Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review: Peril's Gate by Janny Wurts

Peril's Gate (Wars of Light & Shadow #6; Arc 3 - Alliance of Light, #3)Peril's Gate by Janny Wurts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm speechless and breathless (and have been for several weeks) after finishing this penultimate tipping-point volume in Janny Wurts' Wars of Light and Shadow series. Even taking a break and reading a half dozen other books hasn't allowed me to express the emotions that wracked me or the wonders assuaging them. Not since reading Janny's To Ride Hell's Chasm has a book's pacing been so unrelenting and rewarding. And to think she wrote that novel after Peril's Gate to step back from writing this series!

I highly recommend this book, but also strongly suggest you not start with this novel. Begin at the beginning, with Curse of the Mistwraith and immerse yourself in all things Atheran.

Please see Stefan's outstanding review of Peril's Gate for a concise synopsis and insightful comments.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Toasting (or Roasting) Fanny Price

A Taste of Victorian Literature

Last year, the Kansas City Public Library, through the Waldo Branch, embarked on a journey through 19th century literature with an adult reading program entitled 'A Taste of Victorian Literature.' I could only attend one of the group sessions last fall, the first one, on D.H. Lawrence's novel The Rainbow. To my relief, the Library provided an encore this spring, hosted by the Plaza Branch (conveniently located on the first floor of the building my employer resides in) and I happily attended last night's lecture and discussion led by Andrea Broomfield, Associate Professor of English at Johnson County Community College.

I received my reading guide for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen via electronic mail on Monday, Valentine's Day, February 14, 2011. The guide included a few brief paragraphs about the book and Ms. Austen (about half a page for each). Never having read an Austen novel, and being at least half finished with it by the time I received the guide, imagine my chagrin when I learned Mansfield Park is sometimes referred to as Austen's 'problem novel.'

However, I had no qualms while reading the novel, expecting a slower pacing when compared to 20th or 21st century literature. I appreciated the circumstances surrounding of Fanny's life, family and friends, as presented by the author. Austen's third novel falls under a broader definition of Victorian Literature; to me it's a precursor to that era, a transition from the Regency era, and more pleasantly readable prose than later Victorian didactic sledgehammer-esque efforts. The guide also included a brief biography of Jane Austen (1775- 1817), stating she wrote as she lived, with nuance and realism.

I arrived fifteen minutes early to the Plaza Branch, seeking directions to the appropriate gathering place, in the 'large' meeting room between the non-fiction section and the children's area. By 6:30 p.m., I was one of a packed room of thirty people, all of them female with the exception of one besieged stalwart male who participated graciously and gallantly. I should have spoken up in his support; first, because, while female myself, I suffer under the auspices of a gender-confusing name (yes, it's pronounced just like "John" not some strangely misspelled "Joan") and, second, because I rarely ever read anything of a romantic nature, unless it happens to slip in as a subplot to an epic fantasy, space opera or science fiction novel.

Andrea Broomfield, Associate Professor of English, JCCC

Andrea Broomfield began her lecture (complete with dimmed lights and a PowerPoint), of which I will briefly recap from my illegibly scribbled notes. First question up for discussion involved why Mansfield Park would be considered a Victorian novel. Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in June of 1837, twenty years after the death of Jane Austen. Yet transformations to society began prior to the 1830s, burgeoning in the late 18th century, during the life of Jane Austen and as expressed in Mansfield Park's internal chronology (roughly thirty years spanning 1783 to 1813). Professor Broomfield related that Punch magazine actually coined the phrase "Victorian" sometime in the 1840s.

Queen Victoria of England, by Alexander Melville, 1845
The time span encompassing the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to her death in 1901, provides a frame of reference to discuss the impact of industrialization on society. Industrialization transformed the existing land and power structures and encouraged the rise of the middle class as society transitioned from an agrarian based (i.e. cottage industries) economy to an industrialized one. The Evangelical movement within the Church of England helped to abolish slavery and became the foundation for promoting what we now refer to as Middle Class Values (more on that later).

But who are the Middle Class? They are well educated (engineers, accountants, lawyers, professors, bankers, merchants, etc.) and well paid, but non-aristocratic in origin. This fostered unrest, as only the aristocracy (those who owned land) were allowed to vote, and essentially a small group of people (approximately 5,000 families) controlled the government and the church. With such examples as the American and French Revolutions to fuel the fire, the established gentry felt threatened by the burgeoning wealthy middle class, who, in turn, began to demand a voice in their destinies.

Queen Victoria not only accepted middle class values, she championed them, including piety, sobriety, morality, monogamy, hard work. At this point, I should have spoken up, because I saw a parallel hear between middle class values and Wesley's Methodist Means of Grace. Mary Crawford scathingly referenced Methodism when she showed her true colors to Edmund's unveiled eyes late in the novel. Austen, a village parson's daughter, should have been aware of her contemporary, John Wesley (1703 - 1791), even though he died while she was but a teen.

