Thursday, June 30, 2016

Claymore by Norihiro Yagi, Volumes 7-9

 Genre: manga, fantasy

Claymore is the story of Clare, a half-human, half-monster warrior who is sworn along with her sister Claymores, "silver-eyed slayers," to protect humans from the flesh-eating Yoma who roam her world.

I definitely have a new manga obsession.  While Claymore started out as a fairly simple tale about a female warrior and her companion, a boy she rescued from the Yoma, it has by the seventh volume expanded into a full-blown epic saga, complete with a complex mythology, larger objectives, and many, many more characters!

The seventh volume continues with the showdown between the sadistic Claymore Ophelia and the monster that I simply call "the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life."  (See my review of volumes 4-6 for some images.)  This is another freakishly beautiful fight scene.  Meanwhile, Clare and Raki try to get as far away from Ophelia as possible.  Clare sends Raki on to a village where he will be safe, and just after they part ways (with a kiss!), Ophelia shows up to kill Clare.  The other warrior is so much more powerful that Clare has little hope of defeating her, so she tries to trick her...unfortunately Ophelia figures out what is going on.

Clare is badly, permanently injured and saved from death only by the appearance of another very powerful Claymore.  This Claymore, Ilena, helps Clare to regain her strength and as a parting gift presents her with the single strangest present I have ever heard or read about.  However, Clare has barely said goodbye to Ilena when she encounters Ophelia again (!).  Now Ophelia has awakened into a monster, having used too much of her Yoma power during her last battle against Clare and so lost her human half.  Battle ensues between her and Clare again, continuing into the next volume.

The eighth volume features the finale of Clare's battle with Ophelia, and we learn something by Ophelia's past which makes her seem a little more human.  Er, even though she is now a gigantic snake monster with a woman's head.  The next arc sees Clare searching the nearest village for Raki.  However, while there she sees a party of her comrades leaving the village to hunt yet another Awakened One.  (Exactly many Claymores have gone crazy and turned into monsters over the years??)  Her search for Raki is unsuccessful, and Clare is interrupted by the appearance of one of the Claymores from the hunting party.

The girl is bloody and looks half-dead.  She pleads with Clare to rescue her comrades, who are trapped in a nearby cave with not one, but two very powerful Awakened Ones.  Clare finds the other Claymores being tortured by an enormous, hideous monster called Dauf and a pretty young girl.  The girl says she wants to force the Claymores to awaken and join her army of monsters to lead an assault on another Awakened One's army in the north. Clare must then fight Dauf, against whom she is very outmatched.  And, then, as if things were not bad enough, one of the most powerful Claymores in the organization, Galatea, arrives to take Clare back to the organization because she disobeyed their orders in fighting Ophelia instead of working with her.  (As if Ophelia were a team player, right??)  Under the circumstances, however, Galatea joins Clare in the battle against the monster.  

In the ninth volume, the fight continues.  The powerful Galatea distracts Dauf, while Clare manages to save Jean, one of the Claymores who has been chained up and tortured to the point of awakening.  Jean is a cool character, one of my favorites of the many Claymores we have met in the series so far.  With the help of Jean, ranked no. 9 in the organization, Clare and Galatea are able to defeat Dauf.  They are prevented from killing him, however, by the pretty girl who has been sitting in a corner of the cave commentating on the fighting all this time.  The girl shows her true face and turns out to be Riful, a very dangerous Awakened One indeed.  However, instead of fighting, she and Dauf disappear, though not before Riful reveals a tantalizing hint to Clare about the location of Clare's greatest enemy, Priscilla--the Claymore who killed Clare's beloved friend Teresa.

The volume continues with a new arc, "the Battle of the North."  Clare and twenty-three of the organization's most troublesome Claymores (hmm, suspicious much?) are sent to quell an army of Awakened Ones and Yoma in the north of the country.  The organization promises to forgive Clare for her disobedience if she goes and, furthermore, Clare learns that Raki has been captured and sold into slavery in the north in her absence. (Tsk tsk, Clare can't leave the kid alone for five minutes without something happening.)  Jean, no. 9, has declared that since she owes her life to Clare, she will follow the other Claymore until she is able to repay the debt.  Clare and Jean therefore report to the north together, joining the other Claymores who have gathered to prepare for battle.

