Archive for the ‘book club’ Category

mr. darcy's challenge

Source: Review copy from author
Rating: ★★★★☆

Unsurprisingly, his boots sank with a squelch into the mud.  He grinned with delight at the thought that he was experiencing what Elizabeth had experienced, stepping into the very same mud that she did.  Then he felt embarrassed and hastily rearranged his features into a more serious expression.

(from Mr. Darcy’s Challenge)

Quick summary: Mr. Darcy’s Challenge is Volume 2 of The Darcy Novels, a variation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the sequel to Mr. Darcy’s Pledge.  In this installment, Mr. Darcy, after his and Elizabeth Bennet’s paths cross again after an accident near Pemberley, is confident that her opinion of him has changed, and he sets off toward Longbourn like a knight on a white horse after Lydia goes missing from Brighton, sure that she will accept him this time.  But Mr. Darcy still has much to learn and much soul-searching ahead of him.  Monica Fairview’s imaginative retelling, told from the points of view of Mr. Darcy and his sister, Georgiana, takes readers on a journey with Mr. Darcy, from a night he is sure to regret at an inn on his way back to London to the seaside in search of answers in Lydia’s disappearance.

Why I wanted to read it: I really enjoyed Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, and I couldn’t wait to continue the series.

What I liked: Mr. Darcy’s Challenge introduces some intriguing original characters, particularly the widow Mrs. Fortin and the young street sweeper David, brings back Darcy’s delightful valet, Briggs, and puts an interesting twist on the Lydia/Mr. Wickham affair.  Fairview sets a good portion of the novel in Brighton, and I loved getting to see the characters in a new environment.  But I especially enjoyed seeing Darcy evolve even further, reflecting on his impulsive, disastrous, and shockingly mean second proposal and putting Elizabeth first without having any hope of ever receiving her love.

What I disliked: Fairview does a great job wrapping things up in each book while also making readers eager to find out what happens next.  As with Mr. Darcy’s Pledge, there was nothing to dislike except having to wait for the next installment.

Final thoughts: Mr. Darcy’s Challenge is both a reflective and an exciting take on Pride and Prejudice, and I loved not knowing how things would play out.  Fairview’s decision to tell the story through the eyes of Darcy and Georgiana works, allowing readers to see a different take on Darcy from the point of view of the younger sister he is determined to protect.  Elizabeth makes numerous appearances throughout the novel, and Fairview skillfully allows readers to see her evolve even when Darcy cannot.  I can’t wait to see where Fairview takes her version of these characters next!

Disclosure: I received Mr. Darcy’s Challenge from the author for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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liesl's ocean rescue

Source: Review copy from Gihon River Press
Rating: ★★★★☆

On the ship, Liesl could eat whatever she wanted.  She could walk freely around the ship and see movies in the recreation room whenever they played.  Back in Germany, she could only eat rationed bread and eggs.  And Jews like Liesl and her family weren’t allowed to stroll in the park, walk on the sidewalk, or go to the movies.

(from Liesl’s Ocean Rescue)

Quick summary: Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is a picture book based on the true story of Liesl Joseph, who was one of around 900 Jews to escape Germany on the MS St. Louis.  The ship left Hamburg in May 1939 bound for Havana, Cuba, but the fate of the passengers hung in the balance when they were denied entry to Cuba and the United States, generating chaos and fear when they learned they were ordered to return to Germany.  The captain and a committee comprised of some passengers scrambled to find other countries that would take them.

Why I wanted to read it: I was curious how the subject would be handled in a children’s book.

What I liked: Barbara Krasner tells the story through the eyes of a young girl who doesn’t understand why her freedoms have been taken away and why her family must leave their home in Germany forever.  Readers see how the voyage to Cuba was a carefree one for Liesl, with so much promise, and how the fear returned when they were not allowed to leave the ship.  Avi Katz’s illustrations are fantastic in that they capture the myriad emotions on the character’s faces, from hope to fear to joy.  At the end of the story, there is an author’s note that lets readers know what happened to Liesl and her family after the MS St. Louis, and there is a bibliography with a list of books and DVDs to learn more.

What I disliked: There was nothing to dislike.  Krasner and Katz did a wonderful job adapting such a heavy story for a younger audience.

