Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray


With sunsets like this, why leave home for vacation week? My 12-year-old daughter and I have been reading by the fire. Here’s her review of a favorite book:

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is set in the high, stone-walled and ivy crept turrets of Spence Academy for Young Ladies, a preparatory boarding school outside London, 1895. Girls laugh and play in the forest, dipping their feet in the ponds and gossip about attending balls, suitable men to marry some day, and the new green-eyed, slightly rebellious Gemma. She had caught the attention of most with her occasional cursing, red hair, moving from India and her mother murdered mysteriously… but of course her mother’s death is covered by the lie of an unfortunate case of cholera.


After a time of fitting in, Gemma has stitched a close bond with Felicity, Pippa and Ann and as they tell each other secrets, Gemma tells them every deep, twisted truth about who she really is. They form an Order, after being informed by a somewhat mythological group of witches, and retreat at midnight to caves to perform rituals, tell secrets and stories and try to feel magic, until they figure out what magic truly is… and soon everything goes sadly wrong in the paranormal.

I adored this book; it is my favorite novel that I have read recently, most definitely. I usually do not like paranormal fiction, but this one is absolutely amazing! I liked every aspect of it: the paranormal, the time and setting, the very original, intense plot, unique romance, the developed characters (I especially liked the descriptions that helped etch out in my mind each character like Felicity, Kartik and Ann) and I loved getting to know the voice telling the story, Gemma. It is very interesting as it is set in present tense, first person. I think it was a bit odd how it switched from imperfect to present at different times, and I slightly wished it just stayed with imperfect tense but ah well. It is a very whimsical, entertaining, compelling, passionate story about friendship. I thoroughly loved it.


An excerpt:

"Felicity ignores us. She walks out toward them, an apparition in white and blue velvet, her head held high as they stare in awe at her, the goddess. I don’t yet know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us."

My daughter with English bluebells.
Our family lived in London in 2004 and in Oxford in 2007-8.
My daughter can relate to being the new girl at an English school.

Sarah’s Review: I chose the excerpt after reading and enjoying A Great And Terrible Beauty (2003) on my daughter’s recommendation. The best parts were about girl empowerment, maturity, romance and friendship. Some of the author's Victorian period details were off, such as referring to men's evening wear as tuxedos. Would have corsets been part of a boarding school's uniform? Anyway, these are just details, and there is definitely a strong atmosphere to the book. I liked how A Great and Terrible Beauty teaches girls today about the restrictions of women in that time period. Gemma is a strong protagonist and a believable teenager. Her love interest, Kartik, is very appealing and breaks racial stereotypes. There are two more books in the trilogy: Rebel Angels (2006) and The Sweet Far Thing (2008). My daughter is reading them over vacation.

Photos: chosen by my daughter & taken by me. 
Sunset at Crystal Spring Farm, Brunswick, Maine.
Swans in Regent’s Park, London. 
Rousham Garden, Oxfordshire. 
Upper Library window and books at Christ Church College, Oxford. 
Merton College, Oxford. 
Bluebell Woods, Oxfordshire.
Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France. 

30 comments:

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Well, if I derive as much pleasure from reading the book as I have from your post, it will be a delight. Your photographs always grab me as well.

What a delightful passion to share with your daughter. That photograph of her in the field of flowers could have come out of the book you review - perhaps? I love to have the occasional photo of my loved ones viewed from behind.

tina said...

Those bluebells are awesome! It won't be long now before spring is here! Super great reviews.

A Cuban In London said...

I'll tell you what happened to me just now as I read your latest post, Sarah. An eerie feeling of foreboding. I know that is partly because your daughter, magnificently once more, reviewed a novel she like a lot, but it also coincided with the sun coming out just at the precise moment when I read the words' strong atmosphere.

Many thanks to you and your daughter for such a wonderful review and such beautiful photos.

Greetings from London.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Sarah

Two great book reviews! It's nice to read together as a family--my daughter and I do it often.

I love all the pictures, but the sunset and bluebells are breathtaking.

Best
Tracy :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Bonnie, thank you! It is fun to share books with my daughter and with you. My daughter chose photos that matched the narrative. I avoid showing my children’s faces and names on this blog, but I do agree that back shots can capture character too.

Tina, it already feels like mud season in Maine. We’ve had no snow in February. Today it’s in the 40’s and sunny. Only the kids are complaining.

ACIL, it sounds like my daughter succeeded in recreating the creepy atmosphere, with a little help from English weather. Perhaps that is why so many Gothic novels are set there.

Tracy, that’s nice to hear that you share books with your daughter too. I miss bluebell season in England.

Kelly H-Y said...

Love your reviews. Gorgeous photos ... the one of your daughter amongst the bluebells is stunning.

lakeviewer said...

Delightful reviews. It's fun to read both. Love your pictures too.

Sarah Laurence said...

Kelly and lakeviewer, thanks! Vacation week was a good time to get my daughter involved.

Angie Muresan said...

Your daughter gives a very good review Sarah, without spoiling it for the rest of us who haven't read it. I am looking forward to reading it now. Thank her for me.

Booksnyc said...

Your daughter's review is excellent!

The photo of the sunset is beautiful - the colors are stunning!

walk2write said...

I sense some mother-daughter yearning for England here in this post. That spectacular Maine sunset seems to resist it, but it's still there. Your daughter's review is wonderful, Sarah. I hope she gets the chance to study in England someday.

Rose said...

This is one of my granddaughter's favorite books, too! She encouraged me to read it, but unfortunately I never followed through. She's an avid reader and loves to discuss books with me, so I understand the enjoyment, Sarah, you must get from sharing this same passion with your daughter. An excellent review, and the photos are beautiful, especially the one of your daughter walking through the bluebells.

Sarah Laurence said...

Angie, we always try to avoid spoilers. Enjoy!

Booknyc, thank you! The colors really looked like that. My friend and I were driving back home and took a detour to the hilltop farm to watch the sunset.

W2W, yes we do miss England. Luckily we return frequently to visit family. Bluebell season is my favorite time, but it doesn’t work with school vacations. My daughter dreams of going to Oxford University as a student.

Rose, it sounds like your granddaughter and my daughter have a similar taste in books. I read Beauty because I my daughter wanted to share it with me. It may help with my writing too. Bray does a great job of capturing the shifting alliances and ups and downs of girl friendship.

☆sapphire said...

Hello Sarah

Love the sunset photo! It's stunning! I thoroughly enjoyed your daughter's nice review as well as yours! Related to young adults in the US, do they often read novels? The young adults here prefer mangas to novels. I think it quite deplorable although some of mangas are really good....

Sarah Laurence said...

Sapphire, tween and teen girls in the US read a lot of books, especially paranormal young adult fiction. The boys are more into Xbox and other interactive/social computer games. Of course there are exceptions. There are manga sections at the bookstores, but it hasn’t caught on as it has in Japan.

cynthia said...

Stunning was also the word that came to me as I enjoyed the sunset photo. To both of you--wonderful reviews full of intriguing details, such as the tense shifts in the book. Sarah, such a brilliant idea to include your daughter's reviews of books you both read.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Love the photos and I'm sure I'd love the book. It's such a joy to see how you include your daughter in your blog. She is charming! Intelligent young girls have a kind of compelling magic...of course a YA writer and mother already knows that!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia N.M., it’s ironic that the present tense narration bothered my daughter because some YA novelists employ it to connect with teens. The theory is that young people live only in the moment. My daughter is more reflective .

Cynthia Pittman, it is a pleasure including my daughter. We don’t have duplicate tastes. She demands a faster pace and genuine teens. I care more about the quality of the writing and lean toward more literary novels. Sharing favorite books broadens both of us.

Bee said...

That dramatic red sunset really sets the tone for this review. Your daughter piqued my interest . . . and I found myself jotting down the title before I even finished the review.

I agree that tuxedo is not an American word . . . but I think it is possible that corsets were worn, even at boarding school, if you consider the women's fashions of the time.

The picture of your daughter in the bluebell wood was a truly magical touch! Beautiful.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I love when my world matches the book I’m reading. The sunset didn’t feel like England, but it did remind me of the magical world with its intense, unworldly colors. If your daughters haven’t already read this series, they’d enjoy it. All the girls were reading it at my daughter’s camp.

The problem with tuxedo is it made me think of American proms now instead of turn of the century London. She should have used black/white tie, dinner jacket or evening wear.

Yes, women and older girls would have worn corsets, but I’m not sure if girls would have everyday at boarding school. Then again it was a fictional school and the corsets had an important symbolic meaning: the restrictions on women and the culture of beauty. Historical fiction is extra work due to the research and the need to make it sound relavent and understandable today.

Elenka said...

Sometimes it's so difficult to paint paintings of sunsets like in your beautiful photo because often times it ends up looking so fake! Gorgeous.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elenka, I thought the same thing: the sunset would have made a cheesy airbrushed van image, but somehow it works as a photo. It was even more spectacular in real life.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a kind of scary book..paranormal. Is this a good book for 12-13 yr old girl to read?

Sarah Laurence said...

Anonymous, my daughter is 12 and loved it. Her friends reading it camp were her age. The opening scene where the mother dies was the only really scary scene. The series is about as scary as Harry Potter and less scary than Twilight.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Excellent reviews and photos! Roxi and I read this book a couple of years ago... I think we should read it again.

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, or check out the next 2 books in the series.

Donna said...

Your daughter is very intelligent. I'm so impressed with her writing and her thinking. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree!

Sarah Laurence said...

Donna, thank you! I love sharing books with my daughter.

Daniel Dragomirescu said...

Very nice blog.
Daniel D. Peaceman, writer and editor

Sarah Laurence said...

Daniel, thank you and welcome to my blog! I’ll come visit yours soon.