Happily Ever After?
The Reflections of Queen Snow White by David Meredith
First Line: “With a shrill keen the two young hawks soared over snow-capped peaks, reveling in the newly come spring.”
Note: The author kindly contacted me (Paige) to see if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his novel in exchange for a free copy. I said, “Yes, please!” Thanks, David!
At its core, this novel can be easily summed up as a “revisionist fairy tale.” We’re introduced to Snow White as a widow. She’s been in a miserable state since the death of her husband. She’s apathetic, both to the needs of her kingdom, and to her own daughter, Princess Raven. Sure, it’s a fairy tale spin-off, but what Meredith is really doing is wrestling with the heavy emotions of bereavement. Initially I wanted to peg this book as “teen fantasy,” but now that I’m finished it feels more like “historical fiction” with a splash of adult romance.
Isn’t it funny how our culture’s familiarity with these Bros. Grimm fairy tales get us thinking of them as actual, historical figures?
As readers, we can’t help but enter a story with “Snow White” in the title with some preconceived notions. Fortunately, Meredith does a nice job of making clear the distinction between fairy tale and reality. Snow White’s childhood is tough. There’s no sugar-coating. We witness her struggles and see how her troubled past has carried over to her adulthood. Our protagonist is woman with a lot of heartache, not a romanticized queen. She’s the victim of serious physical and emotional abuse–which, I think, makes more of an impact on modern-day readers than the “poisoned apple” trick.
While Meredith pushes the boundaries by highlighting the dark sides of Snow’s life, I would have liked to see more development with the secondary characters. I was curious to learn more about her daughter Raven. Instead, we’re solely focused on Snow’s story. It’s told through flash-backs (not my favorite plot technique) and I think this decision really limits the exploration of her other relationships. Sure, we see how Snow meets Charming, and we learn about her hardships, and we see the dwarves briefly…but I was interested to hear about her role as a mother, so it was kind of a let-down when this side of her was glossed over.
Overall, though, I enjoyed the read. I was sorry to see typos (there are a handful, unfortunately), but I look forward to hearing more about his upcoming work inspired by Japanese legend and folklore: Shirobara Falls.
Bottom Line: A fun read for fans of Once Upon A Time or for fan-fiction fanatics ages seventeen and older.
Going, Going, Gone!
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
First Line: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
I read Gone Girl for a book club. I think it’s a popular title for book clubs. It’s been a crazy bestseller. But, like…we all know that a “popular” book does not necessarily constitute a great book, right?
As always, I’ll try to be blunt in my assessment. Gone Girl is only “okay.” It’s a thriller that explores how far people might go for love, for revenge. We have two narrators: Nick and Amy. He’s a little ho-hum, a little cliche. Amy’s voice (we meet her through diary entries) is somewhat more convincing, but her clever quips can feel a little forced.
Flynn creates some interesting hooks to keep us reading, but I’m not wowed or inspired. It’s an easy read–fitting for a beach trip or a book club discussion. For a more dynamic experience, though, I’d recommend The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. The writing style has a little more depth, the characters’ development is more complex, and the plot has exciting twists and turns that, in my opinion, far surpass “surprises” of Gone Girl.
Bottom Line: I’m thinking the upcoming film adaptation might be an improvement!
Escape to the House of Woe
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
First Line: “When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.”
I’ve been meaning to read Amy Tan for awhile now, so her new bestseller seemed like a good place to start. The Valley of Amazement definitely maintains the mother-daughter theme that Tan is known for, but I finished this novel with the hunch that her other works must be better.
Yes, the reader is transported. The courtesan-culture of Shanghai is explored in extreme detail. Even the minor characters are memorable. We are given a sweeping history of, not one, but multiple female characters. We have two narrators to inform us of the family’s genealogy, and, surprisingly, I found the alternating voices to be rather refreshing. The dual-narrator device can get tricky at times, but in this read, the pacing worked for me. Instead of merely switching between mother and daughter each chapter, we spend an extended amount of time with Violet before launching into a flashback of her mother, Lulu.
Naturally, Tan finds many opportunities to highlight the interconnectedness of her characters. Everyone seems to run in a small social-circle, which inevitably plays into the reccuring theme of identity and Tan’s classic mother-daughter drama.
I appreciate a long read, but in the end, I found this one depressing. Lots of hardship and not much redemption make for a “particular mood” book that I probably won’t re-read.
Bottom Line: Although I’m not buying this book, I’m still interested in reading Tan’s earlier novels.
No Honeymoon-Stage Here
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
First Line: “She hadn’t heard the mailman, but Amina decided to go out and check.”
