27 June 2010

I Capture the Castle

English teenager Cassandra Mortmain lives in a crumbling castle with her delightfully dysfunctional family, which includes her father, a writer who once scored it big with a literary masterpiece but now spends all of his time doing crossword puzzles and reading detective novels because he has a decade long case of writer's block; her stepmother, a ditzy but wise flower child model who means well--no, really, she does; her older sister, Rose, whose idea of romance and marriage are outdated by a good century; her younger brother, Thomas, who is almost as sly as Cassandra herself; and Stephen, a young retainer who is obsessively devoted to Cassandra. Cassandra--a budding writer--decides to record her family's impoverished life in a journal, thinking that it will improve her writing. What she doesn't count on is recording the hijinks that occur when the Mortmains, who are living the best they can on virtually no income, meet their new American landlords. Perhaps all of those years of not paying rent are going to come back to haunt the Mortmains unless the quirky family can ingratiate themselves with their extremely wealthy neighbors, preferably through marriage. ^^

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.

As much as I Capture the Castle is an amusing comedy of manners, a touching coming of age story, and a wry tale of a writer's development, it is also a romantic comedy about Cassandra and her sister's often inept attempts to ensnare their young and quite available landlords. I am not a huge fan of romances--Terminally Single Zella can be jaded in these matters--but the resulting comedy of errors is genuinely engaging and author Dodie Smith crafts a charming romance that is neither too sappy or too serious. (Bonus points for a perfectly fitting ending that is neither too sappy or too serious as well.) Though the male characters are not quite as charming as Austen's heroes--who is?--they are definitely likable.

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

Harvest Moon

Dancing Cat is despised by her tribe for circumstances that she had no control over. Stripped of her prized role as the tribe's messenger and condemned to a life of taunts and cruelty, she decides to peek into her tribe's sacred bundle to see what her future holds. But she doesn't get what she bargained for. Rather than seeing what is to become of her, for better or worse, she angers her powerful ancestor Small Tree. Dancing Cat is cursed by Small Tree and finds herself transported into the midst of enemy territory . . . transformed into a man. She is discovered by a kind man named Bearclaw, who nurses her back to health and treats her with a kindness she had forgotten humans were capable of, but she remains in a state of constant confusion and terror, for she knows she cannot evade her tribe or the truth about her true identity forever.

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

The Birds

Part-time farm worker Nat Hocken is a quiet man who is not easily excited or rattled. But when he watches the local birds suddenly become vicious, Nat begins to suspect that something is very wrong, though nobody else chooses to believe him. Birds will birds, right? As others shrug off the threat of berserk birds as a bit daft, Nat is determined to protect those dearest to him from this bizarre menace, which leads him to a desperate fight for survival.

How many of you have seen Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film The Birds? Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors--he shares that title with Joel Coen. Well, Joel has him slightly beat, but I still adore Hitchcock's work. (Everyone must see The Trouble with Harry, I demand it! Do it now!) But I have never watched The Birds. I am a bad Hitchcock fan. Whatever. After you watch The Trouble With Harry, watch Strangers on a Train, too. It's extra creepy in a weird way. I am getting distracted. Ahem. How many of you know that The Birds is based on a novella by famed British suspense writer Daphne Du Maurier? I did not know that until a couple of weeks ago, which embarrassed me greatly, because I love Du Maurier. She is the author of quite possibly my favorite novel--Rebecca (If you haven't read that, do it now! Mrs. Danvers is the creepiest housekeeper ever! And Rebecca is, well, something to behold ^^)--and I love her other work as well, so I promptly checked out a copy of The Birds and read it. Dame Daphne didn't let me down.

