Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a genre romance novel with pretensions of grandeur.

I was intrigued by this book because of it's duel format. It features a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in history researching the famous (in her world at least!) Pink Carnation, a British spy during the Napoleonic Wars. Eloise, the student, travels to London after a bad break up and decides to research primary sources on the Pink Carnation. The novel opens with her in a slight jam--she's crushed in an overcrowded Tube ride, has spilled coffee on herself, and discovers that it's raining and she doesn't have an umbrella. All of this makes her a truly hapless sight when so goes to interview a descendant of the Purple Gentian (a spy that inspired our Carnation).

Her host is a nice old woman and immediately gives Eloise access to private family papers.

And that's where the book goes downhill.

Eloise is apparently reading journals and letters, but that's not what readers see. Instead, we are simply taken into the story of Amy Balcourt and Richard Selwick (who happens to be the Purple Gentian). Their story is a very typical romance novel. Amy is returning to France for the first time since she left it during the Terror. She's been living with her English relatives for the last 15 years, plotting and planning how she could help the famous British spies--the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian--restore the monarchy in France. Or at least expel the Republicans. Or Napoleon. In any event, she wants to help. Her father was killed by the guillotine, and she has a powerful hatred of the current French government. Richard has posing as a French sympathizer, working as their head of antiquities, all the while spying for his native England. Amy, of course, doesn't know this, and is repelled to learn that such an attractive young man could work for the side of the devil. Richard, in turn, is drawn to Amy. He knows her brother is involved in something underhanded, and in his attempt to investigate, he stumbles into Amy late at night. She doesn't know who he is due to the mask, but her hero worship of the Gentian leads to a slightly compromising situation. Cue the rest of a standard romance novel involving mistaken identity.

This novel would have worked so much better if readers had been able to read the same letters and journals Eloise was reading. We could have learned the story as she did. Instead, Eloise has access to different information than the reader. For a novel that's based around the idea of historical research, it doesn't read as being very authentic. Amy and her friends are unrealistic, and the graphic sexual encounters do not read as anything that would appear in a young lady's journal. Considering Richard's dangerous occupation, he would have been unlikely to keep a journal of his encounters with her either.

Further, I would have liked to see more of Eloise. I didn't like her as a character--she was too much the cliched chick lit heroine--but with only roughly four chapters to her credit, she was never able to properly establish her identity as a character or as a researcher. Sadly, the framing device of Eloise's narrative seemed like a pathetic attempt to elevate the book out of it's genre--the historical romance. Both the size of the book--a trade paperback--and the period artwork cover would seem to imply that it is more than a genre romance, but that's simply not the case.

I will admit that I enjoyed Amy & Richard's story. It was fun and trashy, and there were actually a few surprises. Other than the mustache-twirling villain, the supporting characters were delightfully madcap. Unfortunately, all of the characters were smarter than Amy, which didn't work well. They were able to see through Richard's subterfuges before Amy, allowing her to make an ass of herself repeatedly while they looked on knowingly. Gwen the chaperone was perhaps the most inspired character--but she was also almost a caricature.

If you're looking for a fun romance without pretensions, pass this book by. If you just want a trashy book set in the Napoleonic Wars, and you're willing to overlook the Eloise sections, have at it. I picked up the second book in the bookswap at the same time as I grabbed this one. I will probably continue with the series through that book alone. Unless the modern storyline develops further, I simply don't see enough her to elevate it above the usual genre romances and into a permanent place in my library.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review: Pawn of Prophecy

Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad, #1)Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I was cleaning off my shelves yesterday, this series caught my eye. It had been almost 20 years since I'd read them, and I wanted to decide whether I should keep them on the shelf, box them, or give them away. In order to make up my mind, I started reading.

I was happy to discover that Eddings was a much better writer than I realized. I'd remembered his humor and the witty back-and-forth dialogue among the characters. I'd remembered the running gags (such as Barak's horses and their dislike for carrying the giant Cherek). But I'd forgotten that Eddings was actually good. The first real hint of that shows up in the prologue, where he masters the voice of a nineteenth century text. Some of his phrases were especially strong, as when he talked about the "eternal summer" of Garion's youth. All of this left me thrilled. The Belgariad had been one of my first entries into high fantasy, and I was happy to see that it wasn't crap.

That said, I noticed more features about the book that got on my nerves this time around. Eddings had a very subtle sort of misogyny in the book. Polgara was held up as this paragon of womanhood, yet she spends most of the book scolding men. The men all seem to accept this and tell Garion that he'll have to get used to soothing a woman's scolding.

The other big problem I had was the racism. I understand that this was high fantasy, written during the Cold War. I understand what Eddings was doing by having each nation affiliate itself so strongly with its chosen god. However, the result of that affiliation is that each nation wound up with a character--and the divisions between nations take on a strong sense of racism. As a Cold War text, the primary divisions are between East and West--although one of those apparently "Eastern" countries is due south. The map of the world is suspiciously European, down to having the Viking-like Chereks live in what would appear to be Scandinavia. And the best place of all? Riva--a suspiciously England-ish island to the north. The enemies (Nadraks, Thulls, Malloreans, Murgos, and Grolim) seem to be analogues of Iron Curtain nations--with the Malloreans perhaps as China. Torak, the enemy god, seems to be both Marx and Hitler.

I did enjoy this book, as Eddings's writing is really quite good. But I can't read it with the same carefree joy as I did when I was 12. Despite having enjoyed the book, I chose not to reread the rest of the series. Once Ce'Nedra shows up, the misogyny is even harder to avoid, and I had no desire to read about her stomping her tiny feet as she threw a tantrum. I did decide the box the series, though. The books are good, and they're a fundamental part of my development as a reader.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: The Apothecary's Daughter

The Apothecary's DaughterThe Apothecary's Daughter by Julie Klassen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first book I've read that was marketed as "Christian fiction" in some time.

