R.I.P. IV Challenge Summary


Readers Imbibing Peril IV

September 01-October 31, 2009

I had hoped to squeeze in one more book before the end of the challenge. Instead, it worked out that I’ll be spending my Halloween visiting friends and following the baseball game, as well as savoring daylight savings. As my friend put it, we get two witching hours tonight! I had not set any concrete goals other than a reading pool, so I was quite happy to finish my three John Bellairs books, YA gothics featuring Lewis Barnavelt (links are to my reviews):

The House with a Clock in its Walls

The Figure in the Shadows

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring

I still have The Ghost in the Mirror left unread, which was completed by Brad Strickland based on notes after the author’s death, but that will have to wait until another time.

Thanks again to Carl for hosting this atmospheric challenge! I enjoyed my spooky reads and was glad to participate this time around.

Published in: on October 31, 2009 at 8:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Classics Challenge Summary


Classics Challenge 2009

(April 1-October 31, 2009)

This was much less of a challenge than I expected, and just what I needed. I’ve come to really love reading the classics as they give me an opportunity to think critically about books in the way I miss from English classes. Not to mention the great characters, plots, and writing!

Here’s my original post for the challenge. I ended up doing the Classics Snack option, which meant four books (all on my list):

  1. Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
  2. 1984, by George Orwell
  3. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe
  4. The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

My bonus modern classic was Atonement, by Ian McEwan.

I also read a few classics for other challenges: The Castle of Ontranto by Horace Walpole, More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow, Chekhov’s Major Plays, and Lady Susan by Jane Austen.

Thanks again to Trish of Trish’s Reading Nook for hosting such a motivational challenge!

Published in: on October 30, 2009 at 7:32 pm  Comments (2)  

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring

She didn’t want to stay in Oley’s house for another minute. She wanted to bundle Mrs. Zimmerman into the car and make her drive them back to New Zebedee, even if they had to drive all night. But Rose Rita didn’t say anything. She made no move. Whatever the spell was that lay over Mrs. Zimmerman, it lay over Rose Rita too. She felt utterly powerless.

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring is the John Bellairs’ third gothic novel featuring the New Zebedee characters, written in 1976. It takes place about half a year after the prior events, but unlike the first two this story focuses on Rose Rita.

While Lewis is away at scout camp, Mrs. Zimmerman receives a deathbed letter from her cousin, claiming he had found a magic ring. She invites Rose Rita along for the trip up to the northern part of Michigan, which turns out to be quite an adventure. Someone has ransacked the farmhouse before their arrival. In addition, strange things are now happening to Mrs. Zimmerman, whose powers are still weak after her last bout with evil. It’s up to Rose Rita to get to the bottom of these events and rescue Mrs. Zimmerman before it’s too late.

Though the books  in the series are chronological, each is a complete volume so that they could potentially be read out of order (as I did with some when younger). The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring is actually my favorite so far. No offense to Lewis, but as a girl I find Rose Rita a more appealing protagonist, who is always willing to seek out adventure. The plot also had a closer resemblance to a mystery. I love that in a 1950 setting she still gets accused of reading too much Nancy Drew!

As in previous books, Bellairs focuses on a personal issue in addition to the main plot. Here tomboy Rose Rita struggles with the fact that she will be entering junior high as a seventh grader in the fall. She wonders if dances and skirts will have to replace her love of baseball, and worries that others expect her friendship with Lewis to change. There aren’t any easy answers, but she does need to learn that the important thing is to be comfortable with who she is.

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, which is my third book for the R.I.P. IV Challenge, is the last Bellairs himself wrote about these characters. If I have time before the end of the month I’d like to squeeze in one more.

Published in: on October 27, 2009 at 11:21 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Sorry this is so overdue–I finished The Mayor of Casterbridge two weeks ago and am only now trying to turn my notes into a coherent review. It always seems that the more there is to say about a book, the more trouble I have doing so!

He experienced not only the bitterness of a man who finds, in looking back upon an ambitious course, that what he had sacrificed in sentiment was worth as much as he had gained in substance; but the superadded bitterness of seeing his very recantation nullified. He had been sorry for all this long ago; but his attempts to replace ambition by love had been as fully foiled as his ambition itself.

