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Posts tagged ‘strong female characters’

Waiting on You

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 by: Kristan Higgins

I picked up this romance novel at Rite Aid a week or so ago (along with ice cream and pop chips; it was not a good day) on the recommendation of two of my favorite authors, Eloisa James and Julia Quinn.  With a double whammy, how can you go wrong?

And I didn’t.  While not my favorite romance novel ever, it was probably the best one from a new author I’ve picked up in a long, long time.  The characterizations were really good, with the main characters and most of the supporting characters being extremely well-developed.  There were one or two supporting characters that came across as a little “type-y” rather than depending on Higgins’ characterization to develop, but it certainly wasn’t an egregious overuse.

The plotline was good – it’s one of those “old love comes back to town” kind of deals.  I’m really fond of that plot device – I think it makes for a more believable bond between the two main characters.  And Higgins put a pretty interesting twist on it here, without making it too angst-ridden.  The pacing was really nice; at no point did I feel like it was either dragging or leaving me with my head spinning.

The book itself was light and full of humor.  I don’t think it actually made me laugh or chuckle at any point, but it certainly worked as an escape mechanism.  One of the things I liked best is how Higgins handled secondary relationships between the main characters and their friends and family.  Without overshadowing the main relationship of the book, Higgins manages to make them important to the characters’ development and believable.  It helps to round out the characters, but it also makes the book seem more grounded in reality.  Family and friends generally are an important part of any life decision and it’s always weird to me when authors neglect those relationships in favor of a romantic relationship.  Higgins struck an exceptionally good balance, I feel, especially for a contemporary novel where it’s so easy to create situations where the characters can be removed from their families.

The book draws a lot from Jane Austen’s Emma and at first, I thought it was going to be a little too much “men are like X and to trap them women must Y.”  That is not an attitude I’m fond of at all.  But instead, Higgins used that set-up to create some interesting situations and invert those expectations.  (Much like Austen’s Emma, so perhaps I should have expected that, rather than risking brain damage by rolling my eyes so hard during the first few pages.)

There was lots and lots of sexual tension in this book but very little actual sex.  (I don’t recall reading any, although sometimes I just skim over those scenes.)  I was kinda meh about this aspect of the book – didn’t think a lot or a little of it.

All in all, if you like contemporary romances that are light and fun, you should definitely give Waiting on You a try.  It was a very good bit of escapism.  If you like your romances heavy sexualized or dark, or if you like them completely focused on the relationship between the two main characters, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

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Enchanted

enchanted

by: Alethea Kontis

Blog note: I won a contest over at Ensis Reads, formally Don’t Read! I got this wicked awesome traveling coffee mug (LOVE IT!), and I am going to do a full post with pictures this weekend!

This is the first book in The Woodcutter Sisters series, a book based on the family of Jack and Seven Woodcutter, and featuring modern retellings of European fairy tales – quite a few of them feature in each book.

The woodcutter sisters are seven sisters born to a woodcutter and his wife (naturally).  Each of the girls is named after a different day of the week.  Sunday, our heroine, is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter – I do love that in this world, that is equally powerful as the seventh son of a seventh son.  Sunday befriends a frog in the woods and thus starts an adventure to change the life of her and her sisters forever.  And yes, this book is based mostly on The Frog Prince, one of my favorite fairy tales.

As a protagonist, I liked Sunday a lot.  She was thoughtful and somewhat dreamy, but she still did things and was very much an active participant in the story.  The frog prince, Rumbold, is also a good character – very flawed but likable.  He spends a lot of time in the story learning to be a man, without having it be the central theme of the story.  I very much appreciate that – I feel like too often a main male character growing into manhood automatically becomes the center of the story.  Here, though, it is an important part without overpowering the story. I didn’t necessarily think he was romantic or dashing or any of the things I like my romantic heroes to be – but I did think he was an interesting character and a good fit for Sunday.

The plot was good, though the pacing was a little weird.  There was a bit too much going on, even though it’s a fairy long YA novel.  It was partly because Kontis was fairly obviously trying to set up plotlines for all the continuing book in the series, plus introduce other characters which have already had their adventures, like her sister Thursday.  (That was pretty irritating.  Thursday runs off to sea and becomes a pirate captain.  I want to read that story!) Three of Sunday’s siblings have already found their ever after; one of them finds it as a minor side plot in this story.  The writing was quite good, but there was simply too much going on.  I feel like Kontis could have worried less about making sure we understand everything that’s happened or is happening to this family and worried more about tightening up the plot.

