July 29, 2012

Classic Romance/Modern Twist

Anne Fortier
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
16 discs, 20 hours

This book hit the wrong nerve with me from the very beginning. I kept reading because I had an audiobook copy (so no effort, basically), and I got it in order to write a review. In the end, I'm glad I finished it, but I didn't necessarily like it. There are a few spoilers in this review, so if you feel you'd like to read the book and judge for yourself, please skip to the last paragraph where I give my recommendations. 

The story is about a modern awkward twenty something girl, Julie, with a twin sister, Janice (who is nothing but a cheesy cliche), whose parents had died when they were quite young, living in Italy. Since that time, and as far back as they can clearly remember, they'd lived in the States with their great aunt, Rose and a 'handy man' Umberto (can't find the spelling anywhere, so forgive me if it's incorrect). After the death of their aunt, Julie is given the task to go back to Siena, Italy to find/protect the family treasure. 

Obviously, from the title, you can discern that there is a connection between this book and Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. The play (in the story) is based on actual historic families and two forbidden lovers. The story is split in two for most of the book, one side being Julie's quest in the present, and the other is the story that unfolds in the documents her mother left for her, recounting the 'true' story of Romeo Marescotti and Giulietta Tolomei from 1340 AD (If you like books with parallel stories, try The Bone Garden by Tess Gerrison. LOVED that one.). I did like the split in this story, but only because the story taking place in 1340 was infinitely more interesting than the modern plot. 

I think most of my problem was with the narration of the story. Cassandra Campbell reads the book, and though the two modern twins grew up in Virginia, she only very rarely drops into a southern twang, and then it's usually on one or two words, and then it disappears again. Also, every time she read an Italian word or name, she'd launch straight into an Italian accent, no matter who was speaking it. Irk. Personal pet peeve perhaps. 

This problem seemed to be a theme, however, as the writing and characters all experienced this inconsistency. I think the dialogue between Julie and Janice is the best example. Janice's character is the worst, because although Julie explains in detail how evil/selfish/greedy Janice is by nature, she is constantly flip-flopping between snarky bitch and 'genuinely' concerned with her sister's choices. Actually she flip flops between every emotion she is allowed to portray in this book and snarky bitch. It's as if Anne Fortier kept forgetting who Janice was supposed to be, and added smart ass remarks in editing or something. It felt very disconnected. And by the end of the book Julie and Janice are BFFs. Really? That conclusion doesn't seem reasonable from what was laid out for us in the first few chapters.

The relationship between Julie (modern descendant of Juliet) and Alessandro (modern descendant of Romeo) is absolutely schizophrenic. One night they hate each other, the next they're flirting, the next she is suspicious of him again, running away terrified, then they're back to falling in love before she finds out something more and is suspicious again and runs away. Over and over and over. Most of the time Julie had a surge of enamored emotions toward Alessandro, it wasn't when he was next to her, it was when she found out something about him from somewhere else. It didn't feel real. It didn't feel like these two modern people were meant for each other. It didn't feel like anything special was happening between them at all. 

Above all, the most annoying thing about the two girls, Julie and Janice, though it isn't mentioned TOO often, is that they are after a fortune. They both assume, once their Aunt Rose died, that they would each inherit quite a large sum of money to pay off their debts. Julie goes to Italy expecting to find a fortune their mother left for her, and is completely unappreciative of the historical documents she found, even though she had apparently been obsessed with the play Romeo and Juliet for as long as she could remember. It seems to me someone like that would consider a journal recounting the true story of Romeo and Juliet to be a priceless treasure, not a means to an end. 

Now, I don't have much of a background with Shakespeare (which I regret, and hope to remedy), and I've only read pieces of Romeo and Juliet in lit classes, but I do know the gist of the tragedy. This is why, I think, I enjoyed the 1340 version of events. I'd be interested to find out if or how much research Fortier did on the pre-Shakespeare story, to see how much she molded to fit her own means. (One more complaint, then I'm done! How is it that all of the objects that play a part in the 1340 chain of events survive to be found by the characters in the modern plot? I find that highly unlikely). 

