Books I’ve Read – July 2012

The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton

(**** of five)

I loved this book. I knew I would love this book before I started reading it and am thus not surprised but the fact remains, I loved this book. It has all my favorite elements; country estates filled with wonderfully weird people, books, mysteries surrounding the past that effect the future. I read a lot of books like this and while I love a good contemporary story there isn’t much that ruffles my heartstrings quite like Victorian or Edwardian times. This one had it all.

‘The Forgotten Garden’ is really the story of quite a few people; Cassandra, Nell, Eliza, Rose, Adeline, Nathaniel, Hugh, Georgiana, and Linus. And they all narrate at one point or another. It seems a lot, and it is, but Kate Morton’s handy note as to the year and location of the action at the beginning of each chapter was helpful. When Nell was a child she was discovered on the wharf in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia with no family, no notion of who she is and why she’s there, and a small white suitcase containing a book of fairytales by a one Eliza Makepeace. Hugh, the wharfmaster takes her in and raises her as his own, but on her twenty-first birthday he tells her the truth. Nell is determined to discover her forgotten history and embarks on a journey that takes her to the Cornish coast to a village called Tregenna where she was born on the estate Blackhurst to the Mountrachet family. But her journey of self discovery is never completed. Instead it’s her granddaughter, Cassandra, who takes up the mantel to discover secrets long buried at Blackhurst. Tales of the beautiful Rose Mountrachet, her freespirited cousin Eliza, bitter mother, absent and obsessive father, and painter husband, Nathaniel Walker. But whose story this is is not always clear and Cassandra, and the reader (who discovers the whole truth through many character’s points of view, skipping through time), finds far more than she expected buried in the walls of Blackhurst’s garden maze and the walled garden beyond.

There’s a very powerful resemblance to two other books here. Thankfully they are both books that I adore heartedly. The first shaped my childhood and from the title of this book it shouldn’t be a surprise that the book in question is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’. In fact, Morton pays homage to the tale that clearly inspired her by having Miss Burnett visit Blackhurst and become enamored with tales of the wall garden by Eliza’s cottage. The share many elements, foremost, of course, the walled garden, but there is also the sickly Rose, kept in her room and told she’s ill so often that she starts to believe it, much like Colin Craven. The other book that I couldn’t help being reminded of was Diane Setterfield’s ‘The Thirteenth Tale’, which I only read this year. I’m not surprised by the comparison, since I did hear of this title while searching out those similar to ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ but the similarities were striking at points. Both deal with reaching into the past to uncover truths that have remained hidden. Setterfield’s version is more extreme, not shying for the truly weird at points, but Morton put in a valiant effort and I was not disappointed.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction, literary mysteries, or meditations on classic novels and themes. Lucky for me I seem to have hit the trifecta.

Ophelia – Lisa Klein

(*** of five)

Once, when I was in college, I decided to write this book. My roommate kind of cocked her head at me and asked; “Hasn’t someone done that by now?” I guess the answer was no, but now it has. ‘Hamlet’ is my favorite Shakespeare. I tired to fight it, I tried to make it something obscure, like Corlianus, but I found I just couldn’t let Denmark go. There’s a reason ‘Hamlet’ is such a popular play and it’s because it really is that good. And there’s Ophelia. She’s not really even that big a part of the narrative. She shows up just long enoughto be thrown in Hamlet’s path where he ruminates that he once loved her, and then goes quite mad and commits suicide. It’s not that she’s not important, it’s that she doesn’t have that many scenes,a nd she is certainly enigmatic. When did he love her? What was the nature of their relationship? And why does he forsake her? She appears just long enough to enchant us enough so that we ask these questions and then mourn her drowning. But who is she? This is the question Klein set out to answer.

When he book begins Ophelia is eleven years old. Seh lives in a decent house with ehr father and brother where she is allowed to run and play with the boys and where she’d educated, since her ambitious father doesn’t quite know waht to do with her. But when Polonius becomes an advisor to the king, the whole family is moved to court, where there are a whole new set of rules. As she grows Ophelia becomes a member of Queen Gertrude’s household,a nd catches the eye of the young Prince Hamlet. The rest, as they say, is literary history. Except everything is not always exactly the way it seems and Klein still manages to throw the reader a few curveballs, even with territory this well trodden.

