31 December 2010
15 September 2010
Ed Kennedy's life is, well, rather bland. He works as a cabbie and hangs out with his fellow deadbeat friends. He's madly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and his mother despises him. Poor Ed. Then Ed thwarts a bank robbery and gains his fifteen minutes of fame. Shortly thereafter he begins receiving playing cards with times and addresses on them. Ed soon realizes that each time and address represent a task he must complete, sometimes of the good-hearted kindness to random stranger nature but also sometimes vigilante-type actions, and simply not cooperating is not an option, as Ed learns the hard way. Ed's missions, which he at first undertakes reluctantly, soon turn into an obsession and, ultimately, a life-changing experience.
After reading Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, I wanted to read more of his work and Penguins recommended I am the Messenger, originally published as The Messenger in Zusak's (and Penguins'!) native Australia. The Book Thief, which is one of my absolute favorite books ever, is a hard act to follow, but this novel, which was written before The Book Thief, was just as engaging and captivating. Thanks for another stellar recommendation, Penguins! Zusak has a knack for mining humor from situations that are not even remotely funny. The bank robbery that opens the book is hilarious, and gems of offbeat humor are scattered throughout the novel. Ed, the narrator, is a likable soul whose sarcastic narration adds much to the novel, but, even more importantly, he's believable. His reactions to being in his situation are logical and fit his personality. Most vigilante tales, which is sort of what I am the Messenger is though not exactly, feature an ordinary person who morphs into a larger than life superhero overnight. Not Ed. He's scared and confused and wants no part in what he's being asked to do. I have read quite a few books with the proverbial unwilling hero, but few are as realistic as Ed in their motivations and actions. Though the book is entertaining, it is also thought-provoking and much like The Book Thief, heartwarming without being sappy. This book didn't make me sob uncontrollably like The Book Thief--it's not quite as heartbreaking--though it does have its moments of brief sorrow.
I will admit the ending of the book did initially rattle me. It's not that I didn't buy it so much as I had to think about it before I eventually came to my own rationalization of it, which likely is not correct. Then again, the ending is not nearly what this book is about so much as the journey, so it's small issue.
I really like Markus Zusak's work. The two books I have read by him both feature complex sympathetic characters, offbeat stories, profound messages, humor, and a distinctive readable style. I am the Messenger is not as depressing as The Book Thief, but it possesses the same magical infusion of fantastical elements into reality. If you like inspirational reads that are free of sappy Hallmark crap, definitely read this book.
~~~~P.S. I would be remiss to not add, though, that if you're turned off by profanity, you should be aware that this book is chock-full of it. The language didn't offend me because I thought it was essential to the story. I mean, these kids are slum kids, after all--they're not going to sound like saints. But I feel it is my duty to warn my younger readers, lest their parents tar and feather me for a book recommendation.
Next Week: Stephen King's The Green Mile
Also, I need to apologize for not keeping up with comments (on both of my blogs). I am terribly sorry if I do not post a prompt response to your comment, but I will respond as soon as I can. I love reading your comments and I do read (and enjoy) every single one. It's just sometimes it's a couple of days before I have time to sit down and type up a response. Don't let that stop you from commenting! I will not ignore you! :)
Just one more announcement before I get to my trivia section: I am now settled in at my new college and am really enjoying myself. I love being a history and English major. Most of my homework is my two favorite things: reading and writing. Yeehaw! However, this also means I do a lot of reading and writing. Reading and writing that sometimes deprive me of pleasure reading. *sniffle* So . . . if you get a glut of reviews of classic novels from me in the next couple of months, it's because I am reduced to blogging my assigned reading. (And I think you guys would prefer classic lit. reviews over reviews about the academic books I am reading on the Russian Revolution. Unless you are a fellow history geek, then I would be more than happy to recommend Russian history books. ^^) But I will try my best to mix it up with more contemporary and genre fiction. :)
This Week in Literary History: 15 September 1890. British mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie is born in Devon, England. If you know me, you know I adore Agatha Christie! In fact, my very first blog post was a list of my favorite Agatha Christie novels. At the very least, read the first four on that list. They are all superb witty mysteries full of twists and turns and are not too scary. They're perfect brainteasers. :D
08 August 2010
Several times on this blog--and in chats--I have lamented my lack of knowledge of the hard sci fi genre. I like sci fi, but most of my readings in the genre have been in dystopian sci fi. My familiarity with sci fi tales sporting aliens and space ships is sadly limited. To remedy this, my good friend Scott, an avid classic sci fi reader, has recommended several sci fi books to me, chief of which is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the premier sci fi comedy book. I mentioned blogging it last week and was pleased when Serena and Penguins commented on how much they love the book. As always has happened with book suggestions I get from my readers, I was not disappointed. I loved this book and can't believe I have lived 21 years without reading it. *beats head with book* Thanks to all of you!
