Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell


Barnes and Noble:  "Let us begin with two girls at a dance," writes Maggie O'Farrell, and the reader is immediately pulled into a journey across continents, generations, and the hidden landscapes of the heart. The story she tells encompasses the confused present of a contemporary young woman, Iris Lockhart; the unsuspected past of Iris's grandmother, Kitty, adrift in the forgetfulness of Alzheimer's; and the long-concealed life of Kitty's sister Esme, who has spent a lifetime institutionalized for refusing to accept the conventions of 1930s Edinburgh society.

At the novel's opening, Iris's complicated life demands all her attention: Her vintage clothing shop barely turns a profit, she's having an affair with a married man, and she's never fully reconciled her intense attraction to her step-brother. But all this is pushed aside when Esme's existence is revealed to her, and she discovers that a great-aunt she never knew has been locked away for 60 years, a patient in a mental hospital that's preparing to close its doors for good. After initially refusing to do so, Iris decides to care for Esme and brings the elderly stranger into her home. As the two women become acquainted, Esme's memories—the childhood she and Kitty shared in India, the death of their young brother, the family's migration to Scotland, and Esme's youthful rebellion against the mores of her class—transform Iris's sense of her family's past, opening a vault of secrets that will change the character of everything she thought she knew.

With seamless narrative artistry, O'Farrell weaves an enthralling tale—and builds page-turning suspense—while shifting between Iris's and Esme's points of view, illuminating both with Kitty's fractured but vivid recollections. The taut fabric of the novel's telling enmeshes the reader in a tangled web of jealousy, deception, and betrayal that is shocking, heartbreaking, and unforgettable. Alive with the energy of trapped desires, 
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a riveting work of literary imagination. 


When I closed this novel I was stunned.  I can not articulate how satisfied, confused, angry, delighted...but most of all how completely astounded I was.  I immediately wanted reread it - an urge I have never felt before.  Usually I sit and revel in the feeling of finishing a good book.  This one had me in a frenzy!

This review will be very hard - I have to convince you to absolutely read this novel...without letting the smallest secret slip, or the ambiance of the novel will be ruined.  O'Farrell juxtaposed Iris, the typical modern day woman, with Esme, the typical modern day woman - who grew up in the early twentieth century.  Much of what we would consider given was absolutely taboo in Esme's time.  The biggest example?  Wanting to continue her education rather than get married.  A series of events, many of them catalyzed by Esme's unwillingness to conform led to her confinement in a mental institution.

During this period of time, families could force a woman into an asylum simply because they wanted to get rid of her.  This wasn't some third world thing or fiction - this really happened, and more often than one would think.  Want proof?  Google it - or watch The Changeling with Angelina Jolie, an accurate depiction of what women who didn't conform had to go through (accurate for Hollywood, anyway).
What Esme went through was only fiction in that her character isn't real.

Esme was sent to the institution due to her parents' intolerance of her actions - but she stayed there due to her sister's jealousy - and the unforgivable act that Kitty committed.  Through Esme's thoughts and Kitty's memories, the dark acts of this family is slowly revealed.  It is utterly captivating - my only criticism is that Iris's life and her own scandal are overshadowed by her grandparents' pasts.

The novel ends vaguely - you know what happened, but certain details are so vivid that you puzzle over the meanings.  Most of all though, you are left questioning Esme's state of mind - is she mentally imbalanced, or was her act deliberate, and cold-blooded?  After all, while she may not have originally been unbalanced, she spent 60 years forgotten by her family, heavily medicated, and alone.  And then there's Iris, and her messed up love life - the novel ends in the middle of a confession, leaving the reader wondering what her decision will be.

This novel is very dark, and very twisted - as it often is when a novel is written about a family.  O'Farrell mastered the effect of knowing just how much the reader really wants to know - after all a book like this doesn't have the same impact if every secret is revealed.  It worms its way into your thoughts there and stays there for weeks - maybe even months.  I would rank this book as a top 3 contender for books I've read this year, if not THE best book I have read this year.


This was one of my favourite books of the year, and quite possibly of the past decade.  Maggie O'Farrell perfected the balance of what to reveal and when, and what to just let peek out.


Again this felt like "modern gothic literature" although I still have yet to really understand what it means.  So if you like novels like The Thirteenth Tale and The Shadow of the Wind, this will suit your taste.   Any one who loves a good scandal and dark family secrets will also love this book.

The reader should also enjoy quick narrator and time changes since whose point of view and when it takes place changes at least every few pages.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In the Company of the Courtesan - Sarah Dunant

Rated: C

In the Company of the Courtesan

My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.
Thus begins IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN, Sarah Dunant’s epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to become a miracle of east-west trade: rich and rancid, pious and profitable, beautiful and squalid.
With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her...


I was a little disappointed in this novel. I had thought I had read Birth of Venus by Dunant, but it turns out for some reason I confused it with The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland (I know, total sacrilege to the art students out there). I feel a bit sorry for the book because of this - it isn't fair to compare anyone to Vreeland, who is one of my absolute favourite authors.

