Monday, May 30, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Beach Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme hosted by the bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week, we are listing our top ten favorite beach reads.  While I love the beach and my home state is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the US, I only very rarely get to travel to the coast, much less relax and read there.  I also do not read many breezy, beach-friendly books.  So, my top ten list includes my favorite books which are set at the beach, on an island, or at sea!

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
While I don't usually read a lot of contemporary young adult novels, I absolutely adore Sarah Dessen.  She is a native of my native state, North Carolina, after all, and I love to read her compelling books set in small towns along the beautiful NC coast.  Along for the Ride is one of my favorite Dessen books.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I recently read and reviewed And Then There Were None, and was truly captivated by it!  This Agatha Christie novel is a suspense story in which ten people are invited to a small, picturesque island as the party guests of an unknown host.  One by one, the guests are mysteriously murdered.  It becomes clear that someone thinks they all deserve to die, but why and will the murderer succeed in dispatching all of the stranded guests?

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I am writing my review for The Awakening right now, and hope to have it posted soon.  This novella, set in French Louisiana, is the story of Edna Pontelier, a married woman who embarks on an affair and a process of self-discovery.  Chopin definitely invokes the sea, as in this beautiful quote: “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul."

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
I reviewed this book a few years back and gave it 4 of 5 stars.  The story involves 50 American Junior Miss beauty pageant competitors who end up stranded on a desert island after their plane crashes and must cooperate in order to survive.  It's a bit on the longer side as far as YA novels go, but lots of fun and not without its more insightful character moments.

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
I often have a difficult time convincing people to read this book.  It's about a young girl in Hawaii who, along with some of her family and many of her community members, discovers she has Hansen's Disease (leprosy) and has to live for many years on the isolated island of  Moloka'i with the rest of her fellow sufferers.  Yeah, can't imagine why people often seem reluctant to read this book!  It is by no means uplifting, but the characters and their incredible courage, heart, and love for one another make Moloka'i an amazing read.  I really give Alan Brennert credit for writing so beautifully about a place and people which even historians are often ignorant about.  If people think of Moloka'i at all, they probably think of Saint Damian de Veuster, the European priest who worked and ministered on the island until he himself also contracted Hansen's Disease.  In this book, the largely forgotten Hawaiian people who lived and essentially waited to die on Moloka'i are the focus.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Everything Neil Gaiman writes is gold, in my humble opinion.  This book is a short one, perfect if you haven't the time to tackle American Gods or the complete Sandman.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."  This is one of my favorite novels, though du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel may be even better.  The newly-married Mrs. de Winter, a shy young woman whose first name we never learn, arrives at Manderley, the beautiful estate by the sea owned by her husband Max.  She finds that Manderley is haunted by an exceedingly unpleasant housekeeper and the overpowering memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, a certain Rebecca.  I could not recommend this one enough!

The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
I would locate this historical fantasy book and its two sequels somewhere along the blurry borderlands of young adult and middle grades.  Young Jack is kidnapped from his home by brutal and half-mad Vikings, including the valiant but equally brutal shieldmaiden Thorgil.  In Jack's world, all the creatures from Norse mythology--including everyone's favorite, trolls!--are all too real.  It is nice to see a series that focuses on Norse beliefs and cosmology, since most fantasies seem to overwhelmingly borrow from Greek myth.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The Tempest was probably Shakespeare's last play and includes his farewell to his audience and to playwriting through words spoken by the magician Prospero, who has spent many years stranded on an island.  The cross-dressing comedy Twelfth Night also begins with a shipwreck, and I cannot forego mentioning it because it's one of my favorites!
Yet another mysterious island, this one supposedly the location of a marvelous buried treasure!  Before I read it, I thought I already knew the story of Jim and Long John Silver like the back of my hand from having seen so many series and movie adaptations.  I was wrong, of course.  As usual, reading the original book even if you think you know the story proved to be more than well-worth the effort, for there are psychological depths in this book that are not present in many of the adaptations.

I hope you picked up a few ideas for your TBR from my list, and would love to read yours.  Feel free to leave a link to your Top Ten when you comment!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Genre: horror
Published: 1998
Pages: 736

Synopsis: Four years after the sudden death of his wife, forty-year-old bestselling novelist Mike Noonan is still grieving. Unable to write, and plagued by vivid nightmares set at the western Maine summerhouse he calls Sara Laughs, Mike reluctantly returns to the lakeside getaway. There, he finds his beloved Yankee town held in the grip of a powerful millionaire, Max Devore, whose vindictive purpose is to take his three-year-old granddaughter, Kyra, away from her widowed young mother, Mattie. As Mike is drawn into Mattie and Kyra's struggle, as he falls in love with both of them, he is also drawn into the mystery of Sara Laughs, now the site of ghostly visitations and escalating terrors. What are the forces that have been unleashed here—and what do they want of Mike Noonan?


As an assistant at my high school's library, I came to know the titles and covers of Stephen King's books very well.  They were some of the few books at the school library that I had to constantly check in and out; Stephen King is very popular with teenagers, as well as with everybody else.  I myself checked out Carrie, which I didn't really like, and Firestarter, which I loved.  Other than that, I had not read any of Stephen King's oeuvre until I picked up Bag of Bones a few weeks ago, although I love horror and the film adaptations of King's novels like Misery and the Shining.

