Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Feast for Crows

15. A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin



So, I went on a Song of Ice and Fire binge a couple years ago, but ultimately stopped reading because of my frustration with the violence and the knowledge that everyone would be killed off (or hideously maimed).

Since then, I've been watching the HBO show "Game of Thrones," which, honestly, I like better than the books (and I am the kind of person who almost never says that). But now Season 4 has started, and I don't know what's coming! So to prepare myself, I read the fourth book, and am "up" on half of the upcoming storylines. I'll have to read A Dance with Dragons soon to be fully prepared. And then, well, I'm no worse prepared than anyone else, at least.

The events of the fourth book were fairly in keeping with those of previous books. I know fans complained that there were a lot of new viewpoints and lack of older viewpoints, but honestly, it didn't bother me that much. It just meant I cared less when things took a turn for the worse. Tyrion is the only character I actually care about (though Sansa is getting cooler, as is Samwell), and I didn't have to fear for him here, at least. Actually, I'd say the fourth book was, if anything, slower than its predecessors. I personally like "slower" books, but that's not the fan base GRRM has cultivated, so I'm not surprised they were disapproving.

Anyway *SPOLIER ALERT* so excited that Joffrey is finally dead, and we can move onto, well...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review: Vienna Nocturne

14. Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell




While reading Vienna Nocturne, I noticed that the back cover features a quote from Eva Stachniak, one of my favorite historical fiction writers. This realization brought me to compare the two author's debuts, which though both historical fiction, are vastly different in texture. Reading Stachniak's The Winter Palace is like wrapping one's self in velvet: thick, luxurious, and rich. In contrast, reading Vivien Shotwell's Vienna Nocturne is like being immersed in watered silk: exquisite but light and delicate.

Vienna Nocture follows the career of Anna Storace, the soprano who starred in Wolfgang Mozart's most famous opera. Shotwell's writing is a sheer, unmitigated pleasure to read. Her language is flowing, her sentences are long, with clause after clause of description. One chapter begins:

"The people of Venice sang as much as they talked, sang as they worked and wooed and slept, in gondolas and barges, on market squares, lubricated by drink and company and the place itself, a city in the water that waked by night and slept by day, that prized folly over sense, and saved itself for nothing, but spent all, risked all, for beauty's flowering and pleasure's gratification."

The effect is immersive. Readers will float in an atmosphere of Shotwell's creation. Long sentences glide readers through miniaturized chapters that capture the sense of a particular moment in a character's life. The narrative primarily follows Anna, but occasionally detours to characters significant in Anna's life, including Mozart. Although this conceit could be jarring, Shotwell incorporates it skillfully into the fabric of the narrative. In fact, the journey is so smooth that readers may barely notice individual events or characters.

While this may not be a concern for some, to others it marks the book's only significant flaw. It is difficult to distinguish the personality of characters and to suss out the truth of events. Even Anna has no definable personality outside of her role as a diva (which seems intentional, as it is a tragedy that the book acknowledges). Instead, the opera and the music seem to take the place of the characters.

Not only are the book's many musical scenes sumptuously described, but the rising of her breath and breasts, and the moving of his fingers on the keyboard, come to define Shotwell's Anna and Mozart. Both are like beautiful, ingenious instruments that the author wields on the page. Ultimately, Vienna Nocturne is a work of art--if a book could be an opera, this would be it. It is the epitome of style and grace and briefly glimpsed truths. And this must be what the classically trained author set out to achieve.

But those who like their history more meaty and their characters more complex may find that this morsel vanishes too quickly, leaving a sweet but not fully satisfying taste.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Just Finished

Just Finished:

12. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky



Borrowed from the library, it was a quick and entertaining read.I'm fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes, and according to Tomsky, there's plenty of intrigue behind the front desk of a luxury hotel. Plus, he'll give you the low-down on how to score free minibar items and other perks (Warning: Not for the morally uptight). A bit too profanity-laden for my taste, and fluffy in parts, but I definitely wanted to keep reading after it ended.

13. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min




Another historical fiction tome for my commute, I really enjoyed both the writing and the narrator. I'm glad I listened to it too, because I'm sure I would have pronounced the Chinese names all wrong. Min tells the story of China's last empress from her girlhood until she solidifies her regency (in her son's name). Despite ending rather abruptly, I really enjoyed the richly detailed descriptions of her life, and the satisfyingly tense environment where thousands of women "compete for one man," as the narrator continually reminds her reader. I also enjoyed several unusual metaphors that seemed apt to the character and time period-frequently including crickets, moths, and, one that stuck, calling a young girl "like a frosted eggplant whose growth had been stunted." Definitely recommended reading for historical fiction fans.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Six Word Review: Youth In Revolt

11. Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne




Pedantic Tom Sawyer meets 21st century.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review: The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Pressner

10. The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and Amanda Pressner




For the first few chapters of this book, a sanitized crossbreed of The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, I was mildly intrigued. Then, it became a rather straightforward and not particularly interesting account of partying across South America. And then, it began to breathe.

This is the true (but melded and simplified) story of three New York women who took a trip around the world. Their is nothing special about their descriptions of the places they went, but it is their encounters with other people, and with each other, where their narrative shines. The book is divided into chapters narrated alternately by each of the three. Each woman has a distinctive voice and character, but the writing style is cohesive and the content rarely repetitive. Jennifer is searching for direction, though more in terms of romance than career. She and Amanda are both feisty and outgoing, while Holly is quieter. Holly is a more spiritual traveler who spends a month in an Indian ashram training to be a yoga teacher. Amanda is a devoted career woman, who, having lost her job, spends much of the trip focusing on freelance writing gigs. Each of these women comes to form part of a support system for the others, and it is inspiring to see their friendship grow over the course of the book.

The story really takes off when the women volunteer at an orphanage in Kenya. Through their eyes, the readers meet the school's proprietor, his family, and students. As the women, or "girls" as they consistently refer to themselves, teach dance lessons, battle cockroaches, and visit do-gooders, a clear picture emerges of day-to-day life in Kenya. It helps that the writers do not shy away from admitting their shortcomings and sharing their true feelings. Amanda misses an important play rehearsal due to a writing assignment, and feels guilty. Jen cops to being "evil" in an unexpectedly cold Vietnam. Holly even wonders whether it was a mistake to pursue enlightenment at the abstemious ashram, where she feels her illness is unjustly attributed to bad karma. I especially appreciated these moments of honesty and authenticity after readingWanderlove. Although the "girls" are backpackers, there is not one moment of traveler vs. tourist superiority in the whole book.

For a well-written, thoughtful meditation on friendship in travel, I highly recommend The Lost Girls.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard

9. Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard



I read an enthusiastic review of Wanderlove somewhere,and it sounded like just the kind of book I was longing for. A bildungsroman about a girl who finds herself (and, inevitably, romance), backpacking through South America. So I really wanted to like this book. And I will say that I got what I wanted out of it, namely nostalgia for a particular kind of traveling and inspiration for future travel plans. But the overwhelming YA-ness of this book, I'm sorry, I just didn't love it.

There are some books that fall in the YA category that I do absolutely love. This is not that kind of book.Wanderlove is a YA book with an eighteen-year-old protagonist, a choppy writing style, inspirational quotes, kids' book references (and yeah I was into that part), an obvious cutesy romance, and a tendency to stereotype and simplify the world. Not all YA books are like this, but it's exactly what I'm afraid of when I pick up a YA book. This book especially trades on stereotypes that are particularly irritating to me, specifically the tourist/traveler divide.

