In medieval Spain, an old world is coming to an end. The tribes of Al-Rassan are amassing for the final conflict that will shape the future to come, leaving behind a once great empire. Into these dark times comes Jehane, a sharp and resourceful Kindath physician who is about to discover that her once ordered and solid existence is about to be changed forever. When she meets Ammar ibn Khairan, her fate is complicated further and the two form a very unlikely and uneasy alliance. Ammar ibn Khairan, adviser to the King of Cartada, his just committed an act that brands him as a monster in the realm of Al-Rassan and he must flee in order to preserve his life. Meanwhile, Captain Rodrigo Belmonte is banished by his king and must leave his family behind as he takes refuge in enemy territory and is forced into a war he does not want to fight. Two of the three local tribes, the Jaddites and the Asharites, are vying for domination through a holy war that will consume the nation and banish the once great empire of Al-Rassan into oblivion. In this intricate work of historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay gives us a civilization on the brink of holy war and introduces us to both the mighty and the meek who fight it.
I've been meaning to read a book from Guy Gavriel Kay for a long time. Though I rarely read fantasy, I've come across too many positive reviews and comments about Kay's work to ignore them and actually thought I would start with the first book in the Fiovinar Tapestry. The my good buddy Aarti suggested another read-along and told me how much she admired this book. She even told me she was crazy about Amaar and that he was her literary boyfriend. This I could not ignore, so I decided that this was a book I wanted to share with her. So we read it. And I. Was. Blown. Away. It was thrilling and exciting. It made me giggle and it made me cry. It made me want to read it all over again once I turned the final page. And best of all, it made me realize that Kay is an author that I have no business ignoring. So without further ado, I give you our conversation about The Lions of Al-Rassan. Make sure to pop on over to Aarti's site when you're done here to read the interesting Q & A we've put together.
Heather: I've really been thinking about this book a lot since I have finished it! I think the way Kay created such a vibrant and complex society and world was just amazing. There was just so much depth in the politics and the religion that it was constantly intriguing to read. I had been thinking a lot about the aspects of religion in this book and did some reading on Wikipedia. I hadn't realized that the three races were meant to convey the Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Aarti: I think I knew that going into this book, but that is also because I know that Kay bases most of his novels on religious past (except perhaps Tigana, which is more about the effects of colonialism). For example, A Song for Arbonne is about southern France's troubadour culture (and also has a lot of poetry and music in it as well- Kay is also a poet). I think Lions is supposed to be about Spain during the Moorish conquest era and just after that.
Heather: It's really cool that Kay goes to extreme lengths to make his stories culturally relevant, and also that he seems to be tackling a lot of different areas with each successive book he writes. That level of detail and research takes the book to another level, I think. It also inspires me to do more digging into history to get the scoop behind what the intentions of the story shake out to be. I always love it when a book I'm reading makes me want to do research and explore more fully a subject that I hadn't previously given much thought. I also think it's funny that as a Christian, I identified with the Kindath the most, as they were supposed to represent the Jews!
Aarti: I feel the same way! I wonder if Kay did that on purpose, make the Kindath so easy to identify with. Though also, I really liked the Asharite court at Ragosa.
Heather: It was interesting to see that out of the three religions, two were ultra-concerned with domination and subjugation, to the point that they could have destroyed not only the people they were trying to conquer, but themselves as well. I think there are so many things to think about when considering the religious overtones in this book. Kay has a way of being relevant yet shocking at the same time.
Aarti: I liked that, too! I think I remember reading somewhere that the Crusades really were less about religion than they were about domination and power. I don't know if I believe that entirely, considering that the Middle Ages seemed to have been populated by religious zealots, but I could also see a more pragmatic and wily ruler using religion to press a different issue entirely, which was certainly done in this book. There is a sense of fighting against the inevitable in this book, holding back the darkness for just as long as you are able, even though you know you are going to lose. I loved that.
Heather: Yes, that was very touching and sad. They were fighting against things that were so much greater, and it didn't matter that they would lose. It only mattered that they had to try to hold on to the beauty and way of life they had known, for as long as they could. There were a lot of allusions to that in other parts of the story as well. And I think that is a lot of how Ammar felt about the fall of Al-Rassan, and especially about what was lost when the last Kalihef (I know I spelled that wring, but the book wasn't handy!) was killed. This book had strong themes of lament in it, mostly about the loss of a way of life and a time that would be slowly erased forever.
Aarti: Yes, absolutely. And in that way, it's really almost universal. It reminds me of the way people fought colonization, of the native American tribes fighting the whites, even the Confederate states fighting the North. People will do a lot to protect their own way of life. Even now, in Europe, they are so terrified of immigration ruining their culture. That's how the Slow Food movement started in Italy, actually- to preserve Italian food. Which is fairly ethnocentric, in my opinion, but understandable.
Heather: I liked the fact that all the characters were so rich as well. The men were honorable (well, most of them!) and the women were strong and independent, which I had really not been expecting. I have to say that it's rare for a book to be completely populated by strong characters, but this one was. Every character was so deeply realized and executed, and I found them all to be truely interesting. It was also interesting to wonder about what they were going to do next, and a lot of the time that I wasn't reading, I spent trying to figure out where this story was going and what was going to happen to these people that I was growing to love.
Aarti: I agree! I loved all the characters as well. I think in this read-through, I just had so much respect for Mazur, more so than on my previous read. He seemed like such a wise and interesting person, and his friendship with King Badir was so touching. I also liked getting to know more about his character through the POV of Yadir- learning about his thoughts on religion was so fascinating.
Heather: The inclusion of the poetry in this book was wonderful as well. I thought it was all deeply symbolic and very well written. I liked that some of the characters actually did a little of the decoding and analyzing for me as well. It helped me see that the poems were filled with messages about the story and actually forced me to pay a bit more attention to them.
Aarti: I am positive I didn't get some of the poetry symbolism!
Heather: Oh, I most definitely didn't get all the symbolism in the poetry and was glad that there was some guidance in the narrative! I've read that symbolism is really a subjective thing, and it can mean different things to different people. That makes it doubly hard to understand for me, because if it can be interpreted differently by each person, how do you know if you get it right? I'm glad I had a guiding hand with all of that in this book. I guess Kay wanted to make sure the reader got it! I had such an amazing time with this book, and it's so rich that I probably could pick it right back up and read it again and get another whole level of understanding on it. I am so, so glad that we decided on this one.
