Friday, August 23, 2013

A Pre-Revolutionary French Feast of Fiction

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood

In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Marie d'Aumout's earliest memories are of eating beetles from the dung heap outside his dead parent's home. After being rescued from this, he’s brought to a school for other sons of the impoverished aristocracy. There he begins a new life, one that brings him many adventures, and throughout it all, he culls his palate for exotic foods and fills his journals the remarkable recipes he invents.

Using realistic French aristocratic surnames and including mentions of such people as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, Grimwood brings an authenticity to this unusual tale, which underlies the audacity of the story. Jean-Marie tells us his whole life history himself. He starts with his rescue by a 'vicomte' and his bastard son who introduce him to his first taste of Roquefort. From there, he recounts his education and connections to other boys, most of who are like himself – born into families with nothing left but their noble names. As he proves himself in school and his military service, he walks a path that leads him into the type of life which he ever would have expected. Throughout all of this, he feeds his lusts and desires, both sexual and culinary. Knowing French history, we realize this lifestyle was doomed at the onset. But in getting to that end, Grimwood takes us on a journey that is both fantastic and fascinating.

With all this, Grimwood also gives us many recipes of Jean-Marie’s personal invention. With a wry humor, he concludes almost all of them with notations of their tastes, many of which are unsurprisingly “like chicken.” What makes them unusual is that their primary proteins won’t be on your local restaurant menus, and include things like cat, dog, snake, wolf, flamingo and alligator. This book is therefore not for vegetarians. Furthermore, descriptions of how King Louis XV treats the animals in his private zoo would disgust even the most cursory of PETA’s supporters. But despite his bizarre tastes, Jean-Marie is a totally endearing character. The scrapes he finds himself getting into and the instinctive ways he gets out of them belie his professed cowardly nature. And while his sexual appetites mirror that of his palate, he is no philanderer. His intense loyalty to his King, friends and family rarely come into question, and if he’s found lacking, it is only slightly so, and therefore is mostly forgiven.

However, one problem with this type of a story is that an account of full life doesn’t always lead to one overall conflict to be resolved (for better or worse) with a major story climax. Peoples’ lives are characteristically filled with many troubles that must be suffered through and overcome. Some of them are past us before they seem to begin; others never come to a head and are left as unanswered question marks. This means that “The Last Banquet” ends up with a slightly rollercoaster feel to it, with all of the many ups and downs of Jean-Marie’s life. As we rejoice at his triumphs and mourn with his losses, we also know that the French Revolution won’t bypass Jean-Marie no matter how good he is to his own subjects. So while this is unknown to Jean-Marie, the readers anticipate this, which makes for an interesting building element in the overall plot. But just how Grimwood concludes this is what makes the book all that more poignant. This also makes some of the slower parts of the story easier to overlook, since we are anxious to find out how or if Jean-Marie will be affected by this historical element. This also works well with our wanting to discover the nature of the feast referred to in the novel’s title.

Grimwood achieves all this with a lilt of language that seems like a loving translation from the French. With this, the decadence of 18th Century France is described in almost poetic details, which mirror the evocative descriptions of the foods Jean-Marie samples as well as his sexual encounters. This makes the book feel equally as self-indulgent as the era and as charming as our protagonist is portrayed. It also gives the novel an overall refined feel to it, which matches the patrician status of the major characters. Despite some parts that I found slightly disgusting to read, overall I found “The Last Banquet” to be a delightful read. I’d say it deserves a solid recommendation with a strong four out of five stars.

“The Last Banquet” by Jonathan Grimwood, published by Canongate Books released on July 4, 2013 is available from, Amazon.UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (eBooks), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) or from an IndieBound store near you.

My thanks to Canongate Books for sending me an advance review copy of this novel via Curious Book Fans. A version of this review appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Gender Roles in Literature

Do Female Characters Get the Short Shrift?

A friend of mine turned my attention to an article by Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman entitled "I hate strong female characters." In truth, Ms. McDougall doesn't really hate them; she just dislikes the use of the word "strong" to describe them. She's upset that this seems to be the only adjective available, while male characters get whole slews of them. Moreover, she feels that this promotes having two dimensional female background characters when men are front and center, and getting all the juicy qualities. 

When it comes to action films and TV shows - which is the focus of this article - there is little to object to in this premise. But if we widen the genre circle even just a little a bit, we see that this argument has its flaws. Although I can't say that total equality has been achieved between the character sexes in all of Hollywood's endeavors, there certainly have been vast improvements in the area over the past several decades. 

