The House at Midnight

On the one hand, the house had finally brought us together. But on the other, it was the cradle for this terrible secret. I could only hope that it didn’t have the power to destroy what it had so recently created.

For some reason a lot of the titles I’ve been pulling from an old TBR list have been disappointing, and Lucie Whitehouse’s The House at Midnight is no exception. I guess I should be more trusting of Amazon reviews. I wanted a book that would give me both gothic and glamor, while this seemed to fall short on both counts.

When Jo’s best friend Lucas inherits his uncle’s house, it becomes a weekend getaway for their old college group. Jo is excited that Lucas finally seems romantically interested in her, but senses a foreboding atmosphere from the house itself. Over the year, once Lucas moves into the house full time, a web of secrets, vices, jealousy, and betrayal is spun that threatens to destroy the group’s relationships forever.

I appreciate what Lucie Whitehouse was trying to do, but right from the beginning the book just didn’t click with me and I don’t even know if I can explain why. It seemed like there was too much telling and not enough actual suspense, so that I didn’t actually care about the characters, including Jo. She kept going on about how deep and meaningful her romantic relationship was, but all we really saw was lust. In addition, by spreading the novel over a year Ms. Whitehouse made the events seem too disjointed, almost like the home videos the characters watch; we don’t get enough of what happens in between. This is especially evident in the abrupt ending.

It seemed like she was going for all the staples of a gothic novel by trying to create a spooky house and a character living under the shadows and secrets of the past. Orphaned Lucas becomes obsessed with his uncle’s suicide and hearkens back to the days when his parents and uncle were young adults at the house themselves. As menacing as Jo imagines the house, the real threat is the fragility and force of human emotion. Beneath the facade of glamor I was craving is an eddy of depression, alcoholism, jealousy, pain, and rejection, so that the novel is dark in ways I hadn’t expected.

I hope I don’t keep striking out! Perhaps in the future I should stick to Mary Stewart or Phyllis Whitney when I want my gothic fix.

Published in: on November 29, 2009 at 9:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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More Heyer

I should not be buying any more books. Especially after the booksale last weekend (more on that soon) and with Christmas coming up. But I had two 40% off Borders coupons so I managed to get The Grand Sophy and The Foundling for about eight dollars each. After The Talisman Ring I want to make sure I’ve got more Georgette Heyer handy.

Pride and Prescience: Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged by Carrie Bebris is a bookmooch, and one I was excited to find in hardcover. I already have the third book in the series and much prefer when things match. This is one of my contenders for the Everything Austen Challenge.

I’ve got two more pending mooches, a Mary Roberts Rinehart and the last Susan Sand book, but the giver seems to have suddenly gone on vacation and emptied the rest of his inventory. Oh, well.

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 2:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Book Barrage

It’s been a few years since I’ve gone to the book sale at the larger branch library and I had forgotten what a large, well-organized collection they have. This is especially true with their children’s books, which are a steal at 50 cents each. I came home with quite a stack, including many series books like a Dana Girls and a Tom Corbett, both jacketless tweeds, and several high-number Boxcar Children.

As a trade-off the adult books are a bit pricier, and this room was my second stop so I forced myself to be much more judicious.

The Girl Who Married a Lion: and Other Tales from Africa, a book of traditional stories retold by Alexander McCall Smith.

Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt. I’ve heard so many good things about this one–I can’t wait to read it!

Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres. Another one from the TBR list. I love these Vintage editions.

Once Upon a Summer (Seasons of the Heart #1), by Janette Oke. I went through a huge phase of her as a teen and read every one the library had. All her series are set in the Canadian West. They’re fluffy, but good (and clean).

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation andThe Masque of the Black Tulip, by Lauren Willig. I’ve been dying to read this series, since I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel!

The Winter Rose, by Jennifer Donnelly. Yet another one I’ve been looking forward to reading. Now I just need to get my hands on The Tea Rose.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This one looks a bit challenging and not what I might ordinarily read, but I hope to keep expanding my horizons next year.