Aarti: I know what you mean! I feel like while I was reading, I kept thinking, "I should note this passage to talk about with Heather," but I never did note them because I just wanted to keep reading. I think the whole epilogue was wonderfully written, and so sad.
I was thrilled to get the chance to read this book with such a good friend, and to be able to discuss it and pick it apart. It was the kind of epic story that you can get caught up in and savor, and for awhile there, I was recommending this to any ear that was open. I think it's important to note that even if you are the type of reader who shies away from fantasy, there is something about this book that has a universal appeal. It's characters, setting and plot are in a word exceptional, and I think Kay's skill in the literary form is something to be admired. Not only was I highly surprised by this book, it also earned a place on my favorites shelf, which is really rare these days. Now you can head on over to Aarti's site to see our answers to the Q&A!
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
One morning as Luke is playing in the playground, he befriends another boy who he quickly identifies as Daniel. Daniel soon realizes that he has no memories before coming in contact with Luke and follows him home to become part of his life. But the other people surrounding Luke can't or don't see Daniel, and before long he realizes that he is, in fact, an imaginary part of the boy's consciousness. Living with his sometimes psychotic mother who has just gone through a messy divorce, Luke is far from being well-adjusted and Daniel becomes Luke's confidant and companion. But Daniel is not benign, and when Luke begins to spend time away from him, Daniel grows jealous and calculating, goading Luke into doing terrible things that soon have his mother seeking professional help for him. Soon Daniel is bottled up in Luke's consciousness and Luke is free to live his life. But underneath it all, Daniel is waiting for his opportunity to escape and wreak havoc once again. Discovering that he himself becomes stronger when Luke grows weaker, Daniel works this angle and continually seeks to keep Luke off balance, both emotionally and psychically, until the day that he can take over Luke's life as his own. Both dark and twisted, In This Way I Was Saved packs a psychological punch that will keep readers on the edge of their seats, asking themselves just what is real and what is not.
I have to say that although I loved the idea and premise of this book, the actuality started to go downhill for me rather quickly. There was a great potential for this to be a seriously creepy and disturbing book, and although there were flashes of dark brilliance in it, I felt that the author pulled a lot of punches and lost his footing in a number of ways. There were some really creepy and nightmare-inducing factors in this story, but it felt almost as if the author didn't go all the way with them and a lot of the supposed dark drama of the book really had much less of an impact than I would have liked.
It was never really clear to me while reading whether Daniel was some kind of horrifying imaginary friend, whether he was a part of Luke that remained hidden under the facade of everyday normality, or whether he was indeed a ghost. There was contradictory evidence for each of these scenarios, and the further I got into the book, the more these ideas clashed with each other, making a lot of this story unravel for me. At times Luke does things that Daniel makes him do, indicating that he was more of an influence on Luke rather than a part of him. But at other times it's as if Daniel is moving through Luke and doing things that he would not normally want to do, making me believe that Daniel was a facet of Luke that he tried to keep well hidden. Don't even get me started about the times Daniel does things independently of Luke; things that Luke is not even involved with. This was all confusing to me and didn't make much sense in terms of the story that DeLeeuw was trying to tell. It's one thing to suspend your sense of disbelief while reading a story like this but quite another to have the terms constantly changed within and amongst this imaginary environment and its players. Is it a story of the emergence of mental illness or a ghost story? This is one of the things that never became clear.
Another thing that bothered me was that a lot of it seemed very plebeian and mismatched. I just didn't understand why there were some scenes of intense horror and macabre mixed in with other rather ordinary accounts of teen sexuality, drug use and domestic drama. It felt off, and I think it made for a very uneven story. Towards the beginning of the book, there was a scene that I can only describe as horrifically penetrating, and after reading it, I came to expect that a certain level of creepiness would continue to permeate the book. But abruptly, it became a different kind of story filled with rather common elements and concerns that I grew rather bored with. I had thought that Daniel was supposed to be a dark and foreboding character constantly on the fringes of Luke's psyche. So why was he trying to feel up girls at a party and playing cruel jokes on Luke's mother? I just didn't get it. There was a sense that this story got away from its author, and that significant plot points were rather mismanaged, making for a story that was sometimes bizarre and sometimes confusing.
There was a whole subplot involving the mystery publishing house that Luke's mother owned and one of the tales they published about a doppelganger. I would have really liked to see more of this part of the story or for it to have had a little more focus in the narrative. I could see that DeLeeuw was trying to coalesce this part of the story into the story of Daniel, but this section was given short shrift and it didn't really fit in with what the story had become. Had this subplot turned in another direction and been more closely related to what was going on between Daniel and Luke, it might have ended up being a better read for me. Part of the reason the book wasn't more interesting to me was the fact that the things that went on between Luke and Daniel were never fully explained or defined. Maybe there was a subtle subtext that I was missing, but I don't really think so.
As the ending of the story was fully foreshadowed in the first few pages of the book, it wasn't at all a surprise for me, which bothered me as well. There was no mystery here, and since I knew how it was all going to wrap up anyway, I was hesitant to even read it through to the end. I'm not sure why the author chose to do things this way, but I, for one, didn't exactly feel like it was the best way the story could have been managed. The last few pages were particularly mind-boggling, as now the book had taken on a new shape that didn't fit within the world the author had created. The story of just what Daniel was, was constantly morphing, and I felt that if the author had just picked one path and stayed with it, it would have ended up being a much more affecting read.
