25 July 2010

Jamaica Inn

Mary Yellan arrives at Jamaica Inn thinking that she'll be cared for by her recently deceased mother's sister and her aunt's husband. Mary has not seen her aunt in years, but she remembers Aunt Patience as a jovial soul who sent letters fawning over her husband Joss's general wonderfulness. Instead, she finds her aunt a broken woman and her uncle Joss a maniacal tyrant who rules over the Jamaica Inn with an iron fist. He allows no travelers, which is just as well, seeing as none are willing to stop at the inn in the first place. But he does have the occasional visitors who arrive with mysterious wagon loads and disappear into the night. And Mary is determined to learn where her detestable uncle gets these wagons from and what they contain . . .

All right, I know I blogged a Daphne Du Maurier book a few weeks ago, but that was a horror novella and this one is a historical suspense novel. Very different tone here! Ahem. I warned you that I was prone to binge on authors and seeing as Du Maurier is one of my favorites it was only inevitable. Do not judge me.

As with all of the Du Maurier stories I've read, the best part of this novel is the atmosphere that she creates. Du Maurier had an amazing talent for creating suspense in her plots and she certainly does that in Jamaica Inn. There were several parts in this novel that had me on the edge of my seat as Mary attempts to find out her brutal uncle's secret. Du Maurier also does a wonderful job of vividly portraying the wild Cornish countryside where this story is set. (In fact, there is a real Jamaica Inn in Cornwall that you can still visit today.) The wild moors and rural countryside come alive in Du Maurier's narration.

The plot concerning Joss's mysterious past is intriguing and he is a great villain. He's a character you just love to hate. Mary herself is a plucky heroine, especially considering the restraints that early 19th century society place upon her. Though the plot details are unique and intriguing, the basic characters are all ones you've seen before--dastardly villain, innocent heroine, charming rogue, etc. And though I wasn't 100% sure, I had an inkling how the plot would turn out about fifty pages from the end, which is the first time that's happened to me in a Du Maurier novel. Daphne always keeps me in the dark to the very end. But this was one of her earlier novels, so I assume she was still refining her craft with this novel. That didn't lessen my enjoyment, though. I am a big fan of Gothic novels, which this novel basically is. Just because I recognized some of the characters didn't make the book any less enjoyable. In fact, it added to the fun, sort of like seeing old friends. (Not that I have old friends who are demented criminals . . . )

If you're looking for an engaging tale of suspense this summer and like eerie Gothics, try Jamaica Inn. It's a great introduction to Du Maurier's work, though I still like Rebecca better. But read it only if you dare uncover the secrets of Jamaica Inn yourself . .. ^^
Next Week: I have no earthly idea. The marathon reading sessions continue . . .
This Week in Literary History:
24 July 1901: Short story writer O Henry gets released from prison after building 3 years for embezzlement. Henry had issues, as the jail term may have tipped you off, but he crafted some fascinating short stories, the best known of which is "The Gift of the Magi." O. Henry had a knack for twist endings and irony. He's one of my favorites. Check him out if you've never read any of his work before.

18 July 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray is gorgeous. No, really, he is. Just ask anyone, including Dorian. If 19th century England had People magazine, he'd snag Sexiest Man Alive every year. Sadly, though, as so many wise sages have pointed out, "Beauty fades." And Dorian is terrified of the idea that his youthful good looks will leave him. One day, after viewing a painting that his artist friend Basil has done of him, Dorian has a sudden fit of petulance, in which he wishes the portrait would age for him and that he would never have to have his stunning face marred by the effects of time. As luck would have it, his wish is mysteriously granted. He never ages, but the painting does. In fact, the painting doesn't just age; it also reflects all of the nasty sins and debauchery that Dorian engages in. Dorian initially finds this amusing and tries to see how much he can alter the picture through his own actions, but then things get complicated. As in involving murder complicated . . .

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's only novel. I am more familiar with Wilde's plays and his famous witty one-liners, of which I am a big fan. (Nobody comes close to Wilde when it comes to wielding sarcasm.) When I finally sat down to read this Victorian horror classic, I knew with Wilde as the author, it would be a true original. I was not in the least disappointed.

This is not one of those stories that's going to keep you up at night, expecting to be attacked by a boogie man. But it is creepy and very atmospheric. What I especially liked about it was the story's setting and tone. Most Victorian Gothics feature brooding country mansions and remote settings. I love these kinds of Gothics, but this tale is set in London and follows Dorian through the superficial urban upper class society that he is such an intrinsic part of. The resulting tone is amusing and at times more reminiscent of a comedy of manners that lampoons society's hypocrisy. This novel was denounced as hedonistic in its time, which amuses me because at one point in the book, Dorian's mentor, Lord Henry, explains that "The books that the world call immoral are books that show the world its shame." Speaking of Henry, he's easily my favorite character here. No, he is not the noblest character in this book. In point of fact, he's actually even more dissolute than Dorian. But Wilde gives Henry all of the best lines, including somewhat mystical sounding philosophical quips that never failed to put a smile on my face, even when they made absolutely no sense.