Professor Broomfield continued with a bit of history around the time Mansfield Park was written and published (1813-4), often referred to as the Regency era, or the period when King George III went mad and his young son ruled as Prince Regent. A dominance of aristocratic values are portrayed in Austen's characters of Mr. Yates (idleness), Mr. Rushworth (waste of money/resources), Maria Bertram (laziness) and Henry Crawford (flirtation). The only obligation the aristocracy had was to maintain the status quo, which meant siring a male heir to secure the land for the next generation. Thus, they did as they pleased and set their own standards of conduct. The rest of society, the working class and rising middle class, viewed the aristocracy with contempt, as corrupted and completely depraved.

Engraving of Steventon rectory, home of the Austen family during much of Jane Austen's lifetime.One of the slides from Professor Broomfield's presentation displayed Austen's home at the Steventon rectory, exemplifying the typical middle class modest home with divided rooms (in contrast, the working class often lived, dined and slept in a single or at most two room homes). The Reform Act of 1832 let off the steam of the bubbling boiling uneasy middle class, averting bloody revolution by changing the electoral system of England and Wales.

The crucible of Austen's life and times included the rise of evangelicism, the abolition of slavery (see William Wilberforce for more information), the ascendancy of the British Navy and the accentuating of class differences. Professor Bloomfield gave an apt illustration of those differences using poetry as her example. Poetry (and poets) comprised an 'elite' art form, reserved for the aristocracy. Yet an educated middle class yearned for entertainment of a more accessible flavor, creating a void for literature that authors like Austen eagerly filled. Victorians are idealistic, always in earnest, convinced they can solve all the world's problems and most assuredly not cynical.

With less than thirty minutes left for our five discussion questions, Professor Broomfield opened up the floor with the following:
  1. If you have read other Austen novels, then you likely see some differences between Mansfield Park and Austen's other works. What are those differences? Why might critics consider this novel to be the most 'Victorian' of Austen's novels, even though the novel was published before Victoria became Queen of England?
  2. Mansfield Park is considered a 'Condition of England' novel. In these types of novels, the author uses fiction as a means to critique the culture around her/him. What aspects of English culture come under Austen's scrutiny? How does Austen use her main characters -- the Crawfords, the Bertrams, Fanny and William, Mr. Rushworth and Mrs. Norris -- to comment on what people should and should not value?
  3. Do you find Fanny to be a likable heroine? Do you find Edmund to be a likable hero? Why or why not?
  4. What is the purpose of the attempted play at Mansfield Park, both before and after it is aborted?
  5. Consider any dramatized versions you have seen of Mansfield Park and how they differ from the actual Austen novel. Are the plot, narrative voice, and characters of Mansfield Park simply too old-fashioned or outmoded for a contemporary audience's sensibilities?
We only managed to tackle three of these questions. In response to the first question, comments included a feeling that Austen was just coming into her voice, a more mature voice as compared to her other more popular titles. Fanny's reticence and control upheld and exemplified.

With respect to the second 'Condition of England' novel question, the disparity between rich and poor as seen through Austen's characters in Mansfield Park began with Mr. Rushworth, described as a 'rich boob' or a 'buffoon,' a terrifying thought since his like were ruling England, the figure of a man with little or no substance. Many readers enjoyed Mary Crawford, despite her faults: wanting to marry for money, position, privilege, power; self-absorption.

This led to a discussion of the philosophical debate contemporaneous to Austen's times on why people marry. Fanny (as well as Austen) believed marriage should be made for love while Mary Crawford stood for opportunistic marrying for position. Edmund wants to blame her upbringing as a rational explanation for Mary's lack of a moral compass. Mary epitomized the 'Old England' while Fanny portrayed the 'New England' as it 'should be.'

Mansfield Park published by Penguin Classics
Austen uses her characters to force her readers to think and her novels always have an economic component to them; jockeying for position, especially among the women. Professor Broomfield took a few minutes to read Edmund's dialogue on pp. 424-6 of the Penguin Classics edition, where Austen attempts to teach us why we should like Mary. Mary is telling Edmund that if Fanny had married Henry, none of the scandal would have happened. Edmund realizes he fell in love with an imaginary Mary. Mary's sarcasm and cynicism clashes with Victorian ideals, and appears to us (in the 21st century) as a very modern attitude. Edmund, blinded to Mary's un-virtues for much of the novel, is now disgusted by her, yet he is always sincere. Fanny, poor neglected and ignored Fanny, might as well have been an orphan, curtailed by her ambiguous class position throughout most of the novel. In contrast to the pale, wispy Fanny, Marilyn Flugum-James, seated next to Julienne Gehrer (a representative of the local Jane Austen Society), likened Mrs. Norris and Mary Crawford to 'bright colors on the canvas of this novel.'

With only five minutes left, Professor Broomfield quickly skipped to the final question about any dramatizations we may have seen of Mansfield Park. I vaguely remember watching the much maligned 1999 film version, but only remember it as a period murder mystery (so perhaps I need to re-visit that film now). Many readers touted the 1980s era Masterpiece Theatre mini-series. The A&E version was also mentioned, but not as highly regarded.

