Friday, 29 October 2010

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent reader of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment and the consequences are devastating. Flaubert's erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi'.

As much as I loved Flaubert's style of writing I found myself disliking Emma more and more as the novel progressed. Initially I was sympathetic towards Emma's situation; believing that marriage would solve all of her problems but discovering that life is not like a romance novel. And I could understand when she started trying to fill up the void in her life with material objects and affairs. But then she become demanding with her lovers, forcing them to fulfill the romantic fantasies she had from novels, and she couldn't cope when everything didn't work out entirely as she'd planned it. She just couldn't let go of her dreams and realise that life isn't perfect and that you have to make things work, rather than expecting men to rush into your life and fix everything. This is an excellent book to analyse and study because of this concept (and many others that feature in this novel), but I got rather frustrated with Emma towards the end of the novel. It was also horrifically depressing in places, so don't read this if you're having a sad day. I definitely recommend this book because of the incredible amount of issues it covers, as well as the wonderfully descriptive yet very readable narrative style. But I'm afraid that sometimes I just wanted to take Emma by the shoulders and shake her! 8/10

Monday, 25 October 2010

Grace - Shelley Shepard Gray

It’s Christmastime at the Brenneman Bed & Breakfast, and everyone is excited about closing down for the holiday. Anna and Henry will be celebrating their first Christmas as a married couple, and for Katie and Jonathan Lundy, it’s their first Christmas with baby Eli. Winnie and Samuel Miller plan to stop by as well for a wonderful two weeks of family and rest. 

But when two unexpected visitors show up, hoping to stay for Christmas, the family must test their commitment to hospitality. Levi is a widower who lost his wife four years ago and can’t bear the thought of another Christmas alone. And Melody is a young pregnant woman who won’t open up about how she ended up on her own at Christmas at almost nine months pregnant. Anna, who knows a thing or two about keeping secrets, doesn’t trust her, and strives to find out the truth about these two strangers who have disrupted their holiday.

But as the Christmas spirit descends on them all, along with a snow that traps them at the inn, a healing and hopefulness takes over, allowing new relationships to be built, and the boundaries of family to be extended.

Melody and Levi are strangers when they arrive at the Brenneman Bed and Breakfast in Ohio, both burdened with pain and sadness. But the welcoming, family-orientated nature of their Christmas getaway will not allow them stay unhappy for long. Soon they find themselves drawn together during the preparations for the holiday season and slowly they come to realise that God has great plans for both their futures. Can a miraculous event on Christmas day bring them together? 

This sweet, wholesome Christmas tale is the first book that I've read from the Sisters of the Heart series but it can be read entirely as a stand-alone novel. Grace is a simple story about two people thrown together to help each other heal past hurts and learn to love again. The characters in this story were quirky and endearing, making me want to go back and read the previous novels, and I came to enjoy learning about their lives. I particularly enjoyed the subplot about Melody's English friend, Leah, who is determined to track her down before Christmas day. I also loved the setting of the Bed and Breakfast and could imagine it as a real place! 

But as I said, it is a simple novel. I've read another couple of Christmas/winter themed Amish novels recently and this one pales slightly in comparison. Although I enjoyed this book, it didn't grip me and compel me to continue reading in the way that others have. I also had no doubt in my mind that the main characters were going to get together. Even in a romance novel where you expect a Happily Ever After ending, I like some stumbling blocks to be thrown in the path of the characters, something to make me wonder whether everything will work out. Melody and Levi had nothing to overcome after the first hundred or so pages. There was also something about the author's style of writing that irritated me; it felt like she was continually stating the obvious and telling us how the characters felt rather than let it show through their actions.

I would recommend this to those who enjoy Amish fiction and are looking for a simple, predictable Christmas tale. It's a quick read and easy to put down and pick up again. Although I wouldn't place this novel among the best of the Amish books available, I would be interested in reading more from this author as I think that she creates realistic characters and wonderful settings. 7/10

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for giving me a chance to read and review this book. Grace: A Sisters of the Heart Christmas Novel by Shelley Shepard Gray goes on sale tomorrow, the 26th of October 2010.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Book Blogger Hop: October 22 - 25, 2010

In the spirit of the Twitter Friday Follow, the Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Crazy for Books and a place just for book bloggers and readers to connect and share our love of the written word! This weekly BOOK PARTY is an awesome opportunity for book bloggers to connect with other book lovers, make new friends, support each other, and generally just share our love of books! It will also give blog readers a chance to find other book blogs to read! 