I thought this book was pretty good. There were some choices that wouldn’t have been mine in what to dow ith this character, but this wasn’t my book. For example [and this is not a spoiler since a letter on page one gives the game away], Ophelia doesn’t die. She fakes her death. Initially this made me roll my eyes but when the part of the novel arrived, I understood the decision. She didn’t have a whole lot of choices. Still, I would have enjoyed reading a first hand account of a decent into madness.

Another thing that stood out was how well this tale fit into the story of ‘Hamlet’. Too often I read stories like this which contradict their source material. This didn’t, and in fact shed a lot of light onto conversatiosn and events from a different point of view. It was well done.

I think it’s fair to say that Klein had a hit on her hands, considering a search for this book on amazon also found the title ‘Lady McBeth’s Daughter’. I don’t know about that one, this sort of thing is best left as a one off. But, ‘Ophelia’ was a good read. Don’t take it as gospel, since it’s just one woman’s idea of how events might have gone down from the female perspective, but it’s a fun ride. Feminists and (not so serious) Shakespeare fans will rejoice.

The All of It – Jeannette Haien

(*** of five)

This was a very little book that I picked up and started reading at a thrift store. About ten pages in I thought I should probably buy it. It’s difficult to cram a whole story into 150 pages, especially when a portion of them are about fly fishing, but Haien pulls it off.

This is, essentially, the story of a priest, Father Declan, who, upon the death of one of his parishoners, Kevin Dennehy, discovers that he has been living a lie with his wife, Enda, for the past fifty years.

It’s really a poignant little piece about morality but since I don’t have many of those I enjoyed this book for it’s story. Enda and Kevin’s story was the bulk of the book, taking about about seventy pages, and that was by far my favorite part of this book. Declan’s parts consisted of, mostly, moral dilemmas and fly fishing. I don’t particularly care for either. But I also greatly enjoy Declan’s obvious soft spot for Enda, which came off, to me, as the beginnings of romatic feelings despite his priesthood and her recent berivement. I doubt, should this tale continue, that this would have ended up being the case, but it felt palpable to me.

This is a complicated little tale which is also painfully simple. I suppose, in the end, it’s about truth and loss and perceptions and where those tie in with god. I liked it, it was very well done, but I doubt it will stay with me.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

(***** of five)

This was a reread, of course. I’m not sure any self respecting girl reaches adolescence without reading this classic about a girl, Mary Lennox, who moves from India after her parents die in a cholera epidemic to her uncle Archibald Craven’s Yorkshire manor house where she encounters many secrets, including the locked walled up garden that used to belong to her deceased Aunt Lilias.

When I was a child this story enraptured me. I dreamed of cultivating a rose garden and wished I could keep it secret. I longed for a disturbingly large, glum house. I longed for moors and heather and terrible Yorkshire rainstorms. Unfortunately I was from Ohio and my thumb has never been green. That didn’t stop me from enjoying this story, which is, in a word, splendiforous. It’s ultimately a story about growing and the healing nature of the great outdoors but reading it this time I found another side to it. As an adult I could readily recognize that this story is quite dark. For example; Mary’s life in India is rather pitiful. She has no playmates, no one who really loves her, and when her Ayah, then mother and father, die the rest of the servants flee the cholera outbreak and no one even remember that she’s there. The natural instict is, of course, pity. But, that’s somewhat quelled as we are repetedly told how unpleasant she is. And Mary is not the only character that suffers from such epic neglect. Colin, her cousin, as well is left relatively alone with his terrifying fears for his health until his has become so unpleasant that no one really cares if he lives or dies. The only constant in both of their relationships with their parents is absence.

Though, Archibald Craven is equally sad. Still obsessed with his wife who died ten years previously he wanters the globe searching out places where her memory wont torment him. One’s almost surprised when he doesn’t want the moors whist crying out for Cathy, I mean, Lilias.

What’s impressive is that the only really well adjusted people are the Sowerby’s; Martha, Dickon, and Susan (though there are ten more children who barely make appearances). They have their priorities in order and could actually be fairly perfect examples of the disenfranchised enlightening those of privilege. A sort of Yorkshire “magically negro” if you will.

