Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness


Did Not Finish

The book's description from the author's website:

When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.
For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.
Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.
I think I'm pretty much done with romances. Every single one I've read in the past couple of years seemed to be dumber than the one before. A Discovery of Witches takes the prize in the latest string of romance novels written exclusively for stupid people. Don't let the categorization as fantasy fool you. I thought I was going to read a fantasy book about a smart, independent woman who also happened to be a witch and who would, to be slightly brash, kick some ass. When you think that not only did she have ordinary humans and fellow witches to contend with, but also demons and vampires, then it's easy to get your hopes up, settling in to what promised to be a smart escapist adventure of a read. It's not smart, the only time 'escape' would enter my mind was when I wanted to run from the story, and sitting home with my three kids is more of an adventure than spending time with the stuck-up, boring witch Diana Bishop.

I am not a reader who discounts a novel because the main character is unlikable. Not always. There are unlikable characters that were assigned such a role by an author (whether as a straight-up anti-hero or as a way to display that world is not made up of people we only want to fall in love with but that there needs to be a balance, if only to have some fun) and I have found myself absolutely loathing a character but also loving a story. And then there are characters that we're supposed root for, like, adore, what have you but an author fails to deliver in the characterization department and unknowingly (due to the lack of writing skills) manages to base a whole novel on a person that will make me at best roll my eyes in exasperation and put the said book away in disgust at worst. Deborah Harkness' character, Diana Bishop fell somewhere in between exasperation and disgust. She was such a perfect specimen that I began to wonder if she might have been an alien creature. She had the best powers any witch could have, she was a genius with all kinds of doctoral degrees, her bookcases no doubt brimming with awards for her scholarly work (of course, she was also a very young genius, not even forty yet), she was beautiful, made a vampire famous for his disregard for women fall madly in love with her, and of course she would eat like a horse without gaining a pound. All this blinding package came complete with Diana's obliviousness to all those wonderful attributes she possessed. Did the author read a manual for romance writers on how to write a run-of-the-mill romance, checked each staple requirement as she kept writing about Diana the Prodigy and that completed her education on writing? That's certainly how I imagined the process. And that's what made me decide to not waste my time on this book any further, along with minor (in comparison to the main character) other ridiculous cliches such as stunningly beautiful yet attractively dangerous vampire or a no-nonsense aunt with a hot temper as befits...you guessed it, a redhead.

One question remains: Why the hell are so many readers loving this book?! I'm not going to offend individual readers, but that A Discovery of Witches has such a following and such high ratings is yet another sign of our society's declining intelligence.

FTC: I wasted my hard-earned money on this book.

Monday, September 10, 2012

We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen


* * * 1/2

The book's synopsis from the publisher:

This stunning debut novel—drawn from the author's own life experience—tells the moving story of a family of eleven in the American Midwest, bound together and torn apart by their faith
The Rovaniemis and their nine children belong to a deeply traditional church (no drinking, no dancing, no TV) in modern-day Michigan. A normal family in many ways, the Rovaniemis struggle with sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and forming their own unique identities in such a large family. But when two of the children venture from the faith, the family fragments and a haunting question emerges: Do we believe for ourselves, or for each other? Each chapter is told from the distinctive point of view of a different Rovaniemi, drawing a nuanced, kaleidoscopic portrait of this unconventional family. The children who reject the church learn that freedom comes at the almost unbearable price of their close family ties, and those who stay struggle daily with the challenges of resisting the temptations of modern culture. With precision and potent detail, We Sinners follows each character on their journey of doubt, self-knowledge, acceptance, and, ultimately, survival.
I enjoyed this novel very much and was convinced it would be another winner for me among literary writers debuts. Hanna Pylväinen most certainly displayed a significant writing talent, especially when portraying the family dynamics, within the most unusual family nonetheless.

I appreciated the most that despite the Rovaniemis family living according to very strict religious rules, the author didn't make a parody of them or their religion. Nor did she point an accusing finger at anyone. She left the choice to form opinions to the readers. At the same time, Hanna told her story, in her own way, with her own opinion to be found between the pages. No small achievement for any writer, if you ask me. The truth is, 'we' are no more normal than 'them' and just because something is unknown to the majority of society, it doesn't make it weird, unacceptable or intolerable. Every one of us in this world has something that could be perceived as 'weird' to others. If you're a reader like me, who's looking for a moral or some kind of life truth in a story, We Sinners is something you may enjoy.

I was loving every page of We Sinners...and then it ended so abruptly and with a story that, while interesting in itself, had little to do with the rest of the book and should have been a prologue instead of the ending, that my enthusiasm deflated and I ended up quite disappointed. I got no emotional closure considering pretty much every member of the Rovaniemis' and I wanted so badly to keep reading and to find out how their lives really turned out. I could not believe when turning the last page that that was it. It made me quite angry. However, Ms. Pylväinen is a very talented new writer who I believe only has to spread her wings a little wider. I will read her books as they get published with no hesitation. 
FTC: I received We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co. for a review.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

When a Woman Lets Go of the Lies by Cheryl Brodersen



The book's description from the publisher's website:

Author and speaker Cheryl Brodersen encouraged thousands of women to cast their worries to God’s care in her book When a Woman Lets Go of Her Fears. Now she inspires them to embrace their identity and fulfillment in Christ by shedding the lies that have plagued women since Eve: “I’m not good enough.” “God isn’t strong enough.” “I’m too flawed to be loved.” “God can’t use me.”
Cheryl presents engaging teaching, relevant examples from women today and from the Bible, and biblical, practical guidance to help women believe in God’s
  • sufficiency to meet their needs
  • promises and power through His Word
  • plans for goodness and fruitfulness
  • blessings that follow obedience
Since Eden first blossomed, God has offered women love, guidance, fellowship, and purpose. Cheryl helps today’s woman exchange the burden of deception and pretense for the abundance, freedom, and fruitfulness God intended from the very beginning.
I got through 24% of this book and out of courtesy decided to read no more. After the initial disappointment at the superficiality of insight and at the simplistic metaphors, I realized that I was reading just to find more to complain about. And this is not the reason why I chose to read this book or any other book, for that matter.
Just to give you an example of what I mean, when I say that the metaphors were simplistic and in effect, quite erroneous:

When talking to a particular woman who was going through difficult times (although what they were is not mentioned, which I think is another shortcoming) about trusting in God's promises, the author compared it to the process of baking a cake.

'I gave her the illustration of baking a cake. If I follow the recipe I can have the assurance of a delicious dessert. However, if I decide to omit a step like sifting or beating, or I choose to leave out an ingredient, I can't blame the recipe if the cake is a failure.' (location 472 in Kindle edition)

In other words, if we do everything God tells us to do, we'll receive the fulfillment of His promises, we'll enjoy 'a delicious dessert'. But we cannot disobey Him in any one of the rules (omit an ingredient or skip a step in baking), because then there will be no cake.

It couldn't get any simpler than that. My mind formed two questions immediately, however.

Has Ms. Brodersen life been really that easy, free of major complications, struggles and/or tragedies, that she could afford such a naive comparison?

What happens when I bake a cake, follow instructions to a dot, do not omit any ingredients, and the result is still a failure? This is not a hypothetical question, either. I happen to fail at baking every single time, no matter how much effort and time I put into it.

By resorting to such simplistic comparisons, the author automatically excludes people like me.

I reach out for such books to find advice and comfort, and some insight on how to proceed with my life riddled with struggles. I couldn't find it in When a Woman Lets Go of the Lies and at the danger of adding even more unanswered questions to my repertoire, I gave up.

FTC: I received an e-galley of the book from the publisher, Harvest House Publishers via NetGalley.

When a Woman Lets Go of the Lies by Cheryl Brodersen will be published and available for purchase on October 1st, 2012.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick

The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

The early twelfth century is a time for ambitious men to prosper. John FitzGilbert is a man of honor and loyalty, sworn to royal service. When the old king dies, his successor rewards the handsome and ambitious John with castles and lands. But King Stephen has a tenuous hold on both his reign and his barons, and when jealous rivals at court seek to destroy John, he backs a woman's claim to the crown, sacrifices his marriage, and eventually is forced to make a gamble that is perhaps one step too far.
Rich with detail, masterful in its storytelling, A Place Beyond Courage is a tale of impossible gambles and the real meaning of honor.

Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the very few historical authors writing today on whom you can rely to deliver historically accurate and at the same time attention capturing stories. A Place Beyond Courage is a prime example of this. Even though the actual events on which this story is based are riveting in themselves, Chadwick adds her personal touch by focusing our attention on figures not as well known as King Stephen or Empress Matilda but crucial in the shaping of history nonetheless.

John Fitz Gilbert, the father of Chadwick's most famous hero, William Marshal, is rarely mentioned in popular historical fiction, despite the fact that, as this novel helped me learn it, he was that crucial figure in the fight for the throne of England. I'll be honest, he is perhaps the most desirable character to me from all the historical fiction books  I've read so far. The way Ms. Chadwick builds up his case (not entirely out of thin air either) as not quite the villain we, contemporaries might think him to be is very convincing. True, John Marshal is not exactly the perfect knight his son will be but that only makes him all the more exciting and more fun to read about. Frankly, the more I read about his offspring, William Marshal, the more I wish he inherited some dark traits from his father. Maybe then I'd be more inclined to read novels about him. Did John really gave up his toddler son, sent him to certain death without so much as a wink? Or was there much more to the story, was John in a place from which he would emerge a somewhat broken man, regardless of what his personal decisions might have been? It is a moral dilemma and the author helps us realize that rarely is anything in life clear-cut, especially when it comes to choices between one's honor, country or family. Regardless of what you'll end up feeling towards John Marshal, be it hatred, fury, love or admiration, I guarantee you will feel a lot. One thing Elizabeth Chadwick doesn't write is bland characters.

Speaking of characters and personal touches, the one distinct trait I've come to recognize in Chadwick's books is a presence of a strong female character. In A Place Beyond Courage it is Sybilla, the second wife of John Marshal. While almost all females in the Middle Ages can be regarded as strong, considering what they had to contend with all their lives, Sybilla takes a special prize for having the courage to think for herself, to use her common sense in all matters, to question things, arrive independently at conclusions and act accordingly. Sybilla simply is a kind of woman I most want to identify with when reading novels. I say 'want to' because as things stand, I'm not all that myself and only wish to be 'when I grow up'.

A Place Beyond Courage is a splendid book, all around: the high quality of writing, the great amount of research and the quick-paced action. At the risk of sounding cliche, there really is never a dull moment in this novel.


FTC: I've received an ARC of A Place Beyond Courage from the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. for a review.