First and foremost, this book is just flat-out, laugh out loud funny. Though I had moments that were my favorites--the Vogon poetry reading, the mouse experiments *wink wink*, and the police shootout--the whole book was full of delightfully weird characters, silly situations, and witty deadpan narration that reminded me very much of both Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde, two of my favorite writers. I also adored the absurdity of so much of the story. I was trying to remember where I had heard Adams' name before and was not too surprised when I flipped the book open and read his bio, which notes that he wrote for Monty Python. This book reminds me very much of Monty Python with the zany verbal exchanges and frequent use of irony.
One thing I particularly loved--and I'm not sure how much sense this is going to make, but here we go--is how Adams embraces the novel's insanity and runs with it. I've read several books where the author creates an interesting world but then tries to smooth over any reader disbelief by adding convoluted "logic" to back up the plot and any deviations from the real world. Adams, on the other hand, never relies on this, which more often than not backfires. Adams makes no attempts to logically explain away the craziness that's going on and that actually makes the novel even more enjoyable than if he had tried the alternative.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the perfect end-of-summer read. Its wildly inventive world will appeal to sci fans and the hilarious plot and narration will delight humor fans, especially for those who are fond of absurdist British humor. Penguins has told me that after finishing this one, I'll have to read the whole series. Indeed! :D
This Week in Literary History:
4 August 1792: Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is born in Sussex, England. A talented poet--and born rebel--Shelley was kicked out of Oxford, famously ditched his wife for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and drowned in a boating accident at the age of 29. Along the way he wrote some outstanding poetry, of which "Ode to the West Wind" and "Stanzas Written in Dejection" are some of my personal favorites. I also highly recommend his fascinating prose treatise "A Defense of Poetry" in which Shelley reiterates the need for poetry and provides what may have been a defense of his own notoriously tumultuous personal life in the process. I must admit, for years I was more of a fan of Shelley's wife, Mary--I adore her classic Frankenstein--but as I have gotten older, I have learned to appreciate Shelley's work, as well.
Somewhat Important Announcement: This pains me to write, but I'm going to have to take a break from Blogger for the next few weeks. I don't want to! *nerd tantrum* But I am leaving on Friday for my new college's one week long orientation. Judging by the schedule, my internet time will be extremely limited, as will my reading time. After that, I am going to be carrying a full class schedule at a new school, working a new job, and living in a new residence. I don't want to make promises that I can't keep or post substandard posts, so I think I'm just going to take a little break and resume blogging in early September around Labor Day after I get adjusted to my new life. I'll be around until about Thursday--and plan to post a final post on my other blog later this week--so I should be able to respond to comments until then. Likewise, if you don't see me here on Blogger or Sparknotes or Critique Circle or Facebook or Twitter until early September, don't freak! I am not ignoring you and I have not been abducted by mutant giraffes bent on world domination. I will try my best to keep up with PMs and my e-mail, but it may take me a few days to get to it. I am going to miss all of you so much! But I am not abandoning you. I already have some reviews in the works, namely Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger--a suggestion from Penguins. :D
A Somewhat Less Important But Less Solemn Announcement: My more observant readers--those of you who looked at the upper right hand corner today--may have noticed that I added two Goodreads widgets. (I stole the idea from Lucy and Bruce and needed help to do it from Windsong. :D) Now all of the books I have most recently read--along with how many stars I give each one--will be on the first widget, and the books on my immediate to be read list will be on the second one. In case you're wondering, yes, I most certainly joined a website just because I wanted awesome book widgets. (Hence, I was slightly disappointed when I uploaded all of the books I've read this year to the site only to find that only a third of them were displayed on my widget. Poor me.) Regardless, I like the site and I love the widgets! If you have a Goodreads profile, feel free to friend me on the site, though, as with my other internet playgrounds, I may not be active until September.
See all of you in a few weeks! *waves* :)
01 August 2010
I enjoyed this highly original book very much, but I will say the book's structure takes some getting used to. Each chapter is devoted to a specific poison and a specific point in chronological time in the department's history. (Hence, chapter 5 deals with mercury and the years 1923-1925). For the most part, I thought the author did a great job of chronicling Norris and Gettler's work while balancing it with a specific poison's profile and related true crime cases, but sometimes a few of the stories seemed a bit random at first read, though they always did tie together in the end. I didn't find the structure distracting--in fact, I was impressed with Blum's skill in juggling so many story lines so thoroughly and so seamlessly--but I can see how some readers may find this approach frustrating. Also, I am not a science person by any stretch of the imagination, but I was reading on a forum that there are a few minor errors in the book, like with measurement conversions. But I am not sure how qualified the people posting those comments were, so I'd love to hear what my more scientifically-minded reader think.
25 July 2010
18 July 2010
11 July 2010
04 July 2010
Endgame (Samuel Beckett): Okay, this is technically a play that I read for my lit class last semester, but it's an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Personally, I adored the sheer insanity of this work, which Beckett intended to be absolutely inscrutable. Try not to think too deeply about what's going on in this apocalyptic tale that features a crotchety old man verbally berating his crippled caretaker and his legless, elderly parents, who are conveniently stuffed in garbage cans. (I swear I am not making this up.) I'll admit this play is weird--and the hilarious screen adaptation of it, which I cannot find anywhere online, is even weirder--but I adored it. Beckett is a master of non-sequitor and absurdist banter. Your tolerance for this play will depend very much on your opinion of postmodernist and absurdist literature. If, like me, you enjoy those two literary traditions, you'll love this play. If not, stay away. Stay far away.
