Sunday, August 11, 2013

Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

It is interesting to go back and read an earlier novel by an author whose later work you have so enjoyed. Water for Elephants was such a strong and powerful story with rich character development. It clearly shows how far Sara Gruen has matured in her writing style. I would have been a reluctant reader of Water.. had I read Riding Lessons first. 

Annemarie Zimmer  was an Olympian hopeful equestrian when a tragic accident destroyed her dreams and nearly herself. In a jumping accident her horse, Harry, injures her and himself. He is euthanized and she is in a coma for weeks. She gives up riding and becomes a journalist, marries Roger, and is mother to Eva. As the story commences Annemarie loses her job, Roger announces he is leaving her for another woman, and Eva, a fifteen year old, declares she is quitting school. Shortly thereafter she receives a call from her mother, Mutti, that her father is suffering from ALS and does not have long to live. Annemarie and Eva return to the family horse farm to help out and to start a new life. Needless to say, life really doesn't get much better. In one catastrophe after another, Annemarie manages to catapult the farm to the brink of bankruptcy, alienate her daughter, and drive a wedge between herself and a former boyfriend, now veterinarian, Dan Garibaldi. 

Dan runs a rescue shelter for horses and acquires a horse that is remarkably similar to the brindling, Harry, that was so close to her heart. Annemarie crusades that this is really a brother to Harry and risks all to prove it, including her own arrest. She will stop at nothing to prove the horse is Highland Hurrah. She watches as her father's health deteriorates and finds it hard to relate to both her mother and daughter.

Riding Lessons is a novel about relationships - between mother and daughter, Mutti and Annemarie and Annemarie and Eva, between husband and wife, between men and women, and between horse and rider. Annemarie is not a particularly likable character. She seems egocentric and unable tor not willing to relate to her mother's pain or her daughter's situation. She is short-tempered, and sulky, feeling so sorry for herself. 

The read was very quick. Gruen's craft at this stage in her career was superficial writing without much depth or characterization beyond two dimensional. It required little involvement on the part of the reader and I was able to read most of it in a 5 hour car trip. If you want a quick romance that has a good dose of horses in it, this would be a book for you.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Sitting on my "to be read shelf" since November, Bring up the Bodies, is the sequel to Wolf Hall. I knew that when I read it, it was going to have to be a time without too many pressing "to dos" in my life. Finally, the time had come and I settled down with the novel and isolated myself from the world. Transported back to the time of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and immersed in Tudor history, Bring Up the Bodies is as satisfying as Wolf Hall was. Mantel is a wonderful storyteller and manages to draw in the reader as an eyewitness to the events of the time. 

The novel begins in 1536 after Thomas More's execution as Henry's eyes are more often than not gazing at Jane Seymour more than this wife, Anne. The action is described and seen through the mind of his trusted adviser, Thomas Cromwell. The history of the time is well known and it is up to Mantel to craft her words to make it come alive for 21st century readers. And she does this spectacularly. History has painted Cromwell with a cruel brush, but this author shows another side. He is intelligent, articulate, crafty, and loyal to the king. His persecution of Anne and the matter in which he brings her to her final days is done fiercely and with determination and because it was the wish of the king. He presents the case against her with precision and catch her in a plot of adultery and treason. The lack of historical evidence as to what really was the case against Boleyn allows a bit of freedom in the novels final pages. And so the order goes to the tower to "bring up the bodies" for the trial.

The novel is a bit shorter than Wolf Hall, but it is still packed with eloquent description and vivid action. To clarify some of the confusion of telling Cromwell's story in the 3rd person, Mantel often uses "he, Cromwell" syntax. According to the BBC, the last of the trilogy will be entitled The Light and the Mirror and will close the book on Cromwell and his relationship with Henry. It would be expected that there will be his comments on Henry's marriage to Jane and the inevitable passing of her crown to Anne of Cleves before his ultimate demise.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Not the usual setting for a book of magic realism, but it works. Based on a Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child, begs the question of what is reality. Jack and Mabel have left their eastern home for the wilderness of Alaska after the stillbirth of their child. They need to start a new life and decide that it will be as different as they can make it. Needing to depend on one another is critical and with those thoughts in mind they opt for a homestead in the Alaskan territory. 

Life is as harsh as the winters and survival is dependent on strong minds, bodies, and good neighbors. One night after a cathartic snowball fight, Jack builds a snowman who is actually a snow girl. The creation is dressed and the two are proud of their craft. The next morning, however, the snow girl has melted and is gone. But is she? From the cabin window, Mabel has a fleeting glimpse of a child outside with the same attributes as the snow girl. Jack also sees her in the woods. How can this happen? As the story progresses the girl does come to life and is known to them as Faina. Mabel makes her clothes, they feed her, and create a life for her. Never sure when she will appear at their door, they long for her company as she seems to create for them the family that they have longed for. 

Adding to the stirring and emotional story is a bit of comic relief provided by their good neighbors, Esther and George Benson and their son Garrett. With the Benson's help, Jack and Mabel plant the land, and learn survival techniques. Esther is a take-charge woman and helps Mabel see what are the important issues in life. As the snow child intertwines herself in the novel and in the lives of the Alaskans, the reader grasps to identify what is really real  Her transforming powers effect all in most mysterious ways.

Ivey's debut novel is beautifully written. The descriptions of Alaska are alluring and enchanting. They are written by an author who is obviously in awe of the splendor of her home stae. In the end it is really up to the reader to decide how real the child is and if the changes that she seemingly brought about would have happened in any event.