book in strong light because my eyes aren’t that fantastic and some of the font was quite tiny.

In some ways, this book reminded me a lot of Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time.  Both books have an unusual format and short, snappy chapters.  And both of them are about individuals slowly realizing that the constant grind of doing something that they kind of hate is kind of killing them inside.  At one point in Terms & Conditions Frank reflects –

I don’t want to change society – I’m not that ambitious – but I would prefer it if my every working hour was not devoted to making this world a slightly worse place to live.

I feel you, Frank.  That’s kind of what inspired me to throw in the towel at my law office job last winter and instead become a seasonal farm worker of sorts.  (So not changing society, but somehow I hope that selling people flowers and apples is making the world a slightly happier place than doing debt collection on their hospital bills.)

At any rate, the problem with these types of books is that they frequently end in a sort of depressing manner.  But (and hopefully this isn’t too much of a spoiler here), I felt like Glancy handled this story very deftly.  Parts of it definitely were sad and frustrating, but it was ultimately a story that ended on a hopeful note.

Sometimes I feel like a lot of people act as though getting up and going to work every day, having a house, being married, raising a family and some vegetables – like all of that stuff is what makes your life terrible and sucks out your soul.  But I think that the problem isn’t with a steady routine and regular work, but rather that we all too often allow ourselves to be shuttled into careers that we didn’t really choose – families pressure us into pursuing specific jobs that don’t really appeal to us, finances mean that we can’t get an education learning the thing we’re interested in, or we didn’t even realize there was another option until we’re twenty years deep into the thing we kinda hate.  It isn’t always practical to break away from a soul-sucking job, but maybe more of us could if we were willing to really look at our options and change the way we live.

At any rate, I really enjoyed Terms & Conditions, and found myself wishing Frank all the best.  4/5 for an engaging story with an unusual layout.  Recommended.

PS This book was originally brought to my attention way back in 2014 by Carol over at Reading, Writing & Riesling, so be sure to check out her review!

The Morning Gift // by Eva Ibbotson (+ life updates!)

So, first off, I did completely Princep’s Fury which was my Book 20 for 20 Books of Summer, so I was successful!!!  Totally stoked.

Secondly, things have been quite busy around here.  Somehow, summer is almost over and I still have a lot of things on my list to get done!!  So I have been painting shelves and fence and house trim and the porch, and also trying to learn how to make my own tomato sauce with tomatoes from my garden as well as freezing green beans and also hanging out with my family and trying to train the dog how to not drag me across town when we are taking a walk.  So, life is busy but good.

I have also, weirdly, been selling books.  I have this whole box of books that I keep meaning to donate or something, but there is this funny thing… not everyone reads the same books!  So, much to my surprise, people are buying the books I don’t want??  About half the books are ones random people have given me (another funny thing: people seem to think that if I like to read, it means I like to read… everything, apparently??  Because they literally hand me a pile of books and say, “Hey, I know you like to read so”.  I mean, I appreciate the sentiment but it makes me giggle sometimes).  The point is, this means that I have a little bit of spare cash… to buy books!  Do you think I could eventually make my whole book thing self-sustaining?? (HA!)

ANYWAY on to The Morning Gift.  I approached this book with mixed feelings.  The official synopsis says:

Ibbotson magically recreates pre-World War II Vienna and introduces Ruth Berger, passionate, clever, and wildly in love with Heini Radek, a young prodigy come to study piano at the Conservatoire.

… When Hitler’s forces move into Austria, Englishman Quinton Somerville offers Ruth matrimonium ad morganaticum – marriage based on the morning gift, a present given by a husband wishing to free himself from a new wife.  If she accepts, Quin will bring Ruth with him to England, and safety, as his betrothed.  The consequences of her decision are surprising – and undeniably romantic.

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//published 1993//

Now, basically my favorite trope is one in which people are married and then fall in love.  (My favorite, I think, is The Princess by Lori Wick.)  So that’s the reason that I put The Morning Gift on my list to begin with.  HOWEVER my only other experience with Ibbotson was quite negative: A Company of Swanswhich I basically hated because the characters were completely unlikable, the situation mind-blowingly unrealistic, and the couple NEVER had a conversation in which they walked away with the same understanding as to what had just happened – how am I supposed to root for a romance with two people who are literally incapable of communicating?!

