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Samantha Sotto – Before Ever After

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When “forever” doesn’t mean “forever” for reasons that no one’s considered.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-71988-1
First Published: 2011
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2012
Rating: 4.5/5

Shelley’s husband died from a bomb in a backpack on the subway in Madrid, a few years after they had met. Two years afterwards Shelley is still grieving, and when she answers the door to a man who looks like her husband and says he is Max’s grandson, she wonders if the bruise to her head she gained when she fainted on the doorstep is the reason why she is seeing the impossible. But Paulo isn’t Max. Indeed Paulo has issues of his own, he wants to know who his grandfather is because he knows the man is still alive. And for Paulo to find out who Max is, he must ask Shelley, even if this will be the first she has heard of it too.

Before Ever After is the debut novel of an author who shows much promise. It successfully combines a range of ideas and genres to create something not merely magical but also extremely romantic, up-to-date, and informing. At once a travel log, a historical fantasy, a comedy, and a tragedy, the book presents itself as something incredible.

The story is told through a compilation of flashbacks and present-time reflections. As the basic idea is for the characters to discover who Max is, the flashbacks are used in order to show how Max had hinted at things all along, and the present-time is used for Paulo and Shelley to work out what was going in. Indeed the flashbacks are stories within a story within a story, the book is three layers thick, but the structure and format means that you will never be at a loss for what time period you are currently reading about. The setting of the present day is mostly a plane, which gives the characters plenty of time to chew things over, and while you may find yourself wanting it to be over already so that you can meet Max, the fast pace of the novel means that the satisfaction of reading it and taking in all of the information is much more exciting. Indeed you never know if you actually will get to meet Max in the present time, and that in itself spurs you on because he’s such a great character that you really hope you will. All of the suggestions and especially the very first page of the book, tell you that he is very likely paranormal in some way, but Sotto does a good job of letting you wait to find out if it is true or not. And you will be wondering until the end.

“Now listen campers,” Max said. “Take note of this place in case you get lost during our field trip and need to find your way back home. If you don’t think you can remember where we started from, you can purchase a baguette and leave a trail of bread crumbs. Oh, and before we head off, there are three things you must remember. First, don’t talk to strangers. Second, you need to be aware that your travel insurance does not cover acts of stupidity or alien abduction. Please do your best to avoid them. And third, hold on to your mates.”

[…]

Shelley raised a brow. “Mating?”
“Mating,” Max said, “from the word mate, a word derived from the Old Dutch word maet or companion, which shares the same root as mete, which means ‘to measure’.”
“I see,” Shelley said. “So what you are in fact offering me is a measure of companionship, correct?”
“Indeed.” Max stuck out the crook of his arm. “The length of my arm to be exact. All in accordance with the guidelines of the Poultry Club, I assure you. You won’t get lost, I have a place to rest my arm, and the chickens are secure in my fidelity.”

Max is one of those characters who comes along very rarely. This reviewer would liken him to Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre and Max de Winter of Rebecca for his difference – whilst he is not like them he shares with them this certain uniqueness in quality. Max is surely a great romantic hero, yet on the face of it, for his dialogue, he is anything but. Shelley may be a strong heroine in herself, but Max is the winner here.

The inclusion of Shelley allows Sotto to show her reader a widely known issue, that of being afraid of relationships because of prior hurt. Shelley is almost paranoid about being a relationship, keeping a list on her at all times that tells her when to jump ship from dating a man – to ensure she doesn’t end up like her widowed mother, who in turn showed her how much depression could come with loss. Max too is worried about losing people, and this is apparent throughout the book; it is the way the couple figure out their relationship in a way that works for them that is so compelling.

