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Peony in Love
Peony in Love
by Lisa See
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A romantic and detailed work of historical fiction, 5 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Peony in Love (Paperback)
Living in seventeenth-century China, Peony has never left her family's home. Her mother has kept her inside to maintain her virtue and modesty as she prepares to marry out to a stranger. Peony is nearly sixteen, and on her birthday, her father has planned a performance of her favorite play, The Peony Pavilion. As the only child, Peony has been educated beyond what her mother deems appropriate, and as a result has a great appreciation for literature. On the night of the play, Peony accidentally meets a handsome young poet, immediately falling in love with him. In despair over her approaching marriage to a stranger and consumed by obsession for the play and her poet, Peony's life spirals into a haunting struggle through the nebulous underworld and culminates with her quest to give Chinese women a voice.

I've been looking forward to this novel since it came out and was pleased to finally have the opportunity to read it. Lisa See didn't let me down; while not as masterful as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I read before blogging, Peony in Love is a romantic story about the struggles of women in China with an abundance of fascinating historical detail and a healthy dose of fantasy. Peony dies in the first third of the novel (this is revealed on the back cover, so I don't consider it a spoiler) and enters a world of Chinese mythology, where Lisa See uses her research on those beliefs to elaborate on how Peony can still communicate and influence those she loves. We know her ending cannot be totally happy, but her story is still compelling and absorbing.

My favorite aspect of the book was how it mirrored The Peony Pavilion in many ways but also reflected real historical events. I have never read the play, but enough is described in this novel to make it clear that Peony is essentially trying to become Liniang and get her Mengmei to bring her back to life. It was fascinating and maddening to realize that many young women did actually die of "lovesickness" in this way. Basically, it's believed that they became anorexic, which is horrifying, to both gain control over their lives and because they supposedly believed that true love would save them. Even though this sounds a little far-fetched, it's easy to relate to Peony and sympathize with her. She's fallen in love and believes that now she is forced to marry a stranger. I loved the details of her preparations for marriage (except the repeat footbinding!) and the ceremonies enacted before and after her death. This is a part of the world and a period in history I just don't read enough about.

Better yet, I liked how the novel emphasized the role of women in China and how it has been eroded throughout the centuries. The Three Wives' Commentary on the play actually exists, as did the writing groups and female poets in the novel, and I'm incredibly intrigued by them and want to learn more about the movement. This is why I love historical fiction! Not only did I get a great story, but I also got a peek into unfamiliar history and a strong desire to learn what's true and what's fiction. Peony in Love is definitely recommended.


The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Human side of a dystopia, 4 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Year of the Flood (Hardcover)
This companion novel to Oryx and Crake takes the reader into the pleeblands, exploring the effect that Crake's super virus had on the ordinary people. Toby and Ren both spent a time as God's Gardeners, a religion devoted to worshipping God through plants and science, but later leave the group through events out of their control. Toby, an older woman, is working at a spa when the catastrophe happens, and manages to stay alive through eating the edible treatments. Ren is a young woman working as a trapeze dancer in a sex club, thankfully locked into a controlled room and saved from the virus. As these women attempt to survive, they wonder if their friends have survived, and reflect on the paths their lives took before they ended up here.

Whereas it was difficult to relate to any of the characters in Oryx and Crake, it's amazingly easy here, and I feel comfortable saying that Ren and Toby put a human face on this dystopian world. They are the marginalized members of society, but they are still real women forced to confront women's issues. Toby is driven to the Gardeners after her boss basically rapes her and then decides that she is his, probably intending to kill her. When Ren joins the Gardeners, she is just a young girl at the mercy of her mother's mercurial temperament, and later suffers from unrequited love with a man who really does not deserve her. In a totally alien, if well-described, world, Ren and Toby are easy to relate to and bring the suffering home in a way that Oryx and Crake fails to do. Ren was actually my favorite, if only because we watch her grow up. Even though she eventually ends up in one of the elite high schools, she's still dealing with issues every teenager understands:

"I saw the temptation. I saw it clearly. I would come up with more bizarre details about my cultish life, and then I would pretend that I thought all these things were as warped as the HelthWyzer kids did. That would be popular. But also I saw myself the way the Adams and Eves would see me: with sadness, with disappointment. Adam One, and Toby, and Rebecca. And Pilar, even though she was dead. And even Zeb.

How easy it is, treachery. You just slide into it. But I knew that already, because of Bernice."

