Size Doesn’t Matter (81): Beauty; The Summer Before the War

Size Doesn’t Matter (81): Beauty; The Summer Before the WarBeauty by Robin McKinley
Narrator: Charlotte Parry
Length: 7 hrs, 5 mins
Series: Folktales
Published by Recorded Books on March 26, 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Retelling, Romance
Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased
AmazonThe Book DepositoryAudible
Goodreads
three-stars

When the family business collapses, Beauty and her two sisters are forced to leave the city and begin a new life in the countryside. However, when their father accepts hospitality from the elusive and magical Beast, he is forced to make a terrible promise - to send one daughter to the Beast's castle, with no guarantee that she will be seen again. Beauty accepts the challenge, and there begins an extraordinary story of magic and love that overcomes all boundaries. This is another spellbinding and emotional tale embroidered around a fairytale from Robin McKinley, an award-winning American author.

Back in my middle school years, I may have read these Robin McKinley fairy tale retellings, but I’m honestly not sure if I did or not. At any rate, I knew I had to read them now, even Beauty, despite the consensus that it’s not nearly as good as Rose Daughter and Spindle’s End. What can I say? I’m particular about how I do things. My friends were right, though: Beauty isn’t anything special.

Beauty was McKinley’s debut novel, so I suppose it makes sense. Because of the meh reviews, I decided to listen to the audiobook, rather than reading the print book. The main complaints were that this book was so slow and boring, which I can completely imagine it was in print. It was a great story to audiobook though, because I loved the narration and, with the story being so familiar, it’s very easy to keep the thread as you listen. Though it takes longer to listen to an audiobook, sometimes it feels shorter.

So yeah, I did enjoy Beauty, but I’m still not really impressed with it. McKinley very much retells the story and she doesn’t add that much to it. The characters don’t really come to life, and there’s just no spark. Beauty and the Beast has such amazing ship potential, but the writing runs more to telling than showing, so there’s zero real chemistry here. If you want that hate to love zing, check out Uprooted if you haven’t already.

I’ll be reading Rose Daughter soon, in print, and I’m curious to see how McKinley’s take on this tale has evolved and how her writing improved from her debut.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Size Doesn’t Matter (81): Beauty; The Summer Before the WarThe Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Narrator: Fiona Hardingham
Length: 15 hrs, 47 mins
Published by Random House Audio on March 22, 2016
Genres: Historical, Romance
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher
AmazonThe Book DepositoryAudible
Goodreads
three-stars

The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love on the eve of World War I that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

The reviews for The Summer Before the War seem fairly unenthused, but they also seem to be mostly due to disappointment that Simonson’s debut, Miss Pettigrew’s Last Stand, outshined her sophomore effort. I, however, have not yet read that book, and I quite enjoyed this impulse audiobook listen.

The Summer Before the War didn’t add anything to the WWI narrative. I’ve read a lot of fiction set during WWI, and there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before. Even the premise of being pre-war is actually a bit misleading, as I’d say only about half of the book is set before war is declared. That’s fine, but a bit surprising given the title.

The best part of The Summer Before the War is Beatrice Nash, daughter of a scholar who raised her up believing that women are also deserving of excellent educations. Following her father’s death, Nash manages to acquire a job working as a Latin teacher in Rye. She aims for independence and struggles against people’s tendency to dismiss her for her youth and her gender. Obviously I’m a total sucker for that sort of story.

I also liked her romance with Hugh Grange, though it’s certainly not a ship of dreams. They’re in their early 20s, but Hugh’s hilarious youthful in his romantic notions. He’s got crushes on many young ladies of his acquaintance, and his character arc is basically him realizing that maybe it’s important to have that intellectual connection, not just physical attraction. Meanwhile, Beatrice has to realize that it’s not so much that she wants to be alone as wanting someone who will let her be herself. They’re a good match, and I think it’s a very believable arc for them, even if it’s not the shippiest.

Mostly, I wish that Simonson had been a bit more upfront with her treatment of the darker subject matter. I’d say The Summer Before the War is almost fluff fiction, because, despite the sad moments, the book has a tendency to only look at the hard stuff out of the corner of its book eyes (this metaphor may not be the best). Look, it’s great that both Daniel and the local famous author are canon gay characters, but I find it frustrating that it’s only ever hinted at strongly. No one every comes out and admits it. They all continue to pretend that Daniel and his friend were just friends. Things also tend to work out in a way that doesn’t ultimately require any of the close-minded people to actually challenge their values. View Spoiler » The only real emotional arcs in the book are the romantic ones, since Hugh and Beatrice were open-minded to start. Agatha could have had an amazing arc, but she doesn’t.

The Summer Before the War made a very entertaining look, but it’s a bit been there done that. It feels like Simonson pulled some punches that could have given the book strong emotional resonance.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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