I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles last summer knowing absolutely nothing about Thomas Hardy or the book. I quickly fell in love with the complicated characters, a reaction only heightened by watching the adaptation (thoughts here and here, but plenty of spoilers as well). Having read all I could about Tess means that I went into The Mayor of Casterbridge with a deeper understanding of Hardy’s favorite themes and plot devices. So forgive me if I make occasional comparisons, as that is in part how I made sense of the novel.

The mayor of Casterbridge is Michael Henchard. Twenty years ago he was a lowly hay trusser who sold his wife and daughter at an auction while drunk (not a spoiler); now he has become a successful and respected grain merchant whom fortune has treated well. His luck and status seem to change however, when a few newcomers arrive. His wife Susan and daughter Elizabeth-Jane come to claim his support as a “kinsman,” and Scotsman Donald Farfrae joins his staff as business manager. These events start a chain of interactions that last throughout the novel, as Hardy deftly reveals the complexities of Henchard’s character.

He certainly is worthy of study. Michael Henchard is both strong and weak, in that he succumbs easily to the passions of a moment but can also behave resolutely when he has decided on a course. For example, after selling his wife he took an oath to avoid alcohol for twenty-one years, and followed it. He bestows his affections only with conviction, and if he feels slighted is tempted to cast them off. Too often he places business before emotional connections, or behaves cruelly to those he loves, so that at times it’s hard to like him. On the other hand, however, Henchard finds it had to like himself. He is remorseful for wrongs he causes, and in his heart knows what courses he should take. Above all I found him a sympathetic character whom I came to understand.

Hence, when she felt her heart going out to him, she would say to herself with a mock pleasantry that carried an ache with it, “No, no, Elizabeth-Jane–such dreams are not for you!” She tried to prevent herself from seeing him, and thinking of him; succeeding fairly well in the former attempt, in the latter not so completely.

The novel covers not just Henchard, but all those in his sphere, especially Elizabeth-Jane. She is a sweet and studious girl, saved from vanities by the hardship of her early life. You can’t help but wish her every happiness, even if she thinks she doesn’t deserve them. The energetic and innovative Farfrae has the biblical luck of Jacob and Joseph in that he can do no wrong when it comes to the grain market. And Lucetta, a rich young woman with a tragic past, seems almost a precursor to Tess in that she refuses to let prior incidents dictate her future. We also see recurring townspeople, who add color, commentary, and a touch of humor.

Hardy does touch on some of the same themes as in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, such as the role of destiny or fate. Here the events are a bit more melodramatic without being piled up, and I wonder why his later book had less of a balance. At times it does seem as if something greater is dictating the happiness or success of the characters; Michael especially bemoans this. He also, however, recognizes that just as often the events that befall him are a result of his own character and choices. The biggest effect of fate seems to be in the timing of things, beginning with the simultaneous arrival of Susan and Farfrae.

Casterbridge was the complement of the rural life around; not its urban opposite. Bees and butterflies in the cornfields at the top of the town, who desired to get to the meads at the bottom, took no circuitous course but flew straight down High Street without any apparent consciousness that they were transversing strange latitudes. And in autumn airy spheres of thistledown floated into the same street, lodged upon the shop fronts, blew into drains; and innumerable tawny and yellow leaves skimmed along the pavement, and stole through people’s doorways into their passages with a hesitating scratch on the floor like the skirts of timid visitors.

Sorry for such a long quote, but I just loved that imagery. It’s important to remember that even when first published in the late nineteenth century Hardy’s novels were historical, set forty years earlier and describing a vanishing way of life. Casterbridge is a small town completely coexistent with the farming community. As with Tess there are scenes of harvest and rural life, the details of the grain trade. Roman ruins on the outskirts of town complete the pretty picture. Hardy’s view of Nature seems to be what is most natural and simple. The right path may not always make sense, but it scorns artifice or false aims.

After my experience with Tess I went into this with baited breath, waiting for bad things to happen. While as a character study this leans much more towards tragedy than comedy, it has better balance and retains a sense of hope and promise. I can’t wait to read the afterword, and see what others have to say about the book.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books lists. It is also my fifth and final book for the Classics Challenge. I’m so glad I chose it, because I ended up loving it almost as much as Tess. The characters feel like they will stay with me for a long time.

