Tag Archives: romance

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I think the first warning about A Discovery of Witches should have been that I heard about it in “Parade”.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with “Parade”; I like to read it on Sundays as much as the next person does.  But it’s not really known for being a reliable source for literary insight.  I read their little blurb about this book, though, and I thought it sounded pretty good.  Then my mother said she was getting it for my cousin for her birthday, and I thought it would be nice for us to have both read the same book around the same time.  Unfortunately, I’m now in the awkward situation of knowing that my cousin’s going to get a book that is not spectacular, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches starts off with our protagonist, Diana Bishop, establishing that she is a witch, but that she refuses to use her powers.  She’s a researcher, interested in the history of science — in particular, alchemical manuscripts (so, really, she’s interested in the history of pre-science).  She’s an American professor who’s younger than thirty, yet has earned a sabbatical year so she can study at Oxford.

While looking at old alchemical texts, she notices that one is enchanted.  She manages to open it, pretty much ignores what’s inside, and returns it.  After that, all hell breaks loose, and “creatures” (Harkness’ term for daemons, vampires, and witches) come out of the woodwork to threaten Diana in all manners of ways.

But this is all okay, because she quickly runs into Matthew Clairmont, a vampire on a mission to protect her.  Then Harkness spends four hundred pages ruining the premise she set up in the first thirty by making Diana completely dependent on Matthew for her physical safety and personal well-being.  He does everything from guard her from other creatures to making sure she does yoga.  This is extremely irritating.  Don’t create a character that you call strong and brave and then have her be completely clueless as to how she’s supposed to behave without a man to reference.

I will say that Harkness’ writing flows well.  I found it a pleasant read, language-wise, and would love to read something that isn’t so pseudo-feminist and, frankly, insulting to independent, strong women.  I’d love for her to either write something that doesn’t involve a strong romantic theme or, conversely, something that is open about the fact that it’s a romance and embraces the genre.  At least then the work would be honest.  One of the worst things an author can do is lie to the reader within the book’s own text.  I feel disrespected and betrayed, and feel almost that I should give my copy back to my mother so she can return it and recoup her money.

As it stands, however, A Discovery of Witches falls flat for me.  It doesn’t even end satisfactorily; planning on two more books to come, Harkness made this one end in a cliffhanger.  Sadly, this is just another turn-off for me, and I won’t be seeking out Diana and Matthew for another go-around.  Unless my mother buys me the sequel.  Then I’ll be duty-bound to read it, and most likely much more grumpy for the return trip.

Rating: 2/5.

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Filed under 2/5, Book review, Fiction, Mixed

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Bellwether

I looked forward to reading Bellwether.  I read Doomsday Book several years ago and really enjoyed it.  As I soon found out, however, Bellwether, while it is an enjoyable story, can’t be compared to Doomsday Book.  Their stories are too different and Connie Willis’ goals for the two books are far away from one another.  Still, Bellwether was a good way to spend a couple days; it’s a smart book with a clever plot and interesting characters.

Bellwether has a rather fun premise — a sociologist studying fads forms an unlikely partnership with a man studying chaos theory, and end up doing their study with a flock of sheep.  Sandra, our sociologist, is studying the fad of hair bobbing in the 1920s.  She works at HiTek, a science company — it literally has taken scientists from all fields, put them in one building, and now treats them like office workers.  There’s more pointless rules and hoops to jump through than any sane person should put up with.

Since they’re treated like office workers, they’re expected to fill in forms with the best of them.  When Bennett, our hapless chaos theorist, loses his funding forms (by turning them in to the person he was supposed to), he also loses out on his macaque money.  Sandra, who has developed an interest in Bennett due to his complete immunity to any and all fads, offers a unique solution — share funding by studying the movements of sheep — they’re less complex and easy to track for Bennett and are creatures who like to follow others for Sandra.

Mixed into this is the Niebnitz grant, an astronomical sum awarded to scientists considered to be doing work above and beyond their colleagues.  HiTek is determined to have a winner among their scientists, even if it means studying the past Niebnitz winners and manufacturing projects that match the pattern.

