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New to Me: Review of Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper

Fallen Grace by Mary HooperWhere I got it and why: from the library, pulled from The List.

Recommended? Not in particular. If you like Victorian melodrama, this might suit you better than it did me.

Summary (graciously provided by GoodReads):

Grace Parkes has just had to do a terrible thing. Having given birth to an illegitimate child, she has travelled to the famed Brookwood Cemetery to place her small infant’s body in a rich lady’s coffin. Following the advice of a kindly midwife, this is the only way that Grace can think of to give something at least to the little baby who died at birth, and to avoid the ignominy of a pauper’s grave. Distraught and weeping, Grace meets two people at the cemetery: Mrs Emmeline Unwin and Mr James Solent. These two characters will have a profound affect upon Grace’s life. But Grace doesn’t know that yet. For now, she has to suppress her grief and get on with the business of living: scraping together enough pennies selling watercress for rent and food; looking after her older sister, who is incapable of caring for herself; thwarting the manipulative and conscience-free Unwin family, who are as capable of running a lucrative funeral business as they are of defrauding a young woman of her fortune.

Review: I should have liked this book. It’s a story set in and around the Victorian funeral trade, a subject I find endlessly fascinating. It features the horrible treatment of “fallen” women in the Victorian age, along with characters with mental illness. There’s a certain amount of, well, melodrama in all of these aspects, but handled well I usually enjoy them.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Hooper uses an interesting device throughout the book; each chapter opens with a snippet of print, either an advertisement from a newspaper, a calling card, or something of that sort. Chosen well these could add a great deal of atmosphere to the story; in this case they were used as signposts for the plot, telegraphing plot twists so far in advance that there was only one twist I didn’t see coming as soon as the groundwork was laid. (And even that one, I threw up my hands and said, “Oh, of course!” because in a story this tidy, it couldn’t have been anything else.)

There’s a difference between tidiness and tightness in plotting. A tight plot is one where everything falls into place, not by the invisible hand of the author but because you look at the characters and their situation and can’t imagine anything else happening. A tidy plot, on the other hand, is one where everything – everything – that happens is connected and all the loose ends are tied up in a nice little bow. I hate a tidy plot; it makes the whole story seem fake. Dickens – the inevitable comparison for stories about destitute Victorian orphans – could get away with it because he wrote such huge, sprawling stories with so many characters in them, but a 200 page YA novel cannot support that kind of tidiness.

Fallen Grace could have been saved by interesting characters, but alas, Grace herself is singularly ineffectual. She spends most of the book reacting to events, and the few actions she does take are the direct result of conversations she has with someone else. I had hopes for Lily, her mentally disabled sister, but after a couple of establishing scenes from her point of view she mostly disappears from the narrative as an actor. I finished the book out of a desire to see if anything unexpected would happen, but alas, it did not. The book wasn’t painful to read, but I require more than just acceptable writing (with, admittedly, interesting historical details) in my novels.



New To Me: Review of Libra by Don DeLillo

Libra by Don DeLillo(New to Me books are books I’ve just read that have been out for more than a year – whether that means “a year and a bit” or “several decades”.)

Where I got it and why: From the local library, one of the books on The List

Recommended? Only if you’re a big fan of JFK assassination conspiracy theories.

Review: I can no longer remember just where I heard about this book or why I decided that I wanted to read it, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with a discussion on my favorite blog, Making Light. I also suspect it has something to do with the way I always think I’ll like conspiracy novels more than I actually do.

Libra is a fictionalized biography, both of Lee Harvey Oswald and of the JFK assassination. In addition to following Oswald through his befuddling shifts of loyalty, it also jumps around to a variety of fictional ex-CIA agents, FBI agents, Cuban sympathizers, Oswald’s mother, a historian of the assassination, and of course Jack Ruby. The plot is both as simple and as complex as all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard: everybody wants to kill the President. The question is, how do they get there?

The thing I usually dislike about conspiracy theories is they tend to whittle down the importance of individual people. For all it does feature a CIA plot to assassinate JFK, Libra avoids this. Sure, the conspiracy convinces both Oswald to shoot Kennedy and Ruby to shoot Oswald, but you get the impression that neither of them needed much convincing. You get the impression that things might not have been any different if there hadn’t been a conspiracy. (This tension with history is almost certainly one of the things DeLillo was aiming at, and he deserves credit for it. It works.)

