Monday, March 4, 2013

More Whitneys--with Enthusiasm!

I sort of forgot to number my books last week. Numbers aren't my strongest suit, but I think I'm up to . . .

29. Polly Shulman, Enthusiasm. I'll admit--I picked up this book at the library because it had a cover blurb from Stephenie Meyer, and I was curious about the premise. It more than met my expectations; it was a darling story. For years, Julie's been dragged along by her best friend Ashleigh's wild enthusiasms. She's more or less used to it by now. But, just before their sophomore year begins, Julie's dismayed to find that Ashleigh has glommed onto what has always been Julie's private enthusiasm: a love for all things Jane Austen. Ashleigh decides that they must find suitable Mr. Darcys--and since they are unlikely to find such a creature at their public high school, Ashleigh convinces Julie to help her crash a dance at a local all-boys prep school. There, they meet a real candidate for Darcy-hood in the form of Parr, a tall, handsome, sensitive student (and one whom Julie has long admired in town without knowing his name.) Problem is, Ashleigh thinks he's pretty great too, and Julie doesn't have it in her to fight Ashleigh's newest enthusiasm, even if she wanted to . . . I thought the story was a lot of fun, and I loved the strong relationship Julie and Ashleigh had. I liked, too, that while there were the resident evil girls from school, those girls were pretty much just a minor backdrop: the real story focuses on Julie and Ashleigh's friendship, Julie's troubles understanding boys (and her fear of a lack-luster first kiss) and their growing friendship with Parr (who really is pretty great).

30. Ka Hancock, Dancing on Broken Glass (Whitney General). I thought this book was lovely. On her 21st birthday, Lucy Hancock falls hard for Mickey Chandler, a boy several years her senior with a history of bipolar disorder. Although Mickey does what he can to discourage Lucy (experience has taught him the hard way that long-term romantic relationships don't often work with his disorder), he can't help falling for her as well. And so they marry. Lucy, however, has her own complicated history: her parents both died while she was young--her mother of breast cancer. At 26, Lucy fights her own (successful) battle with breast cancer, but the she and Mickey make the difficult decision not to have children. Eight years later, a routine doctor's exam reveals something unexpected (and I don't really think this is a spoiler, because you can see it coming): she's pregnant. Suddenly, she and Mickey have to reconfigure their entire relationship. There were a lot of things I loved about this book, from the beautiful language (some sentences I had to reread just to absorb them) to the engrossing characters. I loved Lucy and the close bonds she has with her sisters; I also loved Mickey, who was broken, but who loved Lucy as much as he could. I liked how the novel dealt so positively with difficult things--not that the author glossed over the difficulties or made light of them, but that she showed how the characters weathered difficult things because they loved each other, and that love was sustaining and ultimately redemptive. There were a few moments that were just a little too "precious," but I think that's hard to avoid in women's lit, given certain genre expectations--and any novel dealing with a baby is bound to have a few of those moments, I think.

31. David Butler, City of Saints (Whitney Speculative). The author describes this as a "gonzo steampunk adventure" and I think that description is pretty accurate. The story takes place in an alternate 1850s U.S.--one where the Mormons have established a separate Kingdom of Deseret, Russians own the Northeast, and Harriet Tubman (I presume she's the "President Tubman") has established a community of African Americans in Mexico. I was intrigued by the story from the opening scene, which has several different factions racing to Salt Lake to try to recruit the Mormons (and their rumored air ships and phlogistan guns--whatever those might be--developed by Madman Pratt) for their side as the North and South inch towards war. Captain Richard Burton, a world explorer, drags along his foppish side-kick, Absalom Fearnley-Standish, in behalf of her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Samuel Clemens leads a delegation for the Northern States. And Edgar Allan Poe, disguised as a gypsy, leads a delegation for Robert E. Lee and other Southern sympathizers (apparently, Poe faked his death in 1849). The author shifts point of view frequently, which was a little disorienting in the beginning, until I got all the different factions established in my head. Butler does a pretty good job of giving each POV a fairly distinctive voice, and the writing cracks a long at a good pace. The premise and the characters were a lot of fun--I enjoyed the parade of familiar historical characters (in addition to those already mentioned, readers meet Porter Rockwell, John D. Lee of the Mountain Meadows Massacre infamy, Bill Hickman, Eliza R. Snow, Brigham Young, George Q. Cannon, Heber Kimball, and others). I was impressed by the steampunk element too: the author clearly knew enough about modern weaponry to invent a realistic range of mechanical inventions. The book I read actually spans four novellas (available separately at Amazon: Liahona, Deseret, Timpanogos, and Teancum). And despite the compelling premise, I started to get a little bored about 2/3 of the way through when all the different gun fights started to blur together for me. I would have preferred a little less action and a more compressed story. There is a fair amount of gore (not surprising in a western where everyone carries a western), which may not appeal to some readers. I also really struggled with Eliza R. Snow's character, since she shows up as a kind of Mata-hari character: a kick-ass fighter who's willing to seduce men in order to achieve her objectives. I wrote a dissertation chapter on Snow and her use of rhetoric, and the Snow in this novel bears little resemblance to the Snow I studied. (I know this sounds like quibbling, given how much of the novel requires some suspension of disbelief, but this was one element I couldn't quite swallow).

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