Unfortunately, Bag of Bones did not live up to the high expectations I had for Stephen King.  This book is an absolute brick, weighing in at more than 700 pages, and though it starts off with a bang (the death of Mike Noonan's wife Jo), I found the story to be surprisingly slow-paced after that.  King actually does an excellent job creating Joanna as a likable character, even though she dies in the first few pages.  He also sets up this mystery of what she might have been up to before she died (Noonan discovers she was secretly pregnant with a child that might not have been theirs together.)  But the reader has to slog through about a hundred pages of Noonan grieving for Jo and having the occasional creepy dream about their lake house before he actually decides to go to the lake house, called Sara Laughs, on Dark Score Lake.  

An old lakeside shack with a pretty but eerie name and a dark past!  I had a feeling the book was going to become a lot more interesting, and it did.  A little.  King's writing and the level of detail which he delves into is such that he makes the atmosphere and the characters feel incredibly real.  It is also such that I felt myself growing a bit bored on more than a few occasions.  I wanted to learn more about that old creep Max Devore, determined to steal the daughter of Mike's new friend Mattie, not read about Mike going to the Village Café for the third time.  The haunted happenings in the lake house Sara Laughs progress a bit stereotypically, for someone who freely admits to having watched every episode of Paranormal Witness.  Mike feels a cold breeze, the magnets rearrange themselves on his fridge, he hears a child crying, he dreams about corpses (a lot!)  The aspect of the novel I liked best was Mike's discovery of the tragic story of Sara Tidwell, the original "Sara Laughs," a Blues singer who lived and died near Dark Score Lake.  

And the aspect of the novel I liked least, other than the overly detailed writing and slow pace?  That would be the protagonist and first-person narrator, Mike Noonan.  It is easy to feel sorry for him since he has lost his wife, but for whatever reason, I did not find it so easy to like him.  Admittedly horror is not a genre known for its likable characters.  Protagonists in horror tend to have shadowy pasts and dark secrets, which is interesting, but Mike did not even have that.  His deceased wife Jo was the one with the unknown past and secrets, but the story is narrated by Mike, not Jo.  And Mike is a bit bland, as are a lot of the characters he meets around Dark Score Lake.  

Not so Pierce Brosnan or Anika Noni Rose, though!  After I finished reading Bag of Bones, I watched the 2011 mini-series.  It stars Pierce Brosnan as Mike Noonan and features Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog, Dreamgirls) as the Blues singer Sara Tidwell.  While I would by no means call Bag of Bones the greatest horror mini-series ever, it was well-acted, riddled with creepy jump scares, and tells basically the same story as the seven hundred page novel in a mere two hours.  Best of all, the mini-series can currently be watched for free on Youtube.

In short, this is one of very few cases in which I would recommend the movie instead of the book.  I really wanted to like Stephen King.  He is obviously a masterful writer, but honestly, the slow pacing of his books and their high page counts may mean that they are not for me.  However, if anyone knows perhaps a lesser-known Stephen King book that they really enjoyed, then I would love a recommendation.

My rating:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney

Genre: poetry (sonnets)
Published: 1591
Pages: about 80


Poor, lovelorn Philip Sidney!  He anguished so much about his romantic misfortunes that he absolutely had to pen a sonnet cycle about his beloved, or, more accurately, about the complex and mutable emotions that he felt towards his beloved, Stella.  He often decries his own lack of poetic wit with a kind of transparent modesty, and just as often declares, sometimes quite vehemently, his absolute aversion to borrowing from other poets' work:

"And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,
I am no pick-purse of another's wit" (Sonnet 74)

The source of his inspiration?  His beloved, of course:

"My lips are sweet, inspired with Stella's kiss."

Be that as it may, with his 108 sonnets and 11 longer songs, Sidney was following in the sonnet-writing tradition of Petrarch, who wrote dozens of Italian sonnets addressed to his beloved "Laura."  It has been quite a while since I read those for a class, but I don't recall that Petrarch ever did more than regard Laura from afar (in other words, subtly stalk her).  After Laura died young, Petrarch continued to write sonnets about her, complete with imagery of Laura as a heavenly angel, even more worthy of his worship and praise than she had been while alive.
Sir Philip Sidney

Now, that's romantic!...or maybe that's just creepy?  Personally, I feel it's more than a bit creepy, but one cannot deny that both Petrarch and Philip Sidney wrote some beautiful sonnets about their respected beloveds which went on to have a huge influence on literary conventions and the way people write/think about love, desire, beauty, and especially unrequited love.

Reading some of Sidney's sonnets, I could not help but draw a parallel between

"Her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they're not shining" (Bruno Mars, 2010)


"When Nature made her chief's work, Stella's eyes,
To color black why wrapped she beams so bright?" (Sonnet 7)

Sidney continues later in that sonnet, still writing of Stella's dark eyes,

"That whereas black seems beauty's contrary,
She even in black doth make all beauties flow"

making me think immediately of Shakespeare's very famous "dark lady" sonnets.  Since Sidney's sonnets predated Shakespeare's, might he have been inspired by Sidney just as Sidney was by Petrarch?