- p. 195

This is truly a wonderful novel. I felt the dystopian world was a bit less clear here, perhaps more ridiculous without the inside view, but because I'd read Oryx and Crake, I didn't have many questions. Rather, the novels worked in tandem, and I really think it helped to read one right after the other. I don't think it's necessary, but it provides a complete and intriguing picture. Some of the same characters appear, and actually had bigger parts than I'd expected, plus some bigger issues are clarified. If I had to choose, though, I'd choose this one. I'm all about great characters, and Ren and Toby win the day for me. I must admit, however, that I generally skipped over the God's Gardener homilies and songs, but I didn't find it deterred from the plot.

I loved The Year of the Flood* and I highly recommend it.


Oryx And Crake
Oryx And Crake
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating premise, 3 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Oryx And Crake (Paperback)
Humanity has been devastated by a virus and Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy, is perhaps the only human to have survived, for all he knows. With him are his friend Crake's perfect creations, people genetically modified to become more perfect than ordinary human beings. They have better ways of sustaining themselves, go into heat like animals to avoid difficult romantic situations, and can even purr to heal injuries. Snowman, however, is having a much more difficult time surviving, and juxtaposes his struggle to find more food with his personal history, his love affair with Oryx, and how he found himself to be alone.

This is only my second Margaret Atwood novel, and after loving The Handmaid's Tale, I'm really wondering why it took me so long to read another. I adore dystopias and Atwood has created another intriguing world here, if not quite as plausible. When Jimmy was a child, the Corporations ruled supreme, essentially acting as one big government. The world outside of the Corporations was unimportant, the people only used as test subjects and cash cows as medicines were infused with illnesses to keep the market booming. If any worker betrayed insider secrets, they were killed. This was the world of Jimmy's childhood, and while he wasn't brilliant enough for a high position, his best friend Glenn, later known as Crake, certainly was. It is Crake who sets out to change everything and puts in motion the events that destroy the world as everyone knows it.

While I couldn't say I actually liked any of the characters, which was the book's weakest point, it was hard for me to tear myself away from this book. I was fascinated by the development of the plot; we know early on that the world has changed drastically, but finding out just how and why was riveting. I didn't like Jimmy/Snowman all that much, due to his escapades with women and his irritating obsession with Oryx, but I loved the curiosities of his world. His struggle to find more food allows us to relate to him even as we dislike him, but it also serves the purpose of guiding us through more of the world.

For me, the best part was the Crakers, the genetically altered beings that Crake created. What I liked about them was that even though they were modified to escape supposed human foibles, they still exhibited that humanity. This was mainly through their acceptance of a god-like story featuring, as expected, Oryx and Crake. Even though they're reportedly hard-wired to miss out on all mistakes, they are still people and it's almost as though we can see their mythology evolving. Snowman doesn't know how else to explain it to them and they latch on remarkably easily. Fascinating stuff, and that really cemented the entire book for me.

Atwood is a remarkable author. Oryx and Crake* has convinced me that I really need to get reading more of her work. I certainly recommend this, especially to those who enjoy dystopias and science fiction.


Dead To The World: A True Blood Novel: 4
Dead To The World: A True Blood Novel: 4
by Charlaine Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Lovely installment in enchanting urban fantasy series, 2 Nov. 2009
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
After the disastrous events in Club Dead, it looks like Bill and Sookie's relationship is officially over. Bill heads on a trip to Peru while Sookie remains in Bon Temps, making a New Year's resolution not to get beat up again. Life doesn't return to normal, however, because on the way home from work Sookie spots Eric running around naked. When she gets him in her car, she realizes that he has amnesia and has no idea who he is. Not only does this new, sweeter Eric fluster Sookie, but she learns that there is a were-witch coven at work who cast this spell on him. Worse, the coven is extremely dangerous. It looks like Sookie may not keep her New Year's resolution after all.

Like nearly everyone else who has been reading these books, I have been crossing my fingers for Eric and Sookie to get together. His sex appeal just oozes off the page, and here he's sweet, old-fashioned, and totally perplexed in addition to ridiculously sexy. How can this go wrong?

Well, after reading this book, I'm glad that the reviews for the next one promise no romance. Poor Sookie's heart has been totally put through a wringer. Between Bill and Eric, I feel sorry for her! There is also Alcide, who I wouldn't mind having a little more screen time. It doesn't help that her brother goes missing and she is once again stuck helping to save everyone, even though she's not actually anything paranormal herself. It just never ends. Although if it did end, there wouldn't be much of a series! I also was very intrigued by the nearby town that Sookie discovers and its residents. I didn't see that coming at all, but it's an interesting twist and I hope they stick around to wreak a little bit more havoc.

Anyway, this isn't much a review, it's more a random collection of various thoughts which have popped into my head. Regardless, I am really enjoying this series! My new library has all the rest of the series and I couldn't be happier. Expect more reviews soon! In the meantime, Dead to the World is another great addition to this series, which I am definitely thrilled I started.