Another factor in the book is the number of everyday issues and taboos Sotto fills her story with, and the way that she includes them like any other element. This is done through the secondary characters. Max and Shelley met when Shelley decided to sign up to join the tour group Max was taking to the continent, and it is the people on the tour with them that make the novel so valuable. The tour group consists of a young American called Dex – Shelley’s cultural male counterpart, Rose and Jonathan – an elderly couple in the prime of their sexual lives, and camera-wielding Brad and his partner Simon. Rose is very open about her sex life, and Brad and Simon are just a gay couple – there is no reasoning behind anything, Sotto has included subjects to be as normal as anything else, and this lack of pointed political correctness in a book that otherwise oozes it is particularly refreshing. With the historical content and present-day happens race is also included, and Max’s nature as a possibly paranormal person is drenched in issues of morality.

She sank her teeth into melted cheese and summer, unleashing a silk stream of eggs and cream in her mouth. A buttery earthiness lingered on her tongue. She gulped orange juice to keep from moaning from the world’s first egg orgasm.
Rose gave Shelley a knowing look. “I came as well, dear. Twice.”
Jonathan sputtered, turning a shade brighter than the raspberry preserves on his baguette. “Ah… um… yes, yes, wonderful eggs, Max. Très magnifique.”
Shelley did not recover quite as elegantly, and was still choking on the juice that had spurted out of her nose and onto Max’s shirt. Max came to her rescue with a couple of solid pats to her back, a napkin, and a grin.

Considering Rose’s frankness about her sex life, it should not surprise you that at times the book is hilarious. Whilst it is not graphic, Sotto lets the jokes run wild and there are numerous references to loud noises and length as much as there is travelling around the continent.

And travel makes up a huge section of this book, providing the basis for the character’s meeting, the reason for the history, and what Sotto wanted to talk about as a keen traveller herself. There is a great deal of information on the places visited, which are diverse in location and culture. What is interesting is that Sotto is relentless in her goal of introducing her characters, and thus her readers, to lesser-known gems in Europe. Through these lesser-known places, Sotto is able to create the world she wishes for Max to explain to his tourists, and it gives her free reign in the historical fiction department. Quick research will show you what is factual and what is not, and this is another part of what makes the book so appealing, that you are reading a blend of travel log and history and learning so much all at once. The historical rewrites are something in themselves, with Sotto often referencing well-known figures in order to provide background context, and twisting both facts and possibilities, such as the idea that Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon was a place of debauchery, in order to produce the result she wants. Stretching from the 1970s all the way back to Ancient Rome, across different religions and cultures, with a variety of fantasy characters and just plain interesting ones, there is bound to be something to interest you in the history chapters.

“I told you it was nothing,” Adrien said. “Although the duchess did appear to be the tiniest bit cross with me. But then again, I could be mistaken.”
“Mistaken? How so?”
“Well, I was rather busy dodging the various heavy brass objects she was throwing my way to really pay attention to what she was saying.”

There are a couple of less positive factors to the book and these concern the way Sotto uses description. There is an excess use of similes where what is really happening is sacrificed for descriptive and poetic metaphors. The issue with the similes is that they create melodrama in places where melodrama is not needed and can sometimes cause confusion as to what is happening. And there are short bursts of info-dumping and a few clunky dialogues. However these negative parts are rather like the excessive use of humour in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel – it is easy to accept because the good vastly outweighs it and it is understandable that Sotto is still coming into her own as a writer, still working out her style and voice. The plot and characters are what’s important, and they are enough to keep you reading when the written word falls down a bit.

Before Ever After is a very apt name, giving you everything you need to know about the book without really giving you anything at all. If this is what happened before, then what happens after? Is there an after? Was there ever really a “before”?

The scent of strawberries, or rather what strawberries might smell like if they were made from melted plastic and disinfectant, filled the white-tiled room.

It is impossible to do justice to this story. Let that statement be the conclusion.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishing Group, Random House.

