Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s An Unsuitable Princess weaves a unique combination of fiction and memoir as it tells two stories at once, stories that span the distance between a Renaissance fairy tale and a young woman’s experience coming of age in early-1970s Hollywood. This unusual pairing is achieved through a creative rendering of the book’s format. Foremost is a fantasy story about a mute orphan and her love for a blacksmith’s apprentice; in moments where the fantasy takes particular inspiration from her life, LaForge adds footnotes marked by flowers, which lead the reader into the second part of the book: her true account of young adulthood, Renaissance faires, and the boy who changed her life. As both stories unravel at the same time, the reader is introduced to a new and heady type of literary adventure, one that touches the heart and feeds the imagination.

One would expect, given such a unique style, that An Unsuitable Princess would require some particular skill or endeavoring on the reader’s part in order to best appreciate the book as a whole, but it’s a testament to LaForge’s ability – and perhaps her confidence therein – that the experience of reading this dual narrative feels surprisingly natural. Her alternating accounts are separated from each other by both the clarity of their unique atmospheres and the author’s dedicated tone. In the fantasy, the story of mute orphan Jenny and the young blacksmith Samuel is unraveled in a style that quickly draws the reader into its setting amid Renaissance England. Her characters – from the determined Sir Robert to the imposing Queen Marion – take vivid shape as the story follows Samuel’s determination to survive war and the unknown to be with Jenny. At comfortable and seemingly quite natural transition points, triggered by certain phrases or scenes in the fantasy, we’re brought forward in time to the real-world Laurel Canyon of the author’s childhood and young adult years, where she documents first her adventures in school and life before eventually getting to the heart of the matter, and the stories’ crucial point of relation: a boy named Sam. LaForge recounts their meeting as character volunteers at one of California’s renowned Renaissance faires in the decade when it was known more as a source of bawdy liberation than a family-friendly atmosphere; she explores the experiences they shared before finally resigning herself and her reader to the tragedy that waited at the end of their relationship. In this, the memoir that inspired the fantasy, her narrative is fast-paced and witty, but ultimately profound, infused with pop culture references that bring the world of her memories even more to life.

LaForge handles both the memoir and the fantasy story of An Unsuitable Princess with a caring and intimacy that strikes the reader’s emotions; it is clear in the words, in both the heartrending reality and the blissful imaginings, that the author is baring her deepest, most candid truth to her audience. Her efforts are applied with insight and heart; the combined nuances manifest into a gift as much for her reader, her family, and herself as it is for the memory of an imperfect time and the beauty of a young soul. Through a remarkable execution of prose and memory, LaForge unfolds her tales of fantasy and reality before the reader simultaneously and the result is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind experience.

Title: An Unsuitable Princess
Author: Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Genre: fantasy, memoir
Publisher: Jaded Ibis Press
Release date: April 15, 2014
Source: Book Savvy PR (c/o)
Buy the book: Amazon | Kindle | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound
Connect with the author: Website/Blog | Facebook | Twitter

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The fifth and final installment in John Heldt’s Northwest Passage series, The Mirror, follows twin sisters Katie and Ginny Smith on a journey through time, the likes of which happens to run in the family. The daughters of Joel Smith and Grace Vandenberg – the hero of Heldt’s The Mine and heroine of The Show – Ginny and Katie never believed their parents’ stories of accidental time-travel, at least not until a visit to a carnival house of mirrors on their nineteenth birthday sends them from their everyday lives in 2020 Seattle to an entirely different Seattle: that of 1964. Armed with cell phones that haven’t been invented yet and driver’s licenses that read a birth year of September 11, 2001, Ginny and Katie have to start from scratch as they wait for an opportunity to get back to the world they once knew. As they take in a time engulfed in civil rights activism and Beatlemania, the twins juggle the lives they had with the lives they’ve been given, finding friendship, love, and even family in the past.

With The Mirror author John Heldt brings his Northwest Passage series to a close with a strong finish; in many ways the charm and wit readers have come to know are presented twofold here, thanks to the novel’s twin protagonists. Heldt evokes the ever-relatable nature of siblings in Ginny and Katie, polar opposites in all but appearance. Ginny, sassy and outgoing, becomes a stalwart focus of the story while Katie, the play-it-safe sister, offers a quieter and decidedly emotional edge. Despite their outward similarities, each of the twin characters come to life in a fully realized individuality that lets the reader connect with them on an even deeper level. Ginny’s friendship with James, a young African American man, sparks a fiery pursuit of civil rights and social justice in the time-traveler’s heart, while Katie’s love for grocery store clerk Mike seems to have a history all its own; one that defies even Katie’s wildest imaginings. The love stories and phenomena of The Mirror cover some new and slightly bigger territory than the past novels in the series, and they do so with the same charisma that has made Heldt’s novels so enjoyable. The comfortable familiarity of the narrative and the warmth of the prose lull the reader into Heldt’s unique brand of literary escapism with ease; once there, the story grabs hold and doesn’t let go.