Although I didn't end up enjoying this book, I do believe that others out there who are not quite as picky as I am regarding these kids of stories might find this book a little more interesting than I did. DeLeeuw had a rather unique way of constructing his tale and I would be interested in seeing more of his work, not only as a comparison to this book but also as a way to see what other ideas he has up his sleeve. Overall a perplexing book.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Living in 15th century Spain, Luis de Santángel has just been caught in the cross-hairs of the new Inquisition. Santángel is a very wealthy and respected member of the community and also the chancellor to Fernando, the King of Aragon. But he is also a Jewish covert to Christianity, and when he begins to cast about looking for information and edification of his forgotten and displaced faith, he and his family are put into great danger. Though Santángel tries to exercise discretion and stealth in regards to his new curiosity, he attracts the attention of Thomas Torquemada, the leader of the new Inquisition, who goes to great and torturous lengths to punish both nonbelievers and those who he believes to be escaping from the fold. As Spain struggles to dominate and unify its kingdoms under severe Christian rule and Christopher Columbus petitions Ysabel and Fernando to finance a trip to the prosperous Indies, Santángel's once envious life begins to unravel. Meanwhile, Judith Migdal, a Jewish woman living in Granada, is facing her own trials. After losing half her family to tragedy, Judith must reorganize her life and learn the difficult craft of silversmithing in order to provide for the remaining family members. When a chance meeting between Santángel and Judith occurs, the two are inexplicably drawn towards one another, forcing each to examine the strength of their beliefs and the ways in which their futures may intersect. In this intricately crafted and exceptionally researched new historical novel, Kaplan brings to life a cast of characters who are caught in the craze of a dangerous religious fervor and explores the way in which those people remain true to themselves and to those that they love.
In the past few months, I have read quite a bit about the Inquisition and the effects it had on the people it persecuted. This has actually been a rather new area for me to study, and the more I'm exposed to it in the books I read, the more questions I have. What I really liked about this book was the way the repercussions for those affected were examined with great depth and sensitivity. After finally closing the book for the last time, I really felt it was the best representation of those fateful events that I could have sought out and read.
From the outset, it was clear to me that Luis de Santángel had an extremely comfortable life. Aside from his wealth and position, he had a family that loved and supported him, and I can imagine that it wasn't bad to have the king's ear and attention when he needed it. But Luis was hungering for something that he didn't have access to in his everyday life. He wanted answers about the faith that he was forced to leave behind, knowing that seeking these answers would endanger everything he held dear. I don't even think it was a matter of Luis wanting to convert back to Judaism. I think it was more a way for him to hold on to the values and ideals of his ancestors and a way for him to puzzle out some of the deeper questions he had about God. Luis' was a quest for knowledge, but in its discovery, his intentions got misconstrued and perverted. Although he tried to mitigate the disaster, the powers against him were too strong to resist successfully.
The representation of the Inquisition brought forth a lot of questions while I was reading. How does one man, or one group of men, come to believe that they can accurately police the spirituality that lives in another's soul? Indeed, what would God think about this? My religious education has taught me that God is a being of mercy and love who forgives those with sincerity in their hearts. But the Inquisitors had no room for mercy or forgiveness, and dealt with people brutally, leaving no room for those who were spiritually adrift or who questioned their faith. These men had an agenda that I believe was not from God, and I began to feel that all their punishments were only meant to dominate and subjugate those who they felt were spiritually unworthy. I can't imagine living in a time where your inner motives are constantly suspect and where another person has the right to torture you or take your life due to perceived spiritual discrepancies. It was was a shameful time, filled with shameful men who knew nothing about the love and forgiveness of God.
I also really liked the dual narrative half that focused on the life of Judith Migdal. She was a worthy heroine who embodied a clarity of purpose and an inner strength that I admired. When faced with a problem, Judith was resourceful and optimistic and she has great loyalty to those in her sphere. Pairing her with Luis also seemed like a brilliant move because both of them had similar strengths and resoluteness. Though they came from very different spiritual backgrounds, they were able to see beyond these things and get to the core of each other rather quickly. The fact that Luis became enamored of Judith was another danger that he took upon himself, but to him, this risk seemed to be of small consequence. The intertwining of these two characters gave the story an added layer of depth and resonance. I would have liked to have seen a more hopeful resolution to the story of Judith and Luis, but somehow what Kaplan did felt more realistic and faithful to the times he was describing.
Call me naïve, but it actually took me some time to figure out that the Cristobal Colon that was discussed in the narrative was none other than Christopher Columbus. It did became very clear in later sections, but for the first half of the story, it went by almost unnoticed. I liked the way that Kaplan fit Columbus into the story, and in his creation, Columbus came off as not only an adventurer but a scholar and a loyal friend. I was also surprised to learn that Luis (who was also a real historical figure) was the main financier for Columbus' trip to the Indies, and had it not been for him, the world may have been a different place today. This is one of the reasons I really enjoy well-written and researched historical fiction. It fills in the gaps in my education in a way that is inviting to read about and gives me a much more rounded and balanced picture of historical events and the way they played out.
As a reader and lover of historical fiction, I get very excited when I feel that a book has accurately and skillfully represented the times it describes. This book did that perfectly for me and I think other readers of historical fiction would also glean a great deal from it. Kaplan not only handles his history well, he also creates characters that are easy to identify with and care for, which made this book an engrossing read. The style of the writing was also very tight and fluid, which is something that earns it extra points in my book. If you are in any way interested in the events and place that Kaplan features so wonderfully in his book, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend picking up a copy and giving it a try. A great and absorbing read.
Visit the author's website here.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Friday, October 22, 2010
When Vera Dietz's best friend Charlie dies under mysterious circumstances, she is left bereft, angry and confused. You see, Vera is struggling with her feelings because in the months leading up to Charlie's death, things had changed drastically between them. Charlie had started to hang out with a different and more dangerous crowd and began to engage in some pretty risky behavior. He also began to feel negatively about Vera through no fault of her own. Not only is Vera dealing with the death of Charlie, she's trying to stay ahead in school while working a full time job as a pizza delivery technician and attempting to help her father in dealing with his bottled emotions. It's all just too much for her, and when she begins to see Charlie's ghost, who is trying to get her to uncover the secret of his death, Vera goes a little haywire. Now it's up to Vera to set things right and find a way to deal with her overcrowded and tumultuous life. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a serious yet charming read that tells the story of a young woman who is trying fix all the broken things in her life while still being true to herself.
I was really excited to get the chance to read this book after reading Lenore's wonderful review. Lenore actually sent me her copy, and while I don't read much in the area of YA fiction, there was just something about this book that intrigued me. It was a pretty fast read and while I didn't love everything about it, it was certainly an interesting book that had me flipping the pages to find out just how the story would end.
