Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse is the story of one summer in the life of Cécile, a seventeen year old girl, and her father, Raymond, a wealthy widowed womaniser, aged forty. Cécile has failed her recent university exams, but doesn't much care - she doesn't have to with her father around to support her - and all she wants to do is swim, lay around on the beach, and fall in love temporarily with Cyril, a young man she meets in the sea. She is comfortable and innocent in her hedonistic life, with no mother and a careless father who she barely knew before her return from boarding school to start university in Paris.

Raymond has brought along Elsa, his current, twenty-nine year old, mistress, so Cécile is greatly surprised when it turns out he has also invited Anne, who is forty-two and has a much more serious personality than theirs, to stay with them. Gradually Cécile notices that Anne is really much more beautiful and clever than Elsa, and she realises that her father will soon make Anne his new mistress.

She has the shock of her life when Raymond announces that he intends to marry Anne, and when Anne makes it very clear that she will change their lives forever. Cécile is torn - she admires Anne and imagines she will be moulded into a better person by her stepmother, but she loves her easy, carefree life and mindlessly following her impulses and passions. Anne wants Cécile to study for her exam retakes and to stop seeing Cyril, and Cécile rebels, pretending to study whilst really plotting and sneaking out to meet Cyril and Elsa. She plans to use them to break her father and Anne up, even though she knows it is wrong. She imagines that if she changes her mind, she can stop the plan at any moment, manipulate everything as she chooses, but she is tragically wrong.

This is an very short novel, translated from the original French, the edition I have read and am reviewing was translated by Irene Ash for Penguin books. It is told in first person from Cécile's point of view, and the detail of characterisation reflects her interests - Anne is the character that is depicted in the most detail, whereas Raymond, Cyril and Elsa are drawn quickly and are not really explored. Cécile has no interest in anyone but herself normally, but Anne is a threat to Cécile's way of life, and a woman completely different from her but equally skilled at manipulating people. This story is completely free from obvious moral or ethical criticism, Cécile and Raymond do not judge their own actions, they simply do not care about anyone or anything enough to do so, and it is left for the reader to judge the characters and their behaviour, which I feel gives the book more of an impact.

I found this book to be a quick, absorbing read, and I would recommend it to anyone with a spare couple of hours! I just got the 1958 film adaptation out of my university library and am looking forward to comparing the two.

Wikipedia entries, on the author and on the book

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review: Beauty, by Robin McKinley

Beauty is a retelling of the story of 'Beauty and the Beast', in first person, from the point of view of Beauty. The storyline is pretty much the same as in the traditional story but some details are changed.

Beauty is a nickname, her real name is Honour but as a child she decided that she'd rather be called Beauty, and the name stuck. She does not, however, consider herself beautiful. Beauty likes riding horses and reading, and when her father's business fails and one of her sisters marries, the whole family moves out of the town to start a new life in the countryside, and Beauty finds herself very capable at manual labour. Then news comes from town that one of the ships Beauty's father owned may have returned, and he goes out to see if this is true. On the way home he becomes lost, and finds his way to the home of the beast.

This book does an excellent job of fleshing out the characters of 'Beauty and the Beast', making them more real. Beauty's sisters are not ugly caricatures here, which I liked, and the magical castle in which the Beast lived was a fascinating place to see described.

This is probably the best-loved of Robin McKinley's books, the first of her novels to be published, I was recommended it several times before I finally picked it up in a library sale. However, I preferred her more recent novel, Spindle's End, which I read before Beauty (review coming soon). Most readers seem to think Beauty the better book, but I didn't enjoy it as much. Beauty is an interesting but pretty passive heroine, and 'Beauty and the Beast' was never one of my favourite stories - it's basically a romanticisation of Stockholm syndrome! The Beast in Beauty is just like the one in the original tale - he holds Beauty hostage in the hope that she will fall in love with him, and I just couldn't see him as a hero. I also found Beauty to be too obsessed with the way she looks, and was disappointed that in the end she does become "beautiful" (which means taller and more mature looking), I would have preferred to see her get over it!

I think anyone who loves the story of 'Beauty and the Beast' will really enjoy this, but if you always found the plot of the original to be a bit thin, you won't like it so much. This is a book aimed at children, I'd say pre-teens onwards would be best suited to it, but many adults have enjoyed it as well.