I have also read Shakespeare's sonnets, and enjoyed them perhaps more than Astrophil and Stella.  Shakespeare (or, at least, Shakespeare's speaker) constructs elaborate puns and playful metaphors, and attempts to bring most of the sonnets to a quasi-resolution in the final quatrain.  Sidney, on the other hand, tends to come across as more solemn, melancholy, and tormented, as in sonnet 2:

"Not at first sight, nor with a dribbèd shot
Love gave the wound, which while I breathe will bleed,
But known worth did in mine of time proceed,
Till by degrees it had full conquest got.
I saw and liked, I liked by lovèd not,
I loved, but straight did not what Love decreed;
At length t Love's decrees, I forced, agreed,
Yet with repining at so partial lot.
Now even that footstep of lost liberty
Is gone, and now like slave-born Muscovite,
I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit,
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell."

He writes of how he can scarcely eat, think, converse with women (who he says can only appear as poor "models" of Stella), cannot produce any writing which does not fixate on Stella, feels driven to paint his living hell with his words.  He suffers from an eternal wound made by Cupid's arrow (before that was such a huge cliché as it is today!)  He pines for the sight of Stella constantly and feels miserable in her absence:

"Since Stella's eyes, wont to give me my day,
Leaving my hemisphere, leave me in night" (sonnet 89)

 The hopeless melancholic in me just eats that stuff up!  Sidney might not have been as original with his extended metaphors or as clever with his sexual puns as Shakespeare, but he is perhaps more heartfelt.  While scholars can never seem to agree on who the "dark lady" and "beloved youth" of Shakespeare's sonnets might have been (or if they were real people at all), Sidney made it pretty transparent that "Stella" was in fact one Penelope Devereux, later called Lady Penelope Rich after her marriage.  He puns on her married name, "rich," quite a few times and, unlike Petrarch, Sidney actually had something of a history with Penelope.
Penelope Devereux, "Stella"

When Penelope was a young teenager and Sidney about twenty, their families had began negotiations for the two of them to be betrothed.  However, probably as a result of financial circumstances, the betrothal never happened and Penelope instead was forced to marry another nobleman whom she hated.  Indeed, she hated him so much that she had an affair with yet another nobleman, an earl, secretly married him, divorced her husband, married the earl "officially," and was banished from court shortly before she died.  (Sidney died many years earlier, a "heroic" death in battle which solidified his reputation as the ultimate Renaissance courtier/poet/soldier.)  Characteristically, Sidney sulkily blames himself for the marriage negotiations having fallen apart in his thirty-third sonnet:

"I might (unhappy word), O me, I might,
And then would not, or could not, see my bliss:
Till now, wrapped in a most infernal night,
I find how heav'nly day, wretch, I did miss.
Heart, rent thyself, thou dost thyself but right:
No lovely Paris made thy Helen his;
No force; no fraud robbed thee of thy delight;
Nor Fortune of thy fortune author is;
But to myself myself did give the blow..."

He laments,

"How fair a day was near.  O punished eyes,
That I had been more foolish, or more wise!"

How much of this was written in earnest and how much of it was Sidney self-consciously trying to introduce Petrarchan sonnets in England, no one can say.  But the result was quite extraordinary, that much is certain.  I enjoyed reading these sonnets and now intend to read Sidney's Defense of Poesy, which is an essay he wrote defending the merits of fiction against the criticisms of Puritans who called imaginative writing immoral.  I also would like to read more sonnets by a later English poet, perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt, though I have heard his are not as good as Sidney's or Shakespeare's.


This book is the first I have read and reviewed for my Classics Club challenge!  Next, I will review The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Books from My Childhood... and How I Feel Differently About Them After Time Has Passed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme hosted by the bloggers over at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's theme prompts us to list and discuss the "top ten books that I feel differently about after time has passed."  I had originally thought of posting about all the books that I hated after they were imposed upon me as required reading in high school but later liked after reading them and appreciating them on my own.  Then, while browsing the Goodreads equivalent of the dusty underside of my bed--the books I read back in 2010 or earlier--I happened across some of the books I read (and enjoyed) in elementary and middle school.  So today I'm going to take a nostalgic look back at some of the books which enriched--or didn't enrich--my childhood.

