Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book 31: The Girl With No Shadow

The Girl With No Shadow is a sequel to the author's novel, Chocolat, although sometimes it reads more like a sequel to the film that was based on the novel.  While it wasn't a bad book, I disliked where Vianne Rocher had ended up - after all, Chocolat ends on such a positive note, with Vianne having overcome her fear of the Black Man, that it is disappointing to see her here, trying to hide behind normalcy.  While the author eventually reveals the backstory about what led to her decision, it still seemed out of character, and not quite convincing enough.

Set over four years after the events of Chocolat, Vianne and her daughters Anouk and Rosette are living in the Parisian Montmartre district, running a chocolate shop.  Vianne now goes by Yanne Charbonneau, Anouk is Annie, and the chocolates are no longer home-made, but bought and resold.  The store is struggling, and Vianne is in a relationship with the stable Thierry le Tresset, her landlord.  While Thierry seems to love his idea of Vianne or Yanne, it also becomes clear that he likes the idea of himself as the knight in white armor who comes to rescue the damsel in distress since he seems less than excited when Vianne starts needing him less and the store turns around.  Of course, as the reader knows, Zozie de L'Alba, the woman that helps turn the store around is not a trustworthy character, and Vianne should have a few doubts about her motivations.  Given events that occured after Chocolat, and around the time of Rosette's birth, Vianne has decided not to use any type of magic, and shields her children from it.  As a result, she also does not notice that Zozie uses magic symbols to entice people in the chocolate shop and to help the business along.  Since Vianne avoids the subject, Anouk becomes fascinated with Zozie, seeing in her a reminder of their time in Lansquenet which Anouk still remembers fondly.

I think one of the things that made Chocolat the stronger novel is that while the priest was set up as the antagonist, he wasn't clearly described as evil.  He simply had a very set belief structure, and was trying to work within that.  Zozie is set up as charming and seductive, but from the very beginning it is clear that she doesn't just use magic to make her life easier - she also uses it for spiteful and vengeful purposes.  The first chapter she describes how easy it is to pretend to be other people, and how the dead continue to receive mail, making it easy to steal their identities.  If it had simply stayed with the idea that Zozie makes her living via credit card fraud and small time scams, it would have made for a more nuanced novel, but it quickly becomes clear that there is something much more sinister behind her actions and motivations.  Anouk becomes fascinated with the woman and while it is understandable, it is also frustrating given the readers' additional knowledge and Vianne's blindness to the situation.

Earlier I mentioned that this novel felt more like a sequel to the film than to the novel.  The reason for this is based entirely on the portrayal of the character Roux.  Since I read the book after having seen the film a few times, as soon as Roux showed up in Chocolat, I was waiting for his relatonship with Vianne to start, and kept reading romantic intentions into their interactions.  However, Vianne describes Roux as a good man that she wouldn't be able to treat fairly, and also firmly believes that Roux and her friend Josephine are the lovers that keep showing up in her tarot card readings.  While she and Roux hook up one night, to Vianne it is simply part of the moment, and she hopes it will not interfere with his developing relationship with Josephine.  In fact, by the end of Chocolat, he has moved into Josephine's cafe.  While I wonder if perhaps there was more romantic tension than Vianne wanted to admit to that Harris then builds on in this novel, in my opinion, the fact that Roux suddenly becomes such a huge character has much more to do with the film version and the fact that he was portrayed by Johnny Depp (back before Johnny Depp started really not being able to dress himself in public).  Reading the novel, one could easily believe that Vianne and Roux had a relationship but that Vianne ended up opting out because Roux wasn't stable enough.  If anything, Chocolat's Vianne didn't think she was stable enough, and she saw Roux as a brief encounter that led to her daughter Rosette.  I can buy them staying in touch, but this whole idea of Roux suddenly being the love of Vianne's life and vice versa?  That relationship simply wasn't present in the previous novel.  Of course, this isn't the first time a novel sequel has been influenced by a film adaption.  After all, Jurassic Park's sequel was narrated by a character that had died in the novel but survived in the film (the character states he was only temporarily dead or mostly dead).

