The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees (audio)

louisaThis is a fictionalization of one season in the life of Louisa May Alcott, author most famously of Little Women. Louisa and her family are very like her famous fictional creations in many ways. The eldest daughter, Anna, clearly models for Meg of LW; then there’s Louisa/Jo, then Lizzie/Beth, and then Amy/May. Louisa’s mother Abba does go by Marmee, as in the book; the first glaring departure from Alcott’s novel in her real life is that her father, Bronson, is not away at war. Instead, Bronson was a transcendentalist scholar and friend to the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, disinclined to work for a living (being principally opposed, you see); he founded a Utopian commune in which his family lived for a time, and otherwise they scrimped, borrowed, and got by how they could. [I know this is confusing: I am writing a review of a fictional book, about a real-life woman, who wrote a fictional book, about her real-life family. So far, in these bare details I’ve named, I am referring to the real-life Alcotts as well as the Alcotts represented in Kelly O’Connor McNees’ novel.]

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, McNees sets the six Alcotts in Walpole, New Hampshire, living for the summer in a home that belongs to relatives, because they are poor and hungry and have to go where they can. The premise is that Louisa May Alcott – in real-life a confirmed spinster – had a brief love affair that summer that informed the rest of her life. History yields no indication that such an affair took place, so this is where the fiction begins.

The plot is simple and uninteresting, certainly not the strength of this book. The family is new to Walpole; Anna has recently decided that she is interested in getting married (as any good girl of her era would be) and works to make herself presentable to the town’s young men. Louisa is, as ever, hot-headed, passionate, interested mostly in her writing, and does not intend to marry because it would disrupt her freedom (to write, and otherwise). She is firmly a feminist, and deeply interested in her father’s friends Emerson and Thoreau, and in a new book of poetry called Leaves of Grass by somebody named Walt Whitman. Lizzie is sickly and fussed over. May is obnoxiously free from the privation that the rest of the family feels; Marmee is rather frustrated with her lot in life; and Bronson is thoroughly exasperating in his refusal to get realistic and provide for his family. Anna meets a boy. And Louisa meets a boy, and in stock romance-novel style, finds him unbearable right up until she falls in love with him. They are thwarted.

The strengths of The Lost Summer are in its subjects: lovers of Little Women will be charmed by the fictional-real-life models for Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The setting is rather charming, as well, and Joseph Singer (Louisa’s love interest) is likeable. But unlike the characters in Little Women, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May are underdeveloped. To be fair, it is a shorter book, and spans a much briefer time than its more famous model, so perhaps this should be excused. But I’m not really that forgiving, as I’ve seen masterful character development in mere pages (see: short story masters like Hemingway and de Maupassant). To be further fair, I’m not a fan of romance novels. (Maybe I should never have picked this book up?) That said, I was impatient with the plot line that had Louisa grumpy toward this man she simultaneously felt pulled towards – she went weak in the knees, etc., etc. – and then suddenly sick with love. It’s just too familiar, ho hum. And finally, too many of these characters were unlikeable (May, Bronson, even Marmee; Louisa for her bullheadedness; minor characters Margaret and Catherine, ugh!) for my tastes. I sort of felt that this story had misplaced its heroine.

Of some interest was the opportunity that McNees took to outline Louisa’s feminism and her limited options. I confess I did buy into the romance enough to wish that Joseph and Louisa could be together – could marry, or simply cohabitat – which latter option I realize is my modern-woman’s solution, and wasn’t really available to Louisa at all. Louisa talks and thinks through their options and what they would mean to her: how, for example, marriage would mean endless drudgery and housework for her, and the loss of her ability to write. This is a message that needed communicating, and I found it interesting and instructive to consider the limited options of a woman of this era. So a few points were regained here. However, these musings were only thinly veiled as dialogue or internal thoughts of the characters; I felt I could see McNees holding the strings.

For a quick, superficial, comfortable visit with the beloved Alcotts, come on in to Lost Summer; but if you’re looking for more, look elsewhere.

Audio edition was fine but unremarkable.

Rating: 4 oh-so-important ribbons.

Released by Amber Polo

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author, who very astutely offered me dog treats with it for my two babes and therefore got in the door easily. Great trick, Amber!

releasedLiberty Cutter is a librarian recently returned to her hometown of Shipsfeather, Ohio, having taken the position of public library Director. She’s there to learn more about her own history and that of the town; ever since her mother abandoned her at age 5 in the children’s section of the local library, she’s had precious little information about her background and family. (She was raised by four law librarian aunts who apparently lacked any sense of fun.) Shipsfeather is a strange place: no one in town wants to talk about the past. As the book opens, Liberty dashes off to a massive fire that destroys her library. City officials are less than helpful, but she ends up reopening in an beautiful old school building, with the help of the friendly townspeople and her excellent staff. It turns out that her new library building was already occupied! Underground from the old Academy lives a pack of dogshifters, who it turns out are humankind’s original librarians, and are pleasantly disposed towards Liberty. And it’s a good thing, because the werewolves are the enemies of librarians everywhere – book burners, no less! I’ll mostly quit here for the sake of spoilers, but: Liberty makes new friends, and the library gets a fresh and healthier new start.

The first in a series, Released is great fun, if you’re a fan of books, dogs, or libraries (preferably all three). It does rely heavily on the reader’s appreciation of these framing elements, but this doesn’t concern me overmuch, because I doubt many people pick up such a book who aren’t. Shipsfeather is full of library references: “thank Dewey,” Liberty thinks, when things go right; certain characters talk in “Dewey-speak” (substituting Dewey numbers for nouns). This idyllic small town has far more enthusiastic librarians and library patrons than seems realistic, but again, we’re happy to forgive. The dogshifters in the basement are named and described by breed (and their country of origin plays an important role, too), in another instance of casual indulgence in our mutual interests. The chihuahua is, of course, my favorite character (and he shares a name with a major Mexican beer!).

There is plenty to like: the fantasy is clever and cute, the characters are likeable in their eccentricities, and again, there’s plenty of dog- and library-play. There is some romance, of the swooning and weak-kneed, he’s-so-handsome-and-strong variety. It’s all “clean.” I could make a few criticisms, too. The plot and fantasy realm is not terribly complex; this is a light-hearted romp, not a world-building feat. The dialogue can be a little tedious and unreal. Phrases like “even so” don’t feel right in dialogue, and likewise the lack of contractions: “I will do everything I can” in informal speech. The humor is heavy on the puns – not a problem for every reader, but noteworthy.

Released is easy-reading fun, not crafted in high literary style but a worthwhile jaunt. I enjoyed it, despite a few stylistic flaws, and found myself thinking about the sweet characters and the sweet little world of Shipsfeather as I fell asleep one night this week; and they made me smile. And that’s always worth a few points.

Rating: 5 liver treats.

Thanks, Amber, for sending me a copy of your book.

movie: The First Time

More airplane movie-watching here, and I’m a little embarrassed, because it’s “just” a teeny-bopper romantic comedy. But I am here to report to you on my reading & movie-watching, and I am faithfully reporting.

firsttimeThe First Time is a new (2012) movie about two teens. Dave has been pining for his “just a friend” Jane, and is working on getting up the courage to say something to her, but viewers will note that he is firmly in the friend zone with her and things don’t look good. Aubrey has an older (out of high school) boyfriend, but he’s a self-centered, immature jerk who doesn’t seem to notice her creative side. They meet at a party and are clearly drawn to each other. They do some dating. And they have sex. For the first time.

It’s rather pat, and mostly something I’ve seen before, but it’s very sweet. And its teenage interactions are pretty accurate, actually. I couldn’t decide if the philosophizing was accurately teenaged in its grandiosity, or just overdone, but I suspect it might have been fairly authentic, too. I doubt I have any teen readers who will let me know. :) It was only airplane fodder, but I have to admit, I enjoyed it. And I found myself thinking about those cute kids a day or two later, so touché, teeny-bopper romantic comedy, you have gotten inside my head.

Finally, I can definitely understand the kids getting excited over those two darling actors! This is exactly the kind of thing that would have captured my heart in middle school – I would have crushed on that actor (his name is Dylan O’Brien, as it turns out). Better than it might have been.

Rating: 5 nervous glances.

Juliet by Anne Fortier (audio)

Juliet is a fanciful play on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a modern-day romance and a historical mystery. Julie Jacobs of today’s Virginia is a little bit aimless and drifting at 25, when her beloved great-aunt Rose dies and leaves her a mysterious set of instructions: Julie is to go to Italy, where she was born, even though Rose had always refused to discuss her childhood there. She has a key to what appears to be a safe-deposit box at a bank, and not much more. There is some connection to Romeo and Juliet, a play Julie has always been a little bit obsessed with. Her twin sister Janice is cut out of the Italian connection – a relief to Julie, since Janice has always been the evil twin.

Upon arriving in Italy, the sheltered and naive Julie is accosted by whirling, complicated forces. Apparently she is descended from the ancient Tolomei family, in fact from Giulietta Tolomei, who seems to have been the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare’s play, whose romantic drama played out in 1340 Sienna. The Tolomeis have had a centuries-old rivalry with the Salimbeni family, and today’s Salimbeni matriarch befriends Julie – who we now know as Giulietta – with suspicious eagerness. There is an antagonistic Siennese man lurking around right from the start – and pardon my spoiler (because I don’t really think it is one), but you know how these mysterious antagonists are apt to turn into romantic interests…

Soon Julie/Giulietta is being stalked by faceless motorcycle riders, befriended or harassed by ancient cults, discovering centuries-old artifacts, and searching for a nameless treasure she thinks her mother – who she can’t really remember – has left for her in Sienna. She gradually learns that she is the modern-day Juliet, and only finding her Romeo will save the day, ending an ancient “curse on both your houses.” And, of course, the bitchy-to-the-point-of-caricature Janice shows up to muck up her adventures.

I was conflicted for most of this book. Often I was fascinated, or at least invested in the characters and wanting to know what happened. I was curious about the question of whether Julie was a little nuts – imagining things – and living out the ancestor-worship of beautiful, historic Sienna, or if there was an actual metaphysical/ghost story element to the book. In other words, would the mystery turn out to have supernatural causes, or were there merely real-life villains behind the smoke and mirrors? This question I will not answer for you, as it was one of the only sources of real suspense for me.

The biggest problem for me was some of the overwrought language Fortier employs. See my recent Teaser Tuesday for an especially ridiculous turn of phrase; and see also “…a wave of warm oblivion rolled onto the shore of my consciousness” or “…I wished more than ever that I could conk out just like her and fly away in a hazelnut shell, leaving behind my heavy heart” or “…the clues I needed were somehow bobbing around aloft, like newborn balloons trapped by a ceiling high, high over my head.” Newborn balloons? Really?? There was something else about her slipping through a doorway like a dryad between the cracks of time or something (I can’t find the passage right now). This style got in the way of my ability to focus on the story.

And the story was mostly good, but not always. For one thing, as alluded to above, certain elements of the romance were predictable. As I understand it, readers of typical romance novels do not care to be surprised; it’s okay if we know all along that Jack and Jill will end up together. But this, trying to be a little more of a suspense, was a touch predictable for my tastes (considering, too, that I’m not a reader of typical romance novels). There were definitely some moments when the characters left something to be desired, too. For example, the heroine realizes, when her inheritance turns out to be a dud at her beloved great aunt’s funeral, that maybe she was unwise to run up $20,000 in credit card debt while relying upon the expected inheritance. Her reaction does not seem to be that running up that kind of debt was unwise, but that it has turned out to be unwise in light of the absent inheritance. I have to say that this is not the most sympathetic quality to give your heroine if you want me to like her. She’s a little flimsy for my tastes. In addition, the pathetic nature of her self-loathing, and the supreme bitchiness of her infinitely more glamorous twin sister Janice, were too superlative to feel real. These are archetypes, not people.