Amsterdam
Amsterdam
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful ideology but shallow everything else, 2 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Amsterdam (Paperback)
When Molly Lane dies, two of her friends meet outside a crematorium to express both their remorse and their view of Molly's last days. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are a pair of extremely successful men who at one point or another had an affair with Molly. Molly died in what they consider a horrible way; she just started to lose it suddenly, became ill, and required her long-suffering husband to nurse her. Clive, the most famous composer of his age, and Vernon, editor of a top newspaper, make a pact after Molly's death that rebounds against them in a way they'd never expected.

On the back cover, this is described as "a sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel", and I can't say it better than that. The comedy to me appears to come from how ridiculous these men are, how they are so wrapped up in themselves that they can't hear and don't care about the outside world at all. By the end of the novel, they have each truly become like Molly, lost to the world without realizing what has happened to them. They've been overtaken by an illness, and that illness is, according to Ian McEwan, the ills of public society and the selfishness that it takes to ignore the needs and wellbeing of fellow humans while taking care of number one. The disturbing thing is that neither of them realize it; what they're doing is so normal to them that they don't understand what's wrong. They think they're adding to society when really they're just adding to the problem.

Anyway, in that way, this novel is so deep in so few pages that it's hard to say whether or not I liked it. This is one of those books that I want a class on. There's a lot here to pick at and just writing that paragraph above has helped me clarify it in my mind. I think I could write a paper on it. It's less than two hundred pages long, so it didn't take me very long to read, but it packs in so much thought-provoking material in with the ridiculousness of the situation. The worst part is that, when dissected, the behavior of neither of the characters is ridiculous. They're doing what has been done countless times before and that is eerie and worrying, especially given the extreme dislike I felt for both of them by the end of the novel. Really the problem with the novel is that it isn't a very good story. The story and the characters exist only to prove McEwan's point, which is a strong one, but it doesn't work very well at a surface level.

In conclusion, there is a very good reason that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize. It's a truly haunting commentary on society that still manages to be slightly ridiculous enough to make it interesting. I haven't even touched on all the issues here, but I can tell I'm going to continue thinking about this for some time to come. It isn't as good as a book as Atonement is, in my humble opinion, particularly because it is shallow in everything but its overall meaning. I still think it's worth a read.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 3, 2013 4:03 PM BST


The Complete MAUS
The Complete MAUS
by Art Spiegelman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.89

38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, 2 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Complete MAUS (Paperback)
This haunting graphic novel depicts the Holocaust through the eyes of Art's father, a Polish Jew called Vladek who suffered greatly but survived the concentration camps. Starting with the meeting of his father and his mother, The Complete Maus carries their story through to the end of the horrors, juxtaposed with Art's present-day life and struggle to appease his elderly father while recording his history before it's too late. By using animals to represent groups of people (Nazis are cats, Jews are mice, French are frogs, and so on), the author strengthens his allegory and makes this book into an unforgettable and horrifying piece of art.

I hesistated for a few weeks before writing this review. Another review is surely excessive because I've seen tons out there. Still, my thoughts wanted a place, and when it comes down to it, this graphic novel hasn't left me alone yet.

Perhaps what's most striking about this particular tale is that Vladek is an ordinary old man. In some way, Holocaust survivors are expected to be supernaturally brave, intelligent, and in essence heroes. They are that, but they are also normal people thrust into the worst situation imaginable and forced to cope or die or both. Vladek has undoubtedly been shaped by his experience but not in the best ways. He hoards food, he hoards money, because his world is still uncertain and he knows what deprivation is like. This irritates everyone around him but the saddest part is that he is so normal. It brings home to us the fact that ordinary people were suffered and died for no reason. Vladek is startlingly like my grandpa and that makes the real story even more horrifying than it would have been without the frame. It reminds us how lucky we are, as does Art's constant struggle with his guilt over his role in his father's life.

As I'm sure many others have, I have heard a lot of Holocaust stories over my lifetime. I was taught about it in school, given books about it, and chose on my own to read about it on numerous occasions. That doesn't lessen the impact of this one. Since this one is set in Poland, and there is a lot of running around and hiding before Vladek and Anya are caught, I felt it was a little different than others. The fact that it's a graphic novel also made a difference. Even in cartoon form, seeing the wasted bodies of the mice is upsetting. The few real pictures added just make a huge impact, reminding us that these were real people.

Overall, this graphic novel is carefully crafted and deeply moving. I don't want to say something so horrifying is "good", because that is impossible. Rather, its power and stunning capacity to portray humanity and inhumanity through selected text and drawings makes it worth noting, remembering, and reading.


