Saturday, April 29, 2006

More Of What I Have Read This Year

Earlier this year I started reading the Barnes and Noble Classics series, and realized I have failed to update my progress through that "noble" list (forgive me, as I didn't get much sleep last night!).

Recent Barnes and Noble Classics readings:

"The Metamorphoses" by Ovid. I have a version in verse that I would recommend over this prose version of the classic Roman (and Greek) myths.

"The Magnificent Ambersons," by Booth Tarkington. I was so impressed by this book that I wish the discussion on the Barnes and Nobel University web site could have continued past 5 weeks. It is a coming of age story, for the main characters and the United States in the early years of the 20th century. However, as usual, not all the change is good. If Jane Austen thought she had written a book about a heroine only she could love, Tarkington's Georgie Minafer is a male Emma in spades!

"O'Pioneers," by Willa Cather. Not her best book IMO, but interesting in that many see it as a Greek tragedy on the high plains, and I think that is a good assessment.

"The Return of the Native," by Thomas Hardy. I reviewed this book in a recent post.

"Emma," by Jane Austen. Again, reviewed in an earlier post.

What I Read in April

Yes, technically April still has two more days to run, but due to my schedule this weekend, I know that I will not be able to squeeze in another book. In terms of quantity, it was not a terribly good month, due to various committments at work, and the length of one of the books read.

1. "A Moment's Madness," by Helen Kirkman. 'B/C-' I reviewed this book in detail in a post on April 07, entitled "Not Enough History, Yet Not History Light." The B rating was for the setting, England in the period of 870 AD, while the C- part of the rating was for the execution. Almost all of the action took place offstage, while we read endless chapters (the book was only 300 pages, so how endless could it be,you might ask, but they seemed endless) about a Danish widow and a Saxon warrior learning to trust each other in order to allow them to love. The sad part for me was that the author obviously knows her subject matter, so why the suffocating setting of the bower, while we head-hopped around about Feelings? It was like being forced to watch Dr. Phil. And Oprah. Together. Well, the cover was cool!

2. "The Da Vinci Code," by Dan Brown. 'C' So, this was what the shouting has been about for the past two years? Ho hum. If I were a very conservative Roman Catholic instead of a liberal Episcopalian I probably would be offended by the picture painted of the Church of Rome. As it was, I was more struck by the lack of quality in the writing -- the characters were cardboard cutouts, the dialogue was stilted, and even though the book took place over a breakneck period of 72(?) hours, no one had to go to the bathroom. Maybe the movie will be better, even with Tom Hanks horrible hair.

3. "Kiss Me, Annabel," by Eloisa James. 'A' Read the review published here earlier this week.

4. "Emma," by Jane Austen. 'A+' I simply adore this classic novel by Jane Austen. It is personally my favorite. IMO it is a much more complex work than "Pride and Prejudice," although many object to a heroine who is not automatically as lovable as Elizabeth Bennet.

5. "His Majesty's Dragon," by Naomi Novik. 'A' for this first novel, a sci-fi/fantasy set in an alternative 19th century that comes complete with adorable dragons. If you like Patrick O'Brian, Jane Austen, and Anne McCaffrey you will be ahead of the game to enjoy the Napoleonic Wars with an air corps. Captain Will Laurence goes from the Royal Navy, with its stuffy traditions of class, to a flyboy in the rough and ready Aerial Corps when he bonds with a newly-hatched dragon captured during a battle with a French frigate. The dragon Temeraire is a wonderful character -- sweet tempered with his Will, intelligent, and brave. Be warned: some passages will require the use of a hanky. The second book in the series, "Throne of Jade," has just been released, and the next, "Black Powder War," is due out in June (all, so far, in mass market paperback).

6. "March," by Geraldine Brooks. 'A-' I love the premise of this book: the principal narrator is Mr March, the mostly absent father from Louisa May Alcott's classic "Little Women." This is not a book for children. Some reviewers indicated a YA audience as well as an adult readership, but I wonder if they made that call due to the association with "Little Women." I have to confess that as I have no YA readers in my family I cannot assess whether that is an appropriate rating or not -- if I were pressed on it, I would think 15 or 16 would be the youngest age I would feature being interested in the book. The book is told in first person narrative with some flashbacks, first from the POV of Mr March, then from the POV of Marmee. There are scenes of violence; themes of war, racial prejudice, sexual desire (both within and outside of marriage); loyalty to one's country, one's principles, and to one's spouse; and the role of women in 19th century America. And the book is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I have not read Ms Brooks' other novel, "The Year of Wonders," but I think that will soon be joining my TBR pile.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Now I Finally Get It!

For quite a while I have read all the rave reviews about Eloisa James, including when she "outed" herself as both a romance novelist and a professor at Fordham University. While I was impressed with her academic credentials, her books seemed rather ho-hum to me -- I read the early novels, including "Potent Pleasures," and found them generally to be too long to support a rather slight story involving younger heroines. It wasn't that I didn't recognize, and appreciate, an almost literary writing style, but perhaps the problem was with me, as it was a time when I had almost stopped reading historical romances, which means I was reading damned few romances period. Jaded. Disappointed again. Whatever...

