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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12.10–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!

12.6–Matched

Matched by Allie Condie is an interesting story that I enjoyed reading, but it is by no means creative. In fact, it seems to be almost a carbon copy of The Giver, just updated for the 21st century. The technology is definitely more advanced, and there is the added detail of the romance, rather than a relationship between an old man and a young boy. But the similarities are too many for this to be considered a unique novel.

Cassia is a teenage girl living in The Society in a time not given to the reader. The novel opens with her Matching Banquet–the night on which she will discover who The Society had decided is her perfect marriage partner. Cassia’s situation is unique in that her Match is someone she knows; it is her beat friend Xander. But that night when she is alone, another face appears on her screen as her perfect match–the handsome and quietly mysterious Ky. After this revelation, Cassia must decide if she will follow the will of The Society or break all the rules and attempt to be with a person who is not considered her match.

Aside from the romance and Cassia’s struggle to decide who her man should be, the book is basically The Giver. There is a government that decides who owns what, who marries whom, how many children one may have, etc. each house is identical. Clothes are identical. There are “ports” in each house which resemble the screens in 1984, and they are a way for the government to monitor people and communicate with them.

Cassia has always believed that the government makes no mistakes and knows exactly what is best for everyone. When she sees the mistake made in her Match he begins to doubt their wisdom and her perfect world begins to crack. Unfortunately, Cassie is not a very well written character and the reader struggles to empathize with her dilemma. I wish I’d been able to like her more, but she just wasn’t deep or fascinating enough to make me care.

Despite its lack of creativity, it was an enjoyable, fast-paced read. Despite it being a romance, I didn’t want to kill anyone like I did when I read Twilight. As flat as she was, at least
Cassia was willing to fight for what she wanted.

In summary, not the most brilliant novel I’ve read, but I liked it enough to finish the series.

12.5–The Pillars of the Earth

As promised, a review on a bestseller. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is fantastic. It took me forever to read because it’s nearly a thousand pages long and I worked 12+ hour days all last week. What time I didn’t spend working I spent sleeping, so I did not accomplish much on the book. Still, I read every spare moment I had, including the ride to work and a little bit after shifts when I should have been sleeping (more).  It was fantastic, and I hated putting it down as much as I was forced to last week.

To give a synopsis is an incredibly difficult task, as the novel is long and covers almost the entire lifespan of the characters.  The entire plot is based around the construction of a magnificent cathedral at Kingsbridge Priory in England.  There is no end to the political intrigue and clerical corruption, and the lines between good and evil are very clearly defined.  William Hamleigh, the most notorious baddie I’ve encountered in ages, is an ever-present destructive force, and repeatedly obstructs the process of the cathedral and the happiness of the good characters. Among those we root for are: Prior Phillip, Tom Builder, Ellen (Tom’s wife), Jack, and Aliena.  Tom especially is a character that invites the reader to love him. He is strong and sweet and honorable, though perhaps a little too naive and trusting at times.  Ellen and Aliena are strong women who blaze their own trail, and are smarter than most of the men around them.  Jack inherits Tom’s sweetness and gentle strength, and becomes one of the most lovable characters in the entire novel.  All these characters’ stories begin apart from one another’s, and Follett slowly brings them together to entangle them irrevocably.

Follett’s characters are well developed and beautiful.  His plot is intricate and masterfully crafted.  I was disappointed, however, with the slight predictability of it.  Please do no misunderstand. I adored this novel and wanted to read it every spare second I had, even if I only accomplished one page.  But I found myself being able to predict what would happen, or at least that something would happen.  I understand that an author must do things to keep his novel interesting–one cannot fault Follet for that.  Still, the pattern of up, down, up, down, up, down was a little too formulaic and regular.  I found myself frustrated that the characters I loved could not simply settle down and find happiness.  None of the evil-doers were given what they deserved! I wanted William Hamleigh to die painfully and shamefully, but this hope was repeatedly foiled.  Follet kept me on the edge of my seat, but half the time it was out of anger and the desire to see the enemy brought low.  I have mixed feelings about these emotions he evoked in me.  One the one hand, they made me mad, but on the other, they kept me engaged in the story and enticed me to learn more. Perhaps this is the mark of a truly masterful author?

Another thing that did very much impress me was his research and knowledge of the time period about which he is writing.  I learned so much about medieval life, architecture, and engineering.  I learned what I flying buttress is! I had no idea that early cathedrals were thick, stocky structures with tiny windows.  Nor did I ever think about the origins of stained glass.  Sounds nerdy to get excited over such things, perhaps, but I’ve never denied the fact that I’m a nerd.  Any new opportunity to learn something about history or the development of humankind and its technologies, especially if it’s in the form of narrative, is welcome to me.  I truly enjoyed this book not simply for its plot, but its heavily researched descriptions and its ability to teach me something new.

If you can take on the daunting task of reading through 983 pages of minuscule text, I highly recommend this book. It has a little bit of everything: history, romance, drama, violence, corruption, and the enduring promise that good will always trump evil, even though the odds seem impossible and hope is often lost.  A great read, and well worth its popularity.  Thanks to Lauren for bumping this up to the top of my reading list!