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Miss Kate’s CBRV reviews #10, 11,12: The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

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I’m a little late to this party, and probably the last person I know to read these books. My husband has had the first movie uploaded to our Tivo for awhile, and we haven’t watched it because I wanted to read the books first!

Anyway, in the future, after the oceans rise and North American continent has been reshaped, the former United States is now called Panem. Split into 12 districts, they are ruled over by the Capitol. There had been 13 districts, but 75 years before the 13th district led a rebellion against the Capitol. The rebellion was crushed, and the 13th District was detroyed. As a lesson to the rest, every year the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games. Two young people from each district are chosen to compete in a fight to the death. The people are forced to watch, and the winner gets food and shelter for themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.

Katniss Everdeen is a 16 year old girl living in District 12 (what is currently Appalachia). She hunts illegally with a bow to feed her mother and sister. She’s a tough cookie, but she has to be to survive. When her little sister’s lot is chosen in the Hunger Games, Katniss takes her place.

She is sent to the Capitol to prepare for the games with Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son and the other “tribute” from District 12. There they are trained and sent into the arena to meet and try to kill the tributes from the other districts.

The first book, The Hunger Games, tells of this first competition. It’s harsh. I’ve heard these books described as the “anti-Twilight”, and while they are more than that, I can’t think of two more opposite characters than Katniss and Bella. Katniss is smart, resourceful, but also vulnerable in a way that feels genuine. She’s not supergirl, but she’s pretty awesome. Young girls need more characters like her. The Hunger Games ends with the end of the competition and announcing of the winner.

Catching Fire starts where the first book left off. We find Katniss dealing with the consequences of her decisions in the arena. The Capitol is not happy with her. I won’t spoil it, but she has to go back and compete again, this time against new characters. This book felt the shortest, and I read through it pretty quickly. Where the first spent time setting up the Hunger Games universe, this just rolled right out of the gate and was fast paced.

Mockingjay, like Catching Fire, begins exactly where the second book ends. In this book, Katniss finds herself the unwilling symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. I think while good, (and a fitting end to the trilogy), I enjoyed this book the least. The pacing is necessarily slower – there is a great deal of soul-searching and we do see growth from all of the characters.

There is a quote that runs through all 3 books, from Haymitch, former champion and mentor to the tributes from 12: “Always remember who the real enemy is.” In the end, Katniss does.

Read more reviews at Cannonball Read 5: http://cannonballread5.wordpress.com/

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Miss Kate’s CBRV review #6: The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession, by Charlie Lovett

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Peter Byerly is an antiquarian restorer and book dealer. He is also in mourning for his wife Amanda. His friends and family despair of him ever pulling himself out of his funk.

One day while leafing through an old volume on Shakespeare forgeries, he finds a watercolor portrait of what looks like his late wife. It’s can’t be, because this picture was painted during the Victorian era.

This starts him on a journey to discover the truth about the painting and the book in which it was found. He also tries to tackle the mystery of whether Shakespeare actually wrote his masterpieces. The story moves back and forth in time, and I won’t spoil it by telling you more.

The Bookman’s Tale has been compared to Shadow of the Wind, another great story about book obsession. I can see it, but this actually reminded me more of The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, in that the book itself is almost a character. Some of the coincidences in this story are a bit too convenient, and there’s a little supernatural element towards the end that I felt didn’t really fit. If you love books, however, I think you’ll like this.

Read more reviews at Cannonball Read 5: http://cannonballread5.wordpress.com/

CBR V review #1: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

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(It’s July! Been reading like crazy, but I never seem to be able to sit down and actually write a review.)

I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the sequel Bring Up The Bodies. I enjoy her spare writing, how she can convey so much in only a few words.

Eager to read more from her, I picked up A Place of Greater Safety. I had no idea what I was getting into. Make no mistake, this is a good book. But it’s not an easy read by any means. It is the story of the French Revolution, as experienced by Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Young lawyers from the the provinces, they come to Paris to earn their fortunes. (As a side note: It’s been a LONG time since high school, and am embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember hearing the name Desmoulins before reading this book, although I was familiar with Robespierre and Danton.) Robespierre is slight, rigid, distant. Danton is his opposite – huge, overbearing, loud, sexually voracious. And ugly. That point is made often. Desmoulins is flighty, charming, pretty, a genius, and is a friend to them both. All are ambitious. They talk, scheme, conspire, cheat on their wives, argue and scheme some more.

