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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.

 

 

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Tuesday Recap (#9)

My weekly summary of blog, books, and life.

Reviewed: Embassytown by China Miéville, The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear, “White Charles” by Sarah Monette

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John BellairsAlso read: The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs. This was a re-read for me – I’d stashed the book in my desk at work in case I finished whatever I’d brought with me to read on breaks. I love this series; I love all of John Bellairs’s books. Forget Goosebumps, these were the creepy books I loved as a kid. And you know, they’re still kind of creepy, with their old-fashioned magic and ghosts and zombies, their heavy Catholic flavor, and their really wonderful villains. I love all the characters — I love how Lewis is terrified and still determined to prove himself, and I love how Uncle Jonathan doesn’t quite know how to take care of him but tries anyway. And I love Mrs. Zimmerman and her love of purple. If she wants to be a witch with a purple dress and a purple cape and a glowing purple wand, she will be, and she will still kick your ass.

I might have to find the rest of this series and re-read it all, I think. (Oh woe, oh hardship…)

Fallen Grace by Mary HooperAlso also read: Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper, which I’ll be reviewing later this week.

In Other News: Although it’s not my job on the line, the Borders closing has encouraged me to step up the job search. Doesn’t hurt that there are more public library jobs being posted now than for the past three months together. Onward and upward, I suppose.

New to Me: Review of Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy

Looking for JJ by Anne CassidyWhere I got it and why: I needed some good storytelling, and when I want just plain storytelling I always turn to YA. I pulled a couple of books from The List to request from the library, and this was one of them. (I’m sure I heard of it originally from a book blog, but I just can’t remember which one…)

Recommended? Yes, particularly if you like true crime (which this book has much more in common with than a murder mystery, although it is a novel)

Review: Six years ago, ten year old Jennifer Jones killed her best friend. Now Alice Tully is trying to build a new life for herself. She’s got a job at a coffee shop, a boyfriend, and a good shot at normality, but will she get to keep any of it?

This book has the least convoluted plot but the most interesting structure of anything I’ve read recently. The story itself is straightforward, an excruciatingly sympathetic portrayal of a young woman who had killed someone when she was only a child, and how she attempts to deal with that and the normal problems of adolescence. We’re introduced to Alice Tully first, and as her past slowly begins to creep up on her, we flash back in more and more extensive detail to her childhood and the terrible event that defines her life.

Within the first couple of chapters I realized that this book is actually a fictionalization of the famous case of Mary Bell, which I read about earlier this year in Gitta Sereny’s incomparable Cries Unheard. Cassidy changed some details for her YA novel, which I was originally a little annoyed by, since I do think some of them are substantial to the meaning of the case – the victim being much younger versus roughly the same age, the degree of abuse the girl suffered in her home life – but then I realized that what Cassidy did was tone it down to the point where it was actually readable. I know I found Cries Unheard to be extremely tough going, and on reflection I can’t imagine some of those things being included in any novel, never mind a YA novel.

As you have probably concluded by now, Looking for JJ is one of those YA novels people have been complaining about lately, one of those things saturated with darkness. But it’s saturated with something else, too – empathy. This is a story about someone who has done something horrible and knows it, about coming to terms with that and learning how to move on even though she can never forget or atone. It’s also a story about learning how and why she could have done such a thing, and doing her best to make sure she would never do something like that again, even though that means making impossibly hard choices. It’s incredibly grown-up stuff, but as the fact that it’s based on a true story makes obvious, it’s not stuff that only grown-ups have to deal with.

I found this not only a good read, but an important book, the kind of book that librarians ought to keep on the YA shelves because there might be a kid out there who needs it. Looking for JJ is not trying to prove anything, it has no secret agenda or ultimately uplifting message, but it’s a book full of compassion for damaged people. It is an example of the best of what dark YA can do.

