I just got done talking about Without a Summer. I’m sure you’re all getting tired of me harping about how much I enjoy the series–but I can’t help it! It’s just such a great series. Valour and Vanity is definitely my favorite one by a long shot, and I’ll explain as much as I can (without spoilers).
The Vincents are heading back to the Continent with the Ellsworth family for a brief vacation before heading off to Italy to work with a glassmaker. While sailing to Venice, their boat is attacked by pirates, their money is robbed, and they place their trust in the wrong person. Cut off from support and correspondence with their contacts, Jane and David have to rely on each other, their skills, and their intelligence to outwit the conspiracy against them.
The blurb describes this novel as “Jane Austen writes Ocean’s Eleven,” and I couldn’t agree more. The novel twists and turns, making it the best fantasy-driven novel in the series so far. I obviously can’t say anything else, because it would ruin the surprise. I read it in less than 24 hours–last night before bed, and this afternoon on my travels back from vacation. I am really impatient for 2015 to get here. Kowal’s finale to her series, Of Noble Family, is promised to be published and advance reviews are already raves.
On a final note: this is my last review of 2014. I have greatly enjoyed reading and reviewing books for the Cannonball/Pajiba community. I have read so many interesting books, and I have enjoyed reading your reviews. I cannot wait for the 2015 Cannonball Read season to arrive!
So you know how I said that Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass was even better than Shades of Milk and Honey? Well, the good news is that the series just gets better and better! I’m excited–I love “finding” an author whose books are high-quality reads. I enjoyed this book immensely.
The glamourist couple Jane and David Vincent have decided to accept a commission in London, after recovering from their time in Belgium. There, Jane decides to take her sister Melody along, hopefully to find her a suitable husband. There, between bouts of social niceties and working glamour, the Vincents accidentally stumble upon a plot that carries national significance. Little do they know how dangerous it will prove to be. Glamour and fantasy merge with family drama and courtroom intrigue to build upon an already strong series.
I have the hugest lady crush on Kowal right now. No, for reals. She is one of my favorite 2014 finds, and I want you all to read her now! What I like about this series is that the fantasy is gentle, the Jane Austen influence strong, and the portrait of a marriage realistic without being too depressing or saccharine. I think Jane and David are both strong, interesting characters, and the family tension that arises helps us to see what kinds of people they are inside. Bonus: the book is very well-written and a nonstop page turner. I think I read this in two nights. I could not put it down. I won’t say anymore, because then I’d have to start giving stuff away, and I definitely don’t want to do that!
I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels as a little girl, and I make a sojourn through the Little House series every few years. As a lifelong Midwesterner, The Long Winter is a personal favorite (perhaps because I relate to it, especially this past winter). I remember from pieces of autobiographies that Ingalls had left some details out, including the death of her baby brother, which is never mentioned in the series at all. I was curious to see how Wilder’s actual life stacked up to the series, which she had fictionalized from her life.
I enjoyed reading Wilder’s “adult” voice, particularly because she is more candid about certain details. She provides the correct chronology of her life: first came Indian territory (and there were a lot of interesting political details left out of the series), then Wisconsin, then Minnesota, then Iowa (where Freddie was born and died), then back to Minnesota (which is where Mary went blind), and then to Dakota territory. Her eventual meeting of Almanzo Wilder is actually a bit more prosaic than portrayed in the novels (and apparently, Wilder and her daughter fleshed out how they would organize this meeting in the novels), but it’s clear that they were a well-matched partnership–something I was glad to find out. I’m happy when couples seem to be as happy as portrayed.
I liked the memoir as a whole, especially the pictures and artifacts included in the memoir. There were several interesting pieces of Wilder’s life that I had never known–now I want to go to all the museums. One sidenote: if you read, don’t get overwhelmed by the footnotes. There are a few interesting details, but overall, I found myself getting distracted from the reading “flow.” I began to just skim the footnotes and keep my focus on the narrative.
I normally don’t like to post my Goodreads blurbs onto my CBR reviews, but I really liked this one for Beauty Queens:
|| A recipe for Beauty Queens: Mix together two cups Swiftian satire, one teaspoon Lord of the Flies, two tablespoons beauty pageantry. Set aside. In a mixing bowl, cream together two sticks of feminism, softened, one teaspoon piracy, one tablespoon capitalist criticism, two cups of heart. Add dry ingredients slowly and mix until blended. Bake at 350 for 390 pages. Enjoy the eclectic dish that emerges.
Libba Bray throws in a lot of surreal elements to a simple premise: teen beauty queens stranded on an island after plane crash. What emerges is a funny glimpse at feminism and dystopia in a young adult novel. 13 young women survive, including the cynical Adina, Texas teen queen Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, token black girl Nicole, lesbian Jennifer, deaf Sosie, and repressed Mary Lou. Secrets and discoveries emerge, but not all on the island is what it seems to be. What is the volcano, and why is it erupting? Is the island really deserted? And what about former beauty queen Ladybird Hope?
