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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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Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

July 22, 2015 2 comments

cover_peytonplaceSummary:
Peyton Place appears to be a picturesque small town in New Hampshire. But over the course of the novel, the secret passions, lies, and cruelties of its various inhabitants are revealed.  From a single mother lying both about her daughter’s age and being a widow to the school janitor who drinks to dull the ache of his wife’s cheating to what exactly is buried in the sheep pen in the Cross’s yard.  Small town life is anything but simple and picturesque.

Review:
This book was first recommended to me on either LibraryThing or GoodReads for being similar to The Group (review), another book written in the mid 1900s featuring an ensemble cast.  I wound up ultimately picking it up because I read that it was quite scandalous when it first came out and it was the inspiration behind the first successful nighttime American soap opera of the same name (source).  Additionally, I grew up in Vermont but spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, since I grew up on the Vermont border with New Hampshire.  I even went to high school in New Hampshire (public school, my town in Vermont was too small for a high school so bussed us out to other ones nearby).  I was curious to see if any element of the book would successfully evoke New Hampshire to me.  I often find that books set in New Hampshire just don’t ring true with the New Hampshire I know.  What I found was a book that almost gave me chills at how well it depicted a typical New Hampshire small town, but also was nowhere near what I would in my modern mind describe as scandalous, although I can see why it was at the time.

The story explores the intersecting lives of many town folk in the 1940s and 1950s, but primarily focuses on Constance MacKenzie, her daughter Allison, and her daughter’s friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Selena Cross.  Constance is a frigid woman who has tamped down her sexuality in an attempt to raise her daughter who she conceived out of wedlock while having an affair with a married man in the right way.  She has gone so far as to lie about her daughter’s age and to lie about being a widow to help her daughter seem “acceptable.”  Allison grows up over the course of the novel, first having typical teenage angst, then moving away to NYC to become a writer.  Selena Cross suffers from a good-for-nothing stepfather, living in a shack, and living with a mother who is not all mentally there.  Through their eyes and lives we see snippets of the lives of many others in the town.

Here are the things that were considered scandalous when the book was first published: rape of a stepdaughter by a stepfather (you can probably guess who), abortion (which was illegal at the time), men locking themselves in a basement to go on a bender for weeks at a time.  Things that were probably also considered scandalous but to less of a degree: teenage sex, out of wedlock sex, middle school aged boy spying on a couple having sex, murder in self-defense.  I had to sit here and think for a bit to remember what was possibly deemed scandalous.  It mostly just seemed like a very eventful book to me, and honestly I was just a bit surprised that nothing more scandalous happened.  (Apparently, Metalious originally wrote the book with having a father rape a daughter, but the publisher made her change it because America wasn’t ready yet. Oh my how times have changed. Source).  The only part of the book that really bothered me at all in the way that perhaps people were once scandalized was the depicted of Constance’s relationship with her new boyfriend.  Basically she is frigid and he has to get her to open up and accept her sexuality in order to be her true self.  That’s a fine plot, but the way it’s done often verges on the border of “she said no but ignore it because she really means yes.”  I understand in the 1950s when this was written that it was progressive to have a woman character learning to open up and embrace her sexuality, so I shouldn’t be too harsh with modern critiques.  Certainly the character herself deems what occurred between her and her boyfriend as lovemaking.  But I definitely don’t think this portion aged well, and it soured my enjoyment of that particular chapter, and Constance’s plot as a whole.

I found the two abortion plots to be particularly poignant and important.  Even though abortion is now legal, a lot of the arguments for and against it in the book are still heard today.  I found the two abortions in the book to be an important reminder of why it’s important for abortion to be legal and also why it’s important to educate about safe sex at the same time.

What really made me enjoy the book though was its depiction of small town New Hampshire life.  It just rang as so very true to me, right own to the scandals.  I think too often people get this idealistic picture of small town life, and that is just not the reality for people who actually live there.  People in small towns are just as human as people in cities.  The real difference is that it’s hard to change your reputation in a small town.  Similarly, small towns are more able to be a law in and of themselves.  If the people agree on something, no outsiders can make them change their tune.  That can both be a blessing and a curse.  If you are interested in New Hampshire, this book certainly presents it in an unvarnished way.  From the scenery to the proximity of Vermont to the mills and the problems with the mills to the way the small towns block out those who aren’t from here.  If what the reader is looking for is a real representation of small town New Hampshire, they should certainly look no further.

