Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Five Most Vivid Worlds/Settings in Books

Welcome to today's Top Ten Tuesday!

1. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Whatever else can be said about her writing, not many can match J.K. Rowling for detail. Her creative settings, as much as her relatable characters, are what make her works so engrossing. I remember having a strong obsession with Diagon Alley, and my writing class students often choose Hogwarts or King's Cross Station or the Forbidden Forest for their setting description assignments, because these places are already so vivid in their minds that they can elaborate where she left off.

2. Middle Earth

As a dedicated student and instructor of Middle Earth Geography (yes, this really happened), I would be remiss not to include Middle Earth. No one accuses Tolkien of skimping on description, and the maps add a whole other dimension that thousands of later fantasy books have aped, mostly to lesser effect.

3. Dune

Whether it's the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) itself, the Harkonnen home world, the water world Caladan, Chapterhouse, or the various other planets in Frank Herbert's universe, every 'thopter, every sandworm, every melange trip, feels visceral.

4. The Winter Palace

The setting is the name of the book, so it's no surprise that the palace, and its predecessor, are stars. The whole building symbolizes the extravagance, and corruption, that lies at the heart of the Russian court.

5. Eternal Sky

Each kingdom in Elizabeth Bear's new trilogy has its own distinct terrain, fitted to the people and method of governing, and so crucial that mountain-dwelling Samarkar feels stifled under Temur's sky, which he likewise can barely breathe without.

I'm tired and that's it for today, folks.

In other news, I've finished Ian Tregellis' The Coldest War , sent for review from Tor publishers. That review should be up shortly. In the meantime, I've stalled on School of Night in favor of re-reading for the class I'm teaching and travel magazines for currently futile travel plans, but excellent daydreams.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Top Ten Books for People Who Liked The Other Boleyn Girl

I'm posting late and decided to copy Julia's idea for a post, but no worries, my list is entirely different!

1. Elizabeth I by Margaret George

The most thoroughly researched, well written, original work of literature about the Virgin Queen I have ever read. And that's saying a lot, as I've devoted a lot of time to studying and writing fiction written about Elizabeth I.

2. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

See above, and substitute "Henry VIII" as the subject.

3. The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

4. The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

5. Gilt by Katherine Longshore

6. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The first book on the list that isn't Tudor-related, this is a novel set between the reigns of Empress Elisabeth and Catherine the Great of Russia. The most enchanting book I've read in 2012.

7. Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

This is a biography, but if you're truly a Tudor fan, you'll want to read it.

8. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot

About the thirteenth century Provencal sisters who became Queens of England and France.

9. Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone

A biography of all four thirteenth century Provencal sisters, Queens of England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Sicily.

10. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Doesn't need me to push it, especially in the wake of the sequel Bring Up the Bodies, but for perspective and especially originality of language rivals George's Elizabeth I.

I also second Julia's recommendation of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which really set the standard for historical fiction in the past couple decades.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Top Ten Books I'll Never Read

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie, so I picked an easy one for me.

1. Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James

I work in a bookstore and it almost makes me cry how many women buy this. I've read a page and just had to laugh at the awful writing. As for the subject matter, I'm not really sure what this means for society-are we more liberated because we can talk about this openly or more constrained because this aggressively enforces traditional gender roles? Anyway, just say no.

2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I read Angels and Demons. Never again.

3. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Sorry, Pynchon fans out there. I'm not doing this to myself.

4. Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce

I may actually get to Ulysses. But I will not go this far.

5. The Twilight books

I read the first chapter of the first book. Thanks to friends, students, and reviews, I know basically everything that happens and I don't need to suffer through it to make fun of it.

6. The Pretty Little Liars series

7. Anything by James Patterson

8. Why Men Love Bitches, Why Men Marry Bitches, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, He's Just Not That Into You, Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus and any other self-improvement book that enforces gender stereotypes

9. One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

My mom read it recently and thought it was awful.

10. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I'm just never going to finish it. I've accepted that.

*Disclaimer* I am a book snob. I admit it. I recognize that some of these books are fun and enjoyable reads for people who don't want to have to work at their reading. I do get that and I'm not judging you (too much). On the flip side, some of these are for people who like to work at their reading far more than I do. I may be a snob, but I am not up to the more esoteric offerings of twentieth century modernism. Don't judge me (too much)!

Really though, especially in terms of reading, I believe this:

To each, their own.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Pants Don't Need Men

22. Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

I took the plunge into Ann Brashares' Sisterhood Everlasting, which opens ten years after the last Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book ended. The reunion was bittersweet, but not for the reasons you might think.

Lena, Carmen, Bridget, and Tibby have become real people to me in all these years. They grew up in Bethesda, MD, not too far from where I grew up, and they experienced anger, loss, grief, heartbreak, lack of emotion, family, and friendship in much the same ways that I did and still do. Brashares has a gift for evoking emotions and peculiarities that not many people, or even writers, acknowledge. What comes to mind for me is how Lena often thinks of Ritz crackers while shaving her legs, but she's not sure why. While I don't make that particular association, I often have weird random thoughts like that, and Brashares reminds me repeatedly of my humanity in such small ways, and larger ways too. I understand Tibby's resistance to change, Carmen's need for ceremony and reassurance, Lena's self-betrayals, and Bridget's impetuous, kinetic grief.

