Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger’s novel American Girls will be released next month on June 7, but I received an ARC at an English teacher’s conference in November. I hadn’t picked it up until recently. April and May were busy and stressful at work, and I’m afraid my reading life took a bit of a backseat. I share books I think my students will like each class period because they are doing independent reading, and I know hearing about a book that sounds intriguing will encourage them to pick up books to read. Book talks make all the difference in helping students select books to read. I shared this book a couple of weeks ago and found myself rather intrigued by the book’s premise, so I picked it up instead of putting it back on the shelf for my students.

Fifteen-year-old Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the vague notion of visiting her sister, who is trying to make it as an actress. As the story unfolds, it is clear Anna is running from a fairly dysfunctional family. She feels sidelined and ignored by both her mother and her father, and her best friend Doon talked her into bullying a classmate of Doon’s. Anna’s mother agrees to let Anna stay in Los Angeles for the summer, but she needs to work to earn back the money to repay her stepmother. Delia, Anna’s sister, manages to find Anna a job researching the Manson Family for creepy film director Roger, Delia ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Delia also arranges for Anna to stay with Delia’s current boyfriend Dex on the set of the TV show for which he writes, Chips Ahoy, a ridiculous and terrible show starring the Taylor twins, Josh and Jeremy, the younger brothers of washed-up superstar actress and pop singer, Olivia Taylor. Anna spends her summer hanging around the D-list, immersing herself in the history of the Manson Family, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the Manson “girls,” Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Squeaky Fromme. Ultimately, what this book really explores is the way in which American society crushes its girls and women, particularly in Los Angeles, where “pretty winds up looking like a hundred girls who look like a hundred other girls who are all trying to look like the same person,” and “after a while, pretty doesn’t even register” (263).

This is an interesting book, and not only because it’s probably the first YA novel I’ve ever seen to explore the Manson Family. Anna’s voice is whipsmart and sarcastic. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she has pretty good reasons. Even with its sometimes dark subject matter, there is plenty of humor in this book, courtesy of the strong first-person narration of Anna. She is realistically drawn and easy to sympathize with. The book skewers the Disney child-star road to ruination quite effectively. We should all be praying for those kids with Disney shows. Olivia Taylor is clearly similar to Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears, and the Taylor twins (and even their TV show) make one think of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose TV show The Suite Life on Deck sounds remarkably similar to Chips Ahoy. Though it should be said, the real-life Sprouse twins don’t seem to have as many issues as the Taylor twins, and they have even taken time away from Hollywood to go to college. Olivia, Josh, and Jeremy’s mother could be Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell—she was a groupie whose children are the results of relationships with rock stars. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olivia Taylor’s name is so similar to that of Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and groupie Bebe Buell.

One thing the book captures really well is the disposable way in which young women in Southern California are treated. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school, and if there is any place in the country that is the absolute worst for sexualizing teenage girls and taking their identities away and replacing them with these plastic veneers—all facelifts, capped teeth, and anorexia—I can’t think of one. One scene stands out vividly in my mind. I was in marching band, and the girls in the flag corps were running some drills or practicing or maybe getting ready—that part is actually fuzzy—but I clearly remember their coach saying, “Be sexy! Be sexy!” They were fifteen and sixteen. I could tell you about worse, but I don’t really want to put it on a blog. Suffice it to say I don’t think teenage girls grow up in Southern California unscathed. This book really exposes what it’s like. A couple of passages that particularly resonated:

But If I had to write a memo to America, on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. (262)

Later, Anna connects her understanding of what she has seen in Los Angeles to the American Dream of Jay Gatsby:

Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch. (284)

Anna thinks a great deal about the Manson girls and what led them to follow Charles Manson’s orders to kill. Ultimately, her conclusions should make all of us shudder. I thought this book was different from most YA I have read, and I would highly recommend it. The gritty picture it paints of American girls will trouble you, but it’s all the more troubling that the picture is real.

Rating: ★★★★½

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free at the NCTE annual convention. I was not asked to write a review in exchange.

Review: Euphoria, Lily King

Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on the lives of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively. While many of the details are changed, including some rather significant details, much of the story, as it unfolds, is firmly based on the actual experiences of the three anthropologists who worked together, for a time, on the Sepik River in what is today Papua New Guinea.