While there were some things that just seemed a little too convenient, and most of the plot 'ah-ha's were simply misunderstandings, the story was, at least, interesting. I liked the scenes with the modern artist character Maestro *something, I totally forgot his name*. I imagined his workshop as dark, dusty, and warm. A place you could sit down and have a cup of tea surrounded by beauty, history, and mystery. He may be my favorite character (I know, how could I have forgotten his name then?). 
Also, I enjoyed learning about the details of their mother's journey, which you don't begin to learn about until the very end of the book. And of course, the bit of romance there was between modern Romeo and Juliet, just before going to the weird party of Alessandro's god-mother's. (Huge Spoiler! Though seriously, if she's a 25 year old virgin, she is not going to just sleep with this guy she's known a week and isn't even sure she can trust!). 

Overall, I think this book is a little bit of a shame, I think it could have been a whole lot better with just a little more time, and some intense editing, because the story itself is very good, and a great concept. I would recommend this book to women who like historic-ish fiction and don't mind whiny, at times unreasonable characters, which so many modern lit (especially romance) stories contain. The plot does eventually all tie together, it is just the middle that is a little messy. It is a light, semi-fast paced, and eventually endearing story. If you aren't easily annoyed by cheesy dialogue, then I think you could enjoy it. Also, I recommend a printed version. The audiobook really just didn't do it for me. 

Until Next Time!

July 22, 2012

Animal Tales

Love Is the Best Medicine
Dr. Nick Trout

I have a confession to make: I received this book for review from a goodreads.com giveaway (see what books are currently available for giveaway here), sometime last year, and I just now got around to reading it. I am an animal lover through and through, so I was sort of saving this one for a rainy day. In my experience, reading about animals of any kind usually brings me to tears (Where the Red Fern Grows is one of my all time favorites!). I haven't been in the mood that I could handle the emotional bomb that is animal literature, so this book waited for me on the shelf...

Until this week :-) Love is the Best Medicine is a memoir by a veterinarian at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. Trout wrote a book before this, Tell Me Where it Hurts, which I have not read, but is essentially a walk-through of 24 hours in the life of a high tech veterinarian. Love is the Best Medicine includes some modern animal medicine technologies and procedures, but with this book Trout describes two dogs who have changed his outlook on not only his profession, but his personal philosophies as well. A young Min Pin named Cleo and an old but energetic rescued Cocker Spaniel named Helen are the dogs who changed his perspective, and will live forever in the pages of his book. 

I've never read a book from the perspective of a veterinarian before, and it is definitely interesting to see even a little part of 'the other side'. One thing I am learning more and more as I get older, is that no matter what job someone has, they are still just people, and every person is prone to the same things that I am. Doctors make mistakes, judges, architects, and chemists all make mistakes. I do not understand why people can get so upset about getting a large bill from a doctor (and I understand that the money doesn't just go to the doctor, there are a lot of issues with pharmaceutical companies monopolizing things and whatnot), but being a doctor is a hard job, every single day, and they worked long and hard to get there. If you think about your own life, and even your own schooling...how much have you forgotten from your classes and school books? When you go to see a doctor, you expect him/her to remember everything he has ever learned about medicine PLUS keep up with all the new research/technology in the medical industry, because you want to stay as healthy as you can for as long as you can, and that is what you're paying for. Also, disease and medical ailments are not easy to identify, especially because everyone's body chemistry and anatomy is slightly different. that.job.is.hard. And personally, I am happy to pay a doctor or dentist as much as it takes, because when it comes down to it, the chances of them saving my life are a lot higher than me being able to save myself. 

Yikes, I find myself straying from the topic here...

The book was okay. It is about 250 pages and I read it in three week days (I mention week day, because I have a full time job, so I think that gives you a better estimate of how much time I spent reading it), so it went really quickly. I didn't find myself completely drawn into the story, though there were a few hilarious moments, and a few touching ones, and yes, I did cry - twice. The writing was a little rough around the edges, and I can't pinpoint why that is. I guess it just wasn't very emotional, although emotions/feeling were discussed, it just didn't resonate with me as deeply as I've been moved by animal stories before.

