Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Which Trai Mini-Reviews 'A Doll's House' and 'The Secret Garden'

Mini-Reviewing The Classics!

With the advent of my Modern Drama and Young Adult Literature classes this semester, I'm getting to read some classic works that I've never read before. Hopefully, this post will kick off a semi-regular feature, as I get further into my semester.

Sometimes I don't review the classics I read, because it's difficult for me to think of things that haven't been said before. Likewise, I don't always review required reading, because my opinion might be unfairly biased. However, I liked both of these books more than I thought I would, and thought it would be interesting to do quick capsule reviews of each.

A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen: This is a classic drama, and, as my professor tells me, the start of drama as we know it. Ibsen actually had characters interacting with each other onstage in a natural fashion. It's funny to think that someone actually had to realize that might be a good idea!

Nora is married to Torvald Helmer, a banker who has a habit of infantilizing her and not allowing her to spend money. We learn that Nora is keeping a secret from her husband--to protect his health, she secretly took out a loan that financed a getaway to Italy. The law forbids women from handling money in any capacity, and the unscrupulous banker Nora borrowed from attempts to blackmail her into making Torvald give him a better position. The lies running rampant in the Helmer household eventually threaten to break their marriage apart.

My response on finishing this one was along the lines of, "Geez, what is everyone complaining about?!" I really loved this play, and its message was really radical for the time. Ibsen didn't like being labeled as a feminist, preferring to think of it in terms of human rights, but with that in mind, Nora is still a very, very strong female character who takes matters into her own hands in some really powerful ways. I really enjoyed seeing her self-discovery, as she realizes that the men in her life have always treated her like property and that she wants to have a life of her own.

The translation I read (the above-pictured Dover Thrift edition) was a really readable and flowing translation of the Norwegian, or at least it seemed like it. The dialogue didn't sound stilted and seemed like it could have conceivably been English originally. In other words, it didn't read like it was translated! (Occasionally, with, say, Stieg Larsson's books, translated prose can get clunky.) All in all, I really enjoyed this play, and naysayers be darned--I thought Nora was awesome!


The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett: Author Julie Buxbaum writes, "It seems to me that some kids’ books begin with 'Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom' and some begin instead with a spoiled little girl orphaned by a cholera epidemic." And yeah, that seems to be the case, doesn't it? Having never read this as a child, not even knowing much about it, I was surprised by how charming I found this story.

Mary is living in India when she wakes up to learn that her parents and most of her household has died during the night of a cholera epidemic. (Yikes!) Sent to live with her always-absent uncle, Mary must finally learn to do things for herself, as she begins to look into the mysteries of the Manor and its gardens, one of which has not been entered for ten years.

I was surprised by how different this book was from standard children's literature. First off, waking up to dead parents is every kid's worst nightmare, and that's how this book starts! Second off, Mary is frequently called "spoiled" and "ugly" by the narrator, and it's no secret that we're not supposed to find her likable at all. It's really nice to see her mature and become someone more grounded and less spoiled, and I liked reading about her transformation.

My professor laughingly said that this is the type of book Michelle Obama would champion--it pretty much hits you over the head with the message, go outside! Exercise! But in that way, it's a nice book to give to kids, boy or girl alike (there's characters of each gender; either can enjoy!). I'd definitely recommend this one to kids who love nature, animals, and magic. It's not overly difficult to read and it's got a sweet message about how nature can be a healing force.


Hopefully, my journey with undiscovered classics will continue, and if you guys haven't picked up these before, either, why not? You can get them for free on Project Gutenberg!

A Doll's House:
The Secret Garden

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Here Comes the Groom'

The Book: Here Comes the Groom

The Author: Karina Bliss

How I Found It: The nice cover and interesting blurb drew me in when I saw it on eHarlequin, and when Smart Bitches picked it as their book club selection this month, I decided to give it a shot. I'll be participating in the live chat they're having with the author at 11 PM EST (7 PM PST) tonight!

The Review: Dan Jansen and Jocelyn Swann, childhood best friends, are engaged. Well, not really. Their "engagement" consists of a joking contract signed drunkenly on a coaster three years before: if neither of them are married by thirty-three, they'll get married to each other, since they each want to settle and have a family.

Now, three years have passed, and Dan's calling in the contract, hell-bent on planning their wedding. There's only one problem: Jo's not willing to do it! Circumstances have changed for them both. Jo has her own, very valid reasons for not wanting to get married, while Dan has reasons of his own explaining why he does.

