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.