This week's question comes from Becky who blogs at Becky's Barmy Book Blog:

"Where is your favorite place to read? Curled up on the sofa, in bed, in the garden?"

My answer: Because my little flat in the North of Scotland is absolutely freezing right now, I tend to read curled up on my bed under a pile of blankets! Sometimes, when all of my flatmates are out, I snuggle up on the sofa but it often gets too noisy in my livingroom to concentrate on reading. So generally, my bed is the best place to read.

How about everyone else?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Hide in Plain Sight - Marta Perry

She couldn't turn her back on her family in their time of need.

So when her sister was injured, financial expert Andrea Hampton traded the big city for Amish country to help turn her grandmother's house into an inn.

But life with the Plain People took a treacherous turn when a string of accidents and pranks threatened her family. Someone didn't want the secrets the old house harbored to come to light. Trusting anyone— even the handsome carpenter who seemed so genuine—was a battle for Andrea, but her life depended on her ability to find the truth.

This was a first in many ways for me - my first novel by Marta Perry, my first book from the Love Inspired line at Harlequin and my first foray into the world of romantic suspense. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Don't let the cheesy blurb fool you - this is a lovely, simple romance that will keep your attention but not require a lot of brain power.

Andrea has a prestigious job in the city and is cautious about leaving it to come home to her family in Lancaster County when her sister, Rachel, is injured in a car accident. She loves her job - but her boss and colleagues don't take too kindly to her putting family matters before her work. But it's undeniable - her grandmother and sister need her help setting up their family home as a B&B, even more so now that Rachel is out of action. Further difficulties arise when there appears to be a prowler on the lose. Is this person simply a troublesome teenager or is something more sinister going on?

Thankfully for Andrea's family, grandmother Kathryn has rented out her barn to a carpenter named Cal. Cal is only too happy to help out the family in their time of need, although Andrea is suspicious about his intentions. Is he the prowler? Is he trying to take advantage of her grandmother's generosity? Or is Andrea simply too worried to take notice of what is right in front of her, and the attraction she has for this man?

I liked how Marta interwove the mystery of the troublesome prowler and Andrea's internal battle over whether to leave her family in the comforts of the country and return to her high-flying job in the city, thus leaving behind any chance she had with the handsome new stranger she'd just met. While I guessed that Andrea and Cal would hit it off (a bit obvious as this is, after all, a romance novel), I'm afraid that my years of reading Nancy Drew did not detain me from following the red herrings in this story. I thought I had the whole mystery figured out, but there was a little twist towards the end that I didn't see coming.

As someone who has never read a Love Inspired book before I'd have to say that I enjoyed it more than I expected. While the blurbs, and sometimes the covers, can be incredibly cheesy, the story itself was quite well written and very compelling. This novel was only 250 pages long so obviously there were not dozens of intricate sub-plots, but considering the word-limit and the restrictions of this particular Harlequin line, I think that Marta has created a rather good novel. I liked that the characters sought help from God in times of need, but the references weren't overdone to the extent that they were unbelievable. At each time that Andrea prayed for guidance or help I found myself thinking that I would have done the same in her position. I also liked the fact that Marta made it obvious that there was chemistry between Andrea and Cal. I'm under the impression that some Christian authors like characters to form good friendships then suddenly fall in love, but never experience attraction or romantic feelings - this isn't how it works in real life! Andrea and Cal clearly had chemistry between them, even if they did to try hide it, and this made them all the more realistic as characters.

My only real complaint would have to be that the "bad guy" gave a rather cheesy monologue at the end of the novel, when their identity was revealed. I have to admit, I cringed a little. One other thing that bugged me was that the characters' clothing was often described, and I didn't really see the need for this to be commented on time and again, but I suppose that other women might be more interested in this.

