Summer Reading, part 2…

or getting my YA on

Finished Beautiful Creatures last night and can’t wait to get my hands on Beautiful Darkness. I was really surprised that I enjoyed the book as much as I did. I’d been getting away from YA during the last year… I’d had a hard time finding books that I could connect with and was starting to worry that I was losing my youthful whimsy. I haven’t lost it :). Beautiful Creatures drew me in from the start. It’s not perfect—there are some scenes that turned me off, especially the party scene, and it’s YA, so there is bound to be the near insta-love element that is so common in this kind of fiction, but it worked for me.

What I find especially engaging is the way that the Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl evoke the unique character of the South. The individual voices are wonderful–especially among the adults in the book. Who doesn’t love Ethan’s kooky aunts and the magical Amma?–and the settings are nicely rendered and imagined. There is a great atmospheric quality to the narrative that almost reminds me of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches series (without all the minute details).

I was afraid this would be one of those in-the-shadow of Twilight books, but it is most definitely not. The romance between Ethan and Lena is easy and develops naturally, though you know it’s bound to happen the moment they meet and there’s that shock of attraction (and I do mean shock). There’s love and sacrifice, but it’s not a toxic love, and that’s one of the best things I can say about any YA depiction of romance.

Even as I write this, I find myself thinking of The China Garden by Liz Berry, another great YA read about a family curse and one of my favorite books. I’m sure fans of Beautiful Creatures would love it too!

No Greater Sacrifice

No Greater Sacrifice by John C. Stipa

When Renee d’ Arcadia, archaeologist learns that she is terminally ill, she decides it’s time to take any chances she can get. Grasping at straws, she starts a quest to learn the secrets of the legendary Eleusinian Mysteries, a purification rite that might just provide her with the lifeline she needs. Never did she think that a trip to Greece would place her at the center of a dangerous plot, or bring her closer to sexy David Arturo.

Part adventure, part rollicking romance, and part ancient history lesson, Stipa’s novel is a sort of Da Vinci Code meets Indiana Jones with a dash of mysticism.

I don’t read much in the adventure/thriller genre, but when I do, I like to be absorbed by the story. This was a quick-paced and engaging read. I especially appreciated that Renee was not the sort of damsel-in-distress female sidekick that is so often introduced in such novels, but a strong, determined woman capable to getting herself in and out of scrapes.

I received my review copy of No Greater Sacrifice from John C. Stipa.

You can find a copy of the novel on Amazon and Barnes and Nobles

Old Photographs

Old Photographs by Sherie Posesorski

Phoebe is your average girl–she does alright in school, enjoys sports, and has a terribly distracting crush on Colin, the top debater from the local boys school’s debate team. Trying to while away the summer months while her only friend, Yuri, spends the holidays in Tokyo, Phoebe passes the time cycling and reading Agatha Christie novels (Yuri’s favorites). One day, Phoebe spots a garage sale and decides to take a look around. Sure enough, she finds all kinds of treasures, but the best find of all is Mrs. Tomblin, the elderly woman running the garage sale. Noticing a couple trying to take advantage of Mrs. Tomblin’s too-trusting nature, Phoebe steps in to make sure she isn’t abused and soon learns why Mrs. Tomblin is being forced to leave the home she’s lived in since she was married. Taking to her, Phoebe starts to learn more about Mrs. Tomblin, offering her assistance whenever the happen to meet her. When Mrs. Tomblin becomes the victim of a crime, Phoebe wants her friend to receive the justice she deserves–the last thing she expects is to find herself caught up in a mystery the likes of which only Miss Marple can solve… Does Phoebe have what it takes to become the Toronto Miss Marple and solve the case?