One thing's for sure: Jo's not sure if Dan's even in love with her, or if she's really in love with him. When she made a pass at him a year before, he rejected her, and now, he just seems to be using the wedding planning to distract himself from the grief of two comrades dying and several others being grieviously injured during his deployment with the SAS in Afghanistan. (That's the New Zealand Special Air Service.) Jo's convinced Dan needs to sort out his grief; Dan is convinced that he can change Jo's mind--but will either of them budge from their immovable positions?

To start, I'm really glad I decided to pick this one up after all. I don't think I've ever been disappointed by a pick from the Smart Bitches crew--I found Soulless and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that way, both of which I loved--and I ended up adoring this book. I think it's the best of the Superromance line that I've read thus far. Bliss created two very realistic characters with very real concerns, and she also wove in the family and friends of each (especially Dan's SAS family) in a way that never felt she was sequel-dropping. This is, allegedly, the first in a series about those guys--next up is Ross, a minor character here--and I'll be happy to read where she takes the story when that book debuts.

This book could have fallen so ridiculously flat. The amazing thing is that it didn't. From the summary, I was a little leery--it sure sounded like Dan was being stalkerish and manipulative. I'm really, really not a fan of the alpha male hero a lot of the time (I'm more of a nice-guy type of girl, apparently), and stalker-ish or forceful behavior in a fictional hero tends to really turn me off. Edward Cullen's behavior comes to mind. From the blurb, it sounded like Jo was going to be forced into something she didn't want to do, and BAM!, Stockholm Syndrome-esque "oh, look, I really do love him!" That's not what we get here.

Dan's reasons for wanting to marry rest in surviving the ambush that killed or injured every one of his men except him. Jo's reasons for not wanting to marry partly revolve around medical crises, and a facet of those is her grandmother's steadily-worsening dementia. Even if they don't agree with the other about the marriage, the good thing about Dan and Jo being best friends is that they really support each other. It was so nice to read about friends being supportive and, for the most part, really talking about their issues, not ignoring them. Dan and Jo each confess their reasons eventually, and they work past their problems like mature adults. The dialogue was clear and true to life, and the prose (beyond what looked like some missing commas and such, on occasion) was fun and lively.

Their problems were very realistic, and as characters, I really did like them. Jo is strong and self-assured, even running her late grandfather's newspaper business. Dan was endearing with his devotion to Jo, and his problems are definitely something that happens today. Nan, Jo's grandmother, is also an important part of the story, and her dementia and its emotional effects on Jo were touchingly portrayed. The romantic aspect between Jo and Dan had an extra emotional layer, due to something I won't spoil here, and their gradual progression to lovers and then, perhaps, to the altar was paced well. There's only two sex scenes, from what I can recall, and while they're spicy, I think I've seen more explicit out there, so it was never gratuitous or over-the-top.

I'd definitely recommend this one to someone who wants to read about real issues in a romance novel. Some serious medical conditions are touched on, but never in a heavy-handed way, just enough to make them feel real. Other issues, such as divorce or the death of a spouse, friend, or relative come up and are dealt with rather than shooed away. Overall, this was one of the best contemporary romances I've read, the best out of this line, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Ms. Bliss' books, and look forward to the chat with her tonight!

Monday, January 17, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'After'

The Book: After

The Author: Amy Efaw

How I Found It: I... honestly don't remember! It was probably a combination of browsing YA novels and my interest in books dealing with teen pregnancy. This one had won awards and gotten praise, so I decided to look into it. Many thanks to my local library.

The Review: Devon Davenport is a model student--Straight A's, an almost guaranteed future of playing soccer at a Division I school, training hopeful kids to be goalkeepers like her, babysitting for neighbors. In fact, she's everything her mother, only a teenager when she gave birth to Devon, isn't. Her mother, flirty and immature, even gave her the middle name Sky, hoping to impress upon Devon the potential she has to reach what she herself never could.

It's a shock, then, to everyone, when Devon is found by her mother and two policemen covered in blood, having recently given birth to an baby that was found in a trash can by a neighbor. Devon is sent to a juvenile detention center to await the declination hearing that will determine whether or not her case will be tried in adult or juvenile court.

