Recent Reading: Summer Escapes

I’ve been reading in fits and starts: some days I read for hours, others I don’t open a book. I can’t really explain why my reading mojo is so erratic, but part of it is reading a number of books that started slowly but then really sucked me in. I’m calling these “summer escapes” because they immersed me in their worlds.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

I’d like to write a full review of this one, but I had an ebook from the library and returned it as soon as I finished, since others were waiting. I like Ana’s review at things mean a lot, though I’d say my feelings were more mixed. If you want a sense of the plot as context for my random comments, read it! I agree that Novik successfully builds from a quiet coming-of-age story to an epic fantasy–and then returns to a quieter note, and I too appreciated the way the “man vs. nature” theme of the Evil Wood gets reconsidered as the story goes on. But I definitely preferred the quieter parts of the story (this is almost always true for me. It’s like super hero movies: I like the origin story/discover your powers part, and then it’s all giant special effects action scenes and I get bored). Uprooted‘s battles used magic in some original ways, but there’s a certain sameness to the rhythm of battle scenes, and I found myself skimming as they took over the book. I did like that Novik acknowledged the cost of slaughter, though this wasn’t fully developed; it made the battle scenes less cartoonish. So often battles seem to have stakes only for the protagonists and everyone else is treated by the narrative as cannon fodder.

My favorite thing about Uprooted was the magic Novik imagined. I liked the contrast between Agnieszka’s improvisational, experimental magic, linked to a heritage of peasant witches from her valley like Jaga (duh, Baba Yaga, I was sooo slow to pick that up), and the Dragon’s more formal, academic magic, and the way they learn to blend the two together. (Although I had mixed feelings about how traditionally gendered this contrast is). I could have read about them doing spells all day long. I also really liked the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia and its realistic blend of love and resentment and support and rivalry. That relationship was at least as important in the novel’s development as the understated romance (which I also enjoyed).

I did not like the attempted sexual assault early in the novel. I got the “purpose” of the scene: it prompts Agnieszka to recognize that she’s a witch and it makes us suspicious of the perpetrator. But there were plenty of other ways to accomplish those things, and I was disappointed Novik went for (near)-rape-as-plot-device, which is how I felt about this scene–it isn’t really reckoned with after the fact.

Uprooted reminded me a lot of Merrie Haskell’s Princess Curse, a middle grade fantasy (which I’ll be teaching again this fall) that also draws on Eastern European folklore and fairytale and involves a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man. I think I prefer the Haskell, which has less fighting and a more developed romance. But they’re both well worth a read if this is your kind of book.

New Uses for Old Boyfriends, by Beth Kendrick

The Kirkus review aptly describes this book, part of Kendrick’s series set in Black Dog Bay, a fictional Delaware beach town, as an escape: “the return to the lightly magical town feels like a welcome vacation to a favorite resort.” This is comic women’s fiction (which I prefer to the melodramatic sort). Lila Alders returns to her hometown broke, jobless and newly divorced to find that her widowed mother is also in financial straits. Together, these women who have always been taken care of by men try to take charge of their own lives. They open a vintage store with the magnificent designer pieces Lila’s mother, a former model, squirreled away over the years. The clothes porn is excellent. [Lila’s mother was a model in the 80s OMG this book made me feel old]. With a lot of help from new female friends and more nice men who want to take care of them. Light and fun but also moving. I’m rarely in the mood for this kind of book, but next time I am, I’m glad to know Kendrick has a big backlist. I devoured this in a couple of days and it perfectly scratched my “charming escapism” itch. Thanks to Laura K. Curtis for recommending it!

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe (read by the author)

Celebrity memoirs are also not my normal fare, but I really enjoyed this one. Lowe is a really charming story-teller and comes across as sincere and really nice. Maybe too nice, as he never really criticizes anyone. Except himself (sort of; he mentions but largely glosses over his infamous sex tape, for instance). He’s pretty honest about the effects of his childhood–his parents’ divorce, his mother’s uprooting of the family and health problems–and his early fame, both his alcoholism and his trouble forming meaningful relationships. I thought he was about as forthright as you could expect someone who still has a Hollywood career to be. There are lots of great stories here–the account of filming The Outsiders with Francis Ford Coppola is a highlight, as is, especially for West Wing fans, his time with Michael Dukakis’ campaign. His favorite narrative trick got tiresome: he’d recount an anecdote but not tell you who it was about until the end (often you can guess). “And then my date’s dad came to the door and it was Cary Grant.” “At dinner I was seated next to my host’s daughter, who blah blah blah. Years later, Daryl Hannah did make it as an actress.” It’s gimmicky. But it’s a minor quibble about a book I really enjoyed–and that made me want to revisit several movies and the first couple seasons of The West Wing.

Radiance, by Grace Draven

I read this fantasy romance because lots of people I knew loved it. I didn’t. This was my one recent immersion failure. It sounds like my catnip: two minor royals in a marriage of convenience; because they’re from different species that find each other physically repellent, it’s a double Beauty and the Beast story. But the romance has no real arc: Brishen and Ildiko like and respect each other right from the start, so basically the romance plot was waiting for them to see past their cultural prejudices and decide the other is actually incredibly hot and start burning up the sheets. They’re both perfect, they never argue. It’s the kind of relationship you’d like to be in, but I found it boring to read about. The background world/politics didn’t compensate for me: warring (again) factions, an Evil Mother, and predictable battle scenes. The future of the series is clearly more warring, so I’m out. Whatever magic other people found here didn’t work on me.


