Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: romance (page 2 of 3)

Review: Divergent – Veronica Roth

At the age of sixteen, all teenagers are required to undergo aptitude testing and choose the faction that they will belong to for the rest of their lives. For Tris, the decision may mean leaving her family behind, if she decides not to join them in the selfless community of the Abnegation faction. Such choices, however, are only the beginning, as the world around Tris begins to rapidly unravel.

I loved this book. Loved it. I read a few pages over a couple of days, and then sat down and read the majority of its 487 pages in one afternoon, enjoying every moment of it. Divervent hits so many of my happy buttons. Dystopia, personality-based groupings, coming-of-age stories, heroic actions and deaths… this book was essentially written to be just my kind of thing.

Because of that, I’m going to struggle to review it properly. Right now, I mostly just want to rave about the fact that I’ve not been this excited by groupings since Harry Potter. The Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite factions are what make Divergent great, and I think that, through them, Veronica Roth has created a universe that will stick with people long after the plot of her trilogy has become a little fuzzied by time.

I also really enjoy Tris as a protagonist. It is so refreshing to read about a character who is great because of who she is, rather than how she looks. She’s not pretty, she doesn’t look Dauntless-strong and yet she is always presented as having something to offer and as being a girl that people can fall for. As much as it is a book about increasing tension between factions, Divergent is a book about Tris’s personal growth. She is far from perfect and far from confident in her own abilities, but she grows a great deal over the course of the novel and will hopefully continue to do so in the other two books in this trilogy. Certainly, the events of the closing chapters would suggest so.

I also appreciated the slow development of the romance in Divergent and the fact that it is not represented as being the most important part of the story. It feels like the romance is based on common backgrounds and values, not the usual fated attraction or interest based almost entirely on infeasibly perfect appearances. Again – very refreshing.

The supporting characters are all wonderfully developed as well. Christina’s bold and tactless personality is a great counter to Tris’s self doubt and Abnegation upbringing. Four is just the right about of mysterious and always intriguing. Will steadily grew on me as the book progressed and Al is heartbreakingly complex. Tris’s family are all great in different ways and by Jove there are two scenes in the book that will stay with me for a while. The villains are good too. A little too villainous at times, perhaps, so I’m hoping that we get a bit more character development with them in the upcoming books, so that they’re a little more three-dimensional.

I could rave for ages, but instead I shall just reiterate that I loved this book and bemoan the fact that I have to wait until May for the next book, Insurgent to be released. It’s going to be a long six months…

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: He’s After Me – Chris Higgins

He's After Me book coverWhen Anna meets handsome, doting Jem, it feels like her life is finally going right. Still struggling to cope with her father having left her mother for a much-younger workmate, she is glad to have something positive to focus on. Quickly, Jem becomes the centre of her world. But soon her friendships and schoolwork begins to suffer. Is Jem the perfect boyfriend she thinks he is?

He’s After Me is a quick and easy read, written as it is in an informal style with a lot of short sentences, dialogue and internal monologues. Despite this, it deals with a subject that is far from easy. Anna is involved in an obsessive relationship and Jem is an overly-possessive boyfriend, who isolates her from her friends and former life and instead leads her into a life of lies and crime.

As a commentary upon abusive relationships, the novel works well. Chris Higgins does a good job of capturing the pull of different emotions experienced by Anna and the conflict between her desire to be with Jem and her reluctance to completely leave her old goals behind and enter an adult life she’s not quite ready for. Because the story is told from Anna’s unreliable viewpoint, the reader is shown all of the positive sides of Jem’s personality, while his bad points are quickly glossed over.

Unfortunately, the effect of this is lessened by the inclusion of short, italicised sections of text that sit between one or more of the main chapters and give the perspective of an unnamed male character. I assume these are included in order to add a sense of tension and suspense to the novel, but I personally found that they had the opposite effect. I guessed the twist in the tale very early in the piece and found that the overly-sinister comments felt clichéd and detracted from the real horror portrayed in He’s After Me: the loss of self to a toxic relationship.

