Thursday, November 13, 2014

#57 (2014/CBR6) "Longbourn" by Jo Baker

"The room was dull now, and meaningless, with the young ladies gone from it. They were both lovely, almost luminous. And Sarah was, she knew, as she slipped along the servants' corridor, and then up the stairs to the attic to hang her new dress on the rail, just one of the many shadows that ebbed and tugged at the edges of the light." (53)

It's one thing to tell a new story with the basic plot of Austen's novels, such as Bridget Jones's Diary or Clueless, but I am immediately skeptical of anyone who attempts to take Austen's characters and add to them. One of my favorite novels is Pride and Prejudice, and I don't appreciate lesser authors bastardizing the world that Austen created. So it wasn't until I read a number of positive reviews here on Cannonball that I finally decided to read Longbourn (2014) by Jo Baker. And I am so glad that I did.

Baker managed to create an entirely new world and new perspective while sticking strictly to the upstairs script that Austen had already set out. Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, and Polly make up the household staff at Longbourn. Mrs. Hill is the long-term housekeeper, and Sarah is our main protagonist. Taken into Longbourn from the poorhouse as a child after her parents died, Sarah lives a life with shelter and dependable food but also consistently difficult manual labor and a limited, bleak future. The four have created a family of sorts, a definite comfort in their uncertain world.

"But the whole thing left Sarah feeling very ill at ease. It was all as arbitrary and as far beyond their control as the weather. To live so entirely at the  mercy of other people's whims and fancies was, she thought, no way to live at all." (167)

"And this was what money could do--it was a sort of magic. It turned thoughts into things, desire in to effect." (297)

A young, mysterious man, James, is soon added to the downstairs staff, and Sarah is immediately intrigued. Just becoming an age where she begins to question her situation and limits, James is a symbol of a world bigger than the kitchens at Longbourn. Baker continues the story, weaving love, class differences, and mystery all together in a book that has probably forever altered my perspective of Pride and Prejudice.

What struck me most about Longbourn was that Baker was able to take a story and people that I felt I knew really well and widen my perspective of their lives. Jane and Lizzie are still beautiful and thoughtful and they treat their staff well, but they are unaware of how their lives and their demands affect those downstairs. One could blame the Bennett girls for being so unmindful, but did you ever think of the servants while reading Pride and Prejudice? I would venture no. I would venture that the wonderful Mr. Bingley and the incomparable Mr. Darcy were far more interesting than the people in the shadows keeping everything running.

Baker also brings a much darker view of this time in England. With more historical detail, including how Mr. Bingley's fortune stems from slave plantations to the war in Spain, this world feels more violent, dangerous, and dark. "Wherever you are, Mrs. Hill thought, God watches over you. He just looks on at you, with a strange eye and an uncaring heart." (263) In addition, the well-known events that occur upstairs have very different consequences for those upstairs and down. When the Bennett girls begin to marry, a joyous occasion upstairs, it means less work and the inevitable split of the close knit family downstairs. In addition, Mr. Collins is not a usurper throwing the family out of their house, but a possible new boss who must be impressed.

"Sarah peered closer at her sewing, her lips pressed tight: Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody  had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure." (115)

With James, the mysterious footman, and the intricate relationships, both upstairs and down, this book often reminded me of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. I really enjoyed reading Longbourn, and I look forward to re-reading Pride and Prejudice soon with a different perspective.

#56 (2014/CBR6) "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith a/k/a J.K. Rowling

I read the first Cormoran Strike novel for book club. I picked up the second Cormoran Strike novel because I'd already become attached to the characters, and I needed to find out what J.K. Rowling was going to do to with them. The Silkworm (2014) by "Robert Galbraith" follows the continuing story of Cormoran Strike, London private detective, and his assistant Robin.

When a dowdy, desperate woman walks into Cormoran's office looking for her missing, semi-famous, author husband, Cormoran takes her case despite his concerns about her ability to pay him. Almost immediately, he is thrown into a world of famous authors and their publishers. When the author comes up murdered in a grisly fashion that follows a disturbing scene from his latest manuscript, even more questions follow. Cormoran is sure that the author's wife is not the murderer, but the police are eager to find a killer, and the unsophisticated woman isn't adept at looking innocent.