But in the end this is a rather magical tale and such simplicities do it an injustice. I read that Frances Hodgson Burnett was inspired by the burgeoning Christian Science when she wrote this novel, and it shows. The major theme of the work is the healing power of nature. But I like to keep god out of it, and it’s not too much of a stretch to understand that happiness and not dwelling on what might be can improve health. And while the garden is symbolic in that, I don’t believe this story is really about a garden. It’s about finding family, both literal and adopted, and realizing that happiness is sometimes hard work, but in the end it’s always worth it. As long as you’re surround my place and people you love the work can be fun.

The Upper Class –  Hobson Brown, Taylor Materne, Caroline Says

(*** of five)

I didn’t really have high hopes for this book. I do like this sort of thing at times, the ‘Gossip Girl’s and ‘A Lists’ and the like, but I have to be in the right sort of mood. The mood I was in when I started was not of that ilk. Still, I wanted something that would be quick while I waited for my holds from the library to come in and I picked this up so that I could clear a space on my shelf. I figured it would follow the same formula as other teen fiction series; hot girl meets hot boy, other hot people interfere, they eventually get together in the end. The location doesn’t usually matter that much. Except with this it did. I found myself comparing this to the likes of Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘Prep’ than the boarding school set Gossip Girl spin-off ‘It Girl’. This wasn’t a book about teenagers and their relationships, this was a book about boarding school. I didn’t attend boarding school myself, I went to an all girls private school, but there are similarities. Growing up with this sort of experience instead of the traditional sort is an experience and I thought this book captured it pretty well.

‘The Upper Class’ is about two girls new to Wellington, a boarding school in rural Connecticut. Laine is everything Wellington could want, she’s lovely, demure, wears the right clothes, keeps up her grades, and is a star at field hockey. Nikki is… not so much. The daughter of a self made man, Nikki grew up on Long Island with anything she could have ever asked for, but none of the finesse that seems to rule the other students at Wellington. They couldn’t be more different and when they’re thrown together as roommates it seems like the combination might be explosive.

For the first chapter where Nikki took center stage I was convinced I was going to hate her. She was brash, spoke in improper English, and walked around smacking her ass in a thong. But once she got to school she was immediately a character you couldn’t help feeling sorry for. She was definitely a fish out of water, and a good bridge between what’s popular today and what’s popular in this world. Laine was okay, at times, but her bland personality (intentional) did nothing to endear me. When she finally started to loosen up towards the end I was relieved, wanting her to feel at home in Nikki’s world, and you’d be far more likely to find me reading a book on the Cape wearing Nantucket red capris than at a kegger.

It’s clear that the writers (three of them, sigh) knew their material and that they actually know how to write. They didn’t dumb down the language, which was greatly appreciated. Of course, the prose could run towards the purple side, but that’s only to be expected with this sort of literature. If you want to even call it that.

This book’s not great. But it’s really not as bad as it’s other reviews might say. The user reviews for ‘Prep’ aren’t that great either, but I enjoyed that one and this is just in the same vein. Don’t read this for scandal and sex and scheming, read this for a portrayal of a way of life.

Gilded Age – Claire McMillan

(**** of five)

I already wrote about this here.

Uglies – Scott Westerfeld 

(**** of five)

I was given this book by a co-worker who knows I’m a fan of reading and often spend my summer months getting far too involved in high concept teen fiction serieses. Still, I nearly groaned when she gave it to me. you see, I have a rather ridiculous pile of book to sift through. So, it sat on my shelf for a few months, waiting in line. I guess that I should learn to take her recommendations a sight more seriously because their book was great.

Set in an undisclosed point in the future, the world of ‘Uglies’ is an extreme one. Everyone exists in categories; littlies, uglies, and then finally, pretties. When you turn sixteen years old you are given a operation that makes you perfect, extreme cosmetic surgery that lengths the bones, scrubs imperfections from the skin, makes eyes sparkle, improves vision, sucks out fat, and whatever else needs to be done. Then you move to New Pretty Town where your only job is to look pretty and have a good time. Tally Youngblood can’t wait for her operation, especially since her best friend, Peris, is three months her senior. But when Tally meets and befriends Shay she’s introduced to another world; one where not everyone want to be pretty. When Shay disappears to a refugee camp known as the Smoke, Tally is offered a deal by the frightening Special Circumstances; find Shay and betray the Smoke or never become pretty. But the Smoke isn’t all Tally expected and neither, she learns, is the operation.