Old Photographs was a treat to read. Phoebe comes across as a real teen with all the insecurities and idealism that comes with being a teen. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and new stepfather, she misses her family, and she wishes she could understand how to make things better for everyone involved, but she isn’t perfect and this isn’t a fairy tale. Family life is depicted in all its messy, irrational glory, as are the feelings stirred by poverty and privilege. Her crush on Colin is sweet and entirely understandable–smart boy with an Irish brogue, what girl wouldn’t crush on him? But what I found most thought-provoking and inspiring about the novel was its very real treatment of aging and Alzheimer’s. I haven’t read many Young Adult novels that touch on the subject, most being the sole territory of the young and adventurous; Phoebe’s relationship with Mrs. Tomblin illustrates all the frustrations that this terrible affliction causes. The only other YA novel I can think of at the moment that explores aging in such a manner is April and the Dragon Lady, but I think this is a topic that is relevant to many teens living with grandparents or near elderly neighbors (all the elders near me love to terrify me at least once a month by forgetting to turn their stoves off). I really enjoyed Phoebe’s transition from reader to sleuth, and couldn’t wait to see where her investigations would lead.

I received my copy of Old Photographs from Second Story Press. You can learn more about the novel and Sherie Posesorski here.

You can find Old Photographs at The Book Depository and Amazon.

The Girls from the Revolutionary Cantina

The Girls from the Revolutionary Cantina by M. Padilla

I’ve been making an effort to broaden my reading horizons. When I took the multicultural lit course this summer, I realized that my reading has a very Anglo bias. Other than works by some Asian-American writers–Gail Tsukiyama, Lisa See, for instance–most of my reading tends to be white. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is my penchant for British literature. So I’ve been making a concerted effort to read across cultures. Oddly enough, I find that I read a lot of multicultural books when I was a kid, from slave and Native American narratives to Jewish-American fiction and more, I don’t know how much of this was due in part to the curriculum when I was in grade school, and how much resulted from constant desire to know more about other people, places, and times as I was growing up.

That’s kind of a long wind-up, but it goes to show that I’ve somehow become more limited in my reading choices as an adult.  When I saw The Girls from the Revolutionary Cantina listed on the LibraryThing Members giveaway a few months ago, I clicked to enter the giveaway and was really excited when it arrived. I was already reading Latina lit for my class and this seemed like a great chance to try something new. Another explanation… yeah, yeah, I’ll get to the review in a moment 😀 … If the Z at the end of my last name isn’t a dead giveaway, my being from South Florida might be a sure indicator that I’m Hispanic. I’m Cuban-American to be precise. I won’t go into a thesis on why I use the term Hispanic rather than Latina when referring to my ethnicity, but I will say that my being a Cuban-American from Miami definitely affects my reading of Latina/o literature, especially Chicano/Mexican-American Cali lit. It’s a very different cultural experience, even the Spanish slang differs. There is a lot of cultural discovery when I read Latina lit, including realizations about my own experiences as a 2nd gen. Hispanic girl.

At first, I did not think I would connect with Padilla’s Girls. Julia seemed a little too self-deprecating for me, and Ime and Concepcion too superficial. Nina and Marta were interesting, but they seemed like minor characters by comparison. I was wrong. I soon became absorbed in the plot and started to connect with Julia and her desire to prove herself as an independent career woman in a society that had little regard for girls from the barrio. I grew up watching novelas with my mom and granma, as do most girls in Miami. Novelas are the Hispanic woman’s primetime entertainment–long, soap series generally involving some sort of love story between treacherous wealthy people. Sometimes there is a Cinderella-story plot featuring a poor woman or man from a village or small town falling in love with some rich person. There is always a rich person, or someone always comes into money and love. You need both, after all for a happy ending. This novel was almost like a novela–the kind of novela I wish were being broadcast, instead of the impossible fantasy stories. Girls has all the challenges, romance, and drama of a Spanish soap, but it’s also a story about finding one’s self and realizing that you can become the person you want to be and still hold on to who you are at heart. It’s an empowering tale. There is no perfect, tie-a-ribbon-around-it happy ending, but it is all the better for its honesty.

Getting off the soap-box… this was a fun, chick lit read that really surprised me–especially when I realized Padilla is a man.

