BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor, by Jason Gurley

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BOOK REVIEW: Eleanor, by Jason GurleyTitle: Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Published by Crown
Published: January 12th 2016
Genres: Magical Realism
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

Eleanor and Esmerelda are identical twins with a secret language all their own, inseparable until a terrible accident claims Esme’s life. Eleanor’s family is left in tatters: her mother retreats inward, seeking comfort in bottles; her father reluctantly abandons ship. Eleanor is forced to grow up more quickly than a child should, and becomes the target of her mother’s growing rage.   Years pass, and Eleanor’s painful reality begins to unravel in strange ways. The first time it happens, she walks through a school doorway, and finds herself in a cornfield, beneath wide blue skies. When she stumbles back into her own world, time has flown by without her. Again and again, against her will, she falls out of her world and into other, stranger ones, leaving behind empty rooms and worried loved ones.    One fateful day, Eleanor leaps from a cliff and is torn from her world altogether. She meets a mysterious stranger, Mea, who reveals to Eleanor the weight of her family’s loss. To save her broken parents, and rescue herself, Eleanor must learn how deep the well of her mother’s grief and her father’s heartbreak truly goes. Esmerelda’s death was not the only tragic loss in her family’s fragmented history, and unless Eleanor can master her strange new abilities, it may not be the last.

Eleanor opens with a woman named Eleanor, trapped in her home life as a mother and desiring to go swim in the ocean. At the end of the prologue, Eleanor, stripped to nakedness, walks into the ocean and never returns. Agnes, her daughter, feels the loss of her mother for the rest of her life. When she has twins, Agnes names one of her daughters Esmeralda while her husband names the second daughter Eleanor. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that the children each parent names are their individual favorites. The young Eleanor beings to realize this after a horrific accident kills her twin sister. After her parents’ divorce, Eleanor stays with Agnes. Agnes, in her grief, falls into an alcoholic spiral as she cannot handle seeing Eleanor everyday because her surviving daughter is the exact image of Esmeralda and a reminder of her own mother’s death and disappearance.

Eleanor cannot live up to her mother’s expectations, and that knowledge affects her relationship with her mother and her father. As she ages, strange things begin happening to her. Eleanor falls out of time, disappearing into the space beyond time. Sometimes she is gone for seconds or minutes, sometimes she is gone for much longer. When she is in this space beyond (or between??) time, Eleanor meets an entity that we as readers know has been watching Eleanor for a long time. Eleanor is given the option to change everything, a decision with which she struggles but eventually accepts.

I won’t spoil it, but the option of a resent and the whispery, time-free monsters that human language cannot define is so similar atmospherically to Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. If you liked that novel, I totally recommend this one, and if you enjoy magical realism, I wholeheartedly recommend this one. It’s lyrical, magical, and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s a read that will keep you thinking about what happens and what could happen long after you read the final page.

BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield

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BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine MansfieldTitle: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Published by Penguin, Penguin Classics
Published: 1922
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 159
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Innovative, startlingly perceptive and aglow with colour, these fifteen stories were written towards the end of Katherine Mansfield's tragically short life. Many are set in the author's native New Zealand, others in England and the French Riviera. All are revelations of the unspoken, half-understood emotions that make up everyday experience - from the blackly comic 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel', and the short, sharp sketch 'Miss Brill', in which a lonely woman's precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed, to the vivid impressionistic evocation of family life in 'At the Bay'. 'All that I write,' Mansfield said, 'all that I am - is on the borders of the sea. It is a kind of playing.'

I am trying to be better at reading short stories, and I saw a blurb about Katherine Mansfield’s short stories on Alice’s blog, so I checked it out and thought I’d be interested too! I enjoyed all of the stories. Some stories fell flat for me, but I thought this was a very well-rounded collection. My favorites were “The Garden Party,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” and “The Singing Lesson.”

Mansfield’s short stories read like impressionist paintings. I think they need to be looked at, examined, and mulled over for a bit before the meaning settles in. I finished the book about a couple weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about the stories.

In “The Garden Party,” the Sheridan family is in the midst of preparing for the titular garden party. During the set up of the party, the family finds out that their working class neighbor, Mr. Scott, has died. Laura, the daughter in charge of setting up the party, wonders if the party should be canceled out of respect for the death of their neighbor, but none of her family agrees and the party goes on. The story explores the differences between class and the awareness of class differences, the illusion created by the upper class to avoid dealing with certain realities, and the roles of life and death in day-to-day activities.

