Posts Tagged ‘challenge’

E is for Emily Hudson: A Novel by Melissa Jones

Another day, another letter polished off of the list. For the fifth letter of the A to Z Reading Challenge, I read Melissa Jones’s Emily Hudson: A Novel. Set in Civil War era America and Europe, Jones’s novel is about a woman finding herself and her independence in a time when women were expected to show proper, sedate decorum and marry well.

Emily Hudson: A NovelWhat I like most about this book is that Jones manages to tell a story with romance without that subject being the focus of her character’s development. Emily is a woman ahead of her time in her independence of thought, joy for life, and depth of emotion. Jones takes her from her strong-willed childhood, where she is dismissed from boarding school for having too enthusiastic a friendship with a fellow schoolmate, to the society of England, where she is an exotic eccentric, to the picturesque landscape of Italy, where Emily finally asserts her independence and uses her skills as an artist to build a life away from the bonds of her family and their rule. Emily becomes the object of affection, sincere, passionate, and obsessive, of three different men, and eventually discovers that she needs to live life for herself before she can live it with another.

While I was inspired by Emily’s transformation, I did feel that there was a certain detachment in the writing of the story. Maybe this stems from the format of the book, written half in letters to and from Emily, with less direct dialogue and thought from the character and more of formal responses with a veneer of the projection of how Emily wished things to appear. Whether this was intentional or not, I would have liked to see a little more depth from Jones in her portrayal of Emily. While Jones wrote a very complex and human protagonist, there was a certain symbolic quality to Emily that made her feel more of a placeholder for female readers than a character of her own. Yes, Emily has her own insecurities, fears over her ill-health, and conflicting emotions about those she loves in her life, but somehow, there was always a little niggling feeling in the back of my mind that made me feel that Emily was more of a figurehead for personal growth and introspection than an actual person. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, viewing Emily as an allegorical inspiration for women to know their own personality and come to terms with their temperament and capabilities. Yet, the slight detachment made the book slightly less moving for me.

I’d give this book a half and half review. I wouldn’t call it the best book I’ve ever read, but the sentiment behind Emily’s journey is inspiring. If I take anything away from this book, it is that we are all individuals with a spirit can not and should not be stifled, and that we need to know and love ourselves before we can love anyone else. That made the book worth reading by itself.

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F is for Farewell, My Only One by Antoine Audouard

Let’s take a walk down foreign author lane for the next A to Z Reading Challenge title, shall we?

I’ve always loved languages, and having studied four different ones in the course of my high school and college career (one was a dead language, so should it count?), I’ve learned a lot about different cultures. I studied French the longest and to the highest level off all four linguistic courses, so I’ve read a bit of literature in it’s original published format. Which is why I can say, that Audouard’s Farewell, My Only One is quintessentially French.

Audouard’s novel is essentially a love story and a love triangle, as only the French can create. The love between the three characters is at times philosophical, carnal, unrequited, destructive, inspiring, and always complex. The fictional story based on real letters and works of a 12th century philosopher follows William, a student of thought, philosophy, and religion. When he meets this philosopher, Peter Abelard, the two become friends and develop a master, student relationship in the quest for knowledge, but at the same time, William also falls in love at first sight with the same woman destined to have a historic romance with his master. Heloise (which must be pronounced in your head with a French accent because, well, doesn’t everything sound better in French?) and Abelard develop what is known in history to be the beginning of courtly love with a tragic, star-crossed lovers facet. Heloise is a student of Abelard and the two have an all-consuming, passionate, and raw love of each other that leads to scandal, a secret marriage, and violence on both sides.

William watches and sometimes abets this fiery obsession between Abelard and Heloise with a voyeuristic detachment that belies his own feelings for Heloise, deep down under his blasé exterior. As the narrator, the reader gets insight into William’s own thoughts and feelings which are both conflicted, with his friendship with Abelard and love of Heloise versus an innate propensity to watch life from afar with a melancholy soul of a loner.

This book was very cerebral, and while there is a plot, I think the meat of the book is really the thoughts and emotions elicited from the reader by the narrator. The story makes one think about all manner of philosophical questions posited by the actual teachings of Abelard that are interwoven with the plot of the novel and by William’s actions and the nature of the love between Abelard and Heloise. There is pensive remoteness to William’s character that gives the book a lugubrious tone that I think is characteristic to French literature (as well as Russian literature, but that’s another story). I can say that I enjoyed Audouard’s writing and the story that he tells, despite needing a gigantic pick-me-up after ending the final chapter.

