Friday, June 17, 2011

Thursday's Child by Sonya Hartnett

This is an Australian young adult novel that tells the story of the Flute family as they struggle to survive during the Great Depression. As realistic fiction, it focuses on the relationships and interactions among the family as they live their everyday lives, and it is told through the eyes of Harper, the youngest daughter, who is (I believe) nine when the book begins. As is suitable for her age, she is a bit naive and doesn't seem to completely understand all the events that she describes, and I think this helps to take a bit of the edge off of the setting/context of the novel and some of the particular things that happen to Harper, her siblings, and her parents: her father develops a drinking problem, her older brother runs away, her older sister becomes a housekeeper for a sleazy neighbor, and her younger brother, at the start of the novel, digs tunnels under their house (eventually, through the whole town) and goes feral. It ends on a mostly happy note, one that is satisfying and is subtly led up to throughout the novel. Overall, it's a bit of a quirky little book, and because of this I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

Rating: 3.5/5 for being well-written and engaging, but probably not the kind of thing I'm likely to read again any time soon. (I don't tend to gravitate toward realistic fiction.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Valley of Horses by Jean Auel

If you've never read Auel's Earth's Children series, I would highly recommend it (especially if you're into strong female characters). Valley of Horses is the second book, the first sequel to Clan of the Cave Bear. I tried reading VoH last summer immediately after finishing CotCB, but the epic perfection of Clan made it difficult to really enjoy VoH, so I gave up after about a hundred pages. The first 3/5ths of the book are, in fact, quite a snooze fest. Plot wise, chapters alternate between Ayla, the Cro Magnon heroine of Clan, as she forges a new life for herself on her own after she is expelled from the group of Neanderthals by whom she was raised, and two male characters, brothers Jondolan and Thonolan, as they make their way east on a Journey to the end of the great river.
Before the two storylines intersect, there isn't actually much plot, at least as far as the brothers are concerned. Ayla's story is a bit more interesting (she takes in a wild horse and cave lion to raise), but on her own, she isn't quite as intriguing a character. The reason I loved reading her so much in Clan was that she was constantly grappling with her sense of identity and her sense of belonging; she is not of the same sub-species as those around her, and the whole focus of the novel is the various problems that manifest as a result of this, and the ways in which Ayla develops and learns to deal with those problems. Because she is alone for so much of VoH, it was hard for me on a first read to really appreciate her in the same way. As for the Jondolar/Thonolan thread, most of it is taken up not by a driving plot, but by a lot of unnecessary description of the customs of the various clans they encounter, drawn out (and boring) scenes in which things are either built or crafted, and somewhat silly banter and dialogue.
The book doesn't really get good until Jondolar and Ayla meet. Because Ayla was raised by Neanderthals, Jondolar is the first one of her kind that she has seen since her parents died. With another character to play off of, she is once again highlighted as a woman living within and between two very different worlds, both of which she has a hard time fitting into. This is really what I find most interesting about these novels, and it's a shame Auel takes so long to get there in this particular novel. I understand, though, that she wanted to take the time to establish the new characters, particularly Jondolan, and show Ayla as capable of taking care of herself without man nor clan, but I feel like she could have done that in much fewer pages. The last couple hundred pages almost made up for that, though, when Ayla and Jondolan's relationship blossoms and develops.
Rating: 3/5 for very slow start