Review #2: Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

I was a huge fan of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With the Pearl Earring, which I read many years ago, but I never thought to pick up any of her other books until my aunt recommended Falling Angels. While I didn’t like it as much as I did Girl With the Pearl Earring, it was still a very enjoyable read.

Falling Angels┬áis set at the turn of the 20th century in Britain, opening with the death of Queen Victoria and, consequently, the Victorian era and the customs and formalities that characterized it. The novel centers around two families, the Waterhouses and the Colemans, who are initially brought together by meeting at a cemetery where they have adjacent plots. Their lives soon become intertwined as they become neighbors, and their daughters, Maude and Lavinia, become best friends. Their clashing views on society (the Colemans represent a more modernist, forward-thinking way of life, while the Waterhouses cling to traditional Victorian values) serve as the backdrop to these friendships, and symbolize the chaos and societal division of the time period. Kitty Coleman’s involvement in the suffragette movement propels the story forward, her innocent actions resulting in disastrous unintended consequences for both families.

Chevalier does an excellent job of presenting early-20th century Britain in a fascinating yet informative way. She clearly conducted a lot of research in writing this book, and blends fact with fiction seamlessly, often integrating actual events and real people into the storyline without distracting from the narrative. She creates compelling characters, although her use of alternating voices to tell the story makes it difficult to connect with any one in particular. This was actually my biggest problem with the book–while I think that telling the story from different perspectives can often be an effective narrative device, Chevalier goes a bit overboard. Even though the main characters are, ostensibly, the two daughters, she gives chapters to virtually every other character, even those whose perspectives are unnecessary and superfluous. I would have preferred to have more time devoted to the girls and their mothers, so that I could have become a bit more invested in their stories.

Overall, this book was pretty good. It didn’t have a huge impact on me–I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and I got through it fast, but I sort of forgot about it as soon as it was over. It’s an interesting read that reveals a lot of information about the time period, but it ultimately felt a little too light to me. I didn’t find myself thinking about it much after I’d finished, which generally indicates that a book is only okay. It’s not a bad way to spend a few hours, though.

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Review #1: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

If I had to pick one genre of books that I love more than any other, it might just be Young Adult fiction. Just kidding, I could never pick only one…but YA books definitely are near the top of the list. I’m not really discriminatory in my YA tastes, as I’ll read (almost) anything, even the trashiest of trash (Sweet Valley High, anyone?). However, I’m always on the lookout for good YA fiction, the kind that’s really just a good piece of writing, not just a good piece of writing for teens.

Beauty Queens is one of those books. I’d never read anything by Libba Bray, although I’ve heard great things about her other works and I’ll definitely be checking them out now. I’m shocked that it took me so long, because her writing embodies everything I love about good YA fiction: it’s super-smart, funny, and sassy.

Beauty Queens opens with a plane filled with fifty teen pageant girls crashing onto a seemingly deserted island. Only about a quarter of these girls survive the crash. These include Taylor, a stereotypical blonde bitch; Adina, who thinks pageants are a waste of time; Nicole and Shanti, who are competing as the only two girls “of color,”; Jennifer, a juvenile delinquent; and several others. Each of these girls is grappling with her own secret identity (for some, it’s as innocent as wanting to be a doctor, for others, it’s a question of sexuality), and must deal with her own personal problems while surviving on an island, while also putting up with the other girls. There’s also the issue of the nefarious plots being carried out on the other side of the island by a group of unknown men, who pose a threat to the girls’ safety. Throw in a group of reality-TV sexy pirates, a caricature of Kim-Jong Il named Momo B. Chacha, and hallucinogenic berries, and an evil organization simply named “The Corporation” (messages from this group are scattered throughout the book, giving disclaimers and advertising various products), and you’ve got the basic gist of the plot.

This book reminded me a bit of the work of authors like George Saunders, who writes about vaguely dystopian worlds that are still recognizable as our own. Beauty Queens has a satirical tone, taking on everything from beauty products to reality television, presenting them as bizarre, warped versions of what we know today. The footnotes that explain the cultural references the girls make are one of the best parts of the book, and are absolutely hilarious. Bray also has dozens of biting one-liners, and manages to make her out-there scenarios (which might have fallen flat in the hands of another author) laugh-out-loud funny.

Beyond the fact that the book is incredibly entertaining, I loved the ultimate message that it delivers. The whole book is about self-discovery and empowerment, about self-acceptance and the rejection of societal norms. Bray’s characters start out as one-note and superficial, and grow into women who love themselves regardless of their quirks and flaws. I wasn’t expecting to find such a positive feminist message in this book, and it really made me happy to see that someone is taking on these issues in a way that’s accessible to young women (and hell, older women too). Beauty Queens is so refreshing, and so important, in a world dominated by the Kardashians and Snooki; Bray is advocating for women to be real, not just plastic, brainless, homogenous bodies. As one of the pageant girls says near the end of the book, “feminism is for everybody and there’s nothing wrong with taking up space in the world, even if you have to fight for it a little bit.” For that alone, this book (and Bray herself) won me over completely.

I highly recommend this novel.

New Blog

First of all: Hi! I’m Sonya. I’m a 22-year-old senior at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York (about as far north as you can get, only twenty minutes from the Canadian border). I’m an English major, with an emphasis on creative writing, and I love books more than just about anything–I’ve been a bookworm for my entire life.

This blog is my second attempt at Pajiba’s Cannonball Read. This is an awesome challenge to read 52 books in a year. I did it last year, and although I did (almost) complete the challenge, with fifty books, I fell way behind on reviews and sort of gave up halfway through. So I moved from Blogspot to WordPress, and I’m giving it another go. I’m going to try to be a lot better about getting my reviews up as soon as I’ve finished a book. We’ll see how it goes…

Also, depending on how motivated/committed to this I am, there might be other various ramblings, reviews, rants, etc. I’m playing it by ear, so you never know.

First real post should be up shortly!