Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

Every two hundred years or so, shimmering threads fall, raining black ruin on Fern. The great dragons of Fern hurl themselves through the beleaguered skies, flaming tongues of fire to destroy deadly Thread and save the planet. It was not Threadfall that made Menolly unhappy. It was her father who betrayed her ambition to be a Harper, who thwarted her love of music. Menolly had no choice but to run away. She came upon a group of fire lizards, wild relatives of the fire-breathing dragons. Her music swirled about them; she taught nine to sing, suddenly Menolly was no longer alone. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: familial abuse

This definitely isn’t the first time I’ve read Dragonsong. The Pern books have been one of my favorite series since I was in middle school, and I’ve read Dragonsong many times. Re-reading it for class during this semester has only reminded me of my love for the series. Dragonsong has its flaws, but it is definitely a good book.

One thing that’s frustrating about Dragonsong is that it isn’t particularly friendly to people who are new to the Pern world. When I first read the book when I was in middle school, I wasn’t particularly bothered by being thrown into the world without explanation, but after re-reading the book for class, I definitely see how people who are unfamiliar with the world could be lost. Dragonsong was my first Pern novel, but generally I recommend starting with Dragonflight.

Re-reading this book, I was struck again by how well-written Anne McCaffrey’s characters are. They are developed to feel like real people, even in a book as short as Dragonsong (compared to other Pern books). Although my favorite character in the series, Masterharper Robinton, only makes a brief appearance, my love for him was reiterated just in those few pages.

Another thing that really struck me about Dragonsong during this re-read is how the women in the book (and in the series in general) really exhibit different kinds of strength. While I would argue that all of the women characters exhibit strength, not everyone is the no-nonsense leader that Lessa is. McCaffrey makes an excellent case for the inherent strength found in so-called maternal activities.

Overall, I would say that fans of Pern need to read Dragonsong, as well as the rest of the Harper Hall Trilogy. Those who are new to the series might be more advised to start with a different book, but then they should quickly move on to Dragonsong.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Thrill of the Chaste by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

Thrill of the Chaste by Valerie Weaver-Zercher

Browse the inspirational fiction section of your local bookstore, and you will likely find cover after cover depicting virtuous young women cloaked in modest dresses and wearing a pensive or playful expression. They hover innocently above sun-drenched pastures or rustic country lanes, often with a horse-drawn buggy in the background—or the occasional brawny stranger. Romance novels with Amish protagonists, such as the best-selling trailblazer The Shunning by Beverly Lewis, are becoming increasingly popular with a largely evangelical female audience. Thrill of the Chaste is the first book to analyze this growing trend in romance fiction and to place it into the context of contemporary literature, religion, and popular culture.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher combines research and interviews with devoted readers, publishers, and authors to produce a lively and provocative examination of the Amish romance novel. She discusses strategies that literary agents and booksellers use to drive the genre’s popularity. By asking questions about authenticity, cultural appropriation, and commodification, Thrill of the Chaste also considers Amish fiction’s effects on Amish and non-Amish audiences alike. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 4 1/2 stars
Trigger warnings: none

As an Ohioan, Amish fiction is something I can’t avoid. I grew up about an hour away from Amish country, and so Amish novels were everywhere--stores, the library, even the occasional Amish-owned or Amish-style restaurant. While I’ve never actually read any Amish fiction, I have many Amish books on my to-read list, just because I think it’s an experience I should have at least once in my life. Anyway, when I saw that there was a book which analyzed the popularity of the genre, I knew that I had to read it, and Thrill of the Chaste didn’t disappoint.

I found this book absolutely fascinating. I never felt lost, despite my lack of first-hand experience with the genre and with the principles of evangelical Christian fiction. I really appreciated the author’s interviews with actual Amish people, and I found their varied perspectives of the presence of Amish fiction to be really interesting. I also found that I learned a lot about how varied Amish communities are, and the number of Amish people in the US is much larger than I had initially thought (a good thing, in my opinion).