To give that remark some context, I should explain that I don't consider myself a Christian as I don't practice any faith. I tend to avoid Christian fiction because I'm not that fond of the evangelical movement; the best label for me is <a href+"">agnostic</a>, and most evangelicals I've met dislike my ideas almost as much they dislike atheists. I don't consider myself hostile to Christianity, however.

That said, I often have a hard time reading books marketed as "Christian fiction." The ones I've come across in the past are often poorly written or serve as some kind of allegory for how one should believe.

The Apothecary's Daughter does not do that. Instead, it tells a story about a young woman with a deep sense of faith. She attends church regularly, and when she falls out of attendance, she feels ill at ease with herself. When she's distressed, she seeks solace in prayer. Her faith is not the only aspect of the story or the defining aspect of her character. Instead, it serves as a center for her in a turbulent world. Her faith, as represented in the book, is historically accurate for Regency England.

As the novel opens, we readers learn that Lilly's mother recently abandoned the family. Lilly imagines her mother off having adventures, but the rest of her small village understands what is more likely the truth: Lilly's mother has abandoned the family for another man. Three years after her mother leaves, her mother's brother arrives and expresses interest in fostering Lilly--taking her into his household as an adopted daughter. Lilly leaves for London, and enjoys two seasons, but her aunt and uncle are unable to arrange an advantageous match. The scandal of Lilly's mother, and the fact that Lilly's father is an apothecary (aka, "in trade"), make her a less than desirable connection for most gentlemen. She does have a few serious suitors, including a young gentleman and a young doctor.

A family emergency forces Lilly to return to her village, and it's here that the major action of the novel takes place. Lilly must choose which future she wants--the London life of her uncle, the village life she's known, or even the sinful life of her mother. The paths are all open before her, and Lilly struggles to choose the right one. Most of the paths she sees involve choosing a spouse, and she understands that making the wrong choice and marrying for something other than love can lead to a life of sin.

I liked this book and found it rather entertaining. Lilly's character is three dimensional, as are the characters of a couple of her suitors. Happily, the novel itself is not particularly judgmental. Several characters commit grave sins, but rather than turning from them, Lilly continues to love them. The problems I had with the book probably have more to do with it as a genre work than with the writing or the characters. Even after having been exposed to opportunities outside her class, Lilly feels compelled to stay within the station of her birth. This conservative aspect of the book--reinforcing the status quo of class relationships--bothers me. I would have liked to see Lilly reach farther, even though that may have been unrealistic at the time.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Perfect Timing

Perfect TimingPerfect Timing by Jill Mansell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a long time, I've been confused. I thought Jill Mansell was another pseudonym for the woman that writes as Sophie Kinsella, and I could not understand why I liked the Mansell books so much and wanted to throw the Shopaholic book across the room.

Turns out I was wrong. They are not the same person.

That's good to know. All I can say about this one is that it was sweetly romantic and fun. The characters, for all their absurd behavior at times, were frightfully real. They struggled with the inability to speak up about their feelings, struggled with understanding their own hearts, and finally had to speak up. Poppy starts the book with the act of speaking up--she realizes the night before the wedding that she's about to marry the wrong guy. That act of boldness propels her forward and into a new, more assertive life in London. People around her struggle to be like her. They, too, would like to be bold, but they each have obstacles to overcome. And they don't realize that sometimes boldness masks an inability to face other decisions.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and will read more of Mansell's catalog. I'm so glad that she's not Sophie Kinsella. I can go on liking her without the guilt.

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Monday, July 04, 2011

Review: The Murder Of Bindy Mackenzie

The Murder Of Bindy Mackenzie (Ashbury/Brookfield, #3)The Murder Of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit that I found the first half of this book very difficult to read. I've read one other book by Moriarty, The Year of Secret Assignments,. That book was unique and compelling, especially because of the wonderful way Moriarty was able to portray her characters so convincingly through the letters they wrote one another. I liked the way the story unfolded in that one; it was easy to see that something was wrong, but the reader doesn't learn what, precisely, for some time.

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie works in many of the same ways. Instead of being an epistolary novel, it's Bindy's diary (which she types as transcripts of conversations around her). Bindy is a side character in that earlier book, one that rates only an occasional mention. Now she's the protagonist, and it's initially quite difficult to deal with her.

Bindy is not a nice person. All her life, she's been forcing herself to be number one in her class, and the stress has worn on her. Her father encourages her to think of herself as above her classmates, and she has no real friends. She doesn't know how to communicate with people her own age, partly because she doesn't consider herself a teenager. She is not like "them."

As the novel opens, Bindy is stressed about starting Year 11. She's eager, and she's also worried that she won't be able to maintain her status. She's also truly frustrated by the idea of a Friendship and Development course she's been enrolled in. Her classmates are a bunch of people that she doesn't like, and on the very first day, she learns that they don't really like her, either. She decides to call them the "Venomous Seven" and expose their true personalities. For her, this means identifying the animal that best represents their personality.

Like the previous book, it becomes evident pretty quickly that something is not right in Bindy's world. Her family situation seems odd. Her anger with her classmates seems unjustified and extreme. For a smart girl, she's falling behind on her assignments and her thoughts are becoming increasingly incoherent.

As Bindy's world falls apart, the novel gets better and better. Moriarty has a deep understanding of psychology and teenage behavior. Bindy, in all her not-very-nice glory, lives on the page. I cannot wait to read more books in this series and by this author.

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