12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

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12.14–The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones is exactly what the title may suggest–lovely. A story of a family ravaged by the emotions resulting from the murder of their eldest daughter, it is told by the deceased girl, Susie Salmon.  Susie’s account of her murder and the events immediately preceding it are horrific, it’s true, and have the potential to be off-putting. Yet the novel that follows these morbid events is touching in a way that only the most heartbreakingly truthful accounts of life can be. Sebold writes fiction, but she captures the reality of life in every paragraph.

Susie looks down on her family from “her” heaven. Sebold has created a reality where each person who dies has their own heaven. These heavens occasionally overlap, when the deceased’s interest aligns with another’s. Susie has friends in heaven, and her dog even joins her there when he dies.  But her heaven also allows her to watch the goings-on of Earth, and Susie tells not just her story, but those of the people she was forced to leave behind. What she describes (with a certain detachment) is a sorrowful tale of grief, anger, betrayal, and frustration.  The gaping hole she leaves in the family widens until her parents relationship is in tatters, her elder sister drifts away emotionally, and her young brother is bubbling with anger. She makes somewhat half-hearted attempts (or so it seems to me) to contact her father and alert him to her murderer. Her feeble grasping at the world of the living sometimes manages to break through, and her father is able to receive enough to figure out who her killer is.  Though this revelation and subsequent hunt add an element of suspense to the novel, it is by no means the main focus of the novel.

It is difficult to read at times. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so appealing to read something as sad as this novel. Perhaps it is for the hope of a happy ending despite all. Or perhaps it is because we can be grateful that their sorrows are not ours. Sebold’s story is harrowing and grisly at times, but touching and beautifully written. Susie’s voice contains both the sweet innocence of childhood and the wisdom of one with the ability to see more than humans, and reading her account of events is a pleasure. The book was a bestseller without being fluffy and brainless, and I really admire both the author and the characters she created.  I highly recommend this book to anyone.

12.13–Postcards from the Edge

My reason for reading this novel is an interesting one. One day while strolling the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland I spotted a plastic bag in the grass.  Outraged, I stomped over to pick up the litter, but noticed that inside the bag was a book.  Happily, I had discovered a Book Crossing free book.  It travels around the world, being read and then released to be found again by person after person after person. How cool is that?

So far, Texas is the only other place the book has been outside of Ireland. I haven’t released it yet. Not sure where to do it. I’d like it to be somewhere uniquely Austin, but also somewhere it won’t be misconstrued as litter and thrown away. Perhaps my readers would like to suggest something?

As for the book itself, it was mediocre at best. I can see why people wouldn’t have a hard time letting it go.  I know I certainly won’t! A book by Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), it reads as a fictional autobiography of Fisher’s life.  The protagonist spends a stint in rehab and then lives the rest of her Hollywood life attempting to make her big break and to find love. Sadly, the story falls a bit flat. It is disjointed and difficult to follow–a jumble of narrative styles that follow no pattern and therefore make reading more of a chore than a pleasure.  The plot is dull and the character is not one I was at all interested in.  I wish I had more to say in praise of Fisher’s writing, because it seems that a great many of her ventures have been flops.  But she is not a very talented writer, and the only reason I finished the book was to be able to review it and pass it on for the next person to find. Who knows? They may enjoy it more than I did.

I did appreciate the humor in the novel. Fisher portrays well the egotistical and shallow nature of Hollywood by creating characters that are vain and vapid.  I also enjoyed the fact that, though it’s a story about a recovering drug addict, it wasn’t incredibly and morbidly depressing.  She wrote it so that even the most dire of the addicts’ circumstances were light and humorous.  Fortunately, everyone got help and most “lived happily ever after.”  Oops! I gave away the ending, but I don’t recommend the book to anyone, so I don’t feel bad!

12.10–Fire

Fire by Kristin Cashore was fantastic in a way that only action-filled, sexually charged teen lit can be.  I read a lot of reviews that condemned the novel for being too mature for teen audiences, but I disagree whole-heartedly.  Fire is 17 year old, is burdened with more than her fair share of unusual problems, and yet suffers the same fears and insecurities as the general teenage population.