This book was written in the 1890s, so if you dislike the more flowery style of the 19th century, you may find this book a bit slow in spots. Nevertheless, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the fascinating tale of one man's moral collapse and the portrait that reflects his inmost secrets and haunts him relentlessly. Extra kudos for one of the best ending paragraphs I've read in a horror tale. If you're a fan of atmospheric literary horror or Victorian literature, you'll love this book.


Next Week: Hmm . . . I am not sure. I have a huge stack of books I am reading through as summer winds down, so I can't guarantee what will be reviewed next time.


This Week in Literary History:

16 July 1951: J.D. Salinger's classic coming of age novel The Catcher in the Rye is released. I must admit, when I first read this novel, I sorta hated it. Holden's rambling narration nearly drove me to the brink of insanity. But I talked to so many people who said the book changed their life and I felt like a bad English major for hating on it (and secretly I did love the episodic plot and the extremely realistic dialogue-like tone of the narration), so I kept reading this novel. It became a bit of an obsession to uncover what it was that was so magical about this book. Each time I read it, I liked it more. Finally, after the third read, something clicked and now I really like this novel and defend it to people who hate on it. The Catcher in the Rye features a complex protagonist with a memorable voice in an adventure that is alternately poignant and hilarious. I'd venture to say that you won't soon forget Holden Caulfield.

11 July 2010

Fever 1793

Mattie Cook dreams of the day she can escape toiling in her family's Colonial Philadelphia coffeehouse for European luxury shops. Her daydreams must take a backseat to reality, however, when the worse yellow fever epidemic in memory strikes the city, causing widespread suffering and chaos. When her mother falls ill, Mattie and her grandfather flee the city to escape the pestilence, but when a cruel twist of fate sends them back to Philly, young Mattie learns far more about life than any jaunt to Europe would ever have taught her.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever, 1793 is a pleasant read that I enjoyed and recommend for history buffs and those who like coming of age tales, though it had some minor flaws. Anderson writes Mattie's first person narration with a natural tone that does not come off as too contemporary or sophisticated. I have always found disease tales fascinating. (I am morbid--I will not deny that.) The plot has the right touch of suspense generated not by humans so much as by the dreaded fever, which seems inescapable. The character's seemingly never-ending wait for frost to come adds a nice touch of the proverbial ticking time bomb. The novel's greatest strength is the historical accuracy. Anderson--who lives in Philadelphia--meticulously researched the real life yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that claimed the lives of 10% of the population and caused thousands more to evacuate the City of Brotherly Love. The period details are perfect without bogging the narration down and the scenes that depict the the city's descent into virtual anarchy are compelling.

If the historical detail is the novel's biggest strength, the tale's biggest weakness is Mattie herself. Oh, don't get me wrong: She's a likable enough character. The problem is she's just too . . . predictable. Other than the fever, her problems are all fairly standard--young love, a loving but frustrating relationship with her mother. I have seen a thousand YA protagonists like Mattie--not really a bad kid but slightly disillusioned and annoyed with her mother, just in need of the right crisis to set her squarely on her path to adulthood. I love a good coming-of-age story and the best ones have complex characters that you may on occasion want to kill, but they are complex and unique and, as consequence, all too human. I'm thinking of Gene in A Separate Peace, Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Anne of Green Gables, just to name a few. Mattie's not a bad character--and she's not totally bland and she has her charm--but she's nothing that you haven't seen before in YA fiction. And that is what makes this book, which is a fine read, a good book but not a truly great book, in my opinion.

Though I found Mattie a bit too two-dimensional for my taste, she is not a distasteful main character and her tale of fever, courage, and survival is a gripping read that will appeal to fans of historical fiction and coming-of-age tales. I have long wanted to read a Laurie Halse Anderson book. She's considered a premier voice in YA fiction, and I definitely want to read more of her work. She's a talented writer who is adept at spinning a fine tale and maintaining an impressive historical authenticity at the same time. I have read that her contemporary YA fiction is far more edgy and intense than this novel, so I look forward to sampling more of her work.


Next Week: Um, we'll see.


This Week in Literary History:

10 July 1931: Canadian short story writer Alice Munro is born. Famous for her masterfully crafted literary short stories, Munro is considered one of the best living writers. I read her delightful short story "Walker Brother Cowboy" in World Lit II last semester, and I can't wait to read more of her work.

04 July 2010

The Unblogged Chronicles: April to June

I recently realized--much to my everlasting shame--that I have totally forgotten about my "Unblogged Chronicles" series for the past couple of months. Eeep! When I sat down to review the books I read but didn't review, I realized there were waaaaaaaay too many to properly cover without this post being a mile long. Fortunately, most of my reads were in different series, most of which I finished, so I'll just save those for another day, which should save quite a bit of space. I also deleted In Cold Blood from the list, because I have read and reviewed it before. Also, since this covers the months of April, May, and June, I was going to post this one at the end of June, but I got busy and instead decided to post this today. Without further ado, let's cover some books:

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