A Pearl in the Storm


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , | Posted on 11:39 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars

For a little nonfiction blurb, we have Tori Murden McClure's A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. It's an account of McClure's attempts to become the first woman to row a boat across the Atlantic. Yes, row. Alone. Across the Atlantic.

This is more than slightly crazy.

But McClure comes off as a remarkably sensible individual; sharp, erudite, and no stranger to the harshness of life. She structures her narrative in the model of an epic quest, with the woman taking the role of knight-errant, off to slay her dragon -- which, in McClure's case, takes the unexpected form of helplessness, a feeling that has plagued her in various guises through her life. She sets her chapters as daily entries tracking her progress across the waves, while drifting back into reminiscing about the struggles and people who have shaped her up to that point.

The book has a lyrical, meditative feeling but with a hard-edged practicality and some riveting descriptions as McClure is caught up in tempests both physical and mental - think The Hatchet, not Eat, Pray, Love. Women can go on quests and conquer challenges just as ably as men, but McClure soon discovers that our own individual paths rarely fit the expected mold. Spinning out a journey of revelation, McClure has some beautiful insights to share along with her varied and impressive life experience, and she invites the reader along to join in the adventure.

Let It Snow


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 7:10 AM

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances
By: John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I am not normally one for short story collections, but in the spirit of the holidays I picked up this ensemble piece, featuring three YA authors I've enjoyed. All three tales involve Christmas, romantic hijinks, and a huge blizzard, and are nicely interlinked -- the characters in each cross each others' paths in entertaining yet not-too-contrived ways.

Johnson kicks off the trilogy with Jubilee, a young lady who, in a series of unfortunate holiday
events, finds herself on a train to Graceland on Christmas Eve, with two parents in jail due to a Christmas toy village riot and no response from her busy boyfriend (and it happens to be their anniversary). And then the train gets stuck in a giant snowdrift, and Jubliee meets Jeb, and then the cheerleaders arrive...

The story was light and unpredictable and features a Waffle House (so I highly approved) -- and Jubilee handles the growing insanity with admirable aplomb.

The fun continues with John Green and Tobin, the Duke, and JP -- the Duke is actually a (totally amazing) girl, while Tobin narrates, explaining how all three of them are called to the Waffle House in the middle of the blizzard. You see, Tobin's friend Keun works at said Waffle House. And the above-mentioned plague of cheerleaders? Arrive at the WH. Obviously it is a boy's One True Dream to find himself snowed in at a Waffle House with an entire squad of bored cheerleaders. The only question is: who will supply the game of Twister?

This begins an epic race through the snowy streets and darn if this wasn't my favorite story; John Green beats all for smart, snappy teens (if a little too conscious of their own brainpower, sometimes), and his Wacky Happenings are lovingly described in hilarious detail.

Myracle brings us home with the magical story of Addie, who is most definitely not in the Christmas spirit, what with suffering a wrenching breakup that is pretty much totally her fault -- but she has her own adventure involving Starbucks, a teacup pig, and quite possibly a Christmas miracle. Not the strongest story of the bunch (Addie was self-absorbed to annoyance; a flaw that Myracle's characters often seem to struggle with) but it wrapped things up nicely, which is not an easy feat.

Overall: A light, frothy Christmas treat, tasty as sugar cookies and hot chocolate. This was my first seasonal short story piece, and I was pleasantly impressed -- do you have your own favorite holiday/cold-weather-warm-heart tales? I'd love to get more suggestions!

Wishing you all safety, warmth, family and fun for the holidays!

Immortal by Gillian Shields


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:51 PM

Rating: 2/5 stars.

When I set out to write this review, I had trouble remembering the title -- was it Eternal? Abiding? Undying? Something to do with lasting forever...

Sadly, the book was equally forgettable. Take every Gothic cliche you've ever stumbled across on a stormy night in the churchyard, toss in some diary entries from a Ghostly Presence and stir in all the angst-ridden spices of a Doomed Teen Love, and you end up with something pretty bland and predictable. After The Splendor Falls, it almost felt like an object lesson in all the ways a supernatural-digging-up-the-past while exiled-to-a-strange-place story can fall flat.

The heroine is banished to Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Girls after her grandmother and primary guardian suffers a stroke (her father is off on military duty). The school, an appropriately gloomy Castle On the Moors type, just seems to be haunted -- by a redheaded girl who strikingly resembles Evie herself.

