Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

This is, unfortunately, my least favorite kind of book review to write.  I read Remarkable Creatures, I liked it, but there is little to nothing that I will take away from this book after reading it.  I hope that by the end of this review I sort out whether this is a problem with me or with the novel, because at this point I can’t be sure.

On the one hand, this is a completely unique tale that is fairly accurate to history (as far as I can tell).  The plot concerns the life of Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot.  Mary has long had a talent for finding fossils on the beach of Lyme Regis in England in the 1800s, and Elizabeth, recently moved from London to the small seaside town takes an interest in the hobby as well.  The history of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot is interesting not only from a scientific point of view, but also because the exploration of women’s place in society during this time period is endlessly fascinating.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t occupy enough of the book.  I think that Remarkable Creatures could have been more interesting if it didn’t change narrators throughout – I found Elizabeth’s voice to be annoying and unnecessary.  A story told directly from Mary’s point of view would have been more interesting in my opinion, though I understand the technical reasons for including her.  I also thought that the book could have used pictures.  There are so many fossils described that I really would have appreciated photographs or drawings to accompany the novel.  Not only would that have helped me to understand better what was being described, but it would have made for a lovely edition of the book.

But the truth is that I kept reading this book and didn’t dislike it, I just didn’t particularly love it either.  It could have been so much more interesting, or at the very least 100 pages shorter.  I think that turning this story into a novel didn’t do much of a service to the story, other than bringing it to more readers.  I would have rather just read a non-fiction book about Mary and Elizabeth.  So is that a problem with this novel or with my general dissatisfaction for historical fiction?  I’m not sure.  A lot of people have really loved this novel and here I am left feeling so meh! about it.  I did enjoy that Chevalier included a bibliography at the end of the book and will probably be reading more about Mary Anning in the future.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Other reviews: Devourer of Books, Literate Housewife, My Fluttering Heart, Age 30+… A Lifetime of Books, S. Krishna’s Books, The Girl from the Ghetto.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

When Her Fearful Symmetry came out this year and all the reviews started to pour in, I knew that I was going to have to wait to read it.  The results were of resounding disappointment – it was no where near as good as Time Traveler’s Wife, to most it was mediocre, to others it was downright infuriating.  I wanted to let that sit a while before I read this book, and I knew that I was going to read it eventually because Time Traveler’s Wife remains one of my all-time favorite books.  Sitting here, with Her Fearful Symmetry read and this review waiting to be written, I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel at all.

When Elspeth dies, she leaves a very unconventional will.  She leaves her flat, right next to Highgate Cemetery, to her twin nieces that she has never met (Valentina and Julia).  But Elspeth does not completely depart from this world; she haunts the flat and has ongoing conversations with her former lover Robert and the twins.  There is also Martin, the twins’ OCD neighbor.

What I can say about it is that I never didn’t enjoy reading it.  As I was reading it, I thought the novel was interesting and well-written.  There were elements of Time Traveler’s Wife that I loved, repackaged and still fresh.  There was the supernatural element of the ghost story, which I thought was done quite successfully.  There is Niffenegger’s gorgeous language and her perfect sense of place.  I have never been to Highgate Cemetery, I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen pictures of it, but she did a fabulous job explaining it and completely putting me there.  The best thing about this novel?  Martin and the ending.  I thought Martin’s storyline was endlessly fascinating, especially at the beginning, and I wanted more from him.  I also loved Robert; he was flawed and another favorite to read about.  The ending of this novel was, for me, exactly what was needed.  It does not end happily, not really, and there were plenty of twists that I did not see coming.  I’m so glad that Niffenegger ended this one as she did, because otherwise the novel would have suffered greatly for it.

Where Her Fearful Symmetry fails is in making me care about Valentina and Julia.  Much of the plot revolves around Valentina and how she feels suffocated by her relationship with Julia, but I honestly don’t know why, other than the fact that Julia wanted to drop out of college and somehow dragged Valentina with her.  The pathos of their relationship is never adequately explained and I needed that explanation to connect with the twins.  Instead, I connected much more completely with Robert and Martin, whose complexities are explained fully and simply.  Instead of coming off as trapped and tragic, Valentina comes off as immature and whiny.   I wish that there hadn’t been any twins in this novel at all, but that we had just gotten to see how the lives of Martin and Robert played out after the death of their mutual friend, who happens to be haunting her flat.