And thus ended my second evening foray into the 19th century literature I managed to avoid both in high school and college (engineering and mathematics not lending studying time to the finer arts). I had a very enjoyable evening and look forward to next month's discussion of Jane Eyre, published in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë under a masculine pen name. Professor Broomfield posed these questions in closing to ponder as we read (or re-read) Jane Eyre:
  • What makes this novel radical (when published, it created a huge scandal)? 
  • What makes it Victorian?

I read Jane Eyre last year, not for this group, but rather as a prerequisite to reading Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. Ironically, Mr. Fforde headlines the signature event for the other winter adult reading program sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library on Thursday, March 17th. Look for a future blog post on my progress through some of the Altered States suggested readings.

Altered States: Adult Winter Reading Program

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Review: Magician: Apprentice by Feist

Magician: Apprentice (The Riftwar Saga, #1)Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am kicking myself for not reading this novel when published, my only excuse being I was a teenager with no funds and no connections (remember the state of the Internet in 1982?). I lived twenty miles away from the nearest library back then. If my mom didn't own the book, I didn't get to read it.

This story overflows with likable characters: Pug, Tomas, Carline, Roland, Arutha, Kulgan, Meecham, just to name a few. The pacing skips, trots, canters, gallops, crashes, walks, jumps, and flies. The magic system teases you through Pug's apprenticeship, yet we glimpse broader examples through Kulgan and the invaders. The classic fantasy races make an appearance via elves (both light and dark or good and bad as you prefer), dwarfs, goblins, trolls and dragons.

The world building interwove seamlessly with the narrative as we followed along with Pug and Tomas as they ventured along with the Duke's expedition to seek aid to stave off an invasion of aliens from his royal kin over the mountains and east of his far western holding of Crydee. The aliens control rifts between their world, Kellewan, and Midkemia, where the Kingdom reigns through the Duke's royal relatives. Through these rifts, the aliens establish a bridgehead and proceed to slowly encroach upon Midkemia, first to mine metals in the mountains east of Crydee, and then to expand westward to gain access to the sea.

The book ends abruptly, but understandably so, since the original publication was one large volume, not the two we see today published as Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master. I look forward to reading the second half of this opening salvo in the Riftwar Saga next month.

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Book Review: Imager's Intrigue by Modesitt

Imager's Intrigue (Imager Portfolio, #3)Imager's Intrigue by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Five years have passed since we last saw Rhenn. He's married and has a daughter now. He's continued to climb the ladder at Image Isle and now resides with his family and a servant in a house on that island.

We see more of the dark side of covert operations in Solidar and how Rhenn responds when thrust into leading and architecting strategies that lead to long term victories and continued prosperity for Solidar and it's Imagers.

All the Imager novels to date have been related in the first person from Rhenn's point of view, which limits my knowledge to what he shares with me. I often feel as if I'm missing much of the story, because what he takes for granted as common knowledge, I do not, and what he focuses on may or may not be relevant to what I desire to know. So, I get frustrated and bored and miss a seemingly unimportant piece that later completes the puzzle.

The ending, or the resolution designed and personally carried out by Rhenn, disturbed me. Perhaps I'm naive and want our world, or any world I immerse myself in, to be more forgiving, more understanding. I firmly believe the only things you can change are yourself; you can't change others no matter how much you want them to change. Rhenn believed change needed to occur now, and only extreme measures, including the use of deadly force, could meet his needs, which he equated with the continued prosperity of Solidar and by extension, imagers. Again, absolute power tempts to corrupt absolutely, for we learn that Rhenn is now the most powerful Imager alive.

This may be the last novel in the Imager Porfolio devoted solely to Rhenn. I got the feeling at the end that the focus of any future books would steer away from Master Rhennythl.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

February Reading Schedule

For a short month, I have way too much reading I need to finish, all of it related to virtual and physical book clubs.

Currently, I'm reading Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist as part of the GR FBCS group read of the Riftwar Saga, which just kick off this month.

I ordered Cold Magic by Kate Elliott to participate in the GR SF&F BC group read of that novel. I wasn't planning on buy it, but I was shocked to learn that my amazing public library on the ground floor of my employer's building (aka the Kansas City Public Library Plaza Branch) had not yet purchased a copy. It's rare that I can't find a book through the KC library system.

As part of that library's Winter Reading Program, I'll also quickly re-read Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Twain. I hope to earn a cool mug and be entered in a drawing for a Nook.

I am also participating in another reading program sponsored by the KC Library called 'A Taste of Victorian Literature' so I'm reading Mansfield Park by Jane Austen this month to participate in a group discussion held at the Plaza Branch the evening of Wed Feb 16 at 6:30 pm.

I'll be continuing the group read at Beyond Reality for Janny Wurts' Wars of Light and Shadow with Traitor's Knot.

And back at FBCS in mid-February, I'll begin a re-read of the ebook version of Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson to participate in the alternate series group read of Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Should I pray for more blizzard like weather so I'll have more time to read? Otherwise, I've probably bitten off more than I can chew (or read) during the shortest and coldest month of the year.

For any other reads I might try to squeeze in, see my current-month book shelf.