Indeed, I think it was the combination of realistic relationship story and melodramatic thriller that just didn’t work for me. I felt like I needed He’s After Me to be one or the other. It wasn’t intense enough to work as a thriller and not measured enough to truly explore the issues involved with obsessive relationships. In addition, I was not able to connect with any of the characters, so the ending didn’t move me at all.

Other readers have definitely enjoyed He’s After Me and there was nothing bad or offensive about it; it just wasn’t for me.

Review: Practice Cake – Dalya Moon

Practice Cake book coverMaddie has just finished high-school and found herself her first full-time job at an independent bakery. As much as she enjoys her work, however, the best part of her new career is her coworker, Drew, who is far too tempting for a girl who’s supposed to have a serious boyfriend. When a chance meeting with a Bakery Network executive promises to turn Maddie into the latest reality television star, she realises that her life isn’t about to become simple again any time soon!

Practice Cake is a light-hearted contemporary YA novel with an underlying message about growing up and discovering your worth as a woman. For some reason, I’m an absolute sucker for novels that focus on workplace settings, so I loved the idea of a book set in a bakery, even if it did make me hunger for baked goods far too much while I was reading it! Angelo’s bakery is not just set-dressing, either. By the end of the novel, the reader really learns to care about the bakery and its survival.

As a protagonist, Maddie is extremely realistic. She really does feel like a young woman caught on the cusp of school and the real world. She’s still trying to work out who she is and where she wants to go in life, and is easily distracted by boys in the meantime. The fact that she’s still trying to work things out means that sometimes Maddie’s decisions can be extremely frustrating for the reader to witness. There are a few points during the novel where I wished I had the ability to poke my head into the action and send Maddie on a different direction. It’s Maddie’s mistakes that make her so human, though, and they’re only so frustrating because I remember making a few similar ones myself at that age!

Most of Maddie’s mistakes have something to do with the boys in her life. I have to admit, I didn’t really like Drew much even from the very beginning of the novel. He is super flirty and good looking, so I understood Maddie falling for him so quickly, but that flirtatious nature rubbed me up the wrong way a little. It seemed particularly frivolous in comparison to Angelo’s quiet and hard-working nature. Likewise, I didn’t understand what Maddie saw in her boyfriend, Parker. He seemed completely wrong for her, and didn’t value her enough at all. Indeed, a good deal of Practice Cake involves Maddie putting up with boys not giving her the value and respect she deserves and I particularly enjoyed the way that Dalya Moon highlights this through Maddie’s own frustration at her sister’s romantic choices. It’s only once Maddie grows stronger in herself that she falls into a relationship worthy of her time.

Some of the more minor characters in Practice Cake are the most memorable. Jaslene is completely over the top and yet somehow very realistic and I enjoyed the contrast between her obvious vulnerability and outward actor’s ego. (Bonus marks to Moon for the matter-of-fact mentions of Jaslene’s mothers.) Likewise, Roxanne is a great character who I enjoyed in all of her guises. She’s not immediately likeable, but she’s good people underneath.

One thing I wished while reading Practice Cake was that the novel had spent a little more time on Maddie’s family situation. We only meet her mother at the very end of the book and it turned out that I’d made quite a few incorrect assumptions about Maddie’s reasons for living with her sister. I loved that Moon created a background that supported the sisters’ romantic choices and would have liked to learn a little more about it. Then again, I guess that would be a novel in itself.

Practice Cake is an enjoyable read with a carefully constructed universe and plot. It should strike plenty of chords with young adult readers.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Double Clutch – Liz Reinhardt

Double Clutch book coverBrenna Blixen is back in the States after spending a year in Denmark with her mother and Scandinavian stepfather and she’s determined to make the most of being back in the company of people her own age. What she doesn’t expect, however, is to fall for two boys on the very same day – both with their own mix of positives and negatives. Will she choose Saxon or Jake… and if she makes her choice, will the loser just stand back and accept it?

