Tag Archives: Review

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (2014)

PayingGuestsWith her novel The Paying Guests, Waters looks at postwar 1920s London, but through a very unique lense. We are first introduced to the Wray family, spinser Frances and her mother who live together alone in a townhouse. Due to the deaths of the men in the family, Frances and her mother are forced to rent out a room in their house to a young couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber. While initially Frances is suspicious of the the couple, she then strikes up a friendship with Lillian which develops into something much more.

Without giving too much away the story is essentially about the blossoming friendship and eventual affair that occurs between Lillian and Frances set against the backdrop of 1920’s London, a time in which class and gender structures were very much in flux. While I very much enjoyed the story as well as Waters’ writing style, so much of this book seemed so very long. There were parts that dragged on forever without ever really coming to a conclusion. Waters’ writing is great, but the editor really should have cut this book down about 100-200 pages. The unnecessary dialogue and inner thoughts detracted from the rest of the book.

As a feminist scholar specializing in female sexuality in Victorian England, Waters certainly knows her subject and sets the scene beautifully. She is not unfamiliar with creating a dramatic story and does so quite well. Even though the book runs a bit long in places, it is still a worthy read and a great piece of historical fiction.

Lev Grossman – The Magicians (2009)

TheMagiciansI originally had this book described to me as “Harry Potter meets The Catcher in the Rye.” As a fan of both those things I was intrigued. While Grossman does draw inspiration from Harry Potter, making casual references to the series and subtly mocking it, this book was much more of a dystopian version of the Narnia series.

The book starts off at Brakebills, a special school for young magicians (much like Hogwarts, leading to the comparisons to Harry Potter), but moves much farther past that. The characters in the book are older than Harry and his friends, and as such are much more prone to vice. They drink, do drugs, have sex, and use magic for their own personal gain. While magic is the driving force behind this book, the characters still live in the real world which is much less fantastical than other fantasy series. Magic is something that is hard, and it does not necessarily solve all the problems.

Even when the group of friends travel to Fillory, the magical Narnia-esq realm, magic is still a very dangerous thing. This novel is a very weird, twisted, cynical, and bitter look at the fantasy books that we all read growing up. In Grossman’s world, magic is not some wondrous problem solving thing. With or without magic, people are still people and will make mistakes and be corrupted. Using magic, even for good, changes a person and has the ability to break them.

The only problem I had with this book is that on a number of occasions very strange and random things happen, (like the group is all turned into geese in order to fly to the South Pole), or Grossman will be building up to a major event, which will quickly be resolved by magic but in a very uneventful way. I think Grossman was doing these things on purpose, but they bothered me nonetheless. There are still two more books left in the trilogy and I’m excited to see where those take us.

Frances Hill – A Delusion of Satan (1995)

89522I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.

Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.

What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.

It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.

Harper Lee – Go Set A Watchman (2015)

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanThis book has been out for a while now, and the initial uproar that surrounded its publishing has died down. I’ll admit, like most fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was skeptical when this sequel was announced and suspicious of the circumstances surrounding it. After reading it, I stand alongside those who believe that it should have never been published in the first place.

It’s not even that the characters seem completely different from their TKAM selves, or that Atticus is now a racist (there have been a number of interesting think pieces written on this, about how Atticus had always been a racist but in Mockingbird, it was a kinder, gentler racism). The whole novel was just kind of confusing. As a continuation/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, this book is bad, but as a stand alone novel it’s even worse.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this reads like an unfinished manuscript, because that is exactly what it is, and the publisher was very forthcoming about this. Lee switches perspectives multiple times which makes this very confusing. The bright points in this book are definitely the flashbacks and so it’s easy to see why, in 1960 Lee’s publisher told her to write that story instead.

I look at it this way, even though Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it was written first. This was the first iteration of Scout and Atticus that Harper Lee envisioned; this was her draft. To Kill a Mockingbird is the final product, and that is the Atticus that we should remember and cherish.