But in literature, I don't think this applies at all; at least not in the books I read. Yes, in the comic book world, female heroes are few and far between, as McDougall has competently pointed out. As for other genres, I'm not much of a science fiction or fantasy reader, nor do I go in much for action, crime or mystery novels. It could very well be that in these spheres the female protagonists are also less rounded characters than their male counterparts, but I wouldn't know. 

However, I don't see women portrayed as simply 'weak' or 'strong' in most literary fiction at all. If anything, the women I read about are highly complex people who completely defy one-word descriptions, even when they are minor characters. Granted, I tend to radiate towards books that are female centric. That probably comes with the genetic territory. And, if I look over all the book reviews I've written, I can see that the majority of them are by female authors. However, if I look over all the books I've ever read, I'd say that this evens out somewhat. There are excellent examples of multi-dimensional women portrayed in literature in almost every century. 

Here I would like to return to McDougall's reference to Shakespeare. I'm not sure how she was able to compare master spies and superheroes to Richard II, but I think this is exactly where her premise fails. She says that the many evolved action men mirror the intricacies and that even the Bard included in his male protagonists. However, she forgets that his women were equally, if not more well-rounded. Characters such as Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Juliet and Viola come to mind, just to name a few. Not one of those women could be pigeonholed solely by her hated monosyllabic 'strong.' 

It seems to me that even though the women of today's action and fantasy films are rarely more than cardboard cut-outs, this isn't some plague that's infecting all of Hollywood, and is certainly no more than a blip on the radar when it comes to general fiction. Perhaps the problem is the people making these movies and TV series. They are catering to an audience that wants sexy females that can be easily pushed away from danger and forgotten until he succeeds or needs distraction. No one is going to change that any more than Mills & Boon will begin publishing Harlequin romances with frumpy, studious girls who fall madly in love with bespectacled pale scientists, and have wild, passionate, lab-coat-ripping sex. 

Sorry, Sophia, but if you want to see female characters that run the gamut of personality traits, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Slavery Through Women's Eyes

The Wedding Gift by Marlene Suyapa Bodden 

This is the story of two women - Sarah Campbell and Theodora Allen. Sarah was born in 1846, a slave at the Allen Estates. Theodora Allen married Cornelius, the master of the plantation. Sarah is also the bastard daughter of Cornelius, half sister to Theodora's Clarissa. Sarah's mother Emmeline only goes to Cornelius' bed to ensure her children will stay on the plantation. Despite the feeling of betrayal, Theodora comes to care for both Emmeline and Sarah, especially since Sarah is not only Clarissa's maid, she is also her childhood companion, as well as one of the gifts that Cornelius gives Clarissa when she gets married.

Told in alternating first-person narratives, that slightly backtrack in time between chapters, this novel unfolds while looking at two sides of the same story. On the one hand we have the perspective of the slave women Sarah. On the other we have the confidences of the plantation owner's wife Theodora. More importantly, we also see how these two women interact with each other as well as their relationships to their own families, and each others' families. In other words, these are the stories of one woman and her daughter, and one daughter and her mother.

There are many stories about slavery before the American Civil War. This one is somewhat out of the ordinary in that we get parallel versions of the tale from both sides of the story - from the slave and from her owner. What I found most interesting was that in many ways, the owner Theodora was as much of a slave as Sarah. She was equally subject to the will of her husband as were her slaves. The difference was that Cornelius couldn't sell her if she disobeyed him. Also, in some ways Sarah was freer than Theodora because Sarah always could attempt to escape. If Sarah was successful, she could start a new life elsewhere, where she be welcomed and accepted. On the other hand, as long as Cornelius was alive, Theodora could go nowhere without scandal and shame following her.

It also occurred to me that this is more a story about relationships between mothers and their daughters, as well as vice versa, than it is about slavery. To what lengths will a mother go to help her child, or a daughter go to care for her mother? All these aspects are very well covered in this novel through the two narratives. In addition, despite Sarah's unusual literacy, the two women's voices are distinctive enough to easily distinguish between them.

With all of this, one might think that the story would be extremely gripping. In fact, throughout most of the book, we are swept along with these tales. However, as we near the end, parts of the narrative became technical and stilted. In some ways, from a certain point on, I felt like I was getting more lessons in legal, geographical and historical matters than I was following the stories of these two women. And while the conclusion of the novel came with an unexpected twist, by that time I was already becoming less invested in the outcomes of these women's stories. Moreover, this twist also felt a bit too out of the blue, and slightly inconsistent with the character. This isn't to say that I would have preferred an ending that came to a happier conclusion, but I would have liked it to be a bit more cohesive with the rest of the tale.