Overall, this wasn't a bad novel but it didn't have the same appeal as the prequel.  It may have worked better as a stand-alone novel since then the reader wouldn't feel the disappointment about where Vianne has ended up and could instead view it as a novel about temptation and mother-daughter relationships.  The other thing is that while this novel also contains a large cast of customers and community, none of these characters have nearly as much personality or impact as the assorted cast of extras in Chocolat.  The only characters that really seem developed are the three rotating narrators of Vianne, Anouk and Zozie.  I am still curious to read the sequel since it takes Vianne back to Lasquenet, the village from Chocolat.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book 30: The Haunting of Maddy Clare

This was one of those novels that is better while reading it than when it is viewed in retrospect.  Once I started it, I was quickly hooked, and spent the afternoon at Panera until I had finished it.  However, it is only a few days later, and I'm already forgetting the names of most of the characters.  Sarah Piper, the novel's narrator, works at a temp agency, and Allistair Gellis, a ghost hunter, hires her as an assistant for a case he is working.  Though he already has an assistant, Matthew Ryder, Sarah is necessary because the ghost he is currently investigating does not like men, and the home's owner insists that he can only come investigate if there is a woman present.
While Sarah questions the idea of ghosts, her doubt is swept away almost as soon as she reaches the village and has her first interaction with Maddy.  Mrs. Clare had found Maddy when she was about 12, brutally beaten, covered in mud, unable to speak and given her shelter.  For some reason, she killed herself after living with Mrs. Clare and her housekeeper for seven years, and now haunts the barn where she hung herself.  While Allistair is mostly interested in the manifestation of the ghost, Matthew and Sarah realize they need to know the backstory to truly understand this case, and begin to solve the mystery of where Maddy came from and what happened to her.  Maddy connects with Sarah (though this is a frightening thing for Sarah), and gives her clues and visions about what happened to her.  The twists and answers are rather obviously choreographed, but the writing was compelling enough for me to wonder if maybe there was an extra twist I didn't see coming (there wasn't), and to wonder when the characters would catch up.
However, I think the beginning of the novel was more interesting, and by the end, the stakes really didn't seem that high - Maddy ends up possessing Allistair, and Matthew and Sarah are in a rush to save him, but something about it just didn't quite seem that compelling or even necessary - I wanted them to solve the mystery for the sake of solving the mystery and helping Maddy, and really didn't care too much about Allistair one way or the other.  A large piece of the plot is also devoted to a developing romance between Sarah and Matthew.  It's not necessarily the most frightening ghost story told, nor that memorable, but it mostly holds together while reading it.  However, in retrospect, there wasn't necessarily that much to it, and it certainly didn't break any new ground.  Basically, it's a popcorn movie version of a novel.

Book 29: The Snow Child

I absolutely adored this novel.  Set in 1920s Alaska, it follows the story of Mabel and Jack, a middle aged couple who uprooted their lives and moved to Alaska a year before.  Used to farming in the continental United States, the two weren't quite prepared for the hardships they would face, and have also lost the ability to communicate with each other.  Mabel pictured them working together, sharing their triumphs and losses, while Jack still feels the need to protect Mabel and shield her from the worst of it.  Mabel and Jack married later in life, and Mabel was from a more well-to-do background, hence Jack's need to prove himself worthy.  Though both wanted children, the one pregnancy they had ended early with a stillborn child.  As a result, Mabel felt that Alaska would be the answer for them - she wanted to start over, fresh, away from the well meaning pity and sympathy of the family.  However, things are not going as well as Mabel had hoped.
One night, however, it snows, and Mabel and Jack end up having an odd night of fun, rather out of character for both, and they build a snow girl together.  The next morning, the two of them find their snow girl destroyed but both start seeing glimpses of an actual girl in the woods.  The girl hunts with a fox, seems completely untouched by the cold, and survives in the wilderness.  Slowly, the girl and the couple begin to build a relationship with each other.  Mabel, remembering an old Russian fairy tale, believes that Faina, the name the girl eventually gives them, is that snow girl come to live.  Certainly, the girl's timing coincides with that idea as she leaves with the snow and winter and comes back again after first snowfall.  Jack is more practical and believes Faina is a real girl, but either way, her presence brings a certain amount of anticipation and joy to their lives.  Mabel rediscovers her passion for drawing, and finally writes home to the family she left behind.
At the same time, due to Jack's visits to town, he becomes friendly with a local family, and despite Mabel's initial wish to avoid others, the two families begin to spend time with each other.  Esther and George have already established themselves in Alaska, and are more than willing to share advice, resources and their time to help their neighbors during hardship.  The harsh climate and gorgeous scenery of Alaska are beautifully described, practically serving as a character, and the whole novel has a bit of an other world feel to it.  While Ivey seems to answer the question regarding whether Faina is a snow girl or a real girl, she leaves it open enough that there is room for interpretation and the answer is not completely straightforward.  The development of the relationship between Jack and Mabel is well done, and seems very realistic, since it has its up and downs even after things begin to improve for them.  While the novel has its touches of magic realism, it reads as a very realistic exploration of relationships, not just of humans with each other, but also with nature and their environment.  Given the setting, it really seems like the perfect book to read during the winter with a cup of hot chocolate as the characters all slowly draw the reader in.  In fact, simply writing about the novel makes me want to read it again, or pick up a Jack London novel.

Book 28: Live by Night

Dennis Lehane may very well be one of my favorite authors, and I always look forward to his novels.  While I started reading his thrillers and mysteries, I also loved The Given Day, which was historical fiction (though it still focused on cops and crime).  I was very excited to see that he had written another historical fiction novel, though I was surprised to see that this one would be leaving his usual turf of Boston, and take place partially in Florida.  While I loved The Given Day, it has been a long time since I read it, so I didn't even realize until almost halfway through that this was one of those sequels that isn't a sequel.  The main character, Joe, is the little brother of the main character from The Given Day (I didn't remember his last name and therefore didn't make the connection until he actually showed up in the novel for a brief scene).
While his father is a police officer, and his older brother was one, Joe has chosen to make his living on the other side of the law.  He is mostly involved in petty crimes, but as the novel begins, the crime world in Boston is about to experience some major transitions and upheaval.  Joe's been loosely attached to one crime syndicate, and White, a former cop turned gangster, has decided to consolidate power and take over Boston.  Since White and Joe are both in love (or lust) with the same woman, and on opposing sides, things quickly turn bad for Joe, ending up with him in jail in Charlestown.  In order to survive, Joe must make questionable alliances that eventually lead to his placement as a mob boss in Tampa, Florida, working out of the Ybor section of town.
While Joe likes to think of himself as an outlaw rather than a gangster, as time progresses and he becomes more powerful, he realizes that that statement is no longer accurate due to the compromises he has made.  While the novel starts with Joe as a young man that holds up a card game, it soon becomes a much more sweeping story, involving mob warfare, bootlegging, and empire building.  There's even interactions with Cuban freedom fighters and revolutionaries once Joe establishes himself in Florida.  Overall, while Lehane touches on a broad spectrum of issues and historical events, it felt like a lighter read than The Given Day, more of a thoughtful fast paced ride while The Given Day explored a few issues more deeply.  There is also a sideplot regarding Joe's relationship with a police chief in Tampa.  While it begins from a position of mutual respect, Joe ends up using questionable means to justify the ends, even admitting to himself that he acted that way because it was easier and faster.  Unlike some of his peers, Joe is better at long term planning, and this too helps him remain successful.  While there are few moments where Joe's luck just seems a bit too good and some of the situations seem almost too crazy, Joe is an easy character to root for, and I was more than willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of being swept along with the story.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book 27: Chocolat

Chocolat by Joannne Harris

As much as I like the movie, I never even realized it was a book until recently. Harris has written a sequel (actually, a third novel in a series now) to Chocolat, and the fact that the novel is related to Chocolat has naturally been prominantly printed on all the copies of Peaches for Father Francis. Since I was so used to the idea of this novel as a movie, it was of course rather difficult to separate the two while reading the novel.