As the novel begins, Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are looking for a new tribe to study. At Nell’s insistence, the couple leaves behind their research on the Mumbanyo tribe when Nell felt she could no longer stand living the group. They meet up with Anthony Bankson, a fellow anthropologist from England, who has been alone in the Sepik, and is relieved and excited for the company of fellows. Soon, however, Bankson finds himself entranced by Nell. He is inspired by her intellect, insight, and work ethic—all aspects her personality that her husband both envies and disparages. Their lives become entwined as they work together, but Fen has secrets. Suddenly their relationships, their careers, and even their very lives are careening toward disaster.

While I understand why King took liberties with the stories of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson so that she could tell the story she wanted to tell, there are so many details drawn from their actual lives that it seems strange to me that she didn’t just go all the way with a historical fiction account of Mead in New Guinea. For example, like Bateson, Bankson had two older brothers, John and Martin, and their respective deaths prior to the start of the book, in battle in WWI and in a spectacularly public suicide under the statue of Anteros at Piccadilly Circus, were identical in all details to those of the real Bateson. I suppose you can’t make that stuff up. Like Bateson’s father, Bankson’s father was a renowned geneticist who coined the term genetics. Like Mead herself, Nell studied with Franz Boas and probably had an affair with Boas’s fellow student, Helen (who is based on Ruth Benedict).

However, as I said, the story does deviate from that of the historical anthropologists involved in some significant and rather spoilery ways, so I can’t delve too deeply in exploring those differences without endangering your enjoyment of the book (if you want to read it). Suffice it to say the details make for a highly romantic and cinematic story, especially near the end. I suppose reality didn’t play as well for King, hence the changes. Actually, the book would make a great movie—It has romance and adventure, humor, a complicated villain, and great characters—but based on the reading I’ve done about Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, just fact-checking as I read, I have to said their own real story would be equally good fodder for film.

King’s characterization reminds me quite a lot of Hemingway’s: tough women idealized by the men; over-the-top alpha males; masculine men who are also in touch with their feelings. The writing, too, was perfect for the story it told: spare in some details, leaving readers to put pieces together; poetically descriptive in other places. The characters seemed visceral and real. King makes the reader feel the heat and steamy damp of the New Guinea, and I felt as though I had traveled down the Sepik with all three of the main characters. I definitely found myself more interested in Margaret Mead, and her fellow anthropologists after reading this. Aside from an introductory course in college, I know little about anthropology, and I have to admit, some aspects of this science are troubling to me. There is always the whiff of the colonial about it when I read about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is that bothers me. Euphoria is a quick read. I had the paperback, and though the length is about short-average (257 pages), the paper is thick, and the font is largish. I think I probably read the whole thing in about five hours.

I am not sure if the photos are copyright, so I didn’t want to post them here on my blog, but you should definitely check out this exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has a wonderful picture of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (what a heck of a name!), and Gregory Bateson together, along with their notes about the personality classification system the three of them developed after reading Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture together, an incident that is described in breathtaking detail in the novel. In fact, I had run into this idea without knowing Margaret Mead had anything to do with it in some professional development. Four major personality groups are divided on points of a compass (those who fall between two groups tend toward the intercardinal points on the compass. For the record, I identified myself as a “South” with some “West” tendencies. Here is a link to a PDF about the system. I will be anxious to talk about this aspect of the book with my fellow book club members, most of whom have also had this training and/or experienced an opportunity to define themselves on the compass.

Euphoria is a unique novel. I’ve never read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (nor am I likely to again, as it’s just not a setting writers use). I have also never seen anthropology tackled quite like this in fiction, though it does remind me a bit of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ultimately, I think it’s a better novel than State of Wonder; I realize I gave State of Wonder 5 stars as opposed to the 4.5 for this novel, but I think I just really hated Fen, and were I to rate State of Wonder now, some time after having read it, it is probably more of a 4 star book for me. But I don’t go back and rethink or change ratings, which are based on my gut response right after finishing a book.

Rating: ★★★★½

Review: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, narrated by Tim Curry

I celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas morning while I baked by listening to Tim Curry narrate my all-time favorite Christmas book, A Christmas Carol. I suppose it’s a lot of people’s favorites. It has been a favorite story of mine, even before I ever read the book, since I was a child.