With a great number of fascinating suspects and motives and a number of unraveling questions, I was impressed by what Rowling cooked up. My only complaint regarding the mystery of this novel is that Cormoran figures everything out way before the rest of us. And even though we are privy to his thoughts and conversations throughout the book, suddenly Rowling blacks out parts or whole conversations to keep us in the dark. It was manipulative and irritating, and I wish that Rowling could figure out a way for us to know what Cormoran knows without losing the tension of the mystery.

One fascinating aspect of this novel is that Rowling chose to place it in a world of authors and publishers. "If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels." (397) The egos, games, and intricate relationships between the authors and publishers, as well as their disdain for amateurs, was a large part of the mystery. I couldn't help but think of Rowling's personal experiences in this world and how she might fit in.

In addition, Rowling had one of her writers say, "...that the greatest female writers, with almost no exceptions, have been childless. A fact. And I have said that women generally, by virtue of their desire to mother, are incapable of the necessarily single-minded focus anyone must bring to the creation of literature, true literature." (298) I certainly don't think this is true, but it did make me wonder how many famous women authors are mothers. And it also made me wonder what J.K. Rowling thought of this statement, why she included it, and whether someone had ever said it to her.

Even with an intriguing mystery, what keeps me reading these books are the developing characters of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Cormoran is an injured war hero, tough and independent, but after losing his leg, sometimes completely helpless. He can be thoughtless, rude, and sexist, and he's still messed up from a long-term dysfunctional relationship. Being overweight and a smoker, he doesn't really appeal to me, and I have a hard time understanding how he ends up with all of these gorgeous women. However, I could read about him all day, and being imperfect makes him much more realistic.

Robin, for her part, continues to grow more useful and confident as Cormoran's assistant, and her character is probably my favorite in the book. In a lot of ways, Robin has the most room for growth, depending on what choices she makes in the near future. There is definitely some sexual tension between Robin and Cormoran, and part of the appeal of the books is to see how their relationship develops. Right now, I don't want to see Robin with Cormoran. He appreciates Robin, but the way he treats women as throwaway objects without feelings is disturbing. "He did not much like the reflection of himself he saw in her large mouse-like eyes. There was no denying that he had used her repeatedly. It had become cheap, shameful, and she deserved better." (431) At least he seems to becoming more aware of his actions, but she can still do better.

To sum up, I like these novels. They are entertaining, they are well-written, and the characters are unforgettable. I will be reading all the Cormoran Strike novels that J.K. Rowling chooses to write.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

#55 (2014/CBR6) "Shadow Kiss" by Richelle Mead (Vampire Academy, Book 3)

I'm now halfway through the Vampire Academy series with Book 3: Shadow Kiss (2008) by Richelle Mead, and I'm hooked. I have to find out what happens, I have to finish this series, and it's likely going to happen soon. Well, pretty soon. I've got some other books to read, too. These books aren't great literary masterpieces, but they're fun and entertaining. Even though this last book dragged a bit in the middle, it's still easy, engaging reading.

Mead has created a world where there are three types of "vampire" creatures. There are the typical vampires, who drink blood and dislike direct sunlight. These vampires don't kill their food sources, and are able to do a little magic. Rose Hathaway, our main character is a Dhampir, which is half-vampire and half-human. Dhampirs are strong, and bred and trained as protectors of the Vampires--especially as protection against the Strigoi. Strigoi are evil vampires that are very strong and kill pretty much everyone they come across.

We come back to Rose Hathaway soon after the end of Book 2. She is in her final semester at the Vampire Academy, and she's about to start field training--a special six weeks where the senior Dhampirs are assigned a student vampire to protect and are tested in "real life" situations. Rose is haunted by the traumatic events that concluded Book 2, and she keeps seeing ghostly images of Mason around the castle grounds. There's more tension building around the relationship between Vampires and Dhampirs in this book. Some Vampires want to learn to fight and use magic for offensive protection as the threat from the Strigoi grows stronger. Rose finally begins to question whether giving up her life to protect the Vampires is worth it. Finally and perhaps most important, Rose has to deal with her feelings for Dmitri.