That said, I didn’t really like it all that much. One of those books you read and think, This was excellently done, just not for me. I think it’s the literary-fiction style of the dialogue: very choppy with few attributions, and tending toward stilted. For a book that was all about people and how they think, I found the dialogue horribly unconvincing. But the whole thing seemed a little – I don’t know, removed, as though you’re watching the characters through a pane of security glass. I like a little more immediacy in my characterization.

All together, I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I liked it very much and I have no particular desire to seek out more of DeLillo’s work. Still, that’s one more book checked off The List.

(Previously On) Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna ClarkePreviously On is a feature I run when I haven’t finished a book lately, but I feel you deserve a review anyway. These are old favorites of mine, which I can write about without rereading again.

I pre-ordered this book, sight unseen, in hardcover, when I was in college, on the strength of Neil Gaiman’s glowing recommendation. It was worth it. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my absolute favorite books.

This is absolutely not a book for everyone. It’s long. There are rambling, divergent footnotes. It combines Regency romance sensibilities with war narratives and an approach to magic that’s based more on medieval English folklore than on The Lord of the Rings. There’s a tonal shift three-quarters of the way through that reminds me of nothing so much as Jane Austen writing the adventures of Richard Sharpe. And if you’re like me, that makes this book perfect.

Mr Norrell is a practicing English magician. He actually does magic, which is considered beyond strange by all of his colleagues, who focus on research and analysis. And he is about to make a name for himself – is doing quite a good job, actually, between a spectacular display of living statues and raising a nobleman’s young wife from the dead – when Jonathan Strange appears. Jonathan Strange is also a practicing magician, and what’s more, he is young and handsome and a part of Society, which is not really something Mr Norrell can manage. Of course they will study together, and of course they will be rivals.

I do tend to think of this as really Jonathan’s book. I adore his attempts to make himself useful to the war effort, his rejection by the Navy and eventual adoption by General Wellington. And, of course, his relationship with the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair. (One of my favorite scenes is when Jonathan goes to see about the king’s madness.)

The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair is an excellent example of what I mean by medieval English folkloric magic – he is nothing like an Elf or a modern fairy, but one of those threatening and powerful creatures from The Ballad of Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer whom you only dare refer to as The Good Folk.

I admit to a weakness for the Napoleonic Wars, and rereading Jane Austen or the Sharpe or Aubrey/Maturin series will always lead me in the direction of Jonathan Strange again as well. It is, like those books, an exquisite glimpse at another time. Except, of course, with magic. But I reread this most often at Christmastime, for I always remember the scene with Childermass and the birds on the snow. One year I opted for the audiobook instead, since I didn’t want to carry the book itself around; it is excellent, for those of you who might be as leery as I often am of audiobook narrators.

This is one of those books I would like to recommend to everyone, even though I know there are so many reasons why many people would not like it. I just love it so much, I would like to be able to share that love with everyone. Do you have any books you feel that way about?

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Seven

Day 27 – If a book contains ______, you will always read it (and a book or books that contain it)!

Boats. I had to think about it for a while, but once I realized I had to get Patrick O’Brian into this list somehow, I remembered: I’ll buy just about anything with a boat on the cover. I’ve read some pretty terrible novels this way, but just as many good ones, and I never get bored of them, even though most boat novels are set during the Napoleonic Wars and consist of sailing about and occasionally shooting at people. I love ’em.

I read a lot of boat-related nonfiction, too: pirate histories are a favorite, because outside of the piracy epidemic in the Caribbean, the early 1700s is not really a time period that’s written about a lot, and I find that interesting. Histories of the Napoleonic Wars, too, and up through about the American Civil War. (After that I kind of lose interest.) I have a biography of Cochrane sitting on my to-read shelf; he’s the outrageously successful Navy captain that both Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey are based on. Somewhere back there, too, is a history of the first naval expeditions to Australia, and one of these days I’m going to read Voyage of the Beagle, I swear.

