Friday, May 29, 2009

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

This was my second try at this novel and it took this time. The first time I tried to read this I was put off by the prologue which describes the death of an elderly nun. For some reason it was distasteful to me, but this time it made sense. The Birth of Venus is set in 15th century Florence at a time of great upheaval. The main character is Alessandra Cecchi, a sixteen-year-old, headstrong, intelligent aspiring painter. When the story opens she is contracted in marriage to an older man. The marriage seems like it will be a perfect solution for both of them, as her husband Cristoforo needs an heir and Alessandra needs a husband who will allow her the freedom to paint, which Cristoforo does. However, all is not as it seems in their relationship and when a fiery monk, Savanarola, takes control of the city and institutes a suffocating crackdown on sin, their marriage and Florentine society begins to fall apart. Add to this mix Alessandra's love for a fellow painter and her husband's secret life and you get a very passionate and dramatic plot. I really loved reading about 15th century Florence and art and was mesmerized by the details of daily life during this time period. I was also pleased that the plot of this novel did not take the reader where you think it should go, but twisted to fit the reality of what would really happen to someone like Alessandra during this era. I plan to read the second novel in Dunant's Renaissance trilogy, In the Company of the Courtesan, within the coming weeks and hope it will be as satisfying.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What I'm Listening To

I haven't had a lot of time to read lately, so I've been getting books on CD. I listen to them while I clean the kitchen, put on make-up, etc. I listened to a GREAT book recently called Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey. It's the first in a series called A Resurrection of Magic. It has a dual plot-taking place in two different times. The story switches back and forth every chapter between the story of a magically gifted girl in a time where true magic is outlawed and a young boy who attends a wizard school where the boys are forbidden from helping one another and they will starve to death if they cannot magically produce food. My kitchen has never been so clean as I would find any excuse to be in there while I still had CDs of this book left to "read." Skillful writing that was able to maintain both plots while keeping the reader interested (inability to do this is why it took me so long to finish The Historian) was impressive. Thoroughly enjoyable read. Bad news: the second book of the series is not out yet, meaning it will probably be a few years before I can satisfy my curiousity about Sadima and Hahp's fates.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

This is a ghost story. Or is it? The Little Stranger fits into my favorite gothic novel category and is an excellent example of a scary, horror story that is not bloody or gory. Set just after World War II in Warwickshire, England this novel is narrated by Dr. Faraday, a 40-year-old bachelor and country doctor. When he is called out to a case at Hundreds' Hall he meets the Ayres family; Mrs. Ayres, her daughter Caroline and her son Roderick. They are an old, aristocratic family who live in a beautiful, yet crumbling and falling apart mansion. Their financial situation is precarious and Roderick is under extreme stress trying to keep them solvent. Injured in the war, he walks with a limp and when Dr. Faraday proposes an electrical treatment for his muscles Rod reluctantly agrees. Dr. Faraday begins spending many hours with the family administering Rod's treatment and eventually becomes entangled in their strange affairs. Soon, mysterious and tragic events begin to befall this isolated family and Dr. Faraday details it all as it is told to him as he rarely witnesses the events himself. As the novel progresses the reader starts to feel that "something isn't right here" feeling, but it is hard to pinpoint why. Eventually, the family comes to believe that they are possessed by a supernatural force that is trying to destroy them. I loved the pacing of this novel. Waters uses the slow build-up method that makes the reader uneasy and creeped out. Though the pacing is deliberate, I couldn't stop reading and stayed up long into the night to discover the mystery of Hundreds Hall. If you like gothic reads such as The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale, this is a perfect read for you. It is also perfect if you just want a good old-fashioned ghost story. I loved it!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

I am a huge fan of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, but I hadn't read anything else by her so I decided to read this newest book of hers. Wintergirls centers around Lia, a senior in high school who is battling anorexia. We follow her through the death of her former best friend and through her struggles to maintain a healthy facade while, secretly, she is starving herself, experiencing hallucinations and cutting herself to relieve the severe hatred and loathing she feels for herself. (How many times can I say herself in a sentence?) It was interesting to see what the mindset of an anorexic girl might be and to see how her false beliefs fuel her illness. Anderson's unique writing style perfectly mimics the jagged and jumpy thoughts that Lia has and the mood she creates gives the reader an understanding of Lia's mental suffering. However, I didn't really like this book. I understand it on a creative level, but as a story it was nearly unbearable to read. I felt such despair reading it that I had to stop about half-way through and leave it for a while. I didn't want to finish it because entering Lia's world again was not enticing in the least. But I did want to see how Lia would come through. The ending was a bit forced and melodramatic, but I was just glad it was over. I wouldn't recommend Wintergirls. Read Speak instead; it's a more successful effort.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Teaser Tuesday - The Little Stranger

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

Grab your current read.