There is a lot of tension between the assembled Claymores, some of whom threaten to turn violent.  Though they are all exploited by the organization, they are all eager to fight one another to prove a point or perhaps improve their number ranking.  The dynamics between the different warriors are endlessly interesting and one of the main reasons that I am enjoying this series so much.  I will doubtless review the next three volumes, featuring a gigantic battle between half of the Claymores in existence and hordes of monsters, very soon!

Update on my 2016 Graphic Novel/Manga Challenge: I have now read 15 of 24 of the graphic novels/manga that I had hoped to read for the challenge.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Pages: 225
Published: 1851

This is a tale of a house cursed through the centuries by a man who was hanged for witchcraft--a house haunted by the ghosts of its dead and the terror of its living inhabitants.  The blighted house controls the fates of four Pyncheons: Hepzibah, an elderly recluse; Clifford, her delicate brother; Phoebe, their young country cousin; and Jaffrey, a devil incarnate whose greedy quest for secret wealth is marked by murder and terrible vengeance from a restless grave.

I always intend to read more American literature.  This week I have done pretty well, having read both a book of poems by Emily Dickinson and The House of the Seven Gables.  The Dickinson poems were sublime; a gushing review of those is in the works.  As for The House of the Seven Gables...

  I loved Hawthorne's lovely way of writing, his skill in telling stories about the past inhabitants of the titular house and weaving them into the present story.  I found the stories about the presumed witch Matthew Maule who cursed the Pyncheon family before his execution and the young, doomed Miss Alice Pyncheon to be mesmerizing, among the best parts of the book.  I appreciated Hawthorne's great attention to detail in painting the images and personalities of the characters, who are few but memorable.  I could just see Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon swinging his cane and smiling benevolently at Phoebe while malice lurks in his eyes, see Hepzibah fluttering nervously around her shop as she prepares to open her new business, a penny shop that the old gentlewoman is forced to start up in a desperate attempt to escape her impending poverty.

I loved the characters, loved the setting of the decrepit old house, loved the ancestral curse, and the connection with Hawthorne's own family history.  (Hawthorne's ancestor Judge Hathorne was one of those who condemned "witches" during the Salem Witch Trials, just as Colonel Pyncheon does in this book.  Hawthorne was so disturbed by his familial legacy that he changed the spelling of his name a little, adding a "w.")

The House of the Seven Gables is Gothic in that it deals with a decaying house, reclusive aristocrats, an ancestral curse passed down through the generations--in terms of themes alone, it closely resembles more straightforward Gothic tales like The Fall of the House of Usher.  However, there are no ghosts in the traditional sense, no dead maidens buried alive.  The horror in The House of the Seven Gables is more subtle, more delicate, and ultimately much less overpowering.  The characters of Phoebe, Hepzibah's teenage cousin who comes to stay with her and her brother Clifford, and Holgrave, an idealistic young daguerreotypist and lodger in the house, provide some contrast for the doom and gloom atmosphere of the House of the Seven Gables.  I liked Holgrave in particular; he is certainly my favorite character in the book.  Unlike Hepzibah, Clifford, and Judge Pyncheon, all of whom dwell incessantly on the past and their ancestral woes and money troubles, Holgrave supports social change and progress.  He resents the grip that the dead still have on the living, the chains of old customs.  He complains to Phoebe, "Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?" and goes on a bit of a rant:

"A dead man sits on all our judgment seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions.  We read in dead men's books!  We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos!  We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients!...Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man's icy hand obstructs us!...we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!" 

Later in the book, Holgrave declares that he has become positively conservative almost overnight, but I preferred the original Holgrave, an angry radical who believed that the world must and will change for the better.  It is easy to see that he scorns the aristocratic Hepzibah and Clifford somewhat for their helplessness and fear of the outside world, when after all Holgrave has worked in various eccentric occupations since he was very young.  He says that he only lives in the House of the Seven Gables so that he may better learn to hate it and all that it stands for.  On the other hand, he also shows compassion towards Hepzibah in particular and is more than a little mysterious.  I also am fascinated by daguerreotypes and liked the role that the daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon played in the story.