Because I started with that standard in mind, the book was just a little trashier than I would have liked. Granted, it IS about a courtesan, but the prose itself is just...vulgar. Again, granted this is probably for the above stated purpose, but I just didn't enjoy it as much. Unfortunately it is really hard for me to separate the two books in my mind. Everything about this book was just...less complex. Not simple, per se, but just not as tightly woven as a Vreeland book. I also prefer more introspective and philosophical moments than this book displays. I think the reason I am having difficulty critiquing this book is because I feel like it is a book I should like - but because I was deceived (by myself, sadly) I feel strangely let down.


An ok book. Weak prose, but a stable story line/plot. I didn't really like it, but I don't feel it's any reason any one else shouldn't like it.


Chick lit, historical fiction

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Evermore - Alison Noel

Rated: D

Evermore: The Immortals

Since a horrible accident claimed the lives of her family, sixteen-year-old Ever can see auras, hear people’s thoughts, and know a person’s life story by touch. Going out of her way to shield herself from human contact to suppress her abilities has branded her as a freak at her new high school—but everything changes when she meets Damen Auguste…
Ever sees Damen and feels an instant recognition. He is gorgeous, exotic and wealthy, and he holds many secrets. Damen is able to make things appear and disappear, he always seems to know what she’s thinking—and he’s the only one who can silence the noise and the random energy in her head. She doesn’t know who he really is—or what he is. Damen equal parts light and darkness, and he belongs to an enchanted new world where no one ever dies.


While I found the novel addicting, addicting doesn't mean a book with substance. It was your typical teen drama. There isn't a whole lot to say...by typical teen drama this is what I mean.

Don't read if you don't want spoilers!!! (although really, as I said, none of it is surprising).

Girl: Gorgeous but doesn't know it. Something traumatic happened to her in the past and now she's withdrawn and all the popular girls hate her.

Boy: Gorgeous. Perfect. Loves girl.

Girl loves boy but best friend loves boy. Boy loves girl. Boys ex-girlfriend tries to kill girl. Turns out Boy and Girl are immortal and pretty much soul mates.


Twilight. Without the bloody vampires. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but I will not be reading the rest of the series unless completely desperate. This story has been told, oh, only about a billion times now! At least Gossip Girl brings somewhat original ridiculous drama, and at the time Twilight was somewhat original...all these copy-cat stories are really getting on my nerves. For what its worth, the author made an attempt at originality by creating something LIKE vampires but not.


Teen readers, lovers of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. Good for a fluff read if you want some easy drama to pass the time.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Ice Queen - Alice Hoffman

Rated: A

The Ice Queen: A Novel

Be careful what you wish for. A small town librarian lives a quiet life without much excitement. One day, she mutters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks it into a new beginning.
She goes in search of Lazarus Jones, a fellow survivor who was struck dead, then simply got up and walked away. Perhaps this stranger who has seen death face to face can teach her to live without fear. When she finds him, he is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets--what turned one to ice and the other to fire.


I have read a few of Alice Hoffman's books before, and each time I am shocked by how beautifully she writes. For some reason it catches me by surprise in every novel without fail. That said, I think this is my favourite novel so far. Hoffman's prose is...indescribable. It is delicate and beautiful, yet paints a graphic, detailed picture in the reader's mind. The story is part fairy tale, part real life. And, as the main character references, this is definitely a Grimm's Brothers fairy tale. At one moment tragic, the next redemptive, this book encompasses everything one could ever want in a novel. It is realistic, yet supernatural. It is tragic...yet leaves you feeling uplifted at the end of the novel. I always find it hardest to accurately describe the novels that have the hugest impact on me. Words simply become inadequate.

Another reason why I love this book? I didn't even realize it til writing this review - the main character remains nameless the whole book. It in no way distracts from the story - it only adds emphasis to her first 30 or so years of trying to disappear into the background.

My only criticism? I could not figure out how she found out the truth about her mother. Did Ned tell her? When? I also had difficulty understanding how attached she was to her grandmother given her wish to keep everyone, including family, at an arms length away. I also wish the book had been longer - it spent very little time on the resolution. I would have liked more time with Ned and finding out how her lover (I don't want to spoil the ending with names) came back into the picture.


I am too easily entranced by fairy tales and beautiful prose. I am not sure I would love this in a reread, but perhaps because I only read the novel a week ago, the impact is still fresh in my mind. I really loved this novel and the journey it took me on.


I wouldn't recommend this for everyone. In fact...I'm not entirely sure who to recommend it to. People like me who love anything related to a fairy tale, anyone who loves good literature. Because of the themes of the story, its possible readers of Jodi Piccoult will enjoy this, although the approach and writing styles are completely different.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Peeps - Scott Westerfeld


A year ago, Cal Thompson was a college freshman more interested in meeting girls and partying than in attending biology class. Now, after a fateful encounter with a mysterious woman named Morgan, biology has become, literally, Cal's life.
Cal was infected by a parasite that has a truly horrifying effect on its host. Cal himself is a carrier, unchanged by the parasite, but he's infected the girlfriends he's had since Morgan. All three have turned into the ravening ghouls Cal calls Peeps. The rest of us know them as vampires. It's Cal's job to hunt them down before they can create more of their kind. . . .