Even with that complaint, I still really enjoyed reading Her Fearful Symmetry.  I particularly liked this quote near the beginning of the novel:

James said, “I saw a ghost once. […] I was quite small, only a lad of six.  […] So, I was put to bed upstairs.  I remember lying there with the blanket pulled up to my chin, my mother kissing me goodnight, and there I was in the dark, not knowing what terrible thing might be ready to slink out from the wardrobe and smother me…”

Jessica smiled.  Robert thought it might be a smile for the morbidly fantastical imaginations of children.

“So what happened?”

“I fell asleep.  But later that night I woke up.  There was moonlight coming in through the window, and the shadows of the tree branches fell onto the bed, waving gently in the breeze.”

“And then you saw the ghost?”

James laughed.  “Dear chap, the branches were the ghost.  There weren’t any trees within a hundred yards of that house.  They’d all been cut down years before.  I saw the ghost of a tree.”

Robert thought about it.  “That’s rather elegant.  I was expecting ghouls.”

Well, that’s just it, you see.  I think perhaps if that sort of thing does happen – ghosts – it must be more beautiful, more surprising than all these old tales would have us believe.” (62)

So, yes, I recommend this book.  It is a good ghost story, but it definitely fails on some levels.  When I read Time Traveler’s Wife, I sobbed at the end for Claire and Henry because I felt like I knew them.  In that sense, Her Fearful Symmetry is a disappointment when you compare it to that first novel.  However, if Niffenegger had written this book under a different name and I never tried to compare the two?  Maybe I would feel a little differently.  And an absolutely perfect ending?  Hard to come by.

So go read  this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: The Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Devourer of Books, Books on the Brain, Stainless Steel Droppings, Dear Author, Fantasy Book Critic, Rhapsody in Books, Literate Housewife, At Home With Books, 5 Minutes for Books, eclectic/eccentric, Care’s Online Book Club, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Presenting Lenore, books i done read, Jenny’s Books, Savidge Reads.

Did I miss yours?  Leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it in!

Alternative literary realities in The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

You wanna talk about a book that’s hard to summarize?  You got it.  The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is almost impossible to explain in a few sentences and when you try, it usually ends up making little sense (kind of like trying to explain the last episode of Lost to anyone who has never seen the show).  Basically, all you have to know is that Thursday Next is a literary detective in an alternative reality (circa 1980s) where books are very important and Jane Eyre is seen as a national treasure.  When something terrible happens to Jane Eyre, Thursday must try to solve the crime before it is too late.

Truthfully, I considered abandoning The Eyre Affair about a quarter of the way through because I was very lost and confused.  I also didn’t love Thursday’s voice, it didn’t seem to suit her at all, though I would say she came into it at the end.  But listen to me when I say persevere! because you will be rewarded in the end.  Decoding the mystery of Thursday’s world is all part of the fun in this novel.  The world is strange and wonderful, with every tiny detail planned out perfectly to mirror the world we know, but at the same to completely turn it on its head.  Jasper Fforde is a highly imaginative author and The Eyre Affair is nothing if not original.  It is compared to Harry Potter, but outside of similarly fanatic followers and an alternative England, the comparisons stop there.  Well, they do have one more thing in common — the pure joy of reading them.  The Eyre Affair was so much fun to read, I’m thrilled to continue with this series.

But… yes, there is a but.  You cannot read a book in the Thursday Next series unless you have already read the classic it is based on.  Fortunately I had read Jane Eyre and this book neither ruined the ending for me nor bored me with literary references I did not get.  However, I’ve never read Great Expectations or any of the other books that are featured in the next installment Lost in a Good Book.  I really believe that if you haven’t read the book it is based  on, you will not enjoy the novel as much.  I hope to read Great Expectations soon, so I can continue with Thursday’s world.

If you like books, and you’ve read The  Eyre Affair, and you’re not afraid for stuff to get a little crazy, then I guarantee you this novel is for you.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Also reviewed by: English Major Junk Food, Rebecca Reads, Ooh… books!, Trish’s Reading Nook, Jackets & Covers, books i done read.

Anne of Avonlea – LM Montgomery

You may remember that a few weeks ago, I read the first book in the Anne of Green Gables series and was completely enamored.  The first book was clever, funny, touching and sad all at once and was so readable.  I fell for Anne immediately and even though I didn’t love Anne of Avonlea as much as Anne of Green Gables, I still really enjoyed reading this book.