Vera is not your typical eighteen year old. She works full time, is doing well in school, and though she can be snarky at times, is a pretty well-adjusted person. Though she's dealing with the death of a friend whom she has conflicting emotions about, Vera doesn't end up in a severe funk and her downward spiral is more gradual and subdued. There are some problems with Vera though, and soon she begins to delve into alcohol abuse and starts to date an older man. Though Vera's voice on the page felt very real and organic, there were times I had trouble connecting with her. I think it was because she handled things in a very different way than I would have. I completely understood her anger towards Charlie, but at times, I felt that she was being unnecessarily stubborn when it came to dealing with the questions surrounding his death. In later sections of the book, Vera is moved to finally seek out answers, and when she does, those answers impact almost everyone around her.
I liked the relationship that Vera had with her father, and could fully relate to it. Vera's father was more than a little overprotective, though he really didn't need to be. At times I felt he could be a little demanding, because it was his idea for Vera to hold down a full time job while going to school, which I felt put a lot of pressure on her. Though father and daughter argued at times, there was an unmistakable bond between them that was further cemented as the story moved forward. I think Vera's father was written in a very realistic way, for there are a lot of parents who feel like the only way to keep their children safe is to begin micromanaging their lives. Vera doesn't tell her father everything, and some of the things he discovers about his daughter shock him and make him angry. For the most part, the parent-child relationship rang true here, and though there was some resentment on Vera's part, she seemed like the kind of person who respected her father underneath it all.
Reading about Charlie made me a little upset. As a child and teenager, he grew up in an abusive household and began to make some unwise decisions early on. His friendship with Vera seemed to be the one thing holding him in orbit, and when that was destroyed, he began to drift off into more and more dangerous situations. We've all had a friend like Charlie: Someone who is basically a good person but whose life is out of control and reckless. I think a lot of Charlie's problems came from his home atmosphere but were exacerbated by the people he chose to make friends with. I couldn't shake the sadness of Charlie's unfortunate situation and kept wishing things could turn out differently for him. Though Vera tried to help him, it wasn't a job she could do on her own and no one else seemed to notice just how much he was suffering.
The narrative of this book was very engaging and the story moved quickly, which is one of the things that I really liked. There were some interesting sections that were narrated by the pavilion where the kids hung out, and also some really cute little flow charts written from the perspective of Vera's dad. Charlie also narrated some sections. This was a clever way of making the narrative seem more rounded and eclectic, and after a few shifts of points of view, I was excited about just what I was going to find and who would be speaking on the next page. The book told a somber tale, but there was a lot of offbeat humor in it as well, which I felt lightened things up considerably.
After reading this book I think I've decided to take more of a chance with YA literature. It was very different from the types of books I usually read, but the story and characters were no less resonant and important and it had the added bonus of being a very creatively crafted book. If you are going to steer young adults towards this book, it may be helpful for me to mention that there are some some references to drugs and sexuality, but nothing that is over the top or explicit. I think this book would be perfect for an audience of age sixteen and older. Reading this book was a very interesting experience. It wasn't a flashy book but one that told a very unique story. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Alice Salisbury is a prosperous English merchant's daughter who is soon to be wed. When her father arranges a marriage with the much older and very winsome Janyn Perrers, Alice is overcome with nervousness and hope. Janyn and Alice begin to build a beautiful life together and share a passionate love, but there are secrets about Janyn's family that will soon tear them apart. The Perrers have had an unfortunate shared past with the former queen, Isabella. After Isabella had her husband murdered and her son Edward put on the throne, the Perrers became indispensable to her for the secrets they kept. Now these secrets threaten to resurface, and the only way to protect Alice and her young daughter is to engage Alice in service to the new queen, Phillipa. As Alice comes to understand all that she must give up for the protection of her family, she begins to realize that King Edward has his eye on her for a role much different than the one she hopes to play as Phillipa's serving woman. Soon Alice is caught up in the heady love of a king and must fight to keep the public from labeling her as a dangerous woman who has the king's favor and ear. Weathering the storm in the castle, she becomes the light of the king's life but also the sworn enemy of Parliament and the commoners, her future hanging over a dangerous abyss of uncertainty and poverty. For the love of King Edward cannot sustain her indefinitely, and even before tragedy arises from her strange union, Alice is forced to make some very difficult and painful choices that will change the shape of her family's future.
I admit that going into this book, I knew very little about King Edward, nor Alice Perrers, for that matter. I have come to realize, after reading this book, that little is actually known about the woman. Except for the inflammatory and malicious accounts of her from those in Parliament, the woman's life is shrouded in obscurity and gossip. The main reason this book appealed to me was the similarly in style to the books of Phillipa Gregory, yet in this book, Campion shies away from most of the bodice-ripping aspects of the story and instead chooses to focus on the difficult conundrums of Alice's free will and intention.
The book begins with a fourteen year old Alice's growing concerns over her upcoming marriage. There is a definite undercurrent of hostility running through her home that takes the form of her mother's jealously. Alice's mother is a cold woman who can't easily manage the fact that she has a beautiful daughter who is a grace to the family in her own right. When Alice discovers Janyn is the man intended for her, she begins what is only the first of her struggles to accept what fate has in store for her. Though Alice admires and grows to love Janyn, she feels ever constrained by the fact that she cannot choose her future, and this comes as a bitter disappointment when she realizes that her safety can only be assured with her removal from the life she shares with her husband. Alice laments the fact that Janyn's family is so indebted to the royals and fears for the safety of her new daughter, as well as her husband. In the palace, her feelings of imprisonment only grow, and though she loves the queen, she can't help but feel like a bird in a gilded cage, constantly moving to a rhythm that she does not set herself.
When Alice realizes that she is to be the king's mistress, she is thrown into confusion and fear. She realizes that once again, she has no control over this matter and is horrified to discover that Queen Phillipa herself is grooming Alice for Edward's bedchamber. That the king and queen are in collusion to deliver Alice to his bed confuses her and sets her in a world of barely concealed guilt and remorse. Edward, for his part, will not be denied, and spends great amounts of time and money wooing the still innocent young woman, who feels lost without Jaynyn and her family. This love affair between the girl and the king is by no mean ordinary, and as time progresses, Alice becomes more powerful and well regraded in the royal palace, a situation that brings danger from all sides. Alice is ever aware that she is currying disfavor from those around her, but the king refuses to see this and brags about her to every open ear, creating a shame and fear in her that cannot be forgotten.