This book caught my eye when it first came out because I’d read Freudenberger’s story collection Lucky Girls a couple years back. Her short stories impressed me. This latest work…did not.
It’s somehow easier to explain why a piece of writing hooks us, instead of how it falls short. For me, at least, the dialogue in The Newlyweds is too stark, too dry. Perhaps this was a deliberate style choice for Freudenberger. I just remember her stories’ characters having more natural conversations, and more dimension.
Also, the pace was a little too slow. I appreciate the day-to-day details included about the couple, but I didn’t quite understand why I should care about them. I mean, Amina is nice and and all, but she doesn’t have that special, emotional spark I expect from protagonists.
I abandoned this book around page 80, when I realized I was experiencing the narrative as some ill-conceived, drawn-out, independent film. The kind where the ambiance is all gray and the actors aren’t convincing because their dialogue is disgracefully overly dramatic.
Maybe in a different mood I could have enjoyed it. But not today.
Bottom Line: Skip this, read Lucky Girls, and patiently wait for Freudenberger’s next release.
Magical Adventure Grown-Up
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
First Line: “Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist.”
At the start, this novel seems to take us back to fantastical, childhood make-believe. But continue, and it quickly becomes clear that so much more is at work. It’s about dragons, yes; but it reads like a grown-up novel!
In fact, there are multiple genres taking stage in A Natural History of Dragons. Part I introduces our narrator: the young, strong-willed Isabella. Her tomboy nature reminds me of Little House on the Prairie and those early chapters act as a concentrated coming-of-age story. We’re given the essentials of her childhood infatuation with biology and dragons in particular, then it’s a fast-forward to her teen years. The mandatory frustrations in finding a marriage partner (and the inevitable triumph!) in those chapters call up Jane Austen’s sophisticated sense of romance.
The following three-quarters of this book are equal parts travel memoir, adventure novel, and page-turner mystery. Isabella joins her husband and a few other fellows on an expedition in pursuit of–you guessed it!–dragons. To study the “rock-wyrms,” they take cover in the peasant town Drustanev. Adventure ensues in way of smugglers and kid-nappings, dragon attacks, cursed ruins, and Isabella’s persistent objection to gender norms.
A sequel, The Tropic of Serpents is due out in 2014.
Bottom Line: If you aren’t quite up for the hard-core science-fiction shelves, but you’ve out-grown adolescent fantasy, this novel is your niche.
A Casual Page-Turner
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
First Line: “Barry Fairweather did not want to go out to dinner.”
I had expected The Casual Vacancy to be quaint. I suppose I heard “small town” and got my hopes up for a generous 500-page portion of a cozy murder mystery set in the English countryside, sprinkled with colorful characters, dialects, which ended with a feeling of, “Oh, how lovely if the town of Pagford were real…”
Around page ten, I realized my expectations were dead wrong. The novel is no cross between the Agatha Christie genre and Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. This book is completely situated in the present-day, and aside from a delicatessen that’s been in business for 40 years or so, there isn’t much with this setting that struck me as charming. My take-away word for this book is “gritty.”
The town of Pagford is politically divided, and some difficult social issues are explored from both sides of the fence. There are some citizens who want the slum-y area in the outskirts of Pagford to be “removed” from their district; and others who, well, are optimistic about the future. An addiction clinic is also up for discussion, and the unexpected demise of Barry Fairweather makes the conflicts even more pressing. With Barry gone, the town council’s political deadlock is broken. Those fighting to keep the drug center running, for example, are down a vote; and the other, more conservative council members are vying to put on of their own in the open seat.
While the start-up conflict of the novel stems from the boundary line disputes, the true conflicts come from everyone’s internal struggles. Everyone in town has a secret—and I mean everyone. There’s drug abuse, domestic abuse, extreme bullying, countless marital frustrations, and a fair dose of psychological disorders. As the novel progresses, it’s the individual characters’ complicated personal lives that drive the plot, making the conflict with the council members more of a backdrop.
The reader eventually finds themselves yearning to see which troubled teen or disgruntled spouse will overcome their obstacles. Although everyone is in conflict with each other, it’s surprisingly easy—and confusing—for the reader to sympathize with all the characters strolling across the page. Even as they’re fighting with one another, it’s difficult to solely support one side. I find that The Casual Vacancy is, ultimately, an honest and in-depth exploration of humanity.
Bottom Line: Definitely a page-turner, and though I don’t regard this novel as the next best literary triumph, it’s sure to offer plenty of discussion opportunities at next month’s book club.