Le gasp!
Of course, Evie doesn't even make it to the school ("That cursed place!" the cabdriver hilariously --er, ominously -- snarls) before having an Eerie Encounter, with a young man on a dark horse who knocks her down in the rain and is terribly rude and yet mysteriously appealing...

Oh, I can't go on.

I didn't hate the book. I was just totally indifferent. To pretty much everything, from the prose to the characters to the themes (women harnessing magic = girl power! Evil controlling man who wants the magic = thinly veiled metaphor for male oppression!).

If you want to be inundated with Gothic sensationalism, read a Wilkie Collins. If you want a Doomed Romance on the Moors, read Wuthering Heights. Even better, check out Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which takes all those stereotypes and gives them a firm tweak on the nose. Plus, you'll get a great romance with characters you'll care about (oh, Henry Tilney, please do smirk in my direction!). But unless you've never before encountered a Mystery on the Moors with a Young Girl and Shadowy Male Figure, you can give this book a pass on the shelves.

The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Moore


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 6:34 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars.

I had an inkling I'd enjoy this book, based on how much I've liked Clement-Moore's supernatural Nancy Drew-meets-Buffy Prom Dates from Hell series. And I wasn't disappointed.

Sylvie Davis is a ballerina; dancing is her entire life. She has worked tirelessly for years to build her career, to become the youngest prima ballerina in her company. Then, in a single freak moment, her entire future falls apart. After all, who ever heard of a ballerina with a broken leg?

And then her divorced mother remarries Sylvie's psychiatrist, and Sylvie gets shipped off to Alabama to spend some quality time with her deceased father's family.

Life sucks, no?

But thankfully we've got a heroine with chutzpah, who may not be underprivileged but who doesn't take herself too seriously -- not at all the snobby, stuck-up princess type you'd expect. Ballerinas work hard, and that means knowing your own limits as well as your abilities. Sylvie has a wry, clear-eyed view that makes her situation a lot more interesting than the typical 'rich girl shipped to Podunk, Nowhere.'

Plus, there are all those ghosts lurking around.

Bluestone Hill, the ancestral Davis mansion, has its share of secrets, and Sylvie finds herself caught up in disturbing visions of the family's past. Not to mention being unwillingly enlisted in the town's future --there are plans for development that threaten to destroy old historical sites like the Cahawba Old Town remains, and not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of turning into another tourist-trap for cityfolk.

The conflict is nicely personified in the form of two boys, of course -- the handsome but infuriating Rhys, an archaeology grad student from Wales who excels at getting under Sylvie's skin, and the charming Tom-Sawyer-Golden-Boy-of-the-South Shawn Maddox, who takes a marked interest in Sylvie's arrival (and for reasons beyond 'rich girl from NYC,' it seems). Of course, things aren't simple, as both boys seem to be hiding something. Rhys is decidedly cagey about his supposed 'research' in the area, while Shawn is head of the Teen Town Council, a youth group that seems to have the run of the town and gives off an eerie Leave It To Beaver vibe.

Tugged by these opposing attractions, tangled up in her own emotional turmoil over the loss of her dancing career and coming to terms with her father's death -- Sylvie has to wonder if she's cracking up when she starts seeing the woman running in the woods, or feeling the chill of an old Colonel's stare on the deserted landing. But then she finds the diary, and starts doing her own digging into Bluestone Hill's past...

Satisfyingly rich and well-paced, this book held up for its length and kept me caught up in Sylvie's story all the way through. Rhys and Shawn were excellent as well, and the supporting cast (Paula, the unofficial matriarch of Bluestone Hill; Addie, the snotty Girl Rival) were also well drawn. The only complaint I have is in the conclusion; after all that buildup, things were wrapped up a bit too quickly for my taste. But it didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book overall, and the characters and setting were so vibrant that when I turned the last page I was mostly just disappointed to be leaving Bluestone Hill and Clement-Moore's Haunted South.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 7:49 AM

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

I adore A.S. Byatt more than I can coherently explain. Or at least I've loved the two books of hers that I've read so far, Possession and The Children's Book. I picked up my copy of Possession in a creaky little used bookstore in Norwich, England, and my memory of that February will be forever tinged with the flavor of that particular story -- the delicious combination of scholarly mystery, intertwining histories and rich prose that kept me reading long into the cold English nights.

It's the language that does it for me; Byatt has a style that reads almost like poetry, and she can weave such an intricate tapestry that it reminds me of standing in a restored music room in the Victoria & Albert museum, transported by the gleaming surfaces as much as the weight of history beneath them. Incidentally, The Children's Book features the V&A almost as another character itself; it's set during the end of the nineteenth century, straddling the end of Victoria's reign and the transition to the Edwardian era.