Final thoughts: Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is a gentle introduction to the Holocaust for children.  Of course, the book doesn’t touch upon reports that around 227 of the 915 refugees perished in the Holocaust after being given refuge in European countries that eventually were occupied by the Nazis.  But it does explain why Liesl’s family had to leave Germany and what happened on the ship in a way that children can begin to understand the history of the time, even if it really is impossible to truly comprehend why these things happened.  Parents can use the book as an introduction to the events leading up to World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, providing an opportunity for deeper discussions later.

war challenge with a twist

Book 24 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

Disclosure: I received Liesl’s Ocean Rescue from Gihon River Press for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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another world instead

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

This is what happens when a city is bombed:
Part of that city goes away into the sky,
And part of that city goes into the earth.
And that is what happens to the people when a city is bombed:
Part of them goes away into the sky,
And part of them goes away into the earth.
And what is left, for us, between the sky and the earth
is a scar.

(from “These Mornings,” Another World Instead, page 52)

Quick summary: These are Williams Stafford’s earliest poems, spanning the years 1937-1947.  Only a handful of these poems were published prior to this collection.  They were inspired by his experiences during World War II.  Stafford was a conscientious objector, which was a difficult stance to take during a popular war that many people deemed necessary and just.  Under penalty of law, Stafford was sent to work in a Civilian Public Service camp in Los Prietos, California, which he viewed as being exiled in his own country.

Why I wanted to read it: Another World Instead was our book club’s pick for May.  (Yes, I am very behind in writing up reviews, hence my new review format.)  Also, the editor of this collection, Fred Marchant, was my English professor back in the day at Suffolk University in Boston.

What I liked: The introduction by Fred Marchant is very informative, and without knowing Stafford’s background, it would be difficult to understand these poems.  I most enjoyed the poems that were about the war, particularly “These Mornings” (which I quoted above) and “The Sound: Summer 1945,” which compares the atomic bomb with a rattlesnake.

What I disliked: The third and last section of poems from 1946-1947 were my least favorite.  They were odd, particularly in comparison to the previous poems, and even numerous readings didn’t reveal any sort of meaning.  Also, there was a lot of nature imagery in this collection of poems, and while I love being out in nature, I’m not a huge fan of reading about it.  Maybe if I read the poems a few at a time, instead of all at once for the book club discussion, I would’ve enjoyed them more.

Final thoughts: I had mixed feelings after my first reading of Another World Instead, but I had a new appreciation for Stafford and these poems after our book club’s meeting with Fred Marchant via Skype.  Fred went into even greater detail about Stafford’s background, and we read aloud several poems chosen by him and members of the book club, and then delved deeper into them.  At some point, I’d like to read Stafford’s later and more popular poems, but it was interesting to read his first efforts in the genre.  Readers who give this collection a try will definitely want to read the introduction by Marchant first.

war challenge with a twist

Book 19 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

dive into poetry

Book 2 for Dive Into Poetry Challenge

Disclosure: Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 is from my personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the program

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

I hate The Program and what it does to us, but I also know that I don’t want to die.  I don’t want any of us to.  Despite everything, our school district has the highest survival rate in the country.  So in some sick and twisted way…I guess The Program works.  Even if the result is a life half lived.

(from The Program, page 24)

The Program is a young adult novel set in a world where suicide has become an epidemic among teens.  In an effort to prevent them from succumbing to their depression, some high schools have implemented the Program, which aims to cure them by erasing their memories.  Sloane is grieving the death of her brother and the loss of her best friend to the Program.  Neither Sloane nor her boyfriend, James, can express their feelings for fear they will be taken by the Program — either at school, where they are under the watchful eyes of handlers, or at home, turned in by their own parents, who believe the Program is their only hope.  They don’t seem to notice or care that the children who complete the Program come home as empty shells of their former selves.

James is the only person Sloane can trust, the only one who can see her cry, and he vows to protect them both from the Program.  But when they lose someone else close to them, James starts to unravel, and Sloane must find a way to safeguard her memories of him so that, no matter what, their love will survive.

The Program is an interesting look at how far society and the government will go to protect the next generation, but it soon becomes apparent that the Program doesn’t have the best interests of its patients in mind.  Although the cause of the suicide epidemic is unknown, the Program only makes things worse by forcing teens to bury any emotion other than happiness.  Sloane, for instance, has to fake an injury to have an excuse to cry and must always pretend for her parents’ sake that everything is just fine.