For the most part, the movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the novel. I mean, Johnny Depp doesn't have red hair, and the novel has a darker undertone than the movie ever reached, but other than that, and the addition of one small subplot in the film (the dog owner does not start a late in life romance in the book, unfortunately), it was basically the same story.

My view may have been influenced by the film in this as well, but the novel seems incredibly timeless. When reading about life in a small village in France, dealing with changes and outside influences, it is so easy to imagine the story taking place in the '50s or '60s, but later, it becomes clears that the novel is in fact set in a much more modern time frame given references to certain technology.
For anyone that hasn't seen the film, the novel tells the story of Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk who move to a small village at the beginning of Lent and open a chocolate shop. Vianne soon gets on the village priest's radar who believes that she is a bad influence due to the fact that she doesn't go to church, and that her chocolates are an unwanted temptation during Lent season. While it seems like the novel covers a much longer time period, it actually takes place between Lent and Easter.
While the priest, Francis Reynaud, discourages the community from visiting her, her friendly attitude and spirit attract many of the villagers, especially the outcasts, that have not felt welcomed by the unbending piety of Reynaud. This includes Guillame, an elderly retired man who is incredibly attached to his aging dog; Armande, an old woman who refuses to go to church, is in a bit of a feud with her daughter, and has knowledge about the priest that no one else remembers (portrayed by Judi Denche in the film); and Josephine, a kleptomaniac whose husband beats her, something that the community laments but ignores. There are a few other villagers as well, but these are the main ones that develop friendships with Vianne. In addition to their disagreement about chocolate and Lent, the priest and Vianne also challenge each other in their treatment of the boat people or "gypsies" that pass through the village.
The chapters alternate between Vianne and the priest's perspectives. Just like the movie, the novel doesn't completely villanize the priest, but shows him as someone who feels his way of life threatened, and based on their preconceived notions, Vianne and Francis do occasionally misinterpret each other's intentions. Still, the film version of the priest was more sympathetic (I'm sure the actor had something to do with that as well). Also, while the film implies that there is something magical about Vianne and her daughter, for the most part, they are simply treated as having a different, more bohemian life style. The novel straddles this line as well, but gives more credence to the idea that Vianne is a witch. Certainly her mother (there is a lot more back story in the novel) believed that she was a witch even if Vianne chose to focus on a more material type of life, and chose to make chocolates and foods rather than spells.
I definitely enjoyed the novel, and look forward to reading the rest of the novels in the series, and exploring the rest of the author's books. I'll also definitely watch the movie again soon - since I'd already seen the film, I was imagining all the actors in the novel. They really did get a great cast for the film adaptation.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Never Thought I'd be Defending 50 Shades of Grey