Point being – I was leery of The Morning Gift but… romance after marriage…!!!

And what I got was a 3/5 read.  There were a lot of things about this book that I liked, but a lot of negatives as well.

The main positive were the setting and background characters.  These were brilliantly done.  I enjoyed every character who crossed these pages.  They all felt quite real and interesting.  I am always intrigued to hear about various subsets of people and how they were impacted by WWII.  My understanding is that Ibbotson herself left Vienna in the 1930’s, and that a lot of this background information was semi-autobiographical, and I think that that was part of what made this so realistic.

Ruth is a likable heroine.  She is intelligent and kindhearted, studious and fun.  It was easy to see why everyone loved her and wanted the best for her, but at the same time she wasn’t a perfect angel, either.

Ironically, the main problem with this story was… the story.  :-/  Parts of it made sense, but there were long sections in which I found myself wondering what in the world was going on.  About a third of the actual story should have hit the cutting room floor, and the whole thing would have flowed much better.

The beginning is good.  We meet Ruth and her family, happy in Vienna, surrounded by extended family and friends.  Ruth is a smidge spoiled, but has one of those characters that doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted by the spoiling, and is well-loved by everyone.  A distant cousin comes to stay with them, and he is a musical genius.  Ruth, who is very attracted to music, is drawn to Heini (seriously, Heini?!) when they are children, and continues to virtually worship him as they grow older.

This leads to our first hiccup.  Heini is always presented as someone who is completely self-absorbed.  He knows he is a musical prodigy, and takes advantage of everyone in pursuit of his passion.  He takes Ruth for granted and expects her to wait on him hand and foot.  Consequently, I never liked Heini, and never understood why Ruth liked him, either.  He’s never given a single characteristic that makes him likable.  And I realize that this is so that later, when Ruth stays with Quin instead, we won’t feel bad for Heini but… then it ends up feeling like there is no point to Heini’s character at all. He was definitely the last-believable and least-interesting character in the cast, put there solely to create an impractical love triangle.

So anyway, Ruth and Heini are engaged, yadda yadda, Germany is getting really interested in taking over Austria, and many of Ruth’s friends and family start to leave for England because even though they are not orthodox, they are Jewish.  Ruth is going somewhere else in the country to college when her family leaves Austria, believing that Ruth will have no problems leaving on her student visa, but there is an issue and Ruth isn’t allowed to leave.  She returns to Vienna, but everyone is gone – and Hitler invades.

Through a series of coincidences, Quin is in Vienna.  He had met Ruth’s family several years earlier, when Ruth was still a girl.  Running into her again, he feels an obligation to see her to safety.  They try a couple of options, but nothing is successful and time is running out, and so, by page 66, they are married and on their way to England.

Before the wedding, we get this conversation, wherein Quin explains to Ruth that this will be a marriage in name only:

It had been a mistake to introduce the word morganatic into a conversation that was already going badly. …

‘Who is he, this Morgan?’ [Ruth] asked.

‘He isn’t anyone,’ said Quin, sighing.  … ‘The word morganatic comes from the Latin matrimonium ad morganaticum  – a marriage based on the morning gift.  It’s a gift given the morning after the bridal night with which the husband, by bestowing it, frees himself of any liability to the wife.’

Ruth never really seems to grasp the concept of the morning gift, probably because Quin explains it terribly: I didn’t grasp the concept, either.  I was even more confused when I looked it up.  Quin’s explanation goes on to say that the morning gift means that they are basically not married any more, but according to the Wikipedia article (which is obviously correct), the morning gift was actually used in situations where one spouse (usually the husband) marries someone quite beneath him socially.  The morning gift is given because the wife and any children they have will not inherit money, land, or titles from the husband.  But the wife who receives the gift is still quite married – the husband couldn’t go off and marry someone else.  It’s just a little bonus money because that’s all the money she’s going to get.  Consequently, I never understood why Quin was dragging the morning gift into his situation at all, because it didn’t match what was happening with them.  And after this conversation on page 47, we don’t hear about the morning gift again until page 310.  What even.

