Monday, 25 April 2011

[032] Princess of the Midnight Ball - Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"What young girl wouldn't love to dance away her nights in this splendid castle, in the arms of a handsome suitor?"

As the crown princes, Rose is never without a dance partner. She and her eleven sisters are treated to beautiful gowns, slippers, and dances at party after party in their father's palace. But their evenings do not end when the guests return home. Instead, Rose and her sisters must travel deep into the earth to the wicked King Under Stone's palace. There, the girls are cursed to dance each night, even when they grow exhausted or ill.

Many princes have tried-and failed-to break the spell. but then Rose meets Galen, a young soldier-turned-gardener with an eye for adventure. Together they begin to unravel the mystery. To banish the curse, they'll need an invisibility cloak, enchanted silver knitting needles and, of course, true love.

Why I Picked It Up:

I'm a girl. I like retellings of fairy tales. And this seemed like a quick and pleasant read.

What I Think:

I'm not entirely sure why this is but it seems that the 12 Dancing Princesses fairytale is the one that is most often retold in young adult fiction. I recall reading a Beauty and the Beast and a few Cinderallas as a younger girl but I feel like I've read millions of the 12 Princesses. Upon googling a few seconds ago, I have discovered that apparently it is even a Barbie film. That's how widely spread this fairytale goes.

However, despite how often I've read retellings, I'm not sure I had ever really heard the original fairytale when I was a little girl. I just asked my mother if she knew the story and she said no. Perhaps that's why everyone is so eager to retell it: so few people know the original story. 

A brief synopsis of the actual fairytale: In a far away country, there is a kingdom ruled by a fair king with twelve daughters. The ongoing mystery of the kingdom, however, is concerning the princesses. Every morning, all of their dancing shoes are found worn out and no one knows why. The king offers a reward for any man who can figure out the princesses' secret within three days and three nights. If you fail, however, you'll be put to death.

Enter our hero, a young solider with an invisibility cloak given to him by a mysterious old woman. She also warns him not to eat or drink anything during the night. He goes to the castle and takes on the challenge. Before they settle in for the night, the eldest princess offers him a cup of wine. Remembering the old woman's warnings, he throws it away and pretends to fall asleep. Thinking him unconscious, the girls disappear through a trap door in the floor and, throwing on the invisibility cloak, the young solider follows them.

The girls go to an underground ball and the soldier follows each night, taking with him a souvenir as proof of his trip. Finally, on the fourth morning, he goes to the king and presents him with his evidence. Seeing that they've been found out, the princesses confess to it and the eldest marries the solider, who becomes heir to the throne. The end~

The fairytale has always bothered me. Why are the princesses made out as such frivolous girls? Do they think it's fun to watch men be put to death because they need to go out dancing each night? It's just such a vaguely misogynistic story; not that most original fairytales are so feminist but at least most of the women in them have a reason for what they do. These princesses are just silly girls who don't think of the consequences of their actions and need a strong military man to set them straight. 

And thus enters all the retellings. In this particular version, George gives the princesses not only a reason for their strange adventures but also very serious consequences and histories. The girls don't go because they're silly; they go because they are under a curse, brought down from their mother before them. They wish they could tell but the curse doesn't allow them. They don't want to go each night. One of the princesses catches a cold that gets worse and worse because she can't get proper rest, forced to go dancing every night.

Our young soldier, as well, doesn't randomly do this for the reward but is actually a gardener for the king who has befriended the eldest princess. His worry for her is the reason he takes on the challenge, despite the fact that all the previous challengers have mysteriously died after failing. 

Everything seems a lot more serious, a lot less frivolous. With some more history, some background information and sympathetic characters, George has created a story with a lot more depth than the original fairytale. Nevermind the fact that this is a young adult novel and thus, is a quick and easy read. If you're looking for a feel good fairytale to read on a Saturday afternoon, than this may be the book for you.

Monday, 18 April 2011

[031] A Darker Place - Laurie R. King

A Darker Place by Laurie R. King

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

A respected university professor, Anne Waverly has a past known to few: Eighteen years ago, her own unwitting act cost Anne her husband and young daughter. Fewer still know that this history and her academic specialty --alternative religious movements-- have made her a brilliant FBI operative. Four times she has infiltrated suspect communities, escaping her own memories of loss and carnage to find a measure of atonement. Now, as she begins to savor life once more, she has no intention of taking another assignment. Until she learns of more than one hundred children living in the Change movement's Arizona compound....

