This Week, I Read… (2017 #45)

162 - Sacred Hearts

#162 – Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

I often find historical fiction weighed down by superfluous detail, but that was not the case here. The picture painted of life in a Renaissance-era Italian convent was bleak and unforgiving, and yet there were moments of beauty, not just in the peace and grace the characters find through their faith, but in the support these women give each other.

This is only one of a few novels I can remember reading that had no significant male characters. There’s the lover young novice Serafina pines for, but for most of the book he’s absent. There’s their confessor, Father Romero, but he’s only mentioned in passing, never speaks, and is spoken/thought of by the nuns with disdain for his ineffectiveness. And there’s the distant bishop, who holds power over the lives of these women through the threat of encroaching reforms, but his influence in the story is small compared to the powerful movers and shakers within the convent itself.

This novel also demonstrates the paradoxical freedom the sisters had–while shut up in the convent, cut off from the outside world, some of them–our main character Zuana in particular, but also the choir mistress who wrote the convent’s music, and the sister who wrote the plays they performed for festivals–had the freedom to pursue interests that a typical life of marriage and motherhood would have denied them. This isn’t to say the practice of selling off extra daughters against their will to a convent was a moral one–it’s not–and ultimately the story agrees, as the ending makes clear. But it also depicts the ability to find personal freedoms in strange places, which I find a hopeful message.

163 - Auraria

#163 – Auraria, by Tim Westover

DNF @ 25 percent because I got bored. The entire first quarter of the book was a lather-rinse-repeat of the protagonist going to a person to buy their land, having basically the same conversation with each one until something weird happened, buying the land, and then going on his merry way while completely failing to be affected by the weird thing.

While I did like some of the weird things–the house that had more stories when you were in it than appeared from the outside, with each one getting smaller, until the top floor only had room for “thimble and thread”, that was actually pretty neat–the story as presented felt like an excuse to have a mystical, cool setting more than an actual story. The emphasis was definitely placed on how strange the town and its inhabitants were, rather than any actual plot, which was plodding and dull.

164 - Trade Me

#164 – Trade Me, by Courtney Milan

  • Read: 12/3/17 – 12/4/17
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This book goes so far above and beyond the New Adult Contemporary romances I’ve read before that I feel like it’s on a different plane of existence.

This story covers conflicts based on relative wealth (it is a billionaire story, after all); eating disorders; cultural differences; and plain old stubbornness.

Given that I’ve been paycheck-to-paycheck working poor in my life, I found Tina’s portrayal sharp and accurate. And Blake isn’t your typical Billionaire Romance Hero at all–he recognizes his privilege and doesn’t dismiss criticism directed at him based on his charmed upbringing.

Their attraction feels real and unforced, and their budding relationship takes a whole bunch of twists and turns before it develops into love. The HFN, hopeful ending definitely makes me want to read more of this series, especially since the author’s note at the end of the book says they’re coming back in a future book!

(In fact, the extensive author’s notes at the end were a great addition, explaining the process of how such an unusual and original book came together. Definitely read those too, if you pick this up!)

165 - Must Love Mistletoe

#165 – Must Love Mistletoe, by Christie Ridgway

  • Read: 12/4/17 – 12/5/17
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (151/150) [yes I’m still counting!]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I don’t think this story knew what it wanted to be. Sure, it’s primarily a romance, but the tone shifted often and wildly from super-serious (Finn’s Secret Service past and recently acquired disability) to super-silly (the excessive Christmas spirit of the town and everything that happened at the shop) to super-irritating (Bailey, all the time.)

And how reasonable is it, even given Bailey’s history, for her to simply vanish on Finn with no explanation or contact–and for him never to try to contact her? She didn’t change her identity or go into space, he could have tried. But that doesn’t make for as much drama, even if it doesn’t make any sense. No, young Finn just accepted that Bailey left him and never did a thing about it.

On that footing, it makes their reunion less believable, and I found the ending anti-climactic. I also didn’t care for the subplot involving the fading marriage between her mother and stepfather, which was underdeveloped and not thematically tied to anything else in the story. Plus, I found it vaguely uncomfortable to be reading Bailey’s mother’s dramatic sex scene, both because it was poorly written–noticeably more so than the other sex scenes–and because I JUST READ ABOUT YOUR DAUGHTER HAVING SEX. Why did any of that need to be in the story?

166 - The Talented Mr. Ripley

#166 – The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

I think this novel might be the best argument for show, don’t tell that I’ve ever read. Everything about Tom Ripley comes from his actions, not his words; emphasized by the fact that he rarely speaks, compared to the other characters. The story is told in third-person limited, centered on Tom, but despite that, we rarely hear him talking.

But we do see everything he does, and get a lot of his thought process. So much of his characterization, as well, comes from what he doesn’t think about–he suffers more anxiety from seeing Marge’s bra lying out in the open than he does from committing murder. He never thinks about sex; the few times he observes women’s bodies, it’s always with disdain or outright disgust–I’m head-canoning him as ace, because when the issue comes up with Dickie about whether Tom is queer and/or attracted to Dickie, Tom’s almost bewildered that he might think that.

No, Tom’s aspirations toward Dickie aren’t sexual or romantic–Tom wants to be Dickie, not love him. And it couldn’t be clearer, even before Tom hatches his impromptu scheme, by the way he covets Dickie’s possessions, even tries on his clothing.

It’s absolutely chilling, how logical and sane a completely amoral character can seem, when you’re getting his side of the story.

167 - Candide

#167 – Candide, by Voltaire

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good satire when I see one, but I already know we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, so I didn’t need to read this book to have it tell me so. I can appreciate good absurdity when I see it, and if this were a romance novel, then absurd it would be, with every character trying to outdo the previous one for traumatic backstory. But this reads much more like a fable, or dare I say a play–I could definitely envision this on stage being performed in ridiculously outrageous costumes and grandiose gestures–and as a simple, short book, I found it flat.

Even with the historical context, I think this is simply past its time. I’m sure it was witty in its day, but now it’s just dull.

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