Stressed-Out Girls (Roni Sandler Cohen): This is a non-fiction psychology book geared toward parents and counselors. I am a bit of a psychology geek, so when I saw this book, which delves into the pressures that so many middle school and high school age girls face, at the library, I was intrigued and checked it out. Sandler is a psychologist who specializes in teenage girls and seems to have a good understanding of what makes teens tick. She is neither condescending nor patronizing as she explains the social and academic stressors that young women struggle with. Though this is geared more toward adults who work with or raise teens, I found the book quite helpful in identifying some self-destructive tendencies of my own. I always knew I was a pathetic perfectionist, but I didn't realize how bad I was until I realized that the 2 case studies for perfectionists in this book sounded just like me. The fact that I frequently use all of the catchphrases that are indicative of an obsessive perfectionism also was a bit of a wake up call . . . Well worth reading if you're working with/raising teen girls or are a teen girl who is feeling stressed out.
The Oath (Frank Peretti): When I was a teen, I was a big fan of Peretti's YA series The Veritas Project. (The Hangman's Curse made my arachnophobia so much worse and Nightmare Academy reminded me of Pink Floyd's "The Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall part 2" . . . ) Peretti writes Christian horror, which I know sounds like an oxymoron, but he crafts some genuinely scary tales. I had mixed feelings about his adult horror thriller The Oath. On one hand, the tale of a rural town haunted by a murderous . . . something is suspenseful and even though it was a 650 page book, I finished it in two days because I simply could not put it down. On the other hand, sometimes I felt the book's message was a bit too preachy, even when I technically agreed with what was being said. Other moments are a bit cliched in typical horror story fashion, though not too badly. As a lit geek, I did enjoy the elaborate allegory and symbolism that Peretti used to illustrate the effects of sin. If you like scary reads and can overlook the occasional blatant preachiness, this book isn't a bad way to while away a summer weekend.
The Painted Veil (W. Somerset Maugham): My professor was talking about this book the day before school ended, so I decided to check it out and read it for myself. This book, which relates the story of Kitty--a spoiled English socialite--who, as punishment for an extramarital affair, is dragged into a raging cholera epidemic in China by Walter, her infuriated physician husband, was a strange book, though I did enjoy it. I have never watched the film adaptation of this book, but I think the commercials for it did influence my initial perception of this book. Based on the movie previews, I assumed this novel would be a tale of a troubled marriage renewed during crisis. Erm, that's not quite what happened here. Without giving too much away, this book is not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. Instead it is the portrait of an incredibly flawed woman who is really not all that likable--I was on Walter's side the entire time. How dare she!--who gradually matures and realizes how pathetic she's been. If you want a beautifully crafted literary exploration of guilt--and can stomach a somewhat distasteful protagonist and a depressing ending--definitely check this one out. If you're looking for a cheery upper class English romance, look elsewhere.
Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk): Hehe I will admit, I absolutely adored this novel. In fact, I sat down to read it and had it finished in less than three hours because I absolutely could not put it down. I know this book sounds like an odd choice for me--in fact, my good friend Genius93 said so on Twitter--but I do enjoy darkly funny reads and this quirky, twisted, apocalyptic, anarchist, subversive book is certainly that. Yes, this book is about a brutal weekly club for men to beat the living crap out of each other in some strange form of therapy that also doubles as a way to vent against modern society, but the focus of this book is more the underground movement that springs up from it; the friendship of the nameless insomniac narrator, who attends meetings for terminally ill patients as part of his social life, and Tyler, the charismatic militant who starts Fight Club; and the downward spiral these two face when their organization rapidly spins out of control. Bonus points for having one of the absolute best surprise endings I have ever read. I hesitate to recommend this one, because it is disturbing on many levels, yet that's what makes it so good. If you're reading this and thinking, "Meh, I don't think I like the sounds of that one", steer clear. But if this one has you intrigued, give it a try. It does have quite a bit of adult content and some scenes that will make you squeamish, but it'll also surprise you . . . literally. ^^
I'll try to have the reviews of the different series I read up in a couple of weeks.
Next Week: Maybe Laurie Halsie Anderson's Fever 1793. Maybe an Edith Wharton book. I am not sure. :D
This Week in Literary History: 4 July 1776: The Declaration of Independence is signed in Philadelphia. Okay, okay, I know this is more of a historical event, but the Declaration is a powerful document and is a superb example of rhetoric. I once wrote an essay on Jefferson's masterful use of literary technique in the Declaration, so you could say I am a big fan. It's a relatively short piece and well worth reading. Now if only we used such stirring legal language today . . .
