Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

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Review: The Seamstress

Seamstress, TheFrances de Pontes Peebles, The Seamstress

This historical epic set in 1920s and ’30s Brazil tells the story of two sisters, Emília and Luzia, and the bond they share despite the very different directions in which life takes them. They grow up in a small mountain town, where they eke out a living as seamstresses. Emília dreams of someday moving to a big city, dressing in fine clothes, and leaving poverty behind forever. Luzia, whose arm was deformed after a childhood accident, simply wants to escape her cruel nickname of “Victrola.” Emília eventually achieves her goals by marrying the rich Degas Coelho, but she find herself unprepared both for Degas’ family and for the strict rules of Brazilian high society. Meanwhile, Luzia is abducted by a gang of bandits led by the notorious Hawk, but she eventually discovers a certain aptitude for their way of life.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it paints an extremely vivid picture of Brazilian life during this time period, encompassing wealthy city dwellers, powerful country landowners known as “colonels,” and the impoverished rural folk who equally fear the colonels and the bandits as they constantly prey upon each other. I know basically nothing about Brazilian history, so it was fascinating to immerse myself in this unfamiliar setting. I also really liked the central relationship between Emília and Luzia; even though they are very different people, and they don’t spend much time together in the novel, they still share an obvious bond. On the other hand, the book is very slow-paced, and I honestly found it a slog a lot of the time. It’s definitely worth reading if the setting interests you, but I must admit, I’m just relieved to have finished it!

Review: The Club of Angels

The Club of AngelsLuis Fernando Verissimo, The Club of Angels (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

The narrator of this short book, Daniel, is a member of a very exclusive society of gourmands: He and nine other men regularly meet at each other’s houses to feast on the most delicious, exotic, flavorful meals they can create. The club hasn’t met recently due to some bad blood between the members, but then Daniel meets the mysterious chef Lucídio, who agrees to cook for them. The club members all converge on Daniel’s apartment and are delighted to find that Lucídio’s cooking is the best they’ve ever tasted. But then one of the guests mysteriously dies the next day — and the meal Lucídio had prepared was that guest’s favorite dish. The club continues to hold more dinners, and another member dies after each one. Yet for some reason, Daniel and his friends can’t resist experiencing these exquisitely perfect meals, even with the knowledge that each bite could be their last.

From the moment I read the epigraph of this creepy little novel, I was hooked: “All desire is a desire for death. — A possible Japanese maxim.” Verissimo wasn’t being lazy in his attribution; the saying is actually referenced in the novel, and it highlights Daniel’s unreliability as a narrator. From the start, he warns us that he might be making up the whole story, and then he goes on to give a brief philosophy of the detective novel. So you’ll know within the first two pages whether you’ll like this book or not; I thought it was weird and thought-provoking and very good! My library shelves it in the mystery section, which doesn’t make sense to me, since “whodunit” is clear from the outset (well, kind of). But watching the motives slowly unfold was interesting and surprisingly suspenseful. I should also point out that this book is set in Brazil, and the main characters are essentially a microcosm of Brazilian society, from the political protester to the ex-priest to the criminal. Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot and would definitely recommend it, as well as Verissimo’s other novel, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.