Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Young Clementina by D. E. Stevenson

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The Young Clementina is a beautifully written, classic story about the rightness of old-fashioned values. It was first published in 1938 and takes place from the 1910s to the early 1930s, so those values weren't so old-fashioned then. The main narrator is Charlotte Dean, a hearty English rose who loves to ride and hike about in nature. Her minister father has homeschooled her and tutored the young squire of the neighborhood manor. Charlotte and her playmate, Garth, are two halves of a coin and grow up the best of friends. They are falling in love when WWI begins and Garth leaves their idyllic village. Their implicit understanding to wait for each other goes awry when Garth returns bitter, angry, and cruel. He promptly marries Charlotte's sister and Charlotte moves to London to eke out a living as a bookstore manager. A number of unfortunate events occur that lands Charlotte in charge of the manor and her niece, the titular Clementina.

Charlotte is the quintessential stalwart British woman. She silently puts aside her pain and strives daily to do her duty. Her moments of pain and anger are bleakly solitary and comfortless. She achieves a kind of equilibrium with her life in London when the past intrudes. When Garth twists the knife, asking her to be temporary mistress of the home that should have been hers and to raise the child that could have been hers, it reopens old wounds. But Charlotte agrees, her heart belongs in the country and her niece needs a mother figure. During her tenure, Charlotte manages to right the wrongs that have haunted the home and family, from their social outcast status to recalcitrant servants to the traumatized Clem. Charlotte goes from timid spinster to doyenne of the manor. Her confidence and revitalization are wonderfully heartwarming to witness.

The story is told in multiple parts, narrated by Charlotte, who is writing to a friend she calls Clara. Clara doesn't exist and this strange set up was disconcerting for the first few chapters. Charlotte mostly writes the story as a history, which is our info dump, and as a way for her to trace the sources of the present day events (Garth's proposition) so she can decide whether to accept. I could recognize that the writing was superior in a non-modern way, but was bored to tears. However, as the history part passed and the pivotal plot got going, the book was impossible put down even as its predictability deeply irritated. The trope of the excruciatingly dutiful older (dark-haired) sister and the pretty flighty social-climbing younger (blonde) sister? Check. A suddenly cold suitor turning to the first woman in sight, the sister of the former love to really make a point? Check! The shallow wife being a horrible match for the principled, scholarly husband? CHECK. There are more, but they would be spoilers. The story is very well-constructed, well-told, and true to feeling. Charlotte's sufferings are heart-wrenching and her triumphs are equally sweet. I wouldn't say she is a compelling or exotic character, but if honor and truthfulness, even in the face of sacrifice, mean something to you, she is eminently captivating.

As as I mentioned, The Young Clementina is originally from the 1930s. I didn't find this out until I read the author's bio at the end and this knowledge put all my dislikes into context. The very formal language, long predictable scenarios, and hackneyed tropes probably weren't so back then, and for all we know, D.E. Stevenson may have introduced them to a scandalized readership. I like to think so and hope she enjoyed creating a powerfully fun story.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères by Marie LeTourneau

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A charming book perfect for introducing French sounds and culinary traditions to young folk. There are a family of restauranteur mice headed by a chef dad and joined in the business by his seven sons and lone daughter. The sons staff the establishment and the various roles in running a French restaurant are described. I definitely didn't know these things as a child, but are good things to know someday. This book would pair nicely with a meal at a French restaurant or bistro.

At this bistro, the chef is famous for his cheese soup and wins a yearly award. This time, on the very day of the annual judging, catastrophe strikes. Fortunately, the family pulls together, but it is the ever cheerful daughter who brings surprises and imagination for the big moment.

Adults may recognize the daughter as the ubiquitous manic pixie dream girl persona, but it  makes sense when the girl is an actual little girl. She is completely delightful. Her personality contrasts with her brothers' and make for another solid topic for conversation.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Big Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich

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I'm generally skeptical of "makeover" books. They feel too simplistic in that the be all and end all is to get in shape to get the making over man. I'm not even sure how this trope came about because it is so unrealistic as to be imbecilic. So thank the stars, Stephanie Evanovich is a better writer and smarter person than that crew. Her characterization and thoroughness really took me by surprise. Most romantic fiction steers clear of ugly, if human, thoughts - the sort of nasty impulsive thoughts we all have in moments of cynicism, stress or being wronged. Holly Brennan is so remarkably real, a plain Jane who thinks the snarky thoughts but has an actual (working!) filter of politeness and decency. Is it tragic that her socially functional personality is so refreshing to encounter?

Holly provides the heart and humor of this book, but in a soft way. Big Girl Panties in general is almost a gentle comedy (albeit with a surprising lot of sexual activity). Evanovich doesn't trying to pistol whip her readers with forced or excessive wit. It's nice not to have an author impress superiority on readers with obnoxious characters and contrived relationships to advance a plot. People's actions make sense through the (nerd alert: third person omniscient) narration and creates a bond that endears them to you. Holly's transformation takes place painfully and gradually, giving hope to every woman who has despaired of turning a body or a life around. Real life changes suck on many levels and we're along for Holly's bumpy (but mercifully angst-free) ride. Things don't work out easily or perfectly and I really loved Holly for it. The girl's got agency and uses that power to make choices about her future, make over her self-esteem, and make good friends.

There are a couple romance plots running through the story and these other characters are surprisingly nuanced. I enjoyed even the unnamed regular people that the main characters interacted with. It's an achievement to make everyone pertinent, interesting, memorable. I'm definitely looking forward to more from this author.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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Sensitive readers will want to skip this debut novel. The Panopticon isn't a horror or suspense story but the there is a constant low-level feeling of anxiety that something awful will happen and then it does. Repeatedly in various ways. Also avoid this book if drug use, mental illness, violence of all types, and profanity bother you since every page is rife with just about all of the above.

I didn't dislike this book even though it is distressing, a little unstructured, and a whole lot darker than I was expecting. That aside, it also has a brilliant emotional build-up that mirrors Anais's mindset. Her narration begins much as she is: defiant, hard, and resistant. As she adjusts to her latest group home, the titular Panopticon, full of battered unexpected angels, her scarred spirit uncurls and her voice warms. This is how the book began to engage me. When I started the book each chapter felt like reviewer purgatory and I was waiting to hit my 75-100-page "giving up" limit, but as Anais started to care, incrementally, so did I, until I was reading compulsively as long as I could. How Fagan executes this is pure virtuoso.

Anais's upbringing is a nightmare of institutional incompetence, but governments were never meant to be parents or raise sentient beings. Given the what she is a product of...or a lack thereof, her beauty as a person is a construct of her own design, much like her fashion sense. She is as feral a child can be in a modern society, but has a real, honestly developed code of honor and values, something admirable over those that are followed merely by doctrine or habit, and whose believers would no doubt judge Anais as an amoral degenerate thug.

Of course the danger of caring is vulnerability and we and Anais are not exempt from this cosmic law. Her past is tragic but what is it about what doesn't kill you making you stronger? Since she has survived, we get to experience the latest with her. In some instances that aforementioned tense vibe prepared me for something worse than what happened, or I predicted an outcome that disappointed by obliging. Still there are plenty of surprises, both pleasant and not, in the chorus of residents and staff at the Panopticon, and they are the author's greatest strength.

Jenni Fagan is a poet and the language of The Panopticon has a peculiar musicality that confounds then soothes you, a profane lullaby. The lexicon of this grim social stratus takes some interpreting, literally, and at least an American audience would benefit from a glossary.