Fragile Eternity
Fragile Eternity
by Melissa Marr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Still good but very angsty, 2 Nov. 2009
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Fragile Eternity (Paperback)
Everything is getting harder for Aislinn, the Summer Queen. She's finding it harder and harder to resist Keenan, her king, who it seems she is naturally inclined to lust after. Keenan loves Donia, the Winter Queen, and vice versa, but with such opposing natures, these two struggle to make any kind of relationship work. Aislinn still loves Seth and wants to be with him, but he is a human in a faery world and it's hard on both of them. Aislinn has lost most of her human friends and finds it hard to separate herself from the faery world, making everything more awkward for Seth, who can feel her separation from him. He determines to take drastic measures in an attempt to be with Aislinn forever, not realizing the potential consequences of his choice.

Much of Fragile Eternity is spent on the characters agonizing over one another. A natural, and easy, pairing would have been Aislinn and Keenan, the Summer royalty, who are almost doomed to love one another given the eternity that they are forced to have. Yet both Aislinn and Keenan love elsewhere, hurting both each other and their lovers equally. They can't stop being drawn together even though they don't love one another. It is a difficult time for all four people, and Marr explores the tough choices that they have to make with some finesse, even if it feels frustrating. I know I had trouble returning to this book because the relationships were so well drawn and so painful. It was hard to know where the book was going to end up.

Seth's choice, about halfway through the book, made sense even though I wished it hadn't come to that. His journey into the world of Faerie was the best part for me. He was finally at peace with his choice, becoming more than frustrated ball of love for Aislinn, and Sorcha is a great addition to the cast of characters. She's strong, interesting, and simply feels mythical. She adds immeasurably to a book that is largely about tortured lovers by giving the story another outlet. Besides, I always love great worldbuilding and Seth's journey was a stellar opportunity for Marr to engage in it. I was really looking forward to learning more about the world and I wasn't at all disappointed.

Overall, I'm not sure this one lives up to Wicked Lovely or Ink Exchange. I think it's telling that I had to put it aside and take a break from all the angst, and then I dreaded going back to it because I didn't want the characters to be so unhappy or tortured anymore. To some extent this has always been true of this series, but I really had a hard time here. It also ends in a cliffhanger and the next book isn't out until 2010. So, I'll be biting my nails until then! I do plan to continue but next time, I'm going to approach Marr's books with a totally open and relaxed mind, rather than one which didn't really need more stress.


Cry Wolf: Alpha and Omega: Book 1
Cry Wolf: Alpha and Omega: Book 1
by Patricia Briggs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing new story in the Mercy Thompson world, 2 Nov. 2009
Anna Latham, an Omega werewolf still adjusting to her status and history of abuse, has arrived in Montana with her would-be mate, Charles. Charles' pack is controlled by his father, Bran, the Marrok, or basically the alpha of all the werewolves. As Anna is adjusting to life in a new pack, with new trust issues, and a new mate that she has to get to know, trouble crops up in a nearby forest. Somehow, it's related to an extremely old werewolf in Bran's pack who believes he is going a little insane and needs to be put out of his misery. Charles and Anna must do their part to sort out the trouble before the public catches on to the werewolves' presence while adjusting to new life together.

I can't really imagine reading this book without having read the short story "Alpha and Omega" in the On the Prowl anthology (my review). It picks up directly afterwards and I can imagine the reader feeling lost without having already been acquainted with Anna and Charles and all that had happened. Similarly, someone who hadn't read the Mercy Thompson series would have missed out on the connections between books. I don't know how well this stands alone, but as someone who is a fan, this is a great start to a spin-off series.

It's not quite as engrossing; Anna is not nearly as compelling as Mercy, for one thing, and Charles still feels a bit stiff. But it's easy to warm to these characters as they warm to one another, and Anna's ongoing struggle with her past is handled in what I considered a believable way. Anna has to learn to trust Charles and he has to learn not to do anything to betray that trust. I really felt that they both grew in this novel, so even though they're not my favorites, they are still likeable and convincing.

The plot itself is a bit of a race to the finish; there is hardly a dull moment and a lot is packed in here with the mystery, resolution, and the relationship drama. The story itself is not really much of a mystery, but more as a way for Anna to develop while providing a bit of suspense outside of love. A lot of the book also fills in pack dynamics which are missing more from the Mercy Thompson series; for example, the concept that the inner wolves mate choose mates without the human side's consent. This is what happened with Bran and his mate Leah, something I had wondered about, and happens with Anna and Charles almost instantly. Luckily for the latter, their human sides fall in love too, but it's interesting that this isn't always the case.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Cry Wolf .* Perhaps not great literature and I wasn't immediately racing to read the next one, but I'm looking forward to it.