There has been a lot of talk recently about people being sick of love triangles in YA fiction. I’m not one of those people. The love triangle has been a staple of romance since long before it started involving vampires and werewolves, as Reinhardt herself shows with her reference to Sense and Sensibility at the end of Double Clutch. The love triangle is perpetuated in literature because it works as romantic conflict – and there should be no need for it ever to be boring if an author treats the cliché with expertise (and provides two fanciable alternatives for the protagonist to choose between)!

In Double Clutch, Liz Reinhardt does just that. In Jake and Saxon she has created two potential love interests who will charm readers just as much as they charm Brenna. Better still, there are enough similarities between the two boys that it feels feasible that Brenna should be attracted to both of them, even if Jake is generally portrayed as the bad boy gone good, while Saxon is still hanging on to his share of the bad. There’s an edge to Jake that is evident underneath his politeness and chivalry, and a soft centre hidden beneath Saxon’s insinuations and cigarettes.

Brenna is a likeable and interesting protagonist, even if she is a little too perfect for my liking, as is the norm when it comes to YA romance. Her beauty, creative talent and athletic prowess are important, however, to establishing the believability of the strong (and lasting) attraction that both Jake and Saxon feel towards her. For me, the best thing about Brenna is her relationship with her parents. I love it when parents in YA fiction are represented as being present and caring, even if that sometimes means the protagonist doesn’t get her own way.

Despite the fact that Brenna is not yet sixteen, there is a fair amount of sexual content in Double Clutch, and I wouldn’t recommend it for younger readers. The sex scenes (although other readers will not consider them to be such, given different opinions on what counts as sex) are more frank and detailed than one would usually find in a YA novel. Although they are unusually well-written – and I personally feel that sex scenes generally aren’t – they will undoubtedly be a little too steamy for some younger readers.

Double Clutch is a fun read, because it feels a little bit like treating yourself to a family block of chocolate and a DVD when you’ve homework that you could be doing instead. It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling of living in Brenna’s head and world and having two boys falling over each other to gain your her favour. The boys themselves are more eloquent and more willing to talk about their feelings than any teenage boy I’ve ever known, but therein lies the appeal of romance!

One for all the romance lovers out there.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove – Lauren Kate

The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove coverFor years, Natalie Hargrove has been working towards achieving the ultimate high school goal – becoming the next Palmetto Princess. Coming from a less-than-exclusive background, she is always conscious of maintaining the necessary appearances to ensure her reputation remains unsullied as she pursues her prize. But then a tragedy causes Natalie’s carefully-constructed world to start to unravel…

I adore books about high school queen bees, and about the trials and tribulations of teen popularity, so I thought that The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, it seemed to miss the mark, and I am struggling to articulate why it didn’t quite work for me, because there were so many elements that should have made me love it.

There is a thoughtful exploration of life and character that lies beneath the glitz and drama of Lauren Kate’s plot. The true nature of Natalie’s deprived and depressing past is gradually revealed as the book unfolds, and there are thought-provoking contrasts between the two very separate elements of society that can be found in the town and in Natalie’s own history. Kate presents a picture of people with no prospects and little hope, against which Natalie’s social climbing and ruthlessness become more easy to understand.

While the two socio-economic groups detailed in The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove seem worlds apart in some ways, Kate also shows that they’re a lot more similar than her characters might consider. Indeed, the reader is forced to ask whether Natalie was really any safer once she had “made it” than when she still lived in a trailer. On both sides of the tracks, sex, drugs and alcohol rule. Natalie tries so hard to put behind the world in which a girl like her is only useful for sex, but yet her relationship with her boyfriend – overtly described as loving – is shown to be largely based around sex. It is the main way that Natalie and Mike know how to relate to each other and, once sex and physicality are removed, they flounder. It is also sex, and her mother’s willingness to use it as currency, that got Natalie out of the trailer park in the first place.