the Baby-sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin
The library of my elementary school was pretty well-stocked with these books.  If you've ever read this once very popular kids' series, then you know that it centers on an ever-expanding cast of pre-teen girls who run their own small business babysitting neighborhood kids.  And then there are sub-plots with typical pre-teen problems.  For some reason, every one of these books basically opens with a twenty-page summary of the characters, their families, their interests, their medical histories, etc.  I know some kids were probably reading these books as stand-alones, but for an old Babysitters Club veteran like me, I remember trying to skip ahead past the character summaries to the action.  Such as it was.  I was never really into kids or babies or babysitting, and preferred books and little dinosaur toys to baby dolls, but for some reason these books held an attraction for me, along with probably millions of other young girls and some boys.  To give credit where credit is due, the characters are likable and diverse enough that most kids can find one to relate to.  My favorite was Claudia.  As a kid, I decided to emulate her habit of hiding candy and snacks around the room so her parents wouldn't catch her eating junk.  This led to a mouse briefly moving into my bedroom...oops, they didn't mention that in BSC #19, Claudia and the Bad Joke.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Coraline was put on display in my middle school's library, and I remember regarding it warily for a few weeks before finally checking it out.  The cover is pretty darn eerie and, accordingly, so is the story.  I remember that I wasn't quite sure whether I liked this book or not.  It scared me a little.  In retrospect, I can appreciate Coraline for the gem of uncanny children's literature, in the tradition of Oz and Alice, that it is.  Coraline is the book that eventually kick-started my absolute adoration of Neil Gaiman and all his work, though I don't think I actually picked up American Gods, the novel that really won me over as a Gaiman fan for life, until high school.  I definitely recommend this book even for adults, because like a fairy tale it is the sort of story that can be read and enjoyed at any age, the tale of a bored young girl who wanders into an adjoining flat which resembles her own flat, but is magical and apparently "better." 

the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
Given their robust size (and I mean, robust, the entire series consists of nearly 3,000 pages), I probably spent a good chunk of my pre-teen and teenage years reading and rereading this dragon-themed fantasy epic.  Paolini was only sixteen when he published the first book, Eragon, and it does show a little, but his writing improved with each of the next three books.  Having now read The Lord of the Rings, it doesn't escape me that these books, um, borrow more than a little of their mythology, world-building, and plot from Tolkien.  Even the name Eragon...well, it sounds and looks almost exactly like Aragorn.  Not so subtle there, Paolini.  On the other hand, dragons!  Who doesn't love dragons?  We need more books about dragons, please, and no, I don't mean books about people who turn into dragons... I have hardcover editions of all the books in this series, and they are some of the most gorgeous books in my library. 

the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine
Did anyone else have nightmares as a child about being repeatedly slapped by a nightmarish little dummy with the charming and very fitting appellation of Slappy?  I chose the Night of the Living Dummy cover because the monster in that book bothered me the most as a child, but I actually read (and re-read and re-read) every book in the original Goosebumps series while in elementary school.  Iconic and nostalgic though they may be, R.L. Stine got away with a lot, in my retrospective opinion.  Slappy from the Night of the Living Dummy= Chucky from Child's Play, watered down for kids.  Deep Trouble...sounds like a junior version of Jaws.  The Barking Ghost, that was basically Pet Sematory.  Phantom of the I really need to go on?  However, since (most) kids don't have access to these classic horror films, the material seems fresh and exciting to young readers.  I loved, loved, loved these books, even if they did give me the occasional nightmare!  Overall, I appreciate that these books first got me hooked on the horror genre, which I just enjoy more and more as time passes.  But in retrospect, how did R.L. Stine avoid being sued for some of these very familiar stories?  

the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I don't have much to write about this series that hasn't already been written by myself and thousands of others.  The Harry Potter series were the books that initiated my life-long love of reading and learning at the age of six.  If I feel differently about them today, it is only because I appreciate them for their magic and powerful themes of friendship, humanity, and fighting against oppression even more than I did as a child. 

the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
Readers may be more familiar with the first book, The Golden Compass or the Northern Lights, than the trilogy as a whole.  As children's books go, these books are the utter opposites of series like Goosebumps and the Babysitter's Club.  The universes (yes, plural) constructed in this series are complex and strange enough to rival that of Harry Potter.  The dangers that the protagonists Lyra and Will face and the often difficult decisions they make mean that the books hold an appeal for younger and older readers.  Older readers can read into the more philosophical tone and elements of the novels, while younger readers can enjoy the fascinating and unique adventure story.  I still consider these to be really formative books for me as a reader and as an individual.    

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
I probably checked out Inkheart from my middle school's library a dozen times.  It's a hefty adventure tale about a man who has the magical ability to "read" characters and things out of books, and the not so pleasant consequences of this ability which any reader would love to have.  When the 2008 film with Brendan Fraser was released, I was so excited, and then so disappointed!  The characters were, with the sole exception of Paul Bettany's Dustfinger, incredibly flat. Only a few years ago did I pick up the book again and realize that the source material may have been partially to blame.  The concept is fantastic, the homage to classic books enjoyable, but the plot and the characters do leave much to be desired.  I think the thing I loved most about this book as a kid was that it was about books, and people who love them as much as I do

the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
I first tried to read the Fellowship of the Ring in the seventh or eighth grade, and ended up being put off by the slightly slow part at the beginning wherein the hobbits are introduced and Bilbo plans his birthday party.  Only in high school did I try it again and absolutely fall in love with this timeless trilogy.  The films are remarkable, but for me the books are among the few in my library about which I feel really emotional.  I always worry frantically for the hobbits when they are walking through Mordor, right past orcish enemies, grin like an idiot when Gandalf (spoiler alert) turns up alive as Gandalf the White, and the Return of the King in particular has made me cry on more than one occasion.  I even like the parts with Tom Bombadil...gasp!

