The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

As a fan of WWI novels, I was excited to read The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. I have Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand–have had for 4 years now and haven’t read it yet, story of my life. There are some very positive aspects of this book. I think Simonson, by describing the countryside and country living, captures the idealism of the idyllic summer of 1914, or at least as it has been romanticized since the beginning of the war. An older woman (Mrs. Kent) sunbathing naked in her backyard, garden parties, and pageants all work to capture the peace and tranquility felt by the upper- and upper-middle class in that June and July.

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(Source: Goodreads)

Simonson writes some interesting characters. The main character, Beatrice Nash, is newly orphaned and comes to the village  of Rye to be the new Latin teacher. She is stereotypically a New Woman: she rides a bike, she’s more educated than any woman of her class “should” be, she’s independent, and she’s a suffragette. If the story focused solely on her, I think I would have enjoyed the book more. Instead, we get the view points of several characters: Mrs. Kent, who fights to get Beatrice a place at the school; Hugh Grange, her nephew, who is a medical student and goes off to the war as a medic; and Daniel, another nephew, who is an in-closet gay poet and joins the Front Lines when his lover dies in a flying accident. Other characters include Mr. Tillingham, an American author who lives in England (based loosely on Henry James), a couple of Belgian refugees, two “radical” women hinted at being lesbians, and an obnoxious Mayor’s wife. In trying to paint a picture of the village through these viewpoints, Simonson ended up diluting the substance of these characters. We get hints of depth in these characters, particularly with Beatrice and her history, but the pacing of the book (another issue I have) prevented me from getting attached to or feeling anything for the characters.

The pacing was a bit rushed. About 85% of the book was before the war and the last couple of chapters deal with the Front. We are given glimpses of the horrors of the war through Hugh and his surgeries. At the end, we get the romantic ending Simonson was leading us to, but it felt hollow. We do see the growing friendship between Hugh and Beatrice and some moments of attraction, but the lack of depth in both characters–and the knowledge from the beginning that this will happen–wasn’t enough to make me love this book. I know the book is considered “chick-lit”* so that’s not what disappointed me, but it was the lead up to it.

At the end, I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads, 2.5 rounded up because of my weakness for WWI books. From the reviews I’ve read of Major Pettigrew, I’m looking forward to reading that…eventually.

*I hate that anything with romance is considered chick-lit, but that’s a rant for another day.

Rereading Harry Potter in the Age of Trump

I didn’t think I was a fantasy fan when I was in high school. I read all of Oscar Wilde’s plays, Crime and Punishment (I blame my father), Count of Monte Cristo, and other such classics. When a friend of mine suggested we go see this movie about a boy wizard I was hesitant, but we went with our small group of friends after school on Friday to see it. It might have taken 10 minutes, maybe 20, before I was hooked. Castles! Magic! Ghosts! What was there not to like? Needless to say, I left a fan and purchased the bundle of books 1-4 in paperback the next day. In about two weeks, I was done with the books. I still refrained from calling myself a fan of fantasy. Those covers are weird! Which is why I also refused to read this book my cousin’s husband kept pushing on me; it was a little known book at the time called Game of Thrones. I’m still ashamed that I didn’t read it till 2011, but that’s also around the time I admitted to myself that I like fantasy. But I digress…

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(Source: barnesandnoble.com)

I’ve read the last three HP books at least 5 times each, but it had been a long time since I’ve read the books in order. After the farce of the election I needed some comfort and while Jane Eyre is my usual Christmas time reread, I decided it’s time to revisit the books that got me into fantasy. It’s the perfect escape. At least, it used to be.

What changed this year as I reread the series this time is my understanding of Voldermort. It’s not hard to draw some parallels between the rhetoric of fear and othering used by our President-elect and those used by the Dark Lord and his followers. Keeping a registry “mudbloods” isn’t very different from a registry of Muslims. To be honest, it’s scary. Voldermort wanted power for the pure-bloods while being a half-blood himself; Trump speaks out against immigrants while he is the son of one. Voldermort used harsh and insulting language to differentiate between himself and those who disagreed with him; Trump regularly takes to Twitter to insult anyone who speaks out against him, be it a civil rights leader or one of the greatest actors of our time. Voldermort is clearly depicted as a fascist leader (based on Hitler) and Trump’s positions certainly come off as fascist. Once the connection was made (while rereading Philosopher’s Stone) it was hard to ignore. My plan to escape into fantasy failed. I’m continuing with the reread of the series for the sake of nostalgia, but it is now tainted as I see more similarities between Voldermort and my new president.

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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The final book of the trilogy was the weakest. While I enjoyed the sections that showed us the past as it builds the world, there was less of Kelsea who, by the end of book 2 (The Invasion of the Tearling), had so much potential. In this book she was merely a tool to show how Tear’s idea of utopia failed instead of being a worthy character herself. To be fair, the past was just as interesting as Kelsea’s present (at least in book 2). Johansen did a great job showing that utopias are an idea to strive for, not necessarily something that can be achieved. By working towards equality, we work towards a utopia. It was important for Kelsea’s character to understand this by seeing the past so that she can make the decisions she needed to in the future (another great point: we need to understand our history to not repeat the same mistakes … this applies well to our current political situation).

This book suffered by making the secondary characters more interesting. Like I said before, Kelsea had the potential of being a great character. Johansen built this character over the first two books only to collapse it in the third. And while the characters from the past, Row, Katie, and Gavin, were interesting, you end up wanting more but then being pushed back to a present with a passive Kelsea. I rarely say this about books, but this is a book that could have been longer IF the length provided more depth to the characters.

The plot was also just meh. After a fantastic ending in book 2, book 3 was anti-climactic. Again, this could be because of the back and forth between past and present, but that wasn’t a problem in book 2. There was a great deal going on in the present that we really only get glimpses of, but if you’re going to show the failure of a world, then I wonder why that didn’t get the attention that it deserved. Also, did we need another YA book with vampires? That came out of nowhere. We get no information on why they were created, except for a power-hungry rejected son wanting an army. But why vampires? There was an audible “ugh” when I reached that part of the story.

Unlike many other reviewers, I did not mind the ending. In fact, considering how much time Johansen spent on focusing on the past, the concept of time, and the mystery of time travel, it seemed like a natural ending. However, the present again suffered. There was only a glimpse of Kelsea sitting on the floor while the crazy vampire children where fighting her Queen’s guard and killing them. The characters Johansen helped us care about were merely collapsed into a few second glimpse before moving on. I like it when a book punches me in the guts with emotions and more than liking it, I wanted this book to give me that, this ending did not provide do that. Unlike the other books in the trilogy, when I finished this one I easily moved on to the next book on my to-read list.

Overall, while Johansen provided a decent ending to the story and the trilogy, I was disappointed in The Fate of the Tearling. I wouldn’t mind rereading The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling again without ever picking this last one up.