Bria, the main character, starts the novel as a member of a tour group called Global Vagabonds. It's filled with middle-aged people who just want to read on the bus and are terrified of street food. Her contempt for them is not subtle, and the reader is invited to join in. Moreover, Bria idolizes the "beautiful, beautiful backpacker girls...unlike me, they've learned the right way to travel." This dichotomy that there is a "right' way to travel is consistently reinforced. Even though Bria forms a superficial friendship with a middle-aged beadworker, when she dramatically storms out with one of the awe-inspiring backpackers, her friend validates her feelings with a wistful blessing, "I missed that part of being young." And again when Bria "defends" tourism to her newfound backpacker friend, even when he agrees to be more accepting, he still says things that imply otherwise like, "It must drive you crazy. To have your whole trip planned out for you. No choice of your own." Obviously, this appeals to teenage readers, heck, it appeals to me, but it's just as narrow-minded. Some people like planned travel-and that's okay.Not all people who travel with tour groups are there just for the highlights, some are as genuinely interested as "travelers" or "backpackers," they just prefer more comfortable accommodations.

All in all, points for references to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Harriet the Spy,points for some cool drawings that looked talented-amateurish, and points for exploring Guatemala and Belize, but next time leave the cliches at home.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett

8. The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett



Despite the generic title and that I picked it out of the bargain books at B&N, The Queen's Lover really impressed me with its depth of atmosphere and character. I've been on a Wars of the Roses kick, mostly with Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War books, and The Queen's Lover smoothly fits in the historical overlap between the Wars of the Roses, and The Hundred Years' War between England and France. At the center of both is Catherine de Valois, the French princess turned English queen who embodied the English claim to the French throne, and later, the Tudor claim to the English throne.

Although the title character is "The Queen's Lover," and the book does begin with Owain Tudor, Catherine's future lover and grandfather of Henry VII,this is a book about a heroine. Surprisingly and delightfully, much of the first part of the book focuses on Christine de Pizan. I am familiar with Pizan as a writer, but apparently she was also a significant figure at the French court. Having been raised along with Catherine's father, King Charles, and his brothers, she became a caretaker for some time of the younger royal children. Under the conceit that Owain is housed with Christine during a parley between English and French forces, Bennett proceeds to explore Christine's world, books, and thoughts quite thoroughly. Bennett's Christine is an intriguing character, loyal and passionate, intelligent and fearful. And not a little vain. Bennett's Owain is an eager student, awed with early modern Paris and struggling to overcome the complications of his Welsh royal heritage. But more intriguing than Owain is the princess in rags that Christine so lovingly cares for.

According to the novel, Catherine and her younger brother Charles were neglected at the French court, left with old clothes and not regularly fed. I don't have a sense of the historical accuracy of this portrait, but it is a different one from later periods. It is possible that the late Middle Ages were more chaotic than the emerging early modern period, and that that chaos extended to less oversight for royal children. Catherine more than once escapes from the palace on horseback. But then, there are accounts that claim she was locked up, to preserve her virginity for Henry V. In any case, in this version, Catherine is faced with pitiful choices, and takes her fate into her own hands. As a heroine, she is sometimes infuriatingly naive, but satisfyingly adventurous and even impulsive.

As Bennett points out in the author's note, Catherine is a much-maligned character, a queen who "turned her back" on her royal blood to marry the steward of her house. Of course, as the Tudor monarchs would emphasize, Owain was descended from Welsh royalty. But in the time she married him, that counted for nothing, or was even more shameful than marrying a nobody. Who was this woman, who could make such a bold, such a defiant choice-and get away with it? Bennett's Catherine learns an important lesson, with the help of her mischievous mother, Queen Isabeau, that if she seeks what she wants, she may just get it. And, unbeknownst to her, she founded a royal house with its own share of renegades.

I enjoyed the extensive historical notes and sources at the back of the book. The feel of the book was well-researched, and that confirmed the feeling. I definitely intend to read more of Bennett, she has a more careful, considered quality than Gregory, but her characters are just as memorable and complex.