Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Ruth Hall'

I just finished this book ten or so minutes ago, and it's required reading for my 19th Century American Women Writers course. Normally, I don't review required reading, since my opinion of it might be unfairly colored, but I really enjoyed this one and was inspired by a list of Required Reading That Doesn't Suck to write about my own positive experience with this book.

The Book: Ruth Hall

The Author: Fanny Fern (aka Sara Payson Willis Parton)

How I Found It: As I said before, it's assigned reading for a course.

The Review: Ruth Hall is an autobiography disguised as fiction; the story was based on Fanny Fern's own experiences, and many of the people in her life who treated her unfairly--particularly her own brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis, a newspaper magnate, are painted in quite an unflattering light in this book. I know only the parts of Fern's life that my professor has told my class, but she seems like a fascinating woman and this book really made me wish that more of her novels and articles were in print today.

The novel starts where most books of the time would end--we meet Ruth the night before her wedding. We learn in a few paragraphs about her unhappy childhood with a domineering father and a vain, unkind older brother. Ruth is married, and though her husband is an exceedingly kind and loving man, her in-laws are controlling and criticizing of Ruth's unusual way of doing things and her and Harry's equal marriage. A classmate compared the elder Mrs. Hall to Marie in Everybody Loves Raymond; to me, she struck me the same way Mrs. Norris did in Austen's Mansfield Park. The Halls turn out to be despicably evil and rather over-the-top, but you can't deny that they're fun to read about.

As idyllic as Ruth's married life is, it is quickly overcome by tragedy. Ruth and Harry's first child dies of croup, and Harry dies a few years later, leaving Ruth penniless, with two children to support. Both families refuse to provide for Ruth, who must seek some kind of gainful employment in order to provide for herself and her children. It is Ruth's quest for financial independence that drives the rest of the novel, and presents Fern's vision that women must be financially independent above all things.

I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. I trust my professor's judgment, but we had just come off of a very slow, very theological novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and though I knew Fanny Fern was progressive, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. From the opening scene, I predicted a tale of woe and despair, similar to Jane Eyre. So I was pretty surprised when Ruth turned out to have a pretty happy life at first, and that I really liked Fern's writing style. The story itself eventually did live up in some ways to my Jane Eyre predictions, and had a few echoes of Mansfield Park, but I really liked the way it was told and the ultimate message of the work.

One of the reasons I liked the book so much is that Fern's talents as a newspaper columnist are very evident in the way the book is structured. Each chapter averages only two to three pages in length; they are short, snappy, and on occasion sarcastic. Fern does not take up much time with exposition or introductions; we breeze through periods of time with barely any mentions of how that time was passed. We are simply taken into scenes and taken out again. Sometimes it was disorienting, since one is never sure of how much time passes, but it was a different way of doing things, and I actually came to like it. The book read very quickly for this reason; it was far more accessible than other works I've read from the time period.

Ruth herself was an engaging and resourceful heroine. The reader knows from the beginning that Ruth's quest to find employment will be successful, since it was for Fanny Fern, but she has to go through so many setbacks to get there that the reader is spurred on, waiting to see how the resolution will be reached. Ruth's family, the Ellets, are too cheap to support her; the Halls just refuse to out of spite. There are some truly evil characters in this book--to the point of being cartoonish, as I said before, but they did feel like genuine threats, and they were more realistic characters than I've seen in other novels of the time period. I really liked that Fanny Fern wrote from a very feminist perspective, but it never felt, to me, like the message of financial independence was being shoved down my throat. It just seemed like a realistic thing for her to desire, given her circumstances.

