maandag 26 augustus 2013

Review: Juliet Marillier, Heart's Blood

When I first found out about Juliet Marillier, I was amazed at how she was able to take well-known tales and put her own – Celtic – spin on them to weave compelling stories that touch your heart. That was way before I discovered the online book community and the dominance of young adult fiction therein, where retellings of everything older than the past decade – I jest – are to be found. I couldn’t be bothered by those numerous retellings, but for Juliet Marillier, I always take some time apart. This particular novel of hers, however, inspired by Beauty & the Beast, didn’t cut it completely.

Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress belonging to Anluan - a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the region in tones of revulsion and bitterness. A curse lies over Anluan's family and his people, and the woods hold a  perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom.
Then the young scribe Caitrin appears in Anluan's garden, admiring the rare plant know as heart's blood. Retained to sort through entangled family documents, Caitrin brings about unexpected changes in the Household, casting a hopeful light against the despairing shadows.
But even as Caitrin brings solace to Anluan, and the promise of something more between them, he remains in thrall to the darkness surrounding Whistling Tor. To free Anluan's burdened soul, Caitrin must unravel the web of sorcery woven by his ancestors before it claims his life - and their love.
In my introduction, I already pointed out that this novel is based on the well-known story of the Beauty and the Beast. However, if I hadn’t known that beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it all too soon. See, while the general flow of the storyline is reminiscent of the fairy tale, Juliet Marillier really made it her own and created an almost new Celtic tale that hints at the fairy tale. This is perhaps the strongest asset of this novel, because with retellings, you risk repetition since your readers already know what’s to come. Here, however, whilst I was able to pinpoint some parallels in terms of who was who, the storyline was not all that the same so it felt like a whole new story to me, rather than a retelling. For example the role played by mirrors. In the fairy tale – at least the Disney version of it – the Beast gets an enchanted mirror to see the world outside, the world he’ll never visit because of his affliction. The mirrors at Whistling Tor, however, are far creepier than that. They might show things you wish you hadn’t seen… Not only the – slightly eerie – Celtic spin on things, but the nature of the curse as well was very refreshing and interesting and I really appreciated the way things ended. Goes to show that it doesn’t have to be all well to end well.
While being a far cry from the original tale definitely being a pro here, the plot also has its lesser qualities in its slow pace and predictability. As for the former, it just takes too long for things to get going. It’s not that it’s not interesting at all, but because things developed so slowly, it was too easy to put the book aside, which I did quite often. Also, pretty early on, you get a good hunch at how things will eventually pan out and while I kept hoping for a surprising twist to take my breath away, it never came. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed because of this.
The characters that inhabit Heart’s Blood are very interesting to say the least, but most of them failed at engaging me. Most of the characters seem to have a very troubled backstory and I would have loved to have explored those, but apart from some hints now and then, these are left untouched, which I felt was wasted potential. It might have been helpful to add these stories just to break the pace a bit. One backstory that does get explored, is Caitrin’s, and here I have to take my virtual hat off to Juliet Marillier. It seems like all we read about nowadays are ‘strong female characters’(*) who have or have to overcome their insecurities and do so with ease and grace. What I loved about Caitrin is how she is everything but that. She as well has a troubled past, and her past made her how she is today. The way Marillier made Caitrin’s past echo throughout her stay at Whistling Tor and the way she rose above that, were a pleasure to read. She may not be the stereotypical female character with the gutsy kick-all attitude, but she surely is all that in her own way.
Which brings me to probably the main reason why I didn’t like this book as much as Sevenwaters, and that would be the writing. See, I loved Marillier’s prose in Daughter Of The Forest, for it was lush, poetic and very descriptive. The writing in Heart’s Blood is not that very different, but it just didn’t work as well for me. Rather than very, it was overly descriptive and I found there to be too many words for what was being said and less would probably have been more in this case. This made the already slow plot almost dragging around halfway through. As a result, it felt like it took me hours to turn the page and thus made me put the book down way more that I would have liked to.

All in all, I did like Heart’s Blood, but not as much as other offerings from the author. Still, as far as retellings go, I think this once again proves that Juliet Marillier knows her craft when it comes to handling a well-known story in order to make something interesting out of it.

Let yourself get swept away by a love that surpasses time and get your copy now!
* This article raises some valid points concerning the omnipresence of SFC's. If you're interested, it's worth your time.

