Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

I absolutely loved this book. I had the experience I sometimes do where I start reading it one evening, immediately get drawn in, continue it the next morning and think, “I’m going to have to slow down reading this, or it won’t last more than a few hours, and it’s such a wonderful book I want it to last forever.” Then I abandon the attempt to read slowly and just race through to the end because I can’t stop myself. This, friends, was my experience with Harold Fry.

The plot is simple: Harold Fry, a retired man living a fairly staid and boring life in the south of England, receives a letter from an old acquaintaince, Queenie Hennessey, who lives at the other end of the country. Queenie is dying of cancer and has written to say goodbye. Harold, who hasn’t had any contact with Queenie for twenty years, initially plans to drop her a note in the mail, but when he sets off to the mailbox, he simply keeps walking. Somehow he becomes convinced that if he keeps walking, he can keep Queenie alive. He walks away from his wife Maureen and their chilly marriage, away from their house which is touched by sadness for reasons that gradually become clear, and north towards Queenie Hennessey.

Along the way the walk truly does become a pilgrimage, in ways that are funny, touching, and deeply (though not always conventionally) spiritual. The story of Harold’s past unfolds through his memories as the hardship of the walk forces him to examine them, and we learn that his marriage to Maureen, which at first seems simply to have slipped into late-life boredom with each other, has in fact been shadowed by a tragedy from which both Harold and Maureen are struggling to recover. As Harold makes his unlikely journey, Maureen, too, has to change direction if their relationship is to survive. But will it? And will Queenie survive cancer if Harold gets to her? And will Harold himself survive the walk?

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Mistress of Rome and Empress of the Seven Hills, by Kate Quinn

This is going to be kind of a weird review because I can find an awful lot of things to criticize about Mistress of Rome and its sequel Empress of the Seven Hills, but at the end of the review I’m going to tell you that I did thoroughly enjoy reading them. I’m not such a literary snob that I can’t enjoy a book that has some obvious flaws.

It helps that these books are set in a time and place I really enjoy — the second-century Roman Empire, beginning in the reign of Domitian. The hero and heroine of Mistress of the Seven Hills are  Thea, a Jewish slave girl who is the last survivor of Masada, and Arius, a British slave/gladiator. Through a series of plot twists, they meet, fall in love, and then are tragically separated. Thea ends up as Domitian’s mistress, and the emperor is, unfortunately, a sadistic, abusive whackjob. Arius ends up as Rome’s most celebrated gladiator. True love will win out, of course — this is not, strictly speaking, a romance novel, but it employs a lot of romance tropes — but not before the most over-the-top villainness of all time tries to bring Thea down, Arius becomes a Karate-Kid-style gladiator mentor to his own son without knowing who he is, and the emperor gets assassinated. 

Neither Thea nor Arius is entirely convincing as a character: they’re both a bit too predictable, and so is their relationship. As for the historical background, it’s full of interesting information but doesn’t always seem completely real. Even for someone like me who has a high tolerance for modern-sounding dialogue in historical fiction (when someone says “OK,” I usually just assume they were saying whatever the Latin equivalent of “OK” was), the language here often sounds too casual and sloppy. An especially egregious example is when one character says “Jeez” — at a time when Christians were still a small persecuted sect, I don’t think anyone was using the name of Jesus as a mild slangy swear word.

Despite all this, I enjoyed the story enough to proceed straight to the sequel (there’s also a prequel, but I wasn’t interested in going back in time) which is the story of Arius and Thea’s son Vix. Vix is a much more complex and interesting character than either of his parents, and so are the other major characters in this novel — Vibia Sabina, who loves Vix but marries someone more on her social level, and Titus, one of Sabina’s unsuccessful suitors. I don’t for one second believe all of Sabina’s adventures, not to mention her attitudes, would be possible — she’s the classic twenty-first century woman transported to a historical novel — but I enjoyed reading them anyway.

As a side note, Mistress of Rome was the second novel I read this summer about a survivor of Masada (the first being the much more literary, and much more focused on the Masada story, The Dovekeepers). In both novels, a teenaged girl deals with her emotional pain by self-harming: cutting herself. Was this unfortunate modern practice really common in the ancient world, or are the authors projecting modern sensibilities back two thousand years? If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the only time for Kate Quinn.

So if you like serious, literary historical fiction that’s meticulously attentive to accuracy and absolutely believable — you probably won’t enjoy these books. But I did. They were fun, easy to read, and yes, I’ll be getting the next one when it comes out!

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Shine, by Lauren Myracle

Another in my recent list of YA reading is the book that was the subject of a flurry of controversy after its brief appearance on the National Book Awards list. Fortunately for Lauren Myracle, that mistake might have generated as much publicity as an actual nomination would have — it’s certainly how I heard of the book — and it’s a genuinely good read for teens.

Shine tells the story of Cat, a young girl growing up in a desperately poor Southern town. By Grade 11, Cat and two others are the only three kids from her hometown still attending the regional high school — everyone else their age has already dropped out, and many are involved in the community’s only thriving business: making, selling and using meth. One of the other two kids still attending school is Patrick, who used to be Cat’s best friend until a traumatic encounter with an older boy caused Cat to withdraw from everyone (there are some parallels here to the last YA book I read, Speak). The book opens when Patrick, who is openly gay, is beaten and left for dead outside the gas station where he works.

The circumstances of the attack and a crude note left at the scene suggests Patrick may be the victim of an anti-gay hate crime. The local sheriff is inclined to pin the blame on a group of random strangers passing through town, but Cat suspects someone local is behind the attack and she decides to investigate. In the process of doing so she has to confront a lot of people with whom she’s cut ties, face a lot of her own fears, and rethink her opinions of some people. In other words, she has to grow up — just what the heroine of a young adult novel should be doing. There’s some nice writing here, a strong sense of place, and memorable characters. Well worth the read.

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Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I’ve been looking at some young-adult titles recently as I’ve been filling out the “Every Book on this Rack is Better than 50 Shades of Grey” bookrack in my classroom with a mix of adult and young-adult titles (my students tend to be in their late teens and early 20s). I’d heard quite a bit over the years about Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak so decided this was a good chance to pick it up, read it, and add it to my classroom collection.

Speak is a simple but powerful novel about a high-school student who was raped by a fellow student at a party. The reader doesn’t actually find out that this is what happened until partway through the book: we only know that Melinda has suffered a traumatic experience that has left her depressed, withdrawn, and feeling like an outsider among her peers. Her parents are extremely detached and unhelpful (more than I’d expect such otherwise apparently decent people to be in the face of an obviously distressed teenager, but of course the story is told from Melinda’s point of view and we see only what she sees of her parents’ behavior), and only one teacher at school is at all helpful or sympathetic. Melinda can’t speak about what happened to her: her struggle to get to the point where she can finally begin to tell her story and start to recover is the story of the book, which covers one year in her high school experience. It’s a vivid, real, moving portrayal of a depressed and traumatized teenager, and I think a lot of readers, not just rape victims, would be able to relate to Melinda’s feelings of isolation and her inability to trust anyone. She’s a narrator who draws the reader into her story even while making us aware there are parts of the story she finds hard to tell.

Speak definitely deserves its position as a modern classic of YA literature, and like all good YA, transcends those boundaries by simply being a good, highly readable book about an important subject.

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