Book Review: The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman

From The British Library
The Mammoth Cheese is rather a mammoth story (sorry, I know...). It's about a small town in Virginia, called Three Chimneys, and the people who live there during the time after the town first gets a lot of media attention when one of the women gives birth to eleven babies.

Manda Frank, didn't want eleven babies, who would? She wanted one, having already had one daughter, and generally preferring her dogs to people. But she gives birth to all eleven, after the local pastor convinces her not to selectively abort any, and as a result makes the national news, and is bombarded with gifts and offers of help that she would rather not need. Her old house was too small and a new one is being built around her as she lives in it, but when some of the tiny, weak children die, the gifts and help stop coming, and she, her husband, her first daughter and her village are left to deal with everything (including a court case brought against her "on behalf" of the children who didn't survive).

Meanwhile, Margaret Prickett's cheesemaking farm is failing, and she decides to make the mammoth cheese of the title and take it to Washington to get media attention for herself and other struggling small farms and to hold the newly elected president to his promises. She is so busy with this and the electoral campaign for the man she thinks will save her, she fails to notice that the pastor's son August Vaughn is in love with her, and her daughter Polly is falling in love with her charismatic, rebellious history teacher, Mr March.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and the story moves point of view a lot which made it hard for me to empathise with all the characters and make up my mind what I thought about them and their actions. The plots don't interweave as much as I expected them to, which was disappointing, I though the characters should have had much more impact on each others lives.

It's a very American story. Its location is vitally important, a character itself. The nature of American politics is an important 'theme' in this novel, with characters discussing it in conversation as well as plotlines being based around an presidential campaign. I didn't think this was particularly well introduced, this book was intended primarily for an American audience and as a British reader I didn't get some of the references or understand how the system worked, but I do know more about Thomas Jefferson now than I did before!

I never really felt pulled into this story. At no point was I really excited to find out what happens next, I finished it because I found the descriptions of cheesemaking interesting and I don't like to leave a book unfinished. I also didn't like the Christian point of view lots of the characters had, I am not religious myself and so I felt really alienated. The particularly religious characters didn't even feel bad about encouraging Manda Frank to have all the babies despite the consequences for more than a few pages. Some details about the characters were repeated far too often, and I didn't feel that the author got Polly's characterisation right. Even when the story was focused around her, it felt like her actions were being described by an distant adult, and that her thoughts were much too simplified.

I was glad to finish this book, and still have mixed feelings about it. I didn't really enjoy the book as a whole and I thought the plots could have been stronger, but I did like learning about all the little details of rural life. I probably won't read any other books by this author or this one again. I would only recommend it to readers who regularly enjoy stories set in small-town rural America, or who find the plot description really appealing.

Book Review: Acorna's Children: Second Wave, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

This book is the ninth book in the series begun with Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball's "Acorna the Unicorn Girl" and the second in the continuation series, Acorna's Children, following on from the original books centred around Acorna. The original Acorna books are a must-read if you are to completely understand the setting for these books, as very little background information is given in this novel, and events and characters from the previous stories are referred to frequently. You will also need to read the first in this series, "First Warning".

In "Second Wave" the plague is no longer killing people but will start to attack in a new way. Khorii's parents, Acorna Harakamian-Li and Aari, along with their friends Captain Jonas Becker, RK (Roadkill) the cat and Maak the android are in quarantine, still infected with the plague organisms which only Khorii can see. She sets off with her cat Khiindi, and her android brother Elviiz to try to find out how the plague works, but all does not go to plan, with interruptions from new friends, space pirates, Marl Fidd, and the arrival of Khorii's twin sister, Ariinye or for short Ariin, who was stolen from Acorna's womb before they were born.

And it all has something to do with Khiindi, who is clearly not just an ordinary Makahomian Temple Cat...

I would say that the characterisation is just as shallow in this book as in the others, and overall the characters are a bit too nice although some interesting people appear in this book - I wish they had been developed in more detail.

The plot gets more exciting yet complicated. It can be hard to keep track of what Khorii and her friends are meant to be doing as opposed to what they actually end up doing instead for a while every journey they take. This is why I give this book three stars rather than the four "First Warning" received from me.

I would recommend "Second Wave" and the rest of this series for mid-teenagers most as the principal characters are around that age themselves. The ending of this book is left open for the story to be concluded in the third and last novel in the Acorna's Children series, "Third Watch".


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