Suzanne Young tells the story through Sloane’s eyes, so readers understand the depths of her grief and the fear of knowing that every move she makes is being watched, and they follow her as she struggles to hold it together.  With the threat of the Program looming overhead, there is little talk about the future — other than trying to make it to 18, when they can no longer be forced into the Program.  Given their shared grief and their lack of another emotional outlet, it’s not surprising that Sloane and James’ relationship takes center stage.  Of course, Young creates a love triangle, among other obstacles, and between that and the Program, there is more than enough angst and melodrama to go around.  I understood why their relationship was so important to Sloane and central to her happiness, but it was also sad that she felt she had little to live for beyond that relationship, and all the memories she wanted to preserve involved James.  Honestly, all the “James this” and “James that” quickly became repetitive and even annoying at times.  I read this book with The Girl for our July book club meeting, and she did a fair share of eye-rolling throughout.

Still, the idea behind the story is intriguing, and the choice Sloane must make provides much food for thought.  The Program did generate a great book club discussion, though most of us had mixed feelings about the book.  It didn’t seem as though most of the book club was curious enough to read the sequel, The Treatment, but there were enough loose ends to make me want to know how it all plays out.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Program from the public library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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hitler's secret

Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★★★

But then, as MacPherson had said, their job was to carry out the mission and not concern themselves with anything else.  Was that right?  How could that be right?  If he thought that way, he would be no different from the Nazis who had taken his family.  They had just been obeying orders, but what they had done was wrong.  Deeply wrong.

(from Hitler’s Secret, page 257)

My daughter always does a fantastic job selecting books for me as gifts, and she hit a home run with Hitler’s Secret, which she bought me for Christmas from the Scholastic book fair at her school.  William Osborne’s novel centers on two teenagers who escaped the Nazis and are safe in England, only to be recruited as spies for the British government in 1941 and tasked with a mission so important, it just might end the war.

Otto fled Germany in 1940 after the Nazis took away his family because his father was a Communist.  Leni is an Austrian Jew who escaped the Nazis with her mother and sisters in 1938, leaving behind her father and brothers.  Both immediately agree to help Admiral MacPherson of the Royal Navy despite the dangers involved.  Otto will do anything to leave the boarding school where he is bullied for being German, and Leni takes the mission on behalf of her father and brothers.

They are given new identities and tasked with kidnapping a young girl from a convent, getting her over the Swiss border, and turning her over to the British government.  They have no idea why this child is so important to the Third Reich and how knowledge of her existence could end the war.  Despite being well equipped for the mission, their youth means they are bound to make mistakes.  But they are strong and resourceful and accomplish more than I could have in their situation.  It’s not long before the Nazis are after them in search of the girl.  But Angelika is so important to the Third Reich that Reinhard Heydrich, Lieutenant General of the SS and chief of the Reich Main Security Office, is hunting them down himself.  He is ruthless and has no qualms about killing children.

Otto and Leni are such delightful characters.  Their actions and emotions are exactly as they should be for teenagers, but the troubles they endured because of the Nazis forced them to grow up too soon.  They want to do something to avenge their families, but they didn’t expect to bond with Angelika.  As they pose as a family to make their way to Switzerland, they actually become a family — and when they learn the truth about Angelika and the British government’s plans for her, they are forced to question whether carrying out their orders is really the right thing to do.

Hitler’s Secret is a fantastic novel for young readers and adults alike.  There is a lot of action, suspense, and even some bloody violence, which isn’t overdone and completely fits the story line.  Osborne definitely doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers of the mission, which makes it feel authentic even though it is completely fiction.  (There is an author’s note at the end that separates the fact from the fiction and even explains more about the historical figures who make appearances in the novel.)

I loved so many things about this novel, from the well-developed characters and the sheer excitement of the mission to the fact that it both kept me on the edge of my seat and gave me a lot to think about.  I finished Hitler’s Secret months ago and am just getting around to reviewing it, but the characters and the plot are still fresh in my mind, which to me is the sign of a great book.  I can’t wait to see what book my daughter chooses for me next!

war challenge with a twist

Book 12 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 13 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

european reading challenge

Book 5 for the European Reading Challenge (Switzerland)

Disclosure: Hitler’s Secret is from my personal library.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★☆

Alek found himself deposited into the commander’s chair as the machine began to move.  He struggled with the seat straps, but a terrible thought took hold of his mind, freezing his fingers.

