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Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

February 22, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen DunmoreSummary:
Cathy and her brother Rob live with their emotionally distant grandfather on family land in England because her mother left, and her father died in a mental institution. Cathy and Rob seek refuge with each other against the world, but World War I won’t let them keep the world at bay forever.

Review:
I generally enjoy controversial books, and I heard that this historical fiction included the always controversial plot point of incest. The short version of my review is: it’s amazing how boring a book about incest and WWI can actually be. For the longer version, read on.

The book is told non-linearly in what appears to be an attempt to build suspense. The constant jumping with very few reveals for quite some time, though, just led to my own frustration.

I was similarly frustrated by the fact that Cathy’s childish interpretation of her father’s mental illness never progresses. She never moves from a child’s understanding to an adult’s understanding. This lack of progress gave a similar stagnant feeling to the book.

Of course, what the book is best-known for is the incest between Cathy and Rob. I found the scenes of incest neither shocking nor eliciting of any emotion. There are scenes where Cathy and Rob discuss how “unfair” it is that they cannot have children and society will judge them. But then again there are scenes that imply that Rob took advantage of Cathy. Well, which is it? It’s not that I demand no gray areas, but the existence of gray areas in such a topic would best be supported by a main character with insight. Cathy remains childlike throughout the book. Indeed, I think the characterization of Cathy is what holds the whole book back. Because the book is Cathy’s perspective, this lack in her characterization impacts the whole thing. What could be either a horrifying or a thought-provoking book instead ends up being simply meh. A lot of time is spent saying essentially nothing.

That said, I did enjoy how the author elicits the setting. I truly felt as if I was there in that cold and often starving rural England. I felt as if I could feel the cold in my bones. That beauty of setting is something that many writers struggle with.

Overall, this book read as gray and dull to me as the early 20th century English countryside it is set in. Readers with a vested interest in all varieties of WWI historic fiction and those who enjoy a main character with a childlike inability to provide insight are the most likely to enjoy this book. Those looking for a shocking, horrifying, or thought-provoking read should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Book Review: Soulless by Gail Carriger (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 23, 2012 5 comments

Woman holding parasol in front of city skyline.Summary:
Alexia Tarabotti isn’t just suffering from being half-Italian in Victorian England, she also is soulless.  Unlike vampires, werewolves, and other supernaturals who successfully changed thanks to an excess of soul, or even having just enough soul like day dwellers, she simply has none. Plus as a preternatural she turns the supernaturals human when she touches them.  Obviously they aren’t a fan of that.  Except for one particularly persnickety werewolf, Lord Maccon, who is Scottish to boot.  And to top it all off a mysterious wax-faced man suddenly seems very interested in kidnapping her.  None of this seems particularly civilized.

Review:
The Parasol Protectorate series was all the rage when this book made it onto my tbr pile back in 2010.  That was kind of the beginning of the steampunk craze, before you could find gears on everything in the costume shop.  I can see why this series is popular, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

The world building is wonderful and is what kept me reading.  A good steampunk blends history, science, and fashion to make for a semi-familiar but deliciously unique world that’s delightful for history and science geeks alike to play around in.  Carriger pulls this off beautifully.  The fashion is Victorian with a steampunk edge.  The politics are recognizable but with the supernatural and steampowered sciences taking a role.  A great example of how well this world works is that in England the supernatural came out and became part of society, whereas America was the result of the Puritans condemning the acceptance of the supernatural who they believe sold their souls to the devil.  This is a great blend of reality and alternate history.

The plot wasn’t a huge mystery, which is kind of sad given the complexity of the world building.  What really bothered me though was the romantic plot, which suffered badly from a case of instalove.  Although we hear of delightful prior encounters between Alexia and Lord Maccon, we didn’t see them.  We mostly see him going from hating her to loving her and demanding her hand in marriage. It just felt lazy compared to the other elements of the book.  I get it that Carriger could be poking fun at Victorian era romances, but I think that would have worked better if it didn’t have such a Victorian ending.  Plus, I didn’t pick up this book to read a romance. I wanted a steampunk mystery with a strong female lead.  I didn’t like how quickly the romance took over the whole plot.

Potential readers should take a glance at the first chapter and see if Carriger’s humor works for them.  I can see how if I was laughing through the whole book I’d have enjoyed it more, but the…decidedly British humor just did not work for me.  It didn’t bother me; I just didn’t find it funny.  I mostly sat there going, “Oh, she thinks she’s being funny…..”  Humor is highly personal, so I’m not saying it’s bad. It just isn’t my style. It might be yours.

Overall this is a creatively complex steampunk world with an unfortunately average plot overtaken by instaromance and seeped in dry, British humor.  It is recommended to steampunk fans who find that style of humor amusing and don’t mind some instalove all up in their story.  That does not describe this reader, so I won’t be continuing on with the series.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

March 3, 2011 1 comment

People with red eyes on green background pursued by plants.Summary:
Bill wakes up in the hospital the day after a worldwide comet show with his eyes still bandaged from a triffid accident.  His regular nurse doesn’t show up and all is quieter than it should be except for some distraught murmurings.  Shortly he finds out that everyone who saw the comet show has lost their sight, leaving a random bunch of people who just so happened to miss it the only sighted humans left in the world.  A hybrid plant created years ago for its highly useful oil, the triffid, is able to walk and eats meat.  Swarms of them are now wreaking full havoc on the people struggling to save the human race.