the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz
Do parents actually monitor their children's reading habits, at all?  I think not.  I remember that as a kid my parents were always sensitive to what sorts of TV programs I might be watching, but books...well, it's great to have kids that read of their own volition, isn't it?  Except when your kids read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark!  I really want to do a full review of this series of scary story collections (and, oh yes, there are several, so many that they have actually been collected into a treasury, as though they were treasures), so I will keep this brief for now.  Perhaps it suffices to say that I was never able to look at my childhood Shetland Pony the same way again after seeing a horrible illustration of a horse skeleton in one of these books.  The stories themselves are succinct, disturbing, and occasionally silly.  But the illustrations!  Yes, I think I need to do a full review.  Once again, I think it is odd that I have become such a huge fan of horror rather than recoiling from the genre, considering how much these scary stories scarred me in elementary school.       

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket 
Some people really like these books, and some people quite detest them.  I loved them as a child, even though the plots are quite repetitive: the Baudelaires, our three young orphan protagonists are pursued by the evil Count Olaf, who takes on all sorts of disguises and invents all kinds of evil plots in order to kidnap the children and steal their family fortune.  The "unfortunate events" these children encounter are truly dark and frightening situations, which is one reason why some people so vehemently dislike the books (the other is that pretty lackluster movie starring Jim Carrey, I guess).  But Klaus, Violet, and Sunny are the most resourceful young people imaginable, and always manage to save themselves, though usually at the cost of losing their clueless adult caretakers or acquaintances to Olaf's machinations.  Oddly, I just realized that these books have had a huge influence on me that I had never considered before.  The Baudelaire children begin maintaining commonplace books, notebooks filled with quotations and important information, after the sixth book in the series.  I began writing in what is in effect a commonplace book last year, basically on a whim, and I have found that it has transformed everything about the way I read, write, and think for the better.  The author also uses and explains lots of great vocabulary words (along with such unique insults as "cakesniffers") in each book, so this series is actually educational as well.  Those who were disappointed with the 2004 film will be pleased to know that the series is being adapted into a television series starring none other than Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf!  The first episode is scheduled to air in August, and I cannot wait!

Wow, this post has ended up being a bit long, but I did enjoy reminiscing!  I'd love to read what you remember or think about these books from my (er, and a lot of other people's) childhood, and please feel free to leave the link to your own top ten list so I can check it out.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre: classic novel
Pages: 450 (paperback)

Synopsis: When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction.


I had this novel in my library for six months before I tried reading it, had to put it aside--due to my having so many other public library and school books to read, my own poor books are often neglected--and eventually started it again a week or so ago.  I had heard a lot about Elizabeth Gaskell being the next best thing to Jane Austen, whom I adore, and also knew that she wrote a famous biography of Charlotte Brontë, so I've been eager to read one of her books for a long time.

While I now actually think her writing differs from that of both Austen and Charlotte in several important ways (as much as I can judge from having read just one book, I mean!), I did end up really enjoying North and South and do recommend it to the Austen lover who finds themselves wishing our dear Jane had lived long enough to write many more books.  The romance between Margaret and John Thornton is a bit like that between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in that they initially seem to take an instant and powerful dislike to each other, but it becomes clear much earlier than in Pride and Prejudice that Mr. Thornton is actually in love with Margaret.  Also like Pride and Prejudice, one of the central conflicts that prevents Margaret and Mr. Thornton understanding each other hinges on a misunderstanding.

All of the characters are excellently drawn and, contrary to several other reviewers on Goodreads who complained that she does nothing, I actually thought Margaret was a pretty strong heroine.  She is only nineteen years old, but has to weather a lot of family crises and stands up for social justice in a community where she is a complete newcomer in ways that few middle-class English girls at this time would.  I found Margaret really likable and admired her strength throughout most of the novel.

I was surprised to find that, unlike most of Austen's novels, North and South features quite a lot of tragedy.  It is not a Gothic novel by any means, but Margaret encounters sorrow after sorrow after her father--ugh, his character got on my nerves at times, he is so weak!-- decides that he can no longer be an Anglican priest in good conscience and uproots his family to the northern town of Milton, a fictional place which is essentially modeled after the very industrial town of Manchester.  I was surprised and interested to read the religious debates and Dissenting (Nonconformist) elements that arose in this novel, because religious doubts and questioning has not really been a major theme or even a plot point in other Victorian novels I have read.

There is also a strong theme of social justice and questions about whether employers are inherently exploitative of their employees in this mill town where many working-class people suffer from overwork, being underpaid, and of course industrial diseases like the ones then called brown lung and black lung.  Mr. Thornton is a firm capitalist, and has risen through hard work from being a shop boy to a mill owner.  Margaret, a priest's daughter from the south of England (whose economy relied more on agriculture than industrial factories), disapproves of his coldness towards his working-class employees at the mill, some of whom she befriends.  Her new friends, a tubercular girl called Bessy and her father Nicholas, speak in this local dialect that is annoying to read, but it is worth it because they are characters who add a lot to the novel.  There is a strike at Mr. Thornton's mill which turns really violent--mobs and windows being broken!--and Margaret gets swept up in this class conflict despite being an outsider and having more than enough of her own troubles to deal with in her own family.  Without giving anything away, Gaskell seems to be proposing, at the very least, that employers and workers should negotiate on equal ground so that the needs of both economic productivity and the people who tend to benefit least from it (the workers) can be served.

