Books I’ve Read – November 2012

Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald

Fall on Your Knees(*** of five)

If ever there was a sweeping epic tale of a family it can be found in Anne-Marie MacDonald’s ‘Fall on Your Knees’. Unfortunately it’s an epic tale about a family so screwed up that they’re almost entirely unlikable. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a problem for me. I don’t have to like all the characters. I don’t even have to like any of them. However, when their choices are continually impossible for me to understand it becomes a little problematic. I did like this novel. I gave it three stars but I think it deserves more like three and a half. I could not grant it four. I can see how someone could love this, I can see how someone could hate it, but I think most people will fall directly in the middle. The thing that was very strange about this book was that I didn’t love it, yet I couldn’t put it down. Those two things are not usually connected. It wouldn’t say this was enjoyable, but it was fulfilling. Ultimately my feelings about this book are very ambivalent.

‘Fall on Your Knees’ begins with James Piper, a piano tuner who falls in immediate love with Materia, the thirteen year old daughter of one of his clients and promptly elopes with her. But impetuous romances don’t always make happy marriages. Soon both parties realize their error but it’s too late, Materia withdraws into herself and James becomes obsessively devoted to their young daughter, Kathleen. The book follows two more generations of the Piper family, daughters Mercedes, Frances, and Lily, through World War II, prohibition, the Great Depression, and beyond. Their story isn’t always, or ever, pleasant, but it’s certainly epic.

This is a book about secrets, selfishness, and half remembered truths. The Piper family, as a whole, are pretty deplorable. They’re either religious to a fault, wholly selfish, or have crossed over rebelliousness to a sort of painful apathy. It starts out painting a picture that we roll round to nearly one third of the way into the book, a sorry tale that should bring genuine emotion, but managed to fall rather flat with me. This is a big secret and a terrible tragedy, but the flippancy that is shown by the family members makes it less so. And even though this was the focal point where everything started to fall apart, where lives were lost and others broken, it never feels that heavy.

The thing that I did really enjoy about this book was its portrayal of eldest Piper girl Kathleen. Throughout the beginning of the novel she is almost completely unlikable. She’s haughty, rude, prejudice, and has some real daddy issues. But when we reach the last section of this novel and start hearing the story of what happened to her in New York, our opinion changes completely until we’re left feeling genuine sympathy for the first character in the whole book.

It’s impressive really, quite a feat, to write a book about people this unlikable. They’re considered outsiders, strange, outcasts almost. That is nothing new. I’ve read countless books about outcasts but usually they have redeeming qualities. Qualities that can convince the reader, if not the characters, that there is something to know about these people. MacDonald didn’t seem like she was going for that here, which is commendable, but I couldn’t give it any more stars.

The Liar Society: The Lies that Bind – Lisa & Laura Roecker

lies that bind(**** of five)

In the second book of the ‘Liar Society’ series Kate Lowry is back for a new year, with new rules, new friends, and a new hair color (blue!). I’ve heard Kate compared to a sassy Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars. Both are apt in this highly entertaining follow up to ‘The Liar Society’.

Kate Lowry has discovered the truth behind the accidental death of her best friend, Grace Lee, a year and a half earlier, but that doesn’t mean that her work is done. Now that Kate knows about the rivaling secret societies, the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood, at her school, Pemberly Brown, she’s geared to take them down, not such an easy feat with alumni sprinkled throughout town trying to ensure the societies continuance. But when a member of the Sisterhood is taken hostage Kate fears that history may be repeating itself. She teams up with Taylor Wright, along with her boyfriend, Liam, and goofy, conspiracy loving best friend, Seth (clearly the best character) to find the missing Bethany and find proof that will bring the societies down for good. But Kate soon learns that her agenda might not match up with Taylor’s and that good and bad is not always so black and white.

First off, and I didn’t include this in my review of ‘The Liar Society’ though it was the reason I liked it as much as I did, this book is clearly based on a conglomerate of Cleveland private schools including my alma mater (which’s name is suspiciously close to that of Pemberly Brown, only less Mr. Darcy’s house and more Shakespeare’s wife). The location and name is fully Hathaway Brown, the campus resembles Western Reserve Academy pretty well, and the amalgamation of boys and girls schools sounds a lot like Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin. Reading this book is like a fabulous little Cleveland mystery of what is what and where they pulled inspiration from where. In fact, during reading the first installment a wayward classmate emailed the sisters to find out if they went to our school (they didn’t, it was public school, it seems).