When the affair between Alice and the king is threatened due to his failing health, Alice is beset by betrayals and spies, and once again, she must give up her freedom to do what is expected of her. Though she is in great danger, she's unable to protect herself, for the royal vassals control her every move. In this regard, Alice is merely a prisoner with royal favor, and though she has borne the king's children, she has no say over their lives or her own. At the mercy of those in power, Alice becomes a chess piece to be played with at will. What's interesting in this tale is the lengths Alice goes to escape her fate. She begins to collect property and rents and tries to build a life that she can retire to when the king lets her go, never knowing that she will never be released from her engagements. The public outcry against her is indeed loud and vicious, and Alice must watch as her life is stripped away piece by piece. She laments over and over again that she has had no choice in the affairs of her life and wonders aloud how she could ever have prevented these things from happening.
Alice's story is just one of many women at that time. Though trapped, she sometimes is able to find happiness in her life but she never forgets that she is at the whim of others. Women during this time were mostly at the mercy of their husbands and fathers, but Alice takes her orders from a much more noble captor. This obviously creates an inner panic in her, yet she sees no way to release herself from the chains that bind her. Time and time again, freedom is but a ride away and Alice can never take that ride. She is beset by plagues of inconsistency and grief for a life she never lived, and it seems no one wants to acknowledge this. The arrogance with which the king deals with her is frightening and all-encompassing, and Alice is forced to watch as her life and prospects slowly drain way. Alice is cruelly used for all she is worth, and in the end, though she does find happiness, it comes at great cost to her and her family.
As historical fiction goes, this was one of the better examples of the genre. The description of royal life was certainly not lacking and the book gained a lot of depth by engaging itself primarily in the mindset and perspective of the ill-used Alice. I read a lot of this book with trepidation, because although Alice willed her life to be different, I couldn't help but see her spinning closer and closer to destruction at the king's hands. I think this book would surprise many readers of the genre because the narrative was very tight and the storyline was very tense. I would definitely recommend this book to readers of historical fiction and especially those wishing to learn more about the infamous Alice Perrers. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Balthazar Jones lives in the Tower of London along with his wife Hebe and their ancient pet tortoise. Balthazar is a Beefeater, charged with guarding the Tower from pickpockets and assisting the tourists during their visits. The problem is, since the death of his son, Balthazar has been despondent, both with his job and in his relationship with his wife. Hebe has had about all she can stand, and is very troubled by her husband's growing mental absences. When the Queen's equerry calls Balthazar into his office for a chat, the Beefeater is worried he will lose his job. But the news is far from what he expects, as the Queen has hatched a new plan to move some of the animals from the London Zoo to the Tower in order to increase tourism. Much to his surprise, Balthazar is given the responsibility of being the keeper of the animals. Now the Beefeater has to oversee the transfer of the animals from the zoo and take care to make the animals as happy as possible in their new homes. That means making sure the bearded pig gets enough playtime, the lonely albatross doesn't get depressed and the howler monkeys don't get incensed enough to flash their private parts at the guests. It's a big job for Balthazar and one that he doesn't quite know if he can handle. Living alongside him are the other quirky residents of the Tower. From the erotic story writing reverend to the morally dubious Ravenmaster, each member of the community comes to be unexpectedly involved in Balthazar's quest to create the perfect home for the relocated animals. Quirky, irreverent and packed with little known Tower history, Julia Stuart tackles the very strange story of Balthazar and his menagerie with verve and aplomb.
I was so excited to get the chance to read this book, as I read and loved Stuart's first book, The Matchmaker of Périgord, about two years ago. I think Stuart has a particular style that I enjoy and I found her second book to have very close echoes of her first book in terms of style and writing cadence. Though this book told a very different story, it was just as enjoyable as her first.
This book differed a bit from Matchmaker in that it had more of a dual emotional impact. It was light and funny, yes, but these was a bit of a darker undertone to this book in its descriptions and portrayals of Balthazar's heartbreak for his son. This gave the book a more sober feeling and ran a thread of deeper emotion through the story. Perfectly melded with the sadness and loss in the story was the close-knit absurdity that I find so enjoyable in Stuart's books. There was a lot here to laugh with and poke fun at, and at times there was almost a ribaldry to the story as well. Stuart does a great job of making this book emotionally multi-faceted, and this made Balthazar's story of the tower more reflective and realistic. There was a great symmetry between happiness and sadness that gave the book more weight and made it more of a staid read.
One of the best things about this book was the way Stuart kept an entire string of varying and interesting narrative threads relevant and fresh. There was a lot going on here but it didn't seem crowded or over-populated by crazy characters and their tales. Don't get me wrong, there was a whole lot of crazy in this book, but it wasn't overpowering and it didn't take on an unwelcome feeling of forced farce. It was intelligent comedy and was spread out in a way that made things seem natural and intricately woven. Instead of focusing on different sections of the action, the book seemed to gently scan the entire landscape of the story, focusing briefly on each character and their relationship to the Tower and each other.
I particularly enjoyed the way Stuart interspersed little known bits of Tower lore into the story. A lot of the stories about the Tower were strange and fantastic, and they really gave me something to chew on during sections of lesser action. I also think these sections were perfectly housed within the story that Stuart wanted to tell. The days from the Tower's past were no more peculiar and original than the story that was being presented, and there was a great effect of cohesion between all these aspects of the book. The only things I had known about the Tower were parts of its more sinister history, so it was fun to see it in a different light.
This was definitely one of the more entertaining books I've read in awhile, and Stuart takes it to the next level with the final scene and sentence in this wonderful little book. I think a lot of people would appreciate this frolicsome and witty tale, and for those readers who like a healthy dose of humor in their books, this would be a welcome addition to their library. I am eagerly awaiting Stuart's next book because I can't wait to see where she takes me. Recommended!