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Glynis Ridley – The Discovery Of Jeanne Baret

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Women in the 1700s weren’t supposed to join expeditions, but rules are made to be broken.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 249
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9780307463531
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 5th January 2012
Rating: 4/5

In eighteenth century France, a poor herbalist was able to change her life by, firstly, becoming the lover of Commerson, a prominent botanist, and secondly by following him onto a ship that would take them around the world in order to gain knowledge of the new lands being discovered. To join the ship, Jeanne had to pose as a man and this led to both happiness at being able to see what few before had seen, and utter wretchedness as she strove to keep her identity concealed. Ridley presents Jeanne’s story, or at least as much as is known, introducing readers to the woman that science forgot.

Here we have perhaps the only book that details Jeanne, and while it cannot always be reliable – for reasons that will be discussed in due course and doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad thing – the information it provides is of great value and interest. Indeed you need not have a passion for social history or even science in order to enjoy it as most of it revolves around the voyage and there is a lot about the finding of new lands, meaning that there is something here for many. And it means that although Ridley rarely sways from her main subject, when she does it is fascinating in its own right.

There is plenty to devour on maritime activity, and all the hilarity that the mixture of hardened scurvy-ridden sailors sharing space with curly-wigged nobility brings. A good basic knowledge of plant collecting is here too as well as information about the initial meetings between Europe and the Americas. Ridley grants the reader insight into both sides of the story, including primary source material from the French and the thoughts of the native populations in, for example, Tahiti. And reading about the way the French, in their insecure position as travellers by sea, treated the islanders, is often a nice respite from all the information we have about the atrocious treatment that happened after colonisation.

As the theme is of a woman going round the globe at a time when women were nothing, there are a lot of mentions of gender differences as seen from Ridley’s perspective. As a woman herself, Ridley tends to give the full view, which is always interesting. Depending on the gender and opinions of the reader they may find her harsh, correct, or completely brilliant.

Copus asked his [male] guests if any man could identify the herb. None could, and all agreed the tasty addition to the salad must be some newly introduced exotic. Calling in the kitchen maid to see what she might say on the matter, Copus watched the surprise on his guests’ faces as the woman announced the “unidentifiable” herb to be parsley.

[…]

Ordinary women know what plants look like in the field and in the kitchen, while supposedly educated male scientists know only what they are told.

[…]

In an age of crude woodcut illustrations that only served to obscure identification… even the best [reference books] were inadequate as field guides.

In fact the reader is very much included by Ridley as she employs an intriguing interactivity – describing how a person might find a place today, meaning how the place has changed. By doing this she inevitably draws parallels, which give you pause for thought.

Ridley makes use of evidence and generally tells you where her information comes from, despite a lack of footnotes. However sometimes what she says, or, moreover, her point of argument, is difficult to follow because it becomes mixed in with everything else. It is understandable that when a person writes on a subject they know well, they are not going to explain everything because it may appear to them obvious, but there are a few places where more detail would have been of great benefit. There are also many many mentions of how far, or rather how not far at all, peasants would travel from their homes during their lifetime. This is an issue by itself, but it’s also an issue when the author concludes that Jeanne would have met Commerson when she was away from home and he also. Unfortunately it sounds just as romantised as the ideas of others that Ridley dismisses.

Yet this is where we come to the major point. There is a great deal of speculation in the book. And although Ridley is generally good at saying what is factual and what is not, there are times when it’s not obvious. Now there are two schools of thought here. One is that it is bad to spend a book speculating. However two is that if there is little evidence surrounding a person but an author feels the need to introduce them to the world, then speculation can be forgiven. It’s not as though Ridley is talking about, say, Louis XIV, of whom there is lots of information – she is talking about someone who is interesting for being the first woman to travel the globe but, for reasons of gender equality as well as there simply being no records, remains someone whom we can never know all that much about unless new evidence comes to light. As Ridley is not suggesting she has new evidence, indeed Ridley’s goal is transparent – that of an informer – the speculation must be viewed more favourably and seen as a positive rather than a hindrance.

The work Ridley has done could spawn a new burst of research, thus hopefully less reason for probabilities, and indeed in the afterword Ridley says that since publication a plant has been named after Baret at last.

