Monday, September 28, 2009

Northanger Abbey

The title: Northanger Abbey
The author: Jane Austen
Publication: Crown, 1981 (org. 1817)
Got it from: Mom, Easter 1996

This month's Austen is Northanger Abbey, a witty satire of Gothic romances. Excluding Persuasion, which I haven't read yet, this is my second favourite of Austen's. It's not as depressing as Mansfield Park, as preachy as Sense and Sensibility or as overlong as Emma. It's the perfect blend of brevity, humor and romance.

Northanger Abbey delivers the youngest heroine yet, seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a heroine as likable as any of any of Austen's, who as a child "loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house." Catherine grows up and develops an addiction to Gothic romances. She's incredibly naive about the ways of the world and goes off to Bath with her friends the Allens full of romantic ideas and no clue how to spot untrustworthy people. She becomes entangled with two families: the scheming Thorpes and the kind Tilneys. Isabella Thorpe pretends to be Catherine's good friend and tries to snare Catherine's brother because she assumes they're rich; Isabella's brother John is arguably the biggest blowhard in literature and courts Catherine for similar reasons as his sister.

In contrast, Eleanor Tilney shows herself to be true friend and brother Henry Tilney tries to guide Catherine to good sense while flirting shamelessly with her. I won't assert that he's more appealing than Darcy, as some people do, but I think he could have been if the book was longer and he'd shown up more in the narrative. I particularly love the scene where Henry gets carried away teasing Catherine about all the horrors she'll encounter at the abbey. He actually ends up amusing himself so much he can't stop laughing. Those of you who know my husband will understand why I like Henry so much.

It's hard to believe Northanger Abbey was written over two hundred years ago. Considering the current teenage girl mania for vampires, I'd say this book is more relevant than ever.

The Lost Symbol

The title: The Lost Symbol
The author: Dan Brown
Publication: Random House, 2009
Got it from: Library

Oddly enough, today I will be reviewing two very different books with a heroine named C/Katherine, which is of course my own name. Actually, now that I think about it, these two books may have something in common. If Catherine Morland were living today, she would no doubt read Dan Brown and let her imagination run wild with conspiracy theories.

I must preface this by saying that I'm not in the Dan Brown hateration camp. No, he's not Shakespeare, but his books are fun so I don't complain. His style of writing doesn't annoy me and that's all I care about. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code for those interesting historical tidbits that made me think differently about certain pieces of art. Are some/any of the ideas put forth in the book true? Possibly. Do I care? No.

I read The Lost Symbol with a mixture of feelings. The book was a definite page-turner. The formula was very similar to Da Vinci Code: short chapters, lots of cliffhangers, back-and-forth action that built up suspense. The hero, Robert Langdon, is summoned to Washington, supposedly to deliver a speech but really to play puppet to the whims of a psychotic, tattooed baddie natmed Mal'akh. Langdon arrives at the Capitol building only to discover he severed hand of his friend Peter Solomon (a powerful Mason) bearing cryptic tattoos. The CIA show up insisting that Langdon is the only person who can solve this. A Masonic friend of Peter's shows up, as well as Peter's sister Katherine and the three Scooby gang members must outrun the CIA while solving mysteries from their van running around Washington deciphering clues.

Mal'akh, the resident baddie, is very similar to Silas the albino monk from The Da Vinci Code. The problem is you can figure out his identity a hundred pages in and it's supposed to be a big reveal at the end. He kills indiscriminately, natch, but of course it ends up mostly being women. I'm still pissed at the death of Katherine's lab assistant, Trish, because Brown keeps referring to her as "overweight" and gives her a particularly gruesome death which nobody seems to care about. There's a genuinely scary scene where Mal'akh chases Katherine around a blacked-out room the size of a football field, but the thrills pretty much end here.

The rest of the book is overly long and stuffed with needless exposition. The ending falls completely flat and no real secrets are revealed. There's a lot of talk about science and mysticism that seems like it's lifted straight out of The Secret (are Dan Brown and Rhonda Byrne related?) I was really looking forward to learning interesting secrets about the founding fathers and Washington's history, but I was sorely disappointed here. Besides a passing mention, Washington, Franklin and the boys are barely here at all. Not knowing Washington very well, I could have used a map of the key locations too.

My other major beef with this book are the characters. Mal'akh is so purely evil, he seems more like a graduate of the Jack the Ripper Academy of Insanity than a real person. Katherine Solomon's personality is never revealed except for her love of her work and her brother. Robert Langdon remains as boring as yesterday's dried toast. Does this guy do anything besides swim, make coffee and study symbology? The only character that inspired a glimmer of interest in me was Peter Solomon, who remained something of an enigma throughout the book. Smart, funny, powerful, handsome and rich as all get out? Make him about thirty years younger and I'd go for that.

Bottom line: if you're going to read one Dan Brown book, skip this one and stick with The Da Vinci Code.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Midsummer's Magic

The title: A Midsummer's Magic
The author: Mary Chase Comstock
Publication: Zebra, 1994
Got it from: DC, Xmas 2006

You know, for 217 pages, there's an awful lot going on in this book. The best way I can think to describe this is a mash-up of Jane Austen, Harry Potter and (naturally) A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are at least three couples in this book, as well as various interfering interlopers, but surprisingly it never seems to get overwhelming.