Review: Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark + True Blood S1

Looking at my track record when it comes to reading, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a little miracle when I read a book within the year of its release. In fact, I am so terribly behind on numerous series and other books, that I’m probably allowed to get my own charity. One of those series that have been lingering around since back when, is Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series – along with it the True Blood tv-series, because one does not see the movie or series before reading the book (*). With the sixth – already – season airing this past summer and since I had a road trip planned with lots of small free moments for reading, Dead Until Dark was the ideal choice.

Sookie Stackhouse is just a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. Until the vampire of her dreams walks into her life - and one of her coworkers checks out.... Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend isn't such a bright idea.

Plotwise, there isn’t much more to the novel than what it says on the tin. It’s a murder mystery slash romance novel, and a pretty straightforward one at that. Everything you can expect from a novel like this is present, including the police who are clueless and randomly picking on the wrong suspect, some danger and in the end the heroine to save the day. In fact, it’s fair to say that the romance takes first chair and the murder mystery is just along for the ride. Throughout the story, there are none whatsoever clues to who might have killed those women and when the murderer is revealed, it felt like he was the unlucky one who picked the shortest straw in a kids game. It felt quite random without the intentions and backstory behind the murders being revealed after he was caught.
More central to the whole story, was the relationship between Sookie and Bill. I’m not one for instalove – and this nearly is – but Sookie and her na├»ve attraction and devotion towards Bill are just so endearing, that I don’t mind. Her almost childlike contemplation concerning a vampire’s ability to get an erection and produce semen, as well as other sexual ponderings, are silly and borderline hilarious, that I can’t find it in me to frown upon it. It’s only when they go on-off-on again for the what seems umpteenth time, that things get just a little tedious. Seeing as the spine markets these books as Fantasy/Mystery, the true nature of Dead Until Dark might rub some readers the wrong way. I had a gut feeling of where these books were headed – reading it years after publication might have helped me there – so I actually enjoyed the simple and frivolous plot, even though a twist or two (**) might have been welcome.
Dead Until Dark hosts a bunch of characters, but only a handful are really explored. We see everything from Sookie’s point of view, which makes her the most developed of characters and I really liked her. There is something sweet and endearing about her and she’s just so happy and positive most of the time, that it tends to affect the reader in a positive way as well. Apart from Sookie herself, Sam, Bill and in a lesser degree Gran and Eric felt like a character with their own voice. As for the rest, they all felt alike – cardboard, that is – and only their names separated one from the other, if they speak at all. I do know that books like this one don’t tend to give a lot of space for developing secondary and tertiary characters, but even Sam and Bill fell a bit flat at times, so it feels like a wasted opportunity to me.
The writing is more or less what one can expect from the genre. It’s not particularly good writing – perhaps a bit forced at times – but it’s not bad either, it’s enjoyable enough to keep reading. More important here, is that it fits the book. Charlaine Harris wrote a fun, light story and in terms of her writing she isn’t pretending otherwise and serves what you bargained for: a fun and quick read. One thing that I do regret here, though, is the setting or rather lack thereof. The series is officially titled ‘Southern Vampire’ and is set in Louisiana, but it could as well have been rural L.A. or NY for that matter. I missed some real Southern accents here that I did encounter in other novels, just to make the setting feel more real and differentiate it from the pack.

In sum, I actually enjoyed Dead Until Dark, perhaps even more so that I imagined beforehand. I do am glad to own the cheapest edition possible and neither do I regret not reading this way earlier, but I will return to Bon Temps and I will do so with a smile on my face.

Fall for Sookie and Bill by getting your own copy here!