I have some mixed feelings about Dmitri. He is a twenty-five year old teacher, and he is in love with Rose, his seventeen-year-old student. I think it's only the fact that this is a made-up vampire world--and he's very dreamy--that I can handle this relationship. It doesn't help that they go out of their way to keep everything secret. Their relationship reminds me of those news stories of high school kids hooking up with their teachers, and it grosses me out. On the other hand, Rose is pretty mature and this is a different world. I think it helps if I imagine that Rose is really in her twenties and is in college. Also, Dmitri, despite his inappropriate relationship with an underage girl, is one of my favorite characters in the book. At best, I don't think this is a relationship to which young-adult readers should aspire.

The first quarter of the book held my attention because it was all about the new field training exercise, but then the book seemed to slow a bit as Read set up the mystery and characters for the rest of the novel. Finally, the last quarter of the book exploded into action and drama. After being a little bored, I was a kind of freaked out reading the climax of the story.

***SPOILERS AND PREDICTIONS***
I was not expecting to see Dmitri "turned" Strigoi, and Rose leave behind Vasilisa and the Academy at the end of this book. I am really looking forward to seeing what Read decides to do next with these characters. However, I do believe with all my heart that Dmitri will somehow make it through. After all, he is one of the main reasons I'm reading these books and he and Rose have a connection like no other.

#54 [2014/CBR6] "The Countess Conspiracy" by Courtney Milan

Another day, another Courtney Milan novel. My library can be a little slow in stocking Milan's latest novels, and then sometimes I forget about them. So, The Countess Conspiracy was published back in 2013, but I'm only getting to it now.

The story involves Violet Waterfield, Countess of Cambury and Sebastian Malheur, well-known rake. Violet is a closet scientist, obsessed with plants and their genes, in a time where many dislike Darwin, dislike discussing procreation in public, and where women scientists are nonexistent. Violet's old childhood friend, the rakish Sebastian Malheur is Violet's public persona: giving her talks and publishing her papers under his name. They are incredibly close and have been for year, but they have never come close to turning the relationship into anything more than platonic. Sebastian has been in love with Violet since they were kids, but she believes herself to be unlovable. Violet is struggling with the after effects of the relationship with her late husband, after effects that prevent her from getting close to anyone.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I appreciated that Violet is not your typical romance heroine. She's smart, unconventional, and very modern [and bitter] in her view of women in her society: "You can do a great deal if you marry. Just make sure your grandmother negotiates an excellent settlement, hope your husband dies, and then find someone else to claim the credit for what you want to accomplish."

Violet also struggles with some severe self-esteem problems stemming primarily from her late marriage and even her relationship with her father. It doesn't help that she is born a scientist in a world that has only one acceptable role for women. It's heavy stuff, and her feelings are depressingly realistic.
-"Violet had always known that she was fundamentally unlovable. That she had to pretend to have any hope of fitting in."
-"I keep everything hidden because there's nothing about my true self that anyone likes."
-"You learn not to hope when someone picks you up. Because no matter how high their anticipation runs upon starting, you know what will happen in the end: They'll throw you away in disgust."

So, there were great parts of this book that were both intriguing and relatable. However, there was always something that kept me from diving in headfirst. ***SPOILERS*** I didn't really understand why Sebastian loved Violet. Sure, they're both very smart, but it was just a given that he'd loved her since he was a kid. She's pushed him away for years and it doesn't make any difference. I did love the fact that Sebastian patiently waited until Violet felt comfortable enough to make a move on him. In reality, that is incredibly romantic, but in this novel, it left me wanting more evidence of their love for each other. Violet runs away at any hint of a touch and Sebastian rarely shows any overt passion towards her.

Also, there's something, I think in the telling, that felt too unrealistic and kept bringing me out of the story. I'm not sure if I just needed more detail or if it was something else. For instance, I had a hard time buying the mother and her "public" and "private" rules. Also, nineteen miscarriages? I realize that Milan needed something extreme for Violet to go through in order to explain her struggles, but I needed more details about Violet's marriage for me to accept something so drastic.

