BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory Maguire

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BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory MaguireTitle: After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Published by William Morrow
Published: October 27th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: eBook, Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss, Library
Goodreads

From the multi-million-copy bestselling author of Wicked comes a magical new twist on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis's Carroll's beloved classic. When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice's disappearance?

In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings — and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll's enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice's mentioned briefly in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late — and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself. Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is After Alice.

Our private lives are like a colony of worlds expanding, contracting, breathing universal air into separate knowledges. Or like several packs of cards shuffled together by an expert anonymous hand, and dealt out in a random, amused or even hostile way.

In his previous retellings of famous fairy tales and stories, Gregory Maguire has a tell-tale style that draws you in, hooks you, and doesn’t let you go until he’s finished telling his story. I found After Alice to be lacking this particularly in Ada’s story. I think had it been more focused on Lydia’s becoming the woman of the house and the struggles she finds with that at the tender age of fifteen, or of Siam’s story as a former slave from Georgia, or of Darwin’s particular visit to the house that day I would have liked it more, but Ada’s part of the story (which should have been the most interesting) fell flat. I did particularly like Maguire’s take on the Jabberwocky, the bits and people about Oxford that were to come (which bordered on metafiction), and there were some lines that resonated with me. Otherwise, I felt that this was a draft of some kind with no real cohesion.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

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BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne LeonardTitle: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard
Published by Penguin
Published: December 30th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A prince with a quest, a beautiful commoner with mysterious powers, and dragons who demand to be freed—at any cost. Filled with the potent mix of the supernatural and romance that made A Discovery of Witches a runaway success, Moth and Spark introduces readers to a vibrant world—and a love story they won’t soon forget.

Prince Corin has been chosen to free the dragons from their bondage to the power Mycenean Empire, but dragons aren’t big on directions. They have given him some of their power, but none of their knowledge. No one, not the dragons nor their riders, is even sure what keeps the dragons in the Empire’s control. Tam, sensible daughter of a well-respected doctor, had no idea before she arrived in Caithenor that she is a Seer, gifted with visions. When the two run into each other (quite literally) in the library, sparks fly and Corin impulsively asks Tam to dinner. But it’s not all happily ever after. Never mind that the prince isn’t allowed to marry a commoner: war is coming. Torn between his quest to free the dragons and his duty to his country, Tam and Corin must both figure out how to master their powers in order to save Caithen. With a little help from a village of secret wizards and rogue dragonrider, they just might pull it off.

He burned for her, and she for him, and it was as unstoppable as rain in spring.

I expected more dragons. There weren’t enough dragons. As described in the back cover summary, Prince Corin is summoned and entrusted to free the dragons from a powerful neighboring country. He meets a young woman, Tam, who discovers her ability to see beyond while staying with the court at the royal castle. Ok, that seems perfectly fantasy enough. Some snippets from reviews in the first few pages also name the styles of Jane Austen’s novels and William Golding’s The Princess Bride. Awesome, right? Because I do enjoy those.

Ehhh. I wish this novel had some more advertising about the romance. It’s definitely a fantasy romance. It’s got fantastical elements in it, but it’s mostly about the instant romance between Corin and Tam. I don’t find instant romances in books all that believable, and I find it difficult to believe those romances will last longer than the span of time in whatever book in which it happens. With the references to dragons and politics, I was hoping for more of that. Not so dramatic as A Song of Ice and Fire, but something with a little more heft at least. Moth and Spark reads like endless court gossip.

However, once I realized I was in for a romance, it ended up being a pretty decent standalone novel. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s an escape from everything else, which is what some novels are excellent for. I think I liked it more for it being a standalone because I don’t think I’d read the rest in the series just because it isn’t something I expected. Anne Leonard’s a solid writer, and she can capture dialogue and romance well without it being too cheesy (although I will admit there are several moments of cheese that I rolled my eyes at). I just wanted more dragons, because I thought her dragon construction was incredibly interesting!

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.

Post-Modern Victoriana; Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White

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Post-Modern Victoriana; Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the WhiteTitle: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Published by Mariner Books
Published: September 1st 2003
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 901
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

At the heart of this panoramic, multidimensional narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape to a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters. They begin with William Rackham, an egotistical perfume magnate whose ambition is fueled by his lust for Sugar, and whose patronage brings her into proximity to his extended family and milieu: his unhinged, childlike wife, Agnes, who manages to overcome her chronic hysteria to make her appearances during “the Season”; his mysteriously hidden-away daughter, Sophie, left to the care of minions; his pious brother, Henry, foiled in his devotional calling by a persistently less-than-chaste love for the Widow Fox, whose efforts on behalf of The Rescue Society lead Henry into ever-more disturbing confrontations with flesh; all this overseen by assorted preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all stripes and persuasions.

Twenty years in its conception, research, and writing, The Crimson Petal and the White is teeming with life, rich in texture and incident, with characters breathtakingly real. In a class by itself, it's a big, juicy, must-read of a novel that will delight, enthrall, provoke, and entertain young and old, male and female.