If they’re trying to kill me…it’s all true.

Count Volger crouched beside him, yelling over the rumble of engines and gunfire.  “Take heart at this impoliteness, Alek.  It proves that you are still a threat to the throne.”

(from Leviathan, page 49)

Leviathan is the first book in the steampunk series of the same name, which presents an alternate history of World War I.  The novel is set partly in Austria-Hungary, a Clanker nation that uses steam-driven iron machines as weapons, and Britain, a Darwinist nation that uses fabricated animals as weapons.  The novel centers on Prince Aleksandar Ferdinand (Alek), son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who is on the run in a two-legged Cykolps Stormwalker with his fencing master, Count Volger, and his master of mechaniks, Otto Klopp, after his parents’ assassination.

Meanwhile, Deryn Sharp aims to become an airman in the British Air Service, so she disguises herself as Dylan Sharp.  After managing to keep her head when a storm botches her air test on a Huxley, a jellyfish-like hydrogen breather, Deryn is rescued by the Leviathan.  She soon becomes a member of the whale-like airship’s crew.  When war breaks out between the Clankers and the Darwinists, Alek and Deryn are brought together as the factions — each needing something from the other — join forces to make a delivery of the utmost importance to Constantinople.

This was my first foray into steampunk, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  Scott Westerfeld’s detailed descriptions of each Clanker machine and each fabricated animal, coupled with illustrations by Keith Thompson, make them come to life.  Without being able to visualize their inner workings, I would have been lost, since their maneuverings make up a great chunk of the story.  It’s obvious that the Clanker and Darwinist weapons are fiction, but Westerfeld plays with other historical details as well, and I was thankful for the afterword that sets everything straight.

Leviathan shines not just in its world-building but also in its characters.  Alek and Deryn are both strong, admirable characters whose flaws are on full display throughout the course of the novel.  They are both intelligent, quick thinkers, but they are also teenagers, and their secrets are nearly exposed several times due to their pride and foolishness.

Westerfeld manages to make both the characters and the alternate history believable, and the novel is perfectly paced with plenty of action to keep readers’ attention throughout.  I wish all science fiction novels showed the same attention to detail as Leviathan, as I didn’t find myself questioning this world as much as I normally do when reading books in this genre.  I finished this novel months ago (for my book club’s October selection, in fact), and it has stayed with me.  I hope to finish the trilogy, which continues with Behemoth and Goliath, in the new year.

Disclosure: I borrowed Leviathan from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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his majesty's dragon

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★★

Laurence did not understand his attitude, until Temeraire said, “I do not suppose that is real?  There is no way that people can become dragons, or the reverse?”

“No, I am afraid not,” Laurence said slowly; the notion that Temeraire might have liked to make a change was distressing to him, suggesting as it did a very deep unhappiness.

But Temeraire only sighed and said, “Oh, well; I thought as much. It would have been nice, though, to be able to read and write for myself when I liked, and also that you could fly alongside me.”

(from His Majesty’s Dragon, pages 209-210)

His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, was my book club’s August pick.  Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel follows Captain Will Laurence of the British Navy, whose ship captures a French frigate carrying an unhatched dragon egg.  When the egg hatches before they reach the shore, Laurence, recognizing the importance of the dragon to England’s war effort, harnesses it — bonding himself to the dragon for the rest of his life.

As a result, Laurence is forced to give up any plans he might have had for marriage and any semblance of a normal life to join the Aerial Corps as captain of Temeraire, a rare Chinese Imperial dragon.  As he and Temeraire forge a strong friendship, Laurence soon realizes that he is where he belongs and becomes very attentive and protective of the dragon everyone wants to see and no one thinks he deserves.

Novik takes readers on a journey with Laurence as he overcomes the hostility among members of the Aerial Corps who waited for years to captain their own dragons only to be usurped by a lowly Naval captain with no aerial combat experience; endures grueling training sessions, intense combat, and even moments of sheer joy with Temeraire; and most importantly, develops a relationship with the dragon that is somewhere between a close friendship and intense love.  Laurence spends all his free time grooming, reading to, conversing with, and simply enjoying the company of Temeraire, whose childlike awe and advanced intelligence never cease to amaze him.