It is up to the reader, of course, to come to their own conclusions. It’s far from an easy book to continue at times as the content often sounds archaic for the behaviours of humans back then, but the vast amount of information is worth its weight in gold (which is a lot more than can be said for the results of the expedition).

Ridley has done Baret a great service and if further research proves that some declarations are false then so be it – Ridley has propelled Baret back where she should be.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers, Random House.

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Celia Rees – Pirates!

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Celia Rees is a popular writer of young adult fiction. Her focus is on history and magic.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 367
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 0-7475-6469-8
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 6th August 2009
Rating: 3/5

Pirates! isn’t as well known as it’s predecessor, Witch Child, in fact it’s likely that unless one is a dedicated fan of Rees they won’t know of it at all. As for myself I found it at random in a bookstore.

Nancy Kington lives in England in the time that Africans were taken as slaves and whites took over the Caribbean for their own selfish interests. When her father dies she is shipped to Jamaica where her brothers plan to marry her off in order to make money from a good alliance. When Nancy meets the man whom she is to marry she takes an immediate disliking to him, his villainous ways and middle age causing her to fear for her life. Help comes in the form of her befriended slave Minerva who, along with others, ensures Nancy’s safe passage to the outlaw camp. There she and Minerva make the decision to join the pirate ship that is on its way to the harbour. But in her dreams Nancy can see her betrothed on her trail. She must continue onwards while ever widening the gap between her and the young man whose ring she wears about her neck.

The story is told in the first person with Nancy narrating her and Minerva’s lives. This is akin to the method used in Witch Child that Rees is very adept at. Nancy begins by informing us, her readers, that she is writing her memoirs for an author of piratical books and then goes on to give us a history of how she came to be a pirate. This prologue, if you will, is rather long, stretching to about a third of the book, which is a disappointing surprise for a book named “Pirates!” In itself it means that an otherwise interesting story of the life of two women in the new world is a drag to get through as you wade through the pages hoping she’ll hurry up and board a ship.

The romantic sub plot is endearing and one of the major reasons to keep reading when the main narrative runs dry. Nancy promised herself to her childhood sweetheart, William, before her father died, but although they meet again a couple of times in the book it seems their lives will drive ever more apart. The book makes no promises of it’s own, you will not witness their marriage at the end and nor will their story tie up in the way that you’d like it to, but this becomes unimportant; the telling of the story is such that to give it a climatic ending would have cast any previous success out to walk the plank.

In some ways the mundaneness of the story is ripe. It echoes the boredom of endless days at sea. The problem is that you don’t really want that in a story, and in a pirate tale especially you want adventure. The character Rees created has a story to tell, no doubt about it, but it’s in the same category as those who wouldn’t make it into the history books for lack of interesting accounts. The idea of her betrothed pirate following her isn’t given nearly enough excitement and backing as it should and thus becomes just another addition. This means that when the man finally does catch Nancy one could care less, even if it is her fear realised.

The major flaw in this book is Nancy. She’s above most other girls of her status in that she condemns the treatment of the Africans and is more intelligent than most but still she is a weakling when compared to Minerva – who is far more interesting. In truth Minerva is the real heroine and Nancy simply serves as her biographer as without her Nancy would lose her readers within the first quarter of the book. This being her purpose it’s a pity Minerva isn’t given more time and is too often relegated to being Nancy’s saviour.

This brings us to the final flaw. Nancy gets captured, Minerva saves her, Minerva gets captured, Nancy saves her. It’s a poignant display of sisterhood but overkill, to make use of an accidental pun. They live for each other, we know that, it doesn’t need to be repeated in everything that happens. Nor do the situations the girls find themselves in need to be so obviously explained. If sex is too adult to be included then so too should the possibilities of rape be excluded.

Youth fiction should be adventurous, full of excitement, and heavy with adrenalin. Children need to make good use of their imagination; a dull book will count for nothing. This in consideration I cannot recommend Pirates! for young readers but only to those old enough to be prepared to lend their time in finishing it. It’s nice, but truly no match for Rees’s previous efforts.

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