Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Goodreads Description: "A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. 

Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra's life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. 

Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace - the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century - Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself."

My Review: This book took me a while to read---longer than it normally takes to read a book---because the beginning was a bit slow (though, to be fair, I also started it during the school semester...and when college is in full swing, I can barely afford to read a page per day, if even that). However, once I got into the book, I thoroughly enjoyed it and finished it very quickly, even staying up late some nights when I really should have been studying for finals to finish it (I did well on my finals, if it's any excuse!). 

The book is quite straightforward, despite several different narratives and plots (which eventually tie together, of course) and doesn't require much thought---only a keen sense of curiosity. I would never have called it a mystery novel---more like a historical and contemporary drama---but yeah, at heart, it's basically a mystery novel which tries to solve the basic question: Who was Nell and what circumstances led her to being abandoned alone on a ship with only a book of fairy tales in tow? 

It's not a book that requires much thought nor does it provide any groundbreaking writing, emotions, or ideas---but it does give some delicious entertainment with a slightly dark twist at times. It definitely keeps you reading. Family drama (mostly issues between mothers and daughters...this was definitely a generational novel, in the sense where it showed how multiple generations of women managed to screw up or damage their children somehow), small village secrets, a creepy Gothic manor with an even weirder rich family inside that no one is too fond of, orphans spirited away to different lives, young girls running off to find new lives... It was very dramatic and, yes, sometimes stereotypically so---I managed to figure it a few of the "twists" fairly early on---but that's not to say I guessed everything or that the novel ever became supremely boring. It was still entertaining throughout. 

One thing that did make me pause was the weird similarities between this book and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The Thirteenth Tale was published first but that doesn't matter, because I'm not claiming that Kate Morton copied her. After all, these books have themes which are quite common in stories. One only needs to recall Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to remember that these themes and tropes are nothing new. And yet...both The Forgotten Garden and The Thirteenth Tale had a strange amount of similarities: tales about young women searching the life of elder women who wrote stories and told tales; strange and unlikable rich families somewhere in the far corners of remote England; old mansions, family secrets, repairmen coming to fix up broken down homes, pairs of twins and young girls, incest (and the very same type of incest, which is weird), mysterious gardens...and even people named Adeline in both books.

Again---not saying Kate Morton copied, since this type of book seems to be her forte. But the similarities were enough that I got a sense of deja vu while reading The Forgotten Garden. There was also an amazing little wink to the The Secret Garden fans in the book that made me literally squeak when I read it. I had JUST been thinking, Wow, some aspects of this book are quite similar to The Secret Garden, when...! Oh, but I won't spoil that bit of fun. 

Basically, if you want an entertaining and slightly longer read to lose yourself in at night or during long flights or something, this is a great one to pick up. Nothing so heartbreaking you'll spend hours weeping, nothing so complex your brain will hurt, but also nothing so fluffy that you won't spare it a second thought after it's done. 

Cover: It's kind of the typical Here's a mysterious/cute cottage in the woods type of cover that's so typical of adult books (kind of like how Here's a random pretty girl in a ball gown is so typical of YA books). Nice, but nothing special.

My Review: B+

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Goodreads Description: "A BIG NOVEL ABOUT A SMALL TOWN ...

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?"

My Review: THIS IS NOT HARRY POTTER. This is the first thing I absolutely must stress. I know a lot of people disliked this book because they were expecting something enchanting, fun, adventurous from the author of our beloved Harry Potter series---and that's definitely not what they got. If you walk into this book expecting anything...especially anything Harry Potter-ish...then you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you read this book with an open mind and a penchant for good story-telling...I think you'll be quite pleasantly surprised. 

The thing is, it's a bit hard to review this book, in terms of plot. There isn't much of a plot and yet there are many small plots that intersect and tie into each other in various ways. I will say that the book seems boring at first: Rowling sets up a small town and introduces a multitude of characters---most of them unlikable, a few of them despicable, and only a small handful seemingly sympathetic---who immediately confuse you because there's so many of them and you don't understand how they all connect and why you even care about them.

Ah, but here's the thing---you're not supposed to care about them. If the Harry Potter series showed me that J.K. Rowling is a wizard (pardon my pun) story-teller, then The Casual Vacancy showed me that she's a masterful writer who can definitely go beyond the genre she's famous for and is brilliant at writing human nature. The people in this book are not largely likable or sympathetic---they're just real. Their personalities, their families, their struggles, their thoughts...are just so real. No one is a cliche stereotype, no one is a trope. Teenage boys and girls, middle-aged men and women, elderly people... Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, crushes, in-laws, bullies... Every type of person and relationship is in this book and some of them ring so true of reality that it's amazing. Even the characters I loathed, I could still see how utterly human they were---because I know people like them! And some of the characters in the book, while different from me, would have thoughts or ideas that were similar to my own! 

That was what made this book so good. With a larger plot about class warfare and the stigma that comes with those born and bred in poverty, J.K. Rowling spun a web of characters so flawed and real and human that it wasn't until the end---when you realized everyone had had a role to play in leading to the conclusion, no matter how small or large of a role---that you realized this book was incredible. It showed the complexities of a small town community, of close minds and old prejudices and stereotypes, and how the smallest of actions and relationships can lead to the most curious of connections and consequences.

Is it a book I'd read again? Probably not. Maybe in a few years, to remind myself what good writing really is. Is it a book I enjoyed? Not really; there wasn't much to make you smile. There was quite a lot of disturbing stuff in it, actually, in subtle ways. But it did surprise me with how good it was, and how simply she managed to make it happen, so yeah, I'd say that anyone who enjoys good characterization and details about small town life and its even smaller people would like this book. 

Cover: I know there are multiple covers. The American cover tends to be that bright red and yellow cartoonish cover, yet my library had this cover. I like this cover better, actually, it subtly hints to the small town debacle you're about to get yourself into quite well.

Overall Grade: A+