I also have a quick announcement to make to my teen readers. My friend lgkelso wants to start doing a weekly feature called "Teen Talk Tuesday" on her blog. She wants to hear teen opinions on, well, everything from peer issues to college to fashion trends to your opinions on Twilight. (I know you guys will have fun with that.) If you're interested, check her blog out for more information and leave a comment. :)
Happy 4th of July! Adios! :D
27 June 2010
Miss Marm recommended this novel for all devoted Anglophiles and I am so glad she did. (Thank you, Miss Marm!)I loved this charming book! This is an odd book to describe. The best I can come up with is it is as if Anne of Green Gables kept a diary, a la Anne Frank, but was a character in a Jane Austen novel. Cassandra is a wonderful narrator: funny, perceptive, sympathetic, and always believable, even when she isn't on her best behavior. Her spunk leads to a series of comic adventures, some painful, others hilarious. Overall, the funny far outweigh the sad, with my favorite one being the scheme Cassandra and her brother concoct to cure their father of his writer's block. I don't want to give anything away, but I laughed out loud for a long time while reading it.
I used to think that the sad thing about being a Jane Austen fan is there are only six novels and once you've read them all, well, there is nothing else to read with Jane's trademark wit and style. Ah, but I was wrong. If you're a fellow Jane fan seeking a new favorite read, look no further than I Capture the Castle. Even better, you don't have to like romances to like this book. If you also enjoy a good coming of age story, quirky crazy British families, and light domestic comedies, this book is the perfect summer read.
Next: The Return of the Unblogged Chronicles. I forgot about them the past two months until Eric mentioned a book I hadn't blogged about. I shall try to post this before the end of June, but I may have to wait until next Sunday. We shall see. ^^
This Week in Literary History: 24 June 1842. Ambrose "Bitter" Bierce is born in Ohio. Ooooh, I so love Bierce! I say we celebrate by being snarky to each other. Ahem. Allow me to explain: I adore Bierce's delightfully wicked Devil's Dictionary, a must read for all fans of acerbic cynical humor, which sports such definitions as "To be positive: To be mistaken at the top of one's voice" and "Politics: Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles". Bierce was also a talented fiction writer. You have not lived until you have read his haunting Civil War short story "The Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge." (Here, I am so nice, I'll give you a link to it.) In addition to being a superb writer, Bierce led an exciting, adventurous life, which culminated in him disappearing off the face of the earth in 1914 while tagging along with Pancho Villa in Mexico.
20 June 2010
Author Krista D. Ball contacted me about doing an early review of her soon to be released novella Harvest Moon, and I am so glad she did! (Thanks, Krista! :D) I enjoyed this well-written novella very much. In fact, my only disappointment was that it ended after only thirty four pages. I have read a few gender switch tales before, and usually I dislike them just because the premise is used as more of a plot gimmick than anything. Not so in Harvest Moon. Dancing Cat's already miserable circumstances are further exacerbated by her punishment and the psychological trauma that she endures as consequence are not skimmed over, which makes for a suspenseful and psychologically fascinating read.
I also liked the unique atmosphere this novella offers. I have always been interested in Native Americans, so I enjoyed this tale about the First Natives of Canada. The tribe's culture is vividly portrayed throughout the story, yet the description never bogs the narrative down. Instead, the atmosphere greatly enhances the story and provides a nice change from the Northern European setting of much fantasy, though I enjoy those, too.
As much as I enjoyed all aspects of this novella, the best part for me was the protagonist Dancing Cat. I am often frustrated by female main characters. So often they are either completely unbelievable or utterly unlikeable. Dancing Cat is neither of these characterizations. She is sympathetic and likable but never glamorized or glorified. Even better, she shines as a complex, intriguing character, which is hard to create in so few of pages.
Harvest Moon is a fascinating, well-crafted novella that delves into the nature of identity, rejection, and friendship. Fantasy fans will enjoy this story, and fans of historical fiction will relish the vivid historical details. You guys will need to be a little patient before you can get your hands on a copy, though the wait will be more than worth it. Harvest Moon will be early released as an e-book by MuseItUp Publishing on October 1st, 2010, with the official release in December. You can read an excerpt from the first chapter on Krista's blog.
Next Week: Maybe W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil but more probably Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle.
This Week in Literary History: 14 June 1811: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, is born in Litchfield, Connecticut. Stowe's classic abolitionist novel was an influential text in the pre Civil War anti-slavery debate and is still considered a classic. I wish I could add some personal anecdote about the book, but I have never actually read this novel. I plan to remedy that. :D
13 June 2010
I also liked that the protagonist Nat is not an annoying idiot. So many horror/suspense tales have a cast of pure knuckleheads who I despise and wish death upon. (Hehe I am usually not disappointed.) Nat is resourceful and astute, and his intelligence is a major reason why I was rooting for him and was sympathetic to him. His wife is a little bit clueless, and consequently is annoying in a harmless sort of way, but she is not the focus of the story, so I was fine with that.
06 June 2010
I came across Mal Peet's award-winning YA novel Tamar one day at work in the library. I was filing away other books when the cover of this one--specifically the parachute on the cover--caught my eye. (As some of you know, my dad and grandfather were both paratroopers, so that automatically made me curious.) Then the tagline that said "Espionage, Passion, Betrayal" caught my eye. Yeehaw! Espionage and Betrayal! Two subjects that have long fascinated me. (Some of you may think my priorities are screwed up . . . ) I once tried to write a spy novel when I was younger. It was quite awful, but I love a realistic spy story--you may gather James Bond doesn't work for me--and that's precisely why I loved this book so much.
I liked this novel very much; however, I did find the modern scenes, in which a girl named Tamar slowly pieces together what happened, less compelling. Not that they were bad, but compared to the WWII scenes, which are so haunting and unique, the common YA subplot of a troubled teen who puzzles out her family's tragic past with the help of a relative's parting gift was just a bit too cliche for me. Tamar the Dutch resistance fighter interested me, because he was a unique character; Tamar the confused teen girl did not interest me very much, only because I have seen a thousand characters like her. Again, it is not that the scenes set in modern times are badly written. It's just they struck me as less compelling, because they lacked the originality of the rest of the novel.
If you like excellent historical fiction or are just looking for an action-packed good read, try Tamar. The historical atmosphere is impeccable, and the story is superbly crafted. I'm glad I picked this one up. :D
Next Time: Maybe some Daphne Du Maurier. Maybe some Dostoevsky.
This Week in Literary History:
31 May 1819: American poet Walt Whitman is born on Long Island, New York. My lit. professor once said that Whitman was not the first American poet, but he was the first distinctly American poet. Whitman's Leaves of Grass is a poetry classic, but I am quite fond of his heartbreaking "Into the Cradle Endlessly Rocking", an autobiographical poem in which Whitman describes the moment he realized he was born to be a poet.
I would also be remiss to not note, seeing as I am reviewing a novel about WWII, that today is the 66th anniversary of the D-Day invasions.
30 May 2010
I have long wanted to read this novel, so when Rebel recommended it to me a couple of weeks ago on my villain post, I couldn't resist reading it as soon as possible. As with all of the recommendations I have received from my readers, I was not disappointed. I loved this novel! (Thanks so much, Rebel!) Rebel explained that it was a great historical fiction romance that was sad but not sappy, and I wholeheartedly concur.
Atonement is a fascinating novel on several levels. I love how complex Ian McEwan made all of his characters, especially the main three--Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony. Though sometimes these characters were hard to sympathize with, they were always real. I was particularly impressed with McEwan's skill in writing Briony, a character who could very easily be wholly despicable. I can't say I ever truly liked her, but she is far more interesting and three-dimensional than I had imagined and that made this novel far more unpredictable--and enjoyable--because of it. McEwan's eloquent and lyrical (but always effortless) style was also a huge plus for me. I liked the precise, lush historical details, as well. McEwan manages to capture the atmosphere of a troubled upper-middle class English home in 1935 and the horrors of WWII at Dunkirk and at British military hospitals. In fact, the war scenes make for some of the best military fiction I've read in awhile, though I know that's not the main focus of the story.I also enjoyed the structure that McEwan employed in telling this story. I am a huge fan of experimental plots, especially of the multi POV and non-linear variety. The first part of the novel focuses on that fateful summer day in 1935 when Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony's world is forever changed. Each chapter tells the story in third person narration from a different character's point of view, jumping through time and often retelling scenes in which more (or conflicting) information is presented through that character's perspective. If you prefer linear plots, this technique may drive you crazy, but I enjoyed it immensely, both for the literary technique involved and for the realistic way in which McEwan shows how different people perceive the same event in very different ways. After the superb first half, I expected to be somewhat disappointed with the remainder of the novel, which follows the characters through 1940. Instead, the historical detail and the compelling plot still kept me riveted. I especially enjoyed the ending--set in 1999. In my mind, the entire time I was reading this novel, my inner cynic kept thinking that I didn't want the ending to be happy, because that would just almost be too much of a cop-out (and I hate happily ever after story endings. *glares into distance whilst emoting*) But, at the same time, my more dreamy, secretly optimistic inner self wanted things to somehow be all right in the end--but not happily ever after. I was pleased that McEwan found a clever way to do both in concluding this novel.
Atonement is a haunting tale that probes the power of fiction, imagination, guilt, and--yes--atonement. It is also a wonderfully-crafted literary historical novel and an enjoyable, non-melodramatic romance. (Yes, I am bragging on a romance novel that was not written in the 19th century. No, this is not a sign of the coming apocalypse. :P) Now I am determined to get my hands on the acclaimed film based on this novel.
P.S. I must note, there is some adult content in this novel. Not a lot--I have certainly seen much worse elsewhere-- but there is enough that I would rather post a warning for my younger readers. (I don't want your parents beating me over the head with a blunt instrument for not giving fair warning.)