Not that any of this stuff went on at my school. We didn’t have boys, for one. At Pemberly Brown the rivalry between the boys and the girls sets the action in motion and it’s compelling. The thing that I think sets this series a little bit above other Young Adult series is that it’s not nearly as predictable. There were several times through this book where I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen, only to be completely surprised. Which is good. Very good. And in Young Adult books, rather rare. This book has the guts to go where so many series fall short. We’re allowed to be betrayed, allowed to feel more than one way about characters. Do we trust Bradley Farrow, which we very much want to do by the end, or is he going to betray Kate again. Is Queen Bee Taylor really going out of her way to befriend Kate? And should Kate pledge an allegiance to either society or try and take them both down? These questions are not easily answered, much like in real life, and that’s impressive for a Teen book.

I have liked both books in ‘The Liar Society’ series so far but I rated this one better. Going back to think on the first I had some hesitations that still seem to apply. For one, about half the things about going to private school are correct and dead on, but the only half read like the cliched version of private school that we’ve seen a hundred times, written by those who didn’t go there. Contrary to popular belief, and I have seen this repeatedly, most private schoolers do not graduate with an inherent knowledge of Latin. I took Latin and I still don’t have that much of a grasp on it. Most probably wouldn’t get any further than being able to read the motto underneath the school crest. For real. It’s one thing to say repeatedly that these are the best and brightest, that this school is elite and it’s quite another to make the reader feel it. That was my criticism of the first, that and the dropped off ending that I assumed would be taken up in this volume (I was not disappointed). Perhaps I was used to this and expecting it when I started reading ‘The Lies that Bind’, perhaps the authors didn’t feel it necessary to talk about the school ad nauseum, but these tidbits didn’t bother me this time around. I was able to sit back and join the compelling ride, which is what this book was meant for. And I loved the ending. Can’t wait for the next installment.

Jane Austen in Scarsdale – Paula Cohen

Jane Austen in Scarsdale(**** of five)

I’m a fan of the updated classic novel. I enjoy how updating a novel that seems very set in a time can show an audience that nothing ever really changes. They can also make classics more accessible to modern audiences. I came upon this realization after listening to my sister complain bitterly over how boring Shakespeare was but then, a half hour later, start talking about the hilarity of ‘She’s the Man’ (she still maintains that it’s not the plot that she finds funny, it’s how spastic Amanda Bynes is). I love classics, but I love their updates just as much.

Jane Austen is well covered territory, particularly her most beloved novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Which was why I decided to forgo Paula Cohen’s other title ‘Jane Austen in Boca’ for this edition, which is, in fact, ‘Persuasion’.

Anne Ehrlich met the love of her life, Ben Cutler, at age twenty-one, only to be persuaded against the match by her well meaning grandmother. They were from two different worlds, his a blue collar background and she from privilege. Thirteen years later things have changed, Ben is now the owner of a travel book conglomerate and Anne is a guidance counselor (though her job seems to revolve almost completely around college admittance, I’d say she was more a college counselor) in a well to do Westchester town. Anne has never been able to forget Ben, regretting her decision all these years, when suddenly he is back in her life as the uncle of her new student. Suddenly old wounds are new and Anne has the possibility to correct past mistakes.

This book wasn’t fantastic. I mean, it was a chick-lit regurgitation of a Jane Austen novel and makes not bones about it. Still, I really liked it. I felt like Anne’s job as a counselor really gave the book a double focus and, even though I thought some of it was a bit over the top, her interaction with the kids and their parents was almost enough for the book to stand on on it’s own. And then there is ‘Persuasion’. It’s not my favorite Austen by a long shot (‘Emma’) but it’s probably the one that I know the least. I remember most of it, the main things, but that sort of half rememberedness allows for better readings of updates (Much like my experience with ‘The House of Mirth’ and Claire McMillan’s ‘Gilded Age’). I was able to enjoy the book without being nitpicky, letting it stand on it’s own.

I thought this was a very commendable update and an enjoyable book on it’s own. Certainly not something I would insist is read, but enjoyable, fast paced, and true to it’s original story while adding plenty in.

Hemingway’s Girl – Erika Robuck

Hemingways Girl(**** of five)

I don’t particularly enjoy reading Hemingway. I don’t think this is a particular fault, not everyone can love everything and I just don’t like Hemingway. I find him overly dour and misogynistic with plots that meander for hours but never really get anywhere. I am one hundred percent certain that he never wrote a realistic and well rounded woman. Yet, despite this, I am fascinated with his life, so when I saw this title peeking out at me from the shelves at the library I had to pick it up.

In the middle of the Great Depression Mariella Bennet, the daughter of a Cuban mother and white father, lives with her mother and two sisters in Key West. Scraping by since her father’s early death Mariella takes a position as housekeeper in the Hemingway household. Fascinated with “Papa”, Mariella begins a dangerous flirtation. With a family to support, and torn between the famous author and a hardworking Argonne vet Mariella must make some difficult choices. Especially when it comes to Hemingway’s jealous second wife, Pauline, Mariella’s desire to start a boat charter company, and a deadly Hurricane bearing down on the tiny island chain.