I look forward to reading more of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, not least a Penguin collection of her Gothic Tales which I really want to read!  She writes beautifully, and with more attention to themes of social justice and the lives of working-class people than Austen or the Brontë sisters, who tend to write about comfortably middle-class or gentry people.  I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in learning more about the lives of people in Victorian England more broadly and, of course, to anyone who likes romances set in this period.  It is really an excellent novel, and well-deserving of its status as a classic!


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Follow Friday

Happy Friday, and a warm hello to anyone kind enough to stop by my blog thanks to Follow Friday, which is hosted weekly by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee's View!  In the days before my looong blogging hiatus, I never missed a week of participating in Follow Friday, so I figured it was time to rejoin the fun and discover some new blogs.  This Friday the featured blogger is Diane @ Diane's Book Blog.  The post prompt is:

"What are ten reasons why you love your favorite genre?" 

My answer: Er, so I have to pick a favorite genre?  I read a lot of different genres, but according to my shelf cloud on Goodreads, I have read the most books belonging to the fantasy genre.  So,

here are the top ten reasons why I love fantasy:

1. Escapism: It may be a cliché, but fantasy novels do provide the ultimate escapism to readers.  We can immerse ourselves in a fantastic world where almost nothing resembles our day-to-day lives and escape from mundanity and our troubles.  That's not to say that works of fantasy cannot draw on powerful themes relevant or even allegorical to our own world (even the zany Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was partially a political and philosophical statement), but a little escapism never hurt anyone.

2. Complexity: Fantasy is a very immersive genre, and the world-building tends to get a little complex.  Try explaining the world of His Dark Materials to someone who has never read the books.  As the popularity of Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) have proven, readers actually seem to love being immersed in a complex world with lots of characters and warring factions--I know I definitely do!

3. Novelty: I once read and reviewed a YA fantasy about a highly successful eighteenth-century pirate who was reincarnated into one hundred different dogs and then into a teenage girl determined to dig up the treasure she had hidden so many lifetimes ago.  Great book!  With fantasy, anything goes as long as it's well-written and features good characters.  Unlike other genres, it does not rely on the same tired old tropes...

4. Familiarity: Or does fantasy rely on the same old tropes?  The wise old wizard, the orphan boy who turns out to be a magical hero, the evil queen...yeah, many of these stock characters are familiar.  And there is also something comforting about the familiarity of these characters, as well as an eagerness to see how the writer switches up the tropes.  For example, Quentin from The Magicians seems like a classic "chosen one," but unlike Harry Potter, he doesn't have the strongest moral compass in the world.

5. Variety: Not the same thing as novelty at all!  Here I mean that fantasy has a whole umbrella of fantastical sub-genres.  There's urban fantasy, epic or high fantasy with dungeons and dragons, steampunk, historical fantasy, dark fantasy, I could go on.  There's something for everyone.

6. Mythology: As a huge mythology geek, I love seeing how fantasy writers build upon and transform beings and creatures from mythology from different cultures in their work.  (There is a limit, now.  Vampires probably shouldn't sparkle.)  I particularly love the Percy Jackson series and the new Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan.  If you haven't read Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer, it is REALLY good.

7. My Childhood: Fantasy was the first genre I really got into reading, which is probably why it dominates on my Goodreads shelf cloud.  The books we read in our formative years really shape us as readers and as people.

8. Humor: the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.  Enough said.  Er, written.

9. Harry Potter: As is the case for many people, these books were the ones which made me into the voracious reader I am today.  I have never succeeded in the quest to read a book as magnificent as Harry Potter, but that never stopped me from trying.

10. The Lord of the Rings: Another of my favorites, and also a source of inspiration for most every fantasy author who has written since Tolkien.  These books have a way of shaping the way you perceive the world.

I hope you enjoyed reading about why I adore fantasy, and please, if you feel so inclined, leave a link in the comments so I can follow you back at your blog!

2016 Horror Reading Challenge & Graphic Novel/Manga Challenge

In my hunt for reading challenges to take on the rest of this year, I've found two more that are right up my alley.

The first is the 2016 Graphic Novel/Manga Challenge, hosted by Nicola at the challenge's blog.  I really like this challenge button, because it is very eye-catching and perhaps a little scary.

Mostly I just really want to see the rest of this guy's costume!  For this challenge, I am going to sign up for the Bronze Age or intermediate level, that is to say, I am going to try to read and review 24 graphic novels, comic collections, and/or mangas during the remainder of this year.  Since I am in the middle of reading several excellent graphic novel and manga series, including Locke & Key and Attack on Titan, I hope this shouldn't be too difficult!  Other graphic novels I want to read soon include The Umbrella Academy, Rat Queens, Lumberjanes, the next few volumes of Lazarus, Outcast, The October Faction, American Vampire...yeah, quite a few, to sum it up.

