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One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
448 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical/Fantasy

Nobel laureate Márquez founded magic realism with the publication of this novel, considered his masterpiece. It is at once Latin American social commentary, a fictional biography of the region and its culture, an epic chronicle of a South American village's rise and fall, and the family history of the Buendias. Plot: there really isn't one, aside from the conglomeration of the previously mentioned topics. This is such a wacky novel! My head hurts from trying to distinguish all of the Aurelianos (and José Arcadios, and Amarantas/Úrsulas/Remedioses). And can there be much more incest? Unfortunately, for me the book has one fatal flaw: I didn't once care about any of the characters. They were born and they died, but I only kept reading because I wanted to finish reading.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in magic realism, lit theory, or Latin America, I highly recommend One Hundred Years of Solitude. Character development is not a strong point, but in many ways, that is the point.
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Perspectives on American Politics
by William Lasser
402 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Nonfiction/History/Politics

I found this (text)book randomly on my desk one day, presumably left over from Modern American History. Since politics is more interesting to me than history, I started reading it on a whim. I skimmed through several essays; here I'm going to discuss the three that I found most intriguing.

First, Peter H. Schuck's "Affirmative Action--Don't Mend It or End It--Bend It" presents a sensible and moderate suggestion for reforming affirmative action: ban it in the public sector but allow it in the private sector as long as the preferences are publicized and transparent. His main issue with affirmative action as it stands is also mine--that the principle requires deviating from that of nondiscrimination (defined as not "treating people differently because of their race, ethnicity, or other protected characteristics" (122-3)). Schuck cites Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, and MLK as civil rights leaders who rejected preferences as the best path to racial equality. There are also some interesting statistics on blacks' social gains, of which I'm not sure how much to believe since it involves complicated economic controlling factors and separating variables; however, his point sounsd true. "My point, emphatically, is not that blacks have achieved social equality--far from it--but that the situation facing them today is altogether different than ti was when affirmative action was adopted" (123). And he goes on to assert that this correlation is not causal.

Former Ivy League presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok conducted a study on admissions outcomes, race, and SAT score (however flawed that measure of merit may be) at highly selective colleges. The conclusion I found most notable: "with a score of 1500 or above, more than a third of whites were rejected while every single black gained admission" (124). The narrowing of the race gap in higher education, moreover, does not prove affirmative action's effectiveness because one can never know what would have happened if the blacks who displaced higher-scoring applicants at elite schools had gone to less prestigious universities; would they have done as well? Affirmative action does not end at the undergraduate level; in law school admissions, a highly numbers-based process, Schuck claims that in the early 1990s "only a few dozen of the 420 blacks admitted to the 18 most selective law schools would have been admitted absent affirmative action" (124). Furthermore, those black students statistically have a lower first-time and overall pass rate for the bar exam than white students. Preferences also overwhelmingly benefit immigrants (of black or Latino descent), the upper middle class, and multiracial students who self-identify as white.

Thus the solution: hold public institutional to the standard of nondiscrimination, while regulating private institutions' use of preferences on conditions of transparency and protected classes (that is, a private policy favoring whites would be illegal because "Caucasian" is not a protected class). Schuck argues that a public law affirming racial preferences is pernicious and societally damaging in a way that voluntary private provisions are not. Affirmative action fails to treat the underlying problem, but that does not mean that it should exist until the root cause is treated; the time for reform is now.

In "Breaking the Two-party Monopoly," Douglas J. Amy details the problems inherent in a dominant two-party political system. Plurality rules often result, even in multi-party systems, in minority parties being underrepresented with regard to seats vs. votes. Amy argues that the solution is proportional representation, "an antitrust law for the party system" (249), which would allow but not require a fair multiparty political framework. He supports this by examining U.S. cities that have adopted PR; for instance, Cincinnati still has essentially two parties but New York City's 1947 council consisted of 12 Democrats, 5 Republicans, 2 Liberals, 2 Communists, and 2 American Laborites. Sounds like an interesting and effective method that would force politicians to actually utilize cross-party coalitions. Amy admits that PR would be unfeasible in presidential elections due to plurality, but this does not necessarily preclude the existence of a multiparty parliamentary legislature.