But the characters grow and develop some, to be fair. Janice and Julie are both bigger, better people by the end, the romance is fairly satisfying, and the mystery is fairly well-resolved. This is not the most literary book you’ll find, nor the most deeply-felt or fully-wrought mystery or romance. But there is some suspense, and some enjoyable history and appreciation of Sienna – a lovely place I now want to see for myself. The characters are quirky and grew on me despite my protests. And even in my occasional frustration, I couldn’t put it down, so that’s a vote in favor.

Cassandra Campbell’s narration also gets a mixed review. Julie’s voice, with Southern twang, got on my nerves a little but also felt very realistic; the Italian accents I cannot judge for authenticity, but they felt right to my ignorant ear, and Alessandro the handsome Siennese antagonist came off as appropriately smoldering. Janice was almost intolerable – just as she was supposed to be. Both the twins’ voices were immature and verging on the Valley girl (in Southern translation) when they bickered: again, this was faithful to the story, but sometimes grating. In the end I give Campbell good marks; I was often bothered by the voices she played, but I think that was just her faithful portrayal of those in the book.

My final judgment seems to be that this was a fairly satisfactory book in the end, but I had my reservations throughout. It might work better for a lover of “pure” romance than it did for me, and I know it has its fans out there. Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts. I’m always interested in how these things grasp us differently.

Rating: 3 conifers.

Teaser Tuesdays: Juliet by Anne Fortier

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

I’m doing it again: getting slightly out of my usual reading habits to try something that sounded appealing. Juliet references Romeo and Juliet and is a romance in its own right, and that’s about what I knew of it when I started. I have selected an extra-special teaser for you today.

Within the coniferous greens of his eyes, I now got a warning glimpse of his soul. It was a disturbing sight.

Kids, I don’t know about you, but this is the sort of thing that concerns me about romance novels. Coniferous greens of his eyes? Really? Anybody love this or (ahem) anybody else find this ridiculous?

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Yet another hit for Amy, my sci-fi friend. She’s 4-for-4 now, by my memory: first she gave me a (rare!) copy of Thank Heaven Fasting (the non-sci-fi outlier); then lent me The Hemingway Hoax; then recommended Soulless and now Kushiel’s Dart.

This is truly an epic masterpiece of world-building. I will go so far as to mention J.R.R. Tolkien.

I am a little bit challenged to categorize this story further; sci-fi I suppose it is. It is also speculative fiction? These genres are a little out of my league! There is some romance; there is plenty of sex. There is political and courtly intrigue. Think Tolkien for the world-building, and then add Philippa Gregory for the courtly intrigue and playful sex, even Sharon Kay Penman’s attention to detail; but it’s never slow! Oh no, I read these 901 pages (901!) in a two-day weekend. Many long hours and some lost sleep, but well worth it.

I don’t expect to be able to do much with plot summation, but I’ll try and give you a taste. The people of Terre d’Ange worship the demigod Elua and his Companions; the words he gave them to live by are, “love as thou wilt.” Love – or more to the point, sex – is considered a form of worship, and an entire class of men and women are raised from birth to be Servants of Naamah, the goddess-prostitute. They’re trained, then, in courtly manners as well as sexual tricks, which they perform for fees until the House that trained them has been paid off, and then they are free to continue in business for themselves or to pursue whatever path they choose.

