Mini-reviews #10: A mixed bag

I’m still so far behind on both reading and reviewing. I’m still hoping to read six more books in December, but with just two weeks left, I’m not sure how possible that is! At any rate, I can at least try to catch up with the review backlog:

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J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country — This quiet, deceptively simple novel is about a World War I veteran who spends a summer restoring a medieval mural in a village church. Nothing much happens, plot-wise, but the narrator (now an old man) remembers this summer as one of the only times in his life when he was truly happy. I really enjoyed this book, which contains some subtle humor despite its overall tone of melancholy, and I’m interested in reading more by Carr.

Kate Parker, The Vanishing Thief — I should have loved this book, which is about a female bookseller in the Victorian era who is also a member of a secret society of detectives. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, which I found choppy and clumsy, nor was I interested enough in any of the characters to continue with the series. The author does have another mystery series set in the 1930s, which I might try, but I’ll definitely be going in with more moderate expectations.

code-talkerthis-adventure-ends

Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker — This YA novel is told from the perspective of Ned Begay, a Navajo man who enlists in the Marines as a teenager and becomes a “code talker” during World War II. Although the writing style is a bit simplistic at times, the book presents a good introduction to the Navajo code talkers, and it made me want to read a lot more about them! I was also very touched by the book’s dedication:

This book is dedicated to those who have always, in proportion to their population, volunteered in the greatest numbers, suffered the most casualties, won the most Purple Hearts and decorations for valor, and served loyally in every war fought by the United States against foreign enemies, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq–to the American Indian soldier.

Emma Mills, This Adventure Ends — I loved this book! It’s a YA contemporary novel that, while it contains a (very cute!) romance, primarily focuses on friendship. Main character Sloane has always been something of a loner, but when the charismatic Vera reaches out to her, she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a very tight-knit friend group. I found Sloane very relatable, though not always likable, and I really enjoyed all aspects of the story. Definitely recommended for people who like YA contemporaries — this is a fantastic example of the genre.

Review: The Paris Winter

Paris Winter, TheImogen Robertson, The Paris Winter

In November 1909, young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is in Paris pursuing her dream of becoming a painter. She studies at Lafond’s Academie, one of the few respectable art studios that is open to women. However, despite having some talent as an artist, Maud is living in extreme poverty and will soon have to choose between starving or returning to her family in England, which would be an admission of failure. Fortunately, Maud befriends Tatiana Koltsova, a fellow student at the Academie who is friendly, charming, and rich. Tanya takes Maud under her wing and eventually helps her to get a job as an English tutor for the Morel family. Both Sylvie Morel and her older brother Christian seem eager for Maud to accept their job offer, which includes room and board. But while Maud accepts the job gratefully, she can’t help feeling that it’s a little too good to be true. And the more she learns about the Morels, the more sinister they appear, until eventually she must seek out Tanya’s help to extricate herself from an unbearable situation.

I love historical fiction and was intrigued by the premise of this book, but I ended up with mixed feelings about it. First, I did love the setting, especially because it depicts a less glamorous version of Paris than many other books and movies do. Although Maud comes from the English gentry, she is forced to live a much more bohemian life in Paris, befriending people from each extreme of the class spectrum. And because she is not rich, she doesn’t have much opportunity to participate in the exciting, glamorous activities one usually associates with Paris during the Belle Époque. However, I wasn’t particularly invested in Maud as a character or in the plot involving her relationship with the Morels. It moved very slowly and eventually became a psychological thriller, which isn’t quite what I expected when I picked up the book. I thought both Tanya and Yvette, the artists’ model at the Academie, were more interesting characters, and I wish the book had focused more on their stories. That said, I did like the book’s denouement, which takes place during the great Paris flood of 1910. I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, but it’s not my favorite offering in the genre.

Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunJandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun

This novel is the story of a family tragedy and its aftermath, narrated in alternating chapters by twins Noah and Jude. Noah’s narrative begins when the twins are 13. He’s the quiet one who dodges school bullies and spends all his time painting; Jude’s the outgoing one who is popular and daring. Despite their very different personalities, Noah and Jude are incredibly close. But Jude’s story, which takes place three years later, reveals that something terrible has happened, and she and Noah are no longer speaking. Noah is living in denial, trying to act like a “normal” teenager, and Jude is trying as hard as possible to be invisible. As the novel alternates between Noah’s story and Jude’s, the nature of their tragedy is revealed, and it becomes obvious that each twin only has half the story. In order to move past their family’s secrets, both twins will have to forgive themselves as well as each other. Meanwhile, Noah falls in love with the boy next door and must come to terms with his sexuality, while Jude searches for redemption through art.

You may not be able to tell from my woefully inadequate summary, but I loved, loved, LOVED this book! And I honestly wasn’t expecting to…YA contemporary is a genre that varies widely in quality, and I hadn’t heard much about this author, so I was quite wary going in. But I was almost immediately captivated by the energetic, vivid writing style and unexpected imagery. I usually think that the best writing style is the least obtrusive, but this book made me sit up and take notice, in a good way! I also felt deep sympathy for both Noah and Jude, who are each trying to figure out who they are, while being burdened with a huge weight of guilt. Despite their overly precocious voices, they felt like real human beings to me. I loved the book’s focus on visual art and was fascinated by Jude’s quest to make a sculpture out of stone, something that is apparently a dying art nowadays. There’s even a touch of magical realism, as Jude often talks to her Grandma Sweetwine’s ghost. In short, if the premise of this book seems at all appealing to you, I HIGHLY recommend it!

Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Jane Austen Cover to CoverMargaret C. Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers

This is a book that delivers exactly what it promises: AustenBlog editrix Margaret C. Sullivan has compiled a large (though not exhausitve) collection of covers of Jane Austen’s novels, from the earliest published editions of the Regency period to the movie tie-in editions of today. The covers are arranged chronologically, giving Sullivan the opportunity to discuss related topics such as the publishing industry in Austen’s day, the waxing and waning of Austen’s popularity in both the U.K. and the U.S., and the Janeite resurgence that began in the 1990s with the iconic image of a wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The covers themselves are a delightful hodgepodge of different styles, from the somber scholarly editions to the far-out art of the 1970s. Overall, I enjoyed the book but found it rather insubstantial; it doesn’t really have anything to say about the broader cultural relevance (if any) of Austen cover art. Still, it would make a great gift for Janeites or for anyone who judges a book by its cover!

Review: That Summer

That SummerLauren Willig, That Summer

In 2009, Julia Conley learns that she’s inherited a house in England from a great-aunt she’s never met. She hasn’t even been to England since her mother died when she was little. When Julia reluctantly goes to London to get the house ready to sell, she teams up with her cousin Natalie and an attractive antiques dealer named Nick to sort through her great-aunt’s belongings. Julia is especially intrigued by a stunning painting that she finds in a wardrobe, which looks like it was painted by a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her quest to learn more about the painting leads her to the story of Imogen, who lived in the house with her husband Arthur in the 1840s. Imogen thought her marriage would be like a fairy tale, but in reality her husband is selfish and distant. She finally finds the love she’s been longing for when she meets a struggling painter named Gavin Thorne, who has been hired to paint her portrait. But will their romance last, or is it destined to end in tragedy?

I’m a longtime fan of Willig’s Pink Carnation series, so I was excited to read this book, her second stand-alone novel. As an added bonus, I really like Pre-Raphaelite art and was interested to learn a bit more about the movement. But while this was a fairly good read, I didn’t love it quite as much as I was hoping to. Both Julia’s and Imogen’s stories had the potential to be really interesting, but because the book divides its focus between them, neither plot is as rich as it could be. I had a hard time connecting to Imogen’s story in particular; the romance seemed to happen very abruptly. Also, I personally have a very hard time with love stories that expect me to condone adultery, so while I sympathized with Imogen’s plight, I wasn’t exactly rooting for her and Gavin to get together. Finally, I missed the lighthearted tone and occasionally silly humor of the Pink Carnation books. This novel is much more somber, and I didn’t find it as enjoyable. Overall, I’d say the book is worth a read if you’re a Willig completist (like me) or if you are particularly interested in the premise.