In between, the story drags on and on and on, full of misunderstandings and misapprehensions.  Quin and Ruth keep their marriage a secret, and are working on getting a divorce, which is quite difficult to do at this time in England, especially since they have to wait until all of her visa stuff is settled first.  Meantime, they spend basically no time together, yet I’m supposed to believe that they are falling in love.  There’s another girl, of course, who is super weird to me.  Like Heini, she is presented as completely unlikable and honestly rather dreadful, so why would Ruth ever perceive her as a threat?  Quin is completely oblivious to the pursuit from the other girl, and consequently sends all sorts of mixed signals.

I honestly got very frustrated with Quin.  When my niece was learning to talk, she would frequently not talk, instead whining or crying because she wasn’t getting what she wanted.  Our response to that was always, “You need to use your words!”  And that’s exactly what I kept wanting to say to Quin.  USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.  QUIT EXPECTING EVERYONE TO FREAKING READ YOUR MIND.  It was super, super annoying.

I won’t even go into the ending.  Just when it appeared everything should be resolved, that ol’ morning gift reared its ugly head again and I had to drag through another fifty pages of completely impractical and unrealistic filler before finally getting to the actual end.  We’ll just say that if I had been Quin, I would have been genuinely ticked off.  (Although it’s sort of his own fault…USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.)

If it weren’t for the fantastic background and wonderful secondary characters, this book would have been a low 2/5, but those things really brought the tone of this book up.  I loved Ruth’s parents and all the neighbors and the wonderful women running the tea shop and the other professors and Ruth’s college friends.  The descriptions of everyone trying to adjust to and find a new life in England were really well done, and I loved how everyone jumped right in, trying to find a way to be useful and industrious in their new lives.

On the whole, I definitely plan to give the rest of Ibbotson’s works a miss.  Two books of unlikable and unrealistic situations, wherein all the romantic tension is created solely because the two people involved don’t know how to USE THEIR WORDS is plenty for me!

#17 for #20BooksofSummer!

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My Cousin Rachel // by Daphne du Maurier

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//published 1951//

This is one of those reviews that I probably ought to have written as soon as I finished the book, as the story gave me so many feels.  But I’ll try my best to recapture my initial emotions.

Du Maurier is an author that I added to the TBR because I had read one of her books and loved it (Rebeccaof course) but somehow had never read another of her works.  One the whole, while I didn’t love My Cousin Rachel like I did Rebecca (I’ve read Rebecca multiple times, but don’t really picture myself returning to My Cousin Rachel… well… maybe I will), it still did not disappoint.

The story begins much as Rebecca does – with the ending.  Somehow, du Maurier manages to make her first chapter actually be the epilogue of the story, and instead of ruining the ending, it adds to the tension throughout.  Just as in Rebecca we already know that the narrator will never return to Manderley – and thus spend the entire book wondering what has happened to make that so – My Cousin Rachel tells us in the very first chapter –

The point is, life has to be endured, and lived.  But how to live it is the problem.  The work of day by day presents no difficulties.  I shall become Justice of Peace, as Ambrose was, and also be returned, one day, to Parliament.  I shall continue to be honoured and respected, like all my family before me.  Farm the land well, look after the people.  No one will every guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still be doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer.  Was Rachel innocent or guilty?

And so, from the start, we know that we are not going to know whether or not Rachel is innocent or guilty (of what?  We don’t even know that, yet).  We know that our narrator, Philip, is alone.  And we know that, for some reason, he carries a “burden of blame,” although we do not yet know whether or not it is deserved.  Throughout the entire first chapter, du Maurier introduces us to a narrator who is still young, yet filled with confusion and angst about … something … something that has to do with his cousin Rachel.

Philip is an orphan, and has lived almost his entire life with his bachelor uncle, Ambrose.  Ambrose was known for not really caring for women; not only was he unmarried, he didn’t even employ any women in his household.  One of the primary landowners of the area, Ambrose was the Justice of Peace, and known for being quiet, just, kind, and intelligent.  As Ambrose grew older, his health began to deteriorate.  Philip tells us that Ambrose’s doctor recommended that he begin spending his winters in a warmer climate.  And one of those winters, when Philip was around twenty, Ambrose decided to go to Italy for his winter rest.