Anne presents herself to Change as the eager, pliable seeker, Ana Wakefield. But Anne soon realizes that this is no ordinary community and hers is no ordinary mission. For, far from appeasing the demons of her past, this assignment is sweeping her back into their clutches...and to the razor's edge of danger.

Why I Picked It Up:

It had a shiny gold sticker on the front that said "EXPORT EDITION: Not available in the U.S." Obviously this meant I must read it.

What I Think:

This book had been waiting for me on the shelf for months. I can't tell you how many times I pulled it three quarters of the way off the shelf, skimmed the back, did the stereotypical "hmmm", slid it back and ultimately pick another book for the week. To be honest, although the back of the book sounded halfway interesting, I highly doubt I would have ever actually grabbed it if not, on that particular day, I had not seen the giant shiny gold cover that adorned the cover: EXPORT EDITION: Not available in the U.S. It was a sign. Anything I couldn't do in America was going to have to happen.

This book is definitely what I call a "wannabe thriller." It has all the makings of a good suspenseful novel but somehow does not manage to tie its strings together to make a "can't put it down" novel. Not that it's horrible or anything; it just isn't what it wants to be.

We start off meeting Anne Waverly from the eyes of an outsider, appropriately. We see her tough, no-nonsense exterior and (hopefully) are intimidated by her. The first eighty or so pages are then devoted to Anne dealing with past demons and deciding whether she is going to take this latest undercover cult case, while unconsciously preparing herself to leave. 

Perhaps this part is what I found the hardest to deal with. I can't tell you how many times I googled the author's name, trying to figure out whether this was part of a series or a stand alone. The way she only vaguely mentions past incidents really sounds like a story you should already know the details of. I fully support the idea of creating more backstory than you need in order to know more completely the character that you're writing but there are times you keep said backstory in your own mind. It all depends on the amount you let through the cracks; an inordinate amount creates more confusion of the reader than character depth.

So Anne or Ana or whatever her name is at any given time (the author spells it different ways to let you know what frame of mind she's in) drives to Arizona to infiltrate the Change compound. The book picks up a little bit around this point. New characters are introduced and once the plot places you within a cult that may or may not be threatening, it's hard not to be suspenseful. 

Anne immediately bonds with a young girl named Dulcie who looks remarkably like her late daughter. Dulcie also has an older brother, Jason, whom Anne's feelings towards made me a little uncomfortable to read, to be quite honest. Her feelings for Dulcie and Jason and of course, the other children of the compound become the driving force of the novel.

The novel meanders through twists and turns as Anne finds out more and more about the different levels of hierarchy of the cult and the foundations of its theology. The whole thing takes a strange turn with a last minute change of scenery. New characters come out of nowhere and the climax comes almost out of the blue, as the page numbers grow higher and higher but the facts you're waiting for are yet to appear. 

This is the biggest fault of the novel: the climax comes out of nowhere and leaves no time for a denouement. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if there were a sequel that could use the first twenty pages or so to clear up unanswered questions but the book ends so suddenly that it leaves you wondering what exactly just happened. Even an epilogue would do at this point. 

Now, the novel isn't horrible in any sense of the word. It has a unique idea and creates, if not sympathetic, then interesting characters. There are just a lot more questions than answers in this book that leave the reader more confused than satisfied when finally setting it down. 

Sunday, 3 April 2011

[030] The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer."

This is Susie Salmon, speaking to us from heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counsellors to help newcomers to adjust, and friends to room with. Everything she wants appear as soon as she thinks of it -- except the thing she wants most: to be back with the people she loved on Earth.

From heaven, Susie watches. She sees her happy suburban family implode after her death, as each member tries to come to terms with the terrible loss. Over the years, her friends and siblings grow up, fall in love, do all the things she never had the chance to do herself. But life is not quite finished with Susie yet. 