Marlene Suyapa Bodden gives us a gently written story that unfolds elegantly along one of America's darkest areas of its history. She holds little back describing some of these horrors, but also reminds us of the kindnesses of those who rejected slavery. Together with this, she gives us food for thought about the essence of freedom, and a woman's role in society and family. While this was an enjoyable read for the most part, I was less than enamored with the content and tone of the end of the book, so I'm giving it only three out of five stars.

"The Wedding Gift" by Marlene Suyapa Bodden, published by Random House Century, released May, 2013 is available from Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, eBooks, Kobo (eBooks), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) or from an IndieBound store near you.

I would like to thank the publishers for sending me via NetGalley the advance reader's copy for review on Curious Book Fans. A version of this review also appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Fictional Story of 'The Missingest Man in New York'

The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

During the early part of the 20th century, dozens of public figures rose to power that were barely more than puppets for the many gangsters that flourished. From this time comes the story of Judge Joseph Force Crater and his mysterious disappearance on August 6, 1930. The investigation and speculation that followed for decades afterwards, garnered him with the title of "the missingest man in New York." This cold case has now been fictionally re-opened from a new angle - that of the women in Crater's life.

The fact that this infamous case may not be familiar to most readers should have nothing to do with their decision to read it or not. It certainly wasn’t a factor for me, since what intrigued me was more the idea behind the story than the real people involved. That idea was the difference between truth versus lies, but on the more subtle level of appearances and perceptions. You see, on the surface, women from that era seem to have been the subservient baubles that adorned their powerful men. In reality, despite the disadvantages that the law and society still held over them, they wielded far more power than most men believed they had.

Using this as the premise of the book, taking what was probably one of the more sensationalist stories of the era was a logical step. In the real case, Crater's wife Stella and his mistress Sally Lou Ritz (aka Ritzi) were both very high profile personalities. Lawhon also brings in the Crater's maid, a woman who called herself Amedia Christian in one newspaper article about the case. But Amedia's name was never heard of after that one quote. If I had to guess, I'd say that it was this little fact that captured Lawhon's imagination, and got her writing this story. By giving the maid another name - that of Maria Simon, the wife of Jude Simon, a New York City Police detective - she sets up a chain of intrigue. This intrigue includes Maria having asked Crater to help advance her husband's career, her walking in on the tryst between Crater and Ritzi and her being the tailor to Owney Madden - a gangster with the police department on his payroll. As for that last connection, Lawhon made Madden into someone who was also instrumental in Crater's appointment to the New York Supreme Court. Through this, Maria becomes the connection point for all of the characters, even though the initial focus of the book is on Stella.

What impressed me most about this novel is how Lawhon has an instinctual feel for the twists and turns of a good mystery. Of course, a really good mystery is filled with clues regarding the conclusion, which point the reader in both the right and the wrong directions. These hints were artistically hidden throughout this story, even though we know at the outset that there was no real satisfactory conclusion to this particular tale. In order to add to the ambiguity, Lawhon eases the reader into her web of deceptions by juggling the actual chronological timeline with fictional flashbacks. This is an excellent literary mechanic for this genre which gives the readers insights into the motivations of the various personalities. However, it was in this that I found the only drawback of this book. While I didn't have much trouble figuring out when I was reading about the past, there were times when coming back to the original timeline was less than obvious. It could be that these were spaced just a touch awkwardly, or that the contrast between them wasn't quite sharp enough. On the other hand, because these flashbacks were from a matter of months to only a couple of years prior to the story at hand, I would have been more surprised if Lawhon had succeeded here completely.

With only this small criticism to its detriment (which might have been difficult for far more experienced writers to overcome), I have to say that Lawhon has done a stellar job in taking a mostly forgotten mystery and making it intriguing for modern day readers. As we follow how these three women were entangled in Crater's life and disappearance, we also become entangled into their lives. All this is done in a style that has just enough of the 30s feel to it to make it authentic, without ever going overboard or missing the mark. For all this, I warmly recommend this book with a solid four and a half stars out of five.

"The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress" by Ariel Lawhon released January 28, 2014 by Doubleday Books of Random House is available from, Amazon UKBarnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me the ARC of this book via NetGalley.
This is a slightly revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A New Fairy Tale & Ballet

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

The latest work by author of "The Time Traveler's Wife" Audrey Niffenegger is a modern fairy tale, written to also be the story of a ballet. The plot is deceptively simple. A postman finds a young female raven that has fallen from her nest. He takes her home and eventually they fall in love. From their union the Raven Girl is born. The rest of the tale is her story.