The book, however, was engaging and I definitely stayed up late to finish it! A great sign.  Unfortunately, it also wasn’t that memorable.  While I definitely want to read other books in the series, I did have trouble recalling what happened in this book while writing this review. I think part of that is so much happened that my brain kinda gave up on it.

The characters were, as a whole, engaging and interesting but Kontis ran into the same problem with them as she did with the plot; namely, there were too many that she was trying to give too much attention to.  That means some of the characters, like Wednesday, became “tells” and not “shows.”  Sunday tells us a lot about Wednesday but the reader never gets to see her behaving in her odd Wednesday ways, so her particular storyline isn’t very convincing or engaging, even though she’s central to what happens in the story.  On the other hand, I completely fell in love with Saturday and cannot wait to read her book.  The characters that Kontis fully fleshes out are done extremely well and absolutely perfect for a YA novel.

The flaws didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story but I do think a strong red pen could’ve turned this story from a book I really liked to a book I’d rave about.  That makes me a little sad, to be completely truthful, though I’m happy I read it anyway.

If you’re into YA novels with a strong fairy tale influence or if you like ordinary teenage characters who have extraordinary adventures, you should definitely pick this one up! If you don’t like the feeling of being plunged into the middle of a series (I know it’s billed as the first, but it doesn’t feel like it), or if you like your fairy tale retellings with a darker or socially relevant edge, than alack! this may not the book for you.

Mistress: A History of the Other Woman

mistress

by: Elizabeth Abbott

I was really excited when I found this book.  A history of mistresses – what’s not to love? It’s a carefully curated collection of mistresses’ stories; generally famous ones, whose stories tend to be between 3-7 pages long.  There are 400 pages in the book, so there a quite a few stories covered.  It is the perfect book for any stop and start readers, as it’s really easy to fit in a page or three here and there.

I was even more excited when I started reading it and found it was actually pretty darn good.  Abbott focuses mostly on British and American mistresses from the 19th and 20th centuries, though she does touch on East Asia, the Middle East, Ancient Greek, women indigenous to the Americas, and a little bit of non-UK Europe. She does cover quite a few people, and none in much depth.  I actually really enjoyed that aspect; it was like a survey course in mistressdom and it definitely piqued my interest in a few women in particular.

Abbott is a good but not great writer and there are a few parts, especially the conclusions of individual stories, where it feels a little stilted.  There’s a few minor organization issues that detract from a smooth reading experience but nothing that should keep you from enjoying the book.

One of the best things about the book was how explicit she was in discussing and analyzing the situations these women were placed in, merely by being born a woman.  She looks with a sympathetic eye towards the times they were born into, while also being honest about their flaws and mistakes as people.  The amount of context she manages to add, in such very short spaces, is amazing and very well-done.

I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes with the wording she used about sex when talking about women who were unfaithful.  But, halfway through the book, it became clear she was treating the men in her story the same way she was treating the women.  I couldn’t tell if it was my own bias influencing how I read it or if Abbott had a slight bias that was peeking through.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter. For the most part, Abbott’s book is well-balanced and fair, dealing with both the moral implications and the realities of the world people were living in.

I was really intrigued by the women she chose – everyone from the desperate and loved-crazed to the practical and money-driven. There were rich and famous women, middle class women, poor women, women who wanted fame by association, women who wanted marriage, and women who wanted freedom.  It was truly eye-opening.  It painted a picture of what being a mistress was like while showcasing such a wide variety of women who chose to become mistresses.

Sometimes there was a little more focus on the man the mistress was sleeping with than the woman herself, but I think this was more a result of what information was available – often the man’s life was more thoroughly chronicled than the woman’s.  All in all, it was a really excellent book looking at a position that has been so important but so under-discussed throughout history. I would highly recommend it.

If you’re into women’s history, alternative looks at history, or the lives of famous figures, you should definitely give this book a chance! If you’re not into tales of moral ambiguity or if clunky conclusions are a pet peeve of yours, than you might want to give it pass.

I Shall Wear Midnight

I shall wear midnightby: Terry Pratchett

Ah, two Pratchett novels in less than 7 days! My mom got them for me for Christmas and I ended up reading them one right after the other, due to my current need for light reading to relieve stress.

I Shall Wear Midnight is the most recent installment in the Tiffany Aching series that Pratchett writes for the young ones.  They follow the tales of Tiffany Aching, who starts off deciding to be a witch in The Wee Free Men and finally comes into her own as a witch in I Shall Wear Midnight.