I saw this link on a blog yesterday, and had reactions that couldn't quite be summed up in a Facebook link, so I figured I'd actually write something that is slightly book-related but not a book review.  Basically, a women's shelter asked for donations of 50 Shades of Grey so they could burn them in a bonfire.  Once they received them, they decided to dispose of them in a different way (they appear to be considering using them as toilet paper).  I've never read 50 Shades of Grey, I don't really plan on reading the novel or the trilogy, but I have read a few different things about it online.  When it comes down to it, I think 50 Shades of Grey is probably horribly written, unrealistic, and ridiculous.  If the shelter were somehow receiving donations of the novels, I would entirely understand their desire to get rid of them - I'm not sure if abused women really need to be reading inaccurate and badly portrayed S&M.  However, the shelter went out of their way to request copies of this book so they could burn them because they are "horrible for women" (paraphrase).  And that just rubs me the wrong way - yes, I have on occasion felt the desire to throw a book in a fire or the trash because it was that horribly written, and I have the feeling this might be one of those that would cause that type of reaction in me - but calling for a public book burning?  When has that ever been a good idea?  Also, who are you to tell me what is or isn't good for me when it comes to reading choices?
Now from what I understand, 50 Shades of Grey's portrayal of BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism) is less than accurate of what actually accurs in those types of communities (other articles, not personal experience).  I think there is definitely a lot of discussion that could be done about the ideas of consent, female fantasy and sexuality, and BDSM using this series as a starting point, and discussing where it gets it wrong vs how maybe it does do it right, by at least acknowledging that women are sexual and aren't necessarily interested in plain old vanilla.  I can also understand the possibly misguided desire to protect women who have been in abusive relationships from reading these novels and possibly being reminded of bad, nonconsensual experiences.  However, when it comes down to it, BDSM on its own is not abusive.  Domestic violence is not the same thing as practicing S&M.  While the quote is out of context, one of the shelter's representatives describes the "themes of S&M" as vile.  Somehow, I don't get the impression from that quote that she is trying to say that the portrayal is inaccurate and therefore vile; instead it gives the impression that she is judging the life style, and mistakenly demonizes it as leading to or being part of a cycle of abuse.
Basically, I'm all for mocking badly written novels, and using them as a means to open discussion.  However, don't call for a public book burning, and don't demonize people's sexual preferences because you disagree with them.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Book 26: Sister Queens

