Book Review: Affinity

Affinity

Sarah Waters

Riverhead Trade

368 pages

Margaret Prior is practically an old maid.  She is nearing 30 and life is looking bleak, so much so that she has already attempted suicide.  The year is 1874 and Margaret has decided to attempt to break up the monotony of her days by visiting the inmates of Millibank prison.  As you can imagine, she meets many desperate, sad characters, who live day in and day out in the bleak, dank cells of the prison.  Fairly quickly though, a particular inmate catches Margaret’s attention.  Her name is Selina Dawes and she is what you might call prophetic: a spiritual medium.  In fact, it is that same livelihood that has landed Selina in prison in the first place.

As her friendship with Selina progresses, Margaret’s interest is piqued and she begins to do some sleuthing.  She is quickly enveloped by Selina’s world, and their relationship blossoms.  Margaret gets in over her head, and she becomes more and more furtive to protect her relationship with Selina.

I was fascinated by the portrayal of the women’s prison, including both the women held captive their as well as the women that were affected by simply working in the prison.  The only aspect of the book that really wasn’t all that interesting to me was the medium part, or as I like to call it, the “hocus pocus”.  As Affinity progressed though, I became more and more enveloped, and I felt myself becoming as naive as Margaret.

There were times when I felt that Affinity might be straying to close to The Little Stranger in that it was moving a little too slow for me and I was beginning to wonder if maybe Waters was moving down on the totem pole as far as favorite authors go.  The ending changed all that.  Obviously, I don’t want to give the ending away, so I’ll keep the specifics to myself, but I will say that there was an aha moment for me, and the entire book started to become more clear.  I began to question everything I had though up to that point, and I was unsure of how to proceed with my jumbled thoughts.  Thus, you can see, Affinity is a book I had to digest long after finishing the last page.

I now have only one Waters book left to read: The Night Watch. So far I have only disliked The Little Stranger, although I can still appreciate the genius of her prose.

Have you read Affinity?  If so, how were you affected by the ending?

Other Reviews:

S Krishna’s Books

Booklust

things mean a lot

She Reads Novels

chasing bawa

A Book Blog. Period.

Fizzy Thoughts

another cookie crumbles

You GOTTA Read This!

I purchased this book from . . . Amazon? Borders?

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Book Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn

Colm Toibin

Scribner

272 pages

Eilis is a young woman growing up with her sister and mother in Ireland.  Her father has died, her brothers moved away, and thus it is just the women of the house fending for themselves.  Eilis is unable to find employment in Ireland, so her sister, hoping to give her more opportunities, arranges for Eilis to move to New York.

Eilis initially has trouble with her move to the US.  Understandably, she has trouble acclimating and her homesickness is almost debilitating.  She is then able to enroll in accounting classes and that, coupled with meeting a young Italian man who quickly becomes her boyfriend, causes her homesickness to slowly dissipate.

After Eilis has found her niche in New York, she is forced to travel home for a few weeks to care for her mother.  While she at first feels like an outsider upon her return home, she then sinks back in to her old life.  This leaves her with a huge decision to make; should she stay in Ireland or go back to New York? Eilis is completely torn, and my interest was completely piqued at this point.  I certainly had my choice as to what I wanted her to do (for those of you who have read the book, the choice Eilis made was the one I was hoping she would choose), so I became completely invested.

I must gush now and tell you all how much I adored this book.  It stuck with me for so long after I put it down.  I never thought it would feel so relevant to me, but Eilis’s struggles were so universal.  I could barely put the book down.

A funny aside about this book.  My sister’s boyfriend recently moved here from Dublin, Ireland, so anytime I am reading a book with Irish names or places that I can’t pronounce, I call him.  I am sure he is getting a little weirded out by now, but one night we were at dinner and I whipped this book out of my purse and asked him how to pronounce Eilis.  He said Ah, Colm Toibin–my dad knows him.  Apparently his father is also an author, and he used to go to school with Toibin.  Obviously I was way more excited about this than any normal person would be, so I sat in the booth squealing for a minute.Apparently, his father is also a fan of Toibin.

Anyway, I don’t know that it bears repeating, as you can obviously tell I loved this book.  It will certainly make my Best of 2011 list, and I certainly plan to read more from Toibin.

Other Reviews:

Books in the City

Lovely Treez Reads

You’ve GOTTA Read This!

A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook

Lakeside Musings

Caribous Mom

Shelf Love

Medieval Bookworm

I purchased this book from . . . Borders? Barnes and Noble?