Her attorney, Dom, works to get Devon to open up and tell her the story--what could have possibly motivated her to leave her baby in the trash to die? Things become more complex when Devon claims that she never knew she was pregnant. Is it possible to be in denial so deep that the only solution to an unplanned pregnancy is an attempt to kill the baby?

While I think Amy Efaw did very well writing in prose that reflects Devon's dissociated state, I felt that the novel took far too long to get going. One would think that the meat of the story would be the trial after the declination hearing, but the declination hearing is actually the climax, and it doesn't occur until the last hundred or so pages. Instead, most of the book revolves around Devon's experiences with the other residents in the detention center. I understood what Efaw wanted to accomplish by showing this, but mostly, it just bored me, because it was the same standard fare. (Specifically, the one patient we see the most of is a girl from a wealthy family whose parents have given up on her, so she self-harms to deal with it.) We never hear about what crimes led the other girls to the detention center, most likely because they're not allowed to discuss it, but still, if you're going to spend so much time on showing them to me, I'd like to know more about what's going on under the surface.

The writing really does make you believe in Devon's varying levels of consciousness throughout its events. We get a sense of her dissociation in the opening scenes and in the birth of her child, her denial during the time of her pregnancy, her growing understanding of her deed during the declination hearing. Devon is often disoriented, confused, or unwilling to pay attention, and it felt like an accurate depiction of denial, dissociation, and its aftermath, from what I've heard of the condition.

I don't know what it ultimately was that led to me thinking that the book was just okay. I felt some small amount of sympathy for Devon until the declination hearing. Her reasons for being in denial about her pregnancy, mainly stemming from her difficult relationship with her mother, were realistic. However, the reveal of her true emotions during the night of the birth really turned me off and made me lose the little amount of sympathy I'd had for her. I'm not sure if this is a common reaction or if I'm just weird, but it's how I ended up feeling, and it severely impacted my view of the last one hundred pages.

I think I was expecting more from the premise, although I don't know why. Maybe I was expecting more of a legal drama. Maybe I was expecting a deeper bond between Dom and Devon, or at least more depth to Dom's character, who I never really connected to. The ultimate outcome of the novel felt marginally satisfying, but there was just some part of me that wanted there to be more to it. Less of Devon's experiences with the other inmates, maybe, and instead an increased focus on how the people in her life felt about her actions. We got a brief glimpse during the hearing, but I would have liked to see a more thorough explanation of their feelings. I was especially disappointed that we didn't hear more from Kait, Devon's best friend. Devon was supposed to have lost touch with her during the pregnancy, something Kait was allegedly hurt about, but she's one of the people who writes a letter to testify to Devon's good character during the hearing. Why didn't we see that letter? Why did Kait still care enough about Devon to try and help her when Devon had pulled away from her and done something horribly wrong? We'll never know.

Overall, while the prose succeeded in making me believe in Devon's denial, I never truly felt that the story was a thorough explanation of all the details, and I would have preferred less focus on the other inmates and Devon's life in the center and more focus on the emotions of those in her personal life. I wouldn't give it to anyone younger than 15; all the gory details of childbirth and its aftermath are included. It's a good try, but I can only give it a weak recommendation, and only to those interested in the subject matter.

Friday, January 7, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Shiver'

The Book: Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, Book 1)

The Author: Maggie Stiefvater

How I Found It: The title was what caught my attention--just that one evocative word--after I heard Linger, the sequel, mentioned on a blog and looked it up to see what it was about.

The Review: As a child, Grace Brisbane was pulled from her tire swing in winter and attacked by the pack of wolves living in the woods close to her backyard. Unable to stop it, she laid still, but a yellow-eyed wolf came to her rescue.

For years afterwards, that wolf was Grace's constant, watching over her in winter and disappearing in summer. Unbeknownst to her, that wolf is also Sam Roth, a young werewolf who never dares to talk to her as a human. All of that changes during Grace's junior year of high school, when another student is attacked and killed by wolves, and the paranoia of the townsfolk leads to the wolves being hunted. Finally, Sam and Grace are thrown together, discovering for themselves the connection they can have as humans.

Werewolves like Sam change with the temperature--very cold temperatures force the change into a werewolf, while heat makes them change back. The problem is one thing that differs from werewolf to werewolf--each one of them has a limited amount of years where they can change back and forth. After that, they're wolves for good. Sam is certain that this is his last year, and, faced with that reality, he and Grace must fight the elements and find a cure, before the temperature drops and Sam is lost forever.