And there, in Italy, he met a distant cousin, Rachel, a widow.  He wrote to Philip and told him so.

“I have made the acquaintance of a connection of ours,” he wrote.  “…my cousin Rachel is a sensible woman, good company, and has taken it upon her shoulders to show me the gardens in Florence, and in Rome later, as we shall both be there at the same time.”

Still, despite Ambrose’s warm words about Rachel, Philip is shocked when he receives a letter from Ambrose telling of Ambrose’s marriage to Rachel.  And as the gaps between Ambrose’s letters get lengthier and lengthier, Philip is uneasy – a feeling that is confirmed by Ambrose’s last letters, which speak of Rachel not as a kind and loving wife, but as a gaoler, watching over him in his illness.  Ambrose hints at an even darker possibility – that of poison.  His last letter, a mere scrawl, sent Philip rushing to Italy – “For God’s sake come to me quickly.  She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.  If you delay, it may be too late.  Ambrose.”

Du Maurier does a brilliant job building this story.  Everything I have given you so far is in the first three chapters, and they are written exquisitely.  The tension is palpable, and we are given subtle looks at Philip’s character through his narration.  Philip is rather jealous when Ambrose is married, and we know from the beginning that he is suspicious of Rachel, but his story seems straightforward enough.  When Philip arrives in Italy, too late for Ambrose, who has died, he is told a different story (although not by Rachel, who has left town) – that Ambrose was suffering from a brain tumor.  His father died that way as well, and Philip is told that all of Ambrose’s paranoia stems from this.

The rest of the book, we are left wondering which it is.  Was Ambrose perfectly sane, and Rachel poisoned him for his money, and so she could marry her lover?  Or was Ambrose delusional and ill, and Rachel loved and nursed him as best she could?  Philip himself sways back and forth between the two possibilities.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t a great deal of action, I found this book entirely engrossing.  Du Maurier has crafted a set of characters who are very real.  The story feels off-kilter the entire time.  You can never find your balance, because every time you reach a decision as to Rachel’s character, you’re given a new fact or incident that throws it all into a new light.

Throughout, Philip came across as incredibly young. I think that du Maurier capture that perfectly, that blend of arrogance and self-consciousness that one has when one is twenty.  That constant swing between complete confidence that one has solved all the world’s problems and that the old are rather ridiculous and hidebound, and the uncertainty and worry about how other people are viewing and judging you and whether or not you’re doing everything the way one ought to.  My early twenties are definitely the least favorite years I’ve lived yet, where you’re expected to be an adult and to make adult decisions, and yet you actually have no earthly idea what you’re doing.  Philip’s voice embodies all of that, blusteringly confident on one page, and agonizingly indecisive on the next.

I personally had a mild beef with the ending, which I’ll put below the cut.  Please only read it if you’ve read the book – because you should all read the book, and you should read it without knowing the ending.  It’s fantastic writing, and has definitely cemented my need to read all of du Maurier’s works.

20booksfinal#15 for #20BooksofSummer!

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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!

The Time in Between // by Maria Duenas

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//published 2009//

So quite a while back I came to an embarrassing realization: I had literally no idea what Spain was doing during World War II.  And, as I explored that question, I came across another bit of history I didn’t realize had happened – Spain had a huge, violent, still-divisive-to-this-day civil war in the 1930’s, which only goes to prove that I’m really not that great at history.  Anyway, at the time, I read a really good book on the Spanish civil war called The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution & Revenge by Paul Preston.  It’s been a few years since I read it, but a lot of the high points have stuck with me, as it was genuinely quite fascinating.

The Time in Between is a historical fiction novel set in and around Spain in the 1930s and 40s.  Our story is told by Sira Quiroga, a quiet, controlled voice who reflects back on her life through these pages.  Sira spends a few chapters on her early life and background: the only child of a single mother, no knowledge of who her father is, an apprentice dressmaker following in her mother’s footsteps.  Sira makes a big mistake by running away with a dashing young man who convinces her to leave behind all she knows in Madrid – including her mother and fiancee – to start a new life with him in Morocco.  Of course the young man turns out to be a cad who steals everything she has and basely abandons her.  The rest of our story follows Sira as she builds a new life – and identity – for herself in Morocco and beyond.

