November 27, 2013

Review: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Published: 2003, Amistad
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Source: Library
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“We are all worthy of one another.”

The Known World starts with the death of Henry Townsend, a well-known and well-respected black man who worked his way to freedom and now owns his own plantation. With his death comes grief, of course, but also questions as to what’s in store for the many people, free and slave alike, who lived under his care. This is not merely the story of Henry’s successful rise in status, however. This story reveals the harsh realities of life in antebellum Virginia as told through the experiences of all those who call it home: blacks and whites, freed and enslaved, rich and poor.

As one of my coworkers mentioned during our October book club discussion, The Known World reads like an oral history. A transcribed work of oral history is perhaps the best, most accurate way that I could describe this book. There’s not really one central plot. In fact, the story doesn’t follow a linear timeline, instead meandering through a series of vignettes featuring a very large cast of characters.The unifying characteristic between characters is either their relationship to Henry Townsend or else to the town in which he lives.

If ever a book needed to include a cast of characters as part of its paratext, it would be this one. Jones focused on at least ten characters to a fairly substantial degree, and dozens of others are mentioned as well. I was fortunate enough to find an extensive character list online, which enabled me to have a better understanding of the convoluted relationships between the characters. Jones does not necessarily throw readers headfirst into this story, but neither does he spend much time helping to refresh readers’ memories on who each character is, even if a hundred pages stand between the next mention of that character. By focusing on such a large group of characters, readers are afforded a much more extensive view of life during this time; readers just must be willing to suffer through some initial information overload and confusion.

Ambitious is probably the best single word to describe Jones’ herculean effort to provide a snapshot of this era of American history. He touches on so many different aspects of life: enslaved blacks, enslaved blacks who worked their way up to freedom, blacks born free, poorer whites whose situations are not much better than slaves, slave-owning whites, middle-class whites, tensions between races, tensions between genders, concepts of freedom and servitude, and so much more. There’s a lot to unpack in this book, which I think can be best understood through discussion with others. I was grateful to have the opportunity to talk about this book with my coworkers.

The downfall of Jones’ work is ultimately in how widespread the novel is. By not really focusing on one issue or one family, the story spreads itself too thin. There are simply too many characters that I struggled to figure out who really mattered, and who I was supposed to empathize with. The third-person omniscient narrator also contributed to this problem. It simply provided far too much distance between the readers and the characters and made some of the truly awful experiences they endured a little more difficult to conceptualize. For a book dealing with things such as the retrieval and punishment of runaway slaves, of the horrible practice surrounding the sale of freed men, and of the grey area involved in being a former slave who now owns slaves of his own, I wasn’t able to experience nearly as much emotion as I wanted to. I wanted to be swept away with strong feelings for what I read about, but that just did not happen.

As little more than a series of vignettes about the lives of people living within this southern town, The Known World also lacked any sort of linear structure. Many times I had to pause at the start of each new vignette and think about who this person is, how they related to the previous section I’d read (if at all), and figure out this new character’s place within the story as a whole. Transitions between sections were virtually nonexistent. Each long chapter detailed three or four events, but I could never grasp the relation between the events chosen in each chapter. And, much like informally told stories themselves, the narrator had a frequent habit of interrupting the current vignette at hand to describe random tidbits about the later life of newly-introduced characters. In a way, this did help make the story more circular and establish a certain tone and mood. It was also distracting, however.

I think Jones makes some powerful messages about America’s history within this work and I can understand why it has received critical acclaim. Readers considering this one should be forewarned that it does require a bit more focus and dedication to read this one than many other works of fiction. Is it worth it? That’s something for each reader to decide. For me, I found the experience reading it to be frustrating, but the following discussion was still rewarding.

Rating: 2 stars

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November 25, 2013

Review: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Series: The School for Good and Evil, #1
Published: 2013, HarperCollins
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Source: Library
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Here in the Good Towers, the boys went off to fight with swords while girls had to learn dog barks and owl hoots. No wonder princesses were so impotent in fairy tales, she thought. If all they could do was smile, stand straight and speak to squirrels, then what choice did they have but to wait for a boy to rescue them?

Well, I did it. After months of hedging, I finally decided to read a book aimed towards a middle grade audience. And you know what? I enjoyed it overall.