In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” two sisters are figuring out what to do with their lives after their father’s death. He was their only real relation as their mother died many years ago, and he was possibly one of the only stable men in their lives. The sisters have very little grasp on reality and how to exist in day-to-day life. This is shown through their inability to tell the cook how they want their fish cooked because they’re so used to decisions being made for them and their lives dictated by others. They are both so far removed from reality that when they try to think about what to do with their future, they forget what they are even speaking about in the middle of the conversation. It’s a terrible, haunting look at what happens when women aren’t allowed any agency over their own lives.

“The Singing Lesson” is about a teacher, Miss Meadows, who is engaged to a man five years younger than her. Basil, her fiancé, has written to her before the story begins calling off their engagement, and Miss Meadows enters the school that morning incredibly upset. Basil writes that their “marriage would be a mistake” and that he “love[s] her as much as it is possible for [him] to love any woman” because he is “not a marrying man.” The language in this convinces me that Basil is homosexual or confused about his sexuality and that he is doubting his convictions because he later sends Miss Meadows a telegram saying to disregard his letter and that he has “bought [a] hatstand,” again using language that symbolizes phallic imagery. It’s clear that Miss Meadows is unaware of her future husband’s sexuality, and her mood changes significantly when she receives that telegram because her future is secure again. The title itself evokes the symbolism of a bird in a cage, that women are pretty things to be caged and possessed, and that men ultimately control a woman’s fate and can change their minds at will with no repercussions to themselves. Both Basil and Miss Meadows are trapped by society’s expectations and both are forced to “sing out” what they’ve been taught.

I really enjoyed this collection, and I’m looking forward to reading more by her and by Modernist writers. If you enjoy Modernist and feminist writings, I think you’ll enjoy her work!

BOOK REVIEW: Passenger, by Alexandra Bracken

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BOOK REVIEW: Passenger, by Alexandra BrackenTitle: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Series: Passenger #1
Published by Disney-Hyperion
Published: January 5th, 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 486
Format: eBook, Hardcover
Source: Netgalley, Library
Goodreads

Passage, n.i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.ii. A journey by water; a voyage.iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them— whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are play­ing, treacherous forces threaten to sep­arate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home . . . forever.

We protect ourselves by playing the roles fit for the year we’re in.

Let’s just get this out of the way: I love time travel novels. I’m a huge sucker for them, and I always have been. Had this been released when about ten or fifteen years ago when I was at the age to which this is marketed (god, I’M SO OLD), I would have been all over this and would have given it a thousand and one stars. It still gets a solid rating from me, which comes as a positive thing after reading so many disappointing novels lately.

Etta, on the night of her big violin performance, is transported back in time onto a ship captained by Nicholas, a black pirate of sorts. Obviously there’s a romance brewing between the two, and even though it felt a little forced sometimes, I’m hoping it develops more in the next novel. It wasn’t necessarily an instant romance sort of thing, but the relationship seemed to progress quickly over a span of pages (even if those pages spanned several days). The romance progression felt typical for a YA novel, and that’s completely all right by me!

What I enjoyed most was the commentary on society then and now. Sophia, the other female time traveler whose original time is in the 1920s, says this really amazing thing to Etta about a hundred pages in:

So cling to your rights, your beliefs, your future – but know that none of them will help you here. You haven’t been forced to survive in the same way as the centuries of women who came before you. You know nothing of the impossibly small weapons we must use to carve out knowledge and power.

If I had read that ages ago, I think I would have shifted my thinking much earlier than it did, so I’m really pleased that Bracken is bringing to light the difficulties women have been facing for centuries to a young, modern audience. Not that her audience isn’t aware of it, but I’ve noticed lately in the classes I teach that some of the young women believe that they’ve always had the rights and advantages they have now, and I have to explain to them that within the last thirty or forty years we’ve progressed so much and that we still have so much to work for.

This is a super enjoyable romance-y time travel (with some logic!) novel that’s sure to appeal to fans of Sarah J. Maas, Susan Dennard, and Marissa Meyer.

I received a copy from Netgalley for my honest review.

Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard

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Truthwitch, by Susan DennardTitle: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
Series: The Witchlands #1
Published by Tor Teen
Published: January 5th 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Goodreads

On a continent ruled by three empires, some are born with a “witchery,” a magical skill that sets them apart from others.
In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.
Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safi’s hotheaded impulsiveness.

Safi and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship’s captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.

It wasn’t freedom she wanted. It was belief in something—a prize big enough to run for and to fight for and to keep on reaching toward no matter what.

I rarely seem to see fantasy geared toward younger female readers that focuses on the friendship between the female protagonists rather than focusing mostly or entirely on the relationships with boys that the girls have. Sure, there are elements of romance in this book, but I feel as if that romance is overshadowed by the importance of a strong bond of friendship.

