A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams

A Hundred SummersBeatriz Williams’ A Hundred Summers had been on my to-read list for awhile, lingering as a “beach read” that never got read, until I happened upon it while combing through the e-library ahead of my long cruise. It seemed like destiny! But what it ended up being was far less epic.

Heart-broken New York socialite Lily Dane plans to spend another summer in her family’s beach home in Seaview, Rhode Island, whiling-away her time on the dunes with her much-younger, precocious sister Kiki and the familiar circle of her friends and relations in the community. Then, she hears through the scandalized Seaview gossip-vine that Nick and Budgie Greenwald are moving in next door, ostensibly to restore Budgie’s family residence. Nick, her former fiancee, and Budgie, her wild childhood best friend, quickly draw Lily back into their lives despite her resistance, entangling her in their relationship and unearthing old secrets. As a hurricane bears down the coast, Lily’s life is thrown into turmoil thanks to a budding relationship with Budgie’s ex,  Yankees player Graham Pendleton, and her lingering feelings for Nick.

(Spoilers ahead)

This book was a lurid soap opera-style facsimile of an Edith Wharton or F. Scott Fitzgerald by way of Nicholas Sparks. Alternating in time between college in 1931 and the “present” day of 1938, Williams unravels Lily and Nick’s ill-fated romance, doomed because his family is Jewish and newer money – oh the tragedy! The main issue was that I wasn’t invested in this central relationship because we didn’t really get to see them build it. The brief snatches of time focused on what was wrong about them, not why they are so right together.

I did sympathize with Lily slightly, but she surrounds herself with the worst people and behaves so passively in every situation that she comes across as spineless and slow-witted. For example: the climactic reveal (the best part), in which we learn that (unlike what I and every other character had expected) Kiki is not Lily and Nick’s lovechild, but actually her mother’s from an affair she had with Nick’s father, which is why Lily’s father had a heart attack because he caught them in flagrante delicto AND Lily’s mother knew all this and let everyone assume the baby was Lily’s anyway. Worst mother ever (or at least in fiction I’ve read this year). But Lily didn’t even realize all of these things were going on around her, despite the obvious signs.

There was also a love-square, faked pregnancies, blackmail, and almost-incest, yet it seems like nothing of actual interest happens in the book until the freak hurricane ending, which magically solves all the problems by taking out the bad guys and letting Lily and Nick have a picture-perfect fairy-tale ending. Ugh.

2 Stars

Advertisements

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should KnowThe Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know was highly recommended to me by a feminist friend, who called it the Lean In of 2014. Successful journalists and bestselling authors of Womenomics Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explore the concept of confidence from neuroscientists’ research into its genetic coding  to psychologists’ studies on nurturing confidence in ourselves. Alongside interviews with women leaders from the worlds of politics, sports, the arts and the military, they dissect how a lack of confidence hurts our performance in all areas of our lives and how everyone can tap into this essential resource within themselves.

The most fascinating thing this book revealed for me is the balance between natural confidence and developed confidence. While some amount of confidence is pre-determined (which I was surprised to learn that geneticists can test you for), you can also boost your confidence levels, training your brain to work differently. It doesn’t happen just by positive thinking and feel-good mantras – it’s about taking risks and failing, and then picking yourself up again in the face of repeated rejection. This is a behavior men are better at, and one that is reportedly more predictive of success than competence.

Unsurprisingly, Kay and Shipman confirm that men are usually more confident than women, and suggest that generally women can improve their self-confidence by behaving more like men, though you should still being true to your authentic self – so easy! But what is interesting is that women still perceive other women (and men) as confident when those individuals don’t see themselves as confident (ex. Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, the authors themselves). That suggests the main obstacle to a woman owning her achievements is overcoming her negative self-delusion and replacing it with a more positive image of herself.

However, like most self-help books, this one doesn’t give much specifically applicable advice in practicing that beyond the usual spiel of meditation and self-compassion. Instead, they filled pages with endless personal anecdotes of their lives and their children’s experiences and the aunt’s second cousin’s exploits –  you get the point, which is that at points it was heavy of the fluff and light on the science. Most egregious though was the limited point-of-view it covered, that of elite, privileged women.

In sum, I don’t think it was quite as good as Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which touches on similar concepts and the authors themselves recommend, but I did prefer it to Lean In and would suggest it for women out there whose self-confidence is battered and whose self-doubt is rearing its ugly head. Maybe like me, they’ll be comforted by the knowledge that everyone struggles with low self-esteem occasionally, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent situation – you can fix it. Just act.

3 Stars

Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Every Other DayAnother random pick off the shelf, Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes centers around the amusingly named Kali D’Angelo. Every other day, Kali is an average sixteen year-old, arguing with her dad and navigating high school politics. But in the days in between, she changes to something inhuman, a hunter than can sense demons and must satisfy her bloodlust to kill supernatural creatures. She doesn’t understand why she is the way she is, and doesn’t seem too concerned with finding out – until she sees a strange tattoo on the school’s queen bee, indicating that she’s marked for death by a chupacabra. Kali has twenty-four hours to save an innocent life, and it’s the wrong day – she’is human. And it’s her very humanity that leads her to take a life-threatening risk to save another, resulting in action, adventure, and answers about her strange condition in the process.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Very rarely do vampire novels get my approval these days as the YA market tends to be over-saturated with the bloodsuckers. I think the genius of this novel is that you don’t immediately go into it knowing that it’s a vampire novel (though I should’ve with that cover, right?), so by the time I’ve concluded it’s bloodsucking, it doesn’t generally suck. If I’m honest though, that ending was the worst part of the book as I expected Kali to be something more uniquely demonic befitting her namesake. What was unique was the array of supernatural creatures, from ice dragons to hellhounds, and the alternate history of this world that includes Charles Darwin pioneering scientific discovery and genetic engineering of mythological beasts.

The part I loved best was the friendship between Kali, Bethany, and Skylar. New though it was, they all brought out the best in each other and seemed to be closer than most “best friends forever” in today’s young adult books. Both Bethany and Skylar are fully developed characters, with Bethany more multi-faceted that just a stereotypical mean girl and peppy Skylar having intriguing psychic abilities. With the three being so different, their interactions were both hilariously witty and realistic for the the crazy situations they found themselves in. Most importantly, the (slightly creepy) love interest Zev took a backseat to this friendship and even the complex familial relationship issues – he was pertinent plot-wise, but rarely took up page space.

The pacing of this plot is brisk and engrossing. After a few nerve-wracking climactic reveals, the conclusion seemed a bit confusedly rushed and the epilogue was pretty open-ended on Kali’s future. While the book was extremely entertaining as a stand-alone, I still want more thorough explanations and a greater exploration of this world. And after this one, I am highly willing to read Barnes’ future books to get it!

4 Stars

The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner

The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of CastileSince reading Kirstin Downey’s fabulously comprehensive biography Isabella, The Warrior Queen, I have been intrigued by Isabella of Castile, but there is a serious dearth of books about her. So I eagerly pounced upon C.W. Gortner’s The Queen’s Vow, which fictionalizes Isabella’s life, beginning in her youth and concluding with her shipping Christopher Columbus to America.

Barely a teenager, Isabella watches her father take his last breaths before fleeing into the night with her mother and brother to escape the clutches of her half-brother Enrique, the new king. Raised in near-poverty and seclusion, she is suddenly thrust back into the debaucherous, materialistic court-life when the King and his conniving Queen Juana want to keep a closer eye on her as various opposing factions plot to use Isabella as a pawn against them. When her younger brother Alfonso suddenly dies of suspected poison and Enrique’s daughter is deemed illegitimate, Isabella becomes heiress to Castile and must learn how to become the queen her father and brothers never were. Determinedly, she sets out to marry her love Fernando, prince of Aragon, with whom she establishes a marriage of equals, rearing numerous children together while fighting the French and the Moors and resisting the demands of zealous clerics and the Catholic Church.

Gortner certainly presents a more salacious picture of Isabella’s life than Downey did, clearly dramatizing events to make for a better story. For instance, the lustful, drunken behavior of the court would offend most modern sensibilities, let alone that of the 1400s, and having read Isabella’s biography, I know she did not meet Fernando as a child and dance with him in the gardens, pledging themselves to each other. Still, she also mentions Enrique’s sexuality, Juana’s numerous infidelities, and Fernando’s mistresses, all scandalously truthful facts. So I’ll give her a pass on the more fanciful elements.

I think the first half of the book was far stronger than the latter half. Isabella as a child comes across as naive but intelligent, understandably so but with a sheltered upbringing, and we see what events shape her into the person she becomes remembered as. Her religion is her armor, girding her against the world. Her relationship with her maid and confidant Beatrice is particularly touching, all the more so because it’s clear she has few others to lean on, especially among her family.

However, Isabella’s development into that infamously controversial queen then muddles into a stream of patched together instances across decades once she becomes queen, from the births of her children through battles and politicking. While Gortner does reveal the pressures Isabella was under from inquisitor Torquemada and Fernando to begin the Inquisition, I thought the full inner turmoil and ramifications of her decisions were glossed over as she mostly just prays for clarity. Isabella’s other major claim to fame, her sponsorship of Columbus, is also chucked in at the end rather haphazardly, without any solid conclusion besides what the reader knows from history.

This book is a well-written fiction of Isabella’s life, humanizing the queen with all her complications and contradictions. I would recommend this to fans of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy Philippa Gregory. For those who prefer straight-up history, definitely check out Downey too and have fun comparing the two.

3.5 Stars

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty QueensEn route to the Miss Teen Dream pageant hosted by The Corporation, the plane carrying all 50 aspiring beauty queens goes down. The thirteen survivors are stranded on a deserted island, where they struggle to survive until they can be rescued. As their hopes and supplies dwindle, they uncover a nefarious plot involving arms dealing with Kim Jung Il-like dictator MoMo and realize they must become allies instead of competitors in order to save themselves.

Libby Bray’s Beauty Queens is as if the bizarre lovechild of Miss Congeniality and Lord of the Flies starred in the newly infamous The Interview, with pirates, evil corporations, and product placement thrown in for good measure. Don’t let that steer you clear though – this was simultaneously one of the funniest and most feminist books I’ve read.

I don’t want to spoil it too much but Miss New Hampshire is an undercover pageant hater out for an expose, Miss Texas is neurotically focused on the crown, plus there is at least one lesbian, two minorities, and a dumb blonde. While they all come across as one-note and shallow in the beginning, Bray’s point is to expose these characters beyond the stereotypes and liberate them from the confines of beauty and perfection that society imposes on women. At first, it’s difficult to keep track of the girls between the interchangeable usage of their names and states, but they do become unique individuals and it is very empowering once they begin to see themselves and their competitors as such.

The book’s formatting as a televised pageant broadcast is genius, complete with the commercial breaks that promote The Corporation’s other ventures and products while criticizing the media and materialism. One of my favorite parts was the footnotes scattered throughout the text, which often contained cheeky background info or asides from the corporation. I also enjoyed the thinly-veiled allusions to real people, like J.T. Woodland as Justin Timberlake and Ladybird as Sarah Palin. I’ve never read such a humorous take on America’s domineering and unethical relationship with developing nations as Bray’s discussion of arms dealing with evil dictator MoMo, a situation that resembles our former relationship with the likes of Muammar al-Qaddafi and even the early Taliban movement.

The middle section of the story was a little weak since the girl’s mostly continue to develop and are sidetracked by the romantic pirate interlude, which admittedly had it’s own point about teen relationships. The amazing climactic action (pagentry! explosions! man-eating snake!) did make up for it at least. However, I wish the book had ended with the girls had sailing off into the sunset victorious. Instead, we were treated to a weak ending of the girls’ future reunion, but seeing as the whole story could’ve been a made-for-TV movie, it seemed like a conscious decision to have such a cheesy epilogue.

As a satire of modern society, this books hits all the right notes if heavy-handedly. The seemingly-ridiculous premise shockingly works well to expose deep, sensitive issues, such as transgender transitions, racism, misogyny, and the mean girl culture. Quite different from Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy or The Diviners, this is nevertheless an excellent humorous beach read that will also give teens something to think about.

4 Stars

Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherI hate reading and reviewing short story collections, mainly because I find them quite difficult to judge based on the usual suspects: character development, plot arc, world-building. I made an exception for Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher for two reasons. Firstly, I had struggled to finish the first book in her heralded Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, and felt fair was fair in giving her a second shot. Secondly, as her editors probably intended, I was drawn in by the lurid title and cover imagery – hey, at least I admit I’m a gullible sucker.

The titular story went last in order but was my first in preference. A sniper breaks into an apartment across from the hospital where Margaret Thatcher recovers from eye surgery, to the surprise of it’s occupant. The two of them then conspire about the plot about to unfold as they share mutual hatred for the victim, an eerily palpable feeling that bleeds through the page. Though it was an exciting snapshot of a “what if” in time, ultimately it ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Winter Break, my second favorite, reminded me slightly of The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring a deadly incident in a dark and haunted moor. I also enjoyed The Heart Fails Without Warning, despite the narrator’s callousness towards her quickly-fading anorexic sister, and Sorry to Disturb, about an increasingly-mad British woman in Saudi Arabia being persistently bothered by a foreign man. As for the other stories, The Comma was about two girls’ sordid fascination with the deformed baby next door, and read as appallingly as it’s described here. How Shall I Know You? was flat out strange and incomprehensible while The Long QT, Harley Street, Offenses Against the Person, and Terminus were all blandly forgettable.

Overall, I found the collection rather jarring, wherein each story there was an unsatisfactory note that prevented me from being absorbed in the text. Adding to that, each story had an abrupt conclusion, ironically the opposite problem I had with her lengthy books. I must admit that Mantel’s descriptive powers are strong and I occasionally reveled in her genius turn of phrase, but I can safely say she is not among my favorite authors as much as I tried to like her work.

3 Stars

Patricia A. McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain

The Bards of Bone PlainOnce again, I am judging a book by it’s (gorgeous) cover, and for once that was a good life decision. The Bards of Bone Plain cover resembles an ancient tapestry woven by Patricia A. McKillip, one that I wouldn’t mind hanging in my apartment, and faithfully alludes to the deftly woven tale found inside its pages.

Soon to graduate from the bardic school on the hill, unambitious student Phelan Cle begins researching the myth of Bone Plain for his final paper. The mysterious competition on Bone Plain between the two acclaimed bards Nairn and Welkin is an ancient tale, one that has been studied for the last 500 years with no new conclusions to be drawn as to where the plain is located or what truly happened there years before. But when Phelan’s archaelogist father Jonah and his enthusiastic disciple Princess Beatrice unearth a disk with carvings of an ancient language, the mysteries of Bone Plain begin to unravel and an ancient evil returns to hold sway over the kingdom of Beldan.

(Spoilers ahead)

McKillip’s language is pure poetry, even more so when she’s discussing music, archaeology and bardic mythology. Her words nearly inspired me to take up a harp and a trowel! This book read uniquely, displaying a lyrically fresh approach to fantasy in the sense that the writing was more magical than even the magic-heavy plot.  McKillip build a world with a beautiful, complex history, one whose corners were perhaps not all uncovered but whose scope was realistic, perhaps because of the parallels to our world especially in the character’s inner and outer struggles with family, faith, and self-esteem.

These characters make this book, particularly those whose point of view is shown to the reader. Phelan is a slightly lazy skeptic, uninterested in becoming a bard, who nonetheless is devoted to as well as frustrated by his father’s skulking and secrets, especially as he discovers that Jonah knows more about Bone Plain than past scholars. Beatrice bucks the traditional princess stereotype and doggedly pursues her passion while displaying unshakable loyalty to her family and friends. The romance between the two of them is based on friendship and respect, and while unexpected, doesn’t feel forced or like an aside to the main plot. Another key player is Phelan’s (platonic!) best friend Zoe, an accomplished bard whose destiny is to protect the court from the wiles of the suspicious challenger Kelda during the bardic competition.

This competition is the key to the mystery of Bone Plain as Kelda is the same bard who under the name Welkin battled the mythical Nairn, leading to the destruction of the old bardic school and the disappearance of both bards because of their failure to pass the challenges of the Circle of Days. This story and Nairn’s background are slowly unraveled in parallel to the modern-day bardic battle, leading to the surprising reveal that Jonah and Nairn are one and the same since Nairn was cursed to live an immortal, music-free existence after he lost. Because Phelan’s exasperated concern for his father is so movingly relatable, it’s rewarding to see the storylines converge in a way that completes Phelan’s (and the reader’s) understanding of Jonah/Nairn.

I only had two minor complaints. The first regarded the ending, i.e. the rematch between Jonah/Nairn and Welkin/Kelda with the assistance of Phelan and Zoe. The climax seemed to me to be a bit rushed and confusing, with the question of Welkin/Kelda’s true identity and purpose left vague and unsatisfactorily answered. Overall, he seemed more of a distant archetypal evil than a specific villain. The second was disruptive presence of technological devices, such as Beatrice’s car, being too-modern a touch in an otherwise fantastical world. However, her mother’s reaction to her driving and general plebeian state is delightfully humorous, so maybe I’ll give that one a pass.

Still, this book is probably the best in the high fantasy genre that I’ve read so far this year, and may even be up there still in 10 months on the best of 2015 list. I hadn’t read any of McKillip’s works previously, though apparently she’s a giant of the genre, but I will certainly add her to my to-read list.

4.5 Stars