Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde by Anna Elliott

If you pick up this novel expecting a story along the lines of the 2006 film Tristan and Isolde, or the Wagner opera by the same name, you may be surprised to find that this one is nothing like a courtly medieval romance despite the cover blurb that mentions friendship turning to love.  Elliott returns to the earliest versions of the Arthurian legends and weaves a story that is part legend and part original fiction.  Isolde is mourning the death of her husband, King Constantine, who was King Arthur’s heir to the throne of Britain.  The petty kings are scrambling for position, eager to fill the empty throne of the High King.  Isolde suspects that Con was murdered by Lord Marche, a character so obviously the “bad guy”  that he might as well be wearing a black hat.  Isolde, known for her healing skills, meets up with  wounded mercenary Trystan in the prison cells of  castle Tintagel and they team up to try and save Britain from both the evil Marche and the invading Saxons.

I appreciate the research that went into the writing of this novel and the fact that Elliott put a new twist on an old story.  Where it fell down for me was in the writing and editing.  In this world “tightness around the mouth” represents every emotion from anger to pain to alarm.  Faces are “tight with weariness”.  Isolde must tend to the wounds of literally every character in this book with mind numbing repetitiveness.  Castle walls “stand out black and jagged as broken teeth against the black of the sky.”  Huh?  Black stands out against black?  Where was the editor when the word “trail” was used for “trial” twice in the space of two pages?  There were quite a few of these mistakes throughout the book and once I started noticing them it was hard not to start actually looking for them.  Unfortunately they weren’t that hard to find.

This is the first in a planned trilogy of books, the next being Dark Moon of Avalon due out in the spring of 2010.

My Rating: 

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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.

My Rating: 

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.”

My Rating: 

The Killer’s Wife by Bill Floyd

This is Floyd’s first book, and unfortunately it shows.  The plot centers on Leigh Wren, mother of a young son and ex-wife of a serial murderer who is sitting on death row.  After moving to Cary, NC to start a new life, Leigh is accosted one day in the grocery store by the father of one of her ex-husband’s victims.  She and her son are exposed to their new community, while at the same time a new killer is emerging, focusing on victims tied to Leigh’s former life.  I have a dislike for books written from a female perspective by a male writer.  Maybe that’s not fair, and I’m sure there are exceptions, but to me they never really ring true.  The characters here are fairly one-dimensional, the writing a bit pedestrian, and the plot reminiscent of a movie-of-the-week.  Not totally awful, but not that great either.

My Rating: 

What I Was by Meg Rosoff

This coming of age story is a quick read, and in fact Meg Rosoff  has previously published in the young adult category.  This one straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction.  Nearing 100 years old, Hilary looks back upon his life and the time he spent in the 1960’s  at St. Oswald’s, a private school for boys with a “long history and low standards.”  Having managed to get himself expelled from several other schools, his parents half-heartedly hope that this time Hilary will make something of himself.

Gloomy Victorian buildings, vile food (pink sausages, green liver, brown stew, cabbage boiled to stinking transparency), and an undistinguished faculty do not bode well for Hilary’s success in turning his life around.  Then one day, while engaging in a fitness run along the beach with his classmates, Hilary falls behind and comes upon a cottage on the beach inhabited by a boy named Finn.  What follows is something of a love story, though not so much physical love as romantic.  Hilary becomes infatuated with Finn, devising ways to slip away from school and spend time with him, desperately trying to gain the affection of the elusive Finn, who lives a solitary Robinson Crusoe style life alone on the nearly inaccessible beach.  A touching story of first love with a surprising twist at the end. 

My rating: 

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner definitely clarifies the dividing line between Booklove’s classifications of “Liked It” and “It Was OK”.  I will not waste much time with the plot, because if you haven’t heard or seen the movie by now, you’re probably living under a rock.  Briefly, though, for those rock dwellers such as me, the plot concerns two friends, Amir and Hassan, and their lives from the final days of Afghanistan’s monarchy to the present.  Amir is the son of a wealthy and prominent man, and Hassan is the son of Amir’s father’s servant, Ali. 

Amir lives in the shadow of his handsome, noble Baba, ever unable to live up to his father’s expectations while Hassan is made to suffer the brunt of his community’s ethnic hate toward Hazaras. Two major problems I have with this novel are Amir’s constant whining, which continues well into adulthood, and Mr. Hosseini’s need to bludgeon the reader with his characters’ every thought and motivation.  Subtlety is not in Mr. Hosseini’s repertoire of writing skills.

However, while it is extremely easy to nit-pick a novel to shreds, the more difficult assessment involves finding what is right with a novel.  So in all fairness to Mr. Hosseini, here is what I found entertaining about The Kite Runner:  The story of Amir and his Baba’s time in America was handled very well, especially the scenes of the Afghan flea market and Amir’s courtship of Soraya, which were the least contrived portions of the book.  Here the tale seemed to flow seamlessly while giving the reader a delightful insight into Afghan culture, which I found fascinating.  No matter how dire life’s circumstances, Baba, a proud and once wealthy man, adjusts himself to life’s circumstances with strength and humility, and I felt more for the character of Baba than Amir.  It is only when Mr. Hosseini returns the story to Afghanistan that the plot once more becomes contrived with the evil, Hitler-loving Assef (motto: “Afghanistan for Pashtuns”) taking the stage once more.  Does Amir defeat the evil Assef and achieve the redemption he seeks?  Well, I’m not telling, because I can assure you that Mr. Hosseini will drive the point home relentlessly so that there will be no . . . doubt . . . in . . . your . . . mind.

My Rating: 
You can also access and post comments to the Rockingham County Reads: Kite Runner blog at http://rockinghamcoreads.blogspot.com/

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana DeRosnay

There’s no denying that the subject of this book is disturbing and tragic.  In 1942, on the orders of the Germans, 4500 Parisian police rounded up almost 13,000 French Jews, almost one third of them children, and herded many of them into the Vel’ d’Hiv’, a stadium used for bicycle races.  After being held there for days in cramped conditions with no food or water, they were transferred to prison camps in the suburbs of Paris where parents and children were separated, then sent on to Auschwitz.  The Germans nicknamed the project “Operation Spring Wind.”

Sarah’s Key follows the story of Sarah,  her parents, and her four year old brother, Michel.  In a second (but related) storyline, we are in modern day Paris following Julia Jarmond, a journalist, as she researches the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup for a magazine article and discovers long-hidden family secrets that tie her to the tragedy.  The story is compelling as seen through the eyes of 10 year old Sarah, but when her voice disappears midway through the book, the story becomes bogged down with the emphasis on Julia, her marital problems and her feelings of guilt.  The neatly tied up (happily ever after?) ending was a bit disappointing as well.  For a much more compelling and detailed description of the horrors faced by the Jews during the Holocaust, try Elie Wiesel’s Night.

My rating: