Monday, August 29, 2011

Three Junes=Best Book I've Read in 2011!

Julia Glass' Three Junes is by far, hands down the BEST book I've read this year.  It was the 2002 winner for the National Book Award for Fiction and definitely deserved it.  I picked this book up for my scattered Edinburgh bookclub and I can honestly say that it's my favorite of all that we have read in the past nearly three years (ugh).  It makes you laugh, cry, smile, and think.  That's what makes this book so good.

The story centers around the McLeod family, natives of Scotland, and follows members across continents, years, relationships, sexuality, heartache, anguish, and happiness.  It's told in sections from the perspective of the patriarch, Paul, his oldest son, Fenno, and Fern, a woman who manages to weave herself into the lives of these two men without much effort and who, after the first section of this book, the reader does not really think about again.

We first meet Paul in 1989 and are welcomed into his personal anguish over the death of his wife.  He ventures to Greece as a way of grieving and it's in this place that he meets Fern.  The reader is taken into Paul's thoughts and feelings as a widower.  His story is interspersed with flashbacks of life before his wife's death.  We learn how they met, how he courted her, how they made a living, how they raised a family, and how their lives unfolded and played out before it ended.  Paul's time spend in Greece was an integral part in setting everything in motion.

Next to come to the front of the narrative is Fenno, who we meet again in 1995.  Fenno has moved to New York and become the owner of a small, independent bookstore.  Through Fenno's telling of the family story we meet the brothers of the McLeod family and are given brief glimpses into their lives as individuals and as an entire familial unit.  We are shown how life was for the boys growing up and how they coped with their mother's death.  We are also shown how they cope with the death of their father and all the questions his death brings with it.  This section is the most hefty of the three and gives the reader the most insight into Fenno and the complications he encounters as a member of this family.  It is also the most heartwrenching of the three sections.

In the last section, we are brought forward to 1999 and are given an entirely different perspective of life.  It is here that we encounter Fern as a narrator.  Just like the McLeod family, she has endured heartache, though a very different kind.  It is exactly ten years since we first met Fern through Paul's eyes and now we meet Fern through her eyes.  She brings an entirely new aspect to the novel and gives us a fresh glimpse into the McLeod's through her conversations with Fenno and David, his younger brother.  We are caught up on what's happened to the family since Fenno's narration.  The budding friendship between Fenno and Fern gives the novel a sense of completion and a feeling of something coming full circle.

Traveling across this novel something special.  The word choice and complex feelings that Glass flawlessly writes are, without a doubt, superior.  She invites the reader into this world, no different from the one we are actually living, and gives them a bird's eye view of this family.  Their struggles are our struggles.  Their heartache is our heartache.  Everything they are, we are.  It's brilliant.  Read it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Never Let Me Go (Book #12)

I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go a few days ago and have not had the time to write about it until now.  I read this book for one of my online book clubs and I have to say that I really enjoyed it.  The novel centers around Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy; three people who have been friends since they were small children.  It is through Kathy that the reader travels through the lives of these three and experiences the many ups and downs that each character goes through. 

Having read the synopsis, you are not given much detail about the plot of the novel.  Really, the only thing the reader knows is that they're going to be exploring the characters through flashbacks narrated by Kathy.  You don't know much about the characters except that they are "special" in some way and how they cope with what they learn as they grow up.

Ishiguro really makes an effort to flesh out all three characters, but he does the best with his narrator.  Obviously we get to "know" what Kathy is thinking and feeling continually and we can only speculate at why Ruth and Tommy do the things they do.  Because of this, Ruth comes off as a completely narcissistic, selfish, cold-hearted person.  I honestly disliked her immensely throughout the book.  Tommy, on the other hand, is a character that you feel for.  You want him to be liked.  You want him to be an artist.  You want him to love Kathy.  And he does and his own way.  Kathy is the glue of the trio.  She holds them together and keeps each one in their element.  She's there for the other two even when they are not there for her.  This is what makes her a reliable narrator.

As the reader gets further into the novel, they realize exactly what is going on and just how "special" these children are.  By the time we are brought back to present day, there is a kind of amped up immediacy to the story.  We know that it's nearing the end; not just because there are fewer pages left, but because all things in this novel must end.  In a way it feels that the story is Kathy's way of getting it all down on paper so that we will never let her, or their story, go.

Ishiguro brings up so many huge questions in this book.  These span from scientific developments, human interaction, compassion, acceptance, innocence, education, and society as a whole.  It's thought-provoking and very "now."  Definitely worth the read...and now to see the movie (even though it received poor reviews)!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen Fizzles

Having just finished Janet Evanovich's Smokin' Seventeen I have to say that I was disappointed.  Yes, it's better than the last book in the Stephanie Plum series, but they've just gone downhill for the past seven or eight books.  I hate to say that because I loved the first few, but after a while you just have to make a decision.  The love triangle is getting old, the skips all sound the same, the characters don't evolve.  It's monotonous!

This book finds Stephanie, yet again, attempting to catch skips with her sidekick Lula, going back and forth between cop Morelli and security system designer Ranger, and being hunted down by a couple of people who want her dead.  It's entertaining at times (mainly when Lula is involved) and has some good scenes sprinkled throughout, but overall it's rather hum-drum.  The book does end on a nice cliffhanger that leaves the reader wondering who she is going to take with her on vacation and hints at a final decision made between Morelli and Ranger.  My fingers are crossed that it's Morelli, but that's just because I picture him looking like Christopher Meloni (Elliot from Law&Order: SVU).

One positive to the series...they're making a movie from the first book, One for the Money, starring Katherine Heigl and a couple others.  I'm not convinced of the casting as of yet...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

She-Wolves and Ruling the World

Who knew that reading about Medieval queens could be so interesting!  I just finished Helen Castor's She-Wolves:  The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Castor, a historian from the UK, writes this history book with a real narrative flair that draws the reader in and presents true accounts without being boring or humdrum as so many historical books are.  The readability makes this nearly 500 page book a rather quick read and keeps you interested the entire time.

As the title suggests, Castor focuses the book on four prominent ruling queens prior to that of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  She starts the book with Mathilda, only surviving child of Henry I and eventual Empress of England, and chronicles her struggle to maintain order in the kingdom that she ruled for a few short months after her father's death.  She then jumps forward and examines Eleanor of Aquitaine, who lived to a ripe age of 81 or 82...nearly unheard of during the Middle Ages.  Eleanor was originally married to the Louis VII, King of France, but left him and married Henry II of England just six weeks later.  The couple went on to have five children.  Eleanor would eventually fight for her one surviving son, John, to rule.  Castor then moves on to Isabella of France, the one who coined the term she-wolf, who was married to Edward II and considered a great beauty.  Isabella's place as Queen was constantly under scrutiny due to Edward's rumored homosexuality and his relationship with Piers Gaveston.  Though the couple did produce two children, their relationship was rocky from the beginning.  This eventually led to Isabella having a supposed affair with Roger Mortimer and the two managed to overthrow Edward.  Isabella then ruled, badly, on behalf of her son until he came of age.  Next to be discussed was Margaret of Anjou who was married to Henry VI.  Margaret's life as a ruling figure was constantly filled with battles.  She continually defended the crown in the name of her husband, who suffered from bouts of insanity and, in order to ensure that her son inherited the crown, Margaret fought constant wars waged by her opponents throughout the kingdom (Wars of the Roses).  Her son, on the brink of ruling, would die in a battle against the very person who wanted to take his throne.  This lead to Margaret's imprisonment and eventual ransoming to France and her cousin, Louis XI.  She lived out her days as a poor relation to the king and died at the age of 52.

Castor bookends all of this turmoil with the events that led to Queen Elizabeth's journey toward ruling England.  She chronicles the death of Elizabeth's half-brother, Edward VI, his bequeathing the throne to his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, instead of his sisters, and the war that this brings about.  Eventually, Elizabeth's older half-sister, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, would come to rule with an iron fist until her death in 1558.  After Mary's death, Elizabeth came to rule and restored the country to its Protestant heritage and provided the people with faith in its ruler.

The novel is an interesting study in the human condition, politics, religion, and feminism.  A very engaging combination that investigates how women struggled to prove that they were worthy of the crown in a time where men were the end-all, be-all of nearly every aspect of life.  Well worth the read.

And how's that for a quick history lesson?