If you like strange and random images, then you will LOVE this novel. It’s funny and whipsmart, but you need to pay attention, because you might miss some minor clues. Of all the characters, Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins is perhaps the best. Portrayed as a vapid, conformist beauty queen, she slowly reveals an inner goddess that will not be swayed by poor living conditions or the threat of a cancelled beauty pageant. I enjoyed this novel a lot, though I think that more sophisticated teen readers and adults will glean more from it than younger readers.
Oh, wow. I think I have found my 2014 favorite for CBR. If you have not read Station Eleven, make it a priority. Even if you don’t like post-apocalyptic writing, you need to read it. It transcends the conventions of the genre and is a beautiful, uplifting, sad book.
Arthur Leander is a famous actor doing a theatrical rendition of King Lear when he drops dead of a heart attack. EMT Javeen Chaudhary rushes on stage to save him and meets child actress Kirsten Raymonde. That night, a deadly pandemic, the Georgia Flu, wipes out about 99% of the world’s population. This first portion sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Twenty years later, Kirsten is part of a traveling Shakespearean troupe in Michigan, performing plays to the fragments of society that have been left. Her troupe crosses paths with a prophet, who digs a grave for anyone who dares to leave his district. Kirsten and Javeen continue to intersect with Arthur’s life, even twenty years after his death. The novel moves back and forth in time, to Arthur’s past life, to Kirsten’s future.
This novel is incredibly well-written. I like post-apocalyptic fiction, but this is particularly resonant. Mandel imagines a world that is far removed from the one we know, but could chillingly come to replace the one we know. It’s a world of great danger and great beauty. The fact that the troupe puts on Shakespearean performances is enough of a testament to the things that remain when technology and material goods vanish. I seriously cannot recommend this book enough to everyone. It’s an apocalyptic novel but it leaves out most of the gory details and horror that accompany most dystopian novels. So if you’re squeamish, you should be A-OK.
I sometimes peruse Goodreads reviews, especially for books like Fifty Shades of Grey, because there are some hilarious “ZOMG this book is hottt!!!!” reviews followed by vitriol like you never would believe (well. I totally can). Never have I been so surprised to read vehement responses against John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The anger is almost hilarious–“kids don’t really talk like that!!!” “How stupid were these people??? They HAD to know about the Holocaust!!!” etc. I like to call this response a classic case of Missing The Point.
Bruno is a nine-year-old boy living in Third Reich Berlin when he discovers his maid packing his clothes. His father, an officer in the army, has received a promotion from his boss, The Fury. They are moving to a place called Out-With, with no real town, just an army camp. A young soldier hangs around the house, befriending his lonely mother who drinks “medicinal sherry” and sleeps all the time. One morning, he looks out his bedroom window and sees a bunch of people in a yard wearing striped pajamas, so he goes to the camp and explores. There, he befriends a boy named Shmuel, and he discovers the power of friendship without understanding that he is living history.
Boyne does an amazing job of recreating the Holocaust from the perspective of a naive, ignorant boy who has been trained to be deliberately obtuse. So many people did not understand the Holocaust, because they were told lies and willing to believe the lies they were told. This is a profound fable about human nature, suffering, and truth. I highly recommend it, but be warned: the ending is shocking.
There’s no one like Neil Gaiman. He walks the line between faerie and frightening with incredible deftness, and he mines the wondrous/horrifying imagination of children in a way that cuts your heart as an adult. It’s remarkable and scary all at once.
In other news: I finally read Coraline. I devoured it in a big gulp, but I also shivered in some parts. And the illustrations definitely enhance the book.
Coraline Jones is a young girl whose family has moved to a big house. But there’s a strange room and a strange door and a strange key that seems to lead to a brick wall, but actually unlocks to a new corridor one day. There, Coraline discovers her house—but it’s an odd exaggeration of her house. There’s another mother and another father, another bedroom, and replications of her upstairs neighbors. The food tastes better, and her parents pay complete attention to her. But Coraline can’t shake the nagging feeling that something is very, very wrong. It’s up to her cleverness and imagination to bring her back to her real home and her real parents.
There are a few things I learned from this book:
1. Never trust anyone with button eyes.
2. Cats are friends. They will help a sister out.
3. Mice seem to know what is happening. Rats are rats.
4. Dolls are useful decoys.
5. Neil Gaimain is a genius, and I want him to write *all* the things.
I tried to watch the film adaptation once, but it freaked me out. Maybe now that I’ve read it, I’ll be better prepared? I did greatly enjoy this book, and I think that this is one of those novels that is for kids, just as it’s not for kids all at once.