If you read the dust jacket flap summary, it tells us that Sira becomes a spy for the British during World War II, and I think that I went into this book thinking that that would be the bulk of the story.  However, that part doesn’t really come into play until maybe two-thirds of the way through the book.  This definitely isn’t a spy novel: it is simply the story of a woman, and part of her story was being a spy.

I really, really enjoyed this book a great deal.  I frequently have trouble with books that have “A NOVEL” on the front, as they tend to be needlessly dire and depressing, but despite the very real troubles Sira faced, the book avoided becoming maudlin.  While Sira is no Pollyanna, she still works hard to provide for herself and those she loves, and I really admired her for that.  The story was not fast-paced, but it very rarely bogged down, and, on the whole, kept my attention for the entirety of its 600-odd pages.

The weirdest thing that happened in this book was this bizarre switch around the middle of the book.  Until this point, Sira has told us about her own life first, and about the political situation in Spain/Morocco/Europe as it directly impacts her.  But suddenly, for two or three chapters, she launches into this rather strange overview of the political situation and main players in Spain, including a lot of personal insider information.  At the very end of this section, she tells us that she got this information from a friend’s letters, which made it make sense, but I spent those chapters wondering what in the world was going on, as Sira was telling me a bunch of stuff that there is no way she could have known.  It really seemed like the section could have been prefaced with the fact that the information was from the friend’s letters or, even better, eliminated completely as they had minimal information that actually had a bearing on the story.

Even though I really wanted to, I couldn’t quite get behind the love story part of this book.  Honestly, the only reason I knew who the love interest even was was because I skipped to the very end of the book to make sure that the author wasn’t planning to kill off absolutely everyone in Sira’s life.  (I very, very rarely read the end of the book ahead, but I have been brutally scarred by novels of this type before, and I really didn’t want to invest 600 pages and then find out that Sira’s business failed, her house burned down, her mother got raped and murdered, and Sira was sold into slavery, all in the last chapter as some kind of poetic justice.)  Anyway, point is, we know this guy for several chapters and it isn’t until he’s leaving that Sira’s like, “Yeah, wow, I really love that guy.  Oh well.”  Like she presents it as her being so wounded by the bad guy who abandoned her that she was unwilling to allow herself to fall in love, but it really came across as a completely unconvincing love story.  When she runs into this guy a few years later, I don’t really get her passionate need to make sure he’s safe.  I don’t have anything against the guy, I just wasn’t convinced that Sira really loved him.

However, I did feel that Duenas did friendship really well in this story.  Sira’s friendship with Rosalinda is really well done.  (Another situation where I kept waiting for Rosalinda to actually turn out to be a terrible person and betray Sira, but she didn’t because Rosalinda is actually a really lovely person.)  I liked watching their relationship develop.

It sounds absurd for a novel of this length, but honestly my biggest beef with this book was that it felt like it ended really abruptly.  Sira finally seemed to be finding her feet with this whole spy-thing, and then she was just like, “yeah and so we just kept on keeping on, good times” and that was the end.  Considering she’s writing all this as a looking-back thing, it would have been nice to have a little “I’m writing this while my 17 grandchildren play out in the yard and later I’m walking across the street for tea with Rosalinda” kind of thing, but there is basically no closure.  It’s not really like anything is left hanging, it’s just that it feels like the story just… stops.  As though it could have ended at any one of several points in the book, and I’m not sure why the author chose this particular one.

Overall though, I definitely recommend this book.  Except for those few random chapters, Duenas works the history into the story really seamlessly, giving us glimpses of Spain, Morocco, and Europe that were really quite fascinating.  The translation, by the way, was faultless.  If I hadn’t known that this book wasn’t originally written in English, I never would have guessed it.  The language is beautiful.

Although it’s a long one, this is a classic historical fiction novel: a well-researched backdrop, a likable – and relatable – narrator, wonderfully drawn secondary characters, and steady pacing.  Recommended.  4/5.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves // by Karen Joy Fowler

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//published 2013//

This book was first brought to my attention by Carol’s review over on Reading, Writing & Riesling, so many thanks!!