There were some great parts to this book, but it doesn't live up to my favorite Milan novels.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

#53 [2014/CBR6] "Hunted" by Karen Robards

Karen Robards is another--original--favorite romance author of mine. I found her ages ago. Sometimes her books can get a little too violent and bloody, but they're consistently fast-paced and easy to read. I usually enjoy them. So when I saw Hunted (2013) by Karen Robards on bookshelves, I picked it up--at the library (because I'm cheap).

Quite often with Robards comes murder and mystery and Hunted is no different. Reed Ware is a New Orleans Homicide Detective and his fated love interest, Caroline Wallace, is a hostage negotiator. Although they know each other from back when Caroline was a teenager and Reed Ware was protecting her father, the superintendent of police, it didn't end well. When seventeen-year-old Caroline threw herself at the handsome Reed, he kissed her for one second before he threw her in a pool. Personally, it's obviously good that he didn't take advantage, but he could have dealt with that situation with a wee bit more sensitivity.

Anyway, Ware has connections with two street kids who stumble upon a suspicious murder. When both kids are picked up and essentially disappear, Ware decides that he has to do something drastic. His brilliant idea is to charge into a party of the city's elite and take a bunch of hostages, including the mayor and the superintendent of police. He threatens to blow up the house and demands that one of the street kids be released to him--as well as tons of money and a helicopter. Caroline Wallace is brought into the situation as the negotiator, with the stakes especially high as her father is a hostage and the "bad guy" is her teenage crush.

The rest of the story plays out as Caroline interacts and learns from Reed, first as an antagonist, and then as a conspirator. They must stay away from the police, solve the mystery, and save the city. They also need some time to fall in love. I confess that I can't remember all the particulars of their love story. I think Reed liked Caroline immediately but fought the good fight against the attraction because he didn't want to drag her into his mess and believed there was no future for him.

This wasn't my favorite Robards novel. I still flew through it and enjoyed most of the interactions between Reed and Caroline, but the plot's preposterousness* was distracting. I don't think I'd recommend it.

***SPOILERS***
Nothing excuses a police officer, or any person for that matter, from charging into a house, threatening to blow up the home and its inhabitants, restraining them, and causing chaos throughout an entire city. Robards' imaginative view of the justice system and potential mitigating factors is beyond unrealistic--especially when Ware had so many other options. What if someone in the house had a heart attack? Or if the police got jumpy and accidentally shot a hostage? Then Ware would be up for felony murder.

*This may not be a real word.

Friday, October 10, 2014

#52 [2014/CBR6] "No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy

I think it's fitting that I finished my Cannonball this year with another Cormac McCarthy novel. Ever since I discovered McCarthy, I've read one book of his per year. His books are amazing but intense, so I take nice long breaks in between. I'd been waiting to read No Country for Old Men (2006) because I'd seen the movie when it first came out, and I wasn't sure how I felt about reading a McCarthy novel where I already knew what was going to happen.

Although there were times as I was reading, caught up in the tense struggle, that I wished I didn't already know the outcome,
it didn't change my appreciation of this novel. McCarthy tells the story of Moss, a Vietnam Vet in his 30's who stumbles upon a drug transaction gone wrong in the middle of the desert. He grabs a suitcase filled with money and takes off home. Bell is the old sheriff in that area, old-fashioned and canny, dealing with the previous unheard of destruction of life that the drug trade has brought to his corner of the world. The other main character is Chigurch, a true psychopath on the trail of Bell, trying to recover the money and literally killing everyone in his path. His heartlessness and lack of fear is terrifying.

I did find No Country for Old Men to be one of McCarthy's relatively easier books to read, after The Road. There is clear tension and suspense in the chase between Moss and Chigurch, which makes it hard to put the book down. Moss is a relatable and likable character, and it is easy to root for him. McCarthy doesn't spell out too much for the benefit of his readers. I was always getting Moss, Bell, and Wells confused (seriously similar names), but it's not too hard to follow along. I'd definitely recommend reading it (and really, all of McCarthy's books), whether you've seen the movie or not.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***
McCarthy is a master at using simple, terse language that unexpectedly digs into your gut. Moss's death is tragic, but it is even more tragic because it was his humanity that led to his destruction. If he hadn't come back to bring water back to a dying man, they probably wouldn't have been able to find him. And if he'd killed Chigurch as soon as he had his gun on him, he and his wife might have survived. Indeed, Moss's wife is a whole other layer of tragedy. Completely innocent and caught up in circumstances beyond her control, she is killed for no reason other than Chigurch's twisted and uncompromising moral standards. And what makes it even worse, is that when she dies she's heard that her husband had taken up with a teenage runaway and that Moss had the chance to save her and chose not to.