Let me begin by saying that there is very little that’s new here. We’ve all heard versions of this story; dystopian future societies with secrets that aren’t shared with the general populace, infiltrators going native, realizing we’re perfect the way we are. I understand that. The ideas in this book aren’t new, but that doesn’t make it not worth the read. This story is good, the characters are fun ,and the action is always top notch. But the main thing is that I felt completely invested in this world. Seemingly a utopia where no one fights and no one wants because everyone is the same. The desire for beauty is understandable, as it’s rather an obsession in current society. Not quite understand that if everyone is beautiful than no one is. It also has important ocmmentary about waste and our current society of consumption. Near the city are the old ruins of the old city, our city, with empty husks of cars trying to escape an oil based epidemic. It’s a little frightening, but nothing on par with, say, ‘The Hunger Games’.

Actually, I can’t bleieve they haven’t made a movie out of this yet. I’d certainly watch it. But then again, I love this sort of thing.

Pretties – Scott Westerfeld

(*** of five)

Usually this is the way trilogies work for me: I love the first one, feel okay about the second, and when the third comes around and gets super complicated I like the whole trilogy which was, actually the whole time, setting up the complexities. Unfortunately the ‘Uglies’ trilogy was not this way. The first book was excellent. It set up a wonderful alternate future and shed a lot of light on mistakes we could be making now. It also painted a wonderful picture about how dystopian societies affect teenagers who are brought up learning that that dystopia is good. And then it left us off at a cliffhanger that seemed like it would lead into a cracking second book.

‘Pretties’ was decent, but nothing special. Honestly, a bit of a let down. It starts out not too long after ‘Uglies’ ended. After allowing herself to be caught so that she could test a cure for the brain leisons in all Pretties, Tally Youngblood, our intrepid heroine, is living it up in New Pretty Town. Reunited with her friends Shay and Peris she’s desperate to become a member of their clique, the Crims, led by the somehow-special-even-when-everyone’s the same Zane. Soon she’s delivered the cure to the Pretty leisons from the outside, pills which she shares with Zane, and they start a quest to break free from New Pretty Town and rejoin the rebel Smoke.

The first problem of this book, for me, was Zane. He honestly wasn’t all that special, in my opinion. Oooo, he dyes his hair black with calligraphy ink even though black hair is against regulation. Oooo he’s the leader of a group of Pretties who remember playing tricks as Uglies. Whatever. He wasn’t terrible, he just didn’t seem all that necessary. Especially given the fact that Tally already has a love interest from the first book, David one of the leaders of the Smoke. Now, I don’t knock Zane in favor of David, honestly romance should have been secondary in a novel like this. The part that bothered me was that Tally’s friendship with Shay deteriorated when she became involved with David, on whom Shay had a crush. Introducing a new love interest in the second book makes that sacrific seem silly. And since the romance took up the majority of the novel I wished I could have been behind it, rather than it feeling unnecessary.

The second problem was with the action. In the first book the pacing seemed tight, the storyline left nothing extraneous, and the characterization was wonderful. In ‘Pretties’ it starts out promising but then seems to go out in so many tangents that the main storyline can be pared down to one or two sentences. For example [SPOILER] after Tally escapes New Pretty Town she ends up alone in the wild where she comes across a group of primitive people led by shaman Andrew Simpson Smith, caught in a blood feud with a neighboring tribe. She discovers that the government is keeping them contained in a small area of the forest, studying them. One would think this would lead somewhere good, since it’s so outside the rest of the story. Alas, it never does.

Overall, I was entertained and read this book quickly, but once I was finished it seemed just sort of… tepid. Which was a disappointment.