Each time I read the story, I’m struck again by Charles Dickens’s brilliance with characterization. We who want to write should all read Dickens. He’s a master class in himself. Is there a story that has a more lasting impact on our consciousness than A Christmas Carol? We can all name exactly what it is to be a Scrooge. One might argue the very Christmas we celebrate was just about invented by Dickens. So while it seems a bit unnecessary to review the actual book here, I will share my thoughts about Tim Curry’s reading.

I admit I wasn’t too sure I’d like Tim Curry reading this novella. I like Tim Curry. But when I think of him, I think of bad guys, like Pennywise the Clown. Actually, I suppose Scrooge is a bit of a bad guy, but given he’s redeemed in the end, I tend not to think of him that way. Audible had a $0.99 special on this book, however, so I decided to give it a chance.

Tim Curry’s reading is mostly pretty awesome, especially his characterization of Scrooge and even more especially his characterization of the folks at the end who are selling off Scrooge’s things in the vision Scrooge sees of the future. On the other hand, I found his characterization of the Cratchits lacking. They lacked the warmth I usually like to see in their interactions. I’m a ridiculous sucker for Tiny Tim. I cry every single time he dies in the future that Scrooge sees. I will say, however, that Curry’s rendition of the scene in which Bob Cratchit breaks down after seeing where Tim will be buried was outstanding.

Quite an enjoyable narration and a welcome addition to my audio book library. This book was meant to be read aloud. I have read that Dickens’s own performance of it was quite something to see.

I watched two different staged versions of this story this year (both excellent), listened to the audio, and am currently watching the film with George C. Scott. My favorite film version is the one with Patrick Stewart, but I wasn’t able to find it on this year. I don’t think the Christmas season would be complete for me without some version of this story. Louis Bayard wrote a sequel about Tim Cratchit called Mr. Timothy. If you are curious, a doctor thinks he’s figured out what was wrong with Tiny Tim.

Merry Christmas to all, and as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

Review: If I Stay, Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay is the story of Mia, an accomplished cellist and senior in high school. Mia lives in Oregon, and when the schools close for a snow day (“I think the county overreacted,” Mia says), the family decides to make a day of it and visit friends, family, and the bookstore. In a split second, Mia’s entire life is shattered when her family’s car is hit by a pickup truck. Mia finds herself outside her body, watching as the ambulance arrives, watching as she is taken to Portland by medivac, and watching as she lies in a coma in the ICU. Mia realizes that she must make the decision: “I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard” (175).

I’m a little late with If I Stay. I think a lot of folks have read it already, so it might not be new to you. In fact, it’s been on my TBR list for years. This is exactly the kind of book I’d have been in love with as a teenager. I must have re-read Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes countless times. In many ways, Mia reminds me a bit of Davey in Blume’s book, though the tragedy she must cope with is much larger in scope and also involves her own personal fight for recovery. I think if this book had existed when I was in high school, I’d have re-read it as much as I re-read Tiger Eyes, and I can’t praise it much more highly than that. Adam is definitely the kind of boyfriend I’d have wanted in high school. Like Mia, I was a musician in high school with some starry-eyed dreams of actually being good enough to go to Juilliard. Unlike Mia, I knew I didn’t have the talent it would take to do it. The cello is, in fact, one of my favorite instruments, and my daughter played it in school. I think I would really have connected to this story if I’d read it in high school.

So what about adult me? Well, at this stage of my life, I recognize Adam is NOT the kind of guy I’d want to be with (nice enough, but the rock musician types are more cool on paper). I consider music important, but it doesn’t consume me as much as it did when I was in high school, and perhaps that is my loss. I have really wanted to get back into playing either the flute or the guitar (or both) again. I’m in a different place, which is as it should be, and it makes me a little sad this book wasn’t around when I was in high school (but I think Gayle Forman was probably in high school right then as well). It’s a great book. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve considered how much more I might have liked a book if I’d read it at a different time. As it is, it was well-written, but some of the cracks showed a bit more to adult me. They wouldn’t have bothered teenager me at all. In fact, I might not have seen them as cracks at all.

Still, I really enjoyed the book, and as for grabbing and keeping my attention, it absolutely did. I definitely want to read the sequel.

Rating: ★★★★½

I found this blog post on hosting the ultimate book group party for this book (very cool ideas). I also found an interesting Bustle post about the fictional band in the movie soundtrack. Speaking of the movie, some liberties were taken with the story, but f you have Amazon Prime, it’s free to watch with your membership. It wasn’t bad.