Phèdre would have belonged to one of the Houses of the Servants of Naamah, but she was born flawed, or marked, by the dart of Kushiel, the one of Elua’s companions who loves pain. For her, pain and pleasure are forever linked. She is raised by an individual, not a House, and trained for a specialized kind of service, one that combines pain and degradation with sex. Her patron/caregiver/adopted parent is Anafiel Delaunay, and he has more in mind than the profits of her work; he trains her not only as a very high-class courtesan, but as an information-gathering multilingual scholar-spy. It is unclear to the young Phèdre what Anafiel’s political goals are, but she is very talented at playing her own role in his game, and she is deeply committed. Anafiel is a beloved father figure.

All of this transpires in the first third or less of the book, but I’ll stop here. Phèdre gets involved in matters of state much larger than she could ever have expected, and it will take all her formidable skills to protect herself and those she loves – and maybe, to save her nation.

I found Kushiel’s Dart to be incredibly engrossing. I couldn’t put this book down; I just couldn’t bear to leave Phèdre in a predicament. I came to love and root for her companions; I was invested in this story. I recommend it to anyone who likes to get lost in another world – and the world of Terre d’Ange and her neighboring nations is most definitely “other,” although there are recognizable traces of our own.

Amy tells me that this is the first in a trilogy, and there are three trilogies; but she assures us that each trilogy stands alone. This first installment stands alone outstandingly well too, although I won’t say you won’t be tempted to keep reading further! She also assures us that the books, if anything, improve as the series develop. All good news there.

Has anyone else discovered these outstanding epic novels? Anyone tempted to? I recommend!

Soulless by Gail Carriger

My friend Amy told me about the Parasol Protectorate series, and I was intrigued. It took me a while to find a copy of this, the first in the series, but it was worth finding!

The cover asserts that this is “a novel of vampires, werewolves and parasols,” and so the uniqueness begins. The series is set in Victorian London, and combines the genres of paranormal romance and steampunk along with, I suppose, alternate history. And there is a mystery as well. Most interesting.

Alexia Tarabotti is a confirmed spinster of the advanced age of twenty-six. There are several setbacks to her marriageability: her father is both dead and (was) Italian; he gave her a swarthy complexion; her nose is rather large; she is tall; and her personality is far too assertive and prickly to make her a decent wife. Furthermore, she is a preternatural – meaning, she has no soul. In Alexia’s society, werewolves and vampires are well-integrated into society (if not entirely accepted in all circles). To become a vampire or a werewolf, one must have an excess of soul; Alexia’s total lack thereof means that she can, with a touch, neutralize supernatural qualities. At the opening of the book, a vampire attacks her and in defending her, she accidentally kills him. The werewolf authority sent to investigate the death is a peer, one Lord Maccon, with whom she has tangled in the past. As new vampires begin appearing where they shouldn’t, and known vampires (and werewolves) fail to appear where they should, Alexia comes under suspicion. The clever and not-to-be-daunted Alexia, with her preternatural abilities to help her along, works on solving the mystery, further motivated on repeated attempts to abduct her. Lord Maccon works on the mystery because it’s his job. The two have some personality clashes but are also drawn to each other (cue the classic romance-novel device).

There is no arguing against the absolute silliness of this book, but it is oh! so much fun! I really enjoyed the romance that develops between Lord Maccon and Alexia. They struggle with understanding one another’s culture in their courtship: his involves pack dynamics that she’s unfamiliar with, and hers involves chaperones and proper proceedings that Alexia herself is not terribly comfortable with, being such a spinster. Carriger writes some very funny scenes; I giggled aloud. The mystery is engaging. The steampunk background was totally new to me and didn’t necessarily add anything to the appeal, other than being a layer of interest, something shiny to look at between steamy scenes.

I am surprised at myself, because I haven’t liked any paranormal romances yet; but despite the vampires (Lord Akeldama is great fun!) and the werewolves (Lord Maccon is really a sexy beast) this was an engaging, entertaining, clever story with a very likeable main character. I think I’ll seek out more of the Parasol Protectorate series! I wonder if we’ll ever learn more about the incident involving the hedgehog?? Thanks Amy for a very strong recommendation!


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