Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This book was brought to my attention by my boyfriend. I don’t believe I had ever picked up a book by Ken Follett until this one and I was utterly enchanted. When we first started dating, I vaguely remember Jason mentioning that he thought that I would like this book but never gave it another thought outside of that conversation. He actually brought me his personal copy earlier in this semester and I was intrigued, but intimidated by the size. This novel clocks it at 806 pages which is nothing to sneeze at and was a mountain even for me! I am really glad that I read this book because it transported me to another world. It was first published in 1989 and since then Ken Follett remains a prolific fiction writer. I hope to read some more of his work but it may have to wait until I work my way through my stack of unread books! But without further ado, I give you my take on The Pillars of the Earth.

The novel is written through multiple perspectives, that of Philip, Tom Builder, and others. I think the way Jason described the plot to me still rings very true; it is a book about a town trying to build a cathedral. But it is about so much more than just the stone building and the people who inhabit the surrounding area. It is a story of resilience and perseverance through the worst that life has to throw at you. It really cheered me up because if these characters can survive through the novel, I can also survive through the pandemic! I loved reading this book which I cannot stress enough. As a scholar of medieval history, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and found the book to be well researched. To me, there were no glaring historical inaccuracies and the way the novel swept through the history of the unification of England into part of the Angevin empire was fascinating. I would recommend this novel wholeheartedly. I think that it has something for everyone but that perhaps it should be read by those 14 and up. It is a little racy at times and a trigger warning is highly necessary for the first part of the book. Other than that, I cannot recommend this book enough to people! Do yourself a favor and book yourself a pandemic escape with this amazing read! Happy reading!

Book Review: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Spoiler alert. If you really want to be totally surprised when reading the Neapolitan novels, read no further! If you don’t mind a few little hints about the future of Elena and Lina, read on! “The Story of a New Name” is the second installment of the Neapolitan novels, which I promptly tore through once I finished “My Brilliant Friend”. Again, I’m glad I waited for long time before diving into these books so that I would never be left hanging unlike the adventurous readers who first picked this book up! I read this book in a couple days, sucked in by the existing knowledge of the Neapolitan novels and by the cliffhanger at the end of the first book. The end of the first novel really sets the tone for the second in a way that is entirely enjoyable to devour but heartbreaking all the same. Another shout-out to my boyfriend, this was my second surprise after coming back to school and it was lovely. I’m so glad someone had the forethought and insight on how much I would enjoy these novels because I don’t know what I would have done with myself if I hadn’t had this to devour after finishing the first novel.

“The Story of a New Name” picks up immediately after the end of “My Brilliant Friend”. Lina returns from her honeymoon with a rocky start to her new marriage while Elena goes off to college. I was shocked at how much goes on in this novel in a comparatively short time frame, it only covers about three or four years of Elena and Lina’s lives compared to the first which covered a decade and a half. Elena and Lina’s relationship remains like the ocean, ebbing and flowing based on the tides or whatever happens to being going on in their lives. Elena grapples with coming to terms with her feelings of profound loneliness and her perceived inability to belong anywhere at all. Throughout the novel, Lina and Elena continue to grapple with their true desires and how to get them in a world that accords a woman so little. I did really love this novel. I think it hit a deeper spot in my heart than “My Brilliant Friend” because I am in college and I relate to the emotional trials and tribulations of Elena in trying to establish who she is without losing who she was. I would absolutely recommend this one to all. I think it was better than the first novel, but I don’t think you can skip around in this series because you will lose a lot of context for why the characters act in specific and seemingly illogical ways. Let me know what you think, and as always, Happy Reading!

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a very, very popular book. I don’t think I’ve been in a bookstore in the past five or so years without seeing this book. I hadn’t read this before because I was previously put off by the picture on the cover, it seemed a little old-fashioned and too “adult” for me. And it definitely was! I’m glad I waited until I was a young adult to crack this one open because it was truly a delight that was definitely not appropriate for my younger self to read. One aspect of any of Ferrante’s novels is the mystery and debate around the author herself, people trying to find out who are they really and are they really a woman?? I don’t really care about the ~mystery~ of the author, but I really appreciate a good story and this was one! It took me a while to get sucked into the novel but it eventually caught me like it has so many other readers. Also, quick shoutout to my lovely boyfriend who purchased this for me as a surprise for when I came back to school. I love receiving books from the ones that I love, so thank you very much! Shout-out to my parents for also feeding my lifelong book addiction, it was and is much appreciated.

Back to the book! Ferrante’s novel follows Elena Greco, a young woman from Naples through her childhood in “My Brilliant Friend”, the first in the Neapolitan Novels. Elena’s fate is intertwined with that of her best friend, Lina, a seemingly surly and unlikable girl. This novel follows the two girls from infancy into their mid-adolescensce and is told through the eyes of Elena. Ferrante’s novel examines the complicated nature of relationships of all sorts, our friendships, our romantic relationships, and even our familial relationships. Our protagonist Elena is extremely self-aware and this lends itself to her critical evaluation of every moment, for better or for worse. I liked this novel a lot more than I thought I would! It didn’t suck me in immediately and that was disappointing, but I now realize that Ferrante’s writings caught me in complex web that just took time to get stuck in! I would recommend this for 18+ both because of the complex themes and the tendency of Ferrante to include the occasional racy scene. Find it second-hand if you can, I’m sure there are many copies out there! Happy reading!

Book Review: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

This book was a wild ride!!! It was another one of my Christmas books and I was very happy to see it! I saw this in the same bookstore as “Hidden Valley Road”, which was Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia. This being said, I implore you all to try and patronize your local or independent bookstores as much as you can during this never-ending pandemic. Often books from local or independent sellers can be pricier than Amazon or other larger sellers, but when I have the extra money to do so, I try to think of the higher price as part of an investment in my community. Local bookstores provide so much more for their communities than Amazon can ever do so try to support them if you can! Back to the book! As I mentioned, reading this book is a journey and it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed with some minor misgivings about the author’s style. As a novel about opera singers, it is written as a love story to the art of opera and I would highly recommend listening to the operas or just specific songs as they are mentioned in the book. I didn’t do this and I think my reading would have been richer for doing so because I am not super familiar with opera.

The book follows Lilliet Berne, a fictional soprano from the Fin de Siecle in France. The book follows her recollections of her curious ascent to the heights of operatic fame and the cost of such a journey to herself and others. I loved the story which was inspired by Jenny Lind who ended her career touring America with PT Barnum and his circus. Lilliet’s life is full of twists and turns that were delightful to explore! My only issues with the book were stylistic. Mr. Chee chooses to not differentiate his lines of dialogue from the rest of his prose which can be confusing. I did get used to it eventually but not without irritation on my part. Furthermore, Mr. Chee writes the novel in a mix of past and present which can be jarring but I didn’t take as much umbrage at this as I did with the dialogue. I really loved the story, it absolutely drew me in but I was so frustrated with Mr. Chee’s style at certain points that I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel was delicious to devour but future reader, be warned! Happy reading and please support your local bookstore if you can! (My copy of The Queen of the Night was from Vroman’s in Pasadena, a fabulous bookstore that ships nationwide!)

Book Review: Royal Harlot

This was a good in-between more dense reads for me. One of the many books that I finished last week, I feel that it was more of a palate cleanser than anything else. “Royal Harlot” was a good, fun, and raunchy romp through the world of the Restoration Monarchy in the 17th century. The story is based off the life of Barbara Villiers, the first royal mistress of Charles the Second of England. A surprisingly sympathetic look at one of the most vilified women in English history, I appreciated both the nuance of the story and the incredibly racy sections. I would absolutely not recommend this for children but I did find it a good summer read for fans of historical fiction.

A note about where I got this book: I found this book while perusing the aisles of Beach Town Books in San Clemente, a lovely second-hand bookstore. While I love the scent of a new book, there are so many older books that need a good home and are much cheaper to buy the second time round. I really like the website Thrift Books because of the vast selection but there are an abundance of local second-hand bookstores that need your support! My favorites include Beach Town Books in San Clemente and the Book Escape in Baltimore. It’s also much nicer to your pocketbook in the long run so go and find a second hand bookshop near you!