They are exhausting.

We tend to like our Revolutionary heroes, well, HEROIC. We expect them to be self- sacrificing, uncomplicated, high minded patriots, willing to die for freedom. And personally, I like having a protagonist I can get behind. Perhaps that’s simple minded of me, but generally I need to get invested in SOMEONE if I am to stick to a 770 plus page book. And these are difficult men to root for. Truly. These characters – these PEOPLE – are complicated, frequently unsympathetic. There is no doubt that they firmly believe in their revolutionary ideals, but their fervor often takes a back seat to their personal ambition and appetites. The only one for whom this is not the case is Robespierre, and weirdly this only serves to make him even less sympathetic than the more human Danton. Robespierre is cold and hypocritical, condemning bloodshed on one hand while signing the arrest warrants of former friends with the other.

And this is, I think, where Mantel’s brilliance as a writer comes through. Her characters no longer seem like characters, but human beings, with good points and bad. We are forced to except them for who they are, not who we wish they were. Once I made peace with this idea my enjoyment of this book increased. She made me like the villainous Thomas Cromwell before, and she kept me reading here. (Although seriously? Desmoulins and his antics – and Mantel’s obvious love of him as a character – continued to annoy the crap out of me.)

Be warned. This is not beach reading. There is a cast of thousands, although fortunately there is a glossary to keep them straight. While Mantel writes in her notes that this is not meant to be a complete history of the French Revolution, there were instances where I did more research to understand exactly what was going on, and who was who. The petty rivalries! The squabbling factions! I hadn’t thought about the Brissotins or Girondists since…a really long time ago. There is a lot of information to process here. One criticism I do have is that Mantel will suddenly change the point of view, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. It happens throughout the book, and made it difficult to know exactly who was speaking/thinking at the time. Sometimes I had to go back and reread for clarification.

We can never truly get into the mind of a long dead historical figure. Mantel does a masterful job of filling in the blanks and framing the action with actual speeches, diaries and letters. I recommend it. Please read it and let me know what you think!

http://cannonballread5.wordpress.com/

CBR4 Review #13: Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield

I really like Steven Pressfield as a writer. My favorite book of his is Gates of Fire, about the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. He is able to bring Ancient Greece to life in a way that other authors can’t.

In the Bronze Age (and before Homer), Theseus, the king of Athens, travels on a quest where he encounters the Amazons nation. They call themselves tal Kyrte (the Free People), and live by a strict code of honor. These warrior women are bound to each other in war and marriage. They welcome the Greeks, but when their Queen Antiope falls in love with Theseus, things get sticky. The queen’s defection is seen as a betrayal. Antiope’s tal Kyrte lover Eleuthera leads the Amazon invasion of Greece, with the destruction of Athens as their ultimate goal.

The book is told from 3 points of view: Mother Bones, an Athenian girl raised on Amazon stories, Damon, her uncle, and Selene, an Amazon warrior (and close companion to Eleuthera).

The story is involving. I confess I was unfamiliar with the details of Theseus and Antiope’s story, so I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Pressfield’s descriptions of life on the steppes were, for me, the highlight of the book. We gets sense of the desperation in a culture that’s on the verge of extinction and knows it.

The battle scenes were a bit too detailed for me, though. I found those portions a bit of a slog – not because of the subject, just that who was marching in front of who and where the Amazons dug their latrines just seemed to take up a lot of space. Space that could be filled with more action! But that’s just me. I also felt the ending to be a bit rushed. Pressfield doesn’t seem to have much use for his characters once the main storyline is done. Things are wrapped up pretty quickly. All in all, though, these are minor quibbles. I enjoyed this book.

http://cannonballread4.wordpress.com/

CBR4 Review #12: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

I read this book last year around the time the movie starring Daniel Radcliffe (who will always be Harry Potter in my heart) came out. I haven’t seen the movie, but intend to! As soon as it hits Netflix instant. I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. I love them, but they are hard to come by these days. I don’t need gore, just some good old fashioned chills. Scare me. Is that so much to ask for?