So the novel was quick to read, entertaining, and informative, and I really found myself enjoying it. Was it self-serving? Somewhat, yes. Fern made sure everyone who wronged her was portrayed in a negative light, and there is a chapter where Ruth visits a phrenologist and all her various virtues of character are extolled to the reader. Things are definitely over the top at times, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I would definitely recommend this one to fans of feminist literature, or to those looking for a story similar to the aforementioned Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park, as well as the works of Charles Dickens.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Arabella'

Before I begin, a quick shout-out: a blogger, Casey, just did her very first non-Goodreads book review on a friend's blog! The book, A Child Is Missing, sounds very interesting and it's a great review. Check that out here! She now has a reviewing blog of her own here.

The Book: Arabella

The Author: Georgette Heyer

How I Found It: When I started looking into reading Heyer months back, this is the one whose description most intrigued me. This is also the first book I read for the Georgette Heyer challenge; my choices can be found here.

The Review: This review is ridiculously delayed; my apologies. I finished the book on the 14th, but schoolwork got in the way of my reviewing time, and the two books I've read since were both assigned. So with apologies for the lateness and the lapses it might cause in my memory, on to the review!

The time is Regency England, when a woman was sometimes expected to marry well in order to provide for her family. This is the greatest wish of Mrs. Tallant, mother of the titular Arabella--as Arabella has many brothers and sisters, it is Mrs. Tallant's hope that Arabella will marry well, enabling her to introduce her sisters into society and provide for her brothers' educations or military ambitions. Arabella is offered the chance to make her London debut, with her benevolent, well-off godmother, Lady Bridlington, by her side. The hope is that going through London's social circles will introduce Arabella to a marriageable man.

That plan, however, might be ruined, due to an impetuous lie by Arabella just before she reaches London. A carriage accident causes Arabella and her traveling companion to seek shelter at the hunting box of the local Nonpareil, Robert Beaumaris, and his friend Lord Fleetwood. When Arabella overhears Beaumaris' remark that Arabella seems to be just another girl going after his fortune, Arabella decides to stand up for herself in a most unusual way--by claiming she is an heiress! The lie was never meant to leave the confines of the hunting box, but as Arabella's season begins and she is thrown together with Beaumaris once more, she finds that she is the talk of the town, and that her lie might have ruined her prospects. Arabella's stay is further complicated by her own brother's first adventure into London, a chimney sweep named Jemmy, and an adorable stray dog named Ulysses, and the question of what her lie will lead to drives the reader on through this book.

I have to say, as long as it has taken me to write this review, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, once I got used to the Regency terminology and Heyer's writing style. While I've read Austen and others from the Regency period, I've never actually read a modern-day Regency, and I'm glad I started with this one. While at first it seemed a little too fluffy for my tastes, I was genuinely happy with it by the end and really wanted to see how it would all work out. My first time reading Heyer was a thoroughly pleasurable experience.

To start with, the two main characters, Arabella and Beaumaris, were fun, funny, and even somewhat reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth and Darcy. That sometimes did grate on my enjoyment of the novel--certain exchanges reminded me a little too much of P&P--but it also made the book seem more familiar and accessible. I particularly enjoyed the growth of Beaumaris' character--though he seems to want, at first, to play a little with Arabella's lie and see what it can lead to, he grows into a genuinely likable man, mostly because of his interactions with Ulysses, the stray dog. Those scenes were just adorable and I liked how Heyer personified the animal and made him a genuine confidant for Beaumaris.

One criticism I had was the characterization of Arabella herself--she is a teensy bit too perfect, given that her only stated fault is the impetuousity that leads her to lie. And we are never quite sure what, exactly, leads Beaumaris to be attracted to her, only that he wishes to see what her lie can make her do. So while I genuinely felt the attraction between them at the end, what lead up to that attraction seemed a little murky.

The secondary characters were also fun to read about, though most are somewhat underdeveloped. Lady Bridlington is little more than the kind godmother, and her son, Mr. Epworth, reminded me of a sort of Mr. Collins-esque character (also from P&P). Arabella's brother Bertram becomes a more central figure as time goes on, and while his plot was somewhat cliched (going into debt due to excessive gambling), it gave a sense of tension to the plot and led to an unexpected but pleasing development in Arabella and Beaumaris' relationship, so I couldn't complain.