This unique story centers on Rosemary – who is also our narrator (past tense, thank goodness!) – and her family.  Rosemary tells us in her introduction that she is going to start from the middle of her story and work out from there, and the ploy works brilliantly, pulling the reader into her life as she gives us gentle teasers of her past in a way that is thoroughly engaging.

This is a book that is nearly impossible to review, I think, without spoilers.  Suffice to say here that while I found the story engrossing, I was conflicted about the “message” that story told.  One of the foundational premises is one that does not sit completely comfortably with me.  So while I recommend the story, I am not sure I can recommend the book, if that makes any sense.

Still, the writing was strong, and although the ending was bittersweet (and a bit open-ended), I found that my genuine affection for Rosemary and my interest in her life carried me through the book to its conclusion, and left me determined to find more of Fowler’s books.

For spoiler-filled thoughts, see  below!

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SPOILERS.  SERIOUSLY.

Okay, short version:  In the beginning of the story, we find out that Rosemary  had a sister during her childhood, and as things unfold we know that Fern disappeared/was taken/is missing.  Later, we find that Fern was not, in fact, human, but was a chimpanzee who was raised alongside of Rosemary as part of a social experiment to raise a chimp as/concurrently with a human child.  However, I don’t think chimpanzees are human, and I don’t think that we should treat them as humans.  This doesn’t mean that I believe they should be used and abused in experiments and random testing, but I was never comfortable with Rosemary’s assertion that Fern was her sister, or the concept that her parents could have loved a chimp as much as their own human daughter.  While the story was poignant and had a great deal of depth, the ending really just turned into a weird cry for “justice” for chimpanzees, as well as a sweeping statement against all animal testing, all large farms, and basically anything else that keeps animals in captivity.  It got a little extreme for me.  I have grown up in a farming community and don’t really appreciate the misrepresentation that construes all farms as evil places that squeeze animals into tiny stalls and never let them see grass or sunshine.  While true in some instances, it just isn’t the way that most agriculture happens.

I don’t believe in evolution and don’t believe that we are descendants of apes and don’t believe that chimps are our “brethren” or any other such nonsense.  The idea that Rosemary’s family could love Fern and treat her the same way that would have an adopted human baby is just weird and creepy to me.

The importance of eliminating animal cruelty and bizarre animal testing is not lost on me.  I would never condone the purposeful mistreatment of animals.  However, animals are not human, and I do not believe that animals should be granted the same exact rights and protections that we give humans.  Rosemary’s horror that Fern could be owned and sold (and her mental equating of that to owning and selling humans) was a bit over the top for me.

Still.  A good story and an emotional one that definitely kept me turning the pages.  While I may not have agreed with its core value, the book did an excellent job of raising questions and conversation – I can see this being a great book for a book club or other situation where people are reading and discussing together.

The Crane Wife // by Patrick Ness

//published 2013//

//published 2013//

There are books that don’t make sense to me, and it really annoys me.  Those are the books where it feels like the author is trying to hard, trying to be clever, and comes across as extremely smug.  The people who do (or at least claim to) understand those books are even worse…  I can’t tell you how many people have completely patronized me over my sort of ::shrug:: attitude towards Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events…  books that I found to be fine but…  pointless?  Apparently I’m too stupid to understand the point?  I’ve had a lot of people willing to tell me that I’m too stupid to understand them but, interestingly, not a single one willing to actually explain them to me.  Ah well.

The point is, there are also books that don’t make sense to me, but it’s okay.  There is a depth and a magic to them, and I want to read them again (and maybe again), trying to glean the next level of understanding from them.  The Crane Wife was definitely in this latter category.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t really get it at all.

Based on a Japanese myth and a song by The Decemberists, Ness has crafted a story that is genuinely beautiful.  I picked up this book because I loved Ness’s A Monster Calls so very much.  While The Crane Wife did not touch me at quite the same level, it was still a book I found myself thinking about days after I finished it.

George is a middle-aged shopkeeper in London.  He owns a small print shop.  Divorced with an adult daughter, American by birth, unassuming and quiet, George lives a rather dull and lonely life.  And then, one night, he hears a cry.  In the garden is a crane, her wing pierced by an arrow.  George saves the crane’s life.  The next morning, a woman enters his shop, and George’s life changes completely.