Let the book fall open to a random page.

Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.

You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Please avoid spoilers!

"What was I to do? It was clear to me - horribly clear - that over the past few weeks Rod had been the victim of some very powerful hallucinations."

From The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Reading List

I thought I'd share a list of the books I am reading at the moment. I'm a terribly spastic reader and I always have tons of books going. Here's my current list:

by Kristin Cashore -- 1/3 read

In a world where some people are born with extreme and often-feared skills called Graces, Katsa struggles for redemption from her own horrifying Grace, the Grace of killing, and teams up with another young fighter to save their land from a corrupt king.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson -- 1/2 read
Eighteen-year-old Lia comes to terms with her best friend's death from anorexia as she struggles with the same disorder.

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes -- 2/3 read

The Rose of Sebastopol
by Katharine McMahon -- just started

When her fiance falls ill while serving in the Crimean War, Mariella Lingwood travels to Italy to care for him only to discover that her cousin, a volunteer in Florence Nightingale's nursing corps, has gone missing.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley -- just started
Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is propelled into a mystery when a man is found murdered on the grounds of her family's decaying English mansion and Flavia's father becomes the main suspect.
Wondrous Strange by Leslie Livingston -- just started
Seventeen-year-old Kelley discovers her secret heritage after meeting Sonny, a guard of the gate that separates the fairy world from the mortal one, while a war band of fairies plan to force their way through the gate on Halloween night.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - almost finished
Sophomore Frankie starts dating senior Matthew Livingston, but when he refuses to talk about the all-male secret society that he and his friends belong to, Frankie infiltrates the society in order to enliven their mediocre pranks.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins -- just started
In a future North America, where the rulers of Panem maintain control through an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the twelve districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss's skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister's place.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Coventry and The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is a Canadian poet and novelist who has an amazing eye for detail and for finding beauty in the mundane. I recently read two of her novels back-to-back and was grateful to have discovered such a lyrical writer whose World War II-set novels resonate with longing and loss.

Coventry mainly takes place on the night of November 14, 1940 when the English city of Coventry was nearly completely destroyed by German bombs. It follows the efforts of two women, Maeve and Harriet, to survive the bombing that devastated the city. There are periodic flashbacks to the First World War when Harriet lost her husband and Maeve conceived her son and how those experiences now impact how the women react to the current war and bombing.

The Lost Garden also takes place during World War II. Gwen Davis is 35, single and lonely. She is a gardener who works for the Royal Horticultural Society in London and is looking for an opportunity to leave the city she loves so she doesn’t have to witness its destruction by bombs. She gets that opportunity by joining the Women’s Land Army and going to Devon to plant potatoes on a neglected estate. Here she receives her first experiences with love and intense friendship, and ultimately, loss. Her discovery of a hidden, overgrown garden and the plants it contains is a perfect metaphor for her experiences and Humphreys’ descriptions of the gardens and flora on the estate match well with her descriptions of Gwen’s emotional landscape.

Both of these novels deal with love, but more intensely with loss and how people let it shape their lives.

As the author herself says “Every story is a story about death. But perhaps, if we are lucky, our story about death is also a story about love”.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Depressed Teenage Girls

So I've read 1 novel and 2 graphic novels this week that all centered around very disgruntled and suffering teen girls. And I love them! Why? Maybe it takes me back to my own teen years when I was also very depressed, disgruntled and suffering, but why would I want to recall those days? I don't know, I just know that I like reading about these girls.

You Know Where To Find Me
by Rachel Cohn

Miles is overweight, lonely and too intelligent for her own good. Her only friends are a popular black guy and her cousin Laura. When Laura commits suicide Miles descends into a numbing depression that she only makes worse by abusing prescription pain-killers. Sarcastic, funny and painfully self-absorbed Miles is a gem of a character who is surprisingly sane considering her situation. I enjoyed this novel for her character alone, but I found it lacking for some reason that I can't pin down.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
This graphic novel was on all of the Best YA book lists last year so though I normally don't read graphic novels I decided to give it a go and I'm glad I did. I really liked this story of another disgruntled teen girl, Kim (called Skim, "because she's not") and her struggle to fit in with her peers and find a place for herself at school and at home. The illustrations are amazing and I look forward to reading more work by Mariko and Jillian.

Ghost World
by Daniel Clowes

This classic graphic novel stars Enid and Rebecca. They are not in school anymore and have no goals except to be seen at the right places and with the right people. They are mean and hateful to each other and everyone else in a desperate attempt to rise above the crowd and their crappy, aimless lives. They are fascinating characters, especially Enid, and I enjoyed their story though it was hard to take at times.