Book Review: Dangerous Neighbors

Dangerous Neighbors

Beth Kephart

Egmont USA

192 pages

Very few of us know what it is like to be a twin.  The unbreakable bond that comes along with such a relationship is unfathomable, even if the two people in question are unaware of it.  Katherine has had a tumultuous relationship with her twin sister Anna over the past few months, as Anna attempts to break free of the tight knit relationship the sisters share.  Although Katherine is deeply frustrated and irritated over Anna’s defection, her whole world collapses when Anna dies and she is left alone.

Dangerous Neighbors begins after Anna’s death, as Katherine struggles to cope with what has happened.  She is desolate and completely without hope, which pervades the emotional backdrop of the book.  Although it is a theme that could take place anywhere, at any time, the setting is actually Philadelphia in 1876, during which time the centennial celebration is taking place.  I was anticipating a rich historical background with some good drama and enlightenment, and the setting did not disappoint in that respect.  I have an issue when it comes to reading YA historical fiction, that issue being that it is just not a genre I often pick up.  There is no reason as to why that is.  I enjoy historical fiction.  I enjoy YA fiction.  Apparently it just doesn’t come together for me all too often.

Jen, from Devourer of Books, was kind enough to send me a copy of Dangerous Neighbors after I commented on her blog that I wanted to read it.  Quite possibly she was just getting sick of me commenting on every review post of Kephart that I planned to read her but just hadn’t gotten around to it yet!  However, I am going to be honest and say that I wasn’t as impressed with this book as much as I had hoped to or expected to be.  I was kind of expectant, given that Jen’s review clearly mentioned that it was not her favorite Kephart book.  I went into it totally intrigued by the synopsis, and while there were interesting parts in the book, they happened few and far between.  Not to be a total copycat, but I agree with Jen’s theory that maybe Kephart focused too much on her writing style and not as much on following through with the plot. There were way too many holes and too much dead space.  For a book that was only two hundred pages, there were times when it felt a lot longer.

I wouldn’t say that Dangerous Neighbors has turned me off of Kephart completely.  In any normal circumstance, I probably would not read anything else by an author after reading such a lackluster book, but given the fact that Kephart is a pretty well revered YA author around the blogosphere, I would definitely be willing to give her another go.

Other Reviews:

Devourer of Books

Dear Author

Books, Movies & Chinese Food

Write Meg!

Word Lily

You’ve GOTTA Read This!

Caribous Mom

Booking Mama

I received a copy of this book from a fellow blogger.

Book Review: What Alice Knew

What Alice Knew

Paula Marantz Cohen

Sourcebooks Landmark

352 pages

Henry James is an author who has gained popularity as an author since he wrote during the Victorian period.  That was about all I knew about Mr James when I picked up this book, and it turned out that his occupation as an author had little to do with the premise of this book.

James, instead, finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery.  Jack the Ripper has taken London by storm, and everyone watches in horror as one by one more murders are committed.  James’s brother, William, is called over from the US by Scotland Yard to aid in the investigation, and he and James quickly come to their own conclusions as to who the perp is.

Lastly, the two brothers are aided by their sister, Alice.  Alice is interesting because her worldviews are that of a feminist but she is a self induced invalid who seemingly cannot bear to get out of bed and face the real world. However, she has a woman’s sensibility that her two brothers lack, and although all three siblings work together to solve the crime, Alice is the one whose levelheadedness helps to solve the crime.

You may remember a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed The Dracula Dossier.  Both books are about Jack the Ripper, although the narrator of The Dracula Dossier is Bram Stoker. I found it interesting that Oscar Wilde played a bit part in both books!

I liked the fact that the books were so incredibly different, despite having the same basis.  I thought both authors made a convincing argument and it was fun to see how both books ended.

Other Reviews:

Devourer of Books

Rundpinne

Reading with Tequila

Books I Done Read

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Book Review: Burning Bright

Burning Bright

Tracy Chevalier

Penguin Group

320 pages

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I admit it—I loves me some William Blake.  I am not a poetry lover by any means.  In fact, I was one of those self professed poetry haters in college, much to the chagrin of my professors.  Slowly though, my opinion started to shift and I even found some poetry that I enjoyed reading!  Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience were some of my favorite poems.  That fact, coupled with my enjoyment of Tracy Chevalier’s other books made Burning Bright an obvious choice for me.

Jem Kellaway is an adolescent boy who has just moved with his family from England ’s countryside to the hard knock streets of London in 1792.  He and his family are mourning the death of Jem’s brother and they are trying to make a clean break of things.  Life in London though is not what they anticipated, and fitting in is difficult to do.  Jem’s father has brought his family to London after being offered a job by Philip Astley, the ostentatious proprietor of Astley’s Circus.  Meanwhile, Jem also befriends a local girl named Maggie, who is his polar opposite (think innocent vs experienced).  Maggie has been brought up on the streets of London and her father is a professional swindler, so she is a bit jaded.