For the most part, The Woman in Black delivers. Set in Victorian England, Arthur Kipps is a solid man, a solicitor with a happy family. One Christmas while his kids are sitting around telling ghost stories, he is cajoled into telling his own. He recounts an experience that terrified him so much he had not spoken of it since.

As a young man, Arthur is sent is sent to the tiny coastal village of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. While at the funeral, he sees a mysterious woman dressed in black. After the funeral, he makes his way to Eel Marsh House, a creepy mansion on an island only accessible via causeway. There he attempts to go through his late client’s papers, and wrap everything up before he goes back to London.

During his stay, things start to happen. There are spooky noises in the house, and strange, unexplained movements in the nursery. He sees the Woman in Black again. He also hears the sounds of an adult and child crashing a pony trap and sinking into the marsh. Arthur makes a friend in a local man, and discovers the secret of Eel Marsh House and the tragedy that occurred there years before. Without telling you any more, the story ends tragically.

The Woman in Black is chilling in it’s atmosphere. Hill is able to pull the the reader into the story pretty completely. Although there are only a couple of startling, jump-out-of-your-seat moments in the book, there is a creepiness that pervades each page. It does end very abruptly, and at first I was bothered by it. But really, extending it, I think, would give it less of an impact.

The Woman in Black is a very short book. At just over 120 pages, I’m eager to see how they were able to stretch it to fill a whole movie.  I recommend reading it alone, at night, preferably in a creepy mansion!

http://cannonballread4.wordpress.com/

CBR4 Review #11: The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley

I am a big fan of the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series. Well, slightly obsessed, actually. They have everything: history, romance, swordplay! Well written characters, unpredictable outcomes. And who wouldn’t want to go back in time, meet a handsome chivalrous stranger, and have sexytimes/adventures? Unfortunately, Gabaldon’s books are LONG. They take years for her to write, and while there is a big payoff, this also means big gaps between the books.  (See also: Martin, G.R.R.) So when someone suggested I read Susanna Kearsley in order to fill my Outlander-less days (and get my time travel fix), I figured I’d give her a try.

The Rose Garden is the story of Eva Ward, a successful Hollywood publicist. Devastated by the death of her sister, she travels back to the place where they had spent their childhood summers – the rocky, mist shrouded coast of Cornwall. There, Eva reacquaints herself with the area and renews old friendships. She stays at the rundown mansion of family friends. Here we meet a familiar cast of characters: the bickering brother and sister duo, the wise free-spirited stepmother, the artsy shopkeeper, the former playmate (who’s grown up into a hunk).The estate has fallen on hard times, and Eva agrees to help out.

While she heals her heart and starts to reassess her life, strange things happen. One day, while out walking, Eva finds herself transported back to the early 18th Century. Just as abruptly, she’s transported back. This begins to happen more frequently and without warning. The time she is sent to is dangerous, especially for a woman alone. The Jacobites are gathering for their first (failed) rebellion. Fortunately Eva meets a handsome, chivalrous stranger (of course!), and he becomes her protector. As she finds herself pulled back and forth, romance and adventure ensue. Will she choose to stay in the 18th Century, or go back to her Hollywood life? Can you guess? C’mon, guess.

The book is filled with detail: the lush countryside, the Gothic mansion. The characters, while stereotypical, are likeable enough.One thing that I found very strange was the lack of description of the main character. What does she look like? We’re never told, and it’s kind of frustrating, especially when you consider that she’s flouncing back and forth 300 years. You’d think her appearance would inspire some kind of comment, other than “Woman, your hair is not dressed!” It must have been a conscious choice by the author, but it’s a curious one.

The Rose Garden is a romance with a little adventure, tied up neatly at the end. It’s more romance than adventure, while I enjoy my historical fiction with a side of romance/sex, not as the main focus. But that’s just me. (Gabaldon fans may argue with me that her books are romance, there’s still a LOT of swashbuckling going on there, as well as a wealth of historical detail.) I did enjoy this book, even though I thought it slight and very predictable. I found myself trying to figure out how it would end, and was mostly right.

This is a cozy read, if not one that will stick with me.

http://cannonballread4.wordpress.com/

Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read review #4: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

One of my favorite websites has a book review series called “Classic Trash”. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor definitely belongs in this category.

It is the story of the orphaned Amber St. Clare, and her rise to fame at the court of Charles II. Raised in a small village in the countryside, Amber is distinguished by her great beauty and rebellious spirit. She longs for adventure, and over the course of 900+ pages, she finds it. She travels to London, has affairs, marriages, children. She is witness to the plague and the Great Fire of London. Her single-minded pursuit of wealth and power is a wonder to behold. She sleeps her way to top, and becomes a favored mistress of the King. Throughout all this, Amber remains faithful in her heart to the only man she wants, the “one man she can never have”, Lord Bruce Carlton. Their on-again/off-again love affair is a central theme of the story.

Originally published in 1944, the book was banned in 14 states as pornographic. I found it to be fairly tame by today’s standards. There is nothing explicit here; all the sex is implied. But the unromantic depiction of Restoration England and the absolute lack of morality in court society may have had something to do with the criticism. Glittering parties, rampant infidelity and back-stabbing abound. Good Times! These are completely amoral people here. I’d heard that Charles II (they didn’t call him the Merry Monarch for nothing) had a LOT of mistresses, but I was left wondering when he’d had time to actually rule the country. Winsor does a masterful job of presenting this world to us without judgement.

Amber herself, while not exactly likeable, has a pluckiness that you can’t help but admire. It’s like hanging out with your self-destructive college roommate, the one you go to parties with until you find people with whom you actually have something in common. Even when she is at her most reckless, you want her to come out on top, because, really, she’s got a good heart. You watch in fascination, and you occasionally shout, “OMG WHAT ARE DOING???? Amber, GIRL, NO!!!” But she doesn’t hear you. Because she’s a fictional character.

I never quite understood Amber’s obsessive love for Bruce. Are we supposed to see him as dashing, and honorable in his own way? Not sure. His wants and needs are presented as more noble than the frivolous court, but I just found him to be selfish and cruel in his treatment our heroine. I wanted Amber to gather her self-respect and just send him away already.

The one real problem I have with Forever Amber is how it ends. Without giving anything away, the ending of the book is abrupt and we are left feeling that there should be more. I’d read somewhere that after editing, the final manuscript was one-fifth of the original length. Was something cut? Or did Winsor intend a sequel? We’ll never know.

Told on an epic scale, Forever Amber is a rollicking story without any kind of moral center. It’s like a gooey piece of candy with about 732 empty calories. It’s like a flashy piece of costume jewelry with no real value, but boy is it shiny! This book is all of those things, and good fun to boot.

Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read review #3: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome. I’d heard the title and knew it was well-regarded, but beyond that I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any Edith Wharton before. She wasn’t one of those authors we were forced to read in high school (HELLOOO Dickens!) Despite being a voracious reader there are quite a few classic novels that I just never got around to.

What is it about? Simply put, it’s the story of a man with no luck. Seriously, this is one sad little book. It’s also beautifully, sparingly written. The story is set in the hamlet of Starkfield, Massachusetts, and a more apt description of the place couldn’t be found. The cold landscape sets the tone for a dark tale. The prologue is told from the point of view of an newcomer to the community. He arrives in town one day and is intrigued by Frome. Despite the fact that Frome is described as ”a ruin of a man”, he has something different about him, and the narrator begins asking around. We get a few tantalizing hints about a Frome’s life: his early promise, his parents’ deaths and the struggle to save the family farm, his sick wife, and the “smash-up” that left him crippled years before.

From there, the story shifts to Frome’s point of view, back many years before. He’s still a youngish man, but nevertheless, his best years are behind him. He lives in silent misery with his wife Zeena and her cousin Mattie Silver. Zeena is sickly and mostly bedridden. Mattie is a poor relation who has come to help around the house. Zeena is dried up and mean, and we get the impression that she’s also a hypochondriac. Did I mention she’s mean? Mattie is everything Zeena isn’t: sweet, vivacious, and beautiful. Mattie stirs something in Ethan. They grow close. When the end does come, it’s devastating.

Ethan Frome is not told on a grand scale. There are no big, important ideas at work here. It’s a small book about small people and their small lives. And it’s perfect.

Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read book review #1: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Continue reading “Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read book review #1: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman”

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