Thursday, December 17, 2009

19th Century Values Shape the Lives of Two Remarkable Women

How about some interesting historical fiction to start off the new year? Well, best selling author Tracy Chevalier is back with a novel set in 19th century England, full of fossils and friendship.

Tracy Chevalier's "Remarkable Creatures" focuses on two historical women--Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, and tries to flesh out the historical accounts of the lives of these women that exists in the scientific record. The book begins when Philpot has just moved to the town of Lyme Regis, and first meets Anning. Philpot, in her late 20s, is already a spinster, and moving to Lyme from London gives her the freedom to pursue her unladylike passion for fossils. Anning has a natural gift for fossil hunting, and Philpot is quickly drawn to her. Over the next two decades these women will develop a close bond and make many fossil discoveries together. But will a force bigger than themselves--love or fame--eventually draw them apart?

In "Remarkable Creatures" Chevalier has done a good job of taking real historical figures and crafting an interesting story around them. I had never heard of either Anning or Philpot, but I actually had seen some of the collections of fossils they contributed to at the British Museum. The novel quickly introduces you to these two women and their world, and does a good job of helping you to see the world through their eyes. I thought the most interesting dynamic of the story was how the men treated Philpot and Anning, especially how they were considered just "hunters" not real scientists because they were women. Some of the novel, particularly the love stories and jealousy did seem a bit forced, but not so much so that they ruined the rest of the story.

I would recommend this book to readers interested in women's lives during the early 19th century and to general fans of historical fiction. It was well done and an interesting quick read.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Too Much Sorrow Drags Down a Potentially Interesting Story

Have you ever read a book that was just so buzzed about you couldn't wait to read it, only to find it a big let down in the end. Well, that was pretty much my experience with "A Gate At the Stairs". Maybe it was just that the ending of the book left such a cold taste in my mouth, but this will definitely NOT be on my top ten list!

Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" follows a year in the life of Tassie, a 20 year old college student. Tassie is from a small town in rural Wisconsin, and her world is expanded exponentially over the course of the novel, first by her experience in the college town of Troy, then by her employment as the nanny for a young adopted mixed race girl, and finally by her brother's experience in the military. Through all of these experiences Tassie is forced to reexamine the perspective that has shaped her life and decide who she is and what she believes.

When I started reading this book I was excited--it had received all around rave reviews and I enjoyed Moore's previous work. It soon became clear however that Moore's strength lies in short stories, not in novel length works. I felt like the different sections of this novel--the book doesn't really have chapters, but rather longish sections--weren't really connected to each other, and although the characters were the same there was no continuous narrative thread to hold all of the pieces together. Not that I didn't love some of the sections--particularly the part about Emmie, the little girl Tassie nannies--put the disconnect between them was too much for me. I also finished this novel deeply depressed, which I think skews my opinion of the work as a whole. Since the fictional Tassie and I are roughly the same age, it was extremely discouraging to see one of my peers (even if she is fictional) so negative and bleak at such a young age. I know the novel is set in a dark time and there are tragic events, but the end of this novel is discouraging and so depressing, it overweighs the rest of the story.

I would have a hard time recommending this book to others because it is so dark. Yes, there are some beautiful and uplifting parts, but the end of the book left me cold and depressed. Reader beware.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Nail Bitting Novel with a Big Mystery--"The Weight of Silence"

Do you ever read a book that just totally sucks you in and twists your emotions? Well this was one of those books for me, which is surprising, because a lot of times I feel like first time authors just don't have that kind of power. But this was definitely a good one, which I would recommend to fans of Jodi Picoult or Anita Shreve.

"The Weight of Silence" Heather Gudenkauf's debut novel, is a real nail bitter, full of drama and suspense. In a small Iowa town, a young girl Callie has not spoken in 4 years. Callie awakes one morning and surprises her drunk father, who drags her into the woods. Callie's best friend also disappears the same morning, setting off a day of frantic searching and high emotions from the parents of both girls. When the girls are finally found, both have injuries and questions swirl as to what happened to them. Only Callie can provide the answers, but will she talk?

I was impressed with this debut effort from Gudenkauf. The novel is fast paced and full of emotion, but does not feel overwrought like some other similar novels that I have read. I thought it was interesting how Gudenkauf switched between the perspectives of the different characters, because it allowed the reader to see the action from different perspectives without revealing the twist at the end of the novel. It also allowed her to explore how different members of the families reacted to the events, which really gave the characters and the novel as a whole a satisfying depth.

If you enjoy books by Anita Shreve and Jodi Picolt, I would recommend that you try Gudenkauf. I'm interested to see what this promising author produces next.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Welcoming December with a Flashback to Summer--Elin Hilderbrand's "A Summer Affair"

Happy December! The holidays are upon us, and life is even crazier than usual. But make sure you take time out to read a good book! I find that for me, books are my most relaxing form of relaxation--something that is sorely needed in the craziness of the holiday season.

Let's start December off with a flashback to lighter summer days, with Elin Hilderbrand's "A Summer Affair." Although this book sounds super light and fluffy, I actually found it a little bit heavier than I thought and an enjoyable read.

"A Summer Affair", Elin Hilderbrand's seventh novel, follows Claire, a mother of four and artist in her late 30s who is struggling to deal with the realities of her life. After an accident in her studio, Claire delivers her fourth son prematurely, and her husband forces her to give up her art, which leaves Claire feeling adrift. When Claire accepts a position as a co-chair of a local charity gala, she hopes that it will give her some direction in her life. Little does she know it will lead to her beginning a relationship with Lock Dixon, the Executive Director of the charity. As the gala draws closer, will Claire be able to keep herself and her family together, or will she chose to flee her former life.

When I started this book, I thought it was going to be an airy light and candy coated fiction, where a woman has a carefree summer affair. I was surprised to find out that this book was much more complex, and really explored why Claire was involved in the affair, her guilt, and her emotional struggles with her life. The way Hilderbrand got into the head of her main characters was really interesting, and she did a great job building to the tension of the actual event and running multiple story lines at once.

This was the first Elin Hilderbrand novel I had ever read (I had always been turned off by the fluffy covers) but I think now I'm interested to read more. This was definitely better than I expected!