The House of the Seven Gables has a "flaw" in common with The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's best-known book and the bane of millions of high school students.  I write "flaw" in quotation marks because I think that this is mostly a deficiency ascribed onto Hawthorne's style of writing by those who read his work today.  In the era of James Patterson and, more importantly, films, readers expect books to tell their story rapidly, to include lots of dialogue and cliffhangers at the end of most chapters.  Meanwhile Hawthorne invested pages and pages in creating a very particular sense of place and describing the daily habits of his characters.  And he went too far, at times.  He did!  I read a lot of nineteenth-century prose without suffering much boredom or annoyance; in fact, I enjoy the fruits of earlier authors' labors in creating mood, complex characters, and setting--I love a strong sense of place in a book.  However, at one point Hawthorne actually felt the need to write

"The author needs great faith in his reader's sympathy; else he must hesitate to give details so minute, and incidents apparently so trifling, as are essential to make up the idea of this garden life." 

When the author refers to the incidents he is describing as "trifling," that is a sure sign that they are less than riveting!  That chapter which describes the Pyncheon family's garden and Clifford's fondness for flowers is indeed the most wearisome part of the book; I struggled to hold my eyes open.  The beginning is also slow, but the last few chapters are positively fast-paced in comparison.

 Though I don't want to give anything away to those who haven't read the book, I will say that I was really struck by chapter eighteen, "Governor Pyncheon."  I never expected that plot twist and loved Hawthorne's uncanny style of narration in that chapter.  All in all, I feel I profited a good deal from reading The House of the Seven Gables.  Reading it was not always enjoyable, but since then I have thought about the story and the characters many times--always the mark of a good book!

Another favorite quotation:

"But these transparent natures are often deceptive in their depth; those pebbles at the bottom of the fountain are farther from us than we think." 

This book is

eloquent                        thought-provoking                           slow-paced

P.S. This book was on my Classics Club list!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Top Ten Favorite Heroines (and Anti-Heroines)

It's time for another Top Ten Tuesday post, and this week is a freebie!  It was difficult to pick among so many intriguing past topics, but I finally decided to list my top ten favorite literary heroines.  I have also included three anti-heroines, because these not-so-good women are simply too good to leave off the list.

Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series

What a no-brainer!  Every bookish girl who reads Harry Potter wants to go to Hogwarts and be top of their class, just like Hermione.  

Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My favorite Austen book is actually Emma, but I much prefer Elizabeth to Emma Woodhouse.  She is witty, poised, strong-willed, and, yes, a bit proud and prejudiced.  
Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien

"I am no man!"  At least the very few female characters in The Lord of the Rings are pretty kick-ass.  Everyone in Rohan sort of leaves Éowyn alone in the hall of her forefathers to look after her cursed, ill uncle while Grima Wormtongue, Saruman's creepy henchman, haunts her footsteps.  After she is left behind yet again when the men of Rohan go off to fight, Éowyn breaks free of the "cage" she so fears and takes action.  She disguises herself as a male soldier and ends up defeating the Witch-King of Angmar, who can be killed by no man...  

Nimona from Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona is an exuberant shapeshifter who practically forces her supervillain hero Lord Ballister Blackheart to make her his evil sidekick.  The two clash often and hilariously, as their styles of evil-doing are sometimes incompatible.  However, this graphic novel also has a darker, more serious side.  I highly recommend it; you will love getting to know Nimona, Blackheart, and the rest of the characters!  

Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Plain and quietly strong-willed, Jane grows up oppressed as an orphan in the house of her unkind aunt and then in a harsh boarding school.  Even after she becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer, Jane's happily-ever-after is still far from straightforward.  I admire Jane's resolve and independence.

Alana from the Saga series by Brian K. Vaughn

I love Alana from Saga.  She is flawed and very funny at times.  She would do anything to save her little family from the assassins and corrupt intergalactic governments that are always trying to do them in.

Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman

Though I couldn't not include her, I have already discussed my love for Lyra in another post!

Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Clare from the Claymore manga series by Norihiro Yagi

My enthusiasm for the kick-ass female heroines in this series, which I'm in the midst of binge-reading and reviewing, partially inspired me to pick heroines as my topic this week.  Clare is a half-human, half-monster slayer sworn to protect humans from flesh-eating monsters called Yoma.  She is part of a sisterhood of forty-seven such "Claymores."

Marian Halcombe from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I just recently reviewed The Woman in White, one of my favorite Victorian Gothic novels.  Marian is a brilliant and determined young woman who must protect her rather helpless half-sister from her sister's greedy husband and her husband's friend, the diabolical Count Fosco.

And...the anti-heroines!

Madame Bovary from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary 

The infamous Madame Bovary is a fascinating character, sympathetic in a sense, but also probably not someone one could consider a "heroine." 

Miss Jean Brodie from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher at a girls' school, gathers a small group of students around her and initiates them into the ways of, well, Jean Brodie.  She is not a woman to be summed up in a few words.  Her fascist beliefs and secret affairs draw the attention of the school administration, but her devoted group of girls would never betray her... would they?  This is a very short novel, and just excellent! 

Hedda Gabler from Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler

I love Hedda Gabler!  It is probably my favorite Ibsen play, which is high praise.  The title character is the daughter of a decorated general, a woman with a flair for the dramatic and a great violence in her soul.  She has boundless energy and longs to do something important, something exciting.  Bored with her husband, her in-laws, and her life as a housewife, Hedda settles for playing with the love lives and careers of her friends.  If you enjoyed Ibsen's A Doll's House, then definitely read Hedda Gabler.  Hedda is a different kind of dissatisfied housewife than Nora, but, wow, is she a memorable character!

I hope you enjoyed this list and picked up a few new reading recommendations!  Thanks for stopping by and leave me a link when you comment so that I can check out your top ten list as well!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Claymore by Norihiro Yagi, Volumes 4-6

Genre: manga, fantasy

Claymore is the story of Clare, a half-human, half-monster warrior who is sworn along with her sister "silver-eyed slayers" to protect humans from the zombie-like Yoma who roam her world.  

I read these next three volumes of this exciting and action-paced series with a rabid eagerness and, at the end of volume six, once again encountered an evil cliffhanger.  Oh, Norihiro Yagi, you are the most malevolent of manga-kas!

First things first, though; I'll start with volume four.  This volume continues the story arc about the powerful Claymore Teresa and her new companion, a young girl who Teresa saved from a Yoma a few villages back, a young girl who turns out to be the human Clare.  Teresa tries to leave Clare with kind villagers so that she can have a normal, human life, but ends up having to double back and save Clare from the same bandits who threatened and had planned to rape Teresa in the third volume.  The bandits are brutal men, though no match for Teresa.  Furious at their slaughter of some villagers and their mistreatment of Clare, Teresa kills one of them in a fight.  In doing so, she violates the most sacred rule of the organization who hires (and creates?) Claymores: their job is to slay Yoma and protect humans, not kill them.  Teresa and Clare go on the run from the organization, but in the meantime four of the strongest Claymores are summoned together and ordered to hunt down and execute Teresa for her crimes.  The character of Priscilla, one of these Claymore who appears to be only a little girl, is particularly interesting and she promises to be an important part of the series.

I had been hoping the series would introduce more Claymores, and my wish definitely came true with these next three volumes!  In fact, so many new Claymores are introduced that it is a little difficult at times to tell all these beautiful, fair-haired young woman apart.  I loved this story line that focused on Teresa and "human Clare" and their strong friendship, since they are still my favorite characters even with the introduction of some others.  The fight scenes between Teresa and her Claymore comrades who are under orders to kill her are very well-done and I liked that the drawings increasingly emphasize the monster or Yoma side of the girls as they are fighting.  For example, their faces change and their eye colors shift and their limbs grow longer as they draw on more of their Yoma power during tough battles.