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Tillie has just gone into early labor. With her husband away on business, a new home to be organized and no working telephone, Tillie is ill-prepared for the turns her life is taking. When she phones her estranged father for help, she begins to travel backward in her mind to the summer of her seventh year, when life was just as unpredictable as it is today. Tillie reminisces about her time living on a military base with her no-nonsense father, straitlaced brother and emotionally unstable mother. Though Tillie tries not to be difficult and demanding, she finds it increasingly hard to do so amidst her mother's deteriorating mental condition, and her father's iron sternness. As Tillie winds her way from the past to the present, a shocking picture of her family dynamic is revealed, and no matter how hard she tries to avoid it, she begins to discover the secrets of her family that have been buried for so long. Both harrowing and revelatory, Up From the Blue shares the journey of a fragile and damaged little girl, who is trying desperately to understand her world and to maintain some semblance of order in her life and heart.
This book was a tough customer, and not for the reasons you might expect. There are a lot of books out there right now that deal with the repercussions of having a mentally ill parent, and frankly, I would like to read them all. There's just something about this subject that fascinates me and I think part of it is the myriad ways that a child can interpret and internalizes these situations. For these and many other reasons, I was really excited to start this book and see what the author had in store for me. What I found was a story that was incredibly painful to read and think about, and one that brought out a lot of conflicting emotions out in me.
Reading about things from Tilly's perspective was at times too much to bear. As a seven-year-old, Tilly sees the world in black and white and it's very hard for her to understand her mother's mental blips and frailties. She takes a lot of blame on herself and finds herself constantly wondering which of her actions is the cause of her mother's strange behavior. Added to this is the fact that she feels responsible for her mother in some ways and seeks to defend her from her father's stern and lengthy reprisals. Tilly is caught in the middle of a lot of things that she can't possibly understand, and because of that she's very confused most of the time. She has strong feelings of loyalty to her mother and often tries to find excuses for her mother's bizarre and alienating behavior. I was saddened reading about Tilly's life. It was obvious she was struggling very deeply with what was going on, but the adults in her life failed to see this and react to it, leaving Tilly twisting in the winds of shame and abandonment.
I also thought it was heartbreaking that most of the ancillary adults in Tilly's life repeatedly called her a pest and a nuisance and seemed to feel that Tilly exacerbated her family's problems. As a reader, I could see that Tilly's manifestations of troublesome behavior were a direct offshoot of her mother's disability and her father's mismanagement of it. Sadly, those who dealt with her preferred to focus on her negative behavior in unhelpful and castigating ways. This caused Tilly to feel misunderstood and actually made her behavior worse. It was clear that this was a self-perpetuating cycle, and one that was never fully resolved in the book. It was angering but it did help me to be more in touch with and understanding of Tilly's character and to wish that she had someone in her life to love her unconditionally. Her mother simply wasn't capable and her father and brother were unwilling.
The book's dual narrative leaned more heavily towards the past, but what was presented in the more recent sections was also raw and painful to read about. It appeared that Tilly was never able to pull out of the tailspin of her past, and the strained relationship she had with her father proved that her childhood crippled her in ways that were hard to understand. Though it seemed her father wanted to be there for in this new and uncharted stage of her life, it was clear that his previous actions as a father and husband left both Tillie and her brother scarred. It wasn't as if Tillie was holding a grudge but more like she was unable to process the things that had happened to her, leaving her incapable of forming a continuing relationship with her father.
The sections that related the life of Mara, Tillie's mother, were more difficult to pinpoint. It was never clear which mental disorder she suffered from, and because of the sense that the symptoms morphed and shifted, it was hard to me to figure out just what kind of help she needed. It was obvious she could be incredibly selfish and immature at times, which both angered her husband and drew the children's confidences away from her, but her disease was a shadowy enigma in the story that I never fully understood. Though this was a bit troublesome to me, the overall message of the story remained clear and inarguable.
Though this book was an incredibly painful read, I think there was a magnificent direction and candor in the plot and that the story of Tillie was explored in a way that a lot of readers will understand and sympathize with. It wasn't a book with a unified and happy ending, but so few of these stories really do end in that fashion. This a book I had a hard time peeling myself away from and one that made me think very hard about the plight of children whose parents deal with mental illness. A very focused and introspective read. Recommended.
|About the Author
Susan Henderson is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the founder of the literary blog LitPark: Where Writers Come to Play. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, the Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Atlantic Review, Opium, and many other publications. Henderson lives in New York, and Up from the Blue is her first novel.
Connect with Susan:
|A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Monday, October 11, 2010
When Piv and Robin meet, a tentative and touching bond is formed. Piv is a native of Thailand and is a small time hustler, living on the fly according to how his luck is transpiring. Robin, on the other hand, is an American backpacker who has dreams of settling in Thailand after seeing the world one stop at a time. Piv and Robin share the sights, shop and have a great time living amongst the other tourists and natives, but soon their supply of ready money begins to dwindle alarmingly. Through the-rose tinted glasses of new love, Piv and Robin begin to dream up schemes that will enable them to continue their languorous life together. One day Piv decides to take a business chance with a group of foreigners he knows. As Piv and Robin become invested in their new business opportunity, Robin becomes increasingly anxious. Why are these foreign men paying her to smuggle unmarked cartons out of the country? Has she unwittingly become involved in drug trafficking? Though Robin is unnerved with all these things, Piv is much more relaxed and seems to believe that he has no business asking questions, a fact that bothers and shames Robin and sends their relationship into a tail-spin. When Robin secretly opens one of the cartons as it is in transport, she is horrified by what she finds and begins to try to free herself from the situation. But Piv is loathe to make waves with his foreign friends, and although he doesn't plan for it to happen, he becomes an ill-used pawn in a game of international smuggling; a game that Robin can't save him from. This intricate and involving thriller, set in the exotic locale of Thailand, examines the ways in which two innocent people get caught up in a set of strange and dangerous circumstances that endanger both self and other.
As an armchair traveler, I get to experience a lot of the world through the books I read. I've read a lot about many countries in Asia but must admit that reading about Thailand was new for me. Aside from being a thriller/suspense novel, this book really could be included in the travel genre, as it is through the eyes of an American tourist that the outer reaches of Thailand are examined and magnified. Not only was this book taut with suspense, it was also the type of book that seeks to explain the delicate balance that exists between tourists and foreigners and the ways in which this balance can be disrupted or destroyed.