One side-note: I find the story of the author’s life and how her book was received to be quite fascinating.  For instance, how it was mostly received as chick lit, in spite of the fact that if the same story had been written by a man it would have been considered serious literature.  I also find how the author found the information to inspire the story, as well as how she reacted to fame to be fascinating.  If you want to read more about the former, I recommend picking up this edition of the book, as it has a great foreword talking about the history of the book from a women’s studies perspective.  If you’re interested in the latter, I recommend reading this article from Vanity Fair about her life.

Overall, it is easy to see how this book was scandalous in its time, although it mostly holds no shock value today.  Readers interested in small town New Hampshire life with a side of multiple overlapping juicy plots will not be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields)

Silhouette of a person standing next to a pillar against a yellowish-green sky.Summary:
When the world goes through an apocalypse consisting of virulent strains of the flu, lack of food, and nuclear warfare, one wealthy family manages to survive because they saw it coming.  Made up of highly intelligent and highly educated people, such as doctors and scientists, the family creates a 200 bed hospital and uses this as their home base.  But there is a serious fertility problem, and how they address it just might change the core of humanity.

Review:
I love reading classics of scifi.  It’s endlessly fascinating how different people in different times imagine a future (or an apocalypse).  This award-winning book had the bonus of being written by a woman, which isn’t always easy to find in older scifi.  I also was intrigued by the cloning theme.  How would someone in 1977 view something that was, as yet, nowhere near as close to a reality as it is now, with our cloned sheep?

The book starts out incredibly strongly.  So strongly, in fact, that I actually had nightmares from it, which never happens to me ever. I am basically a rock of horror and scifi, but this one creeped the bejesus out of me.  It’s that creepy combination of incest and cloning.  The family are really not people you would want retooling the world.  They’re everything that can be (and usually is) bad about the 1%.  They’re selfish, self-centered, snobby, and routinely employ nepotism.  I found the incest in the first third of the book talking about the first generation of the family to be an interesting metaphor for how the elite can become so backwards and grotesque from sheer isolation.  It’s powerful and moving, and a scenario that will remain in my mind.

The second third of the book focuses in on a woman, Molly, from the first generation of clones.  This is disturbing in its own way, because they don’t just clone everyone once and have done with it, no.  They clone everyone multiple times until there are clusters of the same person at different ages wandering around.  They call these clusters “brothers” and “sisters” with the name of the original person as the name of the group, even though the individual ones have their own names.  It is profoundly disturbing.  This second third looks at the society of clones that the original family unintentionally made.  It’s fascinating in its own way and an interesting different way of telling a post-apocalypse story.  Often we get only the first generation, but here we get multiple generations.

The last third, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the first two-thirds of the book.  Without giving too much away, it looks at a boy who came about by natural methods who gets integrated into the clone society at the age of five.  They decide not to clone him and give him brothers for unclear reasons.  This last third then looks at his impact on the clone society.  I didn’t feel that this worked as well for multiple reasons.  For one, it’s almost as if Wilhelm freaked herself out and backed off from the profoundly disturbing story she was telling and went a more conventional direction.  That was disappointing.  For another, I found it disappointing that she chose to make this game-changer a boy.  I expect women scifi authors to be at least a bit cognizant of the need in scifi for more female main characters.  In this one, the first third is a man, the second third a woman, and the last third a boy.  That is not the best stats from a woman author.  I also found certain parts of this to be very boring and slow-moving compared to the first two-thirds.  That makes for odd pacing in a book.

Of course, my complaints about the last third backing off, being more conventional, and being rather dull don’t take away from the first two thirds at all.  They bring about so many interesting societal questions.  For instance, is the incestuous nature of the elite necessarily bad or will it one day save humanity?  Will cloning remove something that makes us human, even if they look right?  Is it better to cling on to technology at all costs or release it and go back to simpler times?  And what about sex?  Is monogamy natural and polyamory unnatural?  Or is polyamory more welcoming and loving than potentially possessive monogamy? The questions go on and on, which is what is great about scifi.

