Sunday, September 08, 2013

What we're reading from the New Books shelf

If You Were Here, by Alafair Burke

Who knows why a particular book calls out to you, when you're browsing the New Books shelf looking for something to take home? Reading choices aren't always logical, and I have to confess that I picked this one up simply because I had never seen the name "Alafair" before, and I liked it! Later, I tried to find a meaning for it online, and the only one was from Wiki Answers (which I instinctively distrust), which said "angelic likeness." Regardless, it's a cool name, with origins in the South and maybe before that in Wales?

The other reason I checked out (not quite that shallow) is because it is a thriller with a protagonist who is a former lawyer turned writer, and I thought that would be an interesting combination. This one didn't disappoint. I did find the protagonist, McKenna, a little self-absorbed, but she ultimately cops to this as part of the story, so I forgave her; and the mystery within a mystery is a good one--lots of twists and turns and surprises.

McKenna has a big scandal in her past, to do with wrongly accusing a police officer of lying about an officer-involved shooting. That same year, when she lost her legal career in the district attorney's office and turned to writing, her best friend and former roommate Susan disappeared without a trace. The police assumed (with no disturbance of the scene at her home or work) that Susan left by choice, but McKenna always maintained that Susan must be dead, because she simply wouldn't do that to her friends and family. Now, though, McKenna isn't so sure...about anything!

Apparently Alafair Burke has written eight more books, and after this one I would definitely try another.

The Queen's Gambit, by Elizabeth Fremantle

Yet another historical novelization about Henry VIII and his many wives, this one about one of the two who survived him--his sixth and last, Catherine Parr. Everyone knows the history: Henry marries his elder brother's widow (Katharine #1) and has one child, Mary; annuls this marriage (in search of a son and heir and also because he is smitten/obsessed) to marry Anne Boleyn (Anne #1), who gives him his second daughter, Elizabeth; beheads this wife and marries Jane Seymour, who gives him a son, Edward, but dies after childbirth; marries Anne of Cleves (Anne #2) for political reasons but can't stand her and has the marriage annulled without consummation; marries Katherine Howard (Katherine #2) but beheads her after she (allegedly) cheats on him (and also fails to give him progeny); marries (finally!) Catherine Parr (Catherine #3), who is lucky enough/much relieved to survive him!

I have read several fictional versions of this story, and I am torn over this one: On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed and admired the author's sympathetic and intimate portrayal of Katherine (spelled here with a K) Parr herself, as well as a couple of compelling secondary, mostly fictionalized characters--the good Dr. Huicke, and the loyal serving girl Dot Fownten. Indeed, at times it seems like this is equally their story, and these were some of my favorite moments. On the other hand, I found some of the other characters surprisingly perfunctory, almost a caricature of themselves (Thomas Seymour, for one), and wanted further explanation and development (because even though we know the story, if you're going to tell it, then go for it!). And there was a repetitiveness to parts of the book that made me feel like it was a recitation of "this happened and then this and then this" so that my attention wandered a bit. Perhaps these are just the expected pitfalls of telling an historical story already well known to its readers, and this is probably why I so enjoyed the parts about Dot and Dr. Huicke, some previously unencountered historical figures. Also, the author kept switching from past to present tense and back again (often within the same sentence), which jarred me out of the narrative flow. (Yes, weird grammatical stuff does occasionally ruin reading for me!) Anyway, a strong like, not a love--but it definitely holds its own against similar efforts, and is better than some. This is a first novel by a former fashion writer for French Vogue (her descriptions of the clothing are particularly detailed and no wonder!) and I would take a chance on a second.

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