The Comedians, for my mom the Graham Greene fan.

I also found a darling century-old edition of Elizabeth Barret Browning poems, with gilt edges and a couple color plates. It’s in good condition for its age, too!

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dreams from My Father

I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.

While I was in college Barack Obama spoke at my freshman convocation. Most of us had never heard of him at that point, and from my seat in the area behind the speakers I could distinguish only parts of the actual talk.

My bookmark was about seventy pages in when I abandoned Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance for calculus, and I had to start again from the beginning now. As is now common knowledge, Barack is the son of a white woman from Hawaii and a Kenyan. He constantly struggled to reconcile with and understand this diversity growing up. He also, apparently, spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and worked a few years with a Chicago grassroots organization before entering law school.

I’m not particularly political, so luckily neither was this book. It was written almost ten years ago, before he even entered politics. Instead it’s a quest and question of identity that could be anyone’s story. The shadow of his father played a large role in shaping his life, as well as the tugs of being biracial. He gives us an honest look at the low points and troubled thoughts, failures as well as success. He seems idealistic at times too, though, especially during his organizing years (you can faintly see the seeds of “hope” and “change”). I was struck by his description of how people reacted to Harold Washington, the black mayor of  Chicago at the time, because in some ways it’s similar to attitudes around the last election.

In the last section of the book Obama finally visits his family in Kenya, his father’s people. He writes a bit about the effects of colonialism, which made me recall the point of view in Death in Kenya. He points out other injustices, abroad and especially in America: subtle differences in the way people act, a lack of caring, a fear of the other that shouldn’t still exist but sometimes does. To me honest made me feel guilty at times, or sad, or helpless.

Dreams from my Father did nothing to alter my view of Obama as a politician (and he’s not one in the book). He has some policies I agree with, and just as many I’m against. What this did help me do, however, is gain a better understanding of who he is as a person, and where he has come from. As the saying goes, you cannot know or judge a man until you have walked in his shoes, seen what he has seen.

This is my book for the “Relative” category in the What’s in a Name Challenge.

Published in: on November 24, 2009 at 11:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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In Need of a Chunkster

There’s a little over a month left in the year, and I still need to pick a book for the “long” category of the 9 for 09 Challenge. I think I’ve realized that I probably won’t get to Half Blood Prince by the end of the year, but at least I’ve still promised to read it.

I don’t bat an eye at 300-page reads, so a long book for me would have to be about at least 450 pages. To meet the challenge criteria it also has to be something on the shelves before the start of the year that I’ve been intending to read. I’m considering books my mom has as “owned” also, because I wouldn’t have bought a separate copy for myself. Here are the possibilities I’ve come up with.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (617 pages). Confession: This is the only book assigned for a class that I never read (well, Nietzsche too, but that’s different). I was too busy with college apps senior year and after 100 pages I had read enough to do the summer reading project.

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope (746 pages). I’ve been dying to read his books, but it seems like such a time investment.

God is an Englishman, by R. M. Delderfield (816 pages). I picked up a few of these years ago and forgot about them until Danielle mentioned him on A Work in Progress and all the commenters raved.

And the Ladies of the Club, by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1175 pages). It follows three women over the course of their lives. My mom and one of my friends both love it, but I don’t know if I could finish it by the end of the year.

How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn (446 pages). Another one of my mom’s favorites. It’s set in the Welsh countryside. I’m not sure if I’m in the mood for a moving (a.k.a. sad) story now though.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (537 pages). This seems like it might be an easier read.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo (1463 pages). I do want to read it at some point, but I think we can safely say this one’s out of the running.

I realized that Dreams from my Father, which I just finished, is about 450 pages, so if I get stuck I can count that. I’ve got five other books to read for challenges by the end of the year. Luckily I saved mostly short mysteries for last, but between subbing and Christmas hours at the mall I’m dubious about how much reading time I’ll actually have before the holidays. Plus impulse reads. If I don’t finish a challenge by a deadline, though, it’s not the end of the world.

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict

So the miraculous appearance of a Pride and Prejudice play in the glass box in my bedchamber is a movie? How will I ever get by without a lexicon for all these words? It is one thing to feign memory loss; it is quite another to be without even a basic vocabulary in such a place.

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict is the flip side of Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. This is my fifth book f0r the Everything Austen Challenge. Many bloggers have commented on the clever insertion of the iPod into the picture, and I have to say it redeems what would have been just another headless lady.

While Courtney Stone is thrown into the body and life of Regency gentleman’s daughter Jane Mansfield, Miss Mansfield herself must cope with waking up as a single gal in L.A. Suddenly she is surrounded by a world she had never dreamed existed. There are loose morals, a confusing lack of social codes, and several accumulating bills, but there is also the independence Jane has always longed for.

Although the two books are parallel stories, it definitely helps to have read Confessions first. Rigler gives details on the personal lives of Courtney and Jane only as they fit the narrative here. I liked this approach as it meant very little repetition between books, but readers new to the premise would probably be a bit confused as to who Frank, Wes, and Edgeworth were, as well as other minor characters and incidents.

The premise of this volume entertained me the most. What would it be like to suddenly arrive in a different country almost 200 years in the future, where the only continuity is Jane Austen novels (six now, with accompanying movies)? In most stories like this someone takes the befuddled newcomer under his or her wing; that happens here to some extent, but everyone believes that Jane actually is Courtney, so she has little excuse for her ignorance. Luckily physical learned behaviors kick in, so if she doesn’t think too hard Jane can drive a car or use a keyboard. Plus, Google is a most informative resource.

Laurie Viera Rigler throws in a few slightly philosophical bits as well, trying to make Jane see that truth is often a matter of perspective, that “what makes a story true in that there is the truth of human nature and self-reflection in it.” Jane needs to learn not to superimpose judgment on everything she sees and hears, especially when modern codes are different from what she has known.

As much as Courtney loved Regency England, it seems kind of clear here that Jane got the better part of the bargain. Once she gets over her horrified sensibilities she thoroughly enjoys her new-found freedom. The first book gave us most of the answers, so this excitement of seeing things for the first time makes up for the relative lack of suspense. I was however, a little confused by the ending.

Spoilers below, so please skip unless you have already read the book or do not plan on doing so.

*SPOILER*

I kept getting the impression from the fortune teller that the girls would switch back when their work was done, and pick up from the new spot in their lives. The diary excerpt at the end of the first book suggested to me that when Jane later returned to Regency England she simply couldn’t recall their courtship but had occasional memories of things from the future. Now it seems as if Jane is staying in Courtney’s life, and Courtney-as-Jane forgot the courtship because to survive in the past she needed to forget that she came from the future.  Their memories seem to have merged together somewhat. The further inconsistency is that even while succumbing to Edgeworth Courtney was thinking of Wes, while Jane is clearly in love with Wes and has forgotten Edgeworth, She doesn’t even know that he wasn’t unfaithful. Does anyone who’s read both have any clarifying thoughts?

END SPOILER

Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 11:35 am  Comments (1)  
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New Library Loot

During my weekly trip to the library I was able to restrain myself, and only came home with four books I wanted to read. Instead of having a list I let myself browse a bit to see what might strike my fancy (and you can probably guess the shelf by my picks). Here they are:

The House at Midnight, by Lucie Whitehouse. I wanted something fun and gothic; all the Kate Morton books were checked out but I recalled the title of this one from the TBR. Don’t ask me why I can’t settle for something suitable from my own stash instead. It’s gotten mixed reviews but I’m in a tolerant mood.

The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories, by Eudora Welty. Actually the script font on the spine caught my eye. Why have I read nothing by her? I’m looking forward to rectifying that.