Specials – Scott Westerfeld

(*** of five)

Well here it is, the final installment of the original ‘Uglies’ trilogy [the author wrote a fourth book but I’m not including that one, ‘Extras’, in the original trilogy since it does not concern Tally Youngblood]. I was not particularly happy with this book. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t grab me the way the first book did and didn’t even spark my interest enough to barrel through like the second. In some way it was the nature of the character now, but in others it just seemed to peter out with hardly any thought.

Tally is now Special. After healing herself of being Pretty and escaping once more of the rebel Smoke, Tally was brought back to the city and turned into a member of Special Circumstances, the terrifying department that secretly keeps the dystopian society running smoothly. And Tally is a member of the most special Specials, the Cutters, lead by Tally’s old friend Shay. Their mission: to find the Smoke and bring them in, no matter what the cost or what rules they break. But when Zane returns from the hospital, Pretty again, Tally is determined to get him into the Cutters, a distinction reserved for only the trickiest teens. Shay and Tally come up with a plan that will kill two birds with one stone; allow Zane to escape to the Smoke and follow him, he proves he’s tricky and they find the Smoke. But this rebellion has grown much larger than anyone could anticipate and soon it seems clear that this might be headed towards the unthinkable, war.

I didn’t find this installment of the ‘Uglies’ trilogy to be anywhere near as compelling as the rest. While ‘Uglies’ was wonderful and ‘Pretties’ was still pretty decent, this felt like trudging uphill. There were endless scenes of Tally’s new abilities, which pretty much described every aspect of her hoverboarding around and using her new monofiliment muscles (gross!) to grab onto artifaces that others couldn’t have. I get it, I mean there’s really not point of this book if we aren’t getting what it’s like to be brainwashed with superhuman abilities due to creepy amounts of extreme surgery (they replaces their BONES with aircraft ceramic [double gross!]), but it really just wasn’t that interesting. And once the plot actually set in it still crawled at a turtles pace.

Things picked up when [SPOILER] Tally arrives at the new Smoke, the city of Diego and discovers that things are much bigger than anyone had anticipated. However we’re then quickly propelled into a war that ends up being more an act of terrorism and then we rush back to Tally’s city where the final solution takes place quickly and mostly off screen. I liked the way things ended up going, but the getting their was tough and I would have liked to see it happen rather than hear about it.

This book wasn’t terrible. It was probably even better than okay, but it was still disappointing and a step down from the second book, which was a major step down from the first. Sigh, if only things could have continued on with the same promise as ‘Uglies’. Alas, it was not to be.

Tiger Lily – Jodi Lynn Anderson

(**** of five)

I always sort of love books that take minor characters from other tales and rewrite the story from their point of view. And how could I possibly resist a book entitled ‘Tiger Lily’. I love ‘Peter Pan’. One could say, actually, that I’m relatively obsessed with it. I love J.M Barrie’s book, I love the play, I love the musical, and the Disney version. So when there’s something that comes out that’s related in anyway, I tend to take notice. And Tiger Lily! I have always had a soft sport from the native girl who takes a different form in pretty much every version of Barrie’s tale. I’ve often thought her underused so I jumped at this novel right at it’s publication date. But, for all the same reasons I mention above, I was wary. Luckily, this book was amazing. It was fast paced, wonderfully characterized, and incorporated great things I never would have even thought of.

Tiger Lily is a fifteen year old member of the Sky Eater tribe on Neverland, an island located somewhere [it seems] in the Southern Atlantic, where fairies are common, mermaids a fact, marvelous creatures consistent, and at some point in everyone’s life they stop aging (it’s said they stop aging when the most important thing that will ever happen to them happens). She can hunt better than she can make clothing and is the adopted daughter of the tribe’s shaman, an androgenous fellow named Tik Tok. She’s a little moody and a little bit different, causing her fellow tribe members to be somewhat wary of her. But when Tiger Lily saves an Englander from certain death stranded on the island it’s decided it’s time for her to marry the foul Giant. But Tiger Lily has a secret, she’s met and befriended the fearsome Peter Pan and as her wedding draws closer she and Peter form a stronger bond. But when another ship appears, bearing an English girl called Wendy Darling, things might just change forever.