From Trafalgar House to Knightsbridge

After reading Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel, Sanditon, for the Austenprose read-along, I was left with the need to know more about the characters that populated that quiet seaside resort town. I had put off reading Sanditon for that very reason–I knew that when I read it, I would be left wanting more and there would be no more to be had. Like the last bite of a wonderful desert, I would cherish the sweetness of that last bite but would be left unsatisfied. Like Austen’s other novels, Sanditon offers a look at the little dramas that mark small-town living. However, this time, Austen takes her readers away from the country to the coast when the observant Charlotte Heywood is invited to stay with the Parkers in their home in Sanditon, a budding seaside resort town that Mr. Parker hopes will become as lucrative as the more well-known bathing spots. In Sanditon, Charlotte is introduced to a fascinating cast of characters, from hypochondriacs to impoverished, but highly romantic wards. Sadly, we only get to know these characters briefly before the fragment ends.

However, in 1975, Marie Dobbs, under the pen name “Another Lady,” took up the challenge to complete Austen’s Sanditon and the result is a delightful and satisfying treat. Another Lady takes up her pen where Austen left off and continues the tale. There is no jarring shift in the narrative style, Another Lady adopts the language and style of Austen, developing the plot and characters in a careful and believable manner. Her Sanditon has all the fun and novelty of Catherine Morland’s adventures, Fanny Price’s astute observations, and the eventfulness Emma’s of close-knit town life.

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After finishing Sanditon, I was in the mood for another social comedy, so I took up Ada Leverson’s Love’s Shadow (received from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program). A close friend of Oscar Wilde’s, Leverson’s style and tone is similar to Wilde’s biting, quick wit. Love’s Shadow offers an engaging look at the ludicrous things we do for love. Like Wilde, Leverson offers a meddlesome cast of characters whose actions only serve to confuse one another. At the heart of the story are the Ottleys, Bruce and Edith, a very ordinary middle-class Edwardian couple wishing for a little more excitement in their very ordinary lives. Edith’s friend, Hyacinth Verney has all the excitement and independence that Edith craves, but only wants for the attention of Cecil Reeve, a young man who only has eyes for a much older woman who refuses to indulge his fancy.

Love’s Shadow is a fast-paced, amusing romp, Leverson revealing the foibles of her characters in a series of vignettes. It almost reminds me of Colette’s Claudine and Annie, particularly the dissatisfaction that seems to accompany love as experienced by Edith and Hyacinth.

The Grand Sophy has arrived

Though I have been meaning to read her works for a while, The Grand Sophy is my first time reading Georgette Heyer and it certainly won’t be my last. After browsing several reviews and blurbs, I finally settled on The Grand Sophy from Heyer’s many novels and was not disappointed.

When Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy prepares to journey to Brazil, he leaves his darling Sophy in the care of her aunt, Lady Ombersley, but little do the Ombersleys know that the “Grand Sophy” will soon turn their quiet home life upside down! Unapologetically wilful and intrepid, Sophy arrives in a house turned dismal by debt and ill-chosen matches. Sophy’s eldest cousins, Cecilia and Charles have made up their minds to marry persons who are all wrong for them, as Sophy soon discovers. There is nothing else for it, it is up to Sophy to make things right and restore her family’s former happiness.

Reading Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance is often said to be the next best thing to reading Jane Austen and I can now see why. Sophy is definitely a young lady who would be right at home among the Bennet sisters, her humor and candid nature making her fit fight in with Austen’s heroines. I loved Sophy’s personality and her seeming naiveté; she comes across as entirely unassuming but somehow manages to make everyone do exactly what she wills. Her rollicking, yet carefully planned [mis]adventures with her cousin Charles and Lord Charlbury are some of the funniest moments in the novel, and the ending is sweet and fitting.