The next challenge I'm signing up for is the 2016 Horror Reading Challenge, co-hosted over at the blog Cornerfolds and at Books, Movies, Reviews, Oh My!

I am going to try to read and review 16 or more books that belong to the horror genre, and win the Horror Hound badge.  I usually read a lot of horror, especially collections of nineteenth-century ghost stories and Gothic novels, which I adore.  I have been trying to force myself to read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, a very classic Gothic novel, but admittedly it has a very slow start which is discouraging me.  Last year I read Matthew Lewis's The Monk, which is insanely entertaining and twisted, and also Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, arguably one of the first English Gothic novels.  Otranto is pretty silly, and features a guy getting crushed to death by a giant helmet (no, really), but it was wildly popular after its publication.  Right now I am reading something a little more modern: Stephen King's Bag of Bones.  I am not a big fan of King typically, so we will see how that goes.  I'm looking forward to reading books for both of these challenges, and will add them to a new Challenges page so I can keep track of them more easily.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Classics Club Challenge List

As a voracious reader of classic novels, essays, plays, poetry, etc, I thought it was high time I officially joined the Classics Club!  The Club connects book bloggers who are also avid readers of the classics and provides a place for readers to share and discuss their reading.  Each member selects at least 50 classic titles and takes on a challenge to read all of the books by a certain date.  I have just started to check out the club and its members' blogs, but am finding it all to be really excellent, and I did miss reading challenges during my lost hiatus from blogging.

Actually one of the reasons I stopped blogging for such a long while is that I felt less interested in reviewing the new releases that are a big part of the book blogosphere culture because I realized (as I started a dual English/History degree) that I really wanted to start reading much older books, the classics that have shaped other books since and our world as a whole.  Hopefully this challenge will help me keep up my classics-reading momentum.

I hope to complete my list of 55 books by May 18th, 2017, exactly one year from now (May 18th, 2016.)   In addition to literature, I have included a few historical surveys which are considered true classics in their fields.  I will try to review each book as I finish it and link to the review here.  Without further much ado about nothing (which, btw, is a great play!), here is my alphabetical list of the 55 books I am going to read: 

--Agamemnon by Aeschylus
--Eumenides by Aeschylus
--The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus
--Lysistrata by Aristophanes
--Selected Poems by Aphra Behn
--The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
--Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
--Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
--The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
--Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
--Villette by Charlotte Brontë
--The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
--The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
--The Awakening by Kate Chopin (review in progress)
--Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
--The Idea of History by R.G. Collingwood (history)
--The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
--The Heptameron by Marguerite de Navarre
--Confessions of an Engish Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey
--Hard Times by Charles Dickens
--La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
--Middlemarch by George Eliot
--A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
--A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
--Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
--Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
--Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell
--The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
--Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
--Selected Poems by Thomas Hardy
--Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James
--Selected Essays by Rosa Luxemburg
--Paradise Lost by John Milton (re-read)
--Selected Essaies by Montaigne (French)
--1984 by George Orwell
--Animal Farm by George Orwell
--The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
--Phèdre by Jean Racine (French)
--The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (review in progress)
--Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
--Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
--Cymbeline by William Shakespeare
--Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw
--Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
--The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
--Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
--The Annals by Tacitus
--Selected Poems by Lord Tennyson
--The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson (history)
--Walden by Henry David Thoreau
--Selected Poems by Paul Verlaine (French)
--The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
--Selected Poems by William Wordsworth

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Genre: suspense, mystery
Pages: 264 (paperback)
Published: 1939

First, there were ten - a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they're unwilling to reveal - and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.


It's strange to think that I had never read a single Agatha Christie novel before deciding, on a whim yesterday, to pick up And Then There Were None.

I generally will read every genre with the notable and pretty strict exceptions of romance and mystery.  In the case of mystery, I have to admit that part of my prejudice stems from my utter lack of skill in predicting "whodunit" or what will happen next.  I so do not find it elementary, Watson, and frankly, this is partially a result of the way I operate as a reader.  I'm not a speed reader of the kind that you can find on Youtube, apparently absorbing whole books at the rate of five seconds a page.  However, I do read quite quickly and I read for information, purposefully picking out the most necessary bits on every page and somewhat skimming over the little details.  But in mystery novels it is these little details that matter the most, and this is definitely the case with And Then There Were None.  Tiny details of setting and dialogue that Christie briefly alights on turn out to be key to the twists and turns of the plot.  Even as a reader generally uninterested in the genre, I found myself captivated by the book and appreciative of her mad skills--truly, Christie was the "Queen of Mystery."

