Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
485 pages
published March 2013

Synopsis from publisher -

In 1538, England’s bloody power struggle between crown and cross threatens to tear the country apart. Novice Joanna Stafford has tasted the wrath of the royal court, discovered what lies within the king’s torture rooms, and escaped death at the hands of those desperate to possess the power of an ancient relic.

Even with all she has experienced, the quiet life is not for Joanna. Despite the possibilities of arrest and imprisonment, she becomes caught up in a shadowy international plot targeting Henry VIII himself. As the power plays turn vicious, Joanna realizes her role is more critical than she’d ever imagined. She must choose between those she loves most and assuming her part in a prophecy foretold by three seers. Repelled by violence, Joanna seizes a future with a man who loves her. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny.

To learn the final, sinister piece of the prophecy, she flees across Europe with a corrupt spy sent by Spain. As she completes the puzzle in the dungeon of a twelfth-century Belgian fortress, Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands—hands that must someday hold the chalice that lies at the center of these deadly prophecies. . . .

My thoughts -

There were a lot of things I liked about The Chalice. I think Joanna Stafford is an extremely interesting heroine - Bilyeau has created for her an intriguing history and back story, and it is always entertaining to see what she will decide to do next. Bilyeau's pacing and narrative flow are perfect for this type of novel - nearly every chapter ends with me hardly able to wait to turn the pages.

And I LOVE that Bilyeau has found a way to do Tudor England historical fiction without the novel being about THE TUDORS. Because really, haven't we all read about 1,230 novels about Henry and Anne and Elizabeth at this point? By making the Tudor family drama mostly just part of the background, Bilyeau brings something new and fresh to a very heavily laden table. It's been a long time since I've thought about the Reformation from the Catholic perpective, and it's a fascinating and refreshing change.

However, I have to admit I was not as impressed with this novel as I had been with Bilyeau's first. There were just too many times that I felt the action nearing on implausible. Sometimes it seemed as thought Bilyeau was piling on danger after danger, just to figure out a way for Joanna to escape. I was quite intrigued by the broad story arc, but some of the individual scenes just read as too much high coincidence for me.

Since I enjoyed her first so much, however, I will definitely give the next book in the series a try. And, really, there are a LOT more glowing reviews out there that don't agree with me, so if it sounds like an interesting premise, give it a try!

Finished - 4/27/13
Source - review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating - R for violence and adult situations
My rating - 6/10

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tried It and Tossed It

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
published 3/13
352 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

My thoughts -

I think perhaps I just OD'd a little bit on young adult novels, because I just COULD.NOT.CARE about this one. It just seemed too predictable too quickly - I've read a few good reviews of it, though, so I have a feeling it was just the wrong book at the wrong time.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
published 1/15/13
320 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.

 My thoughts -

For some reason it felt like I was thrown into the middle of a story when I picked up this book - it just seemed like something was missing from the beginning to orient me to the story. I couldn't settle in to the rhythm of the novel, and it just didn't hold my interest.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Thoughts - Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
published 1971
240 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, is faced with a terrible problem. She must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma. And Mrs. Frisby in turn renders them a great service.

My thoughts -

What an absolute delight! I can't believe I didn't read this as a child - it seems like just the sort of book my mom would have had lying around for me to discover. I will definitely have a copy for my kids to pick up one day.

Both storylines are equally strong, but the story of the rats and their experiences and eventual escape from NIMH is quite fascinating. The idea of making the rat be a sympathetic character is unique, and O'Brien does such an excellent job - I fully believed Nicodemus when he explained just how remarkable these rats were.

Mrs. Frisby was a courageous heroine, and I loved her quiet strength and determination. I liked the way O'Brien took care with each character to make them feel like something individual and unique - each of the rats had their own personalities, and even Mrs. Frisby's children were distinct in their own way.

I loved every minute of reading this book! Thanks to Kristen and her 100 Chapter Books Readalong over at The Estella Society - I'm sure glad I had a reason to try this fabulous novel.

Finished - 4/23/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG maybe? for some violence
My rating - 9/10

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Shorts

When We Wake by Karen Healey
304 pages
published 3/5/13

Synopsis from publisher -

Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027--she's happiest when playing the guitar, she's falling in love for the first time, and she's joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.

But on what should have been the best day of Tegan's life, she dies--and wakes up a hundred years in the future, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.