The Wedding, by Dorothy West. This semi-recent novel from “the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance” is set in 1950’s Martha’s Vineyard. Obama’s Dreams from My Father has me thinking a lot about similar issues, so it’s a good segue.

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laurie Viera Rigler. For the Everything Austen Challenge.

I also had to renew the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing; three weeks got me halfway through the 400-page tome. I’m trying to make the simultaneous plunge from crafts to apparel and hand sewing to machine sewing. But I’m the kind of person who has to read about everything before I actually do it; earlier this year I reread my old Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book which I picked up at a yardsale once and absolutely love. But techniques and materials have changed a bit since 1970, and I needed something a bit more modern.

Published in: on November 17, 2009 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Talisman Ring

“I thought it too good to be true,” said Miss Thane. “If there is one thing above all others I have wanted in my life to do it is to search for a secret panel! I suppose,” she added hopefully, “it would be too much to expect to find an underground passage leading from the secret panel?”

About two weeks ago I went to a talk at the library entitled “Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, Georgette Heyer’s Lord Worth, and the Scrappy Heroine of the Modern Relationship Novel.” I missed the beginning, but basically the speaker suggested that in their works Austen and Heyer set a template for romance between a strong, silent hero and a strong spunky heroine, with plenty of snappy dialogue. The rest focused on modern books where this pattern occurs, as well as other Regency novels.

Of course this put me in the mood for some Georgette Heyer, and finding Regency Buck checked out (source of Lord Worth), I settled for The Talisman Ring.

Before Lord Lavenham dies he forces a betrothal between descendants Sir Tristram Shield and Eustacie. But Eustacie prefers adventure, so she runs away straight into a gang of smugglers–including disguised heir Ludovic Lavenham, wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. The only way for Ludovic to clear his name, claim his title, and win Eustacie is to find the ring that was taken from the body. Enter Miss Sarah Thane, whose quick intellect and love of adventure make her the perfect chaperone. Together the four must recover the ring, but they have no idea of the trouble in store for them.

I think The Talisman Ring is my favorite Georgette Heyer novel yet! It has romance, adventure, mystery, comedy, and smugglers. I’ve a weakness for the profession ever since Jane Aiken Hodge’s Watch the Wall, My Darling. As usual, Heyer’s witty dialogue just sparkles; I am amazed at her talent for expressing both character and humor. Take this scene where Eustacie fantasizes about what would have happened if she had remained in France during the revolution:

“I should be very sorry for anyone in a tumbril, whatever their age or sex or apparel,” interupted Sir Tristram.

“You would be more sorry for a young girl–all alone, perhaps bound,” said Eustacie positively.

“You wouldn’t be all alone. There would be a great many other people in the tumbril with you,’ said Sir Tristram.

Eustacie eyed him with considerable displeasure. “In my tumbril there would not have been a great many other people,” she said.

She establishes early on the contrast between Eustacie’s romantic temperament and and Tristram’s practicality. Many novels would have then made chemistry overcome these differences (as Heyer herself does elsewhere), but I like they fact that they recognize their unsuitability while still gradually becoming friends. The best dialogue has to belong to Sarah, however. I’m never sure whether she is naively blunt or intentionally ironic, though I suspect the latter. In any case I laughed aloud many times throughout the book.

Sarah and especially Eustacie have a great thirst for excitement and adventure, getting most of their ideas from novels (Radcliffe is mentioned). It almost reminded me of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, except here the adventure is delightfully real. It’s enough to make me wish for some excitement of my own to come along!

Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 1:25 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Man in the Brown Suit

“Does nothing frighten you, Miss Beddingfield?”

“Oh yes,” I said, with an assumption of coolness I was far from feeling. “Wasps, sarcastic women, very young men, cockroaches, and superior shop assistants.”

Another back review. I was glad we picked up The Man in the Brown Suit at the AAUW sale because it turned out to be my October Agatha Christie.