This is not a story of mystery.  We know from the outset that Kumiko must be the crane – but why?  And how?  Ness left me feeling disoriented much of the story – is magic real or is it not?  Is there going to be some kind of logical, scientific explanation for everything that’s happened?  Is Kumiko really the crane?  Which story is real – the story of George, or the story Kumiko tells?

Interwoven with the story of George and Kumiko is the story Kumiko is telling with her artwork, and the story of George’s daughter, Amanda, who has a whole litany of troubles of her own.

I literally cannot describe this story, and don’t ask me to explain it, either.

‘A story must be told.  How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’

‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.

‘Yes,” Kumiko said, seriously.  ‘Exactly that.  The extraordinary  happens all the time.  So much, we can’t take it.  Life and happiness and heartache and love.  If we couldn’t put it into a story – ‘

‘And explain it – ‘

‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp.  ‘Not explain.  Stories do not explain.  They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point.  A story never ends at the end.  There is always after.  And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel.  No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows.  The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us … as it surely, surely would.’

And yet, despite the fact that I have no words to create a sensible review, this book was hauntingly beautiful and thoroughly engaging.  The development of relationships  between Kumiko and George, Kumiko and Amanda, and even George and his family/colleagues is extremely well done.

In a way, this is a story simply about being human, and what that means.

There were parts of the story that had me rolling my eyes a bit – I almost didn’t make it through the first chapter after I had to spend several paragraphs with George in his bathroom in the middle of the night as he urinates.  I mean, really?  There is such a thing as too much background to what’s happening.

But on the whole, this book was delightful, haunting, sad, yet strangely uplifting.  Like A Monster Calls, which is by no means a happy book, it manages to explore sadness in a way that reminds us that much of life can be sad, yet not hopeless.

At the end of the day, I book I didn’t really “get” completely, but still enjoyed, and would be happy to pick up again someday.  4/5.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell // by Susanna Clarke

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//published 2004//

This is one of those books that has been floating around my TBR for quite some time, and I have no clear idea how it landed there.  I don’t distinctly remember reading a review of it, but it seems to be one of those books that I frequently hear referred to in a rather sidelong manner.  And I must say – I don’t really know what to make of this books.  In an odd way, it put me in mind of the Series of Unfortunate Events – a book that somehow isn’t at my level of understanding.  For me, a 2/5 – I can understand why its average Goodreads rating is much closer to a 4/5, but it just isn’t for me.

The book is a rich one.  At over 800 pages, it is a brick of a book, and I honestly dithered about finishing it…  I decided to give it 150 pages to make its case, and although I wasn’t completely hooked  by then, I was engaged enough to want to see where things went.  It’s a slow-paced book that covers a decade of time – a decade in which it genuinely feels like more ought to have happened, but didn’t.

The slow world-building, enhanced by Clarke’s numerous footnotes (more on those in a moment), was impressive.  Clarke builds a true sense of this alternate-reality she has created.  Her interweaving of actual history into her world was very well done.

So why can I not summon up warmer feelings for this book?  I wanted to love this book, truly I did.  But, in the end, it just never quite hooked me.  While many layers of many characters are revealed, I still never felt bonded with any of them.  I could never quite believe in the depth of Strange’s affection for his wife, so the many actions he takes to rescue her felt awkward to me.  The entire ending was rather abrupt (especially for a book of such length), and I felt a little betrayed that (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) that, after all that effort, Strange and his wife are not really reunited…????

I had very mixed feelings about the footnotes as well.  While I liked them as an alternative to endless explanatory dialogue, they were also more than a bit distracting, occurring as they often did in the middle of sentences and sometimes running on to a page or more in length, entire little stories of their own.  In some ways this was fun, and in other ways  – most of the time, if I’m honest – it was plain aggravating.

By halfway through, I once again felt that I was at a crossroads – should I finish this book??  But I just kept feeling as though something had to happen – that things would pick up – that a plot would suddenly appear – that I would like someone – so I kept on.  Honestly, I regret that decision.  I lugged this incredibly heavy book on holiday to finish the last 200 pages, and then just sat there, staring at the last page, feeling incredibly ripped off.  I don’t usually feel annoyed about books when I’m done with them, but I did this one.