Maggie and Jem quickly become fascinated with their neighbor, the poet William Blake.  Blake is infamous around London for his political leanings, but Maggie and Jem, along with Jem’s sister Maisie, soon discover that Blake is an interesting man to be around.  Despite the fact that they are kids, he is always willing to have a chat with them, show them his printing press, etc.

So here’s my beef with the book.  If you read my Sunday Salon from 11/6/2010, then you know that I complained about this book being boring.  I did end up changing my tune, as I felt that the second half of the book picked up.  However, I don’t think Chevalier executed Burning Bright as well as she did her other books.  For instance, as with this book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring also involved a famous man (in this case, Vermeer).  The story was

William Blake

told from the viewpoint of one of his servants as opposed to one of his neighbors, but the effect was still the same—take a normal, everyday person and have them tell the story of a more famous person.  I don’t think that we got the intimate view of Blake that we did with Vermeer.  He seemed two dimensional and almost like an afterthought.  He could have been any old random character thrown in the mix.  He did not take center stage in the story.  I really felt that was a shame, as Blake was an interesting guy.  Chevalier could have gone so much further with it.

I did enjoy the metaphor of innocence versus experience, and I thought that it gave the book a little twist.  Otherwise though, I feel that the book was about Jem and Maggie and not about William Blake.  In trying to separate my expectations of the book from what it really is, I can say that this is a fun piece of historical fiction that could have stood on its own.  However, given that Blake should have had a larger part, I can’t say that I am not disappointed with how it all turned out.

Other Reviews:

I *know* I recently read a review for this one on another blog but now I can’t find it!

I purchased this book from Half Price Books.

Book Review: The Sealed Letter

The Sealed Letter

Emma Donoghue

Mariner Books

416 pages

Helen Codrington and Emily “Fido” Faithfull are the best of friends.  They’ve certainly had ups and downs in their friendship, but who hasn’t? Helen has been away in Malta for seven years when she returns in 1864 and runs into Fido in England .  The two pick up right where they left off and quickly become close again.  Fido is well aware that Helen’s marriage to Admiral Codrington was on rocky territory when she last saw the couple in 1857, but she is hopeful that they have turned over a new leaf.  Oh, how wrong she was!

Fido soon discovers that not only has the marriage not improved, but Helen has started behaving in a licentious way.  She is having an affair with one of her husband’s colleagues and goes so far as to have relations with him in Fido’s own home.  Fido has long been for the rights of women, especially when it comes to the idea of women having gainful employment.  She owns a press that runs a women’s magazine and thus seems to be someone ahead of the fold.  However, when it comes to real life, Fido is pretty innocent and naïve.  She is shocked at Helen’s behavior but is quick to believe all of the rigmarole and excuses that Helen tosses to her left and right.  Helen’s husband, the Admiral Codrington, is a tad brighter than Fido however, and he begins to see Helen for the master manipulator that she is.

Admiral Codrington catches Helen in a lie one night, and instantly his suspicion is alight.  He has someone follow her for days in the hopes of discovering whether or not she has retained her virtue.  As I am sure you can imagine, he hits pay dirt.  Enter one of the more notorious divorce trials of the Victorian era.  Once the Admiral discovers the siren ways of his wife, he wants a divorce.  It’s not that easy in Victorian England though.  While the man obviously has the upper hand, he has to prove his wife’s ills without himself being guilty of causing her behavior.  If the Admiral can convince the jury that Helen behaved the way she did through no fault of his own, he would be granted a divorce and never have to pay Helen a dime, nor let her see their two daughters.  Should it be found that his actions did, at least somewhat, warrants Helen’s behavior, then they would only be granted a legal separation.  Obviously the latter is much more beneficial to Helen, and she sets about doing whatever she can to ensure that her husband will not be 

Fido gets caught in the middle of the warring couple and is forced to discover that her true friend may not be the person Fido originally thought she was.

I finished this book in bed one night.  I was tired and should have fallen fast asleep the second my eyes closed, but I could not stop thinking about this book.  It was such a catch-22.  I loathed Helen.  It would be impossible not to.  She willingly steps all over anyone she can in order to get what she wants.  She knows Fido is a faithful friend, and she uses that to her best advantage.  And yet . . . maybe Helen has no other choice.  Is she not just a product of her times?  She has absolutely no options open to her.  She’s unhappy in her marriage and seeks contentment elsewhere.  For that, she is cut off from her lifestyle and children forever.  It seems grossly unfair to me.  That being said, she put herself in an even worse position by casting out everyone that loved and cared for her.  Even her husband wasn’t a bad guy.  So as you can see, either way Helen was damned.  That doesn’t excuse her behavior, but maybe it mitigates it just a little.

