Miss Kate’s CBRV review #8: Lady of Hay, by Barbara Erskine

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OK. This book looked promising to me at first. Part historical fiction, part thriller/romance/fantasy, it seemed the perfect Next Read. But for me it devolved into full-on hate read.

Set in 1980s London, the book centers on Jo Clifford, a “modern, independent career woman”. She is a journalist, and in the course of researching a story on past life regression, she is hypnotized and begins to have visions of life in the 12th century. it turns out that Jo is the reincarnation of Matilda de Braose, wife of William de Braose, actual historical bully, and one of King John’s closest friends.

As she goes deeper and deeper into the investigation, Jo starts to regress automatically. She has no control over when or for how long these sessions last. She gets more and more involved with Matilda’s life, believing that YES, she is Matilda.

This part was interesting. Although a lot of the real Matilda’s life is murky, it’s obvious that the author did her research here. De Braose was a noble with lands in Wales, and was responsible for some pretty gruesome attacks on the local population. He was raised up quickly, and when he angered John (a petulant SOB if there ever was one), he lost everything. While de Braose fled to France, his wife Matilda and oldest son were captured and starved to death at Corfe castle in 1210.

Again, I enjoyed the parts of the book that dealt with Matilda. But Jo was a bore, and my heart sank every time the book switched back from Matilda’s story. Seriously. Jo is supposedly a “strong” woman. How do we know? Because we keep being told this. There’s clearly no evidence of it in over 600 pages, as she really has no personality. Ugh. (I’ve never read Barbara Erskine before, so I can’t say anything about her other work, but I’m not likely to try her again.)

I generally don’t like straight romance novels but I like good writing, so I gave this book a chance. Is this a Romance novel? I don’t know. The “romance” itself was pretty sickening. The men in her life are the Worst. SPOILER! Everyone Jo knows was also regressed. They knew her in the past, all want her now, and at various times they: let themselves into her apartment/hypnotize her against her will/RAPE!/BEAT!/or just creepily take advantage of her. But at no time does this nitwit consider calling the cops or even changing her freaking locks. CHANGE YOUR LOCKS!

She just keeps going back for more. And on. For 600-plus pages. I’d say that this is the author’s commentary on the mindset of an abused woman, but I think that would be giving her too much credit. I honestly believe that Erskine thinks this shit is romantic.

Lady of Hay could also have used an editor – at over 600 pages, I can’t tell you how much time is wasted describing about Jo’s latest linen shift dress or how often she shared dinner and a bottle of wine with Nick despite the fact that he’d tried to strangle her the night before. the story could easily have been told in half the pages. At one point, about 500 pages in, new characters are introduced out of the blue and become important for a hot minute. I liked them, but kept waiting for them to have a purpose. I frankly would have preferred the book to be about them.

Why did I keep reading? Because I’m not a quitter, that’s why. But seriously – if you want to read a good book about the Plantagenets or Wales in the 12th Century then read Sharon Kay Penman. Spare yourself this dreck.

Read more reviews at misskatesays: http://misskatesays.com/2014/01/04/miss-kates-cbrv-review-8-lady-of-hay-by-barbara-erskine/

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Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review 40: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

This is the last book I read in 2013, and I’m sad to say it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. I started this book a while back, but kept putting it down. (If I start and finish a new book before finishing the one I was reading, that’s never a good sign.)

The story of a small town, murder trial, and lost love, this novel shifts between present day and the recent past on a small island off the coast of Washington after WW2. This story itself is much like the weather of the novel: cold, dreary, and laborious. For me, this was a case of using more words when fewer would do, especially in regard to setting. Also, the motivations of characters were almost telegraphed in their deliberateness and story development seemed obvious so waiting for everything to unfold was tedious. Past: boy meets girl, girl faces stark reality, boy is sad, racism towards Japanese-Americans, WW2. Present: murder trial, still racism towards Japanese-Americans. It seemed like the murder trial would at least have some intrigue but even that played out predictably.

In short: well-written and if you like lots of descriptive detail and predictable action, you might enjoy it but I was bored. But I made it to 40 books this year because if it, so woo!