I’m getting to an ago where teen lit is a guilty pleasure.  Five years out of teenager-hood, I should be over it. But I still find myself craving it often, mostly because it is fast-paced, fun, interesting, and lacks the forced introspective depth that a great deal of adult literature writers feel it necessary to stuff into their novels. Fire gave me exactly what I was looking for in a novel.  Stuck in the middle of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I needed to find a book that would actually encourage me to like reading again. So I bought it in an Eason in Dublin, and cracked it open immediately, feeling the soothing balm of an engaging story ease my mind and bring a smile to my face.

Fire is the second book by Kristin Cashore set in the same world as Graceling (also amazing) but on the other side of the mountains in a land known as The Dells. The main character is also called Fire, so named because of the color of her hair. In The Dells there are monsters, creatures that look like normal animals except for the fact that their fur or feathers or scales are brightly and unusually colored–magenta, marigold, purple, jade, turquoise, etc.  They are also extremely vicious, and even monsters whose animal counterparts are usually very mild hunger for the flesh of humans and other monsters alike.  Fire is half monster, the result of the union of her insane monster father and one of his human sexual conquests.  She can read peoples’ thoughts and emotions, and even control the minds of weak individuals or collected groups.  She is also extraordinarily beautiful, and men often go wild at the sight of her, either with lust or with hatred.  However, she is part human, and is therefore appalled by her father’s behavior and, for most of her life before the events of the novel, refuses to use her powers at all.  As the political situation in her kingdom deteriorates, she finds herself faced with the choice of using her power to help save her country or watch as it all falls apart.  Either way she risks losing the people she loves.

Of course, being in the Graceling trilogy, there is a romance involved as well.  Fire grows up alongside her best friend Archer, who eventually becomes her lover. But though he constantly proposes to her, is jealously protective, and wants nothing more than to spend forever with her, she is never able to love him in the same way. Instead, she finds throughout the novel that a romance is blossoming between her and someone very different from Archer.  It’s quite sweet and innocent, and I fear I don’t understand my fellow reviewers who seem to thing Fire is a slut.  Yes, she sleeps with Archer.  But she’s only with two men, one of which she marries (we assume).  Except to the ultra-religious, that number (ahem, 2) is extremely low–lower than the number of lovers a lot of teenagers will have. So let’s just reserve our judgement, shall we?

I enjoyed Fire as a character a great deal.  I saw a little bit of myself in her. Extremely beautiful, plagued  by the attention of men…totally kidding.  Her fears and reservations, her insecurities–what girl doesn’t go through those things?  Despite the fact that she’s a monster and therefore not quite human, and incredibly lovely, she suffers the same things as women everywhere.  She doubts the love and intentions of others because of the power she unwillingly has over others.  She is lonely. She is faced with very difficult choices. She worries over the people she loves.  She’s tough, but still delicate enough to be feminine and alluring.  She’s loyal and protective.  And she’s interesting, because at the end of the day, her biggest problems set her apart from us regular humans, and one can’t help but compare her reactions to what oneself might do in her situation.

I wish I could do more justice to how much I loved this book. It is extremely emotional, and Cashore is adept at making the reader feel what Fire is feeling.  In the midst of tragedy, the reader is heartbroken. In romance, the reader’s heart is full and excited with the hope that maybe they’ll have that someday (or maybe they already do?).  In times of fear, the reader fears for Fire and her loved ones.  For regular Bibliography readers, this is a common theme in the blogs about books that I really love: it absolutely has to make me feel some kind of emotion. If it manifests itself physically (tears, a sigh, catching my breath, etc.) then it is truly an effective and moving piece to me.  This is one of my favorite things about this novel, and Cashore wins major points.

As I said, it’s the second book in a trilogy.  I highly recommend this book, but you will definitely want to start by reading Graceling (Book 1 of the trilogy).  Have fun and enjoy it! Great book!