This is illustrated work which has very little text, as do most fairy tales. But that doesn't mean the story it isn't rich. Niffenegger uses a tone that is a gentle mixture of "Brother's Grim" style mixed with some amusing 21st century additions which make the work feel both classical and contemporary at the same time. This also makes the story all the more whimsical and you'll find yourself laughing when you come across the bits of modernity. 

The etchings here are more evocative than beautiful, but they certainly show a level of drawing talent. The muted colors used also add to the atmosphere of the story which, despite its necessary "happily ever after" ending, is hardly a pretty story. Of course, fairy tales aren't supposed to be filled with only sweetness and light, since then there would be no conflict.

Despite all this praise, there were a couple of things that didn't sit absolutely right with me. To begin with, at the beginning of the story the postman is given a letter to deliver which leads him to the nest where he meets the young raven. While some detail goes into this unusual letter, afterwards it is never mentioned again. I also feel that the ending was a touch rushed. But these are the only niggles I could find in this book.

For someone who doesn't usually read illustrated or graphic novels, I was surprised just how much I enjoyed this. Since it is so short, I'm sure I'll be reading it over again, and often. In fact, I might even consider buying some of her other illustrated works. I'm also now curious to see if this is ever turned into a ballet. I can imagine it would be very interesting, if they can find the right composer for the music. For all this, I'll give it a solid four out of five stars and recommend it - but only if you buy it as a "dead tree" version, because effect of this book won't be the same on an eReader. 

(This review originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady)
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Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Genre Preferences and Reviewing Books

Can a reviewer do justice to a book in a genre they don't usually read?

I recently found out that a good friend of mine is finally getting a book published. Since I've had the pleasure of reading and reviewing books by several friends, my immediate reaction was to ask her if I could get an ARC[1] for the book. But then I remembered - she's into fantasy and science fiction. When I mentioned this to her, she said "no problem - its horses for courses and it doesn't matter how kindly you look upon an author, you're not going to like anything in a genre that's not your thing." (Yes, she does really talk that way - she lives in Yorkshire.)

That got me to thinking. It isn't like I haven't reviewed books in genres that I don't usually read. For instance, being straight, I don't often read LGBT books. And yet, I recently read and reviewed the book Apple Polisher by Heidi Belleau, which was the first in a new series of books called "Rear Entrance Video" stories. This was one of the books I received via NetGalley, and the reason I requested it was because the story sounded interesting. Yes, I know, judging books by their covers and all that. I enjoyed the book, because I found it was nicely written, had a good plot and sympathetic characters. Was it perfect? Not really. Was I bothered by the gay male sex scenes? Not particularly. Will I be going out of my way to read the next story in this series? Probably not, but it isn't because Belleau isn't a good writer - it is simply because the genre just isn't my thing. More importantly, do I feel I reviewed it fairly? Absolutely, but I'm not sure if I really did the book justice.

But why do I feel that way? If I'm honest, had that book had been in a genre that I was more familiar with, I would have had far more to compare it to. It could very well be that this is one of the finest LGBT books written in a long time. But I couldn't have known that when I wrote the review. On the other hand, it could be a piece of crap compared to other books in the genre, but again, I couldn't have known that. In either case, my liking the book and giving it a three out of five star rating was all the more objective, simply because I was able to approach the book without prejudice.

Now, there are very few genres that I have almost no experience with. LGBT is one of those. Another is graphic novels. But I've actually read and reviewed some graphic novels. In fact, I recently read Audrey Niffenegger's latest book, Raven Girl, but that is more of a fairy tale or illustrated story. The only real graphic novel I've ever read was A Contract with God by Will Eisner - which is considered to be one of the first of the genre. I enjoyed both of these books, but neither has convinced me that this is a genre I'll be following in the future. However, I've read my fair share of science fiction (mostly classics like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, etc.) and am not adverse to the genre in general. And although I never got into what one would call classical fantasy novels (such as Tolkien, for instance), it isn't like I couldn't enjoy them if I wanted to make the effort.  

As for books by authors I know personally, I certainly hope that I don't let my friendship with them cloud my judgment of their work. But I have been lucky. The novels my friends have written are generally of a high enough caliber (at least in my opinion) that they don't warrant any undue praise in order for me to be nice to them. In fact, I'd say that I'm probably more critical of writing by people I know than I might be of books by authors with whom I have no connection. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to jeopardize a friendship with someone in the event that I dislike their book.

So why, exactly, did I shy away from asking for an ARC of a friend's novel in a genre I'm only partially familiar with? I'm not really sure, to tell the truth, and I'm still debating if I should give my friend's book a chance or not. What do you think I should do?

[1] Advance Reader's Copy

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