Published in: on October 24, 2009 at 8:54 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Figure in the Shadows

The figure walked forward out of the circle of lamplight. Now it was standing before Lewis. Lewis smelled something. He smelled cold ashes. Cold, wet ashes.

The Figure In the Shadows is the second Lewis Barnavelt book by John Bellairs, written in 1975. While the first was a reread (albeit with little remembered), this one was new to me.

Lewis’ life is back to normal after defeating the Izzards. He even has a new friend,tomboy  Rose Rita Pottinger, with whom he builds Roman ship models. But Lewis still gets picked on sometimes, and wishes he wasn’t such a coward and could stand up to bullies. When Uncle Jonathan gives him his great-grandfather’s lucky coin, Lewis is disappointed that it’s not actually a magic amulet to help him. Unbeknownst to him, however, a power sleeps inside it stronger than he imagined, and only his friends will be able to save him from it.

Sometimes I wonder how these stories fare with kids today. Bellairs creates a nice juxtaposition of a boy’s ordinary life, like bullies and homework, with the gothic fear of an unknown power. But the story is a slow build to the climax, waiting for something to happen and capturing along the way the feel of a 1949 rural Michigan town; it may not have enough action for modern standards.

I didn’t find this book as creepy as the first, but in some ways I liked it better. The plot is a little more cohesive, and Rose Rita is a nice addition. The internal drawings are by a different well-known illustrator, Mercer Mayer, who also captures the quirky charm and horror of the plot.

This is also my second book for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. I’ve got The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring lined up as the third for next week.

Published in: on October 21, 2009 at 10:52 am  Comments (2)  
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If the tide was low the two of them watched the gleams on the foreshore, at half tide they heard the water chuckling, waiting to lift the boats, at flood tide they saw the river as a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents, calling home the twenty-seven lost rivers of London, sighing as the night declined.

Penelope Fitzgerald actually won the Booker prize in 1979 for Offshore, but it doesn’t seem to get as much buzz as some of her other novels like The Bookshop or The Blue Flower. The book has an autobiographical tie in that Fitzgerald lived on Battersea Reach herself for a period in the 1960s.

Offshore describes life in a down-and-out houseboat community on the Thames. No one can quite understand why the inhabitants put up with the inaccessibility and inconveniences–not their friends, not their families, not their spouses, not even they themselves. Richard, with his naval background and meticulous personality, is the unofficial leader. Kindly Maurice works the night trade, while Willis paints detailed ships. And Nenna, whose husband refuses to join her on board, ends up being taken care of by her older daughter while the other runs amok like a river rat. With nothing to turn to but each other, together they all struggle against the elements and whatever else life throws at them.

I’m not sure I can quite describe why I like Fitzgerald’s work. She’s a quiet writer, who seems to focus on subtlety and detail. For example, Nenna articulates her dependence on a male presence by the fact that the is unable to fold a map right, while her husband shows distance by not knowing how to give gifts. On the grand scale not a lot happens in the book, no melodrama unless it’s understated, but the little things that do occur are actually meaningful to the characters. It seems true to life somehow.

As has been my experience with her other work it took me a little while to get into it and adjust to the setting and the situations. By the end of the book however, only 141 pages later, I felt attached to all the characters and sorry to see them go; it really felt like a leave-taking, though a bit ambiguous. I wanted to know what happened in the next chapter of their lives, to see how they continued to cope. There is a sense of acquiescence to fate, but not surrender. Overall, I think this Sunday Times quote on the back cover summed up the tone: “It has a sense of battles barely lost, of happiness at any rate brushed by the fingers as it passes by.”

Offshore is my book for the Alive or Not award winner category of the 9 for ’09 Challenge. Fitzgerald passed away in 2000 at the age of 83.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (5)  
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Robin Kane: The Mystery of the Phantom

I had never heard of Robin Kane until I snagged this volume at the AAUW booksale this summer. This six-volume mystery series by Eileen Hill ran from 1966 to 1973. It was published by Whitman in picture cover format (No cellophane, thankfully, but the hinges are still very prone to cracking). My copy has solid yellow endpapers with matching duo-tone illustrations throughout; it seems there are endpaper variations for the series, and tall and short formats available.

