Review: A Northern Light

Monday, January 31, 2011

It's been almost a week since I finished this book and I've barely given it a thought since then. I felt no urge to write a review - no strong dislike of the characters and plot but no great desire to revisit them on this blog.

I wonder if this is partly due to Light being one of the first Young Adult novels I've ever read. I simply felt that I couldn't accept it as I do other books - good and bad - because it should be judged by different standards. I'm slightly saddened by this - I love Donnelly's Tea Rose series and I know my sister enjoyed this book. I actually picked it up because of her - I'm always sending her reading suggestions. It's time I paid attention to hers!

I enjoyed Maddie, the lead character and appreciated the intertwined timelines that followed her on her family's farm in upstate New York as she cared for her widowed father and siblings and a few months later during her time as a maid at a grand hotel in the Adirondacks. The first chapters are some of the book's best, providing almost textbook examples of how to integrate careful historical research into a fictional plot. Maddie shows us the realities of her life on the farm but Donnelly never succumbs to many HF authors' all-too common desire to lovingly describe a detail to death.

Maddie is a young girl with a love of words and learning. Her greatest wish is to gather together enough money to go to college in New York City. Unfortunately, I found the conceit of starting a chapter with a new word from Maddie's dictionary oppressive - the events in the chapter often directly paralleled the meaning of the word. As if this wasn't heavy-handed enough, Donnelly gives Maddie an African-American best friend, a saintly teacher with a secret and a dumb hick boyfriend with almost no redeeming qualities. Maddie is a beautifully written character and the supporting cast was too broadly drawn in comparison.

The framing mystery weakens as the book moves along although Donnelly tries to push it into the service of giving Maddie's decisions emotional heft. Oddly, Light read very quickly and I don't regret picking it up - ultimately, I think this is a testament to Donnelly's skill as a writer. She led me along even when I didn't have complete faith in the truths of her world.

Review: The Wolves of Andover

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In her first novel, The Heretic's Daughter, Kathleen Kent captured the hysteria and darkness of the Salem Witch Trials in a way few other authors could match. Because Kent is writing about her own family history, the reader gets the sense of sharing in a story that has been told and re-told and come alive in her own imagination.

Unfortunately, The Wolves of Andover, takes that family saga a step too far back to tell the story of Martha Allen and Thomas Carrier some 20 years before the events in her first book. Andover was one of my most anticipated reads of 2010-11 - I looked forward to the claustrophobic, gossipy atmosphere of village life from the first book and welcomed the opportunity to revisit deeply flawed but interesting characters once more.

Kent does herself a disservice by setting up  a weak structure. One storyline relies on tracking the growing attraction between Martha Allen - a sharp-tongued spinster - and Thomas Carrier - an aging laborer with a secret past. The romance develops slowly and sweetly but yields little suspense for readers of Heretic's Daughter. The second storyline follows a group of bounty hunters and their inevitable confrontation of Thomas. These characters are almost universally vile and I found myself hoping the chapters detailing their stories were short.

The alternating chapter structure is meant to generate suspense but fails completely when brought to an oddly understated conclusion. I also noticed a certain self-consciousness creeping into Kent's descriptions as if she felt the need to top her last effort with increasingly flowery prose. About three-quarters through the novel, a lead character is given the chance to tell of his past life in his own words - this long chapter crackles with the tension of history truly lived and yanked emotions of dread and anticipation out of me.

If only the entire book had maintained this energy, then it truly would have lived up to my expectations and to the precedent set by Kent's fantastic first novel.