This book is told through the alternating viewpoints of Piv and Robin, and because of this, the story takes on sort of a double life within its pages. Piv is unassuming and naïve, and sees the foreigners as people to emulate and become close to. He carries no high scruples when it comes to his life, casually taking rest in whatever opportunity arises. He has had several short-term relationships with foreign women and laments the fact that he can't seem to find permanence and stability in these flings. When he meets Robin, avenues begin to open up for Piv, and though he recognizes this, it doesn't stop him from continuing to live his hand to mouth existence. While reading the chapters told from Piv's point of view, I came to realize that although he was an adept player in the world he lived in, Piv was an innocent at heart and the kind of person who lets life rush around him and carry him towards his next opportunity. Even his relationship with Robin seemed muted by an innocence that I can't describe properly. Piv was at once worldly, yet sheltered, and though he dreamed big, his mindset kept him forever shuffling to the beat of more powerful drummers.
Robin's personality was a stark contrast to Piv's. She wanted to roam and be free, yet she was still very tied to a foreign belief of entitlement. Falling in love with Piv gave Robin an anchor but it never really filled the hole that was constantly exposed in her soul. In her life with Piv, Robin is the composed foreign woman nonchalantly frequenting all the haunts of Thailand, but upon coming across the real danger and uncertainty that lurks into her life, Robin loses that elegant calm and becomes a frightened girl looking for escape. There was a genuineness to Robin and her emotions that really made me come to care about her, but I couldn't help but feel that at times, she didn't take her share of the responsibility in her and Piv's misadventures. It's true that Robin was pretty much at the mercy of the foreign businessmen, and knowing that allowed me to better withhold my harsh judgement of her, but at times I felt like Robin made things worse for herself by abandoning her coolness and wits.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the relationship between Robin and Piv. Both had very different ideas about their future together but this didn't stop them from having an intense and reflective relationship. Piv was not awed by Robin's foreignness, which I had expected he would be, and he didn't constantly deffer to her either. He had an unexpectedly American view of relationships, which was surprising to me, and he really fit Robin like a hand in a glove. Robin was the more needy of the two, and though she didn't have the ideas of permanence that Piv had towards the relationship, she came to rely upon him more and more as the book progressed. Robin's was a difficult situation, for she knew almost no one in Thailand and had to rely on Piv for even the most basic things.
I've deliberately remained obscure about the nature of the smuggling ring in this review because I think it's best to go into this book with limited knowledge of it. The circumstances and players were far-ranging and intriguing, and though I have read many thriller/suspense novels, this one was indeed novel and gripping. Towards the end of the book, everything begins to disintegrate and the danger that was once only a threat becomes painfully real and ominous. It was captivating to be reading this drama from both sides of the action, Robin's awareness growing into fear and dread, Piv's nonchalance and naivety creating a cocoon around him that doesn't fall away until the final pages. I think Zolbrod does amazing things with this story and its characters, bringing two very different lives together seamlessly and with gravity.
If you can't tell by now, I really enjoyed this book despite my apprehension over reading a novel in a genre I'm not crazy about. One of the things I most enjoyed was the perfect alchemy between love story and suspense novel, and I think the unusual premise of the story and the deep exploration of a cross cultural relationship will be exciting and interesting to many readers. If you're looking for a thriller that defies the usual conventions and is far from derivative, you should really give this book a try!
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
It's 1999 in Thebes, New York. When Leontina Scales is knocked on the head by a falling statue of the Virgin Mary while pilfering from the refrigerator of the Catholic church, things get a little out of control. For Leontina, a single mother who is raising three wayward teenagers, the bump on the noggin is just enough to throw her over the edge. Soon she begins to act very strange indeed, speaking in tongues and reverting back to a simpler time in her life. Meanwhile, Jeremy, the parish choir director, is trying to assemble a group of friends for a shot at the musical big time, but is finding obstacles creeping up along the way. Jeremy is a Catholic of a very different variety, and along with his friends is trying to keep a lid on his often misunderstood lifestyle. Added into the mix is an ancient group of nuns that Jeremy and his singing group befriend and one very antagonistic and foul-mouthed teenage girl, making the little town of Thebes, New York on the cusp of Y2K a very strange place indeed.
I've read quite a few of Magiure's books and was eager to get the chance to read this one as well. I thought that Wicked was pretty darn incredible, and though I liked it's sequels a little less ferociously, I think Maguire has a really interesting talent for taking fairy tales and twisting them into thrilling and novel new permutations. So when I started this book, I was a tad confused. This book was really a departure for Maguire, as not only was it a different genre, the inclusion of so much humor was also different for him. While it took me some time to adjust, I ended up really enjoying this book despite my preconceived notions about it.
This book was really thought-provoking in the ways it examined the fragile bonds that hold a community together. There was a small town feel to the story and as the book progressed, there was a great feeling of peeking into the microcosm of small town America. Part of the story was about two opposing churches, and while I wouldn't call it a rivalry exactly, there were some definite undercurrents of us versus them that were gradually hurdled as the narrative moved forward. Both church leaders had strong ties to the community, albeit in very different ways, and both of them found themselves coming to Leontina's aid in some pretty surprising ways. One of the things I found most interesting was the tentative relationship that began to develop between Jeremy's group and the nuns. They were as different as different could be but they seemed to find common ground to put aside the bonds of convention and be supportive of one another in a few unexpected and touching demonstrations of unity.
I liked that Maguire found the humor in religion and its trappings without becoming derisive and mocking. Yes, the churches had their problems, and yes, there was a lot to poke fun at, but Maguire handled his subjects with a great deal of respect. A lot of the religious stereotypes were represented in relief but there wasn't a feeling of moral judgement hanging over the story like a pall. There was a certain amount of reverence attached to these things and Maguire's attitude towards it all was mildly surprising and pleasing. In my opinion, it's hard to write about religion and spirituality without becoming either too fawning or too dismissive, but Maguire seems to hit the right note, making his characters lovable but flawed.
Though this was a rather comedic book, there were a lot of more somber and reflective aspects to the story, particularly the sections dealing with spiritual confusion and the plight of gay individuals afflicted with disease. The way Maguire mixed these mediums was done with a grace and compassion that I haven't seen in his other writing. These sections weren't depressing or maudlin but rather more matter-of-fact and thoughtful. I'm always surprised when a favorite author manages to tread sensitive new ground with aplomb and was glad to see that Maguire didn't try to cheapen the emotion of his story by becoming flippant and trite. A few revelations had me a little misty eyed at times, and though the emotion could run high, there wasn't a sense of over dramatization in the more somber reflections of his characters.