Anne is sixteen, teaching at the school and unexpectedly helping Marilla raise twins Davey and Dora after their mother, a distant relative of Marilla, dies.  Of course there are some silly moments when Anne, but now also Davy, make a mess of things.  There were more than a few occasions when I shook my head and muttered “Oh, Anne” out loud.

I love how Marilla and Anne have really grown into one another.  They are the perfect foils for each other, with Marilla completely no-nonsense and Anne so imaginative, they are the perfect balance.  With Anne’s help, Marilla has just a little bit more imagination and Anne can be just a little bit more serious.   I wasn’t sure how I felt about the twins at first, but eventually they grew on me (after Davy stopped trying to terrify his sister!).  Finally Anne starts talking to Gilbert… sort of.  So I’m looking forward to their budding relationship.

My roommate, who recommended these books to me and bought me the set for Christmas, made a good point.  She said that one of the reasons she loved  Anne so much was because she got to grow up with Anne.  Her favorite Anne books were always the ones when the characters were the same age as her.  She thinks that I will really like the next installment, where Anne is in her early twenties.  I’m looking forward to it and will be reading it in March!

Favorite quotes:

“Well, one  can’t get over the habit of being a little girl all at once,” said Anne gaily.  “You see, I was little for fourteen years and I’ve only been grown-uppish for scarcely three.  I’m sure I shall always feel like a child in the woods.  These walks home from school are almost the only time I have for dreaming… except the half hour or so before I go to sleep.  I’m so busy with teaching and studying and helping Marilla with the twins that I haven’t anothermoment for imagining things.  You don’t know what splendid adventures I have for a little while after I go to bed in the east gable every night.  I always imagine I’m something very brilliant and triumphant and splendid… a great prima donna or a Red Cross nurse or a queen.  Last night I was a queen.  It’s really splendid to imagine you are a queen.  You have all the fun of it without any of the inconveniences and you can stop being a queen whenever you want to, which you couldn’t in real life.  But here in the woods I like best to imagine quite different things… I’m a dryad living in an old pine, or a little brown wood-elf hiding under a crinkled leaf.  That white birch you caught me kissing is a sister of mine.   The only difference is, she’s a tree and I’m a girl, but that’s no real difference (75).”

“‘Anne,’ said Davy, sitting up in bed and propping his chin on his hands, ‘Anne, where is sleep?  People go to sleep every night, and of course I know it’s the place where I do the things I dream, but I want to know where it is and how I get there and back without knowing anything about it… and in my nighty too.  Where is it?’ (151)

“That is one good thing about this world… there are always sure to be more springs.” (215)

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Also reviewed by: Dreadlock Girl, Ramya’s Bookshelf, The Blue Stocking Society, things mean a lot.

Waiting for love? in Waiting by Ha Jin

What struck me about Waiting by Ha Jin, was not necessarily what this novel said about love, but instead the way it used a love story to portray life in China under communist rule.  At the heart of this novel is, as the title suggests, is waiting – but it is not waiting for love, instead it is waiting for the public acceptance of that love.  The need for an outside source to defend and give validity to a relationship ultimately is that relationships destruction.

Lin Kong is a doctor in the army, stationed in Muji City while his wife remains in the remote Goose Village to raise their daughter and care for her husband’s ailing parents.  While in Muji City, he falls in love for the first time with a nurse named Manna Wu.  For the next 18 years, Lin is torn between the two women.  He has never felt love for Shuyu, and never had the chance to let a love grow between them.  What he feels for Manna is completely foreign to him, and over the years, as he waits for his wife to grant him a divorce, his feelings for Manna become something that he cannot explain or define.

Every aspect of Shuyu,  Lin and Manna’s lives are controlled by the government and it marks every decision and move they make.  Manna and Lin cannot be together because the army forbids it.  Lin cannot divorce Shuyu because the government will not let him.  When one character gets raped, she cannot tell anyone because the government would not believe her.  It’s a comedy of errors that is as heartbreaking and frustrating.

She got up from the bed, went over to the wardrobe, and took out the box.  Removing the padlock, she opened the lid, whose underside was pasted over with soda labels.  A roll of cream-colored sponge puffed out, atop the other contents.  She took the roll out and unfolded it on the bed, displaying about two dozen Chairman Mao buttons, all fastened to the sponge.  Most of them were made of aluminum and a few of porcelain.  Their convex surfaces glimmered.  On one button, the Chairman in an army uniform was waving his cap, apparently to the people on parade in Tiananmen Square.  On another he was smoking a cigar, his other hand holding a straw hat, while talking with some peasants in his hometown in Hunan Province.