Once a year, the inhabitants of Sophie and Agatha’s town spend the night in fear: the children in the fear that they’ll be taken away by the mysterious School Master to train at the School for Good and Evil, the adults in the fear that one of their own children will be taken. All people, that is, except for Sophie. Sophie cannot wait to leave her tiny town of Gavaldon behind and become a princess. She’s essentially been training for this role all her life, even taking on a “charity” case through her friendship with Agatha, a strange girl who lives in the local cemetery.

Sure enough, Sophie is one of the two children taken away by the School Master this year; Agatha is the other. But then something happens that neither girl expects: Sophie is dropped off at the School for Evil and Agatha is dropped off at the School for Good. Both of them cannot believe that this is anything but a mistake, and Sophie in particular is willing to stop at nothing in order to ensure her “happily ever after.”

In The School for Good and Evil, fairy-tale lore has been reimagined. Cinderella? Hansel and Gretel? Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk?” All of the characters from these tales first trained as students at the School, and their rankings determined whether they ended up as heroes, sidekicks, villains, henchmen, talking animals, or more. I really enjoyed the idea that fairy tales are constantly evolving and sentient to some degree. Also noteworthy is the fact that the fairy-tale readers of the world are the ones who possess the ability to affect or alter them. Sophie and Agatha quickly learn that they’re different than their peers: they’re referred to as the Readers, the pair of average humans who have not grown up with any fairy-tale heritage. And that makes their roles the most important of all.

The tropes that Chainani initially uses to describe the students of the School for Good and the students of the School for Evil are problematic. Good is always beautiful. Evil is ugly and never wins. Evergirls (Good females) are always the princesses, relying on the Everboys (Good males) to save the day. That’s kind of the point, though. Chainani’s story must first work within the established conventions before turning them upside-down. But readers should be aware that he does use the text to examine these tropes quite thoroughly, primarily through his two protagonists and narrators: Sophie and Agatha.

Most endearing is the novel’s focus on Sophie and Agatha’s friendship. Their friendship started off on the most superficial of levels, as Sophie counted Agatha among her many good deeds that would lead to acceptance at the School for Good. But their relationship evolves into something much more meaningful. Through Agatha, Sophie has someone who accepts her as she is, regardless of whether she’s spent enough time managing her appearance. Through Sophie, Agatha has a friend who can look past her quirks and value her character and intelligence. Of course, their friendship is run through the gauntlet time and again at the school, and many times I felt as though Agatha deserves better than Sophie. Agatha is kind, modest, and studious against Sophie’s snide arrogance. Still, it is through their support of one another that the girls are at their strongest.

I will say the novel’s ultimate messages about Good and Evil are a bit lacking, however. Sophie and Agatha very much defy their respective schools’ expectations for the majority of the novel, even encouraging their classmates to reconsider their participation in stereotypes. By the end of the novel, though, some of the power that each girl holds in her unconventionality is called into question, unfortunately. For now I am holding out hope that this is something Chainani will address and further explore in the sequels.

Rarely ever do I mention the length of a novel from the perspective that it’s too long. I love longer novels; I love having the opportunity to become swept away in the stories I read. Nevertheless, at times The School for Good and Evil felt unnecessarily long. There are so many scenes that describe the new lives and challenges that Agatha and Sophie face, and not all advance the plot. This is one example where a story may have benefitted from some more stringent cutting, especially since this is part of a longer series.

While I am not satisfied with the apparent theme reversal at the end of The School for Good and Evil, I cannot deny that I had a lot of fun reading this. After all, who hasn’t had at least one daydream of what it would be like to become a hero--or a villain?

Rating: 4 stars
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November 22, 2013

Review: Austenland by Shannon Hale

Austenland by Shannon Hale
Published: 2010, Bloomsbury USA
Series: Austenland, #1
Genre: Adult Romance, Contemporary
Source: Purchased
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At a very young age, she had learned how to love from Austen. And according to her immature understanding at the time, in Austen’s world there was no such thing as a fling. Every romance was intended to lead to marriage, every flirtation just a means to find that partner to cling to forever.

Jane Hayes has a bit more than a healthy appreciation of Jane Austen’s works. What Jane Hayes has could actually be more easily classified as an obsession. It’s caused her to have unrealistic expectations of today’s men, and she’s not the only one who has come to that realization.

From her great aunt’s will, Jane learns that she has been given an all-inclusive three week vacation to Pembrook Park, a place that reenacts life in Regency England for paying customers. Jane decides to allow herself three weeks of pure wish-fulfillment at Pembrook before ending her Austen (more specifically Mr. Darcy) obsession.