The book begins in the museum, with two boys spying on another at work sketching an artifact -- but it rapidly expands to encompass the trials and drama of several large, interconnected families who are all caught up in the shifting social, artistic, political and religious currents of the times. Normally I don't like sprawling epic family works -- it's hard to keep the characters straight, for one thing -- but Byatt caught me in a web of fairy myth and secrets that kept me reading until far too late at night (again).

I can see where people could argue that the book is too long; there are many passages that feel like long, elaborate exercises in stage setting, more like a study of Victorian England than any plot development -- but since I've always been interested in this time period, it felt like a pleasant diversion instead of a chore. Plus, I was learning a lot -- I had no idea that the suffrage movements in England were so viciously, frantically violent. This wasn't a bunch of ladies in ruffles complaining over tea; marching down the street, smashing shop windows, and oh yes, blowing up houses all made the agenda. And the government response was no less extreme, force-feedings and brutal beatings...with the added strain of class conflict and the looming aggressions of World War I, it must have felt like the world was shaking apart.

Which is probably why children's stories and fairy tales suddenly became popular, as people took refuge from an increasingly chaotic world in creations of fantasy. Not that fairy tales were all fun and games; these are the ancient, shadowed myths that the Brothers Grimm found, not the sanitized pastel-colored romps on most children's shelves today. This world is disturbing and odd, but there are rules here, and something about the stories touches deeper in our consciousness -- Byatt's exploration of myth and fantasy seized my interest as much as her characters' struggles, if not more so.

I could go on (and on), but at some point the rambling must end, so I'll sign off for now with a sigh for my lost bed partner. Even if this means I should be getting more sleep.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 9:02 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars.

I'll admit it: I didn't want to like this book. It had a lot to do with the reviews -- one described it as a modern-day, slightly twisted Catcher in the Rye, which makes my list of 'Classic Books that I Hate With a Mixture of Defiance and Guilt' (you all have these lists, right?). Plus, all of the reviews were just glowing about this book that was:
  • 1/3 part fantasy-fest, with talking lawn gnomes/ancient Vikings in disguise, a hypochondriac dwarf, a punk-rock angel with spray-painted wings and giant, seven-foot tall fire demons;
  • 1/3 part philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, with a dying protagonist struggling to understand an impossibly random universe;
  • 1/3 part head-trip crazyfest, since our hero is actually dying of Mad Cow disease and has been entrusted with a mission/road trip to save the universe (our universe, at least). Oh, and find a mysterious Dr. X, a time-traveling figure who can supposedly cure him.

Kind of a lot to live up to.

So I approached with a hefty dose of skepticism and the tiniest nigglings of hope. And in the beginning, I Doth Doubteth Much. Cameron isn't an easy guy to like -- he's made it his mission to be pretty much invisible, coasting through high school and life with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of sarcasm. He's smart but apathetic, self-aware enough to be interesting but still grating -- he typecasts everyone, including himself (father = control freak; sister = perfectionist; mother = 'driftwood,' just like him). I could see the Holden comparison, and I wasn't charmed.

But then, once his life is ground up and mashed with the bovine death-sentence prognosis and the hallucinations and the sudden Quest to Save Everyone, and he stumbles off on the Road Trip of Cracktastic Events, something happened that pulled me in, despite myself -- Cameron begins to care.

And gosh darn it, I started to care with him. Curse you, Libba Bray.

This book isn't especially subtle -- some of the messages are pretty heavy-handed, with encounters that just scream 'metaphor' and 'allegory' and all that symbolic goodness. Plus, there are tons of references to the granddaddy of Crazy Random Journey with Deeper Societal/Philosophical Meanings, Don Quixote, the assigned book in Cameron's Spanglish class. It's also a pretty crowded work; Libba Bray is pulling on a lot of strings here, and if things feel a little disjointed or contrived, it's more impressive that it doesn't all fall apart. But I have to admit she's nailed some good satire on teen media/our media society, and hit the good ole points of identity, fate, and choice that gnaw on all of our toes at night.

And she's got a good sense of humor. Her writing style still doesn't thrill me, for some reason -- the action always seems a little rushed, and the description is too short-hand for my taste (but I'm a sucker for lush - maybe overly lush - prose). The most important thing is, despite myself, from being consciously set against it, I fell in like with this story. Not love, but like.

And for a modern-day, Holden Caulfield-meets-Geek-Fantasy-Crazyfest, that isn't half bad.
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