Each of the girls, Safiya and Iseult, possess a supernatural skill set, a “witchery,” that allows them to do specific things at a heightened level. Safiya, a Truthwitch, can sense the truth in another’s words. Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see threads that bind and connect the lives around her. Iseult’s power doesn’t work as it should, though, so that adds a level of complexity in her self discovery. Safiya’s story seemed to be more conventional, following tropes of the genre, but I found Iseult’s story fascinating, fresh, and exciting. Both of the girls do rely on each other a lot as the book progresses, and in some ways they can’t live without each other. I think that’s where a lot of the real magic is for me.

In reading this, I was hoping for a spark of a lesbian relationship, because I think it certainly has the power to go there, but I am really thankful for the strength of their friendship. Their friendship never seems forced or contrived, and it never turns catty, jealous, or superficial (something I seem to see a lot with two female leads in books marketed toward young women). Safiya and Iseult are Threadsisters, which means they are bound together and closer than family. I was also hoping for more world building. I ran into this with Cinder, too. It’s as if we got a flavor of the world in which they live, but not enough to fully visualize it. We, as readers, are thrown into the beginning of the story with the barest glances at the history behind it. I was also hoping for a romance that didn’t seem to happen instantly like the one between Safiya and Merik because it didn’t seem to solidify itself and seemed less realistic to me. I’m hoping that with the next novel we get more world building and development all around!

Even so, I really enjoyed this one, and I can’t wait for the next one to come out. I try not to fall for the hype, but I found that this one certainly lives up to many of the accolades it has received.

BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

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BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard JacobsonTitle: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #2
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 9th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson brings his singular brilliance to this modern re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters: Shylock
Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice's “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter's rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”

A daughter doesn’t have to have an education to be taught how to hate her father. She can learn rebellion through an open window. It’s in the nature of a daughter.

Shylock Is My Name is Howard Jacobson’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I felt it to be such a let down after reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. I read Jacobson’s J last year and was disappointed in it in similar ways as I am disappointed in this one. While he can write, Jacobson is very disjointed in his writing, as if he is showing off to us plebs how smart, how intelligent, how verbose, how white, how upper class, and (in this case) how Jewish he is and therefore how much better he is than the rest of us. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those books that are written for men, about men, and by men that us helpless females are too different fundamentally to understand what it’s all about.

In this case, this is Jacobson’s rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I have vague recollections of reading this play and finding Shylock interesting, but this novel didn’t seem to capture the Shakespeare “essence” as I felt Winterson’s retelling did.

What I disliked about this novel is the consistent and sexually charged current of a father obsessed with what enters his daughter’s vagina. Yes. Literally. I don’t recall that interpretation made of Shakespeare’s play, so it caught me off guard.

In chapter eight, Strulovitch comments on his daughter, Beatrice:

It had been going on a long time. She was thirteen when it started. Thirteen in fact, twenty-three in appearance. Luscious. A Levantine princess. A pomegranate. She was luscious to herself, too. He had caught her looking at her reflection in the mirror once, pouting her lips and laughing at her own fullness, smoothing her thighs, pushing out her breasts, amused by the too-muchness but overwhelmed by it at the same time. As though it imposed a responsibility on her. Was this really her? Was this really hers to do with as she chose? […] Of course she had to deploy herself. Of course she had to feel her beauty had a purpose beyond her own gaze and, yes – because she knew he tailed her, knew he followed her into her own bedroom even – beyond his.

It continues throughout the novel with Strulovitch thinking about whether or not he should find his daughter attractive. He also, through the entire length of the novel, considers the utmost importance of his existence was to make sure that the penis that enters her vagina is circumcised and importantly Jewish so that Beatrice is not banished from her family. Strulovitch is incredibly abusive in all ways to his young daughter in the way that many fanatic religious believers are. As her father, he believes he controls her entirely, from her day-to-day life to her private, sexual life. When she doesn’t listen to him, he goes off and throws a tantrum, demanding that pivotal pound of flesh.

In all, I think because I am not both “male” and Jewish, I miss the point of this self-reflexive novel. It brings to the forefront questions of Jewish morality in the modern age and whether or not the honest Jew should bend to the modern ways or be rigid as tradition dictates. And where The Merchant of Venice is argue as anti-semitic, I wonder if Jacobson’s novel is meant to be a mirror to it of sorts as it is constantly questioning the role of Jewishness in society where Merchant did not.

And where the play is unsympathetic toward Jewish people, this novel is unsympathetic toward women. It’s incredibly misogynistic in a way that’s uncomfortable and anger-inducing. Men do not own women and should absolutely never control the expression of a woman’s sexuality, no matter what age or relation. But alas. I don’t think Jacobson works for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything of his in the future.

This book was provided to me for my honest review by Blogging for Books.