Despite possessing a strong appreciation of Jane Austen, I haven’t read many stories that pay homage to her works. After quite enjoying a few of Hale’s other works, I decided to give this one a try. I can relate to wish-fulfillment and the desire to experience life from a different era. And as Jane herself says best:
“If you were a woman, all I'd have to say is 'Colin Firth in a wet shirt' and you'd say 'Ah.’”
I enjoyed the intermixing of reality and fantasy, true depth and superficiality. As much as Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the proprietress of Pembrook Park, tries to replicate an authentic Regency experience, the experience is only as good as the people participating in it. Newly christened as Jane Erstwhile, it does not take Jane long to realize that, much as she’d like for it to be real, she’s simply interacting with actors and other people who possess sad addictions to the lifestyles found in Jane Austen’s stories, and that she’s one of them.

My main complaint is that Jane simply isn’t very memorable, nor are any of the relationships she’s had. Between each chapter, Hale adds short sections recounting Jane’s history with her thirteen past boyfriends. These sections were surely intended to help readers form a better understanding of what caused the severity of Jane’s Austen-like romantic ideals. And perhaps they do to some degree, but they do not help develop Jane’s character in any substantial way.

Nor is Jane’s transformation as satisfying as it could have been. From Jane’s first misgiving during her three-week stay at Pembrook Park, I had a pretty good guess of where the story was heading and how being there would ultimately affect Jane’s development. Expecting certain events to occur did not necessarily hinder my enjoyment of those events while I was reading. Jane’s lack of solid characterization did, however. Besides her obsession with Jane Austen’s works, I had trouble understanding her character. She finds herself involved in flirtations with two men, and she wants each of them to see her as herself, not as Miss Jane Erstwhile. And yet even I as a reader had trouble determining exactly what makes Jane tick.

This is the first book I’ve read by Shannon Hale that caters to an adult audience. While amusing, this story lacks much of the charm I found in The Goose Girl and Princess Academy. From what I’ve read of Hale so far, I think she’s better at writing for children and young adults. That being said, this will not be my last Hale book; it is likely, however, that this will be the last adult book I read from her.

Despite all my criticism, I did enjoy my time spent reading Austenland. It functions well as a work of fun, light-hearted chick lit, and reading this was a perfect break from a project I had. It’s pure escapism, just as Pembrook Park itself is supposed to be. But any deeper meanings fell flat for me. I suppose this is worth the read, but it’s not really worth spending any more time thinking about it once the last page is closed.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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November 20, 2013

Review: Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
Published: 2013, Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Source: Library
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“In Paris, everything’s for sale: wise virgins, foolish virgins, truth and lies, tears and smiles.”
- “Rentafoil,” Emile Zola

So begins Emile Zola’s short story “Les Repoussoirs” (“Rentafoil” in English), which tells the story of how Monsieur Durandeau creates a business through commodifying beauty. He notices the many struggles that women undergo in order to appear their best, through clothing and hairstyles and expensive jewelry. While so many businesses catered towards making attractive women more attractive, no businesses direct their services to those less attractive women. Durandeau therefore positions himself to fill that void by forming a business where ugly women help beautify their prettier (and wealthier) patrons.

Although this review will focus on Elizabeth Ross’ historical fiction novel Belle Epoque, her book is heavily influenced by Zola’s short story, so I first wanted to put it into context. Ross slightly modernizes the time period: her story takes place at the end of the nineteenth century, instead of the mid-nineteenth century. But Ross essentially adopts Zola’s idea and expands upon it. Fortunately, I was made aware of the influence Zola’s short story had on Belle Epoque before I read this, so that I could first read Zola’s story. Ross credits Zola for the inspiration in a note at the end, but I do wish that influence was made more apparent earlier on in the book. I encourage other readers to read Zola’s very brief short story before Ross’ book.
After hearing that her father wishes to marry her off to the much-older butcher of their provincial French town, Maude Pichon decides to run away and start a new life in Paris, city of dreams and possibilities. Unfortunately, Paris is also an expensive city and as her savings dwindle Maude becomes desperate for work. This desperation leads her to Monsieur Durandeau’s agency in answer to an ad asking for “young women wanted for undemanding work.” Although at first she spurns a job offer based entirely on her “plainness,” Maude soon realizes that no other jobs can compete with with Durandeau offers: beautiful dresses, high-society events, lavish meals, days spent accompanying the wealthy about town. And so Maude reluctantly becomes a repoussoir.