It was a nice light read, and not too heart wrenching. If you like to read about pet stories or behind the scenes medical type things, I recommend this one - I probably won't be reading it again, though. Also, I find it curious that both of his books have bulldogs on the covers, but there was no bulldog in this book (can't speak for the other one). They sure are cute though!

Speaking of dogs...here's mine!
Meet Molly
Peeking from behind a mirror...
Miss Molly and Me (I).

Happy Reading Everyone!

July 19, 2012

Medieval English Monarchy

The Lady of the Rivers
Philippa Gregory
Narrated by Bianca Amato
Historical Fiction
To buy Amazon - Barnes & Noble

I checked this audio-book out from the library thinking that I probably would not even end up listening to it. Usually I tend to lean more towards shorter books, and this one was 15 discs, and it sounded like an old medieval/fantasy story, something I normally wouldn't read. I'm not sure what compelled me to check it out ultimately. And it was sheer laziness that led me to renew it twice (that's six weeks for my library district), before ever popping a disc into my computer at work to give a listen. I'm grateful now that I did.

The book captivated me from the beginning. A young noble girl from France crosses paths with Joan of Arc before she is tried and burned at the stake for heresy. This girl possess 'gifts' from being of the line of a water goddess, Melucina (Mel-You-See-Nah. The worst part about reviewing audio-books is not being able to spell the odd words/names. I try!), and realizes very early, from her exposure to Joan, that powerful women are not welcome in the world of men. The girl, Jacquetta, is married off to a Duke of England who is occupying France, the Duke of Bedford. He is an old man, whose wife had died, and marries Jacquetta because he has heard of her gifts, not for love. He is a man who has hired herbalists, scholars, and alchemist on his quest for the Philosopher's Stone, and thinks marrying a young virgin with gifts of foresight will be the key to his quest. War takes up most of the Duke's time, and Jacquetta is left mostly in the care of his most trusted squire, Richard Woodville (real name Richard Wydeville), with whom she eventually falls in love with and marries (after her old man of a husband dies, of course). Easily the most enjoyable part of the story - Jacquetta and Richard had fourteen children together, they obviously loved each other very much! Because Richard is so far below her station, they have to marry in secret before notifying the English court, because the noble men were planning another arranged marriage for Jaquetta. In those times people were always married in order to ensure allies or strengthen bonds between families/countries, which is why Jacquetta married the Duke in the first place. At this point the young King of England, Henry VI, is arranged to marry Jacquetta's cousin from France, Margaret of Anjou, and Jacquetta is called to court to be her lady in waiting. This is where the story really starts.

The most fascinating part of this story, to me, is that every character in this book is based off of real history, real lords and ladies of 1400s England (here is the wiki page, we're looking at Henry VI in the 1400s). It is highly fictionalized, for in fact, there is no way to know exactly what happened so far back, especially because so much was hidden from the common knowledge of the people, but Philippa Gregory does a fantastic job weaving the characters in and out of each other's stories, and filling in the gaps. I even looked up these old English monarch's on Wikipedia, just to see how much of the story were actual events. Turns out, all the major plot points are absolutely in the historical record. All of Jacquetta's and Richard's fourteen children, the territories won and lost, and even the rumor that Queen Margaret's only son was not born of the King, but of a Duke, and advisor to the King.

The narrating was excellent. Amato did a wonderful job of changing the pitch and tambre of her voice for each character, none of which were too garishly overdone. I consider it a good thing when I sit here at my keyboard unable to think of anything that really stood out about the narration; Amato allowed the story to be the story, which is the best thing a narrator can accomplish. There were very few instances of foreign words in the text, but where they were they were perfectly done. The only thing at all I can think is that the entire book was done in an English accent, where the main character, Jacquetta, and the Queen, who plays a huge role in the book, were both French. But honestly, that is only a technicality.

For some reason, this book captivated me more than most. I was sucked wholeheartedly into this story, and these characters, and this bit of history (no matter how embellished). I think I especially liked it because the history is so old, and so generally unknown (by me anyway, I know nothing about medieval monarchy). Frankly, I cannot wait to read another of Philippa Gregory's books, I'm just uncertain which to turn to next. That reminds me! This book is actually part of a series called The Cousin's War, and The Lady of the Rivers is book three in that series. I'm almost scared to go back and read The Red Queen and The White Queen, the first two books of the series, because from what I understand, they both deal with events after where The Lady of the Rivers leaves off, and also, I'm afraid I won't be able to stay quite as interested if I am reading words like "Duke of Bedford", "Dower to Duchess", and "Edmund, Duke of Sommerset" over and over again all over the pages. I think having this book read to me was half of the magic. At folks, it was magic.