Finally, Mark C. Miller argues in "Judicial Activism in Canada and the United States" that activist roles are common only to U.S. judges; Canadian judges more often pride themselves on judicial independence and nonpartisanship. I found the piece illuminating as well as illustrative of my shameful depth of knowledge regarding Canadian history or government.
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Climbing the Stairs
by Padma Venkatraman
247 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Historical

Vidya is fifteen and wants desperately to go to college. Unfortunately, Indian girls in British-ruled India during World War II are destined for marriage, not higher education; fortunately, Vidya's appa (father) is a progressive freedom-fighter doctor. A tragic accident forces Vidya, her amma (mother), and her older brother Kitta to move to the traditional extended-family household of her paternal grandfather thatha. She finds refuge in her grandfather's library, up the stairs in the forbidden men's section of the house; and she meets a boy named Raman who genuinely cares for her (even if he falls into the typical sexist ways through habit).

I connected very deeply with Vidya, the classic adolescent protagonist struggling against cultural expectations--even more because I know that the prejudice she experienced still goes on today. People still self-censor paki because it has such racist connotations and is part of contemporary bigotry. On a craft level, I thought that Venkatraman used a different, and more realistic, way of resolving the romantic thread; however, I was a little dissatisfied with Raman's character arc, as he never stops trying to "help" Vidya. His overprotectiveness makes for an unbalanced relationship. Still, I enjoyed their romance and the family conflicts--I found the story gritty, painful, and real. This is a riveting coming-of-age story written by a woman of color about a woman of color. Recommended, especially if you are doing the [livejournal.com profile] 50books_poc challenge.
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Catch-22
by Joseph Heller
463 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical

Um, WTF?

This was funny--not as funny as Pratchett, not even close, but still good for a few chortles. Still, I didn't get it. I kept waiting for the book to have a point, until I reached the last page and still didn't get it. I thought it was funny, even laugh-out-loud funny at times; but not hilarious or even uniformly entertaining. A novel can't sustain itself on humor alone, and the only other impetus driving me to turn the pages was an objective curiosity in what-happens-next. Now that I know what happens next, and am not impressed, I've lost all impetus. The ending left me confused and dissatisfied.

That said, for experimental fiction Catch-22 is immensely approachable. And several of my friends adore this book. The plot: Yossarian, a bombadier in presumably alter-world WWII, has lost his nerve. And he's even flown the required 45 missions--if he were in any other squadron but Colonel Cathcart's, he would have long been safely home. (SPOILER) So, after 450+ pages of random (often funny, but still bizarrely random) storyline, Yossarian decides to follow his good buddy Orr to Sweden. --That, seriously, is the entire plot of the novel. The events in between are largely irrelevant and never stuck in my mind, save for the unimportant details like Milo's complicated egg-market scheme in Malta (which I still don't quite understand).

And that's all I got, folks. Maybe you'll make more sense out of the catch.
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Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology
by Nick Gevers (ed.)
441 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/SF/Historical

I read the first two stories but never finished this anthology; I'm just not that interested in steampunk. The magic was cool, but the mechanical aspect bores me. Of the first two: "Steampunk" by James Lovegrove is about mechano-boxing and maintained a level of not-particularly-engaging throughout. "Elementals" by Ian R. MacLeod is about magic, of a sort; the concept is more original but execution still failed to compel my attention. All of this is likely my fault, not the authors'; the only conclusion to be drawn here is that people who don't like steampunk in general probably won't like this steampunk anthology. Y'know?
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The Duchess, Her Maid, the Groom & Their Lover
by Victoria Janssen ([livejournal.com profile] oracne)
379 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Romance/Historical

The Duchess Camille married for duty; now she endures continual abuse from the duke who controls her and her land. Having yet to produce an heir, instead of hanging around waiting for her husband to kill her, Camille flees with her loyal servants--eunuchs Kaspar and Arno, maid Sylvie, and stableboy/lover Henri--to find refuge with her childhood flame Lord Maxime.

Although I bought this book because I'm acquainted with the author and observed the writing process, the premise is interesting on its own--I adore power-dynamic imbalances. Camille's coldness and Henri's naivete were annoying at first, but they both grew on me. My favorite character, though, was Kaspar--he is so fiercely protective and easy to love. The title is a little misleading: "Their Lover" is I assume Maxime, but he's really only the Duchess's lover, and why didn't the eunuchs deserve title-notoriety? I did enjoy the diversity (of many different kinds, though much of it was thump-on-the-head obvious) and the French-historical-esque setting. The final verdict is mixed--I find it compelling and worth rereading--yet, it doesn't feel truly memorable.
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The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie
355 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical/Fantasy

An experimental-ish magic realism novel, with interesting new perspective on historical figures--Amerigo Vespucci, Niccolò Machiavelli, Akbar the Great (the one who tried to invent one faith that encompassed all, I believe). The setting is European but with a global feel and non-Western reach. What plot exists revolves around a travelling storyteller who calls himself Mogor dell'Amore (the Mughal of Love in butchered French), who seeks and entrances Akbar the Great with his tale. Storytelling is definitely vital here, although I'd need to reread the book to understand fully. The frame tale is intricate and confusing but a beautiful reading experience with equally resonant prose--a good thing, because I wasn't kidding about the lack of driving plot motivation. Rather, it is a novel that wanders leisurely around time and space and grabs the reader's curiosity just enough to sustain itself, like Jodha is sustained by Akbar's passion/love/imagination. And if I hadn't read it too late, I might have chosen this novel instead of The Handmaid's Tale (similar drifting style, but totally different in genre) for my research paper.

I believe Rushdie is either atheist or agnostic, which may account for the appealing philosophical bits. I loved Akbar's musings on I/we pronouns, on the divine right of kings, on morality, on creation (where the magic realism part comes in). "Wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in ritual, unthinking obeisance before a deity but rather, perhaps, in the slow, clumsy, error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path" (310). I will be reading Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in May, so I look forward to mentally comparing the two.
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The Nine Tailors
by Dorothy Sayers
397 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Historical

In The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey visits a small village called Fenchurch St. Paul. A mystery is afoot, of course. The bells, to whom the title refers, play a major role that I didn't "get" until the second last page of the book, and even then I didn't truly appreciate their significance to the theme. Apparently this is part of a linked series, in which case--oops. But Sayers did not click for me on several levels, so I don't think it would have made a difference.

I want to say the style is hard-boiled noir--it is so very British--but the murder is not as important as in typical noir pieces. In fact, the mystery itself is secondary to the process of solving said mystery. This is a very different book from the typical historical mysteries, dense with assumptions of knowledge like how a church bell-tower is structured. And the plot is simply not compelling to me, although I admire Sayer's command of plotting and can see why others appreciate her so much. She is dissimilar to, yet much the same as, Agatha Christie; Christie also plots complexly but manages to make them more accessible--both ouvres have a distinctly British feel that I enjoy on a meta level but cannot make up for lack of plot or character engagement.

Major ROT13 spoilers: Fb gur oryyf xvyyrq Qrnpba--vf gung npghnyyl cbffvoyr? V jnfa'g njner gung ivoengvbaf/unezbal pbhyq or sngny. Vg svgf cresrpgyl jvgu gur erfg bs gur cybg ohg V unir gebhoyr oryvrivat va gur cynhfvovyvgl bs npghnyyl qlvat sebz oryy-evatvat. Jrveq.

In conclusion, an excellent and deep piece of literature, though not one that I particularly care to read again. The ending is cool in a fun-fact kind of way but, unless you're a true mystery fan, not worth plodding through 400 pages of labyrinthe story to find out. YMMV, as I know many on my flist will disagree vehemently in comments (I look forward to the discussion!).
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The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
341 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical

A mandatory read, and given its exalted position in the Western literary canon, I don't regret having read this; but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Hawthorne's style is way too ostentatious. I appreciate the literary depth but the actual story could have been much better told in a different (concise) style. Even if one refuses to sacrifice imagery, certain word choices are just ridiculous.

What, you don't know already know the plot of The Scarlet Letter? Hester Prynne, a young Puritan wife sent to the New World whose husband is presumed lost at sea, commits adultery and gives birth to a daughter she names Pearl. The main action takes place when Hester's husband (going under the name Roger Chillingworth) arrives in the colony on the same day she is enduring her decreed punishment--to stand upon the village scaffold for three hours at noon, and to wear a scarlet letter A upon her breast for the rest of her life. The town's favorite young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is also involved...

Is this good literature? Sure. Is this a good novel? I would argue no. For one, the plot is suspiciously coincidental and sometimes frustratingly implausible. How does Hester just happen to be walking in the town at midnight when Dimmesdale decides to go stand on the scaffold? Having decided to give in to temptation and leave the colony, why does Dimmesdale still not have the courage to tell Chillingworth to bugger off? As a reader, the plot left me unsatisfied.

Of course, on a literary level there is much to contemplate. I am in turns appreciative of and disturbed at Hawthorne's underlying message, whatever it may be. He obviously championed truth and justice, as idealized/idolized/symbolized in Pearl; but did he truly condemn Hester and Dimmesdale's relationship, to the point that they would never meet in Heaven? The couple is buried apart in the end, their ashes unmixed, but in a Puritan cemetery--and Hawthorne shows little support for the Puritan definition of morality. And if both Hester and Dimmesdale go to Heaven, where each will be eternally happy, then shouldn't they have to be together, in order to fulfill said requirement of eternal happiness? A part of me wishes that Hawthorne were secretly a progressive who wanted to show that adultery in certain circumstances isn't always EVIL and SINFUL; but the conventional lit mind points out all of Pearl's "punishments" aimed at Hester and Dimmesdale.

In the end, I remain ambivalent save for one point: Hawthorne needed to study the perils of purple prose. Enough said.
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Tigana
by Guy Gavriel Kay
676 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Historical

This is my third pass of Tigana and my second front-to-back read (the other time being a skim-through of Dianora's sections). I still love Kay's prose, overwrought as it sometimes is; the ending still killed me, though no tears. I love Dianora as usual; more unusually, I loved the riselka legend. Although I don't understand the last sentence of the Epilogue--three men see a riselka, one is blessed, one forks, one shall die. Devin, Alessan, and Baerd: which is which? The ending has very neat couplings--Devin/Alais, Alessan/Catriana, Baerd/Elena--I wish Dianora could have had a happier ending, but I know it's not meant to be. Alais is almost too perfect, but I grew to like her; Alberico is too conveniently focused on power. He is, as Brandin says, ambitious but nothing more. The theme of memory works perfectly to tie all the various plot threads together. And how did I miss the incest scene on my first two passes? Heh. The little things are what I like best about this novel; for instance, go back and read the first sentence of Chapter 1 after you finish the book (and do read the afterword if it's in your edition). Also, Kay's poetry is awesome. Not as good as the pieces in The Lions of Al-Rassan, but still awesome.

However, the espoused view of feminism is disturbingly cynical. Quileia, a matriarchal land to the south, is overthrown by Marius to become true king, and the high priestesses are thoroughly vilified. On page 504, Rovigo tells his daughter, "Alais, my darling, a woman cannot live a life at sea. Not in the world as it is." Even Dianora, the most powerful female character by far, holds influence solely through Brandin. It would be interesting, I think, to analyze Kay's oeuvre from a feminist point of view. He writes strong female characters, but the male characters are usually stronger.

What, you say, you actually want to know what Tigana is about? Well, it falls under the subgenres of high and historical fantasy. It is an epic story with lots of gray and skillfully shifting, poetic narration. The Ygrathen sorcerer Brandin has cast a spell that erases the province of Tigana and its capital city, Avalle of the Towers, from the entire world's memory--save for those who were born in Tigana before its fall. Ostensibly, the plot follows Prince Alessan of Tigana and his motley band, but it achieves so much more in surpassing cliché. I'm glad that I bought it, because this is a novel that I'll definitely be rereading in the future.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
219 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Historical/Literary

Like Into Thin Air, this was assigned reading. I had heard horror stories about the dialect, but I found the novel surprisingly readable and reasonably interesting. (By the way, the cover of my edition, with a foreword by Mary Helen Washington and an afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is just gorgeous.) This is a great book to analyze, perhaps not as great a book to read for pleasure, at least for this reader. There are definitely feminist undertones--Janie accepts and endures abuse by the men in her life, and even Tea Cake, who gives her the most self-agency, is controlling and jealous. Race, of course, also plays an important role.

I appreciate Hurston's work on a literary level, but I find the plot lacking--it serves only to drive the development of Janie as the all-important main character, which is a noble purpose and sufficient for mainstream fiction. I'm used to reading genre, I guess.
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The Heart of the Dragon
by Alasdair Clayre
281 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Historical/China

I bought two books on China at the book sale in February--and see, they're coming in handy now! It's always nice to own reference books, rather than having to deal with library due dates. This one was very useful, although I skimmed the latter parts of every chapter once it got to the Cultural Revolution. And the inside covers have a pretty map spread, which I anticipate referencing in the future.

And bonus points for using Pinyin instead of Wade-Giles!
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What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon: Imperial China, A.D. 960-1368
by Time-Life Books (Denise Dersin, ed.)
144 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Historical/China

This covers Song (including the Southern Song) to Tang dynasty, with emphasis on the Song and Mongol (Yuan) rules. A surprisingly helpful source of information on imperial China, especially regarding topics like culture and technology. I've used it well as a jumping-off point, although it is sometimes heavy on generalizations, being aimed at a mainstream rather than scholarly audience. Upper-class is covered in more detail than lower-class; unfortunate but only to be expected. As a plus, it is also excellently illustrated--lots of photographs of Song pottery and Tang painting. The ending is abrupt, lacking any type of conclusion; a full-page painting spread, and then nothing. Still, a good resource and one I would recommend if you happen to be also researching imperial China. I plan on seeking out the other books in the What Life Was Like series as well, for pleasure-reading.
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A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray
403 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA/Historical

It took me the longest time to finish reading this, because the story had two opposite effects on me: I was compelled to turn pages as I read, but once I closed the book and put it down I had absolutely no inclination to go back. I predicted or suspected all of the plot twists, and the climax was cheesily sentimental.

Spoilers )


Certainly Bray's debut novel is not bad; however, in my opinion it doesn't deserve the hype. It is perhaps a little above mediocre in the YA category, but for this reader (who happens to fall, by virtue of age, into the YA category herself) it is solidly average overall. And you know, life is too short to be reading only average books, when so many exceptional works are being published every day. I won't be reading the sequels to A Great and Terrible Beauty, although I do welcome end spoilers.
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The Crimson Petal and the White
by Michael Faber
895 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Historical

When I began reading this epic-length novel, I was under the impression that it was political. Not political fantasy, but certainly political historical fiction. It isn't--no, this novel is about Society in every meaning. I was intimidated by the length at first and the story takes a while to really become fascinating, so unfortunately I only got to page 272 before it was due at the library. But I might well buy it for my summer China trip, since it's the perfect 13-hour-plane-ride book. The narrative begins as boldly second-person and generally maintains that persona, although it gradually disappears into the woodwork for much of the novel's (huge) middle.

Even unfinished, I would tentatively rec The Crimson Petal and the White to fans of historical fiction set in Britain/western Europe. Its London is extremely well-realized and immersive.
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Private Arrangements
by Sherry Thomas
351 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Romance/Historical

I don't normally read category romance--contemporaries are too light compared to my usual fare of secondary-world F/SF, and historicals are extremely hit-and-miss. Private Arrangements is a historical romance that, from cover copy, looks like your typical cliche formula story. In one fundamental way, this is true, but otherwise I have to agree with trusted review sources. This is a good book on its own merits, and for historical romance readers it will likely be exceptional.

Gigi Rowland is the daughter of "new money" and has known her share of shunning by high society. Armed with her beauty, wits, and fortune, she--pushed in no small part by her conniving mother Victoria--is determined to marry a duke. When her first arranged marriage falls through by freak coincidence (the duke in question dies two weeks before the wedding), Gigi falls in love at first sight with her late fiance's heir, Camden. He, however, is courting a sweet, spineless girl named Theodora von Schweppenberg. Various events occur; Gigi and Camden marry, but the day after their wedding, Camden leaves. Cut to the beginning of this novel: Gigi and Camden now live civilly on separate continents, she in high English society, he as an entrepreneur in America. The couple have what society deems a perfect marriage--polite and passionless. However, Gigi files for divorce in order to marry again and Camden returns to Europe to win her back (or at first, to torment her by invoking his long-abandoned conjugal rights).

The plot sounds trite and unoriginal. On the surface, it is. Misunderstandings abound, perhaps a touch too many though they are pulled off well. Gigi and Camden are what made this book work for me; their history of enmity is not without basis, through a series of misunderstandings and decisions made in the heat of the moment. Private Arrangements is a study of consequences, though it is a romance story first and foremost. Thomas writes with quick and comfortable prose, and her timing skills are excellent--the lengthy flashbacks worked unexpectedly well. I ached for Gigi and Camden both.

So what's not to like? Well, several things, some of which aren't entirely the book's fault, but rather the genre's. Gigi and Camden are not the only couple in this novel; I found the side characters either boring and underdeveloped (Freddie) or interesting but distracting from the main story (Victoria and the Duke of Perrin). The latter, in particular, could easily and more realistically have made up an entirely separate novel. The skimmed development required to keep it a subplot also kept me from making any emotional investment in the pairing. Even when the story focuses on Gigi and Camden, certain scenes were unrealistically confessional and subconflicts too easily resolved (the Freddie-arc, for example).

Then there is the ending. Oh, what an ending. If I had not been so emotionally invested in Gigi and Camden, the ending would have made me throw the book across the room (something I've actually yet to do). As it is, I was just irritated. I suppose I misunderstood the author-reader contract in this case, which may stipulate such a saccharine ending. But after all the fresh interpretations of romance cliches, I thought that Thomas would have at least some bittersweetness after such an intense conflict. An HEA is required; however, if all category romance HEAs read like this one, I may never pick up another book in the genre. It is, in a word, disappointing.

I do not regret reading Private Arrangements for the pleasure of indulging in Gigi and Camden's story, right up until the ending. But due to that major flaw, I would not recommend the novel to someone who wasn't already a fan (and familiar with the rules) of romance novels. An unfortunate final verdict, because I truly enjoyed the rest of the book; Thomas is a promising writer, and I'm sad to write such a review on the book's publishing date.
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The Spymaster's Lady
by Joanna Bourne
373 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Romance/Historical

This historical romance was highly praised by several people on my flist, and the espionage angle piqued me. I'm a little late to the party, but I hope this review is still of some use. Annique Villiers, a French spy known as the Fox Cub, is about to be tortured by her own Head of Section. In the same cell is Robert Grey, an English spy of certain repute. The two manage to escape, of course, at which point Grey promptly kidnaps Annique and begins the long process of carrying her off to England (not to mention seducing her in the process). The portrayal of spying is highly realistic, which surprised me--I expect romance novels to be pulpy, and this certainly was not. Annique has a wonderful, authentically French voice that lends color to the narration. The plot includes several unexpected twists, beginning with a spoilerific secret about Annique, then progressing all the way to a tense and satisfying conclusion. While I was spoiled for some of the twists and shocked by others, I found all of the plot development utterly plausible. Characters have convincing motivations and make sensible decisions.

Spoilers )
There are also a few drawbacks to this necessarily imperfect work: I find Annique's innocence (she has never murdered anyone despite being raised in the spy world, and she's still a virgin) a little disbelievable. Leblanc is too 2-D of a villian--he never displays any positive traits. I wished for more development of some of the minor characters, particularly on the antagonist side (e.g. Henri).

Overall though, my summary of The Spymaster's Lady comes to: Annique + Grey = ♥. Strongly enough that I'm looking forward to Bourne's forthcoming novel My Lord and Spymaster, which seems to be an indirect sequel set in the same world. This is a classic historical romance with crossover appeal, exactly the type of light-but-breathless comfort reading that I need sometimes.
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The Lions of Al-Rassan
by Guy Gavriel Kay
527 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Historical

For the downtime during three straight days of All-State rehearsal, I needed an engrossing but not plot-compelling book (I had to be able to put it down easily). So I chose to reread a GGK novel that I'd picked up at the used book store, which also happened to be my first introduction to Guy Gavriel Kay--The Lions of Al-Rassan.

The elements of Kay's work that first entranced me--his prose, setting, and quietly enormous cast of characters--are still just as ethereal on second read. He is a poet as well as a novelist, and his language is modestly breathtaking. After studying world history in more depth, I picked up on many more of the historical allusions. This is a novel exploring the Crusades, the intersection of three faiths, and the everyday devastations of war (the parallels for Jaddite, Kindath, and Asharite are obvious). Sometimes Kay will introduce a new POV for just one short scene, but every character and image is referenced again in the course of the novel. He excels at ending lines, and though I prefer the style of some of his others (namely Sarantine Mosaic and Tigana), this ending is equally powerful. I want to linger, review memorable fragments, study the poetic themes of water and wine.

I loved all the characters, but especially Ammar--the poet, of course, as well as diplomat, assassin, and soldier. Plot-wise, Kay manages to pull off extremely difficult maneuvers; a love triangle and a trick ending, both satisfying. Everything fits neatly together, including--especially--the imagery.

Kay also includes several short original poetry excerpts, a la Tolkien, except that Kay's poetry is actually readable. My favorite, which I've memorized, is quoted below (slight spoiler):

Lament )

If you can't tell already from my effusive praise, The Lions of Al-Rassan is highly recommended, particularly if you appreciate beauty in writing. Kay is my absolute favorite author, but certainly this ranks among his better works and is an excellent introduction.
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The Blood of Flowers
by Anita Amirrezvani
377 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Historical/Literary

The unnamed narrator, an innocent Iranian village girl, ends up in the city with her mother after her beloved father unexpectedly dies and they are left penniless. This novel tells the girl's story in first person--a story reminiscent of A Thousand Splendid Suns, though not up to such a standard in prose or character--and is suitably tear-wrenching. I have no major issues with Amirrezvani's nine-year work; but I do have lots of minor issues, and they add up. First, I have trouble accepting the narrative device employed; the prologue sets up the novel as an oral tale, with the narrator's mother clearly ailing and the narrator in a regretful, nostalgic mood. I dislike this kind of device in any long-form work because it's very difficult to carry off without the narration sounding rather unlike something the character would say aloud; Amirrezvani reinforces my opinion. And while I liked the interspersed traditional Iranian tales, it was unclear where exactly these stories came from--some were told by her mother, others by the narrator, and then still others that pop up out of nowhere. Some of these stories also suffer from a veil of implausibility (not in the way of a fairytale, either)--for instance, a wrecked ship's salvaged silver is not anywhere near the cost of building a stone tower from scratch.

At the prose level, The Blood of Flowers seems strangely amateur. The characters are interesting and rounded, but not especially so. The voice seems to be reaching for ornate formality, but reaching is the operative word. It flows prettily but labors for that veneer, like a heavy layer of makeup--lacking the sublime lightness of a master writer. There are clumsy transitions, too, such as "It was several months later, and..." directly after a short verse insert, without even a scene break indication.

I characterized this novel, genre-wise, as historical and literary; I feel that it strives too hard to be literature, to be more than a novel of pleasure. The narrator seems too naive at times--I wouldn't give something away without securing payment in advance, at the tender age of fourteen--and her character arc is more than a little contrived. It teachs too much of a lesson, encompassing such blatant statements as "I was bold, but I was no longer rash" [p. 334]. The title is apt and the author's notes at the end comprehensive; but in the end, I found The Blood of Flowers indescribably uncomfortable. It was too overtly symbolic and its various aspects are good--never great. Of course, such may be to the taste of another; if you like dense historicals with literary pretensions, this novel is perfect. But I am not that reader, and there are too many better books out there for me to recommend this one.

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Keix

January 2011

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