That is why, while coupled with the joy of reading Brashares' fine-tuned renditions of these characters once more, I felt a little betrayed myself. The plot is one that has been done, to much more relevant and purposeful effect. While it serves to pull along the pace of the novel and the emotional range of the characters, it belies the nature of the original works, and furthermore, leads to an annoying message that mocks the very complexity of the characters Brashares has created.

I won't give away the main conceit, but I doubt few fans of the original works are happy with this one. Because I am so frustrated with the plot's construction, I was able to distance myself somewhat from my attachment to the characters, so the main reason fans will be unhappy is not the same as mine. I am more upset with Brashares as a personal idol, as her style of writing has always been what I aspired to. Her style remains poignant, but it is dulled by the trite implications of this novel, which I will reveal.

Every one of these brilliant, thoughtful girls, these searching, earnest young women, have come to be defined by their love, not for each other, but for a man and/or children. That is sad. That is contrary to the message of the original books. And it is contrary to the lives of young women today. I won't deny that romantic love is a valuable, if not essential, component to growing up and to adult life. However, it is not all. It is not a definition. It is not a way to live.

Dear Ann Brashares,

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants called. They want their pants back.


A disgruntled fan

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Top Ten Books for People Who Like Jane Austen

1. Mr. Darcy's Daughters by Elizabeth Aston

2. The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

3. Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

4. The Betrothed by Alexander Manzoni

5. Daisy Miller by Henry James (a novella, but you need to read it)

6. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

7. Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore

8. The Exploits and Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy by Elizabeth Aston

9. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

10. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (I know, I recommend this for everything, but it really fits here!)

As someone who's read all six of Austen's novels multiple times and a book of her letters (getting to the juvenilia, it's on my shelf), I often find myself in need of a substitute and for all those Austen remakes and riffs out there, it's hard to separate the gold from the dross. So, here you go!


I woke up this morning and realized I really wanted to add:

11. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Monday, July 2, 2012

Real Lives, Real Marriages

21. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot

2012 seems to be the year for historical fiction to come out of its rut. Including The Sister Queens, The Winter Palace, and Gilt, I have now read three top-quality historical fiction novels this year from debut authors whose future work I am very excited to read!

In my area right now, a lot of us have been without power since a freak lightning storm that wielded hurricane-level damage on Friday night. I'm one of the lucky few that got power back on Saturday. The school where I'm working, however, will remain closed till Thursday due to storm damage, and, I imagine, power outage.

I mention this because it occurs to me how recent a phenomenon electricity, and especially air-conditioning, is. The characters in The Sister Queens brave Paris in the heat and cold, London's perpetual drizzle, winter in York, and years in the desert, all without benefit of modern technology.

But let me introduce you to these remarkable women. The novel features Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, two sisters in the thirteenth century who became the Queens of France and England respectively. The story is told in alternating viewpoints and includes Perinot's fictional recreations of the letters they sent to each other for twenty years (and there would be many more letters between these septuagenarian sisters after the book's pages close). While I am familiar with the Provencal sisters, including younger sisters Sanchia and Beatrice, from Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens, I don't believe this will be the case for many and think it was an inspired choice of subject, even if it did coincide with the release of Four Sisters, All Queens.

Margeurite is thirteen years old when she is chosen to be the bride of twenty-year-old Louis IX, King of France. It is a strategic alliance for Margeurite's powerful parents, Raymond Berenger V, the Count of Provence and his wife Beatrice of Savoy, as well as Beatrice's powerful Savoyard brothers, who hold positions of power in courts and churches all over Europe. Excited to be marrying the most handsome prince in the world, Marguerite is quickly disabused of her illusions when her domineering mother-in-law sends back every single one of her Provencal friends and servants, and her husband demands that she spend her wedding night kneeling in prayer.

Eleanor, jealous of Marguerite but also missing her bitterly, is pleased to be the chosen bride of Henry III of England, a position of power equal to her sister's. Also a bride at thirteen, she has second thoughts when she sees that her husband is old, short, and not very good-looking. Yet soon, as he strives to please her, ordering entertainments for her enjoyment and decorating her room as a surprise, she learns to love him and enjoy the considerable power that his affection allows her to wield.

Perinot's depiction of the sisters' relationship and even more so, their relationships with their husbands, is incredibly intimate and insightful. Over the ups and downs of their marriages and numerous childbirths, Perinot creates two very distinct women who are very much shaped by their circumstances, but also determined to succeed within the boundaries of their roles as wives, mothers, queens, and sisters. Perinot expounds on the women's feelings about known historical incidents, including Marguerite's successful ransom of Louis on Crusade while giving birth to their son (absolutely true story) and the sisters' brokering of a lasting peace between their nations. While she does indulge in some speculation, she has well documented historical evidence to support her.

My only complaint is that the language felt sometimes awkward and out of place, as Perinot attempted to meld modern language with more antiquated phrases. The attempts, I thought, were largely unsuccessful, and irrelevant, as they would not have written in English in any case. Perinot does on a few occasions have the sisters speak in langue d'oc, their native tongue, and while this is interesting, it can be distracting.

Besides being a fabulous example of historical fiction that truly brings historical characters to life without modernizing or censoring them, The Sister Queens provides a valuable perspective on marriage. While many novels end with the marriage of the protagonists, that is how this novel begins. And because, in those days, one did not divorce one's husband, the marriage had to persist in one form or another for the rest of one's life. This problem (or blessing) is one that both sisters will deal with and while they come to different solutions, those considering or experiencing marriage today will find their stories relevant.