This could have been a complete story without Papa, but it wouldn’t have been a very good one. Though Mariella and her life is very much it’s own story it weaves around that of Hemingways in the capacity we’ve never really seen from Hemingway about a woman before, mutual respect. Mariella’s beer drinking, men’s clothes wearing, love of fishing, tough girl exterior is obviously appealing to Hemingway, as it likely would have been in real life. Whatever else can be said about the man, no one could accuse him of putting on airs about class and Mariella’s no frills attitude would have been doubtlessly appealing to him. However, I’m not convinced he could have ever really met someone quite like her because then he might have a better opinion of women. Towards the end Hems confesses that, despite an earlier promise, he did use her in fiction, as the sea in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. Sure, but I don’t think his respect of her wouldn’t have leaked into other characters. Still, it was a great story. The interactions between Papa and Mari were heartfelt and real. Mariella’s life was painted fully, her home life of as much importance as her work one. Gavin, Mariella’s veteran love interest, was also well developed.

But of course I have criticisms. First being that the good were just a little bit too good. Gavin was just a bit over the top good, running around to save people in a storm, devoting time and money he didn’t have to his amputee war buddy, John, and Mariella’s family, never drinking with ‘those rowdy vets’. I wouldn’t have minded a few drunken evenings, he is a human being after all. We do see some negatives with his jealousy towards Hems, but even that is quickly apologized for and forgotten.

The second, and more important, is the writing style. Most of the time it was so simplistic that it was almost painful. The author didn’t go to any pains in order to make this prose pretty. It’s straight forward and plain, telling the reader exactly what happened but not going very far to describe it. The sort of classic stuff that’s covered in Intro to Fiction Writing. It was distracting at times, in fact, but mostly counteracted by the plot. Had Robuck been a better writer this would have been better, but as it is, it’s pretty damned good.

An Uncommon Education – Elizabeth Percer

An Uncommon Education(**** of five)

Picking up this book I wasn’t entirely sure I would like it. Reading the description, the plot seemed entirely up my alley, but after it had been out for a few weeks and the reviews started coming in I grew a little bit skeptical. They weren’t that great. Many of them expressed distaste in the lead character, the depiction of Wellesley College, and even the pacing of the story. Still, I put it on my wish list on PaperbackSwap and when it arrived in the mail I picked it up right away.

Naomi Feinstein has always lived sort of a quiet life. Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts with exactly one short lived friend and a photographic memory Naomi has always dedicated herself to her studies and big ambitions to become a cardiac surgeon after her father suffered a heart attack when she was nine years old. But when Naomi achieves the place at Wellesley College that she’s always desired and joins the somewhat rambunctious and semi-mysterious Shakespeare Society she finds herself in a whole new world. Suddenly with, not only friends but, good friends and something besides books to divert her attention her grades begin to drop and she starts being able to question what it is that she really wants in life.

I agree that the narrative did drag a bit in the beginning. Focusing on Naomi’s adolescence, we get her father’s relative obsession with the Kennedy Birthplace several blocks over, his heart attack and Naomi’s reaction to it, her friendship with Teddy, and the beginnings of her understanding her mother’s depression. All of these things were crucial to understanding Naomi as a young adult. However, they were not always the most compelling. For me it was really once Naomi entered college and joined the Shakespeare Society that I started to get fascinated. And I was. This book was filled with rich characters that seemed very real, some of which because they felt familiar but others because they were very well written. In fact, I thought this whole book was very well written, some passages leaving me down right impressed.

But let’s get something straight. This is not a novel about secret societies, it’s not a mystery, and it’s not the sort of story where big things happen. This is a coming of age story about a girl who has always struggled with everyone else’s view of her set against how she views herself. The most exciting thing that happens in this novel is a girl finding herself. For me, that’s enough. But as I was scrolling through the reviews by other Goodreads users I kept seeing those who were disappointed because this book wasn’t what they expected it to be. I believe that does the book a disservice and I would rather readers go into a book with their eyes open. Another thing that this book is not is Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’, though I put it on my we-really-want-to-be-secret-history shelf. The feel of this book was similar to Tartt and both novels take place on college campuses, but the similarities end there. But all the things that this book is not don’t take away from what it is; a quiet pleasure to read with some really good characters.



About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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One Response to Books I’ve Read – November 2012

  1. gold price says:

    My Thoughts: This book sounds so exciting. But it’s not. And I really didn’t like Kate’s voice. I don’t know what it is, but it just annoyed me quite a bit. The story itself was mildly suspenseful, and a little intriguing. Not enough to make me like the book – rather than think it’s just OK. It’s not bad, just not good, either. Plus, at the end of it all, I couldn’t quite figure out the title of this book. Yes, it’s about secret societies, but no mention of a Liar Society. The only thing I can guess is that everyone in any sort of secret society lies about anything to do with said society.

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