 

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Eight

Day 28 – First favorite book or series obsession

The Chronicles of Narnia. They were the first books I ever bought with my own money; I saved for weeks to get the full set from the local bookstore, and when they didn’t have every one on hand, I had them order the missing volume and waited until I could get them all at once. (I have no idea how old I was…eight?) I still have that set, too, nine ratty old paperbacks falling apart at the seams, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the worst shape of them all (I loved Reepicheep).

I don’t think I realized until much, much later that they were Christian allegory. Fortunately, during the part of my life where I would have been most annoyed to find out that fantasy books I loved were Christian allegory, I didn’t reread them at all. Then I discovered Tolkien, and then I discovered that Tolkien and Lewis were friends, and I read them again and still loved them. I adored the old BBC adaptations of the first four books (although I rewatched them in college and am a little mortified by my childhood crush on Sam West’s Caspian), and I’m even relatively fond of the new movies, although I haven’t seen Dawn Treader yet. I’m afraid they’ll butcher my favorite book. The current practice of numbering the books in chronological order instead of publication order is clearly blasphemy.

I can’t reread them unconditionally any more; The Horse and His Boy makes my skin crawl, as does the theology in The Last Battle. And I’m highly sympathetic toward Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan.” But a few months ago I bought a wardrobe. And yes, I do check the back of it every once in a while. Just, y’know, in case.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Wishcraft, The Rubber Band, Plain Kate

James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Working my way through the classics of noir fiction. This is a tight little novel, fairly horrible in a lot of ways, but then again, it’s noir. (When I say horrible, I mean, of course, the subject matter, not the writing. The writing is…well, this book could have been twice as long, but it wouldn’t have been half as good.)

Barbara Sher, Wishcraft
Yes, I read a self-help book. It was recommended to me, and I found it legitimately online. I was rather surprised to discover I’d independently invented most of her motivational tricks, but the part of the book I liked the best was the first three chapters or so, the part where she explains you have every right to have the things you actually want, even if you’ve been so messed up about it for so long you’re not sure what those are any more.

Rex Stout, The Rubber Band
After the James Cain, I required something noirish with a slightly less icky attitude toward women. Rex Stout is always good for that; he very rarely has femmes fatales, most of the women in his books are either flat-out useless or clever and helpful. (The female lead in this one is the latter.)

Erin Bow, Plain Kate
Another YA from my trip to ALA last year (yes, I know, it’s been almost a year and I haven’t finished reading my ARCs!…) This was a wonderful fairy tale of a story – a proper fairy tale, that’s mostly about blood and death and revenge, with one of those scrupulously fair endings that doesn’t quite make anyone happy. That makes it sound rather depressing, which it’s not: it’s a very hopeful story, overall, about discovering your own strength. Also, the most realistic talking cat I have ever seen in fiction.

The American Way of Death Revisited, Ballad, Helter Skelter, Cries Unheard

Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited
I picked this up while wandering randomly through the lovely Rosemary Garfoot Public Library in Cross Plains one day. (I live in Madison, but I’m working part-time in Cross Plains until one of the libraries I’ve applied to finally notices that I’m completely awesome and hires me.) The original edition of the book is from the 60s, and the rewrite from the 90s, but it’s still a startling expose on the funeral industry. It’s easy to see how corruption happens; it’s not like you’re in the mood to comparison-shop for funerals. But wow, talk about price-gouging. (Not to mention the lying: apparently it is not a legal requirement to be embalmed before cremation. I honestly did not know that, but it’s going in my will.) Also, I now understand the reference to Forest Lawn thrown out in a Raymond Chandler novel. I kind of wish I didn’t. Apparently Bogart is buried there, how depressing.

Maggie Stiefvater, Ballad
I hated this book for the first five chapters, which was terribly disappointing, but there’s not much I dislike more than “boy pines over his best friend but can’t tell her he’s in love with her.” Fortunately the teachers at Thornking-Ash (and what a name to give a music school in a faerie-infested universe) were fascinating enough that I kept going. Then the pining stopped. And then it started to get good. I stand by my assessment that these books (including the prequel Lament) are Twilight for people who hate Twilight, but they also have some of the best faeries I’ve read in a long time. They’re properly inhuman, horrifyingly selfish and violent, and charming and compelling nonetheless. Also, there was an in-universe explanation for the name of the school, which I hadn’t expected and made me deliriously happy.

Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter
While the official subtitle of this book is “The True Story of the Manson Murders,” it’s really much more the story of the Manson trial. Fair enough, for a book co-written by the prosecuting attorney. If you believe this book, the entire case was single-handedly saved from the LAPD by one Vincent Bugliosi. Which may be true, I don’t know. The stories of the trial are surprisingly fascinating, all the wrangling over testimony and cutting deals with Family members and Bugliosi’s thwarted determination to get Manson to take the stand. Manson and the girls who were tried with him were sentenced to death, but California suspended the death penalty before they could be executed, which is probably just as well. Ted Bundy was a celebrity until the day he was executed (giving a totally ridiculous deathbed interview to Jerry Falwell), while Manson wastes away in prison becoming more and more a cliche’d parody of evil. The book ends with the customary notice that Manson would be eligible for parole in 1978; as of today, no one has been willing to risk their career to give it to him. (Hey, and here’s a transcript of his 1992 parole hearing.)

Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard
This is one of the most interesting and original true crime books I’ve ever read, and undoubtedly the least exploitative. Mary Bell, along with a co-defendant, was tried for the murder of two toddlers when she was eleven years old. The other girl was acquitted; Mary was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. This book is written by a woman who had covered the original trial with cooperation from Mary herself, now a grown woman with a teenage daughter of her own. Most of the book is in fact about what happened to her after her conviction: the places she was sent, the reform schools and prisons she lived in, the ceaseless media attention that has uprooted her family dozens of times. Sereny argues that children who kill are not the same as adult murderers and we should not treat them as such. They are severely damaged children, and they need help. The stories of Mary’s life, and especially the sense one gets of her as a responsible and moral adult, are extremely compelling evidence in her favor.

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty

Day 20 – Favorite kiss
As may be obvious from how long it took me to get this post written up, I simply do not remember kisses in books. I mean it. I remember relationships, but most of them…I honestly couldn’t tell you if they ever kissed. Sure, they probably did, but I don’t remember it. But after nearly two months of mulling it over, I’ve come up with two exceptions: one is Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan in Shards of Honor (at least, I think it’s Shards — one of the first two books, anyway), but that one’s more the whole scene (including Simon unsmiling) than the kiss itself. The other is Daine and Numair in The Realms of the Gods, the last book in Tamora Pierce’s Immortals quartet.

She ran to Numair, slamming into him with enough force to drive him back against the willow’s trunk. “That hurt,” he gasped. Before she could apologize, he was kissing her nose, her cheeks, her forehead, her lips. She kissed him back. They came up for air, then kissed again, their hands checking each other’s bodies, for serious injury as well as simply for the joy of touch.

I don’t actually like their relationship — that is, I loved their relationship before it became romantic, and I’m not sure why it went there in the end — but the kiss is scorching.

Sun Dancing, A Morbid Taste for Bones, The Dead-Tossed Waves, I Shall Wear Midnight

Geoffrey Moorhouse, Sun Dancing
I was a little disappointed in this book — it was advertised as an imaginative retelling of the history of one of the white martyr monasteries in early medieval Ireland, with documentation to back up the retelling. Most of the documentation was pretty vague stuff about the history of the Celtic Church, though, rather than anything in support of the actual events he was talking about in the retelling section. Which was interesting, but not awesome. I’m not sorry I read it, but I don’t think I’ll run out and read it again.

Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
After watching Derek Jacobi be awesome all over the TV series, I figured I ought to actually read the Cadfael series. I’d brought one of them home from the epic weeding project I did last spring, but it turned out to be not only very late in the series but actually a direct sequel to the first book, so I didn’t actually read it. severa lent me her copy of the first book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Pretty good medieval setting, excellent main characters, and a murder mystery that is supported almost entirely by characterization rather than by some kind of elaborate double-bluff. I am now plowing through as many of the rest as I can get my hands on.