Anthony Bourdain – A Cook’s Tour (2001)

A_Cooks_Tour_bookA Cook’s Tour is Bourdain’s second book, a follow up to his successful Kitchen Confidential, and counterpart to his television show by the same name. In this piece of writing Bourdain tries to maintain his disdain for celebrity chefs and those who he believes to have “sold out,” (he harbours a very specific hatred for Jamie Oliver, which despite liking Jamie Oliver, I totally understand). This holier-than-thou attitude comes off as being a bit disingenuous however, since Bourdain at the time of this book, was a growing celebrity.

Bourdain makes up for this though by establishing a “rogue chef” persona that he has come to be known by today. Bourdain travels everywhere writing extensively about the different cities he’s been to and the local cuisine’s he’s tried. He writes at length about his love for Vietnam and Cambodia and mentions his admiration for both the people and the food. Bourdain has also just reinforced my desire to travel to Spain and Portugal simply to eat. This book is part food writing and part adventure writing. If it doesn’t give you Wanderlust, I’m not sure what will.

Susanna Kearsley – The Firebird (2013)

FirebirdIt wasn’t until after I finished this book that I realized it is part of a series, and is meant to be read after The Winter Sea. (I have both, but grabbed this one first). I friend of mine however assured me that it didn’t really matter as there is no real plot continuity between the two books.

This book follows Nicola, a young woman with a an extraordinary gift that allows here to see glimpses of the past when holding an object. Working with fine art and antiques, this gift comes in handy. Nicola becomes drawn to an object however, a firebird from Russia, which takes her on a whirlwind tour through the Jacobite Revolt to the Imperial Russian Court in search of the young woman she saw when holding the bird, Anna. The story shifts between present day Nicola, and her traveling companion and similarly gifted romantic interest, Rob, and the 1700s where Anna is living.
I found that this was a good work of historical fiction, dealing with a time period that doesn’t get much attention in novels (The Jacobite Risings), but the writing and story didn’t really do anything for me. I know a lot of people, who this kind of story appeals to will disagree with me, but personally I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. I still enjoyed Kearsley’s work and am still planning on reading The Winter Sea, even though I am not dying to do so.

Lawrence Wright – Going Clear (2013)

going_clearAfter reading all the hype about the recently released documentary, I decided I wanted to the read the book first. Scientology has been a joke in popular culture for a while now, but the treatment it gets in many shows and cartoons, detracts from some of the seriously troubling aspects of this organized religion.

Wright’s book looks at the history of Scientology from its roots to the present day, focusing in on famous figures like R.L Hubbard and his family. Hollywood director, Paul Haggis, a former Scientologist, serves as a key player in this story. It was in fact Haggis’ experience with Scientology that prompted Wright to write this book. It was interesting, informative and shed light on some of the darker sides of Scientology without being too disparaging.

One of the most interesting things was reading the history of R.L Hubbard, and how the idea of Scientology developed alongside other occult-type groups in the early 40s and 50s. It was unsurprising that Hubbard was a science fiction writer given the fact that Scientology sometimes seems like science fiction itself. Wright also takes a look at some of the rumours surrounding the darker sides of Scientology as well as the reasons why celebrities seem so drawn to it.

I have read a number of articles and books written by Wright and know that he is a pretty respectable journalist. He does an amazing job in this book of looking at Scientology in an honest and open way. In the end, Scientology is still technically a system of belief and there are practitioners out there who follow it, and not all of them are bad people. In a way, Wright points out that Scientology is not all that different from other organized religions that all have dark moments in their history (think of the Catholic Church in recent years, or ever really).

While there are still a lot of problems with the top levels of the Church of Scientology (seriously, look up SeaOrg and GoldBase on wikipedia), it does not mean that everyone who decides to follow the religion is automatically a terrible person. This was a balanced and fair read, and I’m interested to see if this translates to the Documentary

Melba Patillo-Beals – Warriors Dont Cry (1994)

WarriorsDontCryThis book should be required reading for anyone studying the civil rights movement. I know that can be said for a number of titles, and there’s probably a few I haven’t read, but after reading these memoirs, written by one of the Little Rock Nine, I was floored by how much I didn’t know about the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School.