“Wow, I never thought you loved Chairman Mao so much,” Lin said with a smile.  “Where did you get so many of these?”

“I collected them.”

“Out of your love for Chairman Mao?”

“I don’t know.  They look gorgeous, don’t they?”

He was puzzled by her admiration.  He realized that someday these trinkets might become valuable indeed, as reminders of the mad times and the wasted, lost lives of the revolution.  They would become relics of history.  But for her, they didn’t seem to possess any historical value at all.  Then it dawned on him that she must have kept these buttons as a kind of treasure.  She must have collected them as the only beautiful things she could own, like jewelry.  (251)

This is not the first time that an author has used that concept of waiting to explain or define a corrupt government.  One that always comes to mind for me is a movie:   La Muralla Verde (The Green Wall) is a Peruvian film that uses the same mix of waiting, inevitability and senselessness; it is a very effective combination that, unfortunately, paints an accurate portrait.  Waiting has received mixed reviews as a love story, but as tragedy it succeeds.  Lin is a tragic character above all else, unable to rise above his own indecisiveness to have a fulfilled life.  Instead it is a life filled with waiting, always waiting for the happiness and love that never come.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: Books of Mee, A Striped Armchair, A Book A Week, Book Awards Challenge.

Grief and humor in Looking for Bapu

“The wrinkle-nosed woman turns again.  ‘You’re brave to wear your turban, young man.  With all the anxiety!’

Young man?  Mr. Singh must be at least forty.  ‘I’ve been honored to wear this turban for many years,’  he says, holding his head high.  ‘Throughout history people have fought and died for the right to wear it.  I will not take it off  now.’

The woman purses her lips.  ‘Well, you’re very brave.’  She turns ahead  again, and the line begins to move, finally.  I glance sidelong at Dad.  He looks Indian, but he whistles ‘American Pie’ in the shower and reads the Seattle newspaper in the morning.  My dad is not what anyone calls him.  My dad is just my dad.  Is it brave to be what you are, I wonder?  Brave to just be yourself?” (pg 63)

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The Eternal Smile will show you the way

The Eternal Smile is a collection of short comics by authors and artists Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) and Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference and Other Stories).  The comics follow different characters and even have very different drawing and writing styles, but all have the same theme: nothing is really ever how we perceive it and it only takes one event (or one scene, or one word) to change our world view.  All three sections had a lovely twist at the end that really solidified the strength of these stories.

Duncan’s Kingdom is  about a young soldier who is determined to marry his sweetheart, who just happens to be the princess of the land.  When her father, the king, is killed by the Frog King, the princess announces that whoever avenges her father’s death with the head of the Frog King will earn her hand in marriage.  Duncan, with the help of his adopted guardian The Patchwork Man, goes on a journey to avenge the king.  Along the way things are out of place and Duncan begins to question the very foundation of his kingdom.  The twist at the end of this story was not necessarily unexpected and I liked it, but I think it was the weakest of the three stories.  This is not necessarily a fault of the story, but the other two were so strong.

I thought that Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile was going to be my least favorite comic.  At first I really didn’t like it and was going to skip it entirely.  I just didn’t love the story and thought it was kind of boring and I didn’t understand the point.  And then I did understand the point and it ended up being my favorite of all.  I don’t want to give anything away, but if you are reading this and consider giving up the story, don’t.   I think it’s the strongest and most imaginative of the three.

If Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile is the most imaginative, then Urgent Request is the most beautiful.  I really loved it and the message it sends is a good one.  Janet Oh works at a boring, dead-end job and her life is as gray as the color on the pages.  However, when a Nigerian prince emails her and asks for her help, her life suddenly turns colorful for more than one reason.  I loved the twist at the end of this one.  It was much more contemplative than the other two stories and the beautiful watercolors added to that. There is one particular panel of this story that is just gorgeous and I would love  to have it on my wall.

Though this collection is not necessarily as strong as American Born Chinese or other graphic novels I’ve read lately, it certainly deserves a spot on your list of books to be read.  It’s a quick, enjoyable read and has me really interested in Derek Kirk Kim’s other work.  Fans of graphic novels will find a lot to love here.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Other reviews: Chasing Ray, Book Addiction, things mean a lot, Stuff As Dreams Are Made On.