Review:
This book reads like the novelization of a 1950s horror film.  Man-eating plants!  Dangerous satellite weapons of mass destruction!  Humanity being reduced to the countryside!  Classic morals versus new morals!  This is not a bad thing, and Wyndham seems to be conscious of the innate ridiculousness of his tale, as it possess a certain self-aware wittiness not often present in apocalyptic tales.

Bill is a well-drawn character who is enjoyable as a hero precisely because he is an everyman who is simultaneously not devoid of personality.  He is not the strongest or the smartest survivor, but he is just strong and smart enough to survive.  Similarly, his love interest, Josella, impressively adapts and changes over time, and their love story is actually quite believable, unlike those in many apocalyptic tales.  In fact, all of the characters are swiftly developed in such a way that they are easy to recognize and tell apart.  This is important in a tale with so much going on.

On the other hand, the action is stuttering.  It never successfully builds to an intense, breaking point.  Multiple opportunities present themselves, but Wyndham always pulls the story back just before a true climax.  After this has been done a few times, the reader loses the ability to feel excitement or interest in the characters and simply wants the tale to be over.  In a way it is almost as if Wyndha couldn’t quite decide which direction to take the action, so took it briefly in all directions instead.  This makes for a non-cohesive story that pulls away from the investment in the rich characters.

Additionally, I do not believe the whole concept of the triffids was used to its fullest extent.  The name of the book has triffids in it, for goodness sake.  I expect them to feature more prominently and fearfully than they do.  Perhaps I’ve just read too many zombie books, but the triffids just seem more like a pest than a real threat.  The concept of man-eating plants taking over the world is a keen one, and I wish Wyndham had invested more into it.

Overall, the book is a quick, entertaining, one-shot read that could have been much more if Wyndham had made better choices as an author.  I recommend it to kitschy scifi and horror fans looking for a quick piece of entertainment.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

July 13, 2010 4 comments

Woman smelling a flower.Summary:
Ellen’s staunchly feminist, progressive family found themselves flabbergasted by their daughter’s preference for honing her homemaking skills.  However, with time they came around, and they are pleased to see her leave for a house matron position at a boarding school in Austria.  Her childhood has prepared her for dealing with the eclectic, progressive teachers, but the little school has more problems to face than unusual teaching styles and the lonesomeness of the children of wealthy world travelers.  Trouble is brewing in Europe in the shape of the Nazi movement in Germany.  Of course, Ellen may have found an ally in the form of Marek, the school’s groundskeeper.

Review:
I have been fascinated with WWII ever since I was a very little girl.  Also, I have no issue with feminists cooking meals for people or keeping house.  Feminism is about men and women being able to do what makes them happy, not just what they’re “supposed” to do.  I therefore expected these two elements to come together to make for an intriguing read.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The main problem is Ellen.  I simply don’t like her.  I can’t root for her.  I can’t enjoy any scene she’s in.  In fact, I wanted multiple times to shove her into the lake the school is on.  Now, I don’t have to like a main character to enjoy a book, but I do need at least one other character in the book to dislike her, so I’m not going around thinking something is wrong with me.  However, everyone in the entire book simply loves Ellen.  They frequently call her “angelic,” and everyone essentially worships the ground she walks on.  Every man of anywhere near a suitable age for her falls madly in love with her.  I can give that a pass in paranormal romance, as there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on, but this is supposed to be  a normal girl.  Not every man is going to fall in love with her.  It’s just preposterous!  That doesn’t happen!  Ellen is, simply put, a dull, boring woman with no true backbone.  If this was a Victorian novel, she’d be fainting every few pages.

Then there’s Marek, her love interest, who I also completely loathed.  Everything he does, even if it’s helping others, is for purely selfish reasons.  He also has a wicked temper and frequently dangles people out of windows.  Why Ellen becomes so obsessed with him is beyond me.

Ibbotson also obviously scorns many ideals that I myself hold dear.  Any character who is a vegetarian or against capitalism or in favor of nudity is displayed as silly, childish, or selfish.  There is a section in which the children are being taught by a vegetarian director and some of them switch to being vegetarian as well, and of course Ellen finds this simply atrocious and worries about the children.  Naturally, the director is later villainized.  Clearly anyone who eats “nut cutlets” for dinner simply cannot be normal.  I expect an author’s ideals to show up in a book, but the book’s blurb certainly gave no indication that a book taking place largely at a progressive boarding school would spend a large amount of its time mocking those same values.

In spite of all that I can’t say that this is a badly written book.  Ibbotson is capable of writing well, I just don’t enjoy her content at all.  After finishing it, I realized it reminded me of something.  It reads like a Jane Austen novel, and I absolutely loathe those.  So, if you enjoy Jane Austen and WWII era Europe settings, you’ll enjoy this book.  Everyone else should steer clear.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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