30 May 2010


Thirteen year old Briony Tallis is an aspiring writer--she has big plans for the play she has written that will be staged in honor of her older brother's visit home. Her older sister Cecilia is also busy ensuring that the party for their brother goes as planned, but she is even more preoccupied with her conflicted feelings for the son of the family's long-term charwoman--Robbie Turner--whom she alternately adores and despises. However, nothing about that sultry summer day goes according to plan. When Briony witnesses an encounter between Robbie and Cecilia, her ever-inventive imagination--and perhaps some more nefarious motives--cause her to accuse Robbie of a horrible crime, an accusation that will have profound consequences for all involved, Briony included.

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 am so, so, so, so sorry for the lateness of this blog! *wallows in remorse* I have just been so busy, I didn't have time to read anything until now! I do have a new review and a new weekly treat in store for my dear readers, so I hope that somewhat compensates!

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*

Now, to introduce the new treat I promised. I decided to start a new weekly series (or blurb series really), in which I post some trivia about important events in literary history that occurred this week. For instance, in "This Week in Literary History"--like the name? How original, Zella!--I could post about the publication of a landmark novel, the birth of an author, or a famous event somehow connected to literature. As a die hard lit geek (and a die hard trivia nerd), I love reading little random trivia factoids, and I hope you enjoy this new series. I think I'll usually just post one trivia fact per week, but since this debut week is special, I will post two author's birth anniversaries:

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

Beatrice and Virgil

I have a treat for you guys today! No, I am not handing out cookies. Well, I am. Here, have some e-cookies. But that is not the main treat. You see . . . I usually review books that are at least a few years (if not a few decades or centuries) old. Today marks the first time in the nearly ten months I have had this blog that I review a book that has only been out for a month--Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil. I am a huge fan of Martel's Life of Pi, so I was totally psyched for this book! As soon as it was released, I rushed to the library I work at and snatched the first copy. Muahahaha It was mine! All mine! *cough*

For those of who you also love Life of Pi and are curious about Martel's latest book, you're probably wondering: Is Beatrice and Virgil like Life of Pi? Well, that depends upon your definition of "like Life of Pi." This book shares the same effortless prose and quirky humor, but the similarities end there. Life of Pi is much more fantastical than this novel, yet Beatrice and Virgil is much weirder. Life of Pi is odd, but Beatrice and Virgil is a very postmodern, literary work that is rich in symbolism and whether or not you like this book will hinge heavily upon your tolerance for postmodern literature.

I am one of those geeks who adores postmodernism and literary fiction, so I really enjoyed this novel, which relates the tale of Henry--who, like the writer in Life of Pi, is a thinly veiled version of Martel himself--as he struggles to find success in the publishing world after writing a bestseller. Frustrated when his imaginative work on the Holocaust is rejected for being too bizarre and inaccessible, he goes into a self-imposed exile in an unidentified city, taking music lessons and acting in community theater yet militantly refusing to write. One day Henry gets some fan mail from a local man who has enclosed an excerpt from his own work--a play starring a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. (If you know these two are named after Dante's guides in The Divine Comedy, you are my new nerdy best friend.) Henry meets the writer--a gruff, elderly taxidermist who is also named Henry--and the two strike up a somewhat dysfunctional collaboration on the play. And then Henry--the writer Henry--starts to wonder just exactly what he's gotten himself into . . .

I found Henry, the writer protagonist, likeable as a main character and Beatrice and Virgil, the fictional animals in the taxidermist's play, become intriguing characters in their own right. The plot starts off as a somewhat meandering tale of writer's block--Oh, how I can relate!--that has lots of simplistic charm and an intriguing atmosphere but not a lot of certifiable action. That's fine with me, because I enjoy Martel's style and the world he crafts; however, if you're expecting an action-packed plot, you'll be sorely disappointed. Not to say the story is boring. The interactions between the personable Henry and the emotionally distant and occasionally bizarre taxidermist are entertaining and easy to relate to. (Think of all the times you have tried your best to work with someone you could never, ever understand. Now you know how Henry feels.) The excerpts from the play itself--a witty, absurdist play highly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work--are fascinating in and of themselves.

Though I enjoyed this novel very much, I must warn you: The last few pages of the novel take a disturbing and surprising turn that both rattled and delighted me. I love surprises and this one was a genuine shocker, seeing how the rest of the novel lulled me into a false sense of security and then slapped me upside the head with said false sense of security. I have seen other people ranting on the internet that the ending was gratuitously violent and unfair. I think that's being naive--I mean, Beatrice and Virgil is an allegorical novel about the Holocaust, so it's only natural that it is going to be somewhat disturbing. That being said, definitely do not read this book if you're turned off by violent content. The whole book itself is not violent, but the ending will upset you.

This novel is definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed it very much. (I just finished it this afternoon and am still trying to process it, but I think I actually like this book even more than Life of Pi, which is saying something.) I can't guarantee that you will like this book if you liked Life of Pi, but I think this is a book that those who enjoy postmodernist and/or literary fiction will relish. On its own merits, Beatrice and Virgil is a deceptively simple, engaging, and thought-provoking meditation on the nature of evil, art, personal responsibility, and guilt. I would definitely love to hear what you guys think if you read this, even if you want to kill me for recommending it. (I will defend myself with a very thick collection of encyclopedias if you want to book duel me. :P)

Next Week: Not sure. Maybe Cormac McCarthy. Maybe John Garder's Grendel. Maybe something else. We shall see! :)

05 May 2010

My Ten Favorite Literary Heroes (and Heroines)

Last week, I gave you my favorite bad guys. This week, I balance the equation out by listing my favorite good guys (and gals.) This is slightly skewed by the fact that I have forbidden myself to use any of the heroes in books I listed last time. Hence, some of my favorites are missing here, but that's not what's important. What is important is I am listing some of my favorite protagonists at an ungodly hour of the night (but not posting them until a more suitable hour) for your reading/comparison pleasure.

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.