I made a Spotify playlist based on the music mentioned in the book, on Gayle Forman’s website, and the movie. Caveat: I couldn’t bring myself to include Bette Midler’s song “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (though it’s mentioned in the book), and I cut Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” as well. I don’t hate that song, but it doesn’t fit well with the rest of the punk/indie and classical tracks in the playlist. I guess Frank Sinatra doesn’t either, but he stayed in.

Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier
I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½

Review: This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your LifeI picked up Leila Sales’s novel This Song Will Save Your Life because it was recommended to folks who liked Eleanor & Park. It was a great little book, and I think especially music lovers would enjoy it.

This Song Will Save Your Life is the story of fifteen-year-old Elise Dembowski, a misfit who has never fit in at school. Her parents have been divorced for a long time, and she divides her time between her single father and her re-married mother and blended family. At the beginning of the school year, she cuts herself, not completely sure if she wants to commit suicide or not, and calls one of her classmates, who calls 911. After she returns to school, she finds it hard to sleep some nights, so she sneaks out of her house and walks the streets. By happenstance, one Thursday night she comes across a house party called Start. She becomes interested in learning to DJ (and in the DJ himself), and discovers a talent she didn’t know she had.

I found Elise’s character charming and winsome. I had a hard time understanding why it was hard for her to make friends. I’d have wanted to be her friend in a heartbeat. High school is really rough for some folks, however, and I don’t exclude myself from that description. In some ways, this book tackles bullying in high school almost as well as Judy Blume’s Blubber does for elementary school. Nowadays, kids cannot escape it even at home, and Elise becomes the target of a cyberbully who creates a blog using Elise’s name. However, when she goes to Start, she can be herself, and she makes friends who like her for who she is.

I enjoyed Elise’s voice in this story. She reminds me a bit of Holden Caulfield in the way in which her voice is captured, but I would say she has a higher probability of turning out all right, especially given she has a caring family. As a bonus, the book has a recommended listening list. However, not everything on the list appears in the story and not everything in the story is on the list, so you might want to take notes as you go. I have the beginnings of a Spotify playlist with all the songs and/or bands mentioned in the book.

Rating: ★★★★½

Review: The Widow’s War, Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War: A NovelSally Gunning’s novel The Widow’s War is the story of Lyddie Berry who lives with her husband Edward in 1761 Satucket (Brewster), Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When Edward dies in a whaling accident, Lyddie finds herself not only bereft of his companionship but also of the life they shared: as a widow, most of her property—including her house, cow, and furniture—is now owned by her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, who also happens to be a jerk and a pig. As the novel unfolds, Lyddie, determined to maintain her independence and continue living the life she led before Edward’s death, challenges Nathan and attempts to hold on to her freedom.

This novel is an enlightening peek into what women’s lives in the eighteenth century might have been like. Gunning’s research is meticulous, and her characters leap off the page in full relief. All the historical details ring true. One thing I think Gunning gets right in her historical novels is she is able to produce strong heroines who live within but also challenge the strictures of their time periods in ways that are believable. Lyddie’s struggle for independence was heartbreaking, realistic, and intriguing. I know that some reviewers have challenged whether or not the book realistically depicts Lyddie’s relationship with her Native American neighbor Sam Cowett, but I didn’t find it difficult to believe. I also liked that the author did not choose to have Lyddie be “rescued” through a second marriage or a sudden change of heart on her son-in-law’s part. I could have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence I suppose, but I liked the ending enough (and for a stretch of the book didn’t think it was going to happen that way) that I went ahead and spoiled it anyway. Lyddie is a likable character. She could be called stubborn, but no one would say she was stubborn if she were a man. She is independent in a time when it’s just about criminal or at least unheard of for a woman to be so, and I found myself rooting for her to be successful. She’s made of some pretty strong stuff.

The Widow’s War is the first in what she calls her Satucket trilogy. I previously read the third book, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Derek Jacobi

C. S. Lewis’s fifth novel in The Chronicles of Narnia is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are visiting their terrible cousin Eustace Scrubb (who “almost” deserves the name) and are drawn back into Narnia through a picture of a ship hanging in a guest bedroom at their aunt and uncle’s house. They find themselves on King Caspian X’s ship the Dawn Treader, which is headed on a course to the Lone Islands to find the seven lords Caspian’s usurping uncle Miraz banished. Accompanying the king on his voyage are the ship’s captain, Lord Drinian, and the irrepressible mouse knight Reepicheep.