The Mystery of the Phantom is the second book in the series. The “Phantom” in the title is actually not a ghost, just Robin’s name for the mysterious culprit sabotaging Mr. Hunter’s latest documentary. A valuable golden fish being used as a prop disappears from his office. Later a disguised prowler cuts the telephone line from the Hunters’ house. If the film falls through Mr. Hunter could lose a lot of money, as well as a shot at a prize. It’s up to Robin and her friends to trap the Phantom and recover the golden fish before it’s too late.

The main group consists of thirteen-year-old Robin and her older brother Kevin, as well as Mindy and Michael Hunter. Their neighbor Joe, recently moved to California from England, makes some appearances here as well. Robin and her friends seem to lead a sort of charmed life that is so much fun to read about. Mr. Kane writes a newspaper comic strip, while Mrs. Kane carves driftwood and is a domestic goddess. Mr. Hunter is a rich filmmaker,which gives them more exotic opportunities. All of the teens are talented, athletic, and smart, and Robin even occasionally reflects on their personal growth.

The series is really quite similar to Trixie Belden in the make-up of the group, the rich/homey house contrast, the small-town feel, and the main character’s aspirations to be a detective. While the mystery was a little on the tame side, it was actually appropriate for the friends to be tackling without police help, and still allowed Robin to show off her mental skills.

I’ll have to keep an eye out for the other books in this series. It appears that they do follow a chronological order. Is anyone else familiar with them?

Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 12:16 pm  Comments (6)  
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Thursday Throwback: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

“Jonathan’s face had turned grim. He shook his head, smiled a little half-hearted smile, and went on. ‘You may be wondering why I don’t just tear down the wall and rip out the clock. Well, it wouldn’t do any good. It sounds like it’s behind every wall: up in the attic, down in the cellar, in the closets and storerooms and parlors. And sometimes it seems to be slowing down. I keep hoping it will stop. But then it picks up and keeps going.'”

Hauntings don’t scare me. Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo taught me that nine times out of ten they’re a scam to shoo people away, and if they are actually real they only want help or closure. Gore, on the other hand, is way too much for me. I tried the R.L. Stine Fear Street books that were practically required reading among kids at my grade school, and though I liked the thrills I stopped after the first nightmare.

The middle ground is books that deal with the occult and supernatural. There’s definitely evil underfoot, made more insidious by the element of the unknown, but it doesn’t seem as real as the terrors stalking those prom queens and cheerleaders. Therefore, when I discovered John Bellairs’ gothic horror The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull I was hooked. I could read it for my shivery fix, then put it down and leave it behind.

The House with the Clock in Its Walls was Bellairs’ second book and first for younger readers, an audience he then never left. Set in a small town in 1948 Michigan, it features orphaned Lewis Barnavelt who comes to live with an unknown relative. Uncle Jonathan and his best friend Mrs. Zimmerman are secretly both full-fledged wizards, as Lewis is delighted to learn. But not all magic is good, especially the kind practiced by the house’s former owners, the Izards. From beyond the grave they are still trying to bring about the end of the world, and to stop them Lewis and Jonathan must first figure out how.

It’s funny that I still can’t help comparing stories with magic to Harry Potter, even though this was written twenty years earlier. And despite a few plot similarities Lewis is definitely not Harry. In fact, he’s somewhat of a pathetic character, which is probably why I always preferred Bellair’s Johnny Dixon series. Lewis is pasty and overweight, with a fondness for reading about old naval battles. He can’t play sports, gets picked on frequently, and has a tendency to blubber when things go wrong. Deep down all he really wants is to be liked, which is why he tries so hard to win Tandy as a friend and is afraid to ask Uncle Jonathan for help. This everyday dimension gives young readers a fallible hero they can relate to.

A lot of the magic is also of the parlor type. Uncle Jonathan uses his skill to make stained glass windows change and recreate historical tableaux. But Lewis soon has to learn that not all magic is harmless, and must be handled carefully. In the Izards’ case it can be used for evil purposes, which does give the story some frightening moments. Finally, the wonderful internal illustrations by Edward Gorey add to the gothic feel.

This was my first book for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Next up is the sequel, The Figure in the Shadows.