I did have occasional difficulties with the terminology of the time and some excessively wordy sentences, but by the end of the book, I had a pretty good feel of what was what and how to get through the language. I'm very much considering buying a recently-released guide to the Regency world of Austen and Heyer, since reading this made me realize how much I didn't know and would like to know about the period. The research, which Heyer is known for, really did show through in every aspect--fashion, transport, education, military, job-wise.

Overall, I really did have a great experience with this book, and my misgivings at the beginning didn't last until the end. I am very much looking forward to reading Cotillion next month and any number of Heyers that I have lined up for the challenge and beyond. Many apologies for the lateness of this review; I hope that I can get up a few more before the month is over!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Which Trai Considers a Heyer Challenge

Hello, all!

This is something new for me; I've never done it before and I'm excited at the prospect. This could be because it's nearly 1 o'clock in the morning and I'm not quite sure what I'm getting myself into. ;)

I recently started reading Georgette Heyer, after hearing for some time that any Austen fan worth her salt (ahem) enjoys these books. I'm close to finishing my first one, and I found a Georgette Heyer group on Goodreads. One of the ladies of that group has set up a Georgette Heyer challenge, running from the 1st of this month to February 2011 (you can find the post here).

I've decided to join up, under the level of Heyer Beginner. My job: Read any 6 of her novels from any of her three genres, i.e. historical romance, historical fiction or mystery. I'm going with historical romance. With that in mind, my choices will, in all likelihood, be:

* September: Arabella (reading now)
* October: Cotillion
* November: The Convenient Marriage
* December: The Grand Sophy
* January: Friday's Child
* February: The Black Moth

I'm hoping very much to be able to complete this challenge and emerge from it eager to tackle other novels by Heyer that I have yet to experience. Anyone who wants to join in on the challenge can click on the link provided above!

Here's hoping to challenge companions!

- Trai

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Catching Fire'

** This is the second book in a series, so spoilers for the first will be present in this review. **

The Book: Catching Fire (Book Two of The Hunger Games trilogy)

The Author: Suzanne Collins

How I Found It: The series came on the recommendation of a friend. My review of the first book can be found here.

The Review: I've been wondering how much I can write in this review. Most others seem to barely scratch the surface of the plot, and pretty much anything seems to constitute a spoiler. So if you want to go into this book unaware, I'd recommend not reading any reviews and just beginning to read the book itself. I won't spoil much, but any plot details seem to be considered a spoiler these days.

At the end of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark inadvertently started a rebellion. With the rules cruelly and abruptly changed, with Katniss having to face killing a boy who loves her and who she cares for, Katniss made a choice. She and Peeta threatened to take poisonous berries, both of them willing to commit suicide if it meant not having to kill each other. The Gamemakers were thwarted, and Katniss and Peeta both survived. But the Capitol is not pleased, and this is where the second book starts off.

President Snow shows up in Katniss' house with a warning. Katniss survived the Games by keeping up the charade of being as in love with Peeta as he was with her. But back home, Katniss also left Gale, her closest male friend, the one who knows all her secrets. And Katniss' feelings for Gale are just as confused as those she has for Peeta. Of the two boys, whom does she love? From what President Snow tells her, she doesn't have a choice--if she doesn't continue the charade of being in love with Peeta, Gale will die, and so could Katniss' family.

Helpless to fight a government that can so easily destroy everything she holds dear, Katniss finds herself caught up in events she can't control. The annual Victory Tour of all the Districts of Panem makes her realize that a rebellion is underway, and that she is the face of that rebellion. Gale will barely speak to her, and she and Peeta have no choice but to push the act of their love further and further. But the worst comes when the Quarter Quell is announced. Every 25 years, to celebrate the anniversary of the Games, the stakes are raised. For the 75th anniversary of the Games, the contestants will only be drawn from the previous victors, which means only one thing: that Katniss and Peeta will have to enter the arena again. This time, only one of them will be allowed to survive.