If the third volume clearly marks the point where I began to become emotionally invested in the series, then the fifth volume is really where the "feels" kicked in!  There is a new story line, titled "The Slashers," which focuses on Clare in the present day.  She and some of her fellow Claymores are instructed to hunt down and slay an "awakened one," an extremely powerful creature which is actually the remnant of a Claymore who has lost their humanity and fully transformed into an inhuman monster.  This monster varied from the typical, zombie-like Yoma and I have to say that it was creepy!  I liked seeing the interactions between Clare and the other Claymores.  We learn among other things that Clare is in fact ranked as the least powerful Claymore currently alive, and once again we meet some interesting new characters.  It is impressive that the manga-ka has managed to endow each of the twelve (and counting!) Claymores who have been introduced so far with a unique and remarkable personality.  They do have similar designs, though, and I usually have to rely on hair styles to distinguish them during the fight scenes.  Speaking of which, there are a lot of fight scenes in this fifth volume, but also some emotional depth.  Something happens in this volume which shocked and saddened me.

The sixth volume boasts the most absolutely horrifying, pee-your-pants scary manga monster I have ever seen.  Let's just go ahead and put that out there.

I placed a picture there to present a rough idea, but that one panel does not really do this creature justice.  It has the face of a human female, because it is another "awakened one" who was once a Claymore before she released too much of her Yoma power.  The way this monster moves her wings and hair and her neck, and the way she looks when she opens her mouth...just ugh!  I nearly dropped the manga and ran away screaming.  Forget fighting her, I would just take one look and instantly die of terror.

Anyway, in volume six the organization orders Clare to kill this lovely monster which has been terrorizing a village.  She is supposed to have assistance to kill the monster, in the form of Ophelia, the fourth-strongest Claymore (they are all ranked precisely in order of strength).  Miria, no. 6, had warned Clare about Ophelia and the other powerful Claymores in the last volume.  Because Clare is sort of semi-awakened, having unleashed too much Yoma power and almost become a monster forever during the episode in the cathedral city, Ophelia becomes suspicious that Clare is already a monster.  

She torments Clare and Raki and seems on the verge of killing at least one of them when the "awakened one," pictured above, makes her entrance.  She first attacks Clare but then turns on Ophelia, sensing her arrogance, and Clare and Raki are able to temporarily escape while Ophelia battles the monster.  The volume leaves off as they are running, trying to get as far away as possible before Ophelia comes after them.
Ophelia vs the monster

Ophelia is one scary, sadistic bitch.  I am actually not sure whether I would prefer to face her or that freaky, winged hair monster.  Oh, wait...just kidding, I'd take Ophelia!

It practically goes without saying that I adored these three volumes and will be starting on volume seven as soon as possible!  I have grown used to the style of art and now think it is really quite beautiful, so no complaints there.  The story has really taken off in lots of different directions since the fairly straight-forward first and second volumes, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  While I realize not many people read reviews of later volumes in a manga series, I will continue writing these reviews for every three volumes if only so that I can reflect upon what I read and because I enjoy writing about Claymore!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Genre: mystery
Published: 1934
Pages: 322

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprisingly full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside...

This is only the second Agatha Christie I've had the pleasure of reading--the first was And Then There Were None a few weeks ago--and I think I am already becoming hooked on her books.  Her style of writing is bare bones, she does not dwell on long descriptions of setting or characterization apart from what is necessary to tell an excellent, plot-driven mystery story.  Nevertheless, I found myself staring at the book's open pages for far longer than it should take me to read the text as I mentally ran through possible clues and racked my brain as to the identity of the murderer.  Well, Christie fooled me, so all my deliberation and reflection turned out to be for naught!

 Murder on the Orient Express stars one of Christie's two famous detectives, the Belgian Hercule Poirot.  Poirot is rather like Sherlock Holmes in that he is a well-respected detective known for cracking the cases which elude others and the police.  While he is also a bit arrogant--er, very sure of his powers of deduction--, Poirot differs from Holmes in his methods.  If Sherlock Holmes had been asked to solve a murder which occurred in one carriage on a snowbound train, he would likely pace up and down the corridor examining the crime scene, the floor, and the sleeves of all the passengers for suspicious substances which would in some complicated way allow him to deduce the identity of the killer.

