Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater

So I read Shiver and really enjoyed it.  By a stroke of luck that rarely occurs for little old me, I won a copy of Ballad from the wonderful Angieville.  Intrigued, I grabbed Lament from the library (Ballad‘s predecessor, although both can be read as stand-alones without too much confusion, I think) and got reading.

Lament was great, although I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Shiver – it just seemed to be missing that unidentifiable something.  I enjoyed the Celtic edge it had to it, and Stiefvater’s use of faerie lore.

After reading so much about Dee and Luke, I was disappointed to find that we really don’t get much about them in Ballad, except through Dee’s unsent text messages to James.  I know this is supposed to be his story, and more of a companion novel than a sequel, but I found myself wondering about them quite a bit.  Also, although I really liked Dee in Lament, I found myself disliking her a bit here – from James’ point of view she seems incredibly selfish.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t a huge fan of reading from James’ POV – I’m not really sure why, since I love him as a character.  I have a tendency toward the bad boy rather than nice guy characters, but Luke (although I did like him) just seems so superficial in comparison to the depth and character that James has.  Nuala’s POV was always entertaining, especially as I watched her go from thinking about James as a victim to thinking about him as someone she cares about.

It also seemed like all of the action and all of the big reveals were clumped together at the end – there were some great scenes, but they might have been a little more effective if they were spread out.  I love the world she’s created though, as well as her characters – Mr. Sullivan in particular.  I’ll be interested to see where James and Dee’s relationship goes from here – it seems to be left a bit open for another book featuring them (perhaps the events of Ballad from Dee’s point of view?), and if there is another, I can’t wait to read it.  As it stands, Dee’s entanglement with Faerie as the cloverhand doesn’t seem like it will be over anytime soon.

Overall, an enjoyable read.  Great ending, too.  If you like Stiefvater’s style, you won’t be disappointed with this one.

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I was a little apprehensive in picking this one up after reading some mediocre (and less than mediocre) reviews – and I only had a few days to read it before it was due back the library, and I was worried I’d slog through it.  Perhaps my low expectations had something to do with it, but I was pleasantly surprised, and really enjoyed this.

I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the whole thing.  Niffenegger does a wonderful job of setting the stage for the novel.  It starts out with a realistic depiction of our world, with a slight creepy factor due to Highgate Cemetery neighboring the flat.  And then, of course, there’s the haunting.  From the summaries I’d read, I wasn’t sure how literal this haunting would be – just an overbearing sense that Elspeth still “owned” the flat?  Her belongings and what she left behind keeping the twins from feeling like it was their home?  The hold her memory still has on Robert and the others she knew?  Or the actual presence of a ghost?  It turned out to be the latter, and I thought the “haunting” factor was very well done.  It’s gradually built up so that it’s almost believable, with Elspeth beginning as a weak, vaporous spirit and eventually becoming capable of moving small objects, etc., and the atmosphere is a big help in allowing the reader to suspend disbelief.

Speaking of which, the reader’s ability to do just that is important for this one, I think.  A lot of other reviews I read said the ending took it too far, pushing it past the point of believability.  I can see how; there are several twists at the end, some more far-fetched than others, and one that I saw coming from early on in the book.  Nonetheless, I think she ended it the only way she could, if that one big twist (if you’ve read it, you know which one I’m talking about – I don’t want to give anything away!) is something she was aiming for through the whole novel, and I get the impression that she was.   One the whole, it was beautifully written, and with great characterization (I especially liked Martin, and it was interesting to see how his journey – or lack thereof – paralleled Elspeth’s).  There were a couple of things that bothered me about the ending, but on the whole I really enjoyed this once I allowed myself to get lost in it.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

51jim7NTY8LI haven’t read much Byatt since I finished my thesis last spring, and I didn’t realize how much I missed her writing. This was somewhat different (for me, at least) from her other works that I’ve read, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It spans social and political changes over a rather large period of time, centering primarily on the Wellwood family and others that have entered their social circles at some point or another. The large cast of characters could make it a bit difficult to remember who was who at some points, but overall I think I enjoyed all of them – they all had their roles to play in the big picture.

Now, my thesis was on her use of fairy tales and fairy tale elements – if she’d written this novel a few years ago, I probably could have centered the whole thesis on it! Fairy tales are vital to this story. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children’s stories in Victorian (and later, Edwardian) England, and her fairy stories and themes almost define her family.

I especially loved her portrayal of women in this novel. Olive’s children (and their childhood playmates) are growing up in a time when it is becoming accepted for “respectable” women to hold “real” jobs – but often at the cost of any romantic desires or chances of marriage. Dorothy (who wants to pursue the career of a doctor/surgeon) is perhaps the most affected by the double standard, observing that although there are female doctors with husbands, those are few and far between. Griselda and Florence grapple with this decision as well. One can pursue a career, but by the time her studies are through in her late 20’s, she would be considered something of an old maid. One of my favorite passages in the novel that sums this struggle up nicely comes on page 495:

“Florence was in a turmoil. She had promised herself to Geraint, and she was now promising herself to years of study. She did not think Newnham College would care for married students. She wished to disturb her father, at some ferocious girlish level, and felt – she was not really thinking – that the engagement would do that.
And yet – like Griselda, she did want to think. And she did see her future as, perhaps, the choice between thinking and sex.”

Byatt has always done a wonderful job of exploring the roles that women play in various situations, past and present. This novel is no exception.