Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Jenna Starborn, Garden Spells and Eating Heaven

I've just finished three novels, Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn, Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, and Eating Heaven by Jennie Shortridge.

Garden Spells is the story of Sydney and Claire Waverley, members of an eccentric Southern family, all of whom have somewhat magical 'talents' and who come to live in an old house with a magical garden and an apple tree that is, for all intents and purposes, sentient. The tree throws apples at people and if one happens to eat an apple from the tree, they are treated to a vision of their future, good or bad.
Because they grew up being "strange" Claire became a hermit and Sydney ran away from her heritage and her past, and got into trouble with a series of evil men. Claire runs a successful catering business, using the magical plants and flowers from her garden, when Sydney comes home with a daughter, fleeing her abusive spouse.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because this book has plagiarized Alice Hoffman's "Practical Magic" by taking the main premise and the characters, adding a little of this and that, and sending it forth as a chick lit novel. Really, there are no surprises here, and the reader knows by the second chapter that Claire will fall in love with Tyler, the hot new neighbor, and that Sydney will have a showdown with her evil abusive husband, but will be saved by the family's magic tree. Even with such a transparent plot, though, this is an enjoyable read, full of drool-worthy recipe descriptions and foods, as well as information on the 'magic' and healthful properties of plants. So while I wouldn't recommend it to anyone seeking something they can sink their teeth into, I would recommend it to gardeners and folks who appreciate the magical and medicinal properties of plants, and women who like sister romances.

Eating Heaven was written by a Pacific NW author (she lives in Seattle)and reminded me of the parts of "Shes Come Undone" that I liked, which were few, but there. The book is about Eleanor Samuels, a fat freelance journalist who writes diet recipes for magazines. Eleanor, like most fat protagonists in books, has a beast of a mother who is thin, and has harassed her about her weight since childhood, withholding love and support from Eleanor and lavishing it on her slender sisters. Though her father is not a nice man either, Eleanor grows up with the love and support of an "uncle" Benny, a man who has been in their family's life forever, and was, it is understood, her mothers lover.
Uncle Benny becomes ill with cancer, and no one is there to help him but Eleanor, who puts her life on hold to take care of this kind and gentle man, only to discover that he is the keeper of a number of secrets about her life and her mother's life.
{Author's note: Herein begins a rant that points more toward She's Come Undone than Eating Heaven, mainly because Shortridge's protagonist is more believable and a better character than the protagonist of She's Come Undone. I truly believe that Eleanor would have been fine had she not lost weight, but just learned to control her emotional eating, which was her response to the pain and frustration in her life.}
What bothered me about this book was something that bothered me about She's Come Undone, to a lesser extent. The author assumes that all fat women have been abused by their mother or father, and that once they get help from a therapist and are stressed enough to stop overeating and lose weight, their lives are immediately full of purpose, joy, and a life-mate, whom they could not possibly attract while fat.
Fat women, after all, couldn't possibly be sexy or attract a good, handsome, unmarried man, because we all know men eschew fat women as a matter of course.
I call BS on that whole notion, because I know of larger women, myself included, who can and have attracted men for dating, sex and marriage while still being chubby. Sexuality is mostly in the mind anyway, from what I have seen and experienced. If you think you are sexy and you care for yourself, fat and all, you will find someone who agrees with you and wants to have a relationship. Not all men like stick figures in the bedroom...there are many who love curvy and voluptuous women. Fat doesn't automatically equal misery!
{End rant.}
Still, I enjoyed this book for its protagonist, who was a kind and generous soul in a family that had very few such members. She seemed the sanest of the bunch, really, and I loved that she became enamored of a chef who sounds something like Seattle's Tom Douglas, a local chubby celebrity chef whose restaurants and recipes are awesome.
The prose was straightforward and clean, and the plot moved along at a brisk clip, not wandering off the beaten path more than once. The recipes and foodie chat were lots of fun, and though Eleanor is certainly tougher and more able to face the family skeletons than her mother, we see her break down as she deals with uncle Benny's past and her own, and see her emotional triumph over her family's past. I would recommend this book to any woman looking for some insight on being a larger woman, a hospice caregiver and a freelance journalist, which is most women at one time or another. Eating Heaven certainly deserves more credit than She's Come Undone for an authentic heroine. It's a better book all around, in fact, with more realistic and interesting characters and a plot that keeps you turning pages.

Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn is a Science Fictional retelling of Jane Eyre, which was, oddly enough, quite engrossing. Jenna is a gen-tank baby commissioned by an evil childless woman who manages to become pregnant and, after producing her own son, has no need or desire to raise Jenna, and so treats her like she's disposable.
Jenna is sent off to a technical school that trains her to be a nuclear engineer, and after teaching at the school for several years, she's called to a planet called Fieldstar, where she is to keep the generators going for a wealthy man named Everett Ravenbeck. Ravenbeck has a child ward, Areletta, who is probably his bastard from a bad liaison. He is also engaged to a wealthy, stupid socialite, and has a secret cyborg wife who has gone insane, locked away in a mining community nearby. Things progress much as they do in the original Jane Eyre, with Jenna learning of the insane cyborg wife only at the final moment as she's about to marry Ravenbeck, and she flees on a hibernation ship to a far-flung planet, where she helps a missionary family who take in people who are new to the planet and have nowhere to go and no skills to start life anew. Jenna discovers that the two women and the man who run this facility are, in fact, tank-generated children from the planet Baldus, just like herself. Soon after, she discovers that the gen-tank facility owner, who has died, has made her his heir, and, though she splits the money between the four of them, she still has enough to buy herself full citizenship (all tank babies are considered half-citizens at birth). The planets have all developed a hierarchy based on wealth and status, the topmost people being first citizens, with lower folk being second or third citizens, or worse, half-citizens. Cyborgs are barely even considered half citizens, apparently, and inevitably, Ravenbecks wife burns down the force field holding out the vacuum of space and kills herself while trying to kill Ravenbeck, who merely loses a hand and his eyesight. Jenna hears of the tragedy and rushes back to Ravenbecks side, where they reconcile, marry and have a child.
The prose is a variation on the stilted and formal British lit style of the Bronte sisters, so it is not a fast read. However, the plot, though derived from a classic, is intriguing and the characters interesting, so much so that I stayed up unto the wee hours reading this book to its conclusion. I would recommend it for Jane Eyre fans, and those who like their chick lit with some added bite and unusual settings.

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