Carrie Ryan, The Dead-Tossed Waves
The sequel to the amazing Forest of Hands and Teeth, almost immediately after I bought this I read a review that said it was terrible, so I took forever to get around to reading it. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t as good as the first one. It covers roughly the same kind of territory — growing up, and becoming an actual person, in a post-zombie-apocalypse society — but with a very different main character and a very different part of that society. It was a little slow to get going, but it really picked up in the second third and I enjoyed it very much by the end.

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
The latest Tiffany Aching book. I love Tiffany. Best witch ever. Yes, even better than Granny Weatherwax — especially for narration, because when she makes mistakes, she doesn’t always know they’re mistakes right off, the way Granny does. This was also great fun because pretty much everyone had a cameo: Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Nobby Nobbs, Magrat, Carrot, even Esk… I was just sad that Tiffany didn’t get to meet the Patrician. Now that would have been entertaining.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers, Traffic, ttyl, Mushishi

(I’ve been so busy with my 30 Days of Books posts, I’ve been neglecting to post about my latest reads. Ooops.)

Cherie Priest, Not Flesh nor Feathers
Last in the Eden Moore series, and still awesome. Now with zombies! This book is pretty apocalyptic, what with the flood of Chattanooga and the undead coming out of the darkness — not to eat people, in this case, but at the behest of an angry twelve-year-old ghost who can’t be stopped or comforted. I love the…well, the realism, for lack of a better word, of Priest’s ghosts. They act just like people do, only more frustrated, because they’re dead.

Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic
I blogged about this a little earlier in my 30 Days of Books series, too. Like I said there, it’s a pretty fascinating overview of what we know, scientifically, about how traffic works — not only how people drive, but how patterns and trends emerge, and what to do about them. There’s a whole chapter on my favorite insight about traffic, which is that roads are safer the less safe drivers feel, largely because when drivers feel safe they speed and when drivers feel unsafe they slow the hell down.

Lauren Myracle, ttyl
You know, I don’t have to look at this book and think, Was I ever like that in high school? I know I wasn’t. I just wasn’t that type of teenager; I couldn’t wait to grow up and get out into something that more closely resembled civilization than high school does. I enjoyed this book nonetheless. The girls are bright, their fights are indeed about real things high school girls fight about, and their solutions are occasionally brilliant. I don’t think I’ll read the rest of Myracle’s books, it’s just not really my thing, but I would have no hesitation about recommending them to people for whom this is their thing, particularly high school girls.

Mushishi 8-10, Yuki Urushibara
I don’t know why they decided to publish the last three volumes of this series all in one gigantic brick, and I have to say, I’m kind of annoyed about it. The stories themselves, though, are as wonderful as ever; Ginko is brilliant and slightly sneaky, the mushi are tremendously alien, and all of the stories have an excellent meditative kind of feel. They’re like haiku in manga form. Supernatural haiku. I love it, and while I’m sad there won’t be any more, I don’t think the series is lacking in any way.

30 Days of Books: Day Thirteen

Day 13 – Favorite childhood book OR current favorite YA book (or both!)

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. I remember my mother reading this to me before bed when I was very small; I still have cassette tapes of me reading the book myself from when I was a little older. And you know what, I still love this series.

It’s got a kind of fractured fairy-tale theme to it. Princess Cimorene decides that, if her options as a princess are to have dancing lessons and go to balls and get married or to be captured by a dragon, she’ll take the dragon, thank you very much. She ends up as Princess to the dragon Kazul, keeping house for the dragon, cooking bucketfulls of dragon-sized portions of cherries jubilee, and trying to put off the knights and princes who come to rescue her.

There are four books in the series, and I could not possibly pick a favorite, although I am fond of the third one just because the main character is Morwen, a witch who has half-a-dozen cats and a few spare workrooms (all of which can be reached by the same garden door). These books also initiated my complete love of Patricia C. Wrede, who I adored when I was in middle and high school, and whose influence can still be seen in the epic fantasy novel I’m writing for NaNoWriMo this year.

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