The Mermaid Summer

The Mermaid Summer by Mollie Hunter

Everyone knows that nothing displeases the mermaids that haunt the Drongs (a stone formation off the coast of the village) more than humans who ignore their hold over the seas, but Eric Anderson, a jovial fisherman with little regard for the legendary creatures of the sea disregards the power of the mermaids, he finds that his self-assurance leads him into a whirlpool of trouble. When an enchantingly beautiful but deadly mermaid lures his fishing fleet into the dangerous waters that surround the pointed Drongs, Eric Anderson is certain the end has come. When his life and that of his companions is spared, Eric’s shame at bringing the mermaid’s curse upon his men and their families forces him to leave the village and take the curse upon himself, but Eric’s granddaughter, Anna refuses to believe that her Granda Eric will never return.

When Eric begins to send his family gifts from the many lands he journeyed to, his family is pleased, but worried. For his grandchildren, he selects gifts are more meaningful than he suspects: a conch shell and knife for Jon; a jade comb,  a silver mirror, and a multi-hued fabric that shines with all the colors of the sea for Anna. Do these gifts have the power to break the mermaid’s curse? And will Anna and Jon be brave enough to use them?

For years, I remembered reading a book about a mermaid when I was in 5th grade, but I never could recall the title. This was in 1995, that’s a long time to remember a book. Thanks to a LibraryThing tag search, I was finally able to track down the book–it was The Mermaid Summer by Mollie Hunter, the image of the book’s cover on LT had the same haunting mermaid that caught my eye when I was a tween. I didn’t actually finish The Mermaid Summer that time; I remember that I checked it out during the last few weeks of the school year and had to return it to the school library before I could read it through because classes were ending and I would be moving on to middle school after the summer holidays. I never found it again after that because neither my city nor my school library had a copy; eventually, I gave up on ever finding it–I had so little to go on except that it was a mermaid book with an interesting cover. I was so thrilled to finally track it down after so long!

The novel reads like a sea legend; the tale of a vengeful mermaid and a pair of cunning children in a Scottish fishing village. The mermaid is portrayed as a dark and powerful creature, in the tradition of the Sirens, her song allowing her to charm and destroy those who dare deny her. It’s an interesting, fairy-tale like tale, but the feminist in me had some trouble with the portrayal of women(girls) as vain, flighty, and impulsive. It is clear that this is Anna’s story; her actions are the ones that drive the story to its end, but these are depicted as unwise choices resulting from a foolish, stubborn girl’s curiosity. The mermaid, while a powerful creature, is nevertheless portrayed as a vain and self-centered girl, her actions arising as a result of her desire to be revered and exalted as the most awe-inspiring mermaid. The story almost carries the caveat so often associated with the old tales of seafaring men–“Ay, keep yer women-folk off yer boats and out of the seas. Nothing but trouble do they bring.”

However, I can now understand why I was so fascinated by this story when I was a kid; there weren’t that many children’s books that featured dark fantasy. Most mermaid books were of the Ariel variety–lovelorn girl wants to become a human. The Mermaid Summer is definitely not about a sweet, lovelorn mermaid who likes to sing. She’s cruel and takes pleasure in riddles; while Jon and Anna are no innocent children swayed by the magic of a beautiful mermaid.

What a [Steam]punk

Scott Westerfeld came to Books & Books on Sunday afternoon to promote the first book in his new steampunk trilogy, Leviathan.

I have yet to read the Uglies series, though it has been on my “I will get around to it one day” list for a while, but after reading a blurb for Leviathan and seeing the wonderful book trailer, I knew I wanted to get to this one soon.

When I learned that Westerfeld was going to be making an appearance, I bought a copy and marked it down on my calendar.

The event was one of the most interesting ones I have attended, and they’ve had some interesting YA events. Mr. Westerfeld of the steampunk masterpiece presented a highly entertaining lecture on the history of illustrations in books and the idea of emergent technologies at the turn of the century… and deadly dart pooping birds. He was funny and informative and the images, many of which will be published in the companion guide to the series, were amazing.