The ALA newsletter linked a while ago to the amazing The Private Library blog’s series on piratical literature, and from there I found their equally wonderful seafaring literature series. And the to-read list grows, and grows, and grows…

Kraken, A Wild Light, The Medical Detectives, St Peter’s Fair

China Miéville, Kraken
Oh China Miéville, I forgive you for Iron Council. This book is marvellous, the best kind of thriller — the kind where you start out with no idea what’s just happened, three quarters of the way through the book you realize that everything you’ve learned so far still gives you no idea what’s happened, and in the last quarter you get an explanation that is nothing like what you expected but makes perfect sense. It’s gloriously masterful writing, and that’s even without introducing the wonderful scenery of Kraken’s mystical London. Every bit of it is spectacular, from the Londonmancers to the familiars’ strike to the horror of the Tattoo and his minions. And the characters, everyone with a startling amount of depth and sincerity, even the people who start out seeming to be nothing more than scenery. I loved it, and I wanted to read it again as soon as I was finished. Alas, library New Book loan times…

Marjorie M. Liu, A Wild Light
Third in her Hunter Kiss series, an urban fantasy series by a paranormal romance writer. I’ve never read any of her romance novels, but I’m tempted to, because one of my favorite parts of the series is Maxine’s relationship with Grant, her long-term boyfriend. They’re together when the series starts, and their mutual support and understanding is wonderful. None of this “I have to lie to you to protect you” crap with them. Their relationship is a focus in this book, for the first time, when Maxine loses her memory of the past few years along with her memories of what happened the night her grandfather was killed. (Well, the body that her grandfather was living in was killed, actually. Her grandfather is…complicated.) And then it starts to get epic. I swear, every time I read one of these books I think, It can’t possibly get any more epic than this, and then in the next book, it does. I’m loving it.

Berton Rouché, The Medical Detectives
This is the book the TV show House is based on. You can tell, because almost every single story in this book is an episode from one of the first couple of seasons. (It’s possible some of the other stories were made into episodes later; I stopped watching partway through season three.) These are, of course, real-life stories of epidemiologists — specialists whose job it is to determine how an outbreak of a dangerous disease or medical situation occurred, so as to prevent it happening again. The story about the pesticides on the jeans (also an episode of House) has made me paranoid about new clothing for quite a while. The book is excellently written; at times Rouché constructs a narrative almost devoid of direct quotations that nevertheless allows the perspectives of the individuals involved to shine through, but when he’s got a patient or doctor who’s a good storyteller, he’ll just quote them directly, sometimes for pages at a time. I admire a nonfiction writer who knows when to get out of the way of the people they’re interviewing.

Ellis Peters, St. Peter’s Fair
Still more Cadfael — possibly the last for a while, as I’ve gone on a noir kick and Cadfael is not really compatible with Phillip Marlowe. My favorite part of these books, I think, is the strength of the characters. Like any mystery series, there’s a strong focus on the one-off characters in each story, but they’re always interesting, powerful, and strong in their own way. I particularly like Peters’ ability to write strong female characters who nevertheless fit perfectly into their role in a society that offered them fairly limited options. Strength of character isn’t in opportunities, it’s what you do with them, and the young women in these books are always holding themselves up high.

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Three

Day 23 – Most annoying character ever
Horatio Hornblower, from C. S. Forester’s novels. I started off on the Hornblower kick with the BBC/A&E series from the late 90s, a beautifully filmed and well cast set of stories that were not really based very strictly on the books at all. When I started reading the books, though, I discovered that I wasn’t put off by the differences between them and the movies as much as I was put off by Hornblower himself. He’s self-absorbed and a little dense. He worries to much. He obsesses over “the loneliness of command” and vascillates between treating his only real friend, Lieutenant William Bush, as a trusted companion or as a useless hanger-on. (And then when Bush dies, in Lord Hornblower, without leaving behind a body, Hornblower contemplates building a pyramid of skulls in his memory. I don’t even.) The only book I still read is Lieutenant Hornblower, because that’s the one from Bush’s point of view. Horatio Hornblower is definitely one of those people who is better from the outside of his head than from the inside.

I do reccomend the TV series, though, particularly the second season, Mutiny and Retribution. Great stuff.

A close runner-up for the title is Tony Hill, from Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid. In the television adaptation, Wire in the Blood, Tony’s a rather appealing absentminded-professor type. In the books you get his internal thought process, in which he feels entirely too sorry for himself while worrying about whether or not he’s going to turn into a serial killer one day. If only, Tony. If only.