Good timing lands Maude a regular position as the companion to Countess Dubern’s daughter Isabelle. The countess needs all the help she can get for her daughter’s first season, and hiring a repoussoir is just one of the many steps she takes to ensure that her daughter will end the season with a marriage offer. Maude becomes the employee of the countess, Isabelle unaware that Maude is anything but a family friend’s distant relation. Neither of them expected a friendship to form. As Maude starts seeing Isabelle as more than a spoiled rich girl, however, she’s faced with the conflicting loyalties.

I am always interested in a story that encourages a discussion on beauty and the different roles it plays in society. This makes up the heart of Belle Epoque and this is where the story really shines. Maude initially turns down an offer with Durandeau’s agency and is shocked that the women allow themselves to be so degraded. Whenever a customer requests a repoussoir for the day, all the women are forced to line up, allowing Durandeau to discuss with the potential customer each of their flaws. Maude is unique in that she’s considered more plain than ugly, but she also falls prey to the sense of hopelessness and lack of self-worth that all the repoussoirs feel. In this story about those oppressed by their apparent lack of beauty, Ross is able to really examine different constructs of what beauty is and how people view it.

I read that a large part of the reason that Ross decided to have her story take place in Belle Epoque Paris was due to the historical context that the World Exposition and Eiffel Tower provided. Although the parallels between the places that both it and “ugly” women occupy in Paris are fairly heavy-handed, I still enjoyed this added context to the book’s main discussion on beauty conventions. Taking into account the sense of romance and nostalgia that images of the Eiffel Tower have in our current society, Ross’ purpose in including the original disdain and ill-will that the Parisians initially have towards its creation becomes very clear.

Besides the discussion of beauty conventions, Belle Epoque is also a wonderfully compelling story of a friendship developed between two girls who occupy very different worlds. Physically and economically, Maude and Isabelle are nothing alike. And yet, their hopes and dreams allow them to discover things about themselves and each other that they are too afraid to otherwise admit. Isabelle is the more dynamic character, fighting against the chokehold of societal expectations. She doesn’t care about propriety, about looking beautiful, about finding a husband; instead, she wants to attend the university and study science. While reading this story, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to have Isabelle as narrator. In comparison to Isabelle, Maude is more timid, less confident in what she wants to do with her life. And yet Maude becomes a more relatable character over time, gaining both confidence and self-worth. It was so rewarding to witness how their friendship and trust in one another allows each girl to ultimately take control of her own life.

Through a critique on beauty, societal standards, and the place of women, among other things, I found Ross’ decision to include a romance, sweet as it is, to be a little disappointing. Nothing is technically wrong with Maude’s growing attraction for Paul, an aspiring musician from the lower class. At times, Paul’s character seems to function as a moral compass for Maude, reminding her that beauty is more than skin-deep, and also that it’s okay for her to want better things with her life. As I said before, their romance is sweet, but I do think that Isabelle and the other repoussoirs could have just as easily helped Maude come to that ultimate conclusion.

A few nitpicky issues aside, I found Belle Epoque to be a well written work of fiction. Besides the parts about the Eiffel Tower and mentions of living situations, I didn’t a super strong sense of the historical time period, but that ultimately isn’t what this story is about. Belle Epoque addresses timeless issues concerning beauty as a superficial means of status. I enjoyed the discourse on beauty, and I absolutely loved the focus on Maude and Isabelle’s friendship. Highly encouraged for fans of historical fiction who are looking for a more unconventional type of story.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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November 18, 2013

Review: Pawn by Aimée Carter

Pawn by Aimée Carter
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion, #1
Published: November 26, 2013, Harlequin Teen
Genre: Young Adult Dystopian
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
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“They may be weak when the game begins, but their potential is remarkable. Most of the time, they’ll be taken by the other side and held captive until the end of the game. But if you’re careful--if you keep your eyes open and pay attention to what your opponent is doing, if you protect your pawns and they reach the other side of the board, do you know what happens then?”
I shook my head, and she smiled.
"Your pawn becomes a queen." 

Five years after The Hunger Games released, YA dystopian literature is still going strong. I get its appeal and why it continues to resonate with readers. While not my favorite genre, I still tend to enjoy the dystopians I read. At least, I enjoy those works of dystopian literature that stay true to their purpose of providing critiques of  social and political structures of futuristic societies. Nothing infuriates me more than a poorly constructed or subdued dystopian world that has little purpose beyond creating obstacles for star-crossed lovers.