The Lovely Bones is a luminous and astonishing novel about life and death, forgiveness and vengeance, memory and forgetting. It is, above all, a novel which finds light in the darkest of places, and shows how even when that light seems to be utterly extinguished, it is still there, waiting to be rekindled. 

Why I Picked It Up:

I had started reading it when it first came out but never finished it. I felt like I should give it another go.

What I Think:

I very vividly remember when The Lovely Bones came out originally, back in 2002. This was during a strange period in my middle school years where, when my mother went for a walk or to the grocery store or pretty much anywhere while I was alone in the house, I would find whatever book she was reading and start reading it myself. This, I suppose, wasn't entirely strange but I had made it a game to try and read the whole book before my mother figured out what I was doing. This meant no bookmark, only reading when home alone and just generally being very sneaky. I'm pretty sure I got about halfway through a James Patterson and my mother finally caught me during A Child Called It. Somewhere in between, I read the first fifty or so pages of The Lovely Bones.

Those few pages really stuck with me, especially as I decided after them that I wasn't going to read any more. Although I was only twelve, I was a very precocious reader and the thought of me simply putting down a book because I was a little turned off by it still strikes me as odd. I usually stick through books to the bitter end, whether I like them or not (see Doctor Zhivago). To think that I consciously decided not to read anymore seemed strange to me as I glanced at the cover at the library. Surely it was time to try again.

As I'm sure you know, The Lovely Bones is the story of the murder of a young girl, Susie Salmon, in a small town during the seventies. The twist is that the story is told through Susie's eyes, as she watches her family from heaven, seeing them try and pick up the pieces, solve her murder and get on with their lives. 

To be honest, once I got past the first hundred or so pages this time around, the book took a few turns I wasn't expecting. Perhaps it's the number of mysteries and cop shows I watch but I expected a large part of the novel to center on the case itself, to catching the man who killed Susie. While that certainly is an important part, it is definitely not the main focus. 

This is a character piece, a story of Susie watching her little sister become the woman she could never be, of her mother running away from her problems and her father being devoured by them. Instead of focusing on the six or so months after Susie dies, the novel follows the family for years, as they attempt to move on and Susie stays forever the same.

Reading Sebold's version of heaven really is a delight. She has created a kind of afterlife that feels real and comfortable and like the kind of heaven one would want to go to. It doesn't fall into that "heaven might be boring" stereotype, but instead has roommates and neighbors and the kind of place you would want to be. Susie's heaven looks like a seventies high school. It's pitch perfect. 

When I finished the novel, I finally realized why I must have put it down all those years ago. While it's certainly true that I was around Susie's age when I was reading it and yes, I didn't really understand a lot of the scenarios going on in the novel, I don't think that was why I couldn't get through it. No, to me, it was the simple thought that there was no way this book could have a happy ending. 

Now, I'm not saying that I require everything I read to have a happy ending. I have just come to realize that I need the possibility of a happy ending, the hope that the characters can make it out or else I spend the entire book in agony since I know there is certainly no hope (which is another reason I get stressed out at zombie and apocalypse films). To me, Susie was already dead and in heaven; there was no way this book could end happily. 

And okay, no, the ending wasn't what a twelve year old Molly would call happy. Susie is still dead and over ten years have passed for her family. But twenty three year old Molly can appreciate the sense of closure, the journey her family went on and the sense of moving on that only comes with time. To be honest, it still left a bit of an uneasy feeling in my stomach, probably because I'm still young and don't like to think of death like that. But I understand it and that's why I can appreciate this novel for what it is: a brilliant character piece on death and moving on.

Long Time, No See

This is a status of the blog post. As I'm sure all of you are aware, a few weeks ago Japan suffered a devastating natural disaster. Due to a combination of disaster circumstances, a bad work situation and future plans, I was on a plane home within the week. I no longer reside in the land of the doodle language.

However, that will not be the end of this blog. I still have roughly five reviews to post to catch up to the ones I read in Japan (one will follow this post) and then this blog is going to go through a revamp. My future plans are conducive to reading for the time being, at least until September and (drum roll) English Literature Graduate Studies in London!

Once grad school rolls around, I'm honestly not sure how much non-academic reading time I will have but until then, this blog will go from the land of the doodle language to the land of the educated couch potato. Hope you don't mind too much.