One of the things I liked about this book is that each of the characters, excepting Edmund, is tempted and tested. There aren’t any real enemies at the focus, as in first four books of the series. Of course, they encounter bad people, such as the slave traders, who must be vanquished before they can move on, but there is not one great enemy they must defeat, aside from themselves. Reepicheep is probably one of Lewis’s best characters. He’s fearless and adorable at the same time. He deserves his own series. I suppose he might be why we have Brian Jacques’s [amazon_link id=”0142302376″ target=”_blank” ]Redwall[/amazon_link] and Kate DiCamillo’s [amazon_link id=”0763625299″ target=”_blank” ]The Tale of Despereaux[/amazon_link].

I was reminded several times of the Camelot knights’ quest for the Holy Grail as I read. For instance, the scene in which the children encounter the three hairy sleeping men at the banquet table and the resulting quest to go to the uttermost East and leave one of their company behind there reminds me of [amazon_link id=”0140445218″ target=”_blank” ]Sir Percival’s story in the Grail quest[/amazon_link]. If you haven’t read it, Percival goes to the Grail castle and encounters the Fisher King, but ultimately fails in his quest to retrieve the Grail, while Galahad succeeds. Galahad is taken up into heaven. Reepicheep, then, is Sir Galahad. I also thought of The Odyssey many times, especially when the ship encountered the Dark Island, where dreams come true—the description of the unseen terror that lay in wait put me to mind of Scylla and Charybdis. Actually, a bit later on, the book itself referenced the part of The Odyssey when Odysseus covers his ears with beeswax and has himself lashed to the mast so he can listen to the sirens.

I’ve already said my peace about Aslan, so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say I don’t feel any differently after this book. The device of the painting drawing the children into Narnia doesn’t make as much sense to me as the wardrobe or Susan’s horn.

Derek Jacobi, as you might expect, is an outstanding narrator. His characterization of Reepicheep is particularly praiseworthy, but really, I could listen to him all day on potentially any subject (except the Earl of Oxford, but I digress). He has done a substantial number of audio books besides this one. I would highly recommend listening to his narration of this book.

When I first tried to read this series many years ago, my memory was that I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I have no memory at all of the stories after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from that time, so it’s possible I started this book, but I’m rather wondering if I didn’t stall out in the middle of Prince Caspian now. Not sure, and I probably never will be, but this one was highly enjoyable. I have to say, the entire series has been exceptionally narrated, with the lamentable exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m looking forward to Jeremy Northam’s reading [amazon_link id=”0062314610″ target=”_blank” ]The Silver Chair[/amazon_link] and Patrick Stewart’s reading [amazon_link id=”0062326988″ target=”_blank” ]The Last Battle[/amazon_link]. After I finish this series, I think I’ll return to Diana Gabaldon’s series on audio.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Lynn Redgrave

Prince CaspianI finished listening to C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian over the weekend, and I haven’t had a chance to do my review yet.

Prince Caspian takes place one Earth year after the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have returned from Narnia through the wardrobe. They are at the train station preparing to go off to school, when they are suddenly whisked back to Narnia. It takes them some time to realize where they are because everything has changed. While they have been gone, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and they discover they have been summoned because Narnia once again has great need of their services. Prince Caspian, rightful king of Narnia, has had his power usurped by his evil Uncle Miraz, and he can’t defeat his uncle alone.

Each of the novels in this audio book series is narrated by a different great British actor. I found Kenneth Branagh’s reading of The Magician’s Nephew utterly charming, while Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a bit spottier. Alex Jennings’s read of The Horse and His Boy was also good. Lynn Redgrave’s reading of Prince Caspian is excellent. She did a masterful job capturing the characters’ voices and using different types of accents. She managed to inject the patronizing tone of older siblings into Peter and Susan, and her characterization of the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik made me glad whenever they took the “stage.” I also particularly enjoyed her characterization of Doctor Cornelius, Reepicheep, and Trufflehunter. It looks like she has narrated a few other audio books, so I have to recommend her highly. What a shame she is no longer with us.