The most enjoyable part of this book is the interplay between Sandra and her employer, her coworkers, and the outside world.  She studies fads for a living, but she’s not exempt from having to experience them in real life.  The management always has new procedures (with a new acronym).  Flip, the irresponsible mail girl, constantly surprises Sandra with something new she’s wearing, saying, or doing.  Trends in food come and go, much to Sandra’s chagrin; she just wants chocolate cheesecake and iced tea.

There are, however, some problems with the book.  It feels a little slap-dash.  Maybe part of that is its length — it’s only 247 pages.  There is also a feeling of disconnection, to a certain extent.  Sandra’s job is fads, something that is inherently human, but it seems as if they are something she detests in personal life.  She appears to feel as if she’s above others, which is a little uncomfortable to read.  It’s not so great when the hero of the book thinks that most people are dumb.

Bellwether also contains what appears to be an obligatory romance between Bennett and Sandra.  It is particularly irritating to me because their behavior so clearly indicates their feelings, but those feelings aren’t acknowledged in the book until pretty close to the end.

Other than those couple of things, Bellwether is a perfectly pleasant read.  It was a fine way to spend my reading time for a couple of days, but I don’t think the story will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 3/5.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

There aren’t many epistolary novels around — the only one I can remember having read is Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, and that’s intended for children.  I think the plot of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was served well by the structure.  The nature of the story almost requires the input from many of the characters, and the idea of using letters to tell the story is a fresh way to go about this.  It made for a refreshing reading experience.

My favorite part of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the story of the German occupation of the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  I had no idea that any part of Great Britain was ever taken over by Nazi forces during World War II.  I found the story of the islanders compelling, and I believe it was made more so by the piecemeal way I had to put the story together.  The letters allowed me some of the history, but not all of it, and not all at once.  It’s a feeling that simulates, in a way, the way it might feel like to be in a war — never knowing exactly what had happened, getting the information you do get from all sorts of sources, some more reliable than others, and having to make the connections yourself as to what exactly did go down.  I absolutely love this part of the book.

I also like the characters.  Juliet, our heroine, is a cheerful and intensely curious woman.  The islanders are all diverse, but also have a cohesiveness to them that makes them realistic.  Juliet’s publisher, Sidney, and his sister are also present, but mainly as a device to allow Juliet to tell her story — they aren’t fully present, but I still like them.

My only issue with this book is that it is a pretty predictable romance — Juliet has a checkered past with romance.  Juliet is wooed by a man she’s not sure she loves.  Juliet runs away and finds a more suitable love interest.  I’ve read it before.  More interesting to me was the love story between a dead islander, Elizabeth, and a Nazi officer.  That story, I feel, should be the center of the book, because it’s so much more compelling.  I found myself not really caring about Juliet’s love life and, instead, wishing that things had turned out differently for Elizabeth.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is, overall, a sweet book with a unique story.  I don’t think it likely that a similar book will be written soon, and that’s a good thing.  Some stories deserve to stand on their own.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Virgin Widow by Anne O’Brien

Historical fiction tends to fall into two categories — adventure and romance.  As indicated by its title, The Virgin Widow firmly falls into the latter category.  It doesn’t disappoint in that area, and actually surprises the reader with an English-based historical romance that doesn’t take place in and around the reign of Henry VIII.  The author, Anne O’Brien, also appears to have done her research and written a book that feels true to the times.

The best thing about this book is the setting.  I don’t know a whole lot about the War of the Roses.  It was great to read a book that takes place during the power struggle between the families of York and Lancaster.  It starts off with Anne and her family, the Nevilles, on a boat from England to Calais, with Anne’s sister, Isabel, in labor.  Anne’s father, the Earl of Warwick, was adviser to the Edward IV, the King of England, but the two have had a falling out over the Queen, Elizabeth, and the amount of influence she has over the King’s decisions.  The plot of the book goes on to follow some of the events of the war, which, to me, is great.  I can learn while I read?  Fantastic!

I also think that Anne is an admirable character, for the most part.  She is smart and spirited, and, since the book is in first person, we get to follow her thought processes. I suppose this is probably standard for romance novels; being in the person’s shoes allows for a more complete fantasy.  I still liked it.