Tegan is the first government guinea pig to be cryonically frozen and successfully revived, which makes her an instant celebrity--even though all she wants to do is try to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. But the future isn't all she hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better future?

My thoughts -

I have to admit I'm enjoying this dystopian future YA trend SO much more than the vampire/mermaid/werewolf YA trend. There seems to be a lot of good offerings lately, and it's been fun to read them. When We Wake is definitely darker in tone, with very definite religious and political opinions. There were times when the story took just a bit of a turn to the soapbox, but in general I found it to be entertaining, and I would love to read another in a series.

Finished - 4/5/13
Source - South side library
MPAA Rating - PG-13 for violence and adult situations
My rating - 8/10

The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black
published 1/31/2013
268 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Photographer Clare Porterfield's once-happy marriage is coming apart, unraveling under the strain of a family tragedy. When she receives an invitation to direct an exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she jumps at the chance to escape her grief and reconnect with the island she hasn't seen for ten years. There Clare will have the time and space to search for answers about her troubled past and her family's complicated relationship with the wealthy and influential Carraday family.

Soon she finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery involving Stella Carraday. Local legend has it that Stella drowned in her family's house during the Hurricane of 1900, hung by her long hair from the drawing room chandelier. Could Stella have been saved? What is the true nature of Clare's family's involvement? The questions grow like the wildflower vines that climb up the walls and fences of the island. And the closer Clare gets to the answers, the darker and more disturbing the truth becomes.

My thoughts -

I don't think it's a great sign that I finished this novel less than 12 hours ago and I already can't think up much to say about it. I think the author has a lot of potential - the writing here is quite good - but her story meandered and I just didn't find myself motivated to read. I would certainly read more by this author, even though this particular book couldn't really catch my attention.

Finished - 4/13/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - R for adult situations
My rating - 5/10

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
published January, 2013
409 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

While Joanna is in the Tower, the ruthless Bishop of Winchester forces her to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic; a crown so powerful, it may possess the ability to end the Reformation.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must decide who she can trust so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past.

My thoughts -

Oh, this is just the best kind of historical fiction. A fascinating mystery, a plucky and intriguing heroine, the Tudors with being THE TUDORS - I just loved every minute of this. I can't wait to start the next novel about the delightful Sister Joanna. Highly recommended.

Finished - 4/19/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for adult situations and violence
My rating - 9/10

The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum
first published 1904
287 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

First issued in 1904, L. Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Ozis the story of the wonderful adventures of the young boy named Tip as he travels throughout the many lands of Oz. Here he meets with our old friends the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, as well as some new friends like Jack Pumpkinhead, the Wooden Sawhorse, the Highly Magnified Woggle-Bug, and the amazing Gump. How they thwart the wicked plans of the evil witch Mombi and overcome the rebellion of General Jinjur and her army of young women is a tale as exciting and endearing today as it was when first published over eighty years ago

My thoughts -

Ugh. I'm really particular about reading a series in order, and because I want to get to Ozma of Oz for the 100 best chapter books readalong, I had to read this one first. I did NOT care for this novel - as much as I enjoyed The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I did not enjoy this one. I understand that the entire novel was basically just a set up to discover the origins of Ozma, but it was too slap-sticky and ridiculous, and frankly more than a little misogynistic. It just seemed like an excuse for Baum to throw out every odd character he could think of, without much of a plot to tie them together. Here's hoping Ozma will be a more entertaining read.

Finished - 4/20/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG? I don't know, this is pretty tame, but the scarecrow does get un-stuffed a bunch of times.
My rating - 4/10

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter

The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter
published 1980
96 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

As fledgling artists in their respective fields, Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter were enthusiastic collaborators in a unique art form, the livre d'artiste – the marriage of original graphic work with literary text. Beginning in the mid-sixties, while both were still students, they worked together on five limited-edition handmade books, volumes of Atwood’s poetry with Pachter’s interpretive artwork. The culmination of their collaboration, the work that is considered their masterpiece, is The Journals of Susanna Moodie. In her reading of Susanna Moodie’s chronicles of pioneer life in nineteenth-century Canada, Atwood found the haunting and timeless themes that still obsess us.