My favorite Pratchett quote comes from The Wee Free Men, actually. It is sheer Tiffany, though she doesn’t say it, and goes as such:

“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Tiffany is a great character.  She’s smart, perceptive, and full of common sense.  I’ve liked her in both books, even as she is noticeably more mature in this one. It’s hard to grow a character well, but Pratchett does it.  Tiffany, from whose point of view the book is told, in third person limited, has a sympathetic yet firm way of looking at people. This is helpful, as a dark force is beginning to turn the population of the Chalk and Ank-Morpork against witches and Tiffany must find a way to save herself without turning against the very people she’s supposed to help.

The book starts off with (spoiler!) a man having brutally beaten his daughter.  There are somewhat extenuating circumstances – dark forces are at work – and this and that happen, but in the end, the man never really receives punishment for his actions.  In contrast, there is a female character who is rather unpleasant, yet still a good person, and she receives a distinct comeuppance.

Don’t get me wrong – there was a whole lot this book got right but… That really didn’t sit well with me.  Perhaps because domestic violence, especially against women, too often goes unpunished in our society. Perhaps because the man who was deplorable but maybe redeemable didn’t require a punishment but the unpleasant yet good woman did; why is it easier to freely forgive a man beating his daughter than a woman being rude?

Anyway, onto things I really liked about this book.  Tiffany, like I said, is amazing, and the whole crew – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Oggs, and the Nac Mac Feegles – is there.  I loved Tiffany’s insights into growing up female and her interactions with Leticia, the other main female character.  Though they don’t quite develop a friendship, I thought the interactions between Tiffany and Leticia were the best parts of the book.  I especially loved how Tiffany, now working full-time as a witch and making adult decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis, does not let anyone call her (or Leticia) a girl.

Tiffany’s narration of the plot was a nearly perfect blend of observations, reactions, and analysis.  Enough mundane things happened that you got a sense of who Tiffany is, and how the village runs, but never get bored.  Then the exciting and adventurous things occur, of course, and while I got swept up in them, I never lost the narrator.  It always felt like Tiffany was present and experiencing and reacting to the events rather than telling a story.

On the whole, it’s an excellent older child’s/YA fantasy book – better than most, I would say.  But – Pratchett’s Aching novels always feel to me like a simpler, slightly diluted version of his adult work; a toning down of the sharpest edges of wit and very little cynicism.  And I just prefer his adult novels.  I read these ones when I have a chance – but I don’t seek them out.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a YA novel with witty observations and great humor, or if you love Pratchett, you should definitely try reading this book.  If you don’t like escapism books that deliberately provoke thought, however humorously, or if you want your Pratchett with an adult edge, then, alas!, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

A Natural History of Dragons

anaturalhistoryofdragonsby: Marie Brennan

Apparently I never wrote or posted a review of one of the most awesome books I read last year.  The funny thing is that I started this review twice but then never finished it. Well, it’s being published today, though I read the book many months ago.

A Natural History of Dragons is the memoir of the fictional Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost expert on all things dragon.  Set in an alternate version of Victorian England, it is truly one of the best books I read last year, despite my lack of review.

This particular books covers Lady Trent’s formative years, as she begins to develop and pursue her interest in dragons and the natural sciences.  One of the things that I most loved was that Lady Trent did not set out to be a trailblazer and completely revolutionize the world of dragons and women’s role in the sciences.  She just worked towards opportunities and took them when she could.  Don’t get me wrong, the world needs revolutionaries and trailblazers, but a lot happens because of people like Lady Trent, who aren’t necessarily striking a blow for (here) feminism as much as they are following their interests and passions without much regard for the rules.

Within this book, Lady Trent is exploring how to live in a society that does not approve of ladies doing unlady-like things, and is trying to balance conforming to gender roles with being herself.  I like the way the book is realistic about the types of challenges she must face, from outsiders and from the men who are in charge of her life, and also from within, in terms of how she thinks she must behave and how she wants to be able to function inside society.

The plotline itself was a fun adventure.  It had a strong scientific bent that I really enjoyed – not science jargon, just an inclusion of what scientific work is often like. (Detail-orientated, demanding, repetitive, and often boring.) Lady Trent, who has always had an unusually strong interest in the natural sciences, finds herself and her husband presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, to travel to a remote village in a foreign country and study dragons.  Though it’s not at all proper for a Victorian lady to traipse off after adventure, she strikes upon a plan that will let her maintain some of her reputation and most of her adventure, and sets off with her husband for a life-changing adventure.