O’Brien gives Anne’s story a nonlinear structure to discuss Anne’s childhood, which is also nice.  I liked the excitement of the opening chapter with the quiet storytelling of the next couple.  It wasn’t an obtrusive way of making a book both grab the reader and tell the character’s story fully.

The Virgin Widow does, however, have a couple of flaws.  The first is how Anne, for such a strong girl and, later, woman, comes to believe she  has to rely on a man to protect her.  I’m guessing this is part of the romance, but I found it off-putting.  Why on Earth would a widow, an independent person with her own rights, have to stay in a household with a man in it, for example?  She shouldn’t need safe-keeping.  This bothered me quite a bit.  I don’t know how O’Brien justified Anne’s passivity with regards to her decision-making and personal safety, but I didn’t care for it.

My other issue is with the writing itself.  I’ve rarely seen so many ellipses in a book.  It was a bit distracting.  Not everything a woman says has something else implied at the end or is a half-finished thought.  The men usually get full sentences; why don’t the women, too?

Overall, I think that The Virgin Widow is a historically-accurate romance, which counts for a lot.  I’d like to see a more forward woman in Anne when it comes to men, since she’s bold in other ways, and a bit more polish on the dialogue.  Other than that, it’s a fine light read.

Rating: 3/5.

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Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Having read The Curse of Chalion, the first in the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold, I expected that Paladin of Souls would be a continuation of the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, or, perhaps, of the new rulers of Chalion.  What it is, instead, is the story of Ista, the mother of Iselle, the current female ruler of Chalion-Ibra.  It is a surprising, and rewarding, turn of subjects, yet still provides the reader with the best of what The Curse of Chalion offered, as well:  a sturdy and compelling fantasy that asks the reader to think through its mysteries and confront real philosophical questions.

Ista, a woman who used to be under the grip of a familial curse released a couple of years ago, chafes under the constant watch of her ladies-in-waiting, her brother, her counselor … everyone in her home treats her with kid gloves and doesn’t allow her any leeway, despite her return to relatively normal behavior.  Determined to extract herself from this oppressive environment, she takes on a pilgrimage to the capital city to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and her grandchild.  Added to the façade is her claim to wish to perform pilgrimage on the way to pray for a son for Iselle while secretly pleading for absolution for a former heinous deed.

Of course, things don’t go as planned.  What fun would a fantasy novel be if everything were easy and simple?  Instead of having a Mother’s dedicat, Ista receives dy Cabon, a man dedicated to the Bastard instead.  Her party is small and is attacked by foreign forces — they are split up, with some ending up in Porifors.  There, Ista finds that she is thrust back into the world of the gods, re-granted second sight and entrusted by the tricky Bastard how to best help in a situation desperate in ways both physical and spiritual.

To me, Bujold’s writing is almost perfect.  Her understanding of people and their reactions, and the ways she chooses to depict them, are spot-on.  The dangerous parts are exciting, the mysteries contained within are challenging but approachable, and her exploration of fate and what it would mean to have something like a constrained free will is very interesting indeed.

Especially compelling to me was the fact that the heroine, Ista, is not a high-spirited young lady.  She’s middle-aged, used to being thought of as mad, and, quite frankly, is ruthlessly efficient in what she does.  She’s not your typical fantasy heroine, and I like that very much.  She has experience with the gods and doesn’t want to have more, necessarily, but is thrust into it anyway.  Seeing the advantage she has been granted, she uses it.  She’s a thinker, as well, which endears her to me.

But perhaps the best part about her journey is a comment Ista’s character makes toward the end of the book to a man she has restored and who doubts his ability to start afresh:  “‘I offer you an honorable new beginning.  I do not guarantee its ending.  Attempts fail, but not as certainly as tasks never attempted.'”  This resonates with me for a number of reasons.  I think it’s the most honest piece of advice I’ve seen in a book in a while.

Paladin of Souls is simply a beautiful book.  Ista is a character of character — she has struggles with herself as to what the right thing to do is, but once she’s figured it out, she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of performing her duty.  An awesome role model whose tale is masterfully told, and whose story is worth reading.

Rating: 5/5.

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Filed under 5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction