Wednesday, August 31, 2011

CBR III Review #18 - Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.

This was a really interesting read, if for no other reason that it is so very different in format than your average novel.  For those unaware, this book is created from found photography.  The images inform the narrative, rather than the other way around.  Each of the pictures is a really fucking creepy image from much older times, all of which appear they have either been altered or are of something mysterious and magical.
The story itself revolves around a young man named Jacob.  Jacob grew up listening to stories of his grandfather, Abe.  Abe has shown Jake pictures of his childhood at the home of Miss Peregrine, where he escaped to during WWII.  Abe's pictures and stories are all about magical children with powers, and for awhile, Jake believes that's how it was.  As he grows older, he comes to believe that it's all an analogy for his experiences in escaping Poland as a Jew during the war, and that what he survived has led him to make it into fantastic stories.  After Abe is killed in the woods behind his house, the teenaged Jacob realizes there is more to this magical children stuff than he thought - much, much more.

Jacob decides to venture to the island in Wales where his grandfather had stayed at the home. It is here that the story really picks up steam and we learn the truth of what is going on.  To elaborate on it here would spoil things, so I won't.  It's an interesting and occasionally tense read, and the use of the creepy found photographs is really effective.  Really the only shortcoming I felt the book possessed was the ending.  While I understand the point of ambiguous endings, or endings that don't really feel like they wrap things up, I very generally dislike them.  Miss Peregrine's is no exception.  I wanted more from it.  I'm not sure if there is a planned sequel (although finding images and quotes for this review has led me to discover there IS a film adaptation planned), but I'd like one.  I don't like not knowing what happened after the curtain closed.  

Great book, though, and one I recommend!

CBR III Review #17 - Born In Ice by Nora Roberts

"Changing a man's like walking through molasses. A lot of effort for little progress."

This is the second volume of the Irish Born trilogy and focuses on the second Concannon sister, Brianna.  Brie runs a lovely and relatively successful B&B called Blackthorn Cottage.  She's a homekeeper of the highest order - she loves nothing more than cooking and cleaning for her guests in her lovely home in the Irish countryside of County Clare.  She wants to create a place of love and home there because it is not what she grew up with.
Whereas Maggie was fire and passion and temper, Brianna is a colder sort of collected woman.  She's not cold in a cruel way, like Maeve, but rather in a level headed way.  She doesn't see the point in temper or fighting and generally keeps her cool to avoid both, even when it's warranted.  I think that's why I felt less connected to this particular book.  I have a lot in common with Maggie - we're both stubborn, determined, fiery tempered women who will fight tooth and nail for what we want, and against what we don't.  Brianna's even tempered nature is something I simply can't wrap my brain around.

Thrown into her calm and ordered life, one where she craves a family of her own that she was denied years ago by the abrupt departure of her fiance, Rory, is Grayson Thane, a successful American writer of murder mystery novels.  For starters, I hate his name more than I can express.  Grayson Thane?  REALLY?  His nickname is a color for fuck's sake.  Maybe I'm nitpicking, but it bothered me.  Anyway, Grayson comes to stay at Blackthorn for some undisclosed period of months to write his next novel.  Naturally he falls for the beautiful and fascinating landlady, as you do if you are a character in a roman novel.  However, Grayson has a past that he refuses to acknowledge, one that prevents him from believing in anything but "living in the moment."  He lives a rootless existence, traveling from town to town writing and touring and never really belonging or thinking that he needs to.  Hell, Grayson isn't even his real name (btw, his real name is Michael Logan, which is an AWESOME name).  Of course when he falls for Brie, that all starts to change, and he doesn't know how to deal with it.  The novel revolves around Brie's relationship with Gray, her relationship with her mother, and the search for the sibling neither sister realized they had.

That last point sets up the third novel.  Brie discovers early on a packet of letters from a woman named Amanda to her father - love letters.  Apparently Tom and Amanda had a beautiful love affair for three weeks that they couldn't pursue due to Tom's duty and devotion to his family (even though his marriage to Maeve was a loveless one).  Amanda's final letter informed Tom that she was carrying his child and then there were no more letters.  Brie and Maggie attempt to locate this woman and her child throughout the course of the novel, amidst Brie's romance and Maggie's new baby with her new husband, Rogan.  

I enjoyed this book, though less thoroughly.  Again, my deepest love came from the way the country and its people were utilized.  Part of what draws Grayson in is the sense of community in this small Irish village, where comhain is a way of life. Comhain is essentially doing for others and knowing they'll do for you; having that shared sense of belonging and helping each other without being asked that really makes a community like family.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the surprise sister fits in with the girls (and the inevitable romance that I foresee between her and Murphy, the guy who is "like a brother" to Brie and Maggie).

CBR III Review #16 - Born In Fire by Nora Roberts

"The tune was sad, as the best of Ireland was, melancholy and lovely as a lover's tears." 

I've admitted here before that I have a deep love of Nora Roberts' books.  She's my guilty pleasure.  It's frivolous reading, to be sure, but sometimes that's all I'm looking for.  Every now and then, it's nice to take a break from heavy, deep tomes and read something that follows a predictable pattern with the promised happy ending.  And the sex scenes sure don't hurt!
Born in Fire is part of Roberts' Irish Born trilogy, which is technically a misnomer, as the last book is from the sister who is not, in fact, born in Ireland. But I digress. The trilogy tells the stories of the Concannon sisters - Margaret Mary (Maggie), Brianna (Brie) and Shannon.  Born in Fire is Maggie's story.  It starts hard and fast with the loss of Thomas Concannon, the beloved father of the girls.  Maeve, their mother, has always been cold and cruel, something Maggie has always resented.  Maggie is the reason that Maeve and Tom married, as she was conceived in a fit of passion that Maeve will never forgive herself for.  Maggie is an incredibly passionate person, with the tempers that implies.  She is a gifted glass artist, which sets the stage for our romance.  The story starts 5 years after the prologue and Tom's death, with Maggie making her art in her cozy, loner sort of life in County Clare and Brianna (to whom Tom's house was left) is running a lovely B&B and caring dutifully for her ungrateful mother.  Maggie wants nothing more from life than to free Brie from the servitude of their mother.  To that end, she accepts a deal with an arthouse owned by Rogan Sweeney, something she never wanted to do out of a fear that it would compromise her artistic integrity.

Naturally, this being a Nora Roberts' book, Rogan and Maggie do not have a strictly professional relationship.  Maggie, having only ever seen the cold, dutiful marriage of her parents, is terrified of love and relationships with real ties, unable to believe that she will not become her mother.  The book revolves around her relationship with Rogan, her relationship with Maeve (which is fleshed out well and really justifies a lot of her character choices), and her entrance into the high profile, glamorous art world.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both because of my intense love of Maggie, and the obvious adoration Roberts has for Ireland (a passion I happen to share).  She writes of Ireland like a lover describes their partner, with all the gentleness, passion, and love she can muster.  Despite being American born and raised, every time I've gone to visit Ireland, be it for family or frivolity, it's felt like coming home.  Roberts really catches that feeling and uses it to embody the brilliant Irish characters within. While I'm tired of the convention that Irish women must always have red hair (um, hello, that came from mixing with the Vikings and other invaders - pure Gaels are dark haired, pale skinned and light eyed!), sticking to the stereotype worked for Maggie's character.  

Next up will be the review of the second book in the trilogy, which focuses on Brie.  Haven't gotten through the third yet (started it last night!) so y'all will have to wait a few days on that one!

Monday, August 15, 2011

CBR III Review #11,12,13,14,15 - A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.
Game of Thrones
"The longer he lived, the more Tyrion realized that nothing was simple and little was true." 
A Clash of Kings
"You know nothing, Jon Snow" 
A Storm of Swords (and pretty much every book since)
"War makes monsters of us all." 
A Feast for Crows
"The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.  The man who never reads lives only one." 
A Dance with Dragons

I’ve been putting this off for far too long.  I started reading George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series in February, motivated in part by countless recommendations as well as the then-impending HBO series.  I cannot recommend these books highly enough.  I’m a big fantasy fan, despite not having read nearly enough of what qualifies as “canon” in the sci-fi/fantasy nerdverse.  But I devoured this books like a starving man at a beautifully laid out feast.  A warning to those reading this review – SPOILERS ABOUND.  I waited to write this review till I could do them all at once for a reason – I want to be able to discuss EVERYTHING.  So if you haven’t read all five books, you might want to skip the rest of this review.  I don’t promise to keep chronological (honestly, I’m not sure I’m even capable of separating the books in my head anymore since I read them one after the other over the last 6 months) so you can’t even say “hey, I’ll just read the first paragraph and that’ll save me!”  NO!  You’ll be just as safe as any character in this ‘verse if you do that, which is to say, not at all.

Martin has created an incredibly deep and lush world here.  Westeros, while not someplace I’m dying to live, is a place I definitely feel like I’ve been to after spending the last 6 months reading about it.  I think I know the geography of the 7 kingdoms better at this point than that of my own country (which is pathetic, but probably true).  Martin fills this world with incredible characters, none of whom is really a good guy or a bad guy. I think that may be my favorite thing about the series – moral absolutes are just for songs and fairy tales.  If you try to live by them in Westeros, you lose your head (RIP Ned Stark).  The characters are motivated by the same selfish and selfless things that we all are.  They do what they do for love, revenge, fear, safety, anger, hate, passion, sex, money, power and every other thing you could think of.  That’s what makes it feel real.  The “good” have to compromise in order to survive, and the bad sometimes have more going on than you realize (like my darling Jaime Lannister).

Martin also creates a world where you can never feel safe about any of the characters you fall in love with.  The most obvious demonstration of this was the beheading of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones.  Since the scene at Baelor’s Sept is shown from the eyes of young Arya Stark (one of my favorites through all five books), I genuinely did not believe it had happened at first.  Arya turns her head away at the last moment, which leaves room for doubt.  It wasn’t until several other characters confirmed it in later chapters that I could accept the reality that Ned was dead.  Once that happens, all bets are off.  It’s like living in the Whedonverse – if you love them, odds are something absolutely horrible is going to happen to them.

The most true example of this is the scene Martin has said he had the hardest time writing – the Red Wedding.  And, to a different extent, what is done to Theon Greyjoy, a character I’ve grown to feel an enormous amount of pity for.  The Red Wedding is a completely brutal and unrelenting event, watching characters like Rob and Catelyn die in ways that are simply not ok.  What they do to Rob’s body with his wolf took me to a visual place that still makes me shudder.  And I was genuinely less troubled by Cat’s death (which upset me a lot) than I am by her second life, courtesy of Beric Dondarrion.  

There are characters you always love, like Arya and Tyrion; those you love to hate, like Cersei and Joffrey (and holy crap did I cheer when that little shit choked to death at his wedding); and those you learn to love or at least like, like Jaime and Theon.  And none of them are ever safe. 

I have not been able to put these books down.  That is not to say they are perfect.  Occasionally Martin gets bogged down in details and heraldry the way Tolkein did with Elvish.  While it’s all very pretty, it’s not always worth slowing the story.  A Feast For Crows was a slow book and one that took some work for me to get through.  Many characters I thoroughly enjoyed were abandoned until Dance with Dragons, and there are some subplots I still don’t really care about (eg I am so sick of the extended Greyjoy family at this point).  And as far as Dance with Dragons goes, I’m glad the last quarter of the book was so awesome, because the middle of that was a fairly miserable slog as well.  Martin seems to have written himself into a corner with Meereen, and I hope he gets further out of it.  I am sick of the pale mare, and the Brazen Beasts, and the Wise Masters.  I want Dany to take those dragons and go kick some ass, and I think that’s where this is heading.

I will admit I am mildly concerned about two things.  One, I don’t think Martin has any idea where he is going with this.  He doesn’t have a plan in his head the way JK Rowling did with Harry Potter and that frightens me.  It makes it too easy to meander and end in a way that doesn’t actually feel like a resolution.  Two, I am TERRIFIED that the man is going to die before he finishes writing it all.  There is a reason that everyone bemoaned the SIX FUCKING YEARS it took between the last two books – that is a long fucking time.  And Martin is neither young, nor particularly healthy looking.  And keeps saying (possibly jokingly, I hope to God) that he could write more than the next two books to finish this series. DO NOT ADD TO THIS, GEORGE!  You have a goal.  Finish The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring and END IT.  Before you die.  Or we all get sick of you.  Or HBO catches up and is like “wtf, mate, we need the end.”  All of those.

CBR III Review #10 - Wish You Were Here by Phillipa Ashley

“When he’d left her, he’d taken something with him – her ability to trust – and for a long time afterwards, she’d been as wary of men as a pool she couldn’t see the bottom of.”

Eight years after Jack dumped Elizabeth without a word, she now has the chance at a great new job – working for him.  She needs the job, and Jack needs her, so the two try to overcome their past and see if they still have a future.
Not a lot to say about this one.  It’s a fun, fluffy, completely predictable little romance novel.  Works well for a beach read (which is the purpose it served for me!) but never really hits any real emotional highs or lows.  It kind of meanders about the middle.  Jack and Elizabeth aren’t terrifically sympathetic, but you like them just the same.  It’s a very white bread story – it needed something more interesting going on for me to recommend as a great little book (like I do with Nora Roberts).  It’s a fine way to while away an afternoon when you don’t want to think too much!

CBR III Review #9 - The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

"I sound contemptuous, but I am not. I am interested--intrigued even--by the way time erases real lives, leaving only vague imprints. Blood and spirit fade away so that only names and dates remain."

Honestly, it’s been so long since I actually read this (and many other books have come in between) that I’m having trouble remembering all the good things I wanted to say about this book.  It’s another fabulous Kate Morton book, an author I’m finding I can’t get enough of.  This one deals with the story of the Ashbury family, and more particularly, of their maid Grace.  Grace has kept the secrets of the Ashbury sisters her whole life, but during the course of an interview for a film being made about the house she in which she used to serve, the memories come back.  The primary goal as a reader is to figure out what really happened the night that a young poet presumably shot himself down by the lake, and how what happened there drove the sisters apart.

Kate, as usual, does a lovely job weaving between time periods, as the narrative frame for this one is set in present day, while the events that we are meant to care about took place in Roaring Twenties.  The characters are interesting and easy to get invested in.  This one was a little easier to predict ahead of time than her later novels, but as this was her first, I think that’s pretty fair.  A very enjoyable read, especially if you are a fan of Kate’s, or of the era she is writing about.

Tangentially related side note?  I love the cover art on all three of the novels I've read.