Sunday, April 7, 2013

Eclectic: Historical, Middle Grade, Dystopian, Regency

Sometimes the books I read have a natural thematic link: this week, the only existing link seems to be my occasionally eclectic taste (and my Whitney list).

46. Matt Peterson, Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero (Whitney finalist, middle grade). Andrew Jensen doesn't quite feel like he fits in--at church, school, or elsewhere. But he's still looking forward to his upcoming Boy Scout backpacking trip. The trip, however, doesn't go as planned. From the tempestuous rainstorm that drenches their campsite to an unexpected tragedy, Andrew and his friends find out that they are stronger than they think they are. There were a lot of things to like about this book: I like how naturally Andrew's LDS faith was woven into the story, and, especially once the kids were on their scouting trip, the pace of the story was brisk. I would have liked a stronger sense of voice--it wasn't always clear to me how Andrew's perspective was any different from the other boys in his troop. Some of the other boys also felt sort of interchangeable to me, but I'm not sure this is a  concern that would affect any of the book's intended audience. In general, I think it's a cute, harmless book that would appeal to young readers (especially boys).

47. Martha Ward, Spinster's Folly (Whitney finalist, historical). (Disclaimer: although this is the fourth book of a series, this is the first of the books I've read.) I was looking forward to this book, as I've read a fair amount about women in the nineteenth-century American West, and the premise seemed promising. Newly settled with her family in Colorado, 18-year-old Marie Owen worries that she's dwindling into a spinster. She's angry with her father for not taking care to arrange a marriage for her as he did for her brothers, and she wonders who she could possibly marry in their relatively small community. After she confronts her father, he agrees to arrange a match for her--but Marie finds herself strangely uncomfortable with the match and with her intended's attitude toward her. She resolves to talk to her father about her concerns, but before she can do so, she's sweet-talked into eloping with a man who is not what he seems and Marie has to confront the consequences of her own "folly." Ultimately, I didn't enjoy the story as much as I had hoped. Ward does a nice job with some of the dialogue--the characters and attitudes seemed convincingly nineteenth century. The novel also worked well as a stand-alone novel; I didn't feel like I was missing essential information by not reading previous novels). I also enjoyed the minor character of Janette Rallison (a novelist whose books I admire). However, I really struggled to like Marie. First, I'm not convinced that at 18, a frontier woman would be on the shelf (many women married younger than this, true--but many were also older). Marie's mood swings were sometimes also inexplicable to me--how she was so intent on marriage, but once a match was arranged she became apprehensive. I also wasn't convinced at how quickly she agreed to elope with a virtual stranger--she seemed like a relatively intelligent, compassionate girl and I couldn't figure out how she could miss all the warning signs. I also found it a little hard to understand how Marie could miss the open admiration of the one man in the novel who was genuinely interested in her, to the point that she really thought she had no marriage prospects. Ultimately, I think I found it hard to get into the book because I had such a hard time relating to the main character.

48. Marie Lu, Prodigy. I've been looking forward to this book as I really enjoyed Legend. I liked Prodigy, but I don't think I loved it as much as I loved the first book. In this sequel, Day and June have made it to Vegas, only to be intercepted by the Patriots, who are working to overthrow the Republic. Then the Elector dies, and the Patriots want to assassinate Anden, the Elector's son and new Elector, throwing the country into chaos. Only they need Day and June to help them, as their popularity will help further destabilize the Republic. What I liked about this novel: I liked how much of the plot was unexpected; I liked that the politics were complicated, in a lot of good ways. What I didn't like as much: June and Day are separated for a fair portion of the novel, and I felt like it was their interactions that made me like Legend so much. I also didn't feel like I saw quite as much character growth here as I did in the first book (perhaps because June and Day have already overcome a lot of their original antipathy). Still a strong, well-written novel--I look forward to reading the conclusion to the trilogy.

49. Jude Morgan, An Accomplished Woman. At the ripe age of thirty, Lydia Templeton is a confirmed spinster, though as a woman of independent means, she's quite content with her lot in life: the season in London, summers on her family estate and in the company of pleasant neighbors (including the gentleman she inexplicably rejected ten years earlier). But when a dear family friend asks Lydia to escort her young ward, Phoebe, to Bath, Lydia finds her comfortable life overset. For Phoebe has a peculiar problem: she's deeply in love with two young men, and she counts on Lydia to help her make a decision. And although Lydia is determined not to interfere, she finds it increasingly difficult to keep her resolution. . . . As a reader who grew up reading Georgette Heyer's regency novels, I found this book fun and refreshing (and often laugh-out-loud funny). Admittedly, the plot is slow moving at times (this is true of some of Heyer's novels as well), but I loved the characterizations and I loved Lydia's sly point of view. While the romantic element is downplayed, there were still some nice moments of tension (especially toward the end). Mostly, though, I just enjoyed reading a regency novel that didn't strike me as silly or shallow.

50. Jokai Mor, The Baron's Sons. Since this is a translation of a mid-Victorian novel, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the writing sometimes seems uneven: sometimes funny, biting, brilliant; other times over-the-top sentimental or sensational. The story follows the three sons of an evil Baron (in the original Hungarian, the title is the stone-hearted man's sons). On his death-bed, the Baron dictates instructions to his wife, who then proceeds to ignore all of them, especially concerning her sons. The two oldest sons, Odon and Richard, are drawn into the intrigues that precede the 1848 revolution in Hungary. The youngest son Jeno, an artist, follows the revolution but manages to remain above it, although it will ultimately touch him intimately. I have to admit that I enjoyed reading the book, but my enjoyment came primarily from the historical and local color element: it was fascinating to get a glimpse of a pivotal historical period from a man who himself lived through the revolution (Jokai was 22 when the Revolution started).

51. Eva Ibbotson, The Countess Belowstairs. I try to save gushing reviews for more literary books, but I have to admit that I really adored this book--and it will likely go on my "to re-read soon" shelf. Anna and her family, Russian nobility, flee to England after the 1917 revolution. Penniless and desperate to find work, Anna accepts a job with the Earl of Westerholme's family as a house maid. Although the butler and housekeeper suspect Anna's noble background, they give in to her pleadings and agree to let her stay--and her charming presence begins to transform the house. As always, there's a complication: Anna finds herself drawn to the attractive Earl, Rupert--but Rupert is already engaged to the beautiful Muriel Hardwicke, who nursed him back to health after he was wounded in World War I. Muriel's money is saving the Westerholme estate and her beauty initially blinds Rupert to her other, less appealing characteristics. Of course the storyline is pretty predictable and the main characters unrealistically virtuous, but I still loved the story (for me, this is the best kind of fluff reading). Anna is adorable: quirky, warm-hearted, funny. Rupert is a little less developed in my head, but he's honorable and loyal and you can't help liking him for that. But really, I think it was the secondary characters who steal the show here: Proom, the butler, who betrays his stiff upbringing to save the family; the elderly uncle who likes to pinch maids but adores music; the little neighbor girl, Ollie, who's plucky and charming; Rupert's best friend, who's in love with the rich--but plain--Jewish neighbor girl . . . and so many more.

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