I also appreciated that this is not at all a detective story in the usual sense.  There is no central detective figure trying to wrap up the mystery of a previously-committed murder, but rather the murders are happening in the present.  Readers who share my aversion to mystery and detective stories but embrace horror will enjoy the sense of suspenseful inevitability of the murders on Indian Island, a sense created not only by the title And Then There Were None (note: the novel was originally published as Ten Little N******; click the link to read an article about the racist title's evolution through the years) but by the device of the morbid nursery rhyme which each of the characters find posted in their rooms upon arriving at the empty house on Indian Island.  The murders of the guests adhere strictly to this rhyme about "ten little Indians," so that we have a rough idea of how the next victim will die, but now when or who the victim will be.  For example, the rhyme declares, "Six little Indians playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five."  Just as in a number of good horror films, apparently childish things or nonsensical rhymes turn on to have a eerie power of life and death over the characters.

As far as the characters, one among the ten people on Indian Island is presumed to be the murderer, causing all these gruesome deaths that accord with the creepy nursery rhyme.  The rest of the guests  are essentially accused of murder by a mysterious disembodied Voice who terrifies them by announcing their respective crimes during their first evening in the island house's sitting room.  Taken together, these two facts kind of discourage the reader from getting too attached to any of them, and the novel is plot-driven to say the least even though knowing the characters is central to figuring out what is going on.  Christie does a good job characterizing the island guests considering that her writing is pretty sparse, and so is the dialogue.  We quickly see that Philip Lombard is cold-blooded like a character out of Heart of Darkness, Vera Claythorne is smart and intuitive, and Emily Brent is one of those well-meaning but frustrating ladies who thinks of herself as a living saint.  As always, I was completely stumped by the question of who the murderer might be!  All of my speculations turned out to be wrong, and the revelation at the end relies on a wild and ingenious twist which I don't think even many readers better-versed in the mystery genre would guess if they weren't already familiar with the story.      

The novel is absorbing and fast-paced, the sort of book that appeals to a huge variety of readers.  One can see why it has been adapted into so many films and series and plays over the years.  As usual, though, nothing can be better than reading the original novel and spending a few hours of a rainy day appreciating Christie's craft and the diabolical eeriness of it all, watching the twisted nursery rhyme play out.

I wholeheartedly recommend this classic suspense story and intend to pick up another Christie book soon, although I don't know which one.  She wrote so many!  I must be in the mood to scare myself to death by reading about old, haunted, secluded houses and the ghosts and murderers and madpeople in the attic who inhabit them, because I've also just started reading Stephen King's Bag of Bones and have contemplated yet another reading of Jane Eyre.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Genre: comic strips collection
Pages: 166 (hardcover)
Published: 2011


I really don't have much to say about this collection of comics except that Beaton's work is awesome.  I had never heard of her or this book before this adorable rendering of Napoleon caught my eye in the graphic novel section of the library last week, but I will be definitely be stalking (er, visiting) her website in the future and keeping an eye out for her other printed collections. 

 If you have ever paged through the comics section of a newspaper and thought, "Wow, I wish there was a comic in here which puts a funny spin on Queen Elizabeth I's speech to her troops before the Spanish Armada...that's obviously comedy gold," then you will certainly appreciate this book.

As a few of you among my multitudes and multitudes of readers may know, I have been student teaching in an English classroom this last semester.  So, I especially appreciated the comics here which poked fun at classic literature and authors, because I was able to share a few with my class.  I showed them a comic about Oedipus Rex (yes, these poor fifteen-year-old souls were subjected to Oedipus as an assigned text; yes, they did laugh at the sexual innuendos, after I kindly pointed them out; no, I did not have the power to choose or significantly alter the curriculum).  I also decided to show one of my classes this hilarious comic which pokes fun at two of the Brontës sisters' penchants for brooding, abrasive men...

 And after I pulled the comic up on the projector, I was like, "Pretty funny, huh?" 

And some of them laughed quite appreciatively, but I soon realized that was only because they could not believe I'd shown them a comic strip that included the word "asshole."  I guess maybe they don't get to read Jane Eyre until twelfth grade English. *shrugs*

Even if you don't enjoy snickering at the notion of Goethe having to deal with encounters with proto-Romantic, foppish fanboys obsessed with his The Sorrows of Young Werther, the book also has some fun with less literary books and pop culture.  Anyone who grew up reading Nancy Drew books will absolutely love the series of comics which imagines the plot of a Nancy Drew mystery based on its title and cover.  For example, 
There are also some comics which poke fun at the Tudors, Watson and Crick, and Batman, and a few about Canadian history which, hey, I didn't get at all.  Honestly, if there was one thing this book has inspired me to do (other than make my students think I'm even more of a nerd than they suspected), it is to learn a little about Canadian history, because it is an area where I am sadly lacking in knowledge.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who possesses nerdy inclinations or simply the inclination to breathe in oxygen and nitrogen.  It is a real treasure, and the comics are not of the type I have ever come across before.   

Just a quick update, because I realize I haven't really posted one in about three years: 
I do hope to continue posting on my blog this summer after such a loooonng hiatus.  I had all but abandoned this blog, but recently I started to have more free time for the first time in what feels like forever and I began to feel the familiar itch to blahblahblah about what I'm reading in a more private and personalized space than Goodreads.  I look forward to exploring how the book blogosphere has changed since I last frequented it, and hopefully to talking a bit with those of you who happen to stumble across, or back across, my little blog!

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