To say that there is something lost in translation is usually true, but Euan Cameron’s translation is stellar (in my inexpert opinion). Having read French language fiction before, I still get the mood, wording, and structure of writing that typify the French style in this English version of the novel. This book still feels French, which is important when reading foreign translations. That being said, I’d have to warn readers who have never read a foreign book translated into English of the sometimes jarring wording and unusual syntax that exist in translations. This is something that you have to jump into with commitment and an open mind; suspend your American passport for a while, and enjoy the prose before you.

Farewell, My Only One would certainly be a good starting point for those of you who want to dip a toe in the foreign fiction pool because the fact that is is also a historical fiction novel helps; readers are already using their imaginations to submerge themselves in another world, time, and location that is foreign to them. I’d recommend this book not only for it’s beautiful language, but for the mental challenge that the philosophical undertones of the book provide.
So, readers, lisez, et découvrez un nouveau livre!

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In the interest of preserving continuity of thought in reviewing two books that I read for the A to Z Reading Challenge that were written as a duo, I have decided to write a review of both together. So, without further ado:

A is for After Midnight
V is for The Vampire Who Loved Me by Teresa Medeiros

From the title of this blog post and the books themselves, you’ve probably already guessed that these are romance novels about vampires. Before you click that red dot in the top left corner of this window (yes, I have a Mac), let me say that these books were not as bad as you are probably expecting them to be. For whatever reasons, unbeknownst to me, I bought these novels from Amazon.com with a gift card my cousin gave me for Christmas. They were cheap, the synopsis piqued my interest, and I had read a historical by Medeiros before that I found well-written. I gave them a shot and was pleasantly surprised.

You all know by now that I like romance novels, but I have literally never read those about vampires or werewolves. I don’t know why I can’t abide that sub-genre, knowing I have read the whole Twilight cycle and wait with bated breath for True Blood to return to HBO for a new season. Maybe the fact that these novels are also historicals was what made them more palatable for my reading consumption. Either way, it seems that the world is obsessed with vampires and supernatural creatures and that there is something sexy about vampires. (Has anyone not seen Interview with the Vampire? Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas. In period clothing. Point proven.) I could pontificate about why I think this obsession exists, but I’ll spare you by naming three points about why the world, the female half in particular, is in love with vampires:

1. Immortality. Nobody really wants to get old, get wrinkles, go gray, et cetera. People are naturally unwilling to die, especially since no one really knows what is out there on the other side of death.

2. The biting. There is something intimate and sexual about the act of biting, which of course comes along with vampires (unless of course this is Twilight, but what do you expect from the no-sex, Mormon Meyer). Fangs penetrating flesh, the exchange of bodily fluids, and intimate veiny areas like the neck (jugular vein) or the thigh (great saphenous vein), evoke more of a carnal than cannibalistic feeling during the biting. Plus, in most vampire movies, the bitee always looks like she enjoys it.

3. Chivalry. Most vampires, and this is a generalization, are much older than us. If we have a modern setting, even a vampire from the turn on the 20th century is from a completely different social era: an era where women wore beautiful gowns, when men opened doors and asked to court you, and dancing actually involved dancing to music that required intricate steps and twirling. Vampires represent the past and literally embody a historic time period that is unavailable to people living centuries afterword. If vampires ever could exist, I’d find the oldest one, chain him to my chair with my silver Tiffany’s jewelry, and grill him about what really went on during the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the hell Anastasia disappeared to, and what Napoleon had in his jacket that he kept his hand in there all the time.1 Hopefully my vampire is well-traveled, patient, and has a sense of humor. Vampires, in our imaginations, have the compiled knowledge and manners of centuries of better-behaved ancestors, who wouldn’t think about nibbling on your neck without at least a “Please, may I bite you, ma’am?”

That being said, vampire romance novels are inherently less low-brow than you might think because they provide a psychological outlet for themes mere mortals seek to explore: the nature of the soul, knowledge, power, et cetera. Medeiros’s novels are no different. Both explore the state of humanity, the soul, and how terrible it would be if your sister were in danger of marrying a vampire.

While her two books do have a vampire who is only several years old (in his life as one of the eternally damned), both do take place in Victorian England, so the allure of chivalry still applies. Mostly, Medeiros uses the fear of what is traded for immortality and strength, mainly one’s humanity, to propel Caroline Cabot, her heroine in After Midnight, into saving her sister from marrying who she believes to be a vampire. In the first book, Caroline becomes involved in a plot to capture and kill a vampire with evil intentions and discovers the truth about the Viscount Trevelyan and his brother, one of whom is a vampire and the other, a vampire hunter. She falls in love and saves her sister, but destroys one brother’s chances of taking back his soul and mortality from the vampire that created him.

Against the advice of Caroline, Portia, the third sister in the Cabot family who appears in After Midnight, attempts to aid Julian Kane, the vampire brother, to recover his soul and regain his humanity in The Vampire Who Loved Me. In the second and final book in this duo, Medeiros writes more about the vampire world and what it means to be human. Portia is drawn to the side of Julian that is still a man and loves him despite the fact that he is a vampire.The Vampire Who Loved Me

Both books have elements of adventure and mystery in addition to the love story, which is probably why I enjoyed both of them. The plot is not dependent on the characters dealing with finding out vampires exist or being immortal. The development of relationships, detective work, witty repartee, and the quest to find a way out of being damned fleshed out the stories and made the books work better as a duo, rather than simply as two separate, distinct stories only tenuously related to each other by the reuse of characters. The Vampire Who Loved Me is definitely a continuation of After Midnight, and I suggest reading both in order because a lot happens between the two books that relates to events in the other. The female characters are strong, independent, brave, and fiercely protective of their sisters. I enjoyed After Midnight more for having the mystery elements, finding out with the protagonist which one of the brothers was a vampire and why the Kane brothers only show themselves at night, whereas The Vampire Who Loved Me I felt developed the relationship between Portia and Julian better.

I guess I’d recommend both books to those of you who want to dip a tow in the supernatural genre; the general romance plot and the historical setting are enough to ease you gently into the vampire sub-genre pool. I don’t know that I’d consider myself a convert, but I might consider reading another vampire historical if it is anything like After Midnight and The Vampire Who Loved Me. This may have to do with the fact that I think Medeiros is a great, fast-paced writer. However, I don’t think I’ll be keeping the books on my shelf after having read them once already.

1 – You know you think it is an odd gesture too, something more than a pose of imposing regality. In that episode of I Dream of Jeannie where they go back to Napoleon’s house party, Tony discovers that Napoleon is allergic to wool and just has an itch. I would like to know if this is true.

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Governesses in Love

You probably already know that I love to read romance novels. I usually read about two romance novels for every “other” book I start to read. Which is why, I think it is fitting to start my reading challenge reviews for the A to Z Reading Challenge with one of my guilty pleasures from January.

R is for Rules of Engagement by Christina Dodd.

I normally don’t like the characters in my romance novels to have children. Children, in real life and in books, can be annoying, and usually imply a first wife. First wives are a whole lot of baggage and in the words of some witty dialogue from Sex and the City, “it doesn’t matter how much of a bitch she was alive, now that’s she’s dead you’re the bitch who can’t live up to her.” But, the quandary in this book is how to get a governess to be hired by a rakish bachelor who has no children. The answer: he can hire one. This solution is not only a vehicle for various plot twists, but also precludes any of the trite and predictable scenes often seen in books about a new mother being introduced to an already established family.

That being said, the child, Beth, is actually quite endearing and doesn’t get too much in the way of the main plot of the story which is essentially two people falling in love.

Pamela is hired as a governess to the orphaned Beth by Devon, a dissolute Earl, in order to lend him an air of responsibility and respectability. There are twists, disguises, mistaken identities, conspiracies, counterfeiting schemes, and appearances by Queen Victoria.

The story, while implausible at times was entertaining. This is one of those books where secondary characters and subplots are more memorable than the main story line. Devon’s grandfather, an elderly but enjoyable man who gives off an air of knowing much more than everyone else, is simply lovable and Beth is a tragic but spirited mirror of the heroine. The Victorian version of a “Blue Moon” (read Grease) is a bit out of place, but made me laugh out loud all the same and lent a lightness to the somewhat serious love story.

I probably wouldn’t read this over again, but Rules of Engagement has by far been my favorite romance novels involving a governess and/or children.

As a general observation, I’ve noticed that the romance genre has a plethora of period novels with governesses as main female leads. I’m not sure if the appeal of this is to give a modern edge to the historic period by involving problems of blending families and introducing characters with complicated pasts, or if it is simply a device of getting single, unmarried females out of the ballroom and into the freedom of a working life. Either way, I’m not sure how I feel about governesses in this kind of literature and I think I will continue to steer clear of them.

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click on the button for more information and a list of other participants.

The lovely Sabrina of YA Bliss came up with this fantastic idea for a challenge and Cornflower, Sapphire and I decided to join.  Cornflower is shooting for level one while Sapphire and I are hoping for Level two.  Perhaps we’ll surprise ourselves and get to Level three!

I haven’t had much time to check out the possibilities, but I have a few YA historicals lying around my apartment and many other participants have some amazing lists going.  I’m sure we’ll find more books than we’re able to read.  As an actual YA (young adult, for those unfamiliar with library jargon) I was always drawn to the Civil War and WWII, so hopefully I’ll expand my horizons and read about something new.  I’m really excited to start this challenge–the books sound so good!

Do you have any suggestions?  What’s your favorite time period to read about?

*follow our progress on the newly minted challenge page!

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