As for the science itself, it is quite well-done.  Wilhelm clearly thought through both keeping a closed-off community alive and cloning and bringing to term embryos.  She also put thought into the scientific basis for why clusters of clones would be different from individual humans, touching on psychology and twin studies.  I was a bit irritated that she bases the survival of these people on cloning farm animals, when that is not a good use of their limited land resources.  Studies have shown many many times that a combination of farming vitamin-rich plants and hunting/gathering are the best use of limited land resources, so this particular element rang a bit of bad science.  However, I am not certain how much land usage had been studied in the 1970s, so that could possibly just be a sign of the times.

Now, I did read the audiobook, so I should touch on the narration.  Overall, Anna Fields does a very good job.  I really enjoyed that they chose a female narrator for a book written by a female author.  It let me almost imagine that Kate Wilhelm herself was reading it to me.  Fields mostly strikes a good balance of changing voices for different characters without going over the top.  The one exception to this is when she narrates children.  The voice for that made me cringe, but they mercifully speak only a few times.  Mostly, Fields reads smoothly and is easy to follow.  She narrates without accidentally putting her own interpretation onto the work, which is ideal for an audiobook.

Overall, then, this is a fascinating classic of scifi.  It examines the apocalypse through the lens of the elite, thereby analyzing and critiquing them, but it also looks at possible consequences of cloning and ponders what ultimately makes us human.  Although the last third of the book is a bit less creative and more conventional than the first two, it is still a fascinating read.  Recommended to scifi fans, particularly those with an interest in group dynamics.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

March 30, 2011 3 comments

Flower and butterflies on black background.Summary:
Daisy’s stepmother has convinced her father to send her off to England to live with her aunt and cousins, and Daisy really doesn’t mind.  She hates her life in NYC anyway, and life in the countryside seems like a welcome change.  Her cousins are quirky and fun, and Aunt Penn is sweet and practices a relaxed parenting style.  When Aunt Penn goes away for a work trip, terrorist acts occur in London effectively leaving the kids on their own.  On their own to explore feelings and actions they might not otherwise have felt free to.

Review:
The big rumblings about this YA book is that there is incest in it.  In the grand scheme of shocking incest though, this incest is just….not that shocking.  It’s between two cousins who’ve never met until they’re teenagers.  *shrug*  Plus, the incestuous relationship is really not the main focus of the story at all.  It holds center stage for maybe two chapters.  Two very chaste chapters.  Oh sure, an astute reader knows what’s going on, but there are no lengthy sexual passages.  The most we get to witness is a kiss.  So, this book is really just really not about incest, ok?  If that was keeping you from reading it, don’t let it.  If that’s why you wanted to read it, go read Flowers in the Attic instead.

So what is the story about?  Quite simply, it’s about the impact living in an age of world-wide terrorism has on young people.  On their perceptions, decisions, morals, and more.  As someone who was only a sophomore in highschool when 9/11 happened, I feel safe in saying that Rosoff depicts the experience of a young person growing up in this world very well.  The mixture of relaxing and having fun while the adults panic around you with nights of fear are perfectly woven.

Daisy’s voice is wonderful to listen to.  She’s an appealing, funny narrator with an acute wit.  She is truly someone to like and root for.  Similarly, her female cousin, Piper, who she becomes a pseudo-parent to, is extraordinarily interesting and appealing.  In fact, I’m hard-pressed to name a character who isn’t well-rounded.

Unfortunately, all of these positives about the book come to a crashing halt at the end.  All I can tell you without spoiling the ending is that Rosoff did not take her themes as far as I was hoping she would take them.  In my opinion, she copped out, and I was sorely disappointed.  The ending reads almost like the beginning of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and I was just left feeling as if Daisy and her cousins had let me down.  What could have been an extraordinary book became just average.

Thus, if you are looking for a YA take on the impact life with terrorism has had on the younger generation, but aren’t expecting anything mind-blowing, you’ll enjoy this book.  If what you’re after is shocking YA, however, look elsewhere.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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