The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

An epic novel of love and war, spanning from the 1940s to the present day, and the secret lives of those who live in a small French town. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.

My Review

I read this book at the wrong time. I should have loved it. It’s historical fiction, set in France, with romance. But it’s also heavy World War II terrible stuff and in the few months before picking up this one I had only read other heavy subject matter books.

It didn’t start out too heavy though. I actually first listened to the audio book and then switched to ebook. I was completely caught up throughout part 1 in the French language and culture and description of the scenery, the family relationships, and romance. I enjoyed the poetic language that was so fitting for the time and place. Though I did find the detailed descriptions of clothing and food a little too frequent and over the top.

Then the Nazi’s invaded France in the book and turmoil and trauma invaded my La Vie en Rose experience. I just wasn’t prepared for it like I thought. After having recently read so many books about our current and real world tribulation I realized that I really wanted a little “fluff” to read.

I was interested in the characters though so I kept pushing through until I could see the writing on the wall that things were only going to get more “real” and I wasn’t even halfway through the book. I just couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the emotional stamina.

But I still wanted to find out what would happen to these characters, and I had to know who the elderly lady narrator really was. So I skipped to the end and skimmed backwards until I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the major events. What I found out made me glad I stopped where I did, but I feel sad that at another time, in a little different mood, I could have really enjoyed the depth of character and plot.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. This is a war story and also a romance. Readers should be mature enough and knowledgeable enough about WWII to follow characters through horrible trauma and deprivation,  but also find purpose and joy in love.

Appropriateness: There is sexual content, both between married and unmarried characters as well consensual and not. There is war related violence and injustice. I didn’t read the whole book, but from what I did read some of it was more graphically described than what I was up for at the time, but it may not bother other readers. Had I been in more of a mood for something deep and epic it may not have bothered me either.

This book would provide plenty of discussion material for book club in regards to are historical and cultural factors, family relationships, communication, how best to stand up for truth and morality, what is most important in war or where their is injustice.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Nightingale is of interest to you then you should also try The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Zion Covenant series by Bodie Thoene, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

 

 

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Frankenstein

FrankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At once a Gothic thriller, a romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. It was an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres. It not only tells a disturbing story, but also raises profound questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos.

My Review

I am a Halloween Scrooge. There. I said it. I despise the gruesome, gory, bloody, and scary. I hate haunted houses. The idea of putting out so much effort, walking around for hours in the cold, just to trade candy around the neighborhood never really made sense to me. I do like dressing up, but that’s the only aspect of Halloween that holds any appeal.

Which is probably why I never even considered reading Frankenstein until just a few weeks ago. I consider myself a fan of classic literature. I’ve read my fair share, most of it even by choice and not because of English class assignments. In my wanderings at Barnes and Noble I had noticed Frankenstein in the Classics section plenty of times, but I was not interested enough to even pick it up. I believed the pop culture version of Frankenstein and was just sure this “horror” story would have nothing to offer a detester of Halloween such as myself.

About 2 months ago I joined a book club and one of the members chose Frankenstein as the read for the month of October. Several members talked about how they remembered loving it in their high school English classes, but I was skeptical. Another member told about how Mary Shelley had come up with the story and that piqued my interest. Finding a copy for free on iBooks was a perk. I decided to have an open mind give the book a try.

Boy was it a whole lot different than what I thought it would be. First off I was immediately drawn in by the language. Such beauty and intelligence! There were words I had never heard or seen before and I enjoyed looking them up and expanding my vocabulary. I loved the imagery, depth of meaning, and perfect poetic word choice.

The references to ancient classic literature, history, and geography expanded my knowledge on interests as well. I found myself wishing I knew more about Milton’s Paradise Lost, the alchemists Victor studies, and Prometheus. A deeper understanding of these and the other literary and historical works and figures Shelley references would only heighten my appreciation of her book. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence, and her descriptions of Europe, particularly the lakes and mountains of the Alps had me ready to hop the next plane over the Atlantic.

As far as theme goes, Frankenstein couldn’t be further from a “horror” story. It truly is a study of humanity through tragic heroes and villains; in fact, the main characters fulfill both roles at various times. As a reader who appreciates and connects with characters first and foremost, this book spoke to my soul.

The book illuminates so many philosophical and moral questions: What makes someone or something a monster? How should we deal with the consequences of our actions? When does passion become obsession? When does it become dangerous? How should we balance the security and happiness of one or the few with the security and happiness of the many? What moral limitations should there be on discovery and science? I loved that Shelley poses these questions not through a sermon but only through presentation; which means she doesn’t provide an answer to any of the questions, just the food for thought.

I will admit that there were times when the introspection of all 3 of the narrators got a little long even for me who loves character insight. I was ready for the actual plot and mystery to move a little more quickly, but that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of this beautiful and tragic piece of true literature.

Age Recommendation: This one with the subject matter and classic prose is definitely better suited for mature readers.  18 and older would be my suggestion though 16 and 17 year olds with practice in the classics would appreciate it as well.

Appropriateness: Frankenstein is full of mental illness, murder, revenge, cruelty, and obsession, but none of that is glorified. These follies of natural man are used to educate and entertain combined with superb voice and skill with words make this completely appropriate for mature readers and an ideal choice for book clubs.  There is so much discussion material (see my review above for question ideas). Just reading other reviews on Goodreads and Amazon I could see the wide range of opinions about the characters and themes. I’m looking forward to discussing with my book club next week.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Frankenstein then I think you would also enjoy Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphne Du Maurier, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

 

Rebecca

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

finished this book for the umpteenth time over 4 months ago, and I loved it just as much as every other time that I’ve read it. So you’d think a review would have been easy, but this is a complicated book to talk about without giving too much away. I tried getting my thoughts in order right after finishing it but with moving into a new house about the same time, taking care of 4 kids, and training for a marathon I just ran out of time and brain power for awhile. Now the marathon is over and there seems to be a brief calm in the storm of house and yard projects so I think I might have enough focus for a review. I’m sure the package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos I just finished off will help me focus too.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A young and inexperienced lady’s maid is quickly and surprisingly swept of her feet by the wealthy and charming widower, Maxim de Winter. They are married quickly and return to his estate where the new Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place in a way of life she knows nothing about, and where the memory of Max’s first wife seems to overshadow every room, conversation, and event.  Rebecca’s power from beyond the grave haunts the new, timid bride until all hope for the marriage seems lost. But when the past resurfaces assumptions are questioned and hard choices have to be made.

My Review

This time reading Rebecca I noticed much more how little action there really is in the plot and yet I still consider this one of the greatest and suspense books of all time. So I have to ask myself, what is it that rivets me? What really makes it so great?

Well to start the writing is a work of art. Such intelligent and insightful description without being pompous or overdone. On the first page we read, “Nature had come into her own again and little by little in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.” Describing an overgrown driveway like this gives not only a visual, but also a feeling. Giving nature a persona, making it a character, continues throughout the book. The descriptions truly give nature power and influence in not just the setting but in the events as well. Nature also plays the role of clairvoyant; it provides omens of the events to come, good or bad.

The method of plot development is also very unique. As I said, not that much actually happens in the book. There are a few events that occur, but the true conflict in the story is rooted in something that happened in the characters’ pasts. To reveal that past and to develop how it affects the present there is so much storytelling that happens within the head of the first-person narrator. Her own misconceptions provide the plot base for pretty much the whole first half of the book and then a major revelation and her having to realign her misconceptions is essentially the plot for the second half. That could sound pretty boring – a story happening inside a character’s mind much of the time – but Du Maurier masterfully builds tension through description that makes the pages come alive and characterizations that resurrect ghosts.

Some of the most intriguing characterization comes from the contrast in the narrator and Rebecca. Just their names give insight – the first name of our plain, quiet, unassuming narrator is never given. After she and Max are married she is Mrs. de Winter and we are given no other title with which to identify her. She is the narrator and main character, but the title of the book is “Rebecca.” Rebecca is the name we all know and love, or dread depending on the perspective. Just this little detail in the use of character names reveals so much about the characters themselves as well as the book’s themes.

Ah, and the themes in this book! This is where it becomes difficult to not give too much away. My previous post discussed one theme – choices and consequences and how misconceptions affect both. Mrs. De Winter spends so much time living out “what if’s” in her mind, playing out elaborate scenarios which have such detail that we as readers and the narrator take them to be reality.

The theme that makes this book unique and, so I’ve been told, even controversial in some book clubs, is determining the morality of the character’s actions. Do their motivations matter? Should the choices of others be taken into consideration? Is justice served at the end? Not only do we analyze the character’s choices and the resulting consequences, but we get to ask ourselves how we feel about them. We know what is wrong and right according to law and our conscience. Do the events of this book go against that knowledge? Is your heart reacting differently than you think it should? I have spoken with some who were uncomfortable confronting these kind of “greys” in the moral spectrum, but they are what take this book beyond being just a beautifully written and suspenseful romance and into the realm of a Classic.

Age Recommendation: High School age and older. Definitely for mature readers. I wouldn’t say the writing is difficult to read, but it is more “old-fashioned” and intelligent than your average work of fiction. The themes and events of the book also need a discerning mind.

Appropriateness: I would recommend it for any book club or high school and college English class, but as I said, there are some who have found it more controversial. But that just gives even more material for great discussion! No offensive or off-color language that I remember. No detailed sexual content, just married couple kissing and some reference that indicates a married couple were intimate.

Book Recommendations: If you like Rebecca I recommend Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphme Du Maurier. You may also like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak,  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Eruption by Adrienne Quintana.

If you have already read the book….

Here some of the ingenious aspects and insights that I loved reading Rebecca this time:

  1. On page 36 The narrator talks about wanting to bottle memory and I could so relate! There are just those perfect moments that you wish you could somehow keep forever just the way they are. How would it be to uncork the memory at some later date and have it to relive all over again? But isn’t that the irony?  Those moments are so perfect because we are completely IN them.  We are present, not worried about the past or future, just there. I can relate to the narrator’s melancholy that comes afterward as well, when you realize you can’t bottle the memory and it will fade. The joy and sadness combined make the moment that much more powerful.
  2. On page 44 the narrator describes how traveling changes you.  You leave something behind whenever you a leave a place while at the same time part of that place comes with you and makes you a different person than you were before.  I love that about traveling.  And I love that reading books can have the same effect.
  3. In Chapter 15 Mrs. De Winter goes to visit Maxim’s grandmother.  She compares the elderly to children. They can both be a hassle and tiring, but we try to be polite anyway. She points out though, that we can remember being children and so can better understand them; maybe that gives us more patience.  We have not been old yet and so may not be able to relate as well. But as Mrs. De Winter thinks about how the grandmother may have been as a young lady, it gives her more sympathy.  My grandmother is declining with alzheimer’s and I could completely relate to the thoughts and feelings expressed.
  4. It’s fascinating how reading the book for the first time you can get caught up in the idea that Maxim must still be in love with Rebecca. The way Mrs. De Winter perceives all the events, descriptions, and interactions sure makes it seem that way.  And Rebecca played her deception well. But when you read it again know the truth there are so many hints and clues to the true nature of Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship.
  5. I have always been amazed at the clear picture of Rebecca that is painted for us and for Mrs. De Winter. She is dead from the start of the book and yet we learn more about her than we do of the narrator.  Of course because she is dead, all we know about Rebecca comes from people’s descriptions of her beauty and talents, and from the things she left behind. Her handwriting, her clothes, her coat, her smell, her habits as described by the staff, and her style still left at Manderley give Rebecca presence and influence even beyond the grave.  However, none of these things reveal her character and so we can be misled just like Mrs. De Winter.

View all my reviews

Demanding the Truth

“I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve and in their own blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. This is what I had done. I had built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them. I had never had the courage to demand the truth.” – from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

I Read this tonight and it struck a chord. I have worked hard since I was a child to break a web of shyness. I had to stop being a doormat but ironically I also had a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum with being overly opinionated and a know-it-all. When you find the right balance between the two extremes then confidence and meekness exist together. People I have known that possess both these qualities are so uplifting to be around.

I have become better with the balance (I hope), and deciding who I am and who I want to become has helped.  I have worked to be comfortable and confident in my skin and to find joy in improvement rather than requiring perfection. If I am patient and honest with myself I can’t hide behind excuses or walls of distorted and false reality. 

 I also work hard to try not to judge unjustly. Walls are also built by assuming the worst of others motives and intentions.  Giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming instead that we are all trying to do the best we can with what we have and know helps filter the actions of others through a much more positive light. And in most cases a much more realistic one. 

It does take courage to demand the truth, to be honest with ourselves and others, to not hide behind reasons why it’s all their fault and how we are a victim. The excuse that we have no control is a wall that we think will protect us but it’s really just fear and if we let it it will control us until life is bleak. 

The truth is that we have control over our actions and reactions, our thoughts and emotions. Ownig up to that power is true freedom. We can learn from the choices and experiences of others as well.  Then life is more joyful and fulfilling; our relationships are stronger and easier. We make our reality through our choices rather than waiting out each day in the haze of misunderstanding and inaction. 

Mrs. de Winter says the quote above after a receiving huge shock to all of her ideas and established way of life.  Hopefully none of us will have to have that kind of experience to wake up from our misconceptions but if you have read the book then you know that part of the book’s intrigue is coming to conclusions about the morality of hers and Maxim’s choices and how much circumstance should matter. The quote not only is meaningful because of my own life experience but because of how succinctly it captures one of the book’s major themes. 

I’m not done with the book yet but soon. Official review still to come. 