I went into this one with some trepidation. The title and the critical reviews I'd read conjured up this beautiful story about love lost and found, and I was dying for a good paranormal teen romance with characters I could actually like. Some reader reviews were more skeptical; a few of the more negative of them were critical of the writing (too flowery) and Sam and Grace's relationship (too close to bestiality). (That's the first and last time I'll probably type that one.) Eager to find out for myself, I trooped out to the bookstore in town and bought myself a copy.

I'm very pleased to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the critical reviews, and while I can see the problems some people had with the story, I'm just happy to see a healthy relationship in a genre where the relationships are almost always dysfunctional. Both Grace and Sam consider themselves to be "obsessed" with each other, but (a) they're teenagers, and (b) to me, their obsession never gave off the creepy vibe I got from Twilight or even slightly from The Vampire Diaries (since there, Elena's pretty much obsessed with claiming Stefan like he's property). I also never felt the bestiality argument was valid, either. The only reason Grace becomes obsessed with her wolf (Sam, unknowingly) is because he saved her life, and because--and this is my interpretation here, so it might not be valid--he was the one who was there to save her when no one else, most especially her parents, ever was. He protected her and kept her safe, and a major plot point hinges on the fact that her neglectful parents never did. Thus, Sam and Grace's obsession really came from each of them wanting to protect the other, and that never seemed unhealthy to me.

All that said, the writing, especially in Sam's sections, is really gorgeous sometimes. Stiefvater is a poet, from what I understand, and it shows. While Sam's lyrics could sometimes get cheesy, some of the sentences in his prose sections were really lyrical and pretty all on their own. Similarly, Grace's prose reflects her no-frills personality. The book shifts between their viewpoints, and I never had trouble telling who was who.

Grace and Sam themselves were very interesting, as an opposites attract type of relationship that works. Grace is the practical child of an artist mother, and Sam opens her up to poetry and beauty. Sam comes from a horrific childhood, and Grace shows him what it's like to be loved and not left. There were some really touching scenes between the two of them and I was completely invested in their bond by the end. They're just two kids trying to have the best possible time together in an impossible situation.

One thing I did feel slightly overwhelmed by while reading was the seeming mess of subplots. The problems with the pack, Grace's recently-bitten classmate Jack, Grace's friend Olivia investigating the wolves, Shelby trying to keep Grace away from Sam--most of these tied together in the end, but it was a little confusing in the meantime to keep shuffling back and forth between subplots. All of the side characters had a purpose, but some things that happened to them still felt a bit unnecessary by the book's end.

Overall, this was a great book that proved wrong my feelings that the post-Twilight YA fantasy that's being published today is usually crappy. Shiver had characters I cared about, a plot that drew me in, and writing that had some truly wonderful moments. Recommended to young adult readers who might not have heard of it (probably ages 14 and up), or to adult readers who don't mind YA and want a paranormal read.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

In Which Trai Enters a Sense and Sensibility Challenge

Hello, all! It's 2011 and I'm starting off the New Year by entering a Jane Austen-related challenge. (Eek!) I'm still doing the Heyer challenge (and I'm way behind on that one!), but this one runs the whole year and seems like so much fun!

Sense and Sensibility is my favorite Austen, and it's one of those that people love or hate--many of them don't agree with the book's final resolution. I love it! There aren't many S&S sequels out there, but Laurel Ann of Austenprose (link in the sidebar) has been great enough to make up a list and pose a challenge to us Austen readers.

I'm entering at the level of Aficionada, which means I have 9 to 12 selections to read or watch before 2012. My choices are:

* Sense and Sensibility (Marvel Illustrated), Nancy Butler and Sonny Liew
* Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters
* Sense and Sensibility: The Screenplay and Diaries, by Emma Thompson and Lindsay Doran
* The Dashwood Sisters' Secrets of Love, by Rosie Ruston
* The Dashwood Sisters Tell All, by Beth Pattillo
* The Third Sister, by Julia Barrett
* The Three Weismanns of Westport, Cathleen Schine
* Willoughby’s Return, by Jane Odiwe
* I Have Found It (Kandukondain Kandukondain)

I don't know what my schedule will be yet--it depends on the library and all that--but I'm definitely excited and hoping to complete this challenge. Go to Laurel Ann's blog if you'd like to sign up for yourself!

- Trai