The poems of The Journals of Susanna Moodie were first published in 1970 in a standard format. This sequence of poems is regarded as a classic, in addition to being connected with her later novel, Alias Grace. In 1980, Pachter was able to add his own vibrant, evocative images and create the version they had dreamt of: a hand-set, hand-printed illustrated limited edition of 120 numbered copies.

My thoughts -

I wanted to do something for National Poetry Month this year, but I'm such a poetry novice that the idea of commenting on a poetry collection seemed daunting. Then I remembered this on my shelf, a loan from my mom, and thought it would be the perfect thing.

This is truly a work of art - Atwood's poems and Pachter's images are simply stunning together, and create such a unique and unforgettable picture of the life of Susanna Moodie. In the first section of the book, Susanna has arrived in the Canadian frontier, and feels lost, scared, and alone. Particularly evocative for me were "The Wereman", in which she describes her feelings of not knowing who her husband is anymore - not knowing what he will be when he walks in the door; and "Looking in a Mirror", in which she describes the changes she sees in herself after seven years of living in an unfamiliar and difficult place.

The second section of the book is during the time that Susanna and her family has moved to the relative "luxury" of a town, and yet somehow Susanna doesn't seem any happier or less lonely. Nearly all of the poems involve death - of an animal, an interracial couple, Susanna's own children. I found this section more difficult just because I didn't really know what was going on in Susanna's life that would prompt these thoughts. The first section was clear - she just moved from her life in England to the desolate frontier. The second section is more ambiguous, and therefore more open to interpretation. I read the poems over several times, and had different impressions of many of them on consecutive reads.

In the third section, Susanna is an old woman, still not resigned to her life in Canada, but feeling like she should love her new land. Atwood ends the collection with Susanna speaking from beyond the grave, reminding her reader that nothing really changes - even in the middle of their technologically marvelous world, they are still really just in the middle of the forest.

I get the feeling that Atwood didn't really like Moodie - this is a fairly unflattering portrait Atwood paints, making Moodie seem unstable and at times almost crazy. Atwood's interpretation makes me want to get my hands on the original material, to see what it was that might have prompted such an unbalanced portrait of a woman.

The Journals of Susanna Moodie is certainly a fascinating read - the poetry and visuals together create an unforgettable image. I think this is a volume to be read as a piece of art, however, and not for narrative or historical value.

Finished - 4/13/13
Source - loan from my mom
MPAA Rating - PG for some disturbing scenes
My rating - 8/10 for artistic merit

Saturday, April 13, 2013

What's Making Me Happy This Week

(idea shamelessly stolen from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which also makes me happy every week.)

Have you met Clara? She's great, and I think I'm going to start making some of her food. Also, I hope I'm this spry at 91 years old!

Having orange toes - because why not? It felt like spring.

The Chickeneers - if this doesn't make you smile, I just don't know.

What's making YOU happy this week? Share with me in the comments....

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Shorts

The Woman from Paris by Santa Montefiore
published 2012 in Britain, 2013 in US
392 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

When Lord Frampton dies in a skiing accident, a beautiful young woman named Phaedra appears at his funeral claiming to be the lord's illegitimate daughter. In his will, Lord Frampton has left the priceless Frampton suite of sapphires to this interloper, confirming her claim and outraging his three adult sons and widow. Eventually, however, Phaedra's sweet nature thaws the frosty relationships. She becomes the daughter that Antoinette Frampton never had and a wise and compassionate granddaughter to the formidable Dowager Lady Frampton. But an attraction grows between Phaedra and the eldest son, David. It seems an impossible love blocked by their blood connection and by the fury of one family member who is determined to expose Phaedra as a fraud.

My thoughts -

This just wasn't for me. I figured out the plot "twist" fairly early on, and the whole rest of the novel just didn't sit right with me. I don't have any complaints about style or writing ability - just a story that didn't click. I've seen several other positive reviews, though, so if you like chick-lit you should consider checking this one out.

Finished - 3/27/13
Source - review copy from publisher - thank you
MPAA Rating - PG-13 for adult situations
My rating - 5/10

As Above, So Below: A novel of Peter Bruegel by Rudy Rucker
published 11/31/2003
320 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Peter Bruegel's paintings---a peasant wedding in a barn, hunters in the snow, a rollicking street festival, and many others---have long defined our idea of everyday life in sixteenth- century Europe. They are classic icons of a time and place in much the same way as Norman Rockwell's depictions of twentieth-century America. We know relatively little about Bruegel, but after years of research, novelist Rudy Rucker has built upon the what is known and has created for us the life and world of a true master who never got old.