Rebecca – just a little taste

Rhododendron – you’ll never look at them the same after reading this book.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  These words are like an old friend. They set the stage for the beautiful mystery that is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

We moved to a new house a few weeks ago so reading has been a luxury I’ve given up the last month or so in order to do packing and unpacking. But tonight I wanted to escape into a story for awhile.  Maybe because my focus has been on our house recently I was drawn to a story in which a house plays such a significant role. You could say that the Manderley estate is one of the characters in Rebecca.  It’s the first thing we are introduced to; it’s the first chapter and the first line.

I was only able to read a chapter and a half tonight, but the beauty of the prose and the genius description in just those few pages completely pulled me in. “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.” Talk about perfection in verb and adjective usage. Du Maurier was an artist; she knew how to paint a picture with words.

This book makes it into my top 5 favorites. I have read it so many times I’ve lost count, and I can’t wait to get lost in its pages again. I’m looking forward to having a forum this time in which I can share the greatness of Rebecca with others, so I will keep my actual book review for after I finish, but this book is just SO GOOD right from the start that I had to share some love now. If you haven’t read Rebecca pick it up and let’s journey through it’s intricate characterization and haunting beauty together.

The “how” of reviewing (part 3) – author’s voice

Writing Style and Voice

The Tale of Despereaux

When all story elements (setting, characters, plot, conflict, theme) are present and accounted for a work can actually be defined as a story. But what about making it a “good” story? Or how about a Newbury award winning story? What sets those books apart? That all comes from the storytelling. How each element is presented is just as important as its presence. An author’s writing style or their voice is a key element in any “good” book.

An author’s voice is what may set him/her apart from all the other writers out there for good or for bad, depending on the preferences of the reader. If you don’t like a particular writing style in can be more difficult to enjoy a book. I have tried some high fantasy books by a couple of different authors and I have determined that it is just not the genre for me because of the writing style that seems to accompany it. It feels like such hard work to wade through all of the description and background information for these epic fantasy worlds that the authors dream up. I need the plot development to move more quickly. I felt that way with Eragon, The Eye of the World (From The Wheel of Time series), Mistborn, The Hobbitand The Fellowship of the Ring

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time Series)

The extreme detailedness of these books kept me from loving them, but I didn’t necessarily dislike them either. I am able to appreciate some of their other “good” qualities and even understand why all of that extra information is important. In writing fantasy an author must suspend our disbelief in magic. We have to believe that the world they have created within the pages could actually exist and work. We have to know the rules of the book’s reality and agree that if those rules were to in fact possible that the events in the book would then also be possible. I may get bored by the way author’s describe their epic fantasy worlds but I can still respect the skill and genius it takes to think it all up in the first place. Add in consistent characters with relatable desires and motivations and you have a very interesting story. Unfortunately, just not interesting enough to make it worth trudging through pages and pages of supplemental information that in no way develops either the plot or the characters.

Rebecca

In addition to well paced plot and character development, I love any writing style that can “show” the people, places, things, and events rather than “tell.” When an author does too much “telling” it can feel like reading a grocery list – “This happened. Then this. They were wearing this. It looked like this. It felt like that.” Boring.  “Showing” allows us to experience the story events and live them in our imaginations. The words we read register more as images in our mind’s eye, and in addition to the sights, sounds, and events of the story emotions are illuminated and created as well.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is the ultimate reader sensory experience. The words paint vibrant colors, action, and feelings that envelop you and take you on a journey through rhododendron lined drives, a stylish mansion, and a haunted life. It has been years since I read that book, but I can conjure an image of the Manderly estate as easily as I can picture my toothbrush all because the words actually took me to that place. It wasn’t just described to me; I feel like I actually saw it.

There are all kinds of other “technical” terms we could use when talking about good writing; we could analyze sentence structure and dialogue, or the use of similes and metaphor, but good writing is more complex than a checklist literary jargon.  While these checklist items can certainly help a writing style to be more engaging, the real sign of success is that we don’t notice the use of specific writing conventions. Instead, we as readers are simply caught up in the flow of the words. We might pause to reflect on a particularly beautiful word arrangement, or choice of descriptors, but if we are paying attention to sentence structure and other conventions while reading it’s probably because it has been written badly.

The Book Thief

The criteria for judging good writing style or voice is not really measurable or specific; opinion and personal preference certainly play a role in it, but that’s where exposure to a variety of author’s and genres will help us develop more educated opinions. The more different writing styles you read the more you will be able to pinpoint the differences and then justify why you like or dislike something. I guess that old TV slogan was right: “The more you read the more you know.” You just know when writing flows well, sounds good, and works; or on the other hand you know when it is confusing, awkward, and just missing something.

Next up, my last post on the art of reviewing. We’ve covered the “why” and “how”; now it’s time to talk about the “what”.