Next Week: I know you hear this a lot from me, but I am not sure. I have been reviewing a lot of literary fiction lately, so I want to try some genre fiction. I have a YA novel I have been meaning to read, plus some horror, a Western, and some other assorted books, so we'll see what I find. :P
This Week In Literary History: *cue organ music*
26 May 1895: Bram Stoker's infamous vampire novel Dracula first goes on sale in London. Derided as trashy at the time, Dracula has gone on to become one of the all-time great horror novels (and one of my absolute favorites.) Dracula may not have been the first fictional vampire, but he was the first to capture the public's interest. I am a big fan of Dracula--he was #1 on my list of literary villains a couple of weeks ago. Forget about Eddie the glitter vamp! I'm Team Dracula, because real vampires don't sparkle. :D
22 May 2010
I have always enjoyed retellings of traditional stories through the villain's POV. One of my favorite books as a child was Jon Scieszka's hilarious The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, in which the Big, Bad Wolf explained why he was being unfairly accused. (If you did not read this as a child, you were seriously deprived.) As I have gotten older, I have also read (and enjoyed) Gregory Maguire's clever retellings of traditional fairy tales. So, when Feathery posted a comment describing John Gardner's Grendel--a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf, which I adore, through the eyes of Grendel, the antagonist--I was immediately intrigued and couldn't wait to read it. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed! Thanks so much, Feathery! :)
Grendel is a very much a character-driven novel--I think a good character-driven novel can be just as riveting as a novel that relies more on plot for suspense, as long as the protagonist is compelling and complex. Fortunately for this book, Grendel is about as compelling and complex of a character as I have ever encountered. Gardner does not attempt to transform Grendel into a particularly likable character--the monster is nihilistic, bitter, and murderous--but the author balances this out with a fascinating psychological exploration of why Grendel is the way he is. If, like me, you're a fan of psychological fiction, you will adore the multi-faceted persona of Grendel, who both loves and hates humans and, as a result, is trapped in an emotional maelstrom of self-pity, self-loathing, and extreme loneliness. Grendel emerges as a character that is both disturbing and pathetic. Though you may not agree with Grendel's jaded views on life, his first person narration is loaded with clever insight and acerbic wit that is a joy to read. At first, I thought the prose seemed anachronistically modern at times, but upon further reflection, I think that was actually a wise decision on Gardner's part. The narration, which is both eloquent and simple, ensures this is a highly readable book and that, in my opinion, makes it more accessible than if it had been written in a stilted, overly formal style.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I must warn you: Do not, I repeat DO NOT, read this book if you have never read Beowulf. The plot assumes a knowledge of the original tale, and much of the enjoyment of this novel comes with contrasting Gardner's portrayal of Grendel with the traditional story. All of the major characters from Beowulf, some with interesting back stories added by Gardner, appear in the novel, as do most of the major events from the original epic. If you have read Beowulf before, you'll have no problem understanding this book, but you need to have that foundation to properly appreciate Grendel.
If you like alternative versions of famous stories, are a Beowulf fan, or are just looking for a superbly written psychological novel, try Grendel. You will never look at Grendel, the dreaded foe of the hero Beowulf, the same way again.
Next Week: *whines* I have no idea! I am sorry, but I'll find something. I will also try to be a bit more prompt about posting. *cries*
21 May 1688: Famed Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope was born in London, England. I adore Pope's exquisite poetry, for which he is justly famous, but you may also be familiar with many of his popular quotations, such as "To err is human; to forgive, divine." My personal favorite Pope quote is "There never was any party, faction, sect, or cabal whatsoever, in which the most ignorant were not the most violent."
22 May 1859: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created Sherlock Holmes, my absolute favorite detective ever, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Trained as a physician, Doyle started writing the popular Holmes series because he was bored waiting for patients. (Thank God he didn't have many!) Doyle wrote four novellas and over fifty short stories starring Holmes. If you have never met the original Sherlock, I highly encourage you to read one of Doyle's stories (or more than one)! :)
Next week, in addition to a review, I will mark an important anniversary in classic horror. :D
12 May 2010
05 May 2010
1. Hamlet (William Shakespeare's Hamlet): Okay, I know Hamlet is one of the biggest basketcases in all of literature. And he's possibly insane. And he can be really mean. And he has "issues" galore. However, that's exactly why I love Hamlet. He is such a complex character, which is something that I always adore, and he is not easily understood. Yet he is also extremely sympathetic (no matter how far off the deep end he is acting), brainy, philosophical, and most witty.
2. Beowulf (author unknown Beowulf): Last week, Scott mentioned Grendel as a worthy villain. Indeed! I almost put Grendel on my villain list, but he was ejected for Roger (Sadistic rock throwing Roger. Not creepy Puritan physician Roger.) That was a tough decision, but Grendel gets mentioned here in this very sentence, so that sort of evens out. (Do not argue with me. It most certainly evens out.) Beowulf is one of my favorites because he embodies the chivalric code of honor. And he kicks monster butt! And he probably has really cool armor. And he is pretty good with passive-aggressive insults, too. A man of both the sword . . . and the sharp tongue.
3. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre): I just adore Jane so much! She may not be pretty, but lovely heroines are sooooooooo overrated, anyway. (And so very boring, in my opinion.) Jane more than compensates with her smarts, her convictions, and her spunk. I am a sucker for literary orphans and Jane has long been one of my favorites. You go, girl!
