Saturday, August 20, 2011

Summer Vacation Reads

I just got back from this summer’s family trip – to Spain! I’d never been before, and it was remarkable to see how different the culture/architecture/landscape/food is there even from the rest of Europe.  It was an exciting, beautiful, and tasty couple of weeks. But as usual, one of the best things about going on vacation was the time I had to read! On this trip, a lot of it was done in the back of a nine passenger van on winding mountain roads, and I realized for the first time that my ability to read through situations like these is a rarity – one I’m very thankful for! As much as I enjoy listening to my iPod and staring out at the landscape, I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I couldn’t spend a good chunk of my car time plowing through books.

Anyway, instead of writing a full-length review for each of these four of these books, I thought I’d just write a quick summary and a short blurb about my opinion. Sound good? Excellent.

The Cathedral of the Sea
By Ildefonso Falcones

This book was a themed birthday present from my dad. The cathedral of the refers to the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral in Barcelona, and my dad fittingly presented this book to me in a restaurant situated in the shadow of that very cathedral. Cool, no?

The Cathedral of the Sea is basically a novelized history of Barcelona during the time the cathedral was built (in only 60 years, lightning speed by cathedral-building standards). And while learning about the city’s history enriched my visit as I walked the streets and saw the sights discussed in the novel, the attempt to turn a historical account into a novel sometimes felt a little heavy-handed as the main characters – the Estanyol family, primarily Arnau and his adoptive brother Joan – experienced all the horrors medieval Spain had to offer, from the feudal system, food shortages, and slavery to the plague, anti-Semitism, the Inquisition. This book is marketed as a rampant bestseller, and once I’d finished it that kind of perplexed me. The story is interesting and peppered with some moving scenes, the writing is competent, and the pace moves along pretty well, but it isn’t remarkably well written, nor is it some kind of addictive or earth-shattering read. So I’m not sure what exactly caused it to be so supposedly successful.

The Prince of Mist
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

You might recognize the name of this author. He wrote one of my favorite books (and the first book I ever reviewed on this site!), The Shadow of the Wind. My sister actually picked this book up at a bookshop in Barcelona when she ran out of books to read (Rule #1 of traveling: never under pack your reading supply). In The Prince of Mist, Max Carver’s family moves to a small seaside town to escape the dangers of city life during World War II. But instead of finding solace and sanctuary, Max and his sister Alicia learn that fist-sized spiders in the attic aren’t the only sinister secrets their new house holds. The more they uncover about the mysteries surrounding the house’s former occupants and their new friend Roland, the more the chilling figure of the Prince of Mist begins to take shape, and the more they realize they’ve stepped into a waking nightmare – one they can’t escape.

As a story written for pre-teens, The Prince of Mist is nowhere near as sordid, complex, and haunting as The Shadow of the Wind. It’s also a really quick read for anyone who didn’t just hit puberty; I read it in 2 hours. But as you would expect from Zafón, the creepy gets creative, and for a children’s ghost story it’s pretty dang creepy (that being said, it doesn’t take much to give me the heebie-jeebies). Overall, though, I confess myself a little disappointed. Even allowing that it’s written for a younger audience and should therefore be a simpler, less complex story, I finished the book wanting… more.

Daughter of Fortune
By Isabel Allende

Eliza Sommers, adopted Chilean daughter of English siblings Rose and Jeremy, falls in love with a poor clerk with wild dreams. When he catches gold fever and ships off to seek his fortune in California, Eliza, pregnant with his child and tormented by her own fever – the fever of love – follows him. Alone, aside from her friend and savior Tao Chien, in a world of unwashed, uncivilized, and unrelenting men, Eliza adopts the persona of a young man in order to survive and devotes herself to the search for her lost love in a country vast and unexplored, a search that becomes a journey of heart, soul, and identity.

Allende spins a good yarn: richly and vibrantly colored, strong, versatile, and carefully woven with attention to detail. She starts with a series of individual fibers, introduces you to each of them, and then begins winding them together until they make a cohesive whole. Still keeping up with my metaphor? No? Okay. Daughter of Fortune isn’t storytelling like many people are used to – the narrative changes voices and moves through time throughout the story until it slowly catches up to itself in time for the conclusion – but it is storytelling at its finest.

p.s. Is it just me, or does that covergirl look uncannily like Catherine Zeta Jones?