Here are some pictures from the event (click to enlarge):

a laundress and an heiress

Netflix is usually pretty good about recommending period films for me to watch, more often than not based on books… so I can thank it for a few recent discoveries, including Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and now Catherine Cookson’s The Black Velvet Gown.

After watching the ITV adaptation of the novel, I felt that the film only touched the surface of the tale and left a lot to be desired. Therefore, in a very Hermione-esque fashion, I turned to the library. And there were dozens of Cookson novels, including The Black Velvet Gown.

As I thought, the film did not do justice to what is an engaging and captivating novel about class conflict, the power of education, and the position of women in Victorian England.

Cookson’s novel tells the tale of Riah Millican’s struggle to survive as a widowed mother of four in the Northern English countryside. Born in a seaport town, Riah married an outsider from the coal pits of the North, but wants more for her children than the sea or the pit. Taught to read and write by her husband, Riah and her children possess more education than most of the members of the lower class. Not only are they educated, her children have never been forced to work in the pits. Consequently, most of the other miners frown upon the Millican family, regarding them as snobs and social-climbers. Rejected by her neighbors when her husband dies, Riah is forced to return to the seaside port she so hated as a child, until an opportunity arises that changes her family forever.

Moving to the country, Riah finds employment as a housekeeper in the home of Percival Miller, gentleman and recluse. Initially refusing to suffer the presence of Riah’s children, the master soon becomes taken with Riah’s children, particularly her son Davey, and makes it his duty to further their education. However, it is Biddy, Riah’s eldest daughter, not Davey who takes to the plan, exhibiting an insatiable desire to learn that raises her far above her station, if only in education.

The master’s scheme irrevocably alters the Millican family and allows them to learn the meaning of knowledge and power as Biddy rises from her position as an abused laundress – the lowest member of the rigid hierarchy that exists among the servants at the local great house where she is sent into service – to establish herself as the intellectual equal (and often superior) of the members of the household that she serves.

A brief and not-so-concise overview of my latest reads

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

I first tried reading this when I was 13, but I lost interest sometime after Beth died, so I quit and stuffed my copy away never to be seen again. A little over a month ago, I was browsing around Books and Books and came across a nice looking little copy, the new Puffin Modern Classics edition for kids, and could not resist buying it. At the time I thought, maybe I am ready for a second try. I was. I picked it up as soon as I finished The Host, unwilling to let it become another “someday” book in my ever-growing pile. I could not put it down. I think I was not quite ready for Jo’s older personality when I was a kid (I remember not liking Mr. Bhaer’s moralizing when I was younger and think this may have also contributed to my rejection). I almost quit during the whole Pilgrim’s Progress scheme, but I stopped myself and did not regret my decision.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell:

I had never read Elizabeth Gaskell before, admittedly I had never even heard of her until a certain someone mentioned “Cranford” and piqued my interest in the Gaskell mini-series… erm… series (I know, this is blasphemy for someone who calls herself a lover of Victorian lit). I have to say I was really satisfied with this novel, and started to think of it as a sort of nineteenth-century version of Pride and Prejudice with more class issues and politics. Also, though I tend to have difficulty connecting with male characters, I found myself much more sympathetic towards John Thornton than Margaret Hale.

Stop In the Name of Pants! by Louise Rennison:

After two classics, it was time for something completely different… opposite end of the spectrum different. With its raunchy humor and general silliness, the Georgia Nicolson series continues to make me laugh out loud. May the general horn never grow old…

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin:

I do not read many biographies, but Jane Austen is one writer that I am truly interested in, not because of any speculation regarding autobiographical elements in her novels, but just because I find her to be an absolutely fascinating woman, despite her so-called quiet life. This biography is haled as one of the best by Austenites, telling the history of Jane, her family, friends, and neighbors, as garnered from the letters, diaries, and journals of those who knew her, and the few documents written by Jane that survived the well-meaning censorship of her sister and niece. Parallels are also drawn between the novels and Austen’s life.