At once a fusion of romance, science-fiction, and history, The Mirror brings the ‘60s to life while at the same time offering an affecting portrait of family and devotion. The familial dedication Ginny and Katie feel for each other breaks the reader’s heart when their sisterly bond is tested, while Mike’s devotion to his ailing mother and James’s responsibilities to his family all echo the novel’s core sentiment of how far we’ll go for the ones we love. In five novels Heldt has continued to deliver surprises within his stories and The Mirror offers some of the best suspense in the series with a final act that will have readers riveted to the pages. One becomes truly captivated by the author’s vivid depictions of history – this one complete with a concert scene starring a very young John, Paul, George, and Ringo – and his unique, dependable characters create very special emotional connections within their audience. With humor, grace, and a touch of magic, The Mirror is a worthy conclusion to an unforgettable series.

Title: The Mirror (Northwest Passage #5)
Author: John A. Heldt
Genre: sci-fi, romance
Publisher: John A. Heldt
Release date: March 1, 2014
Source: John A. Heldt (c/o)
Buy the book: Kindle
Connect with the author: Website/Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Shelfari

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When one reads a classic there are a million extra ways to be surprised, because for so long preconceived notions have been quietly stewing in our minds about what sort of story the book is going to tell. Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is just such a classic, first published in English in 1988 and an irrevocably iconic work ever since, second only to his Nobel Prize-winning 100 Years of Solitude. Yet in twenty-six years its story – the tale of Florentino Ariza’s devastating love and half-century of waiting for the beautiful Fermina Daza – will not be as instantly recognizable to readers, or as culturally ingrained, as the love stories between Rhett and Scarlett or Cathy and Heathcliff, for example. It’s a young novel yet, but there seems to be an enduring singularity to it that will allow it to slip through the grasp of convention for a long time; and it’s also an impressively subjective novel, with every page giving rise to new reactions in its reader, opening the door for uncountable opinions. These two factors alone make the prospect of writing about it rather staggering, to say the least, but it’s a novel that surely evokes a prolonged, unshakable reaction.

To refer to the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza as a love story, as it is most popularly categorized, seems to be an extreme oversimplification of everything García Márquez puts forward in the novel; likewise, to say that it’s a tale of unrequited love also doesn’t quite hit the mark. Instead, Love in the Time of Cholera embodies the entirety of love in all its scope and forms: through Florentino’s devotion to Fermina we see all-consuming love, while Fermina’s flighty responses range from adolescent love to the falling out of love (“the abyss of disenchantment”) and eventually a love born of time and understanding. When Fermina, driven away from Florentino by her father’s determination, marries the amiable Dr. Juvenal Urbino, her restless independent nature seems to find a home in married love, and here we find the perpetually unsteady but ultimately well-achieved journey of the novel’s only long-term relationship. Beyond this, as Florentino whiles away fifty years in wait for Fermina, his six hundred affairs explore the many other faces of love; sexual love, of course, being the most obvious. It’s in this way that Love in the Time of Cholera seems to be a character study of love itself, and García Márquez’s profound dedication to his subject uncovers the untidiness of love, its ability to both enrapture and disturb. What results is a novel of astonishing complexity and jolting honesty.

Neither Florentino nor Fermina (nor, for that matter, Juvenal Urbino) are presented to the reader as unflinchingly pure characters. Fermina is at times headstrong against romantic notions, sometimes childishly obstinate in the face of things that displease her for reasons we as readers are not always able to understand; but her agitated spirit has a way of reaching in and finding its kindred within the reader. Florentino, alternatively, forces romance on the novel’s unseen narrator in his furious, inherently selfish pursuit of satisfaction. His relationships with women are at turns perverse, depraved, and tragic, but somehow a character whose ideas and actions demand the reader’s objections manages to draw out compassion instead, perhaps through the perpetual naïveté that renders him childlike and starry-eyed even at old age. He contradicts his platitudes of undying devotion many times (six hundred and twenty-two times, to be exact) under the belief that the love he makes with other women is not real love, and the reader is left to wonder whether his mentality is an excuse for blatant obsession or a revelation of delusion. This is another example of the complexities García Márquez expertly leads his readers through, inviting us to question and probe and unearth the grittiness of love, or non-love, as it may be.

Perhaps the most riveting element of Love in the Time of Cholera is García Márquez’s prose, which will captivate the attention of readers new to his craft. The story unfolds through a narrative that is at once dense and fluid, a solid thing with a liquid quality that seeps into the reader’s bones. With very little dialogue, García Márquez relies almost entirely on his narrative power, which in itself is a remarkable departure from the typical structure of a novel; but also mystifying is his ability to weave through time without the convention of continuity. Deaths of prominent characters are merely mentioned and future events are revealed before their time with utmost nonchalance, a collective tactic that lets him playfully taunt the reader with the flimsiness of mortality, time, and other real-world structures. By this effect García Márquez aligns the most poetic reaches of his prose with his reader’s vulnerability; he opens the full heart of his Florentino and the uninhibited spirit of his Fermina to the reader, with an aim to leave us questioning everything we knew before beginning the story; he hits his mark with legendary ease and charisma, and with no small amount of mischief.

Love in the Time of Cholera was my March selection for the 2014 TBR Challenge (and I made it by the skin of my teeth, didn’t I?). It was my first time reading Gabriel García Márquez, whose work I’ve been meaning to read for many years, and I loved the experience. I think I had a much different idea of what sort of novel Love in the Time of Cholera would be, but it went an entirely different direction than I anticipated; I expected a complex and deeply thought-provoking book, which I got, but I never expected the complexities and depth to take the shapes they do. Such a very interesting work!

My tea of choice was Harney & Sons Bankok tea, which is a green tea with vanilla, coconut, and ginger; and I snacked on raw almonds, grapes, and Vincent cheese.

Title: Love in the Time of Cholera
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Genre: classics, literary fiction, magic realism
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (original English), Vintage (my edition)
Release date: January 1, 1988
Source: Personal collection
Buy the book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | BetterWorldBooks

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Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

by Casee Marie on March 12, 2014 · 3 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl tells the story of Korobi Roy, a strong-willed and spirited young woman who, despite the deaths of her parents when she was an infant, has known privilege with her grandparents amid their sprawling house in Kolkata. Much to the delight of her grandparents, Korobi has found love with the doting but elusive Rajat Bose and will soon marry into a family among the upper echelons of society. Still, in the face of all her life’s joy Korobi is listless; she longs for the blessing of parents she never knew, dreams of the mother whose death was entwined with Korobi’s birth. No sooner have Rajat and Korobi announced their engagement than unforeseen events unleash a wave of trouble on Korobi, led by a secret her grandfather has kept from her all her life. Propelled by her commitment to truth, Korobi leaves her fiancé and her seemingly perfect life behind as she ventures across an America still reeling from the recent events of 9/11. Against this foreign backdrop she’ll call on the depth of her strength as she searches for new truths: truths about her parents and about her own identity as well.

Oleander Girl is an expansive novel that weaves together many different emotions with vibrancy; there is at once a touch of romance and suspense, of family drama and the divide of social classes. While we are in America with Korobi, meeting the devious Mitra and his sweet wife, as well as the charismatic Vic and his uncle, we are simultaneously back in Kolkata where Korobi’s fiancé Rajat struggles against the machinations of an old flame, and where his family’s business – and maybe even their lives – face threats from within. Asif Ali, the Bose family’s Muslim chauffeur, maintains his own quiet life devoted to the family he serves, delighting in the antics of young Pia Bose who so reminds him of his sister; but when his devotion to the Bose family threatens both their well-being and his pride, he’ll do whatever is necessary to set things straight.

With such a plethora of different stories – each so wonderfully engaging that they all deserve mention here – the reader is kept continually on their feet, even with changes in narrative style throughout the novel; but Divakaruni’s studious attention to detail makes Oleander Girl a well-paced and sure-footed reading experience. Truly adept in her storytelling prowess, her elegant prose renders Korobi’s quest and the Bose’s familial drama into a colorful, dreamlike atmosphere that has a way of intensifying what is already a rich story. Kolkata comes to brilliant life, teeming with intricate details of sight and sound, while post-9/11 New York City recalls the unease and fragility of the time; seen through the eyes of Korobi, the vast differences between the Indian and American cultures are fascinating in their depiction. Divakaruni has a unique way of playing on the senses with words, bringing her readers most thoroughly into whichever world her narrative is drawing forth.

Not to be overlooked are the deeply empowering female characters with whom Divakaruni explores the height and depth of feminine strength across the generational divide; young Korobi lives on her own terms and owns her mistakes, while her grandmother finds the strength to face her husband’s secrets and the new trajectory of her life; little Pia Bose is a charming and fearless girl of privilege who will look convention and prejudice in the eye in order to call a servant her friend; and the Bose family matriarch, Rajat and Pia’s mother, is a brave example of a woman’s struggles and strengths as she endeavors the balance of being a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman. The results of Divakaruni’s efforts are four vastly different women, a collective homage to the infinite scope of human nature and an emotional study of what it truly means to be family. Profound and enlightening, Oleander Girl reaches into the heart of the human spirit and weaves a resplendent story of love, loss, discovery, and the ultimate search for self.

Title: Oleander Girl
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Genre: literary fiction
Publisher: Free Press (hardcover; March 19, 2013)
Release date: March 4, 2014 (trade paperback; Simon & Schuster)
Source: Simon & Schuster (c/o)
Buy the book: Amazon | Kindle | Barnes & Noble | BetterWorldBooks
Connect with the author: Website/Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

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