Published in: on October 15, 2009 at 10:27 am  Comments (3)  
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Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

The more I stay here, the more difficult it is to have some semblance of detachment. After all, I’m doing more than just wearing a costume. I’m wearing another person’s life. And face. And body. I’m looking at that face in the mirror, brushing that hair. […] here, living Jane’s life, it’s a challenge not to get sucked in; how could I function on a daily basis otherwise?

With the sequel out there seemed to be no reason not to read Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. It took me a while to get used to Courtney’s voice (frank, first person present tense juxtaposed against Regency dialogue is comically jarring), but the story is engaging on several levels.

During a rough patch in her life Courtney Stone falls asleep reading Pride and Prejudice and wakes up in the body of Regency miss Jane Mansfield. She has no idea how she got there or how to get home, but quickly realizes she had better keep up appearances. And that includes the reappearance of dashing widower Mr. Edgeworth. Courtney knows how she feels about him, as he is similar to her friend Wes, but does that correspond with Jane’s opinion? As she tries to piece together Jane’s life with the help of her friend Mary and maid Barnes she discovers that perhaps Austen’s time still has a few lessons left to teach her.

The story focuses on Courtney’s personal growth as she learns to cope with betrayal and a lack of confidence. After a tailspin when her fiancé cheated on her she sees Jane’s perfect life as an antidote. Jane can embroider and dance, and has a figure that actually looks good in empire waistlines, not to mention access to Pride and Prejudice first editions. This could be a chance to start fresh without getting hurt. On the other hand, she comes to realize that even her actions here have consequences; mistakes are just a part of life.

Life in the Regency era isn’t all glamour. The current beliefs about medicine and hygiene are a horror to Courtney’s twenty-first century sensibilities. She soon learns to hold her tongue on these and other matters, however. Independence is restricted for a woman pushing thirty, so that Jane cannot travel alone and still lives with her parents. If she does not marry she faces years ahead with an ice queen who makes Mrs. Bennet look serene, which is enough to make Courtney long for Los Angeles. Rigler manages to sneak in the right amount of Austen references, so that Courtney the addict catches them but the story remains fresh and unpredictable.

Finally, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict brings new perspective to the philosophy of time traveling. As Courtney realizes, the physical bodies that she and Jane swapped included the wiring of their brains. Courtney has access to muscle memory so that courtseying and pouring tea seem second nature, but she also has occasional access to Jane’s actual memories. Even though these complicate the experience they also give a more complete picture of who Jane is. Courtney finds herself struggling to hold onto her own identity as acting and thinking like Jane becomes more automatic with the passage of time.

The overall effect is a story chronicling Courtney’s interior life and Jane’s exterior life. I can’t wait to read about the flipside in Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. My only complaint was that we got Courtney’s backstory all at once. I agree that starting in media res was the way to go, but that doesn’t mean the whole expository chapter should be just shifted to a later slot. Weaving it in to the current narrative would have been a bit smoother. I have to include the darling UK cover here as well. Much more appealing than the cropped head trend!

This book is my fourth for the Everything Austen Challenge. I also started wondering whether I myself qualify as a Jane Austen addict. Probably not yet. I haven’t read the books 20 times like Courtney has, and I still don’t find Mr. Darcy completely swoonworthy (though he has grown in my esteem). But I do continue to admire both her talent and her influence.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Usual Saturday Routine

I was actually very good today–only two new library books! Instead of browsing I used my free time to just sit and read, and managed to knock off 75 pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge in one sitting. And I’m really enjoying it so far, much more than I had expected. In some ways it’s similar to Tess, and I just keep waiting for something bad to happen to the characters. Fingers crossed that everything works out!

Here’s what I did snag:

library-lootMy Little Blue Dress, by Bruno Maddox. The forged memoir of a centenarian woman, which also claims to be a romance and murder mystery. Amazon ratings are quite bipolar, so I have no idea whether I’ll love or hate it but will probably just read it either way. The cover was the main reason I picked it up.

Manservant and Maidservant (New York Review Books Classics), by Ivy Compton-Burnett. My mom had mixed feelings on her earlier this summer (which seems to be the general consensus) and I’ve wanted to form my own opinion ever since. Luckily Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book is encouraging a group read of this one.

Plus I Capture the Castle and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (halfway through) from last time. At least next Saturday I’m only working one shift and don’t have an excuse to go!

Published in: on October 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm  Leave a Comment