All in all, I was pleased with my first attempt at Marta Perry, Love Inspired and Romantic Suspense. This was a nice, easy read, perfect for sandwiching in between the books I've been reading for my university courses. I'll definitely be reading more books by Marta Perry. 7/10

Monday, 11 October 2010

While My Sister Sleeps - Barbara Delinsky

Molly and Robin Snow are sisters in the prime of their lives. So when Molly learns that Robin - an Olympic athlete and the favorite child - has suffered a massive heart attack, the news couldn't be more shocking. At the hospital, the Snow family receives a grim prognosis: Robin may never regain consciousness. 

Feelings of guilt and jealousy flare up as Robin's family struggles to cope and their relationships are put to the ultimate test. It's up to Molly to make the tough decisions, and she soon makes discoveries that destroy some of her most cherished beliefs about the sister she thought she knew.

Once again Barbara Delinsky brings us a masterful family portrait, filled with thought-provoking ideas about the nature of life itself, how emotions affect the decisions we make, and how letting go can be the hardest thing to do and the greatest expression of love all at the same time.

As anyone who knows me will know, I really respect the writing of Barbara Delinsky. I seem to read at least one of her books every month, and although they can hardly be considered "comfort reads" because of the issues they cover and the way that families are torn apart, there is something very enjoyable about exploring the lives of real people who experience real problems. I like books that make me think "What if?" Jodi Picoult's novels also have this affect on me, but I find that I prefer Barbara Delinsky. The tag-line on the copy of my book reads "Fans of Jodi Picoult will love this" which, in my opinion, isn't entirely accurate. Jodi Picoult deals with controversial issues, whereas Barbara Delinsky tends to look at the ramifications of a situation on a family. This book focuses on one event - the family favourite, a runner in her early thirties, collapsing due to heart problems and needing to be on life-support - and how the individual family members react. 

The protagonist of the novel is Molly, the youngest sibling who feels overshadowed by her older sister. Now that Robin is lying on a hospital bed and her mother can't bear to leave her, Molly finds that responsibilities fall to her. She has to take over her mother's duties at the garden nursery where they both work, as well as fending off Robin's reporter ex-boyfriend whose intentions may or may not be good. In the process, Molly ends up making a new friend, one who isn't interested in her just because of who her sister is. He helps her to discover new things about herself, and uncover the truth about what Robin thought about her. By the end of the novel, each family member has changed in some way, from Molly to her mother to her older brother who is starting his own family. 

I really liked Molly's character and enjoyed watching her grow and mature throughout the novel. Initially, I wasn't too keen on her as she seemed determined that there was no way that she could come out from under Robin's shadow, but as the story progressed this changed. I also warmed up to Kathryn, the mother, who had issues of her own to deal with. My only gripe with this story was Chris, Molly's older brother, who although having his own sub-plot, didn't seem a very well developed character. His story did link in with the main story but it seemed to be resolved far too quickly and tacked on in an awkward manner. I also got annoyed whenever one character said "Omigod!" as it made them sound like a twelve-year-old girl! 

Fortunately, these were my only issues with this book. Otherwise, it contained great characters and brilliant conflict, as all of Barbara Delinsky's novels do. I could really imagine myself being in these character's shoes and wondered how I would cope with a similar situation. There were a couple of teary moments, so be prepared, but by the end of the book I was satisfied with how the characters grew and changed as they learned to deal with the issues facing them. 9/10

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Eugene Onegin - Alexander Pushkin

Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in 1820s imperial Russia, Pushkin's novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men - Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself - and the fates and affections of three women - Tatiana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin's mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographical digressions, often in a highly satirical vein. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin's own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from a romantic poet into a realistic novelist. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin's own favourite work, and this new translation by Stanley Mitchell conveys the literal sense and the poetic music of the original.