Of the four Chronicles of Narnia books I’ve read or re-read this year, I would say Prince Caspian comes in a strong second after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies strike me as similar to King Arthur: they will come when Narnia has great need of them, and the device of Susan’s horn to call them was clever (and somewhat evocative of other myths). I really loved some of the minor characters in this one. Caspian is likeable, but Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius are loveable. I like the idea that Narnian time passes at a different rate. I wonder if I can say this, though, without making someone angry: I just don’t like Aslan. He’s not bad, he’s just so heavy-handed a symbol. I realize it would wreck Lewis’s Jesus allegory if he removed Aslan from the stories, but I would find them more interesting if they had to figure out how to defeat the enemies without him as a deus ex machina. I also don’t find his personality particularly compelling. I understand his role in the stories, but he just doesn’t interest me as much as the children do. I suppose that if he is supposed to represent Jesus, then I’m not really sure I like this particular characterization of Jesus. Jesus struck me as less judgey and more gentle. I know he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, but I mean on the whole. Aslan is forgiving, too; I’m doing a sloppy job putting my finger on their differences. Suffice it to say that I don’t find him as much fun as the other characters.

In all, this was a very enjoyable reading. I know I’m liking an audio book when I find excuses to wash the dishes so I can listen to a book while I do it. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Voyager audio book (Voyager)Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s [amazon_link id=”0440212561″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link] series. Outlander is filming right now and will appear on Starz this summer. Can’t wait! The casting looks phenomenal. Spoilers follow for the first two books, so you might not want to read the rest of this review if you don’t want them wrecked for you. I figure you probably wouldn’t be reading a review of the third book in a series unless you had either already read the others or don’t mind their being spoiled.

If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a most unusual and difficult to classify series of books: part historical fiction, part romance, part fantasy/sci fi—I can’t think of too many books like these that so defy labels. In the first book, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall steps through standing stones in a stone circle near Inverness and finds herself over 200 years in the past. As she tries desperately to get back home to her husband Frank, she winds up forced (after a fashion) to marry young Jamie Fraser and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In the second book, [amazon_link id=”0440215625″ target=”_blank” ]Dragonfly in Amber[/amazon_link], the Jacobite Rebellion draws closer, and Claire and Jamie try to think of a way to avoid the devastation that will follow, even spending time in France, but Jamie is inevitably called to fight at Culloden, but before he faces a battle where he expects to die, he sends his wife Claire back through the stones to save her life and that of the baby she is carrying.

Voyager begins some twenty years later. Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna is grown, and Claire has become a doctor. She and Brianna travel to Scotland and discover that Jamie did not die at Culloden after all. Claire decides to go back through the stones one more time to reunite with the love of her life, leaving her daughter behind with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who helped Claire discover Jamie’s history and who is falling in love with Brianna.

The first time I read this book was probably around 1998 or 1999. I remember that I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two at that time because I thought I like it better when Claire and Jamie were in Scotland, and I also had more difficulty enjoying them as an older couple, which sounds pretty horrible now (thought it’s an accurate representation of my feelings at the time). For crying out loud, Claire was something like 50! And Jamie was at least mid-40’s. Now that I am actually a lot closer to their ages in this book, I found that I no longer seem to have much trouble enjoying Jamie and Claire as an older couple. 😉

I will admit that this book starts a little bit slowly. I suppose it is necessary for the reader to be filled in on exactly what Jamie did following Culloden and how Claire found out he was still alive and decided to go back in time to reunite with him, but the book drags a bit through this part. Once Claire goes back through the stones and finds Jamie in Edinburgh, the book picks up quite a bit, and frankly, the action doesn’t let up for pretty much the remainder of the book. I had forgotten what a swashbuckling story this one is. Jamie and Claire spend much of the book running away from or chasing Really.Bad.People. Pirates even. Witches! Possibly—just possibly even zombies. It’s crazy adventurous, and for that reason, it makes for quite a gripping read.

Gabaldon does get bogged down in details sometimes, but that’s actually one of the interesting things about her writing. Sometimes these scenes she writes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, are compelling in terms of character development. I am surprised she has been able to get them past an editor, who might be tempted to cut them. Then again, like I said before, these books tend to break all the rules.

I enjoyed this one much more this time around than I did the last. Davina Porter is an excellent reader who is able to do a wide variety of accents and brings life to the characters. She’s so good that I’ve just about decided listening to her read is the only way I want to read the rest of the series.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★