I skimmed through reviews earlier in order to get a feel of what I could write in this review. Oddly, most of the grievances of other reviewers do not seem to be ones that trouble me. I found this book stronger than the first installment. It played on my emotions more and truly raised the stakes. I did have a few minor complaints: the first half is really "telling" instead of showing--instead of seeing major events, we get them relayed in paragraphs by Katniss, and that really slowed the pace some. I wanted to see certain things played out, not just have them told to me. And admittedly, the Quarter Quell idea was a very contrived way to put Katniss and Peeta back in the arena. Those were about the only complaints I had, however. In almost every way, this book was an improvement over the last one, in my opinion.

Some reviews seemed to take issue with Katniss' character. While I found her difficult to like in the first book, I came to sympathize with her here. Many cited her being weak-willed when it came to the rebellion and deciding her feelings for Gale and Peeta, but I think that her reactions were typical for any teenage girl with far too much to handle. Besides, any decision she makes would be invalidated by the fact that she knows she should die in the arena, as long as it means Peeta gets to live. I felt that her emotions and indecision were believable, and I actually grew to like Katniss here.

The love triangle between Gale, Peeta, and Katniss is expanded upon, but in a somewhat lopsided way. We barely see Gale, but we sure see plenty of Katniss and Peeta, whose relationship is sweeter and less forced in this book than it was in the previous one. I felt pleased with the development of the Katniss/Peeta romance; a major complaint of mine with the first book was that I hated how Katniss used that romance in a calculating way. Here, both of them are consciously using it to their advantage, but genuine feelings and concern for each other also come to the forefront in interesting ways. I only wish that Collins had squeezed Gale in a little bit more so that the balance would have been more even--it's a tad bit obvious how your love triangle will probably resolve when one side is featured much more heavily than the other. I also enjoyed seeing more of certain characters and learning the answers to questions raised in the previous book. The insight into Haymitch, especially, was welcome, not to mention getting to see a little more depth for Cinna's character.

As I said before, this book affected me more emotionally than the previous one. I only teared up once in The Hunger Games. Given that I took this one in during a day-long reading spree, I can't quite recall how many times I teared up, but it was certainly ranging around four or five times, and I cried outright once. I will give Collins credit once again for being able to touch places in readers that will no doubt make them think and reflect on how difficult it would be to be in Katniss' place and in the place of the citizens of Panem. The reality Collins crafts is truly horrific. The Games is only the last third of this book, as opposed to the two-thirds or so it got in the previous installment, but they are still scary and tense and difficult to predict as alliances shift and Katniss must strengthen her resolve about dying in order to save Peeta's life.

All in all, I felt this book to be a most definite improvement over the first one, and I'm looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, though I have heard some mixed opinions. The flaws I felt were apparent in the original book were fixed here, and the story was made more exciting and suspenseful. I can recommend this one to both young adults (perhaps ones around 13 or 14 who can handle it, given the violent content) and adults who'd like to be in on the interesting discussions.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In Which Trai Celebrates Her Blogiversary!

Hello, everybody!

I noticed a few days ago that a blog I've been reading is approaching its one-year anniversary, and it motivated me to look up what date I started this blog last year. Lo and behold, it was September 7th!

I can't even believe that a year of this blog has gone by so fast! I've gotten some great opportunities through all these different publishers and blogs--big thanks to Quirk Books, Sourcebooks, Titan Books and Del Rey for providing me with books to review, as well as Austenblog and Christopher over at Sally's Friends, a Millennium fansite, for featuring my reviews. I've really enjoyed book-blogging and I've met some fantastic people.

So here's to another year of book-blogging for me and all of my compatriots. Happy reading!