Not being a massive fan of poetry, I wasn't sure what to expect when starting this "Novel in Verse". But how is it possible not to love Pushkin? The writing was simply beautiful and I think the translator, Stanley Mitchell, deserves a lot of praise for containing the beauty of Pushkin's writing in his translation. It was also incredibly readable, unlike some other novels from this period which can trip you up with the language and descriptions. To anyone looking to read Pushkin for the first time I'd definitely recommend the 2008 Penguin Classics edition as the translation is beautiful and easy to read, peppered with many helpful footnotes. I'm glad that my European Literature module gave me the chance to read this and have to say that I'm slowly warming up to poetry! 8/10

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs - Tom Baker

Robert Caligari is a thoroughly evil thirteen-year-old who gets his kicks from kicking pigs. After a humiliating episode with a bacon butty, Robert realizes just how much he loathes the human race - and his revenge is truly terrible. This subversive horror-fantasy from Tom Baker (ex-monk, ex-sailor, and the ultimate Doctor Who) is outrageous and funny, and since the hardback was published in 1999 has gone on to become a cult classic. It is illustrated throughout with black and white line drawings from David Roberts. 

While I loved the style of writing and the social commentary in this book, it was incredibly disturbing! I started out really enjoying the amusing narration about a strange little boy, but it became darker as the story progressed. At only 124 pages, this is a quick read, which makes the change from a bizarre tale into a rather frightening and gruesome one all the more sudden. Not only was I disturbed by the insight into the warped mind of Robert but also by the grisly descriptions of the outcome of his pig-kicking, world-hating actions. Definitely not one for children, even though this does look like it was aimed at that audience. To be totally honest, I don't know who'd enjoy this book - perhaps people who have a very warped sense of humour? Although I want to give the author credit for his superb narrative, the unsettled feeling that I had upon finishing this "gruesome masterpiece" brings down my rating somewhat. 5/10

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Reckoning - Beverly Lewis

Katherine Mayfield, the new Mistress of Mayfield Manor, always dreamed of a fancy "English" life. But as the seasons pass, she finds herself grieving the loss of her Amish family and dearest friend, Mary Stolzfus. Shunned from the Plain life she once knew, Katherine finds solace in volunteer work with hospice patients--a labor of love she hopes will bring honor to the memory of her birth mother. Unknown to Katherine, her long-lost love, Daniel Fisher, is desperate to locate his "Sweetheart girl," only to be frustrated at nearly every turn. Meanwhile, she delights in the modern world--once forbidden--cherishing the attention of Justin Wirth, her handsome suitor. Her childhood entwined with Daniel's, yet her present life far removed from Lancaster County, Katherine longs for the peace that reigned in her mother's heart. And once again, she is compelled to face the heritage of her past.

I enjoyed the conclusion to the Heritage of Lancaster County series more than the second book but not quite as much as the first. While living in her birth-mother's mansion in New York, Katie comes to realise that she misses many aspects of her old Amish life - quilting, baking, helping those who are to frail to look after themselves. Can she really throw that all away and become completely "fancy"? I felt that on her quest to discover who she really was, Katie really grew as a character and the immaturities about her that I'd previously disliked diminished. Katie's friends and relatives back in Lancaster also featured more in this book, which is another reason why I enjoyed it. It was great to read about Rebecca coming to terms with her daughter's shunning, Mary finding love and Annie rekindling her friendship with her brother. 

Throughout the book, several characters discussed finding salvation through belief in Christ. I appreciated that Beverly Lewis had picked up on the fact that a lot of Amish don't believe in this and instead think that you have to earn your way to heaven, as this is an aspect of Amish life that I don't entirely agree with. However, I can see how this would make the novel unappealing to a secular audience. Daniel's discovery of salvation in the second book had been a trivial point but it was discussed much more frequently in The Reckoning, so be aware of this if you are not a Christian and are considering reading this book. 

All in all, I've enjoyed reading this series but would not say that it is my favourite of the Amish sagas available. Lewis broke into the scene with the Heritage of Lancaster County books and while this was groundbreaking at the time, her writing has changed a lot since the late 90s. There are some cliches and predictabilities about these books and the speech can seem stilted in places. These novels make great comfort reads, but a better series by Lewis is the Abram's Daughters series. There are several other authors of Amish fiction who I'd recommend, my favourites being Amy Clipston, Vannetta Chapman and Barbara Cameron. The Heritage of Lancaster County is a great place to start in the Amish genre, and because it was the series that started it all, you can only move on to bigger and better books! 7/10