Perhaps knowing some of the story allowed me to concentrate on some other aspects of McCarthy's writing this time. For instance, birds were a common leitmotif throughout the novel, adding another element to the tone and characters. A cop is driving the stolen cop car back from whence it came--with the body of a murdered driver still shoved in the trunk--creepy, but probably the easiest way to get the body where it needed to go. The cop pulls off to the side of the road when he sees a dead hawk in the middle of the road, it's wing fluttering in the wind. He picks it up by the wing and drops it on the side. I cannot explain the visceral reaction I had to the combination of the macabre idea of driving around a dead body in the trunk and the imagery of a dead hawk's wing flying in the wind in the road, but it felt something like when you wake up from a nightmare.

Finally, I wanted to mention Bell's character because he's one of the few truly good guys in the story: honest, caring, smart, and loves his wife. You read most of the story thinking that you understand him and where he comes from, but near the end you find out that he's got more layers than you'd think: secrets from the war that he's even afraid to tell his wife. It makes you rethink what you had assumed about him.

It's all truly great writing. I'm going to take about a year to digest his one, and then move on to another next year.

"Anyway, you never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from." (267)

Monday, October 6, 2014

#51 [2014/CBR6] "Just Listen" by Sarah Dessen

I had never heard of Just Listen (2006) or Sarah Dessen before reading this book, but it was on the "25 YA Novels Everyone--Even Adults--Should Read" list that I've been working my way through. So I picked it up from the library without knowing anything about it.

From the outside, Annabel Greene, a junior (?) in high school has the perfect life. She works occasionally as a model, with two model sisters and a loving mom and dad in a great house. But life is usually deeper and more complicated than what people see from the outside. Something happened over the summer and Annabel is dreading returning to school. Her ex-best friend is aggressively hostile and Annabel is alone and isolated. Her sisters, Whitney and Kirsten won't even talk to each other. And Whitney is battling her own demons while her family copes in the typical WASPY way with avoidance and optimism. Annabel is under a tremendous amount of pressure to not add any more stress to her family with her own problems. So she buries everything and pretends that it's all okay.

Until she gets to know Owen Armstrong. A combination of desperation and circumstances bring Annabel and Owen together. He's someone Annabel never thought much about before except to be a little fearful of his size and his reputation. (At this point, this whole relationship reminded me of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley in American Beauty). Owen Armstrong has gone through anger therapy, and he is always direct and honest because holding his feelings in makes him explode. Annabel is honest with herself and how she's feeling for the first time when she talks with Owen.

Life goes on and the semester continues. Finally, things come to a head with "what happened last summer." Her usual practice of ignoring her problems and avoiding confrontation, hoping things will get better on their own isn't working for her or Owen.

I was impressed by Dessen's writing, her ability to capture realistic characters, and her adeptness at tackling important and troubling issues. I think this would be a great book for high school kids, especially teenage girls. The book discusses depression, anorexia, rape, friendship, and family. Even though I've been out of high school for quite a while now, I could still relate to Annabel and how and why she was struggling. I'd definitely recommend this one.

I only had a couple of small issues that took me out of the book a bit while I was reading. Dessen had a friend of Owen's wearing a helmet used for the "attacker" in self-defense classes in his car. Apparently he forgot he was wearing it after he helped teach the class. All of those types of helmets I've seen are gargantuan, heavy, and hot. You can't even take the rest of the pads off without taking off the helmet. I couldn't imagine him forgetting that he had it on. Also ***SPOILER*** I didn't like Owen beating up the bad guy in the end. It was stereotypical, unhelpful and made me think that Owen had taken a step backwards. Also, Annabel wouldn't be able to just show up at a trial and testify like that. There are witness lists for a reason.