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12 Responses to Recent Reading: Summer Escapes

  1. lawless says:

    It’s bad enough when someone like G.R.R. Martin and the men adapting his books for TV use sexual assault against women as a plot device. It’s sad and enraging when female creators use it, especially when traditional gender roles (read: gender stereotypes) are also in the mix.

    “Light and fun” sounds appealing to me. Radiance, which I hesitated over when it was on sale and ultimately did not buy, does not. Fantasy isn’t usually my thing anyway, so I am picky about what I try in that genre. And that’s from someone who was weaned on LotR and Narnia.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m not sure I’m being entirely fair to Novik about that scene–I’m pretty tired of reading about sexual assault/rape period, which obviously does not mean that it shouldn’t be written about. It’s nothing like GoT (based on things I’ve read about the TV show, anyway). The act is plausible for the character who commits it and it’s not described in a super graphic way, nor is it treated completely dismissively. And I kind of liked that the heroine took it in stride rather than being “broken” by it. I just felt that some other event could easily have accomplished the same things, and wished it had.

      I have been in a light and fun mood lately, and that probably colored my response to Uprooted, too, because I enjoyed the lighter parts the most.

  2. Sunita says:

    Brie recommended the Novik to me, and I’m waffling in the TBR direction, but I don’t read a lot of fairy-tale inspired books, or retellings. They just aren’t that interesting to me, at least Western fairy tales aren’t. I like the original Grimm books, and I love Pictures at an Exhibition, but that’s about it.

    I’ve had the Lowe in my Audible wishlist for ages, you just pushed me over the edge. I was never a West Wing fan, but I’ve seen a lot of Rob Lowe movies, many more than once (including some pretty crappy ones).

    I saw all the praise for Radiance but it had too many characteristics I avoid in Fantasy (several of which you’ve mentioned).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      UPROOTED has a fairytale “feel” to it more than being based on any specific tale. In that sense, another good comparison would be Diana Wynne Jones, especially HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. Though the Novik is darker/with more epic battles. (The Haskell book draws on a number of sources, but it’s clearly based in part on Twelve Dancing Princesses). I don’t know if that helps make up your mind. 😉

      I picked up the Lowe book in the $4.95 sale at Audible and it was definitely worth that. He knows how to craft a story, for sure.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        That’s an interesting comparison. I only read the sample of UPROOTED but Dragon grated on my nerves in a way that reminded me of Howl in HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. They are both powerful, mysterious and irascible wizards. I think it’s the irascible part that annoyed me in the UPROOTED sample, and helped me understand why I didn’t love HOWL. I loved Agnieszka’s voice though, so I may still read it.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          And I LOVE Howl. Hmm, what does that say about me? I think that both Howl and Dragon turn out to be more interesting and complicated than they first appear, which is part of it. But I guess I kind of like the trope of the hero who’s grumpy to cover his woundedness. At least if he’s a wizard or a genius eccentric. The alpha military version isn’t really my thing. Hmmm.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          I think I just have limited tolerance for bad-tempered characters who take their moodiness out on those who have done nothing to deserve or instigate it. I’m also not that excited by eccentric geniuses as fictional characters. I’ve known a lot of Physics, Chemistry and Math PhDs and reality often intrudes on my reading when it comes to this character type.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          To be honest, I probably like these characters because to some extent I identify with them.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          That’s perfectly normal. We all sometimes bring our life experiences and / or baggage to our reading, and it sounds like in this case, it’s happening with both of us.

  3. Brie says:

    I adored Uprooted! I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen (as Sunita knows *g*)
    You know I’m sensitive to sexual assault as superficial plot device, but in this case I thought it was used to subvert traditional–and romantic–Fantasy ideas of heroism: he’s the knight in shining armor who comes to rescue the captive damsel in distress; the handsome prince who is a beloved warrior. Yet he turns out to be none of those things, nor is the damsel in need of saving. Of course, the fact that the rape scene read, to me, as been there to say something about him instead of her, is problematic in and of itself, but ultimately I liked the role the scene played. I was a bit worried that Prince Rape was going to get a redemption arc, and he kind of does, but at least there was nuance to the characterization, which is something I found true of most characters in the book, including the Wood, although there was some heavy hand in there as well.

    As for the gendered nature of their approaches to magic, I thought it was more about class than gender, but now that you mention it, I can see it too. Her magic was one of the weakest aspects of the book, IMO, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it happened conveniently quickly and there was so much about it that was left unanswered.

    That said, I loved, loved, loved what the book had to say about friendship and sisterhood. I was so engrossed by the relationship between Kasia and Agnieszka. As you said, their relationship accepts the different complex layers of love, resentment, jealousy, yet it never veers into stereotypical (and sexist!) territory. It was lovely and very honest, and I saw a lot of myself in it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, that’s a really interesting reading of the scene with the Prince. And it did work that way, for sure. I feel that I focused on that too much when most of the book was a really magical experience for me.

      I agree A’s magic was a bit too unintuitive. She didn’t really have to learn at all. I thought about the class difference, but didn’t the Dragon tell her that he had been a homeless orphan on the street? So he was a peasant too. But he definitely accepts the aristocratic role that comes with his power more than A does (not embrace, since he hates court, unlike the Falcon. But it’s a role he feels he has to play and she rejects). And then there is the witch at court (whose name I forget) who makes swords and whose magic seems more stereotypically male. So every time you think you’re in a stereotypical fairy tale binary that is going to guide your reading, Novik undoes it. Which is a great thing about the book.

  4. Pingback: Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse | Nooks & Crannies - ’cus they're perfect for a book lover

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