Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip

Having greatly enjoyed my first McKillip book, In the Forests of Serre, I moved immediately to Winter Rose with great anticipation.   Rois and Laurel are two sisters, opposites in every way.  Laurel is calm, serene and happily making beautiful lacey things  for her upcoming wedding to Perrin.  Rois prefers losing herself in the woods, wandering barefoot collecting flowers and herbs.  One day handsome Corbet Lynn shows up at crumbling Lynn Hall intent on rebuilding his family home, stirring up gossip and talk in the village of the murder that took place years before and the curse on the Lynn family.

At this point I was enjoying the “gentle elegance” of McKillip’s style (as described by Library Journal), but scratching my head thinking that this story was shaping up as a typical historical romance.  Around about Chapter 7 I began to realize that things weren’t quite what they seemed.  That charming spring in the woods reflected more than just the bramble roses hiding it, and Rois was hearing more than just the wind in the trees.  Not to mention that odd look in Corbet’s eye. 

McKillip weaves a tale as intricate as that tangle of bramble roses, drawing us into her fantasy world (or should I say worlds?) and holding us there with beautiful, evocative language.  I’ve already started my third McKillip book of the summer,The Bell at Sealey Head, and it’s only May.

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A.D. 62: Pompeii by Rebecca East

It’s no secret that I like time travel themes (see my reviews of Mary Modern and The Mirror).  This one sends bookish Harvard grad Miranda back to the first century Roman empire, and lands her in the ocean near the doomed city of  Pompeii.  Caught in a fishing net, she is soon sold to a wealthy slave owner, Marcus Tullius, and is put to work as a house slave.  At first Miranda is unworried, confident that she can return to her world at the touch of the transmitter implanted in her arm.  Unfortunately, something goes awry with the transmitter and Miranda finds herself stranded in ancient Rome.

Apparently Rebecca East is the pen name of a university professor.  I would venture to guess that her area of expertise is history or archeology, rather than english or literature.  The historical descriptions are detailed and interesting, if a bit reminiscent of a tour book one would purchase at a kiosk when visiting Pompeii.  The characters are rather thinly sketched, and what starts out a detailed historical overview eventually loses steam and degenerates into a typical Master/slave romance.  Even the impending explosion of Vesuvius is barely acknowledged in the end. 

This book had promise, but could have benefited enormously from a good editor.  There was much repetition of thoughts and ideas, and also more than one misspelled word.  Still, it wasn’t so bad that I gave up on it.  I bravely saw it through to the last page.

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College Girl by Patricia Weitz

Shy and awkward Natalie Bloom arrives at UConn, her dream school, as a junior after attending community college for two years.  The youngest of seven children, Natalie is the first in her family to seek a higher education.  Majoring in Russian history, Natalie spends literally all of her time in class or in the library studying, and just as studiously avoiding social contact with her fellow students.

One day she meets tall, handsome Patrick in the library (where else??) and soon she’s on her way to her first romance.  If you can call it that.  Patrick is interested in Natalie at first, but soon it becomes obvious that he is using her for sex and is really quite contemptuous of her modest circumstances and her blue collar upbringing.  Natalie remains awkward and uncertain, and it’s literally uncomfortable watching her spiral downward as she gets wrapped up in Patrick and loses her focus on school.

If you’ve ever been the one at school that hangs around on the periphery and never quite feels like you fit in, then you may well relate to Natalie.  I think her character was believeable to anyone who has been to college and struggled to find their way.  The other characters in the book were fairly one-dimensional and interchangeable and I never really understood why Natalie’s family, especially her six older brothers, treated her so badly.  A subplot focusing on the suicide of one of Natalie’s brothers when she was a child and how it affected her later wasn’t really fleshed out as well as it might have been either.

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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Miranda is a typical teenager, worried about homework and boys, until the day the meteor smashes into the moon and knocks it closer to the earth, setting off a chain reaction of tsunamis, climate change and even volcanoes that shroud the earth in ash.  Miranda and her mother and two brothers must go into survival mode, hoarding food, scavenging for firewood and living in their boarded up house, fearful of looters. 

The book is written in Miranda’s own words, in the form of a journal.  Unfortunately,  it just didn’t ring all that true for me.  The day after the meteor,  after gathering around the television and learning that most of the east coast is submerged and there are hundreds of thousands of casualties, all Miranda’s mother can say is  “We’re fine.  We’re well inland.  I’ll keep the radio on, so if there’s any call for evacuation I’ll hear it, but I don’t think there will be.  And yes, Jonny, you have to go to school tomorrow.”

On a side note,  I loved the cover art on this book.  The huge moon looming over the small house evoked the fear that Miranda and her family felt.  As Miranda said,  “It was tilted and wrong . . . it was still our moon and it was still just a big dead rock in the sky, but it wasn’t benign anymore.  It was terrifying, and you could feel the panic swell all around us.”

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

“Coraline discovered the door a little after they moved into the house.”  Thus begins the creepy adventures of a little girl who discovers an alternate world in her own house.  The world beyond the door is similar to her own world.  There is even an identical set of parents…but wait!  Are those big black buttons in place of eyes?  Soon Coraline realizes that her “other mother” wants to keep her permanently in her world.  She even has a lovely set of black buttons for Coraline. 

This is the graphical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s hugely popular children’s book, Coraline.  Not having read the original book, I can’t really compare them, but it seems the ideal story to receive the graphical treatment.  The illustrations by P. Craig Russell are detailed and realistic, evoking the kindness of Coraline’s real mother and the evilness of her sinister “other mother” equally well. 

This book will be released as a major motion picture in stereoscopic 3D in February of 2009.  See the trailer here

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Let the games begin!  It’s some time in the (not so distant?) future and what was once America is now Panem, a glittering Capitol in the Rockies, surrounded by twelve miserably oppressed districts.  As a yearly reminder of their helplessness, the Capitol requires each district to conduct “Reapings” where one boy and one girl are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen (cool name for a cool girl!) lives in District 12, what was once Appalachia, with her mother and little sister Prim.  When Prim’s name is drawn at the Reaping, Katniss volunteers herself to take Prim’s place.  Soon Katniss and Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, are off to the Capitol for the Hunger Games, a deadly reality show televised to all of Panem where the 24 kids, or Tributes, from the districts must compete in a kill or be killed survival game with no rules except that you can’t eat your opponents.

One of the fun things about writing these book reviews is how it has made me realize that I’m always drawn to certain types of books.  Dystopian futuristic themes (The Road by Cormac McCarthy or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood) always pull me in and this one is no different.  Though there are similar ideas out there, Collins does a first rate job of building the suspense,  making it next to impossible to read to the end of a chapter and stop.  Will Katniss become the first Tribute from District 12 to win the Hunger Games in years?  Does Peeta genuinely care about Katniss, or is he weaving a “star crossed lovers” story to garner sympathy from the viewers?  And what about Rue, the young slip of a girl from District 11 who reminds Katniss so much of her sister Prim?  There can only be one winner of the Hunger Games.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

To read a Shirley Jackson novel is to enter a world where the ordinary is entwined with evil and the mundane is tangled up with madness.  Sisters Constance and Mary Catherine (Merricat) Blackwood live in a beautiful house, surrounded by beautiful things brought there by generations of Blackwood women before them.  Constance tends the garden and puts up preserves, while Merricat explores the woods with her black cat, Jonas.  We soon find out that the rest of the Blackwood family have been poisoned — brought down by a dinner capped off with a dessert of blackberries and a sugar bowl full of arsenic.  Gone are the girls’ mother, father, brother and aunt.  The only survivor is old Uncle Julian, but he is now an invalid since partaking of the macabre meal.

The village near the Blackwood estate is a gray and dreary place filled with villagers who are hostile and suspicious of Constance, even though she was acquitted of murder.  Children and adults alike taunt the girls with the rhyme, “Merricat”, said Connie, “Would you like a cup of tea?”  “Oh no,” said Merricat, “You’ll poison me!”  The fact that she took her time calling for help and washed the sugar bowl before it arrived has condemned her in the eyes of the villagers.  As Merricat says, “the people of the village have always hated us.”  Now it’s just Constance and Merricat and poor old Uncle Julian, alone in the big house.  As with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s other gothic horror novel, the house itself is a major character in this tale.  The village is a dark scary place for Constance and Merricat, while the house is their “castle”, bright and peaceful and safe.  When long lost Cousin Charles arrives one day intent on ensconcing himself in the house and partaking of the family fortune, Merricat, obsessed with keeping their self-imposed isolation intact, fights back with disastrous consequences.

This was Jackson’s last complete novel, published in 1962.  She was ill at the time she was writing it and her journals from that time spoke of her desire for control and refuge.  She suffered what was then called “a nervous breakdown” shortly after it’s publication, and passed away at age 45 of heart failure in 1965.  Her gothic fiction, including classic short story The Lottery,  highlights the chilling effect of evil underlying the ordinary in everyday life.

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Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

The death of her father and the disappearance of her white stallion set the stage for Louise de la Valliere (1644-1710), or Petite as she is affectionately called, to become a maid of honor in the glittering court of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715).  Petite is pretty, athletic, pious and loveable and soon draws the eye of the King, married for political reasons to the dreary, dowdy Marie Therese of Spain.

As Petite and the King carry on a clandestine affair, the intrigues of the court simmer around them.  Petite secretly bears Louis four children, two of which die in childhood and two of which are eventually legitimized.  Making the affair public and legitimizing the children has it’s consequences and sadly Petite is the one that is forced to make the sacrifices. 

The book centers around Petite’s struggle to reconcile her guilt over her role in the death of her father and her adulterous affair, with her devotion to God and desire to live a pious life.  We grow to love Petite and wish the best for her, but sadly, as intrigue swirls around her we come to realize her limited options in a world where being the beloved mistress of the King is not the easy life one might expect.

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The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

On a dark night in long-ago 17th century Persia, a comet streaks across the sky.  This event foretells bad luck for a young girl in a small village.  When her father passes away unexpectedly, she and her mother must move to the city of Isfahan and throw themselves on the mercy of their father’s half-brother Gostaham, a carpet maker to the Shah, and his greedy wife Gordiyeh.  Treated as servants in her Uncle’s house, the unnamed girl soon gains her Uncle’s respect when she demonstrates her skill at carpet making.    Women were not allowed in the rug making workshops, so the girl works on her own with guidance from her Uncle who grows to love her, seeing himself in her, but realizing the limits her gender places upon her carpet making career.

One day an offer of marriage arrives, but since the girl (who remains nameless throughout the novel) has no dowry the offer is for a “sigheh” or temporary marriage to a rich man.  Gordiyeh pressures her to accept the offer, reminding her of the expense she and her mother have caused Gostaham and herself.  The girl accepts, thus losing the only thing of value she owns — her virginity.

Throughout the novel, the girl’s mother weaves fables and tales like Sheherazade, providing stories within stories.

This beautifully written first novel captures the sights and sounds of medieval Iran, bringing to life the city of Isfahan with it’s bridges, mosques and colorful bazaars, while providing insight into a society with little regard for women beyond their abilities to look beautiful and bear children.  Recommended.


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