I have to say this new fad of vampires has really fed me up with literature lately. Luckily, I read Peeps before Twilight, otherwise I would NEVER have picked this book up. If you are looking for sexy vampire love, don't look here. No sparkly vampires appear in this novel - vampirism is painted in a totally scientific light. Vampires are people who are infected with a parasitic virus. This is a totally new take on vampires and I love how it alternates between what is going on and descriptions of parasites. A chapter is devoted to the story line and characters, and then the following chapter juxtaposes this with a description of a parasite and how it works. This only emphasizes the scientific nature of vampirism and allows the reader to understand how the relationship between the parasite and the human interact. Although some readers may find this distracting, I liked how it was not incorporated into the story, allowing the reader to focus solely on Cal's life and the drastic changes he is going through as well as allowing the story line to build tension and anticipation as we discover why this outbreak has become so prevalent in modern times.


No matter how scientific the material can get, Scott Westerfeld manages to keep the story line from being bogged down and become stagnant. As always his prose keeps things humorous and filled with drama. An excellent read.


Anyone who likes drama will like this, and while the typical sci-fi reader may not enjoy this, it will spark the interest of those who enjoy biology. Anyone who has read Westerfeld's other series (Uglies, Pretties, Specials) will enjoy this series. Specific audiences targetted: Chick lit (although the focus is not love, there is enough drama involved and some minor love scenes that chick lit readers should enjoy this) and teen readers with a selection of sci-fi readers.

P.s. I Love You - Cecily Ahern


"A novel about holding on, letting go, and learning to love again.
Now in paperback, the endearing novel that captured readers' hearts and introduced a fresh new voice in women's fiction" — Cecelia Ahern.

Holly couldn't live without her husband Gerry, until the day she had to. They were the kind of young couple who could finish each other's sentences. When Gerry succumbs to a terminal illness and dies, 30-year-old Holly is set adrift, unable to pick up the pieces. But with the help of a series of letters her husband left her before he died and a little nudging from an eccentric assortment of family and friends, she learns to laugh, overcome her fears, and discover a world she never knew existed.


I found that the topic was moving, but I was unimpressed at how it was executed. The ideas and actions often wandered - something deep would be discussed and then BAM! - they're in the middle of the ocean? I understand, having dealt with the deaths of people I love, how one moment you are ok and then something tiny sets you off. Ahern did a good job showing the reactions of those in grief...but at times the situations Holly is put in seem so contrived.

The prose was not sophisticated - it almost sounded as if it hadn't been proof read. It just sounded...juvenile almost. The dialogue sounded so forced! The vocabulary was not very diverse...it made it hard for me to get fully absorbed in the novel.

On the other hand, the concept of this novel was outstanding. Although the story line wavered at time, if it had a little more continuity I would have loved the entire premise of this book. Ahern's take on death and grief was perfect - many authors have the tendency to overdo it and then have the character magically ok a short time later. I felt she depicted Holly's journey in a true manner. I also liked the ending (I don't want to give a spoiler here, but if you read the novel, you will understand what I mean in regards to the man).


Overall, plot was good, writing was not. An ok read.


Chick lit lovers who don't mind delving into a more serious topic.

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The Borgia Bride - Jeanne Kalogridis

Rated: 9 stars

The Borgia Bride: A Novel

Vivacious Sancha of Aragon arrives in Rome newly wed to a member of the notorious Borgia dynasty. Surrounded by the city's opulence and political corruption, she befriends her glamorous and deceitful sister-in-law, Lucrezia, whose jealousy is as legendary as her beauty. Some say Lucrezia has poisoned her rivals, particularly those to whom her handsome brother, Cesare, has given his heart. So when Sancha falls under Cesare's irresistible spell, she must hide her secret or lose her life. Caught in the Borgias' sinister web, she summons her courage and uses her cunning to outwit them at their own game. Vividly interweaving historical detail with fiction, The Borgia Bride is a richly compelling tale of conspiracy, sexual intrigue, loyalty, and drama


If you like scandal, this book is for you. Although this is filled with the highest of taboos, this book manages to maintain beautiful character development and a full, deep plot - it escapes the typical downward spiral to Gossip Girl style (which, although a guilty pleasure of mine, does not count as any kind of serious literature). Although it has a slow start, I think it only adds to the depth of the novel as the first few chapters introduce you to the true character of the main players in this novel. You become so attached to Sancha that you feel her heartbreak and rage through each trial she has. Kalogridis's prose only enhances these feelings - she expresses Sancha's range of emotions - from love to hatred, rage to despair, perfectly. This book has EVERYTHING: a page-turning plot, expressive prose, excellent character development. What I love most about this book? Based on what I have read surrounding this era - despite all the mind-defying drama...it is a feasible interpretation of the Borgia's and those who were affected by their opulent lifestyle.


A very interesting interpretation of the historical events surrounding the mysterious deaths and scandals of the Borgias. Very well written, full of intrigue - historical fiction at its best. A very good read.


Historical fiction lovers - especially for possibly the most scandalous age of Italian history. This would also appeal to those who like reading about love, war, betrayal, etc. Basically a book that can appeal to anyone who doesn't mind a little history.