4. any Jane Austen heroine (with the exception of Emma. God, how I hate her, though I still adore the book): I like Jane Austen's female characters, especially clever Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), long-suffering Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), and naive Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey), because they are so three dimensional. Austen could portray her heroines as one dimensional period props, but, instead, she imbues her characters with a great amount of individuality, intelligence, and charm. Yay for Jane! I will add that her heroes, especially George Knightley (Emma), Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion) and that fellow named Darcy, are all nicely crafted and sympathetic in their own right.
5. Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby): I know that Gatsby is sort of a shifty character with a shady past and a penchant for dishonesty, but in spite of all of his, erm, well, flaws, I found Gatsby one of the most compelling characters I have ever encountered. In the end, Gatsby does have his own somewhat skewed nobility and I found his complete determination to succeed and his devotion for that utterly worthless Daisy (who I will not call vile names on this blog. I promise I won't. I can't promise I won't refrain mentally, but I'll behave here.) very touching.
6. Anne Shirley (Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables): Another one of literature's orphans whom I just cannot help adoring. I love Anne because she reminds me a lot of myself when I was her age (Same social awkwardness. Same nerdiness. Same temper. Same orneriness.) but without some of my more insidious traits. (She's more forgiving than I am and less cynical and more upbeat.) What I love most about Anne, though, is her spunk. No matter what comes her way, she's up for the challenge. Anne's intelligence and courage definitely qualify her for the hero/heroine list.
7. Atticus Finch (Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird): Finch is the perfect Southern gentleman: kind, wise, honest, and noble. Though I adore him for those reasons alone, that's not why I admire him so much. His courage in refusing to go along with popular opinion to do what is right makes him one of the few characters I can say I honestly admire. He also utters one of my absolute favorite quotes: "The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." Well said, Atticus.
8. Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories and novellas): I love mysteries and have many favorite detectives (I may do a list one day), but in my mind, my absolute favorite detective will always be Sherlock Holmes. Yes, Sherlock may snort cocaine and hate women, but he is still the epitome of Victorian gentleman and his ingenious detection methods are a delight to read. Sherlock is crafty, clever, courageous, and collected. Bonus points for his acerbic British sense of humor.
9. Moist Von Lipwig (Terry Pratchett's Discworld series): What do you mean I can't use a con artist on my hero list? It's my list! I can do what I want! *pouts and stomps feet* Moist may be many things that are not, ahem, reputable, but he's also witty and crafty and delightfully bad (in a good antihero type way.) Moist may be the cagiest con man on Discworld, but underneath his roguish exterior lies an essentially good heart. You just have to look long and hard for it.
10. Matilda (Roald Dahl's Matilda): What is there not to love about Matilda? She's smart and sweet and precocious. And she can control chalk with her mind and engage in a truly strategic round of psychological warfare when pressed into it. Gentle Matilda is not to be under-estimated, yet she always has my sympathy. And, oh yes, she loves to read. What further qualification does she need?
I noticed last week that most of my favorite villains were psychological menaces. Likewise, I have noticed that my favorite heroes are often intelligent, snarky, and deeply flawed but still essentially honorable. I find this psychologically interesting. :D
Who are your favorites?
Next Week: I'll be free from school! So maybe Yann Martel's new book Beatrice and Virgil. Or John Gardner's Grendel.
29 April 2010
1. Count Dracula (Bram Stoker's Dracula): *cue organ music* I have a certain standard when it comes to vampires: I like my vampires mean. None of this mamby pamby sparkly crap. I want an honest-to-goodness bloodsucking vampire who sports a shiny black cape and has no problem with sinking his fangs into helpless victims. The venerable villain Count Dracula meets all of my requirements and is the main reason I adore Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel, the aptly named Dracula. The Count also gets bonus points for the cool Romanian accent. (Please tell me I am not the only one who reads his lines with a Bela Lugosi voice.)
2. Iago (William Shakespeare's Othello): The Bard has given us many great bad guys, but Iago is, in my opinion, Shakespeare's best villain. True, he isn't one of those scary axe murderer type villains; Iago is actually much worse. Instead, he's an insidious, deceitful scoundrel who worms his way into friendship with Othello and wages a ruthless (but absolutely effective) war of mind games with the sole intent of bringing Othello down. Give me a choice between confronting a crazed ax murderer and an Iago, and I'll take the axe murderer. You may at least be able to outrun him. Good luck getting away from the seemingly charismatic and loyal Iago.*shudder* And, if Iago has no other redeeming personal qualities, he is at least good with hilarious Elizabethan insults and putdowns. :D
3. Mrs. Danvers (Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca): Who says maniacal rogue scientists have a monopoly on being evil? Creepy British housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who is hellbent on tormenting the young second wife of her employer for having the audacity to replace her beloved mistress, is about as nightmarish of an opponent as you can get. The fact that Du Maurier keeps comparing her to a skeleton in a formal black dress doesn't help matters . . .
4. Bill Sikes (Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist): Fagin may be the main villain in Oliver Twist, but the unhinged Sikes makes Fagin look as docile as a tranquilized guinea pig. A burglar, thief, murderer, Sikes isn't literature's brainiest villain, but he is certainly one of the most remorseless vagabonds to appear in fiction. Whenever I read about Cockney crooks, Sikes always comes to my mind.
5. Heathcliff (Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights): Pop culture perceives Heathcliff as the brooding British heartthrob of Victorian literature. And, I must confess, I have always pitied Heathcilff, what with his troubled childhood and thwarted romance with Cathy. That being said, Heathcliff's personal sufferings do not in the least negate the malicious, sadistic revenge campaign he unleashes upon any and all who dare anger him. Heathcliff is a puzzling character with no rhyme or reason to much of his behavior, which is one reason he's so disturbing.
6. Vito Corleone (Mario Puzo's The Godfather): This is sort of a cheater's pick on my part. I like the film version of this story better than the book (The movie has my boy Brando!), but Vito is still one of my favorite bad guys. Vito Corleone is a loving father, husband, and friend. Vito is loyal, generous, and wise. Vito is also one of the most feared Mafiosi in New York. When he, ahem, makes you an offer you can't refuse, you better take it, if you get my drift. *wink wink*
7. Anton Chigurh (Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men): This is a pick where I adore the film version of the villain, but I also like the original literary portrayal, too. I am not really quite sure why I like Chigurh so much. He's a quirky, coldblooded hit man who is prone to philosophy. I think I like him so well, because he's so unusual...and has so many catchy lines. What's it to you, friendo? Whatever it is, it makes me forgive his questionable taste in hair styles.
8. Roger (William Golding's Lord of the Flies): Yes, Jack is the leading meanie in this classic tale of British school boys gone wild, but Roger is the major psycho. Roger is a creep not because he is the brains of the outfit, but because he enjoys whatever he's tasked with doing far more than is mentally healthy. If you don't believe me, check out the part where he starts rocking his classmates before Jack forms his tyrannical choir regime.
9. Nazguls (J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings): Sure, Sauron is the villain and the nazguls are the minions. But they're such cool minions! The scene where they enter the Shire hunting for Frodo always struck me as the scariest scene in the Rings trilogy. They get bonus points for the intimidating cloaked appearance. If I ever get minions, they are so wearing cloaks! ^^
10. Roger Chillingworth (Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter): You guys have probably noticed I prefer villains who aren't stereotypical and the more psychological ones. Chillingworth definitely falls in both categories. Puritan physician isn't the most insidious occupation that comes to mind when casting villains, but there is no doubt from the moment Chillingworth appears that he is a most dastardly fellow. If holding grudges were a team sport, Chillingworth would be my first round draft pick. If he doesn't have you cringing, especially in that creepy scene when he tells Hester he knows exactly where she's going and that it isn't happening, I am not sure who will.
Who are your favorites?
By the way, due to finals, I won't have a book review up next week, either. How do you guys feel about a list of my favorite hereos to balance this list out?
21 April 2010
My coworker Darcie recommended this delightful book--The Eyre Affair--to me; when I hinted at reviewing this book last week, Serena not only correctly guessed the title, she also recommended the book as well. When one reader with great taste in books suggests a book to me, I always get excited. When two readers with great taste in books suggest a book to me, I cannot resist. Thank you both so much! I loved this book and can't wait to read the rest of this series.
One reason I loved this book was the pithy British sense of humor that author Jasper Fforde brings. His witty style and outrageous plots remind me of some weird fusion of Terry Pratchett, Monty Python, and Lynne Truss. (It also reminds me of my beloved TV show Pushing Daisies. It has the same darkly funny mix of humor and escapist fantasy. Random Zella tangent: I will never, ever forgive ABC for cancelling Pushing Daisies. If ABC is reading this: I have not forgotten that retaliation riot I threatened. Consider yourself warned.) I am especially impressed with the skill that Fforde handles a plot that could very easily be dismissed as too silly. Instead, he crafts a gripping thriller and a sharply humorous alternative universe that is not so very different from our own, yet is worlds away, in a good way. The characters are likeable, quirky, and complex, especially Thursday, who is a truly wonderful heroine. She's neither a pathetic damsel in distress nor an over-the-top action heroine stereotype, both of which I despise in fiction. I also enjoyed the twisting plot that features elements of several genres. Sci fi, fantasy, mystery, alternative history, and humor fans will all find something to love here. Fforde puts clever twists on timeworn cliches from each genre, which helps add to the inventive tone.
However, the real draw will be for those who love classic literature. That's not really a prerequisite to reading and enjoying this book--it certainly stands alone--but this book will definitely be more appealing to those who have read and loved Jane Eyre and those who recognize all of the literary allusions that Fforde inserts within the text. (My favorite is Thursday's Uncle Mycroft. I named my laptop after Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older brother, a couple of years ago. I had a moment of extreme nerdy happiness when I read Mycroft's name in this book..)
If you're looking for a light-hearted, clever, and highly original read, of either the spec fic or literary variety, try The Eyre Affair. Jasper Fforde is a talented writer with a highly original outlook on fiction. Beware, though: You may find yourself scrambling to find his other books, just like Darcie, Serena, and myself.
Next Week: Um, I have no idea. Maybe some Cormac McCarthy. Or a YA thriller set in World War II. Or Treasure Island. I have no earthly idea. Don't look at me! *hides in corner and cries*