I admit, while I've read a few books about Henry VIII, his wives and the Tudors in general, my favorite has always been Anne Boleyn.  Even though Katherine was married to Henry longer than the other five wives combined, she just seemed boring to me - too religious, too pious, too self-righteous.  I also knew very little about Juana since she is only mentioned in passing if those books even bring her up.  I had attempted to read a fictional account of her life recently but it was so boring that I stopped midway through.  However, it made me more interested in the reality of Juana's life, and the idea of examining these two sisters side by side appealed to me.  It helps that I read a book called Victoria's Daughters last year, which talked about Queen Victoria's five daughters, their lives and influence on European politics.  In that way, Victoria and Isabella have at least one thing in common - both seemed to have had a ton of children and grandchildren through whom they ended up having relatives in dynasties throughout Europe (Juana and her six children were actually a key part of that in Isabella's case).
While Juana outlived Katherine by several years, there is also much less documentation on Juana and her life, so the book is primarily focused on Katherine.  Given that the two women only saw each other once after they each sailed to their respective future husbands and countries, this book isn't about their relationship - instead it shows the different challenges these women faced, and how their personalities and upbringing affected their reactions and the outcomes.  I definitely gained a new found respect for Katherine after reading this.  In a book with her as the subject matter, she no longer seems like the overly pious, boring woman that occasionally seems to come across in other Tudor histories compared to whom Anne Boleyn appears exciting and sparkling.  Fox shows that Katherine learned the political game early, and that she did in fact have a temper.  Of course, she had her flaws - she kept grudges, and once her opinion was formed regarding a person, it rarely changed.  She sometimes misjudged people.  While she saw herself as the English queen and her number one loyalty was with her husband, she also still felt ties to Spain which sometimes would affect how she wanted foreign policy to proceed.
Juana, on the other hand, seems much more naive than Katherine despite her status as the older sister.  All sources seem to agree that Juana and Philip, her husband, had an intense physical connection at the beginning, but Philip was a philanderer, so their bliss wouldn't last.  Unlike Katherine, who quickly learned to turn a blind eye her husband's infidelities (Anne was far from the first), Juana let her temper get the better of her.  Fox argues that Juana wasn't actually mad, but that certain behaviors of hers were cast as the behavior of a madwoman so the men in her life could justify pushing her to the side (or locking her up, more accurately) and ruling in her name.  Personally, I think it is a convincing argument.  Juana was supposed to be third in the line of succession for Spain but due to various deaths, she became the queen of Castile (Isabella was the ruler of Castile, and Ferdinand, who outlived his famous wife, the ruler of Aragon).  While I don't think Juana was mad, she was also not at all prepared for this status: while Isabella ensured that her daughters were well-educated, they were still mostly groomed to be consorts, not the rulers themselves.  While Katherine ended up picking up enough of the political game while waiting to marry Henry after Arthur's death to be formidable, Juana doesn't seem to have ever quite gotten it.  She didn't understand the complexities of certain situations, trusted the wrong people, and then, unable to get her way, she would throw tantrums, which would then be used as a sign of her madness.  It also doesn't help that neither of these women married men that were looking for an equal partnership, as Ferdinand and Isabella's relationship had been (in fact, given that Isabella brought more territory into the alliance/marriage, she could arguably be seen as the senior partner).  While Henry VIII would turn to his wife for advice in the beginning of their marriage, once others, such as Woolsey, had proven their worth, he became less interested in her as a political partner.  Philip never seems to have had any desire for a partnership with Juana, and early on, her household was dictated by him, leaving her more or less surrounded with strangers in a foreign land.
While Juana's failures were a combination of a sexist society and her own lack of political cunning on most occasions, Katherine's downfall was due to her inability to bear a heir.  Ironically, this was one thing Juana was very successful at.  If Katherine had born Henry the heir he so wanted and desired, Anne Boleyn would have probably been yet another on a list of conquests but since Anne could entice him with the idea that she could bear him the son he wanted, he parted with the church.  Katherine fought tooth and nail to maintain her status as Henry's wife, and the book lists three reasons for this: she truly believed that their marriage was just and right, she didn't want to jeopardize her daughter's future, and she felt like the attack on her marriage was an attack on the church since it questioned a dispensation already granted by a previous pope.  The ironic and tragic piece here is that in Katherine's desire to defend her faith, and seeing her marriage and her faith as interlinked, she actually probably ended up hurting her church much more than if she had simply agreed with Henry and let the annulment be granted.  If Henry had received the annulment he wanted, he probably never would have declared himself head of the church and split with the pope, despite Anne's own more protestant leanings.  Maybe he would have let Anne influence him, but I doubt it would have been nearly as drastic as what happened just so Henry could get his way.
One reason I am so willing to believe the idea that Juana wasn't mad and instead was simply not prepared to be a ruler and easily manipulated is because it reminds me of another queen that would appear on the scene in that same century: Mary, Queen of Scots.  While the situations aren't exactly the same, and no one ever doubted Mary's sanity, only her judgement, there is a bit a of a parallel. Neither woman was at all prepared for the turns that her life would take, both being groomed for the roles of consort rather than ruler, and both ended up making bad judgement calls (at least when Juana had the opportunity to make decisions), eventually leading to their imprisonment.  Both, however, fulfilled their duties in providing heirs, and Mary's son would become the king of Scotland and England, while Juana's son also followed her to her throne (both of these sons were also rather ambivalent about their mothers and showed no desire to see their mothers released from their prisons).
I highly recommend this book.  It made me see Katherine of Aragon in a new light, and it also revealed some of Juana's story, which is of course difficult given that she spent over half her life imprisoned, and either didn't write or wasn't allowed access to writing material.  Katherine, on the other hand, is incredibly well documented, and I quite enjoyed reading about her as compared to her sister, and in relation to her family background rather than in comparison to Henry's other wives.  I think occasionally the author tried to tie the sisters together more than she needed to.  Especially towards the end there were a few comments along the lines of "it's not clear if this sister knew of her sister's situation" or "she may have thought of her sister" but other than that slightly forced attempt to incorporate the sisters into each other's lives, I thought the book was great.