By Sarah Mylnowski

I read this book under the impression that it was the novel on which the acclaimed movie Fish Tank (which I haven’t seen, but I thought I might after reading the novel inspiration) was based, by confusing fishbowl with fish tank. Needless to say, it wasn’t. I don’t think any kind of acclaim will ever or should ever come from this book.

Fishbowl is the story of how three 20-something roomies accidentally burn down their kitchen and have to earn $10,000 they don’t have to rebuild it since all of them were too negligent and ignorant to buy insurance, which they do by throwing big boozy parties and holding seminars on getting girls to like you. I’m serious. They’re all incredibly vapid, airheaded, depthless individuals who make poor decisions at every opportunity and have no real interests, talents, or purposes in life. Nor were they particularly entertaining narrators, a la Bridget Jones or Meg Cabot heroines. Just one 300-page waste of time.

Conversation Starter:
What have you been reading this summer? Do you go for the light and fluffy beach reads, or do you use your extra time to tackle the meatier stuff that would be too much to focus on during the year? 

Books Read This Year: 64
Top 100 Progress: 46/100


By Maggie Stiefvater

Four Things I Liked About Forever:
1. Lyrical language
2. Red font
3. SamandGrace
4. Minnesota!

I’m not nor ever have been much of one for supernatural fiction, other than a brief Twilight obsession three or four years ago (and what few among us girls of a certain age actually escaped that collective craze?) that pretty much peaked and died with the release of Breaking Dawn. I say this so you know that when I recommend Forever and the entire Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy – about a pack of werewolves living in a forest in Minnesota – you’ll know that it’s actually a deserved recommendation and not the meaningless hype of a girl who spends too much time reading books with moons, fangs, and dark lipstick on the covers.

Forever is the conclusion of a trilogy that began a couple years ago with Shiver, in which Grace, who survived an attack by the local (were)wolf pack in the wooded backyard of her Minnesota home when she was 11 (remember that, it comes back to bite her – heh, heh – in Linger, the second book), had always felt a connection to the wolves in Mercy Falls. But when she meets a boy named Sam with the same ethereal yellow eyes as her favorite wolf, that connection becomes more tangible than she ever expected. Told from the alternating perspectives of Sam and Grace, their romance – with all its implausible canine challenges – is sweet and stirring and poetic, as cozy as a thick sweater on a bitterly cold Minnesotan night. Fast-forward through Sam curing his lycanthropy, Grace succumbing to decade old werewolf venom that was only dormant, never purged, and the addition of several new pack members and narrators in Linger, and you’re pretty much caught up to Forever, minus a couple details here and there.

Forever is not a book you’re going to read if you haven’t read the rest of the trilogy, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. My main purpose in writing this entry is to promote the series as a whole, not one particular book. Forever does what any good trilogy finale should do: it wraps things up, but without doing too neat a job and while still managing to introduce new plot twists, character developments, and conflicts. And it succeeds.

The things I loved about Shiver held true throughout the trilogy, and remain the things I loved about Forever: the lyrical language of Stiefvater’s descriptions, the cozy and heartfelt romance of Sam and Grace, the rich and seamless harmony of setting and story (I loved reading about Minnesota, now being a resident there 9 months a year), the candid – not canned – and characterization, and the anchoring of a decidedly unrealistic story in the unexceptional mundanity of reality. Instead of retreating into some kind of paranormal bubble within reality translucent enough to occasionally glimpse normal life carrying on outside but otherwise mostly impermeable, the characters continue to deal with real-life conflicts even as they’re caught up in their paranormal predicaments. Nor do these books succumb to Disappearing Parent Syndrome, all too common in young adult literature. Stiefvater’s werewolf lore is compellingly realistic, too. Lycanthropy in Stiefvater’s world is a disease – communicable, chronic, and ultimately fatal, but curable, too (by science, not potion-making). And the shifts are triggered by changes in temperature, not the cycle of the moon.

Basically, if you’re a fan of complex characters and realistic conflicts and are turned off by angst and the destructive, all-consuming, inescapable fated love of so many supernatural young adult stories clogging the shelves right now, but value good writing and the occasional creative take on paranormal fantasy, give the Wolves of Mercy Falls a try. If there’s no way you could ever swallow a story about werewolves and humans mingling, steer clear.

Conversation Starter:
Where do you stand on the whole paranormal teen fiction craze? Do you steer clear of it all together, or do you give some of it a chance?

p.s. If you like what you just read, subscribe via email in the bar to the left!

Books Read This Year: 59
Top 100 Progress: 46/100