I think the reason this novella is so disturbing is the precise reason that it shouldn't be. I mean, come on, it's a bird invasion! Compared with a zombie or alien invasion that seems quite tame. But Du Maurier, with her genius for making the mundane malevolent, ensures that a mass attack by birds is just as, if not more, spooky than undead flesh eaters. (Let's face it, birds have sharp pointy beaks and talons, and they are somewhat more speedy than zombies.) ^^

Set in rural Cornwell, England--a favorite setting for Du Maurier--The Birds plays very much with the idea that even the most idyllic hamlets are not immune to horror. I am a sucker for books with English settings--especially West County settings--so I enjoyed the British atmosphere, but I also think the rural setting made this more ominous and sinister than an urban setting. Rather than giving us a large group of characters to focus on in an emergency, Du Maurier instead limits her focus to Nat, his wife, and two small children. The result is an intense, claustrophobic tale. This story isn't super scary, but it is quite ominous and there are several scenes that are especially chilling. I enjoy atmospheric type suspense and horror very much, so I appreciated that this book wasn't the text equivalent of a slasher movie.

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.

The Birds is an atmospheric suspense tale that is perfect for fans of more psychological horror. With its isolated setting and likable protagonist, this book reminded me very much of M. Night Shyamalan's alien invasion movie Signs, which is another one of my favorites. And, at only 30 some pages, this chilling tale is the perfect way to while away a humid summer afternoon. (Apologies for the somewhat intentional pun.) ^^


Next Week: I have a special treat for all of you! I am pleased to announce that I will be doing an early review of Krista D. Ball's paranormal fantasy novella Harvest Moon. This is a great story that I can't wait to share with all of you! :)


Today in Literary History: June 12th, 1942: On her thirteenth birthday, Dutch Jewish teenager Anne Frank is given a diary. She took the diary with her one month later when her family went into hiding from the Nazis, and she wrote in it regularly during her two years in seclusion. This diary--which went on to become an international bestseller as The Diary of a Young Girl--is one of my favorite books. I highly recommend it.

06 June 2010


Undercover agents Tamar and Dart are parachuted into their native Holland by the British during the brutal Hunger Winter of 1944, following the disaster of Operation Market Garden. They are instructed to organize the fragmented Dutch resistance in central Holland to coordinate acts of sabotage against the Nazis and, even more importantly, control the rogue bands of partisans who often provoked severe reprisals upon the civilian population with their anti-Nazi activities. This proves near impossible as deprivation, infighting, and jealousy lead to a shocking act of betrayal, which is only fully revealed fifty years later when an English teenager named Tamar uncovers her relatives' past following a family tragedy.

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.

Tamar offers one of the most realistic and, as a consequence, harrowing portrayals of espionage I have ever read. Peet does a superb job of bringing alive the boredom, paranoia, and terror that dominated the life of an undercover operative in Nazi-occupied Europe. I adore good historical fiction, so I enjoyed the distinctive historical atmosphere he re-creates in this novel. I also loved the pacing in this novel. Though Tamar is over 400 pages long, I couldn't put this book down! Ironically enough, the descriptions of the partisans' bouts with boredom do not make for boring reading, and there is plenty of action to keep a reader happy. The highlight for me was an ambush on a high-ranking S.S. officer that hardly goes according to plan. I don't want to give too much away, but it reminded me some of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech Resistance, and I assumed that was the inspiration. In fact, Peet relied on an actual incident that occurred in Nazi-occupied Holland. (I refuse to give details away, because if you had the name you would google it and that would ruin the suspense. Besides, if you google it and read about the Nazis' payback for this ambush, you're liable to be distraught for awhile . . . )
I also especially enjoyed the characters. The two protagonists--known only by their aliases of Tamar and Dart--are complex characters who are both likable but definitely flawed. I especially liked the way Peet handled the jealousy that eventually leads to the tragic finale. I have always found novels that delved into jealousy fascinating precisely because that is an emotion we all have experienced at one point. No matter how much we may disagree with what characters in works like Othello, A Separate Peace, and The Count of Monte Cristo do when provoked by jealousy, deep down it is something we can all relate to. (Right? Or is it just me? *banishes self to sit with Othello, Iago, Gene, Danglars, and Fernand* I must say, I am a bit nervous in this company. . . ) In much the same way, the envy that rips this resistance group apart is disturbing precisely because it is so easy to understand where both sides are coming from. I sort of guessed what would happen about a third of the way through, but I think that was intentional on Peet's part. It didn't lessen my enjoyment. In fact, it made me keep reading to see if my guess was correct.

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.