I believe it was in 2004 that the first book in Ms James series on four sisters living in Regency England was published. The sisters were relatively poor -- their only doweries consist of a racehorse apiece, an interesting premise. "Much Ado About You" attracted much positive buzz, so I decided to give Ms James another try. I was attracted to the premise, but, once again, found the execution to be somewhat lacking for me. For one thing, I have a pet peeve about the overusage of the word "grin," and almost everyone in that book spent a lot of time grinning, sometimes when a smile would have been far more appropriate. The characters were appealing, but the major problem for me was that the hero and heroine of the first book were not as interesting as the secondary characters, especially Annabel.

Enter Annabel in her own novel, "Kiss Me, Annabel." The second in the series, "Kiss me, Annabel" was published last year and has languished in my TBR pile for several months. It was only the publication of the third book in the series that prompted me to pick up the second. Now I finally get it! I don't know if I am just in the right mood for this story or what, but now I understand the Eloisa James following. The hero and heroine, Annabel and Ewan, are fresh and lively. Ewan in particular is a hero not often found in today's romance novel -- technically he is a virgin, although not without great interest in, and some experience of, women; he is religious and frankly talks about his feelings to Annabel (who is more like this reader, in that her interest in orthodoxy is limited), but he is not preachy or pious, nor is he an evangelical (this is NOT an "inspirational" romance). Annabel is a character who grows emotionally and ethically during the course of the novel. The novel has strong suggestions of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," and that play is alluded to during the course of the couple's trip from England to Scotland. I found this to be a delightful part of the novel, and it greatly increased my reading enjoyment, and respect for Ms James writing.

There is an interesting sub-plot with one of Annabel's younger sisters, a widow, and the rake she is trying to seduce in an attempt to forget her grief over the premature death of her husband. The youngest sister is reintroduced, and will, no doubt, be the subject of the final book in the series. The third book, "The Taming of the Duke," has received mixed reviews, primarily due to even stronger references to English literature (especially to "A Midsummer's Night Dream") throughout the book. If often seems to me that the reasons I enjoy a book are the very reasons others come away dissatisfied -- and I think that is due to the fact that, oddly enough, the romance is not the primary reason for me to read a romance novel. I like a good story well told and the romance is secondary. In the case of "Kiss Me, Annabel," I think those with both points of view will come away satisfied.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

What I Read in March

March was actually a good month for reading -- I finished seven books. For those more prolific readers, I know that seven books is not many, but considering that the major part of my reading is accomplished on a commuter bus, I feel like crowing!

What I read:

1. "The Return of the Native," by Thomas Hardy. Good solid 'A' rating for this literary classic. The discussion on the Barnes and Noble University website was hot and heavy -- many of the women participants were outspoken in their dislike of the character of Eustacia Vye, whom apparently in their eyes was the next thing to the Whore of Babylon!

2. "The Innocent," by Posie Graeme-Evans. 'B+' for this first novel, an historical set in the reign of Edward IV. The historical background was carefully recreated, the secondary characters were outstanding, the problem for me was with the heroine. She was almost too naive to be true, and I had a difficult time with her sudden maturity when she was faced with the unexpected answer to the mystery of her birth. The second book in the series ('The Exiled') is already out, but I believe the third book has not yet been published. Fans of Anya Seton, Marsha Canham, and Elizabeth Chadwick would enjoy this book -- but it is not a romance, and the adultery, plus a couple of S & M sex scenes, may bother some readers.

3. "Avalon," by Anya Seton. 'A' Beautiful re-issue of the classic Seton novel of England around the year 1000 AD.

4. "The Mysterious Miss M," by Diane Gaston. 'B' This entertaining Regency romance with a heroine who was really a whore, not a virgin hiding in a brothel, was marred for me by the almost constant presence of the heroine's little girl. In real life, I love children but I rarely care for them in romance novels.

5. "A Lady Raised High," by Laurien Gardner. 'C' Lackluster historical novel that is second in a house series on the six wives of Henry VIII. "Laurien Gardner" is a pen name shared by six authors, each of whom will write one book in the series. The problem with this book was the uninteresting heroine and narrator, a plain-faced country girl who is taken under Anne Bolyn's wing and becomes one of her ladies in waiting. Her romance with a handsome minor noble is improbable.

6. "One Little Sin," by Liz Carlyle. 'A' This Regency had the most engaging hero and heroine I have recently encountered in a romance novel. There was much humor in the book and an unexpected twist at the end of this variation of the secret baby theme. I could even tolerate long passages where the hero played with his toddler daughter without impatiently waiting for the scene to end. First of three novels by Carlyle dealing with a trio of men who have been determined to escape The Parson's Mousetrap.

7. "Green Darkness," by Anya Seton. 'A+' Reissue of the classic historical novel on reincarnation.