I want to start with saying this book was excellent. It’s narration style was perfect, a first person narrative not by Tiger Lily but by Tinker Bell, a young fairy who takes a shine to Tiger Lily and follows her endlessly. It let us see Tiger Lily from the outside while still getting into her thoughts and an equal view of those around her. It really was an ingenious idea. Also, the author shed some light on some goings on and explained them from another point of view. For example, Hook lost his hand in a boot making factory, it was only a rumor that Pan cut it off (not sure I love this), or the Lost Boy’s love of repelling caused rumors that they could fly. There are also a few cute shoutouts such as when Tiger Lily drops Tik Tok’s beloved clock into the river where it’s quickly globbled by a crocodile. But the driving force behind this is a little love story that died, and it’s a good one. Tiger Lily is a great character, quiet and strong, not always understandable but always likable. Peter is the same way, though much more vulnerable than in other incarnations. Don’t let any of the next several paragraphs sway you from the knowledge that I thought this book was great, but there are some things that need saying.

Let me get this out of the way. The problem with this book is that it, once again, tries to humanize Peter Pan. I don’t think this is something that can be done and I don’t think it’s something that SHOULD be done. I read the first book in the series that begins with ‘Peter and the Starcatchers’ (of which there is apparently a broadway musical now) and could appreciate it as good. The same went for the okay miniseries on Syfy last year entitled ‘Neverland’. Both these things strove to explain where Peter came from and how he got to be the way he is. Both ignore the fact that in Barrie’s story Peter Pan isn’t something that needs explaining, Peter is the embodiment of youth, the boy who will never grow up, who has continual adventures and who will eventually leave you behind when you get too old. He’s a representation and manifestation of what we lose when we get too old.

Mercifully, ‘Tiger Lily’ didn’t attempt to explain where Peter came from. It doesn’t go into how he came to be in Neverland and how he started living in a hole in the ground with the rest of the lost boys. It does, however (and unfortunately), take away his magic. For one, he can not fly. Which I found to be sort of depressing. It paints Peter as a somewhat remarkable regular boy of about sixteen who has taken the burden of his entire group onto his shoulders. It’s great characterization, but I’m not sure it’s Peter Pan.

Another complaint; I’ve always found Peter’s relationship with Tinker Bell to be really quite lovely. It’s obvious that she’s in love with him and he does not reciprocate the feelings, but he cares about her in a constant sort of way that he doesn’t care about anyone else. Yes, including Wendy. This story sort of took that way. Writing Tinker Bell as narrator is a stroke of genius and really worked for this tale, but it also ensures that she must follow Tiger Lily, she must love Tiger Lily and be on Tiger Lily’s side. I don’t think the Tink that Barrie wrote would have done this. She is Peter’s constant companion. She exhibits jealousy I can’t write off as annoyance for Tiger Lily’s sake. And in the end, after Wendy Darling has gone home, it’s still Peter and Tink, forever and ever. But, this isn’t particularly romance, this is kinship.

In fact, I always sort of balk at versions that add in romance to Peter and Wendy’s relationship. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that she has herself a little crush, but this is not a romantic story. This is a story about children. And to be quite frank, Peter is far too selfish and self absorbed to love anybody. He’s supposed to be, he’s a child playing at being an adult, the same way all children do. The fact that his age does not fluxuate over how many years he’s existed does not matter. He wants ‘always to be a little boy and have fun’ and so he does. He repeatedly refers to Wendy as a ‘mother’ (while admittedly taking on the father role for himself, but not in a real way, more in the way of a child playing house). Romance is just not necessary. But with this book it was seventy percent of the plot.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, immediately, and to anyone. It was great. But there are things that bugged me about it, mainly because I am so devoted to the original text. Still, this must be looked upon as a separate entity, and as that it succeeds.


About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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3 Responses to Books I’ve Read – July 2012

  1. Emma says:

    Ophelia sounds pretty interesting. You’ve done a lot of reading lately 🙂

    • Lindsay says:

      I do a lot of reading. Especially in the summer. Ophelia was a pretty good read. It was an interesting take, even if it’s not always what I would have done with the story.

      • Lindsay says:

        Though, I did read one person’s disgusted review calling it “Hamlet fan fiction with Ophelia and Horatio as the OTP”. I could kind of see where they were coming from.

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