Happy Reading Everyone!

July 17, 2012

Generational Seacoast Life

Michael Crummey
Folklore Fiction
To Buy Amazon

I’m not sure what drew me to this book. It doesn’t have an intricate or telling cover, and the title doesn’t give much insight to what it names. For some reason, I saw it on display halfway across the library, and checked it out without a single thought. This book and I were meant to be (don’t you guys sometimes feel that way?).

Galore is a wide-spanning all-encompassing book, and it's hard to summarize in just a few sentences, so I've gone the other route, hardly explaining at all! When people asked me what my book was about when they caught me reading it, I’d generally say “a small coastal town in Canada," which is true, but doesn't do it much justice.

First and most of all, I’d like to talk about the writing. There are books that may span a summer, or a winter – a simple season of character development and transformation. Some entire books use 500 pages to describe a series of events that happened in only a few days, or even moments. Galore is a 300 page book that spans six generations in two parts. Michael Crummey grew up in the Newfoundland/Labrador area of Canada (the Atlantic coast), which is the setting for this book. He obviously knows the area, the lifestyle, and the folklore of his home, and it shines through in the story. Stylistically, he used sparse and stark language, and in places one sentence can progress the story through an entire season. There were details, but not every detail. Everything was tastefully done.

To me, writing a story of this magnitude would be just overwhelmingly complex. How do you describe everyone in a community, their relationships with everyone else in the communiy, the progression of the town through time, keep the reader interested, and still lead up to a conclusion that includes none of the characters you just spent the first half of the book detailing?? Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m afraid you will have to find this book yourself to answer that question, because I promise you it works out to a beautiful conclusion that adheres the two halves of the story together.

I love the way things are revealed about the characters, but still there is always a mystery behind each person. That quality almost makes you feel, as a reader, that you are a member of this community - where certain things are made public, and some things stay behind doors closed tight. I also loved that it’s the story as much about the people as the town growing within it. From the earliest beginnings in the story, we hear of the first settlers of Paradise Deep, King-Me Sellers and Devine’s Widow, how their families expand, and how the communities transform from a few shanties on the coast to having a school house, a church, a hospital, etc. 

I realize this doesn't tell you much about the story, I know, and I apologize. The thing is, the book is mostly details and relationship ties that are hard to explain without fear of accidentally starting my own novel right here in this post! Basically the catalyst of this story is this - a whale is found beached after a hard season of fishing, so everyone is convinced this beached whale is a miracle that has saved their lives through the winter. As they are tearing through the animal (after letting it die of it's own accord), a man crawls out, stark naked, unable to speak, reeking of fish, and white as a ghost. 

In short, I greatly enjoyed reading this book. I have a book that may be a little similar on my shelf, We, The Drowned, also a multi-generational sea adventure book (any of you read it??), and I'm very excited, and somehow nervous, to read it. I hope a few of you will go out and find Galore,  or I hope, at least, that the next time each of you goes to a library or a book store, a book reaches out and grabs you as Galore did to me. It's worth listening to those instincts (usually)!

Happy Reading Everyone!

July 12, 2012

Book Vs Movie: A Steampunk Adventure

The Golden Compass

Philip Pullman
Young Adult
Fantasy Adventure
(movie information below)

The Golden Compass is part one of a young adult trilogy (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are the titles of the other two installments). I first began my journey with this story in middle school, when my best friend, also an avid reader, suggested I read an old scruffy paperback copy of hers.