Agnes lowers the latest issue of The Illustrated London News to her lap, offended and upset. An article has just informed her that the average English woman has 21,917 days to live. Why, oh why must newspapers always be so disagreeable? Have they nothing better to do? The world is going to the dogs.

Michel Faber’s vast expanse of a novel delves into the life of a nineteen year old prostitute named Sugar. And by vast expanse of a novel, I mean it’s a doorstop. I sometimes felt awkward bringing it with me wherever I went because it’s so large. But it’s one of those novels that doesn’t feel large and impossible at all. It’s so engaging and lush that you very nearly believe you’re right there in 19th century London.

I read The Crimson Petal and the White many, many years ago, before I decided to go for my degree in English and before I really knew anything about post-modernism and Victorian literature. When I read it for the first time, I read it for the historical fiction aspect of the novel. Historical fiction, especially fiction set in England, is one of my favorite things to read, so naturally, a huge one that’s vaguely scandalizing was something meant for me.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of post-modernism, a very concise way to describe it is that there are many truths to one story, that there are different perceptions and ways to know something, and that life is infinitely more complex than our puny human minds could ever fully comprehend. The University of Pennsylvania (found in a link from Wikipedia), in a course description, suggests that

Postmodernism articulates a world that is culturally one of multiplicity, diversity, contingency, fragmentation and rupture and accepts that we now live in a state of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve.  Postmodernism promotes the notion of radical pluralism, many ways of knowing, and many truths. From a postmodern perspective knowledge is articulated from local perspectives, with all its uncertainties, complexity and paradox. This viewpoint suggests that knowledge is relational and that all reality is woven and rewoven on shared linguistic looms.

It’s one of those -isms that can never fully be explained because of the definition itself, but that’s one I particularly enjoy for a semblance of clarity.

Anyway, not to digress too much, Faber touches on this post-modern viewpoint in the terminology of itself and in the fact that one cannot return to Victorian England, so that viewpoint of that time is through the lenses of our own time. We, as readers, cannot help but interject our own views and perceptions of the world upon this as the author imposes his view of the time on us in tandem. The narrator plays with the reader on several occasions, dropping little bits about the state of women in that time and about authorship itself. Both Sugar and William aspire to be authors, but for William it’s an occupation, but for Sugar the prostitute it’s a means to pass the time with hopeful abandon; and Agnes writes vivid accounts in her diaries, which give major insight into her madness, only to discard them in a frantic act. Other characters speak about authorship, being an author, or even comparing their roles in life to roles in a novel throughout the course of the book.

A conversation between a poor man and Henry, William Rackham’s older brother, offers a quip that’s pretty clearly a dig at famous authors like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins:

“You ain’t a norfer, are ye?” he asks.
Henry repeats the strange word to himself silently, straining to divine its meaning.
“I beg your pardon?” he’s obliged to ask.
“Orfer,” repeats the man. “A fellow as writes books about poor men that poor men can’t read.”

Sugar, especially, having spent much of her time reading, compares her new role of governess to roles of governesses she’s explored in the novels she has read (which is a spoiler, my apologies):

Sugar steps back, confused: if she’s so superior in rank to the household servants, where does she get her deep-seated notion that governesses are lowly and despised? From novels, she supposes – but aren’t novels truth dressed up in fancy clothes?

The Crimson Petal and the White offers so much to a variety of readers, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed about it the second time around. My biggest frustration about it is the ending. It’s a bit abrupt, there isn’t much explanation as to why what’s done is done, and in some ways it reads to me as if Faber had to end somewhere otherwise it would continue on and on for ages. He’s apparently published a collection of stories set before and after the novel called The Apple that others have said read like “deleted scenes,” so I think I’ll have to find that in the library for further reading. I’m most desperate to know what happens to Sophie, William and Agnes’ daughter.

There is so much detail to delight in as you read this novel. Faber is a master at weaving those old world ideas and sensibilities with our modern perceptions in this, and you hardly know where one ends and one begins. It’s incredibly enjoyable, and I’m glad it’s my first read of 2016.

And, at the very end (more spoilers, but you’ve already made it this far), we as readers are offered the suggestion that someone we know, perhaps Sugar herself, wrote the novel, giving more rise to the post-modern ideas of authorship:

And to you also: goodbye.

An abrupt parting, I know, but that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?

#RockMyTBR Challenge 2016

Sarah’s #RockMyTBR is a challenge focused on reading all of those books that have been sitting on our shelves for ages! I want to read at least 40 books on my shelves, mostly ones I haven’t read, but a few I have. I want to focus on curating my collection to books I really, absolutely, and totally adore. It’s part of my personal challenge to have less stuff and do more with what I have.

My personal particulars about this challenge is that none of these books can coincide with the other challenges in which I’m participating. They can, however, be books I’ve read before, but I want to keep rereads for this particular challenge to a minimum.

Here’s a partial list of what I plan to read:

  • Harold and Maude, Carol Higgins
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (read it ages ago, want to revisit before reading the second)
  • Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald (personally recommended to me by Julian Barnes)
  • Stoner, John Williams
  • The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
  • From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  • The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

THE OFFICIAL LIST

  1. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber
  2. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket