Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson

If you look through my reviews, you will find very few books that have no mystical element to them. Generally, I stick to the fantasy genre, but The Gentleman Poet intrigued me, and I just had to try it. I found it through a meme. Both I and another blogger posted about books based on Shakespeare's The Tempest (what are the odds?). I happened to see it at the library in on the new fiction shelf this week.

En route to the Americas in 1609, Elizabeth Persons, a young servant girl, sees her blinding headache as an ominous sign. Sure enough, a hurricane during the final leg of their journey tosses the ill-fated Sea Venture and its one hundred and fifty passengers and crew onto the dreaded shores of the Bermudas, the rumored home of evil spirits and dangerous natives. 

In the months that pass—time marked by grave hardship, mutiny, adventure, danger . . . and a blossoming love between Elizabeth and the wrecked ship's young cook—she despairs of their ever being rescued. But she finds hope and strength in a remarkable new friendship, forming a fast bond with the Sea Venture's historian, a poet traveling under the name of William Strachey. But Will is more than he seems. To many back home in England, he is known by a different name: Shakespeare. And he sees in their great shared travails the makings of a magical, truly transcendent work of theater.

This book was an easy, fast read for me. The print is huge, and the book itself is much shorter than what I'm used to. Johnson's prose is beautiful but not flowery, and Elizabeth is a clever narrator. Her observations made me giggle in a few places, and she seemed to be a very real character for me. I think that was my favorite part of this book...I could picture all the characters with ease and they were very fleshed out and realistic. Their reasons for being the way they were made sense. Oftentimes, authors miss a plausible backstory to characters.

Dread Bermuda, where most of the novel takes place, is not the dangerous, horrible place the castaways expected. They rightly describe it as paradise, lush with vegetation, animal life, and mostly beautiful weather. Unfortunately, this is where things got somewhat unrealistic. Birds that are extremely tame come to investigate the newcomers and are subsequently killed. I think wild birds would always be suspicious of newcomers. Wild boars are made to seem easy to catch, herd, and kill. On the contrary, wild boars can be extremely dangerous animals. Elizabeth finds a plethora of plants that make excellent spices and not one she discovers is poisonous. While I don't know what spices and herbs come from where, I find it highly unlikely that the same plants that grew in England would grow in Bermuda, but somehow the protagonist comes across the exact same plants, or very close analogs. There are no subsequent hurricanes the likes of which wrecked them in the first place. In short, things just go way way too well for these folks.

I enjoyed the historical notes by the author, and Elizabeth's recipes recorded every few chapters. I like being able to get a "behind the scenes" peek at what historical data inspired this novel. However, I found the connection between the historical William Strachey and William Shakespeare to be extremely shaky. However, Johnson admits this herself, emphasizing that the book is not history but fiction. It is an artist's interpretation of historical record, and doesn't claim to be anything else.

Suspension of disbelief aside, this book was quite enjoyable. Nothing groundbreaking, but a fun way to pass a few hours. I would definitely recommend giving this one a go if you like interesting spins on history or literature. I look forward to future novels written by Johnson.

Bottom Line
Overall Rating: 3.5 / 5
Buy or Try? Try
More? Standalone
Plot: 3 / 5
Setting: 4 / 5
Characters: 4 / 5
Pace: Middlin'
Descriptiveness: Prose
Fantasy factor: Not fantasy

Saturday, December 18, 2010

2011 Challenges!

I had been tossing an idea for a challenge around, but alas, someone else had the exact same idea. So upon looking for challenges to participate in, I found some great ones. Click any of the buttons to go to the challenge site.

Find free ebooks and read at least 12 by the end of 2011. There are drawings each month based on how many reviews you publish. Hosted by The Unread Reader. I am getting a Kindle for Christmas, so I thought this would be a really fun way to start the year.

Read at least 3 fantasy novels by the end of 2011. This challenge has been ongoing for a few years, but this year it will be hosted at Darlyn & Books. Needless to say this challenge will be fairly easy for me, so I'll be trying for the top level (Obsessed) with 20 books. In 2012, there will be 3 prize winners, and the winners' choice of $10 book prize will come from the other reviews.


 Brush the cobwebs aside,
Pull the book from the shelf.
Blow the dust off the cover,
Then immerse yourself.

Write up a list of dusty volumes, books written before 1960, that you hope to read in 2011. You are allowed to change the list whenever you need to, though. This challenge is hosted by Midnyte Reader. There will be giveaways, and there are ways to earn more entries. I'm looking forward to reading older books that I've been wanting to tackle for awhile, and I hope to add more to the list later.

Here is my list of dusty volumes for 2011:
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946)
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier (1938)
Katherine by Anya Seyton (1954)
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

This is the same idea for a challenge I had, so I simply had to participate. :-) The challenge is to reread a book that you have read before and review it. The challenge goes from 1 to 20 books, so there are a lot of options, and there will be prize drawings every 3 months. This challenge is hosted by Midnight Book Girl.

If you are participating in any of these, please comment so I can look for your reviews and entries!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Seer of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier

Before I review this, I just want to clarify that the Sevenwaters series is one of my favorites, and Juliet Marillier is one of my favorite authors. I've had this on my wishlist since I heard there was another Sevenwaters book coming out.

The young seer Sibeal is visiting an island of elite warriors, prior to making her final pledge as a druid. It's there she finds Felix, a survivor of a Viking shipwreck, who's lost his memory. The scholarly Felix and Sibeal form a natural bond. He could even be her soul mate, but Sibeal's vocation is her true calling, and her heart must answer.

As Felix fully regains his memory, Sibeal has a runic divination showing her that Felix must go on a perilous mission-and that she will join him. The rough waters and the sea creatures they will face are no match for Sibeal's own inner turmoil. She must choose between the two things that tug at her soul-her spirituality and a chance at love...

As I said, I'm a huge fan of Juliet Marillier, but I felt like this book was fairly different from the previous Sevenwaters books. It was a lighter read, for one thing. Where the other books seemed to have an element of peril and danger, and no shortage of dark themes, Seer of Sevenwaters seemed to meander in safety for most of the novel. There is a lot of conversation. I know this sounds bad, but I got bogged down in all the philosophical discussion.

I did find myself becoming very nostalgic at the beginning and end of the book. It was like a Sevenwaters novel at those points: there was danger, romance, and the family from Sevenwaters that fans of Marillier will find familiar. I will say that it was nice seeing what happened to many characters from the other books, and visiting the island of Inis Eala.

However, I found the new main characters Sibeal and Felix to be bland and rather uninteresting, and the plot was formulaic. Boy meets girl, they fall in love but don't say anything, supernatural drama ensues, insert dramatic confession of love here. I had the entire course of the story figured out after meeting the shipwrecked characters, even the grand mystery of Svala and Knut (a couple from the Viking shipwreck), while the rest of the island was blissfully ignorant. I found that somewhat implausible as well, that an entire island of warriors and people with plenty of intuition couldn't figure out who the bad guy was and what was going on with these new people.

All in all, this was a book that could have been chopped in half...there was a lot of filler in between a relatively solid first and last few chapters. Marillier is an amazing author, so I admit this book came as quite a surprise to me. It made me long for Marillier's first few books, so maybe I'll reread those.

Bottom Line
Overall Rating: 2.5 / 5
Buy or Try? Try
More? Standalone, but of a series of 5 books so far
Plot: 2 / 5
Setting: 4 / 5 (still love the setting, even through 5 books)
Characters: 2 / 5
Pace: Slow
Descriptiveness: Middlin'
Fantasy factor: Magical Realism link

Monday, December 6, 2010

Random Business

First, I have a question for my bookish friends: How long do you give a book to impress you before you throw in the towel? How bad does it have to be for you to give it up? What if you intend to read it some other time?

Also, I have discovered interlibrary loans. Yay! I have requested The Broken Kingdoms and Cold Magic...they should be in by the end of this week. :)

It is exam week but...meh. Priorities. :P

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Child Thief by Brom

This may be stereotypical of me, but I love fairy tales, and I especially love new twists on fairy tales. This particular novel is a much darker version of Peter Pan than the one you see in Disney movies, although the original tale hints at some darkness as well.
Peter is quick, daring, and full of mischief—and like all boys, he loves to play, though his games often end in blood. His eyes are sparkling gold, and when he graces you with his smile you are his friend for life, but his promised land is not Neverland.
Fourteen-year-old Nick would have been murdered by the drug dealers preying on his family had Peter not saved him. Now the irresistibly charismatic wild boy wants Nick to follow him to a secret place of great adventure, where magic is alive and you never grow old. Even though he is wary of Peter's crazy talk of faeries and monsters, Nick agrees. After all, New York City is no longer safe for him, and what more could he possibly lose? 

There is always more to lose. 

Accompanying Peter to a gray and ravished island that was once a lush, enchanted paradise, Nick finds himself unwittingly recruited for a war that has raged for centuries—one where he must learn to fight or die among the "Devils," Peter's savage tribe of lost and stolen children. 

There, Peter's dark past is revealed: left to wolves as an infant, despised and hunted, Peter moves restlessly between the worlds of faerie and man. The Child Thief is a leader of bloodthirsty children, a brave friend, and a creature driven to do whatever he must to stop the "Flesh-eaters" and save the last, wild magic in this dying land.

I don't think I've ever read a book written by an illustrator before, and The Child Thief has several of Brom's illustrations throughout the book, including the cover art. They're beautiful, and really help the reader picture the characters.

That said, the prose does not suffer at all. When I first heard that Brom was an artist first, I was somewhat skeptical about his writing ability. Oh how wrong I was. This book was a page-turner without having a simplistic writing style, and moved along without skimping on description. Without the illustrations, I still had a good idea what characters and places looked like and I was never bored.

The characters and the plot were where Brom shone, I think. The plot twisted and turned until I wasn't sure who to cheer for. By the end, it's unclear who is the "good guy" and who is the "bad guy." Everyone (for the most part) thinks they're doing the right thing...but who really is? I love authors that are unafraid to deal with the sometimes ambiguous nature of morality. 

The world Brom opens up to the reader is dark, there's no question about that. From the beginning, the dregs of society are the center of our outside world. Peter brings children into Avalon from horrible situations, but that's not even the worst, most graphic part of the book. People are flayed alive, intestines are eaten out of live people, there are horrible descriptions of rape, torture, and one character is crucified. This book is not for the faint of heart, and this is not an uplifting book for the most part. Be prepared for main characters to be killed.

The book ends on a relatively good note though, though it may not be a happily ever after ending. I didn't walk away feeling depressed though...that's a pet peeve of mine with novels.

While the book was dark and gruesome, to the point where I thought about throwing in the towel a few times, it is definitely worth the read. I am so glad I kept reading. Brom's exploration of a tale that was already sort of creepy was amazing. I enjoyed the fact that I had to think about the subjective nature of right and wrong.

Bottom Line
Overall Rating: 4 / 5
Buy or Try? Try, merely because of the violence
Plot: 5 / 5
Setting: 4 / 5
Characters: 4 / 5
Pace: Fast 
Descriptiveness: Middlin'
Fantasy factor: Magical Realism to Low Fantasy link
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