The Queen's Mistake: In the Court of Henry VIII
The Queen's Mistake: In the Court of Henry VIII
by Diane Haeger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.61

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good historical novel, 2 Nov. 2009
Catherine Howard has grown up in the country, a relatively insignificant member of an incredibly powerful family. After the death of her cousin Anne Boleyn, the Howard family fortunes fell to some extent, but in 1540, things are about to change. Catherine's uncle, the duke of Norfolk, brings her to court at age seventeen, when she is at her most beautiful, white-washing her reputation and placing her before the king. Catherine is no innocent but King Henry VIII falls in love with her, convinced that she is his rose without a thorn. When the members of her past come to court intent on blackmail, Catherine's road to tragedy is assured.

This story is a familiar one for many Tudor enthusiasts, and clearly I'm no exception. I was looking forward to reading Haeger's portrayal of this young queen. Considering Catherine probably slept with a variety of men, I would think it would be difficult for her to be a sympathetic character, but Haeger makes it look easy. She creates a Catherine that readers will wish had a different ending. Despite her sexual experience, Catherine does seem innocent and naive at times, completely a pawn for her powerful uncle and the Howard family strategy to gain favor. Once she's gained the eye of the king, there is no looking back for this girl. Her downfall is indeed tragic because Haeger's Catherine wishes in every instance for something different. When she finally settles into her role as queen and begins to hope she can be good for Henry and for the country, that hope is snatched away from her by her past.

While most of the third person narrative is focused on Catherine, we do occasionally get glimpses into the other characters' heads, particularly that of Thomas Culpeper. The other characters are not quite so well-defined, but each of them feel intriguing and real, and this is a Tudor world that feels largely authentic and familiar. I enjoyed the rich descriptions, especially of Catherine's dresses, and felt I could picture all of the players moving about the court, ambitions intact. The plot unfolds in a sensible way; virtually everyone who is interested in Tudor history will know that Catherine was beheaded by Henry VIII, so the book opens on the night before the execution. It then returns to the time when everything began to change for Catherine and the author can explain how she got to that point in her own way. It's very well done and the book is a pleasure to read. Perhaps my only qualm with it is that Catherine never seems bothered by the fact that she sleeps with every man who looks at her twice. She does it out of boredom, but surely she must worry about pregnancy at the very least. No one seems to lament the loss of her virginity except as it pertains to the king, which did seem strange to me since surely any other nobleman would like his wife to be a virgin, but it's only a minor part of the story.

Overall, I would recommend The Queen's Mistake to Tudor enthusiasts and other fans of historical fiction. It's a well-written peek into the past, with sympathetic characters and an engaging sense of history.


The Blue Notebook
The Blue Notebook
by James A. Levine
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to say a book like this is good, but so worth reading, 2 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Blue Notebook (Paperback)
Batuk is a fifteen-year-old Indian prostitute. She was sold into prostitution by her father at only nine years old, after a less than idyllic, but still relatively happy childhood. Batuk's path to prostitution is devastating, more so what she has to endure each and every day at the hands of strange men, but writing is her salvation. She writes about her life, makes up stories, and in general endures far beyond what any child should ever have to.

It's incredibly hard to write about this book. Child prostitution is a difficult and horrible subject. Obviously, it should never happen and it is completely wrong. But it does happen, and James Levine has tried to imagine what that life would be like for a little girl. Batuk has been betrayed by everyone and endures the worst kind of humiliation each day of her life, yet she is portrayed as a hopeful child, still vivacious, making the best of a bad situation whenever she can. The story is even more moving because the reader knows that there are girls like this out there, and Batuk feels real.

It is Batuk herself that is the novel's greatest triumph. It's difficult to believe that this girl was written by a man because she does feel genuine in every way. She tries not to think about what is happening to her even as her words give it devastating clarity. She puts up a facade and retains hope even though the reader can sense her unhappiness in nearly every line. She does what she must to make the experience bearable while using the rest of her scarce free time to write stories and remember her past. It would be impossible not to feel for her and wish she could escape this life and go back to the countryside where she was at least an innocent.

It's difficult to say that I liked this book, because it's so difficult to read. It's short, but it's so moving and heartrending. I think it's important to read, however, if only so we're forced to confront ourselves with the horrid reality of what might be for real young girls. The author interviewed child prostitutes and based his book on their stories. It's fiction like this that inspires us to make a difference, and for that reason I do recommend The Blue Notebook.


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