Fortunately, Pawn by Aimee Carter places political and social criticisms as first and foremost in its story. It may not be the most unique offering to YA dystopian literature, but I still found it entertaining and well done overall.

For the past seventeen years, Kitty Doe has grown used to the fact that she’s expendable. She is the unwanted (and illegal) second child of lower-rank parents who have since died. Because of this, she’s grown up in a orphanage for second children, referred to as Extras. Besides her relationship with her best friend Benjy, a fellow orphan and an Extra, Kitty’s been fixated on her seventeenth birthday. In her futuristic United States, people are given a test on their seventeenth birthdays which determines their societal rank from I to VI and their future occupations.

Kitty, with her limited educational resources and reading problems, was doomed to fail from the start. She’s grown up believing in the system’s fairness, however, and thinks her determination to succeed will be enough. The III emblazoned on the back of her neck is not only a shock to her, but she sees it as a declaration of her unworthiness. Most of all, she sees it as confirmation that she and Benjy (a sure VI) will never work out. So when Prime Minister Hart offers her the chance to become a VII, to enjoy a life of wealth and comfort beyond her wildest dreams, Kitty accepts.

Of course, Kitty has no idea the repercussions of the bargain she just made. Only members of the ruling Hart family can have the VII rank, and to become one of them Kitty is masked quite literally, turned into the recently-deceased niece of the Prime Minister, Lila Hart. And her life, which would have been restrictive as a III, becomes even more so as she must give up her old attachments for a brand new life she cannot leave.

Honestly, the reason I was able to enjoy this book to the extent that I did is directly related to Kitty’s first person narration. As I’ve mentioned before, dystopian literature is fairly common, and Carter employs many well-known tropes in her story. Perhaps a bit reminiscent of Katniss, Kitty is naive and initially unwilling to do something about the problems in her world. She’s also a bit too trusting, pigheaded, and backs off of conflicts too easily. Because of these qualities, I found that she was the perfect narrator to introduce readers to her world. Readers who are overly familiar with the intrigue and rebellions between the “haves” and “have nots” of dystopian literature are almost forced to slow down and really appreciate Kitty’s consternation as she finds affirmation after affirmation that nothing is as it seems. These revelations are huge in her understanding of the world, which jaded dystopian readers should keep in mind.

The central conflict in Pawn is not really a rebellion, however. Kitty is more than simply a heroine reluctant to assume the burden of responsibility; her purpose throughout the novel is consistent: find a way to ensure that Benjy is given the life he deserves. She falters here and there, but Benjy acts as a beacon of hope that some things in their life will work out as they should. Benjy has always deserved to gain a high ranking, and Kitty works to ensure that nothing she or anyone else does prevents him from achieving his potential. Pawn starts out with Kitty and Benjy in a committed, long-term relationship, which was actually a nice change from a focus on the throes and drama of a new romance. Not even Lila’s fiancé Knox can throw a wrench into their relationship.

Perhaps the least successful part of this novel was the in depiction of the rebellion and Lila’s role in it. Although Kitty is supposed to be Lila, I never had a good understanding of who Lila was. Her presence in the rebellion was similarly undefined, although Kitty’s interactions with other sympathetic Hart family members begin to shed a bit of light on that. Through her new life as Lila, readers are able to witness the effect of the revolution from the other side: the side of the enfranchised. Readers are also able to see the stark differences in life for the highest class and the lowest of lows (Kitty may not be a I, but she’s an “Extra” in a society that has a strict set of predetermined rules and behaviors for people to follow). The various ways that Carter allows her readers to view the rebellion are interesting, to say the least.

Outside of the rebellion itself, the rest of the political intrigue felt a tad...overzealous of Carter? Literally every single character has incriminating secrets and ulterior motives. Perhaps Carter is simply trying to detail Kitty’s loss of naivety, but it was a bit frustrating for me to see Kitty come to the same conclusion again and again: no one can be trusted. She needs to trust herself. This message is repeated throughout the novel ad nauseam. At least Kitty’s naivety is fairly consistent.

Nothing that Carter has done with Pawn is truly groundbreaking for dystopian literature. But that’s all right. I don’t believe every novel necessarily has to advance its genre. Pawn is entertaining and has some fairly thought-provoking perspectives on rebellion and identity. While I don’t necessarily feel like reading through Carter’s backlog, I will be continuing on with this series.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer: I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the final edition.  

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