When lovely Anne Beddingfield is orphaned she hopes for the first time in her life to have an adventure–and witnessing an accident seems to do the trick. Only Anne is convinced that the death is related to murder on the same day, so she follows a trail that includes a boat cruise to South Africa, stolen diamonds, and an unknown criminal mastermind. With no one to trust except herself, she must unravel the mystery and determine the identity of the man in the brown suit.

Anne is a bit of an odd character, and I’m still not sure whether or not I actually liked her. She has the youth and inexperience of a typical romantic suspense heroine but a startling determination and willfulness, not to mention some primitive ideas about love. The first-person narrative makes this seem more blatant. On the other hand, it also reveals a surprising wry sense of humor. Overall she seemed someone I could admire but not necessarily relate to, which probably says just as much about me as it does her.

Part of the plot centers around the Kimberly diamond mines in South Africa. Christie says outright through Anne that she makes no guarantees to capture local color; occasionally she mentions the atmosphere of the surroundings but the main focus is plot and character. Instead I relied on my memory of Phyllis Whitney’s Blue Fire, another romantic suspense built around the Kimberly mines. I did have to look up that Rhodesia as used at the time refers to the present-day countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Christie also shows off her scientific leaning at points, as Anne’s father was an anthropologist.

The unknown enemy and level of intrigue makes me suspect Christie was trying to copy her success with The Secret Adversary–youngsters falling into a grand adventure. The novel still shows her hallmark craft and plot. Just as Anne feels she can’t trust anyone, I began to analyze every interaction for hidden motives and meanings. I’m curious to try some of her other stand-alone mysteries later down the line. I think I much prefer her detectives, though, so luckily her next book, The Secret of Chimneys, is more traditional. (Actually, a book of poetry was published in between, but it seems relatively hard to find a copy so I’ll pass.)

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 10:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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I Capture the Castle

“[…] two of us always on the look-out for life, talking to Miss Blossom at night, wondering, hoping; two Bronte-Jane Austen girls, poor but spirited, two Girls of Godsend Castle.”

I need to preface this review by saying that I have an old friend who I think of as my book buddy, because we have similar tastes and she gave me several good recommendations when we were in school together–The Princess Bride, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Eyre Affair. They all became favorites of mine, and the first actually cemented out friendship. But for some reason I never followed her advice about Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle until now.

She was right again.

I Capture the Castle is the diary of sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain who lives in an old English castle with her family, including her beautiful older sister Rose. They are relatively poor, surviving on the royalties of Mr. Mortmain’s only book, but relatively happy with their dreams. Only Rose seems to feel the hardship, so when two rich Americans move to the nearby manor she resolves to marry one of them to save her family.

I loved Cassandra as a heroine and would rank her not too far below Anne Shirley. She dreams of becoming an author someday, and I always find that when the narrator is a writer the story seems more real. Cassandra is absolutely charming, as well as all the other characters, and seems almost ethereal. She loves Austen and Bronte but also disdains the type of “novel with a brick-wall happy ending–I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters…” That and the quote above really sum up the book for me. Days later I’ve still been thinking about the book, and as I write this review all my various emotions about it come back to me. It’s a story of family, of the meaning of happiness, of first love and of growing up. I can’t bear to think of leaving the characters behind; in my mind I make up stories for what happens later in their lives.

I don’t really want to talk too much about the book, because it’s better to go into it fresh and discover the magic for yourself. While reading I was torn between reading quickly to find out what happened next, and slowly to savor each delightful line. I’ll have to get a copy of my own so when I reread it I can mark all the good quotes.

I do wonder if Godsend Castle–a house built onto the remnants of an ancient castle–was based on a real place. Dodie Smith describes its layout so well that I could clearly picture it in my mind. Does anyone know for sure? I’ll see what I can find on the internet.

Please go read this if you haven’t. There’s so much more I could say, but it seems best to sum it up by saying I love it, I love it, I love it.


Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 12:11 pm  Comments (4)  
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