* There are some things I'd like to say re: this ongoing debate, so expect a post about this in the near future.
** Apart from the ones in Sookie's knickers, that is.
Soon after finishing Dead Until Dark, I started watching the first season of True Blood, which is based on the first book in the series. I have already seen numerous book adaptations and even though I keep the book and the adaptation as much as possible separated, I can't help but rule in favour of one side of the other. Most of the times, I rule in favour of the book, but True Blood is a notable exception. As mentioned above, I did like the book, but the series gave the story some extra punch, mostly because of the characters.
The plot didn't really change a lot. Because the series isn't stuck in Sookie's head as is the novel, it makes for some leeway and enables the exploring of the secondary characters. The main plot, however, remains untouched in such that it isn't until the penultimate episode that the audience can figure out whodunnit. The laying out of new plotlines for the second season was a nice extra touch as well. It takes away some focus from the main plotline - which the viewer has figured out in the one but last episode - and thus keeping the end of the season exciting and non-void.
The characters, however, did get a serious boost. If you like book-Sookie, you will love serie-Sookie. I know I do. The same goes for Bill and Sam. Also, contrary to the book, the secondary characters are discernable and - perhaps more important - memorable. Lafayette, the cook who gets to utter one miserable line in the novel, becomes perhaps one of the more memorable characters on the show and the addition of his cousin Tara might have been the second best change to the characters - with Lafayette being the best.
Perhaps what I missed most in the book, was that Southern touch, which True Blood nailed with the set, intro and most of all, the characters' accents. It all contributes to a great atmosphere that oozes the South and gives it character.
It might be raunchy at times, and you might not want to watch it with your parents around, but the first season of True Blood was bloody delicious and made for a great adaptation of a fun little book.

vrijdag 9 augustus 2013

Between The Pages: Lost in transit

I think this blog might not be among the usual suspects when it comes to frequent posting, but the last few weeks, it has been awfully quiet over here. For a very good reason, that is. I have been on a trip across the Narrow Sea Atlantic to the sunny California and surrounding states.
This particular post will deal with what I have and have not read in the USA (*).
I don't know how others choose the books they are going to read while on holiday, but for me, it was quite a production - not fit for Broadway, but coming close. I mean, there were a lot of factors to take into account. If you're on the road for two weeks and more, hotelhopping across four states and almost never spending the night twice in the same place, time for reading is limited, scarce and precious. Thus no big, epic, attentionconsuming books. Rereading a book can be fun, but having to start all over again every night because you weren't paying attention the day before to the twist in the plot of the sidequest concerning the daughter of the cook of the handsome prince's late mother's niece that went missing (**), is not fun anymore. Also, being away from home for that amount of time means lots of luggage and even more hauling with it. Will the heavy hardcovers please stay home?
Taking all this into account, the four books that crossed the ocean were...
The first one I read was Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark. I am probably the last one to read this, but then again, I'm never at the races when it comes to reading books close to their publication date. I will even add that if it wasn't for the trip and the long flight that goes with it, I probably wouldn't have read it cause I'm already over my head in series. It's just that it seemed a good plane-read and while I was at it, I could finally start watching True Blood. Win-win! This book is also a good example of being overly ambitious, cause I figured I could finish this on the two flights to L.A. and be done with it. But then I saw the little monitor in the headrest before me and the music and movies and series and gamesthat were on it, and my whole plan backfired (***).
Even though I started a new series with Sookie, I made up for that escapade - a little bit - by continuing an ongoing series with Laurell K. Hamilton's Burnt Offerings. With finishing this seventh instalment, I'm nearly 1/3rd through with the series, yay! I finished this one the evening before we had to leave for Belgium again (****), but another long flight would give me a good start in Heart's Blood. I didn't chose this book deliberately, as I did with the others, but instead, I pulled it out of my TBR-jar. Quite a satisfying pick, if you ask me, seeing as it is a standalone and has been standing alone for quite some time on my shelf. The 'good start', however, didn't happen. Having to get up at 3.30am didn't really put me in the mood for reading, not even if it's a Celtic retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I did manage to get 50 pages in, however, so that has to count for something.
Funny how the book I was most excited for, Pale Demon by Kim Harrison, didn't happen at all. It's also a series I am near to catching up with the writing of it, but I recently read the previous novel, so I wanted to sqeeze some books in between. Mission accomplished.
(*) The original plan was to write a post about what I was planning to read and publish that before leaving. That obviously didn't happen. Also, note that I'm going to talk about what I did NOT read. This post will deal with the downside of being overly ambitous. Thou art warned.
(**) I am so very sorry if I spoiled a Game of Thrones plotline here, without my knowing. I jest, the cook's daughter isn't featured in GoT , but she might have!
(***) Oh, and getting up really early to go to the airport makes you sleepdeprived and that doesn't go well with reading.
(****) A week or more so later than planned, so that one blew up in my face as well. But when one is going to the dogs, the rest will follow.