I have never been a fan of fantasy novels, and I admit I wasn’t looking forward to reading His Majesty’s Dragon, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it from the very beginning and how much I grew to love Laurence and especially Temeraire by the end.  At the beginning, when the sailors were waiting for the newly hatched Temeraire to talk, I was worried that aspect of the book would be cheesy, but Novik made me believe in a world where talking dragons exist, and I couldn’t get enough of Temeraire’s humorously innocent comments, his bold declarations of devotion to Laurence, and his insatiable desire for books and knowledge.

Novik created a world in which dragons are not magical creatures, but simply a species that possesses human-like intelligence and breed-specific powers.  Each dragon that trains and fights alongside Laurence and Temeraire, just like their captains, has a well-developed and distinct personality.  Novak also does a great job balancing world-building and character development with the action needed to propel the story forward, increasing tensions among the captains and dragons as Napoleon’s plans to invade England come to a head.  The idea of dragons being used as weapons in the Napoleonic Wars may sound silly, but Novik makes it seem plausible.

The book club generally thought His Majesty’s Dragon was a decent fantasy novel and better than many expected, though I think I loved it more than most.  In fact, I admit it made me want my own Temeraire to draw me under his wing while I read to him.  (I never expected to love/want a dragon, but I also never expected to encounter a dragon who loves books as much as I do!)

My experience with His Majesty’s Dragon serves as another argument in favor of reading outside your comfort zone.  I went from dreading this book to longing to drop everything and read the rest of the series right now.  (The eighth book was just released.)  Novik puts a unique spin on history with a believable story about a young dragon trying to find his place in the world and a man whose life was thrown into chaos and changed for the better, complete with enthralling characters and descriptions that made it impossible for me to put the book down.  If you’ve never given thought to reading a dragon book, I hope you’ll consider giving this one a try.  I’m glad I did, and now I can’t wait to devour the next book in the series!

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 29 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed His Majesty’s Dragon from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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do androids dream of electric sheep

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★☆

For Rick Deckard an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master, which had been equipped with an intelligence greater than that of many human beings, which had no regard for animals, which possessed no ability to feel empathetic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat — that, for him, epitomized The Killers.

(from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, page 32)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, published in 1968, is a post-apocalyptic, science fiction novel on which the movie Blade Runner (which I haven’t seen) was based.  Set in 2021, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which war has decimated the human and animal populations, most people have emigrated to Mars to escape the toxic dust, and owning an animal of any kind is a status symbol.  Animals have become so rare, so coveted, and so expensive that many people purchase more affordable electric versions that are so similar their neighbors can’t tell the difference.

The novel covers a day in the life of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter with the San Francisco police who makes most of his money “retiring” androids that have escaped their lives of servitude on Mars to live among the few remaining humans on Earth.  Deckard has been given the impossible task of retiring six androids in a single day, and he hopes to put the money he earns toward the purchase of a real animal to live alongside his electric sheep.  The biggest difference between a human and an android (which looks like, acts like, and thinks like a human) is empathy.  Deckard uses a test that gauges the level of empathy exhibited by the subject based on a series of questions, and he kills those that fail to pass it.  He has no problem killing androids…until he finds himself attracted to one.

While Deckard is out hunting androids, John Isidore lives a lonely existence in an empty apartment building.  He is a “chickenhead” barred from emigrating due to the effects of the toxic dust on his intelligence.  His life consists of his job as a driver for an electric-animal repair shop, a television tuned to a single channel, and an empathy box that lets the user be one with the Christ-like Mercer being pelted with rocks on his grueling uphill climb and share the thoughts and feelings of other Mercerites.  When a trio of androids takes up residence in the building, Isidore finally feels accepted.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was my book club’s June selection (read Serena’s review for a recap of our meeting) and a book I never would have read otherwise.  It’s difficult to describe since there is so much going on.  It’s a novel about a civilization in decay, but it doesn’t explain much about the war that occurred years before.  The world is technologically advanced, given the human-like androids, the ability to travel to Mars, and the use of hovercars, but I wanted more details about the empathy boxes and especially the “mood organ” that lets users dial up whatever mood they want to be in that day.  The parts about the religion of Mercerism are confusing and somewhat out of place, yet the story line about the bounty hunters and the androids overshadows everything else and is actually the most interesting.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  It was very readable, and despite wanting more details and world-building, I found it hard to put down.  There is one scene in a police station that had me on the edge of my seat; I was suddenly unsure of everything I thought I knew, and I like being kept on my toes like that.  It made a great book club selection, as it is very thought-provoking.  What does it mean to be human?  Does it really boil down to empathy?  When do humans cross the line into inhumanity?  Despite living in a far different world than Deckard and Isidore, Dick makes it possible to understand them to a certain extent.  Surely we can understand the characters’ love of animals and the desire to care for them; we see today how many people view their pets as part of the family.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reminds me why I need to read outside my comfort zone every once in awhile.  I was fascinated by the various story lines, even when they confused me.  I felt Deckard’s exhaustion when I thought about how the whole book takes place in one day.  I was second-guessing every character (are they human or android?) and was more invested in the characters than I imagined I would be.  I didn’t care for the ending so much because it felt a bit rushed and almost like Dick didn’t know where to go with the story (and with so many plot lines, I wouldn’t be surprised if he confused himself), but I appreciated how much the book made me think about humanity and how I would act in these characters’ shoes.