Lady Trent herself is a practical person, not given to flights of emotion or idealization about the world.  She’s of a very scientific bent, detailed and prone to thinking things through and accepting the realities of the world as she sees them.  She has no illusion as to what studying dragons will do to her reputation or standing in society, nor does she think she can survive outside of society as an outcast.  But she is prepared for adventure and clearheaded; this is no Jane running off to study gorillas, but a Madame Curie, determined and steadfast.

I don’t have the book anymore, having given it away in preparation for the Great Move this month, but it really is one of my absolute favorites and I can’t wait for the sequel, which comes out in March.  I know I ranted on about Lady Trent in this review, but I do assure you, the plot was well-done: adventurous, a little suspenseful, and including a fairly broad range of characters that I really enjoyed; the writing was excellent, and overall the book really worked.

If you like strong female characters, dragons, science, adventure, or are just looking for a good fantasy book, you should give this one a try! If you like characters who are emotional or dramatic, or if you are not a fan of a slightly drier style of writing, then perhaps this is not the book for you.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the laneby: Neil Gaiman

I know it’s been a few months since this came out, but my mom bought me a signed copy for Christmas so I held off on reading it until I received the signed copy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s latest fairy tale.  Gaiman always writes things with a darker edge, and this was no exception. It was written more along the lines of Coraline and Stardust than, say, American Gods or Neverwhere, with a simpler plot line and less complicated storytelling.  It is an adult’s book, though I would say anyone 12+ could safely read it.  (There is a part or two that might exclude your under-12 crowd; a not-terribly-indiscreet sex scene, or implied sex scene – there’s rather passionate kissing – and a few scary and many suspenseful parts.)

It’s the story of a nameless narrator, who goes back to his hometown in his middle age and finds himself wandering out to his old childhood home and then onto his old neighbor’s property. After a cup of tea and some conversation, he finds himself at the edge of a pond, struggling with half-formed memories.  But then he remembers – it’s not a pond, it’s an ocean.  And both he and the reader are plunged back into the year he was 7, a year of adventures and magic and mysterious others.

I won’t delve much on the plot. It’s good – fast, intriguing, paced well enough that you hold your breath during the scary parts and never quite relax until the end.  There’s lots going on and it’s much less fill-in-the-holes-y than some of his other stuff. (American Gods, anybody?)  Which is nice; this is a short read but also a quick one.  At the same time, it still feels like you’re reading a Gaiman novel; the world is complex and you can tell there’s more going on than he’s letting the reader see.

It’s told in first person POV and we can only see what our 7 yr old narrator sees; it’s not colored, at least not obviously, by the 40 yr old’s recollections.  I really liked the choice of narrator, actually. He’s observant and intelligent, though believable as a child.  He’s very sympathetic and he does have all those moments children dream of having, like rebelling against authority figures and being right while the parents are wrong – though, of course, not in the way you’d expect.  At the same time, he’s flawed and well-rounded.  He’s brave, but not extraordinarily so, which I appreciated.  So rarely do you read of a hero in an adventure with ordinary courage, if that makes any sense.

The neighbors, by the way, are the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live at the edge of the ocean.  They possess great, but not unlimited, power.  The grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, is a woman both comforting and intimidating.  Her granddaughter, Lettie, is practical and extraordinarily brave, in a very matter-of-fact way.  In the non-literary sense, they are the heroes of the story.  I, of course, love strong female characters and this book is peppered with them.  They’re – I hesitate to say well-rounded; not every character needs to be well-rounded – but well-developed.  The reader begins to understand them, and though they may not be terribly multi-faceted and complex, they are immense and deep characters and it is enough.

The book is driven by plot, though not at the expense of the characters.  Though character growth is not focused on – and indeed, I am not sure that many of the characters even grow – it does a great job of exploring the characters, which was enough to satisfy me, especially given the brevity of the story.  In short, it’s a remarkably well-balanced book and I absolutely loved it.  And, it should go without saying that Gaiman is an excellent writer and this was no exception.

If you have been wanting to like Neil Gaiman but find his works intimidating, or if you like darker fantasy books, or if you like child narrators (ug, sorry if that sounds weird), you should definitely give this one  a shot.  If you lean more towards epics or stories where the main character is heroic and saves the day, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.