- Trai

Saturday, September 4, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Let the Right One In'

The Book: Let the Right One In

The Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist

How I Found It: The rave reviews for the 2008 movie made me curious back then, and the upcoming American remake (due October 1st) inspired me to finally pick this one up. Given the remake's impending release, the book was just rereleased this Tuesday with a cool new cover and the original title, Let Me In.

The Review: All I can say is, this is the first time I have ever closed a book and thought, "[expletive], that's terrifying!" I am never going to trust small children again. And between this and Stieg Larsson, I am damn sure I am never going to visit Sweden.

The story rightly deserves the praise it has received--I can't speak yet for the film, which I haven't seen, but I hopefully will be able to in a few days. Meanwhile, I can say that this is one of the most carefully-constructed vampire tales I've ever read, and though some have suggested that trimming could have helped the story, I'm at a loss as to how that could have been done without sacrificing the narrative's interrelated events. Some tout this as more fiction than horror, and I can see their point, but some of the images in this book got to me far more than most would, so for this reader, it's horror.

The story takes place in Blackeberg, a small Swedish suburb that's described as having "no history." Oskar is 12 years old and relentlessly bullied by boys in his class who want to punish him just for existing. He shoplifts to feel alive and stabs trees to take out his aggression against his attackers. He's also fascinated by horror stories and murder. One such murder has just taken place in his town--a boy around Oskar's age has been killed and drained of blood, and the murderer hasn't yet been caught.

One night, Oskar meets a little girl his age on the jungle gym outside his apartment complex. She smells like death and doesn't seem to be bothered by the cold, and she's fascinated by Oskar's makeshift Rubik's Cube and puzzles in general. Her name is Eli, and she and Oskar slowly form a friendship. She advises Oskar on how to fight back against the bullies, and Oskar gives her his Rubik's Cube. Eventually, they decide to "go steady" in an innocent way.

Events begin to spiral out of control when Hakan, Eli's guardian, becomes incapacitated during one of the murders he commits to get blood for Eli. Eli has to begin to kill herself, but this leads to unexpected and horrifying consequences for Eli, Oskar, and the people of Blackeberg.

This was definitely an interesting take on vampire mythology and Lindqvist twisted some familiar elements in order to create his own version of a vampire. Eli's abilities and aspects of her vampirism are never fully explained, but that made it scarier, in my opinion. We know full well what Eli is capable of, however. This is a perpetually 12-year-old child who has to kill to live. That alone is horrifying. But in spite of this, Eli and Oskar make a pairing that's easy to love and is actually quite sweet. Lindqvist manages to make a completely convincing love story about two outsiders who are in the middle of unimaginable and fantastical circumstances.

Even though the story is about children, there's definitely some graphic content, sexually and violence-wise: Hakan is a pedophile and some sexual acts are shown, and the murders are quite violent. This is also the only story that I know of that portrays a vampire bite as incredibly painful (as opposed to the sexually-charged sensation that's usually shown today). There was a healthy amount of body horror involved; some of the descriptions really got to me and Lindqvist definitely had a good feel of people's innermost fears. His descriptions of life as a vampire got me thinking in a way no other vampire novel ever has. He manages to convey the desolation one would assume comes from being a vampire perfectly.

None of the characters are entirely sympathetic, and almost none of them emerge as good guys in the end. The bullies who pick on Oskar truly know no bounds, and the murder we get to see Hakan commit is grisly (so, too, is his ultimate fate). Even if Oskar and Eli's actions were at times unsympathetic, I still felt for them. I wanted Oskar to stand up to his bullies and, perversely, even if it meant murder, I wanted Eli to be able to continue to live and be there for Oskar. Eli and Oskar manage to bring out the best in each other in interesting ways, and I'm intrigued by how this will play out in both screen versions.

I would definitely recommend this one for fans of horror and true vampire fiction, with a warning for extremely (to me!) violent content and some truly disturbing implications in the end. Lindqvist is certainly one to watch.