Overall, I think this book is an excellent critical introduction to the phenomenon of Amish romance novels. Fans of the genre may find it a little too skeptical of the books for their taste, but those unfamiliar to the genre are likely to learn a lot of interesting information and may find it all fascinating enough to pick up an Amish romance for themselves. I would be really interested in seeing similar books for other new subgenres.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

And Then There Were Nuns by Jane Christmas

And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life, by Jane Christmas

Bestselling author Jane Christmas decides to enter a convent to discern whether she is, as she puts it, "nun material." But just as she convinces herself to take the plunge, her long-term partner, Colin, surprises her with a marriage proposal. Determined not to let her monastic dreams get sidelined, Christmas puts her engagement aside and embarks on an extraordinary year-plus adventure to four--one in Canada and three in the U.K. Among these communities of cloistered nuns and monks, she (and occasionally rails against) the silent, reverent, pared-down existence she has sought all her life. With insight and humour, she provides a glimpse into a seldom-seen lifestyle. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: R, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, sexism

I thought the premise for this memoir was really interesting. I was raised Catholic, and for awhile when I was a kid, I thought that maybe being a nun was the path for me. Add to that the fact that I spent some time last year at a Buddhist monastery with a bunch of nuns, and you can tell that nuns interest me a lot. I thought the idea and perspective were really unique in this book, and I love that it did include some interfaith dialogue, since the author spent time among both Catholic and Episcopal nuns.

Where I had trouble with the book was with the inclusion of Christmas’ backstory and her experience with sexual assault. Her coping with her assault and her time spent among nuns are completely interrelated, but the way the book was written, I felt that it was either too short, and more time needed to be spent on both the past and the present, or that it needed to be two separate memoirs entirely. I recognize that the author spent a lot of time coming to terms with what happened to her while she was exploring a monastic life, but so much of it was glossed over that the emotional balance of the book just felt off. Also, the book’s blurb mentions nothing about the sexual assault, and I would caution anyone who picks up this book that there is a huge trigger warning for that aspect of the book.

Overall, this book was really interesting, and it was very thought-provoking for me. Again, having grown up Catholic, I learned a lot about other denominations of Christianity (I didn’t even know other denominations had monastic communities!), and I learned a lot about monastic communities in general. Having spent some time in a Buddhist monastery, I was surprised by some of the similarities and differences between Buddhist monastics and Christian monastics. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is interested in monastic life and would like to get an insider look from an outsider.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Elementals by Saundra Mitchell

The Elementals by Saundra Mitchell

Kate Witherspoon has lived a bohemian life with her artist parents. In 1917, the new art form of the motion picture is changing entertainment—and Kate is determined to become a director.

Meanwhile, midwestern farm boy Julian Birch has inherited the wanderlust that fueled his parents’ adventures. A childhood bout with polio has left him crippled, but he refuses to let his disability define him.

Strangers driven by a shared vision, Kate and Julian set out separately for Los Angeles, the city of dreams. There, they each struggle to find their independence. When they finally meet, the teenage runaways realize their true magical legacy: the ability to triumph over death, and over time. But as their powerful parents before them learned, all magic comes with a price. (blurb from Goodreads)

Ratings: PG-13, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: homophobia, ableism

I read this entire novel without realizing that it was the final book in a series. Oops. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything except perhaps a little bit of background information about Kate and Julian’s parents. It’s my understanding that The Elementals is a little bit more of a companion novel than the first two books in the trilogy, as it deals with the children of the protagonists of the first two books. I was a little confused about the motivation of the main antagonist, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

*SPOILER ALERT* Before reading this book, I’d heard quite a bit of buzz about this book because Kate is bisexual and it’s a period book, which is so rarely done, especially in YA fiction. I found this buzz to be a little...misleading. Kate never fully articulates her feelings towards the woman she is assumed to be in love with, and while I didn’t expect to actually see the word “bisexual” in a text set in 1917, I had hoped for more specific acknowledgement of her feelings. However, I do still appreciate the inclusion of potential bisexuality, and I thought what little was there to be appropriately handled. *END SPOILER*

In general, I really enjoyed the world building in this novel. I thought the period details were really well done, and the magic system was incredibly intuitive. I never questioned it, which is even more impressive considering that this is the final book in a trilogy. I appreciated that the book was more focused on introspective and character relationships than action, despite the magic and menacing antagonist. Even the ending, which could have been very action-y, played out almost gently.

And speaking of the ending, I am speechless. I’ll admit it: I bawled like a baby. I have a weird feeling about the whole thing. I’m not happy about the ending, per se, but I think it’s very fitting and was very satisfying. Prepare yourself for the ending.

In general, I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend it without reservation. As you might expect from a book set in 1917, some characters exhibit homophobia and ableism, but these instances are always framed negatively. I think fans of the Gemma Doyle trilogy might be particularly interested in The Elementals.