On an intellectual level, therefore, I have a good amount of respect for this book. Lauren Kate says rather a lot beneath the facade of a fairly fluffy story. My trouble with The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove is that this facade just doesn’t work for me. The reader is presented with a cast of unlikeble characters. Natalie herself is self-focussed beyond the point where it is easy to excuse her behaviour through knowledge of her past, Mike is almost entirely bereft of personality and the supporting characters are either caricatures or similarly unlikeable. J.B was, by far, the most interesting character to me and he isn’t in the book much at all.

I found that the writing style also distanced me from the novel. The choice of first person seemed odd, given the book’s ending, and both the prologue and the epilogue felt over-written. More importantly, however, the world of The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove doesn’t feel real. It read to me like a fantasy of what it is to be popular and daring and to be dating a fabulous boy.

While, on the whole, The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove didn’t quite work for me, it certainly wouldn’t deter me from picking up Fallen. I saw a lot of promise in the ideas behind Kate’s writing, even though the style and characters of this work were not as strong as I would have liked.

Review: Rhymes with Cupid – Anna Humphrey

Rhymes with Cupid coverElyse has not been a fan of romance, since she discovered her (ex)boyfriend and her (ex)best friend making out on her bed last Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, her job in a gift and stationery store means that she’s surrounded by mushy cards and singing cupid dolls as the anniversary of the dreadful day approaches. At least there’s the distraction of attempting to set up her friend and co-worker with Patrick, the cute guy from the key-cutting kiosk at the mall. But what happens if Patrick turns out to be part of the elusive two percent of decent boys in the world and Elyse has missed her chance?

Rhymes with Cupid is a sweet, traditional young adult romance. The plot is not particularly distinctive, but this is made up for by the likeable characters and overall feeling of warmth that the book conveys.

Elyse, the novel’s protagonist, is cynical and witty, and both her emotional walls and her underlying vulnerability are qualities that make her very easy for readers to identify with. She is far from a flawless character – she rejects Patrick’s offers of assistance, friendship and romance quite callously and shows herself to be melodramatic and easily panicked at times – but her good qualities balance the bad and allow her to remain likeable.

Patrick, on the other hand, is probably a little too perfect. He’s caring and helpful and talented – and good looking to boot! While a lot more than Elyse’s two per cent of men are decent, I’m not sure many at all would be as near-flawless as Patrick is. But it’s that very quality that makes him the kind of male lead that a lot of readers will adore. Romance fiction often isn’t about being true to real life. It’s about the fantasy – and Patrick, at least, is a much more healthy fantasy ideal than Edward Cullen.

I must admit, my least-liked aspect of the novel was the epilogue. I find that they are rarely needed and often unsatisfying ways to end a book. I like it when things aren’t perfectly tied up in the end. I like room to imagine what happened after the final paragraph and, while this epilogue felt in keeping with the previous characterisation and plot, I think the book would have been stronger without it.

Rhymes with Cupid is written in an accessible style, with a strong first person voice. It’s an easy read, perfect for public transport or to pack in your suitcase. While it didn’t grab me as much as some contemporary YA romances have done, it is nonetheless a good example of the genre and shows that Humphrey is an author to keep an eye on.

Review: All These Things I’ve Done – Gabrielle Zevin

All These Things I've Done book coverAnya is the orphaned daughter of the former head of the Balanchine family, infamous as one of the big-five families that supply chocolate to the populace despite its prohibition. Due to her family, her life has been filled with crime and even murder, but her own focus lies in taking care of her younger sister and her older brother, whose acquired brain injury makes him younger than his physical years. Anya’s life is fairly routine until the new Assistant DA’s son, Win, arrives at her school. When she falls for Win, however, she finds herself caught between protecting her family and protecting her heart.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like All These Things I’ve Done. The Australian cover is gorgeous, but I have never been a fan of fiction centred around the Mafia, whether in film or book form. It doesn’t hold the allure for me that it does for so many others. However, the focus of this novel is not upon the criminal activities of Anya’s extended family but, rather, upon her relationships with her immediate family members and budding romance with Win. Indeed, the normalcy of a good proportion of All These Things I’ve Done means that it is a book that should be enjoyed by lovers of contemporary YA fiction, despite its futuristic setting and crime-based plot.

For a book that focusses on a Mafiya family, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly low-key. While it easily retains the reader’s interest, Gabrielle Zevin accomplishes this not through constant action or page-turning suspense but, rather, through cleverly rendered characters who you can’t help but want to read more about.

Personally, I found Anya the easy stand-out. She is strong and independent and extremely aware of her responsibilities, but is not without her weaknesses as well. Zevin has created a character who truly reads like a sixteen-year-old who has been the protector of her siblings for several years, which is no small feat. Anya combines duty and mature insight with a tendency towards rash behaviour that exposes her youth at times. Above all, however, she is likeable and easy to identify with, despite her unusual upbringing.

All that said, it is Win who will likely prove the favourite of many readers. Kind, devoted and good-looking, he is just the type of romantic interest to gain a large following. For those who are not smitten by Win, Anya’s childhood crush, Yuji Ono, provides an intriguing alternative. I, for one, hope that we’ll see a lot more of him in the rest of the series!

I wasn’t entirely sure about Anya’s best friend, Scarlet, however. It’s hard to give my reasoning without spoilers, but her later alliance with someone who wronged Anya dreadfully towards the beginning of the book seemed unconvincing to me. Certainly, it wasn’t an action of the loyal friend she is painted as – and I’m not sure it sends a good message to Zevin’s readers. It will be interesting to see what comes of this plot point in later books.

Although it is the first book in the Birthright series, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly self-contained. While a few threads are left untied, in order to entice readers to continue with the series, those who do not read on will not feel robbed of a satisfactory (if not entirely happy) conclusion to the novel.

There is no reason not to continue reading, however. All These Things I’ve Done is a solid new offering from Gabrielle Zevin that is sure to appeal to a broad range of readers.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Flawless – Lara Chapman

Flawless coverSarah has a wonderful best friend, is on track for a promising journalism career and has long since learned to deal with the whispers and looks that are unavoidable when you’ve been blessed with a remarkably large nose. But when Rock arrives at her school and she and her best friend both fall for him, Sarah is forced to choose between following her heart, or remaining loyal to her friend. The decision seems simple – after all, no boy could ever fall for a girl who looked like her.

I am a big fan of good modernisations of classic works, with extra points being awarded if those modernisations are written for a young adult audience. Flawless is one such novel, and Lara Chapman does a wonderful job of taking Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and changing it in all the right ways to make it perfect for the young adult market. The protagonist becomes a teenage girl, Roxanne becomes the very male Rock and Christian becomes Sarah’s best friend, Kirsten.

This isn’t just a lazy retelling of another author’s story, however. While Chapman takes many of her plot cues from the original, her characters and her universe are definitely her own. Each character is well-drawn and three dimensional and, while there are an awful lot of very good looking people in the book, it didn’t rub me up the wrong way, like that sort of thing often does. I think the key to this is the fact that each character’s true beauty lay beneath the surface. Sarah and Rock and smart and literate. Kirsten is canny and generous. Jay is funny and friendly and even Sarah’s glamorous mother is a driven and talented journalist.

Often, the use of too many ‘apt’ quotes in a book feels forced to me but, in Flawless, the quotes that begin each chapter serve to further prompt the reader to question what beauty really is and whether the importance that is so often given to appearance is, in fact, misplaced. The plot of the novel raises the same questions and manages to do so in a non-preachy manner.

For me, however, the best bit about Flawless was the way Chapman portrayed Sarah and Kirsten’s friendship. I’m so sick of stories that involve friends falling out over a boy. I’m not saying it never happens in real life, but I think it happens in a disproportionate amount of YA novels and I’m not fond of the message it sends. Here, Chapman presents best friends who act as such. Sarah is a little too selfless, yes, but her mistakes are part of the learning path that she follows throughout the book.

It’s this growth that makes Flawless feel real. Sarah is a wonderfully likeable protagonist, who many readers will be able to identify with, but she is not flawless. The novel is as much a story of Sarah’s path towards self awareness and true self acceptance as it is the story of a high school love triangle. A few of the lessons learned by Sarah hit home with me as well, which I consider the sign of a well-crafted novel.

I’d love to see more books like Flawless on the shelves. I love intelligent, strong female leads, supportive female relationships and love interests who are more than just a collection of muscles and traditional good looks. And, as well as presenting a good message, it’s also a really fun read.

Review: Cross My Heart – Sasha Gould

Cross My Heart book coverLaura has spent the last few years of her life in a convent, and when her father calls her back to her family home, she is thrilled to leave its restrictive walls. When she arrives back at the Venetian house she grew up in, however, she discovers it run down and her family tragically changed. Her father tells her she is to wed, in a match intended to repair his fortune. But will Laura accept her father’s choice.. or look for assistance behind the fans and masks of Venetian society.

Firstly, I must say that I really didn’t like the cover choice for Cross My Heart. I don’t think it captures the feel of the book at all, and certainly doesn’t indicate it’s historical fiction. The blurb isn’t great either. It’s only very loosely tied to the actual action of the novel, and has the wrong tone to sit well with the actual text. Luckily, however, in this case I didn’t judge the book by its cover!

Cross My Heart is a well crafted historical YA novel. Set in Renaissance Venice, it is full of little details that help set the scene and draw the reader into the past. It’s not my area of historical expertise, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Gould’s world, but it’s certainly attractive and easy to visualise. Venice is a memorable location but, interestingly, it was the descriptions of the Venetians’ clothing and grooming that proved particularly evocative to me.

Gould’s characters are good, if a little too close to archetype in places. Laura is a strong protagonist, and I was able to forgive her head-turning beauty due to the fact that she proved likeable in most other ways. Paulina, although rarely present, is an enjoyable character, who I was disappointed I didn’t see more of. For me, however, the stand-outs were Allegreza and Grazia, who would certainly be able to command an audience for further novels based on their respective stories.

In contrast, I found the male characters a little close to type. Giacomo is the typical handsome love interest, Vincenzo a near-caricature of repugnance and Laura’s father the standard power-focussed strict parent. I’m sure there will be plenty of teenage girls swooning over the thought of a good-looking fresco painter, but I found his and Laura’s romance a little unsupported by the action. Then again, we do live in the fiction era of Soulmates At First Sight 😉

I think, though, that the combination of romance and intrigue was what prevented me from enjoying Cross My Heart more than I did. The romance was very traditional in form (as the male character descriptions probably suggest) and followed a standard structure: so much so that I joked with my mother about what I expected would happen in Giacomo’s story line – and then was proven right as the book progressed! There is absolutely a market for this kind of historical romance… but I’m not really it

The other aspect of the novel, however, was a tale of intrigue, complete with murders, false identities and secret societies. I loved that side of Cross My Heart. Historical thrillers are right up my alley, and I think Gould did a very good job of weaving the different threads of information together and tying them up at the end. The reader is thrust into a world of politics, society, danger and secrets, all against the backdrop of Venice. Great stuff!

The ending of Cross My Heart seems to suggest that there will be a sequel and I would certainly like to read more about the Segreta. I feel that Laura’s story has reached its natural conclusion with the end of this book, however, so if Gould writes more in this universe, I hope her focus rests upon other women.

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

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