This book was populated by a lot of unusual characters, which is something I always enjoy when it's done well. From the morally conflicted pastor to the wizened and sarcastic nuns to the very strange Leontina Scales herself, Maguire did a wonderful job of making this cast of characters colorful and surprisingly fresh. The characters were not at all what I had been expecting and it added another whole level of unpredictability to this story. Not all of these characters were likable; some were a little off-putting or even repugnant, but like those that were better loved, they were drawn with complexity and dimension that made them easy to relate to and understand.
As I mentioned before, this book is a departure for Maguire, but although it was different than what I had been expecting, I found it to be a really involving read. Readers that appreciate a good dose of humor inside a dramatic framework would really love this book and those who don't mind reading about the lighter side of spirituality would probably also have fun with it. After seeing what Maguire can do when he steps out of his box, I'm eager to see what he has in store for his readers. This book was unexpectedly successful with me, as I think it would be for a lot of others, so I think it might be something to take a chance on.
About the Author|
Gregory Maguire is the bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror, Mirror, Matchless, Making Mischief, and the Wicked Years series that includes A Lion Among Men, Son of a Witch, and Wicked, now a beloved classic and the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Visit Maguire at his website.
|A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Monday, October 4, 2010
Jack has just turned five and life is changing for him. Living in a twelve by twelve room with his mother, Jack is about to discover that there is life and humanity outside his small existence. As Jack's Ma begins to explain their strange circumstances to him, Jack is bewildered. Jack's mother has been living in this small room for seven years after being abducted by a man they call Old Nick. Old Nick visits the room at night to remove the trash, leave supplies and be intimate with Jack's mother; but Jack has never actually seen Old Nick because his mother forces him to sleep in the wardrobe every night. Jack and his mother have as much of a normal life as possible, playing games, reading books and exercising, but Jack is constantly absorbed by life outside the room. As Jack's curiosity about life outside the room grows, his mother comes up with a very dangerous plan to escape the room and their captor. Written from the viewpoint of five-year-old Jack, Room is at once an innocent yet harrowing tale of survival and love between a mother and her son.
Ever since I first heard about this book, I've been itching to read it. Though I wasn't able to snag my own copy, my good friend Aarti from Booklust passed it along to me when she heard how eager I was to read it. In the past, I've read and loved many of Donoghue's books and have always been impressed with how often she manages to switch genres and create moving and compelling stories. One of my favorites of her many books is Slammerkin, a historical fiction novel with one of the most interesting protagonists I have ever come across. I was also really excited to hear that Room has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and though I haven't read any of the other contenders, I'm hoping this really impressive book manages to hold its own in the competition.
It actually took some easing into to be able to become fully immersed in this book. I think it was because the book was narrated by five-year-old Jack, and as we all know, five-year-olds don't always have the best grasp of language and ideas. After getting my bearings though, I became fully immersed in Jack's version of the world. Living alone with only his mother for friendship and comfort, Jack looks at the inanimate objects that surround him as friends. There is Rug and Wardrobe and Bed, all fixtures and playmates for this strange little boy. Jack sees the world as a box and everything outside of it is a fantasy. Because his mother could never explain the real world to him, the boy believes that anything he sees on the television is not real and exists on another planet. For Jack, there is only Room and Ma. This leads to a lot of interesting conversations once Jack comes to understand that there is a world outside the space he knows. Donoghue does a wonderful job of creating this sheltered and naïve little person, imbuing his questions and conversations with earnestness and a certain shade of awe.
Jack relates his everyday life, and in it, even a jaded adult can see the wonder. His schedule and companions are minimal, but Jack finds his own fun and succor in his prison, never realizing that he is indeed a captive. Ma is his only connection to the real world and the information she provides is limited. When Jack discovers that the real world is waiting outside his door, he is frightened, confused and almost frozen. He doesn't understand any form of social convention and is befuddled by meeting other people. It's hard to imagine a child like Jack, but Donoghue creates in Jack a plucky and winsome boy who is new to every experience and nuance of the world. Jack tries to make sense of things he has never seen, but often, he explains to us, these new things can be ominous and even at times painful. As Ma moves further and further into the world, Jack is forced to do the same and he longs for the stability and quiet that his old room has come to represent.
The relationship between Jack and his mother is an amazing thing to read about. Despite being held captive, Ma manages to give Jack a lot of normalcy and routine, and it's very clear that she considers him her reason for life. I can imagine that spending your entire existence locked in a room with a five-year-old could become frustrating and maddening, but Jack's mother never loses patience with her son's endless questions and speculations, and later she gently helps ease him into the world she left behind. Their relationship is very symbiotic and remains static throughout the story. No matter how things change and who comes in to the picture, it's really only Jack and Ma, side by side against the world. The relationship between Jack and his mother is all-sustaining and integral to both, and as Jack becomes more aware, it becomes the only thing that matters. There is an innocence in Jack that feels very organic, and throughout the story of Jack's awakening, I was able to see not only the differences between Jack and other boys, but also the similarities.
This story had a very fluid feel and seeing things from Jack's perspective enabled me to get a handle on the story that wouldn't have been possible in any other narrative structure. Though the kidnapping and captivity was the center stage drama, most of the book dealt with the daily relationship between Jack and his mother, and because of that, the story was a rather quiet affair. At certain points in the story, Jack takes in some very adult conversations, but instead of digesting them and understanding them, he begins to frame them into terms that a five-year-old can understand and ponder. In this way, the story gained a fullness and clued the reader into just how Ma was dealing with the situations at hand, and allowed Jack to begin to comprehend that life outside his room was an entirely different animal.
I was very impressed with what Donoghue managed in this book. Reading the story from Jack's perspective was almost more harrowing and intriguing than I could stand because he had no way of judging malice and intent due to his sheltered upbringing. I truly think the author outdid herself here in terms of a moving plot, a winsome narrator and a dynamic writing style, and think many readers will fall in love with Jack, just as I did. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I do advise reading it. Jack's unique voice and life will be something that you won't easily forget. Highly recommended!