Owlcat’s CBR V Review #24 of Marmee & Louisa, the Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother by Eve Laplante

NPR thought this was one of the best books of 2012 and as a result, I had been long intending to read it, not only because of their recommendation and high praise, but also because, since my ‘tweens, I had been a huge fan of Louisa May Alcott, totally loving Little Women and Little Men, though not aware then of her other novels, nor her poetry that was mostly addressed to her parents.  Like most people, too, I had been under the assumption that much or most of her influence and encouragement came from her father.

I have to admit, however, that I disagree with NPR and, instead, found this book to be dry and written as if it were someone’s doctorate dissertation.  Laplante is a descendent of Louisa May Alcott and had access to her and her family member’s diaries, the ones that weren’t destroyed by the family as they approached death, and it’s her interpretations of these intimate works as well as historical documents and issues that she uses to establish her premise that LMA’s mother had influenced her more greatly than her father ever did.

She begins the book with a detailed account of her mother’s upbringing and the historic figures and events occurring around her – these followed the American Revolution before and after and life in Boston for the most part. Throughout her own life, the mother was thwarted by society and tradition in terms of education and access to independence and, though clearly an intelligent and creative woman, had great difficulty living under these circumstances.  That time period did not allow a woman to be much more than chattel and to be instead, subservient to her family and later her spouse.

According to Ms. Laplante, Bronson Alcott, LMA’s father, was incapable of viewing his effects on his family that his Utopian philosophies imposed on them.  He tried and failed at numerous conventional jobs as a teacher and when he attempted to establish his own schools;  at first he would do well but as his teachings became more radical, even the more liberal families would take their children out of his schools.  LMA’s mother did much to help with the teaching, supporting him through his various attempts, and eventually even becoming what would be considered a social worker (one of the few positions allowed to a woman) in order to help support the family.  His move to Concord and his establishment of his community there, Fruitlands, resulted in near starvation at times for his family and only through help from friends (including Ralph Waldo Emerson and other renowned philsophers) were they able to cope. Society would pity Mrs. Alcott and the children and would be critical of Bronson because he so often failed and abandoned his family for long tours through the country espousing his philosophy, but society wouldn’t allow Mrs. Alcott to do anything beyond the norm for those times.

Consequently, because she was always the present parent, when she realized LMA’s talents and determination, she seemed to vicariously push her into the direction of writing for a living.  Her health was somewhat fragile over time and LMA also was influenced by this, feeling her father was in many ways responsible for her condition, and it was up to her to help her mother and to give her what she needed to overcome everything she had endured with her father.

We see the early attempts at writing, Louisa’s choices to work in Boston as a governess (which she hated but found necessary to earn money), her brief nursing career during the Civil War, and gradually a sense of the disparity in the social norms that had become even more evident after the war.  In a sense, her mother’s greatest influence was her always sacrificing for her daughter(s) and finding ways to enhance their talents (another sister was an artist who eventually moved to Europe, where social norms were much more lenient), and giving Louisa a sense of permission to override the local norms as times changed.

As time passed, Louisa was afflicted with an apparent autoimmune disease (likely lupus) that would be debilitating at times, and which made writing and caring for her mother, her two great causes, extremely difficult, though she still managed both.  Again, I felt it was more the influence of her mother’s sacrificing everything that required her to do this.

The information in this book is interesting, to say the least.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the early childhood/teen period of her mother but got bogged down by the minute details, particularly around family members, that went beyond explaining Louisa’s mother’s upbringing.  I did learn some things; I hadn’t realized that the family tree on her mother’s side included John Hancock and other well-known Bostonian and colonial persons.  I also hadn’t been aware of the prevalence and importance of ministers within the family on both sides, including her mother’s brother, a prominent Unitarian minister, and that influence on both her mother and herself. Nor was I aware of her autoimmune illness and her stint nursing during the Civil War and the typhus she developed as a result. But again, though interesting, much of the information was not relevant to what I felt was the story being presented and like a dissertation that might lack enough pages, had been added to “pad” the book.  While reading the last few chapters, I began wondering if it would ever end!  I think it could have been half the length it was and we would still have enjoyed the information presented and recognized the connections Laplante was drawing.  I had the sense, too, that she was vilifying Bronson (understandable) but hadn’t enough information to develop the premise that Louisa’s mother was more influential than her father.  This was a very disappointing book, particularly in light of my admiration for Louisa May Alcott.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Reviews #134-145: Playing Catch Up at the End of the Year, Part II

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #104: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde

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After a disappointing book for my first Cannonball, I really wanted an ace book for the double. But I chose badly. In this seventh entry of the Thursday Next series, Fforde drives his creation right off the literary cliff. It’s a clumsy and over plotted mess. Such a shame. The full review is on my blog here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #170: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

tumblr_lusgh4XSgk1qhl1c8o1_1280Pratchett’s an author I more or less gave up on. Like with Gaiman, it wasn’t worth suffering the status quo of disappointment in case of that rare anomaly or two. Funny that both got my hopes up with the same book, AKA Good Omens, which the two of them co-wrote. With how perfectly Pratchett and Gaiman complete (and better) one another, I dare say I would advocate for Gaiman divorcing Amanda Palmer and marrying Pratchett. Neither has even approached a book of Good Omens caliber in their respective solo careers, and with their increasing age, and Pratchett’s mental deterioration, it’s doubtful either ever will. Gaiman, though, has come closest; The Graveyard Book is, admittedly, fantastic, yet it still can’t break into the same lofty stratosphere Good Omens resides in for me. The best Pratchett has to offer outside of Good Omens, on the other hand, is… I don’t know, the mildly-amusing, middle-of-the-road Hogfather? Can you see, then, why I was quicker to abandon him than his cohort, Gaiman?

With authors of their (supposed) caliber, however, it’s nigh on impossible to ever give up on them cold turkey like that. There’ll always be that nagging thought that maybe you simply haven’t found the right book yet. Every author has his or her share of misfires; Stephen King wrote the likes of The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonThe Colorado Kid, and Doctor Sleep, so why can’t I allow a similarly prolific author such as Pratchett more time, more books to win me over to his side? This is the attitude that convinced me to read Small Gods, held by nearly all of his fans to be one of his best. As per usual, Pratchett, known largely (primarily, you could argue) for his humor, fails to make me laugh or even to smile. In the spirit of honesty, I have to tell you that if I’m reading or watching something meant to humor me, and it fails entirely, it’s game over. Being funny doesn’t even necessarily have to be its main pursuit; if it makes repeated stabs at humor that leave me stone-faced, my patience for it will’ve been exhausted pretty quickly.

Even if I were feeling especially forgiving, I couldn’t credit him for much else. A god’s existence relying upon belief is something I’ve seen multiple times before, in American Gods, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and probably in another book or two I just can’t happen to remember at the moment. Nor is skewering religion satirically something I’m not familiar with; Pratchett himself did it better, I feel, in Good Omens, and it wasn’t even as big a part of that work as it was of Small Gods. When you’re preaching to the choir, as Pratchett is here, seeing as I’m an agnostic who finds many aspects of religion, namely organized religion questionable and, yes, laughable, you’d think it’d take very little to get me to nod along. Quite the contrary. I’ve heard so much said about religion by this point in my life that my standards are higher. I’ve seen this all before, and it was funnier and more biting then than it is here. That leaves me with the characters, all of which I find unlikable, and the plot, which has never been Pratchett’s strong-suit, in my opinion.

So, all tolled, there’s not a thing I single positive I could key in on here. This isn’t necessarily because it’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read, because it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a worse sin to be forgettable, which Small Gods, and almost all I’ve read of Pratchett’s body of work, is. It’s just another book of his that left me desperately in want of a laugh, or anything memorable for that matter. That all having been said, this doesn’t represent Pratchett’s last chance for me; I still have Unseen Academicals to read, and Lords and Ladies, if it ever gets down the line to me (it’s been “in transit” to the person above me in the hold queue for days). And my expectations are so astronomically low by this point that one of them could easily surprise me. If neither does, though, I think that’ll be it, that I’ll officially be done trying with Pratchett. I guess we’ll see.