The Civil Right’s movement is so vast and so large that when studying it, the events at Little Rock are mentioned briefly, if at all. I had read about Governor Faubus standing in front of the doors of Central High School and the President ordering federal troops in to protect the 9 Black students, but often times the story ends there. The nine students enter the school, the end.

But of course the story doesn’t end there, the students faced persecution, torment, and physical and emotional abuse at the hands of fellow students; they faced indifference from the Arkansas National Guard, and they faced ostracism from members of their own community. Of course these students faced all these things, and yet I was floored reading Patillo-Beals’ account of her time spent at Little Rock.

These students were some of the most courageous participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did they endure physical harassment, including and incident in which a white student flung acid into Melba’s face nearly blinding her, but they couldn’t do anything about it. While being harassed in the cafeteria by a group of white boys, one of the Black students spilled her soup over them, either accidently or on purpose, resulting in her expulsion. To fight back was to let the segregationists win.

While I thought I was more or less aware of the violence that went along with the Civil Rights Movement, I was still shocked at the physical attacks that these teenagers faced every single day. It really puts things into perspective and provides a look at the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of a teenage girl.

Marissa Meyer – Cress (2014)

CressThis novel, the third installment of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, focuses heavily on the character of Cress, a futuristic Rapunzel who appears briefly in Cinder.

We learn that Cress is a shell, a Lunar girl born without powers, but having proven to be adept with technology is saved by one of Queen Levana’s servants and kept in an isolated satellite (much like Rapunzel’s tower). From here she is tasked with tracking and capturing Cinder, but uses the opportunity to have the crew come and save her. As expected, plans go awry and the different characters find themselves stranded in difficult situations.

Cress and Thorne are thrown together and end up lost in the Sahara desert while Cinder, Wolf and Lunar guard Jacin track down Dr. Erland in the North of Africa. The crew try and come up with a way to defeat Levana and intend to disrupt the royal wedding before traveling to Luna to start a rebellion.

We see less of Scarlet in this book as, having been captured by the Lunars is held as a prisoner on Luna. Her story is compelling however as it seems as though the Queen’s mentally unstable step-daughter shows an interest, and kindness to her. This step-daughter, Princess Winter, only appears briefly but probably has a much bigger role to play in the upcoming installment to be released in November.

There is a lot of keep track of in the book, and while I was disappointed when all the romances seem to be heading (I was pulling for Cinder and Thorn although that seems unlikely), I thought that this novel stood out from the previous two. There’s a lot of plot development and Meyer leaves the reading with a great deal to look forward to. It leaves off in an interesting place, and I cant wait to see how she resolves everything.

Hazel Rowley – Franklin and Eleanor (2010)

FranklinandEleanorIt’s pretty well agreed upon that there is a sense of romanticism that settles around FDR, as well as his wife Eleanor. FDR managed to lead a country through wartime while battling debilitating illnesses and Eleanor has been an inspiration to generations of women. It should not be surprising that two such extraordinary individuals had an extraordinary marriage, but it does as a President’s private life is often treated as just that, private.

In her novel, Hazel Rowley provides an intimate look at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s partnership from the day that they met to the day of his death. She details the number of affairs that both, either formally known or suspected, engaged in and how the pair made their marriage work. Franklin was a notorious flirt and enjoyed the company of young women, while Eleanor also had her fair share of “special companions.”

I for one have always been a great admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a strong silent presence in Franklin’s life and always stood by him. While this may have caused her to have a bit of a martyr’s complex, having to play the role of a put-upon wife, she was always willing and ready to put the needs of others, especially her husband’s before her own. Franklin relied on Eleanor and in turn supported her causes where he could even when certain issues, such as Eleanor’s support for Civil Rights, could hurt Franklin’s popularity.

Even though the couple spent a great deal of time a part, especially during the later half of their marriage while Eleanor was traveling supporting her own causes and Franklin was constantly visiting other world leaders during the Second World War, their letters to one another show a level of tenderness and love. While they may have taken other lovers, it is very clear that Franklin and Eleanor were life partners and needed, and loved each other vey much.