One Corpse Too Many, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, God Is Not One, The Hobbit

Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many
This is one of those books that I’m sure is a very different experience reading for the first time unspoiled, because it’s the first appearance of Hugh! Hugh Beringar, sheriff’s deputy, is Cadfael’s best friend for most of the series (and is played delightfully by Sean Pertwee in the first few TV adaptations), and watching Cadfael trying to decide whether or not to trust him is great fun when you know he’s entirely trustworthy. Hugh and Cadfael have a glorious battle of wits – mostly involving sneaking around the countryside – and at the end they become fast friends. I loved every minute of it. Oh yeah, and there was a murder or something too, I dunno.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
So the story goes that Jones was in the hospital, and working on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy at the same time, and she said, “I swear, all these books are so similar I could write the travel guide for the world they’re set in.” So she did. I was actually surprised to find that at least half of the clichés in the book were not straight out of Lord of the Rings. But still, after twenty-six years of a fondness for epic fantasy novels, there was not a damn one I was not familiar with. (Why in god’s name would you cook STEW on the road, anyway?)

Stephen Prothero, God is Not One
The sequel to his Religious Literacy which I read and reviewed here not too long ago, in God is Not One Prothero offers a brief introduction to eight of the world’s most influential religions. He calls them “the world’s rival religions,” which I’m not too fond of — I don’t think Daoism, for instance, is particularly the rival of anything — but I liked the book very much overall. He treats, in a self-defined order of importance, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religions, Judaism, and Daoism, with a short section on atheism in the back. The insight that I found particularly helpful, and one I thought supported Prothero’s position that the major religions are really very different from one another, was the way he described what each religion sees as the central human problem and the solution to that problem. Looking at it this way, you can really see a difference between, say, Christianity (which sees the problem as sin and salvation the solution) and Islam (where the problem is pride and the solution submission to God’s will) in a way that you can’t when looking only at history and practice. Also, he talks about Yoruba religions, including the facets of it still based in Africa and the Catholic syncretism in the Americas, and that’s just awesome.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
So in October I started reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my roommate, who’d never read it before. We’d finished Fellowship and started on Two Towers — got just about to where the second movie starts, actually — when a couple of our friends came up to visit and we told them about it, and it came out that the roomie had never read The Hobbit. Friends were suitably appalled, and I protested that I didn’t know, what kind of a crazy person has never read The Hobbit, and the upshot is, we started trading round the paperback, alternating reading chapters aloud all afternoon. We got through about half of the book that day, and just the other day I finally finished it. You know, I always forget how much I like Balin. He’s a decent fellow, for a dwarf. And although I was leery of it when I first heard the casting news, I cannot wait to see Richard Armitage playing Thorin Oakenshield.

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Two

Day 22 – Favorite non-sexual relationship (including asexual romantic relationships)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin, in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I love these boys. Stephen is kind of a jerk, he’s not very good at interpersonal relationships, and he spends most of the time in his head, while Jack is profoundly physical, extremely (almost excessively) friendly, and the kind of gullible that falls for a new scam every time he sets foot on land. And they’re best friends.

They do kind of fill in each others’ weak spaces; Jack (and indeed all the sailors) are continually amazed at how Stephen cannot seem to learn the first thing about ships despite spending half his life on them, while Stephen has the kind of cunning and political savvy that Jack couldn’t care less about. And they are both more than their stereotypes make them out to be; Stephen spends a good deal of time idiotically in love with a woman even more heartless than he is, and Jack is capable of carrying on a conversation about advanced mathematics with a Frenchman.

And they’re best friends. It’s such a simple and profound thing that there’s hardly even any more to say about it. They love each other, and that’s that. There’s a beautiful scene toward the end of the series — I can’t remember which book — where they’re back at Jack’s house for a while, and Stephen can’t sleep, and he hears violin music being played in the garden. Jack and Stephen have played together on ships for years, violin and cello respectively, but Stephen’s hands had been broken once when he had been captured by the French, and they never really healed properly. And listening to Jack play alone, after all those years playing together, Stephen realizes that Jack is a much better player than he had ever realized, and that Jack had been playing down his own skill in order not to put Stephen to shame. It’s such a powerful and bittersweet scene that speaks so much to the connection between these two.

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