The story gripped me immediately: a young tomboy orphan girl, Lyra, who resides in a renowned college in Oxford but runs the streets as a gypsy, is longing to go on an adventure to the North, a land of ice bears and mystery. She gets a chance when a beautiful and sophisticated woman comes to visit the college, Mrs. Coulter. Coulter recruits the young girl to be her assistant, reasoning with the master of the college that a young girl simply cannot be raised by a bunch of old men. Meanwhile, children all over Lyra’s world have been disappearing unexpectedly, never to be seen again. Before Lyra departs with Mrs. Coulter, the master of Jordan College gives her a valuable relic, the Golden Compass (also referred to as an Aletheometer), with instructions never to tell anyone she has it – he also mentioned that it had belonged to Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, who was absent, exploring in the North.  After a whirlwind of makeovers and shopping, Lyra’s sense of adventure rears it's head, and she decides to sneak away from Mrs. Coulter and take the Golden Compass to Lord Asriel.

In between the lines of this simple seeming adventure are heavy themes that can either be taken at face value as part of the story, or as a sort of commentary on humanity, religion, and science in our own world. The plot is riddled with interesting characters that keeps excitement up, and keeps kids interested. Things like Armored Bears, Gyptians who reside on longboats, Witches who age very slowly and do not feel the cold (well, they feel it, but can ignore it), and a feisty aeronaut (what we would call a Hot Air Balloon man) fill the pages with endearing and sometimes freighting eccentricities. I highly recommend this series to anyone middle school level and older. I'm talking full grown men could enjoy this series, because as I said, the themes resonate throughout humanity.

A movie was made of The Golden Compass in 2007 based on the novel, directed by Chris Weitz and starring Nicole Kidman (Mrs. Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), and Dakota Blue Richards (who plays Lyra).

I was excited to see the movie as soon as I heard it was coming out (I think I first saw the preview in the theater when I went to see the remake of The Poseidon Adventure, called simply Poseidon), since I cherished the books so much growing up. On the part of Hollywood, I think it was a good idea to make the first installment of this adventure into a movie; not only is this book a great foundation for a larger adventure spanning the universe and many creatures, but it is well rounded enough to be able to stand alone and still make a great movie. There were many changes, and a lot cut out, but the movie, in my opinion, doesn't suffer much from it.

The biggest sort of difference I felt between the two, is the demographic they were made for. The movie felt like a kids/family movie, while I never really got that impression by the books. Obviously they were not written for adult readers, but the books didn't necessarily read as children's, or even young adult. When I first read them in middle school, it was a challenge to adjust to the type of words Pullman used. For example, he used a special character 'æ' in a word that appeared very often throughout all three books. If I decided to read them again tomorrow or even five years from now, I wouldn't feel like I was reading a children's book, but I will always feel that The Golden Compass movie is geared towards younger kids, even though (while played down) there re some scary occurrences.

I think one thing the movie sacrificed is a lot of the prominent themes that make this series (especially this first book) enjoyable for adults. The story is jam packed with commentary about the treatment of children, the over protectiveness of establishments of power over citizens, religious commentary, and the metaphysical. The movie barely scratches the surface of half of these, and doesn't convey the urgency of understanding the concepts. What does shine through from the book are the themes of loyalty, friendship, and the warning of having blind faith/trust in something/someone (I am using a lot of slashes in this review!), which are more childish. I can understand why the movie makers had to choose which themes to include, and which to enhance further...it's just simply something you have to do when adapting novel to screenplay.

One thing the movie did very well was the steampunk aspect. Gyrocopters, Zeppelins, clockwork spies...it gives you the impression of the differences between our world and Lyra's. With a movie you get a lot of chances to get more creative and literally show the audience they're in another world. I thought it was very well done, and not over the top, which could be tricky. Also I'd like to say that I LOVE the steampunk concept and I'm very excited that it's becoming bigger and more popular in today's market (though not too popular I hope, vampire romance fiction anyone??).

Of course, if you are reading this trying to decipher whether or not it will be worth your time to read the book(s), or if the movie will suffice, I beg you to do the reading. I think I like the second two books better than the first, which doesn't always happen with a trilogy. I don't think they are planning on making The Subtle Knife or The Amber Spyglass into movies, in fact, they changed the ending of the first book in the movie, and I'm not sure how they'd recover that for a sequel...but never mind that! It doesn't matter because you are all going to go read the books instead!

Winner: Book!

Until next time,
Happy Reading Everyone!