In the end, I think my rather meh feelings towards this book come back to the fact that I didn’t love any of the characters.  They were fine, but I never truly felt bound up in their fate.  It seemed, that with that many pages to tell the tale, there ought to have been at least one person for whom I cherished a sincere affection and concern – but there wasn’t.  Instead, the whole story felt ponderous, heavy, and a bit prosy – Clarke frequently flirted with the line between well-researched and stuffily pleased with her knowledge.

There are many (many) positive reviews for this book, so by no means discard it on my word.  But for myself – I must confess that I don’t really understand the hype surrounding this book that, in my mind, could have been culled down by half quite easily…

 

Eleanor & Park

//by Rainbow Rowell//published 2013//

71LkLmxqgjLSo Rainbow Rowell is one of those authors that I keep hearing people go on about and keeping thinking that I should read.  I actually did read her book Landline back in the early summer, but that was right before the house-buying chaos broke loose, and I just never reviewed it.  But I found the writing to be engaging, and decided that it would be worthwhile to check out her other titles, which brings us to Eleanor & Park.  

First things first: I actually enjoyed this book.  The word that keeps coming to me while I’m thinking about this book is thoughtful.  Not quite to “profound,” but definitely a book that gives you something to chew on.  There is more going on than just the bare bones of the story.

But here are the bare bones of the story nonetheless:  Eleanor is the new girl in high school, and she’s all wrong.  Her hair is crazy, her clothes are crazy, she says things that are crazy.  In high school, where the mantra is blend in, Eleanor does her own thing.  Park is one of those quiet, middle-ground guys.  Not popular, but no one messes with him, either.  But when he ends up sharing his seat on the bus with Eleanor, both of their lives change.

The book cover says “This is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.”  And really, that’s the type of sentence to make me back away from a book as quickly as possible, but I’m glad I looked past it, because it’s truly an incredibly inaccurate statement.

Eleanor & Park is so much more than a teenage love story.  I walked away from this book with a strong conviction, a reminder that there is so much more to people than we can see.  We see someone around and wonder why they dress or talk or act a certain way, a way that, to us, seems really rather absurd.  But the truth of the matter is that we have no idea what has brought that person to where they are now.  We have no idea what forces have shaped them, what circumstances face them at home, or what fears haunt them.

For me, that was what this book was about.  About two teens who at least got a glimmer of the importance of learning to accept people where they are and for who they are, instead of expecting them to conform to some preconceived idea of what a certain person should look like.

The story itself was engaging.  Eleanor and Park are both very likable, despite (because of?) their flaws.  I loved the fact that Park comes from a happy family, with parents who are still married and still love each other. So refreshing.  Especially since Park recognizes it as something really great, as something that he wants for himself someday –

His parents never talked about how they met, but when Park was younger, he used to try to imagine it.

He loved how much they loved each other.  It was the thing he thought about what he woke up scared in the middle of the night.  Not that they loved him – they were his parents, they had to love him.  That they loved each other.  They didn’t have to do that.

None of his friends’ parents were still together, and in every case, that seemed like the number one thing that had gone wrong with his friends’ lives.

But Park’s parents loved each other.  They kissed each other on the mouth, no matter who was watching.

And Park’s happy home life felt every bit as realistic as Eleanor’s bleak one.  It never felt like Park’s parents were special, or superhumans, to have stayed married all this time.  One gets the strong sense of choice.  Eleanor’s parents made very bad ones, while Park’s have tried to make good ones, starting with the choice to stay together, and, more, to stay in love.

I also appreciated that the physical aspect of Park and Eleanor’s relationship was not the main focus.  They become friends first.  This isn’t a story of instalove, and it isn’t a story of passionate necking whenever they get a spare second (although there is a bit of it), it’s a story of friendship.

He tried to remember how this had happened – how she went from someone he’d never met to the only one who mattered.

It’s a story that sounds like it should be a bit cheesy, but somehow isn’t.  It’s a story that sounds like it should be overly-dramatic and depressing, but somehow isn’t.  It’s a story that sounds like something I would hate, but somehow isn’t.

Eleanor & Park comes away with 4/5 and as a recommended read – a narrative that manages to be thoughtful and engaging, despite being a teenage love story.