My thoughts -

I've seen a couple of comments about the author's remarkable research, and how it reads almost like an autobiography, and I think that was the prevailing sense I had from this novel, as well. I didn't particularly feel like I was reading fiction, although I knew I was. This was an interesting read, but not necessarily a "fun" one - the author, however, is an excellent writer, so I don't begrudge the time spent, though it was more than I would usually prefer to devote to this type of novel.

Finished - 4/6/13
Source - loan from my mom
MPAA rating - PG-13
My rating - 7/10

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
published 2004
560 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Audrey Niffenegger's innovative debut, The Time Traveler's Wife, is the story of Clare, a beautiful art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity in his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous, his experiences unpredictable, alternately harrowing and amusing.

The Time Traveler's Wife depicts the effects of time travel on Henry and Clare's marriage and their passionate love for each other as the story unfolds from both points of view. Clare and Henry attempt to live normal lives, pursuing familiar goals — steady jobs, good friends, children of their own. All of this is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control, making their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

My thoughts -

Finishing this novel was purely an act of will. This will be the third time I've attempted this book, and I don't particularly care for it. I read it this time mainly to get it off my shelf - my mom loaned it to me a WHILE ago, and it had been staring me down for a few months. Also, let's be honest - nearly everyone in the entire reading world loves this book, so it must just be that I'm crazy, right? Surely if I read the whole thing, without abandoning it when the relationship starts to get creepy, I'll fall in love too, right?

Nope. I just don't get it. Henry starts stalking Clare when she is 6 - can she possibly have a memory of her life without him? He gives her a list of dates and times, to make sure she is always available whenever he is going to pop in. He manipulates her youth, her teen years, her childbearing experience - the whole thing just creeps me out.

Sorry folks - I'll happily bear the badge of "Only Person in the World who Doesn't Like This Book." At least now I don't ever have to open it again.

Finished - 4/1/13
Source - loan from my mom
MPAA Rating - R for sexual situations, language, and violence
My rating - 5/10 (the writing wasn't bad)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Thoughts - For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
published 6/31/12
406 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

In the dystopian future of For Darkness Shows the Stars, a genetic experiment has devastated humanity. In the aftermath, a new class system placed anti-technology Luddites in absolute power over vast estates; and any survivors living there.

Elliot North is a dutiful Luddite and a dutiful daughter who runs her father's estate. When the boy she loved, Kai, a servant, asked her to run away with him four years ago, she refused, although it broke her heart.

Now Kai is back. And while Elliot longs for a second chance with her first love, she knows it could mean betraying everything shes been raised to believe is right.

My thoughts -

Persuasion MIGHT be my favorite Jane Austen novel. I say this while admitting that it's been a few years since I've read any of them, but I remember it being as one of the best. So I was quite interested to see what Peterfreund would do with her retelling of this classic.

I'm happy to say it was satisfying on all levels. As an homage to Persuasion, fans of the original will find that the author has lovingly and respectfully repurposed Austen's story to create something familiar and yet delightfully new. Because while this is, clearly, a re-telling - done by someone who obviously loves her source material - this is also a novel that stands alone without difficulty.

Elliot is a complex and intriguing heroine, and the reader immediately both likes and respects her. She is painfully aware of her situation - she knows exactly what she has given up and why, and she isn't looking to weasle her way out of that decision. She is a fantastic character, and I really hope Peterfreund plans to continue her story.

There were a few small things that bugged me - Kai seemed almost unrelentingly cruel, and it seemed hard to reconcile his behavior with the letters he wrote to Elliot. The ending seemed a bit rushed - there were details that felt unresolved, and I would have appreciated a few more pages to flesh out some scenes. Extremely small quibbles in a great accomplishment, I found this novel to be a delight from start to finish.

With the proliferation of YA novels that contain questionable romantic relationships, I would not hesitate to recommend this to any teen girl. Elliot is a young woman to admire, and her handling of the difficult situations in the novel is excellent. But I don't think this is a novel just for young adults - while its main characters are young, it certainly contains enough depth to be of interest to a wide range of readers. I certainly recommend it - a fun, entertaining read with lots to think about and discuss.

Finished - 4/3/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for adult situations and some violence
My rating - 8/10