The Sealed Letter is based on a true story.  Donoghue did a fantastic job weaving fact and fiction together.  It can be difficult to tell a true story while still injecting enough fiction into it to interest the reader.  In comparing this book to another book of the same nature, 31 Bond Street , by Ellen Horan, Donoghue’s effort is much greater and more successful.  I just felt that she used every scrap of truth when possible, and I really appreciate that.

If you’re a fan of Victorian based literature, you must check out Donoghue.  She reminds me a bit of Sarah Waters and the other book I’ve read of hers, Slammerkin, is exceptional.  I can’t wait now to read Room!

Other Reviews:

A Bookworm’s World

So Many Books, So Little Time

Tiny Little Reading Room

I bought this book, most likely from Barnes & Noble, although I can’t be 100% sure.

This book counts towards the Women Unbound Challenge.  Given that it won the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian fiction, I suppose it also counts towards the GLBT challenge.



Book Review: Yellow Jack

Yellow Jack

Josh Russell

WW Norton & Company

250 pages

Today marks exactly two weeks until my wedding and since I am getting married in New Orleans, I decided to spend these two weeks focused on literature set in NO.  Yellow Jack was my first pick and boy was it a good one!

I chose Yellow Jack for one reason, besides the fact that it is based in NO. The reason is because it’s about a pestilence–for whatever reason that fascinates me.  In reality, “yellow jack” played a role in the book, but it involved so much more. 

Claude Marchand is studying under Daguerre in Europe when the two of them discover the daguerreotype–pretty much the first form of photography.  Because I am a novice to the process, I will quote my good friend Wikipedia:

The image in a Daguerreotype is formed by amalgam i.e. a combination of mercury and silver. Mercury vapor from a pool of heated mercury is used to develop the plate that consists of a copper plate with a thin coating of silver rolled in contact that has previously been sensitised to light with iodine vapour so as to form silver iodide crystals on the silver surface of the plate.

Exposure times were later reduced by using bromine to form silver bromide crystals.

The image is formed on the surface of the silver plate that looks like a mirror. It can easily be rubbed off with the fingers and will oxidise in the air, so from the outset daguerreotypes were mounted in sealed cases or frames with a glass cover.

The image in a Daguerreotype is formed by amalgam i.e. a combination of mercury and silver. Mercury vapor from a pool of heated mercury is used to develop the plate that consists of a copper plate with a thin coating of silver rolled in contact that has previously been sensitised to light with iodine vapour so as to form silver iodide crystals on the silver surface of the plate.

Exposure times were later reduced by using bromine to form silver bromide crystals.

The image is formed on the surface of the silver plate that looks like a mirror. It can easily be rubbed off with the fingers and will oxidise in the air, so from the outset daguerreotypes were mounted in sealed cases or frames with a glass cover.

When viewing the daguerreotype, a dark surface is reflected into the mirrored silver surface, and the reproduction of detail in sharp photographs is very good, partly because of the perfectly flat surface.

Marchand decides to flee Europe and when he travels to New Orleans, he introduces the dagguereotype, which he renames “soliotype”, and opens a studio.  Many of the soliotypes Marchand does are “memorials”, meaning that they are done after death.  I had heard a bit about that before reading Yellow Jack, but I hadn’t realized how popular it was! According to the book, many people didn’t even have their picture taken at all during their life–only after death.  I did a Google image search and apparently the prevalence of memorial dagguereotypes is true, because I found a TON. 

So anyway, obviously the city is being plagued, literally, and the morbidity of life back then is all too real to Marchand, but there is more to the book than that.  Marchand is caught in a love triagnle between Millicent, a gritty street girl, and Vivian, who was born into the lap of luxury.  Marchand seems to value them based on their social status–he treats Millicent like crap while he worships Vivian, yet he seems to be in love with both of them.  The novel is very erotic and the love triangle between Claude, Vivian and Millicent is intriguing.

Yellow Jack is full of so many intricacies, that I feel like I have only touched on a small part of the book.  The format was conducive to the novel and made it more readable.  It switched back and forth between Marchand and is point of view, Millicent’s diary entries and excerpts from a modern history book.  If you enjoy historical fiction but are looking for something different, check this book out!

Other Reviews:

None that I could fine!

I borrowed this book from my local library.