Disclosure: I borrowed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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the last van gogh

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★☆

And perhaps,when Vincent arrived that summer, he noticed that nascent stirring about me.  He saw that I was bursting to come to life again.  Twenty-one years of age, and for the first time since I was a young child, I wanted to dance in the garden and sing.

(from The Last Van Gogh, page 72)

The Last Van Gogh chronicles the last 70 days in the life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, set in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the summer of 1890.  It was my book club’s May pick.  (I wasn’t able to attend last month’s meeting, so I can’t include everyone’s thoughts this time around.)  I was especially excited about this book because Alyson Richman’s novel The Lost Wife made my “Best of 2011” list.  Richman tells this story through the eyes of Marguerite Gachet, the 21-year-old daughter of the homeopathic doctor treating 37-year-old Vincent for depression and anxiety.  Marguerite was the subject of two portraits painted in the days before his suicide.

Just like her late mother, Marguerite feels trapped.  She’s basically a maid to her father and younger brother, Paul, and has little contact with the world outside their home, except to go shopping or attend Mass.  When Dr. Gachet isn’t creating his questionable tinctures and treating his own melancholy, he fancies himself a painter and an art collector and drops the names of his artist friends Cézanne and Pissarro as often as he can.  He doesn’t approve when Vincent voices a desire to paint Marguerite — and neither does Paul, whose failed attempts to secure attention and praise from Vincent strain his relationship with his sister.

The attraction between Marguerite and Vincent is intense and makes Marguerite feel alive for the first time.  Though her father is not likely to approve, Louise-Josephine (the illegitimate daughter of Marguerite and Paul’s “governess” who has been hidden away in the Gachet home since she was 14) gives her reason to hope.  However, Louise-Josephine’s chances of a happily-ever-after are as impossible as her own.

The Last Van Gogh develops slowly, giving readers a good understanding of the Gachet family’s dynamics and the obstacles in the way of Marguerite’s happiness.  Readers know from the beginning that this will be a tragic love story, but that didn’t stop me from hoping for a different ending for Vincent.  Once Vincent decides he needs to paint Marguerite, the pace of the narrative picks up, as Vincent’s poor financial and mental condition and the jealousy and possessiveness pervading the Gachet home conspire against them.

The novel shines in Richman’s descriptions of Vincent’s paintings, from the vivid colors to the symbolism, from his frenzied brush strokes to his burning need to paint whatever inspired him.  She does a wonderful job portraying him as a troubled genius, and one can understand why Marguerite would be drawn to him.  I really felt for Marguerite; she was so isolated, stifled, lonely, and desperately in need of freedom.

The Last Van Gogh is a lovely historical novel about art and inspiration, love and freedom, and loyalty and obligation.  I enjoyed reading about Richman’s inspiration for the book in the author’s note, and I couldn’t help but do some research of my own, searching for information about the Gachets and looking up the paintings Van Gogh painted in Auvers, particularly his portraits of Marguerite.  This is a novel that requires a bit of patience, but readers will be rewarded with rich descriptions of the artistic process and a heartfelt tale of first love.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 18 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed The Last Van Gogh from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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winter's end

Source: My daughter
Rating: ★★★☆☆

“The barbarians weren’t going to silence her. … While she still sang, the Resistance wasn’t giving up.  You’d have thought that hope depended on her voice.”