Are you ready to follow? Good. The story opens with two bratty kids being sent off to their mysterious aunt's in Cornwall. Brat #1 is a mischievous little boy, Brat #2 is a petulant sixteen-year-old girl who's recently been crossed in love. There's also some side story involving their nurse, who is a bit wackaloo crazy and "a-feered" of the ghosties of Cornwall.

Meanwhile, in Cornwall, Aunt Hippolyta (aka Polly) feels a shudder of foreboding. Polly, I might add, is a wrinkled old woman of twenty-seven, a magician, and the widow* of a very powerful wizard. What is this foreboding she senses? Oh, it's just that wacky niece and nephew of hers. Add them to the strange crew that's already assembled at her house for reasons I can't recall. There's her stepson, Edward. There's Lady Bristlethwaite and her two stepdaughters, who keep making goo-goo eyes at Edward. There's old Sir Geoffrey Mimms, who has a thing for Lady Bristlethwaite. And then there's Julian St. Ives (that's him holding the raven on the cover) who is studying magic while waiting for his great-uncle to die. Naturally, Julian is completely besotted with Aunt Polly and finds her absent-minded ways utterly charming.

What happens next are the usual shenanigans: the nephew becomes invisible, the niece and Edward flirt with each other and she dances with the fairies at midsummer, Sir Geoffrey attempts to break a family curse, some scowling and cape-twirling villain shows up and is easily dispatched with, everybody drinks punch and falls in love with the wrong person, etc. etc.

This is exactly the sort of silly book I shouldn't love but do anyway. I enjoyed it through and through. The plot was so thin you could break it with a fork, the characters were absolute caricatures and so much was left out I thought I'd only read the middle of a much larger book. But it was such good fun!

Q: Does Aunt Polly actually wear the dress on the cover in the book, or did some artist just put it there because it looks like what a lady magician would wear?
A: She actually does wear the dress in the book.

*Yep. She's a virgin widow, alright. The most dreaded character trope in Romancelandia. But it works here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Poisoned Season

The title: A Poisoned Season
The author: Tasha Alexander
Publication: HarperCollins, 2007
Got it from: TWBB, Toronto, April

This is the second book in the Lady Emily Ashton series, the first being And Only To Deceive, which I read and loved last summer. A Poisoned Season takes place the summer following the last novel's close. Emily has since returned from a holiday from her estate in Greece, undecided whether to accept the proposal of Colin Hargreaves, her late husband's best friend and spy for the royal crown. Meanwhile, a pompous gentleman has been making the rounds in London claiming to be a descendant of Marie Antoinette, and Emily has picked up a secret admirer who may be the thief stealing Marie Antoinette's property. Like every good British mystery, a murder occurs early on in the book and the victim's widow entrusts Emily with the task of solving it.

As usual, the charm of this series lies with the details of Victorian life. If you, like me, daydream about elegant balls, fancy dresses, tea parties, leisurely promenades and traveling the continent one art gallery at a time, you will not be disappointed. If you crave excitement, there's plenty of that too. The heroine is forever getting involved in dangerous situations that involve drugged wine, thieves in the night and attempted carriage overturnings.

Be warned, though: even if you've read the first book, the cast of characters in huge and difficult to keep track of. Thankfully there is a listing of them in the front of the book to help sort them out. Emily continues to be an enjoyable heroine. She only slightly borders on Mary Sue territory (another man in love with me? ho hum), but her intelligence and curiosity help redeem her.

Sadly, I will probably not be continuing on with this series. The except from book three at the back of this one did not seem like my cup of tea, and from the descriptions and reviews of the rest of the series I've read online, I don't think I would enjoy them all that much to put in the huge amount of concentration it takes to appreciate them. Still, I enjoyed these first two books and have already recommended them to others with very positive feedback.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The White Mare

The title:
The White Mare
The author: Jules Watson
Publication: Orion, 2004
Got it from: RH, August 2005

I finally got around to reading this book, four years after a friend gave it to me for my birthday. Four months and 600 pages later, I'm finally done.

Why did it take me so long to read this book? I kept picking it up, putting it down, picking it up, tossing it aside, and finally at the end saying, "to heck with this, let's just get this done."

I'm reluctant to say anything bad about this book. It's obvious that Jules Watson is a talented writer who did a lot of research and worked really hard to make this work. But to be honest, it was a bit like pulling teeth for me. The beginning was especially difficult for me to get through, since the two main characters are so unsympathetic. The heroine, Rhiann, is a Scottish priestess who has suffered a Big Bad Thing that she hasn't gotten over. I tried to feel for her, but she was so cold and angry for the first 3/4 of the book that I just got frustrated and wanted to yell at her to share her secret already. The hero is Eremon, an Irish prince who is wed to Rhiann to forge an alliance between their two peoples. Oh yes, and he spends most of the book sexxoring every woman except Rhiann. Their romance at the end seemed forced and I still can't understand what Rhiann sees in Eremon. He acts selfishly through most of the novel and comes across as a total ass.

The historical details were fine, but without a good romance the novel just fell apart for me. I wouldn't discourage anybody from reading this book, though. It just wasn't for me. I can't see myself reading the other two books in the trilogy, and I probably wouldn't have finished this one if it hadn't been given to me as a gift.