(from Winter’s End, page 207)

Winter’s End is a young adult dystopian novel by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated from the French by Anthea Bell, and our book club’s April pick, nominated by The Girl (age 12).  It focuses on four teenagers who reside in prison-like boarding schools in a country ruled by the tyrannical Phalange.  Their only respite is an occasional visit to their consolers, villagers who serve as confidants and are pretty much the only parents they’ve ever known.

When the novel opens, Helen is feeling particularly low and desperate to meet with her consoler.  She takes her best friend, Milena, with her to the village, and on the way, they meet Bartolomeo and Milos from the boys’ school.  This chance meeting changes their lives, igniting a desire to be free and to fight against the government that destroyed their families.  They also get a taste of what it feels like to be in love.  Bart and Milena run away despite the fact that two of their fellow classmates will be punished in their place.  They are immediately drawn to one another, their shared pasts sparking a journey in which Milena’s beautiful singing voice could be their saving grace and something pure to unite the masses.  Meanwhile, Helen and Milos go off in search of their friends, who are being tracked by an evil police chief and a pack of bloodthirsty dog-men.

In Winter’s End, Mourlevat takes readers on an adventure complete with barbaric games, giant horse-men, and a back story of obsession and revenge.  It’s a fast-paced, very readable book, but The Girl and I longed for more.  Who were the Phalange, and why did they feel a need to take over the government?  It was difficult to feel completely invested in their fight for freedom without knowing exactly what they were fighting against.  It was also hard to connect with the main characters because they were pretty flat, with the exception of Milos.  The Girl and I both loved Milos; he was not only strong and fearless but also a romantic and gentle soul.  As for the others, Helen is likeable but seems to act only when she has to and is absent from the major action.  We’re supposed to view Bart as a leader, but he seems to be pretty weak in that regard, simply benefiting from his father’s reputation as a Resistance leader.  And Milena…The Girl couldn’t stand her because she was portrayed as perfect, with everyone fawning over her and her voice, and it got annoying after awhile.

However, there was plenty to like about this novel as well.  I love that it’s a standalone book, not part of a series or trilogy.  (The Girl disagrees with me on that point; she thinks it would have made a great trilogy if there were more details about the Phalange, the political coup, and the teens’ parents and a better build up to the revolution.)  Despite our issues with the character development, they seemed to be realistic teens in their impulsive decisions and the intense feelings of first love.  And we liked that these characters had the courage to stand up for what they believe is right, even though it could cost them their lives.

Overall, Winter’s End was an enjoyable novel.  The writing wasn’t spectacular, but the story was intriguing.  There were some exciting, edge-of-your-seat scenes, and while there was a lot of violence, it wasn’t overly graphic.  The Girl liked it more than I did, but she’s also the target audience for this book.

Book Club Discussion (beware of possible spoilers)

The Eclectic Bookworms seemed to enjoy the book, with most of us rating it 3 out of 5 stars.  We thought it was the best written of the YA novels we’ve read as a group so far, particularly better than Ashes and Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick.  Some of us found it hard to believe that one girl’s voice could spark a revolution, but it made more sense to others if the book was indeed set in France.  (I’m not up on my French history, so not exactly sure why they thought that.)  We talked about the numerous coincidences, particularly Bart and Milena’s chance meeting given their entwined pasts, and the many scenes where we had to suspend disbelief, like when the police chief (who’s supposed to be an expert hunter) makes an obnoxiously stupid mistake and gets himself killed early on in the book.  With that scene in particular, some of us thought it seemed like the author didn’t know how to get Helen and Milos out of the impossible situation they were in on the mountain.

Some of us were disappointed by the anticlimactic ending and the unnecessary epilogue, and some of us also wanted a more developed and detailed back story.  Some of us even saw some similarities to The Hunger Games when it came to the scenes with the gladiator games.  I was especially surprised that some members wished it had been a trilogy, with the first book focusing on the boarding school, the second on the gladiator games, and the third on the revolution.  I seemed to be in the minority in wanting maybe a longer book, but just one book.

Our book for May is The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman.  I’m really excited about this one because Richman’s The Lost Wife made my Best of 2011 list!  The Girl and I are only about seven chapters in, but we’re enjoying it so far.

If you’ve read Winter’s End, what did you think?  Please let me know in the comments!

Disclosure: I borrowed Winter’s End from my daughter.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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