Poirot, on the other hand, plants himself in a room and has each of the passengers (the only possible suspects, as the train is snowbound) come in for an interview.  He uses psychology to determine their guilt or lack thereof and, surprisingly, a bit of guesswork.  For example, Poirot asks some of the passengers questions which are intended to startle them into revealing something they may be trying to conceal.  He also analyzes phrasing and word choice... when he asks a woman if she owns a scarlet kimono (because the murderer may have been seen wearing one), she replies, "No, that is not mine," suggesting she may know whose it is, though she insists otherwise.  Poirot also rapidly alters his persona and method of questioning so as to best provoke answers or cooperation from the suspects according to their personalities.

The murder occurs fairly early on, as an unlikable American gentleman is murdered in his room at night.  Poirot begins his investigation the morning after the murder and interviews each of the passengers to obtain their alibis and any information they might have in the way I described above.  Among the suspects are a countess, the dead man's secretary, a conductor, a noisy American matron, and an English governess.  After interviewing each of these people and examining the clues (a handkerchief is found in the victim's room and a woman in a scarlet kimono was sighted in the corridor), Poirot finally lays out the solution to the friend who is helping him with the investigation.  I could be wrong, but I don't think the identity of the murderer is one that many people would be able to guess.  I changed my mind about who I thought the killer was at least four times, and by the end I did not have a clue!  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  The next Agatha Christie that I read will be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

This book is

brilliant                      diverting                 surprising

This review was one for my Classics Club list

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Claymore by Norihiro Yagi, Volumes 1-3

Genre: manga, fantasy

Claymore is the story of Clare, a half-human, half-monster warrior who is sworn along with her sister "silver-eyed slayers" to protect humans from the zombie-like Yoma who roam her world.  I was attracted to this manga series by the beautiful covers and that premise, which reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer if Buffy were set in a fantasy world which closely resembles medieval Europe.  While I was initially not impressed by the art and worried that it might turn out to be a typical shounen manga--lots of fighting and half-naked girls, little characterization or thematic depth--I quickly realized that Claymore is more complex and interesting than that.

The first volume opens with a village in distress.  Six people have been gruesomely murdered and everyone knows that the killings are the work of a Yoma.  Yomas are flesh-eating monsters, much worse than the sort of zombies you see in The Walking Dead because they are cleverer, more powerful, and much, much faster.  In addition, they can take on human form to disguise themselves.  Raki, a local teenage boy, soon encounters Clare, a Claymore who has been sent to hunt down and slay the Yoma terrorizing his village.  Claymores are dreaded and despised in this society despite their function as monster slayers, because they are half-monster themselves and may lose their human selves, allowing the monster to take complete control at any time.  However, Raki is fascinated by Clare (and more than a little enamored of her).  He is cheerful and naïve and treats her like an ordinary girl, which disconcerts solemn Clare.  She has come to this village to do one thing and one thing only: destroy a monster that feeds on human flesh, armed only with her claymore blade.  After further tragedy strikes his village, Raki ends up travelling with Clare against her better judgment.

This volume is immediately exciting and does a good job setting up the story and the universe.  There is also a lot of gore and plenty of fighting scenes which were well-drawn and well-paced.  I was less than captivated by the art in some of the panels.  The style is efficient rather than extravagant and extremely detailed, like in some of my favorite mangas, but on the other hand I have seen shounen manga with much uglier drawings.  And the covers for the whole Claymore series are gorgeous!

The second volume was my least favorite of the three I have read so far.  The arc about Clare and Raki's journey to investigate Yoma killings in a cathedral city is an interesting premise, but I felt that one fight scene dragged on literally for several chapters, even running into the next volume.  On the other hand, we do get to learn a little more about Clare and witness her chameleon-like acting skills as she disguises herself as an ordinary girl travelling with her brother in order to seek out the Yoma without being thrown out of the city by monks.  There is little dialogue in this volume due to all of the action scenes; I breezed through it in about a half hour!

The third volume, subtitled Teresa of the Faint Smile, was the one that made me eager to get my hands on the next, um, twenty-four volumes of this series now!  The first two chapters finish up the "Darkness in Paradise" arc from the last volume, in which Clare and Raki hunt a particularly powerful Yoma in a holy cathedral city.  The rest of the volume begins a new arc about another Claymore, called Teresa.  I immediately liked Teresa!  

And I was happy to meet her, because I had been wondering about the other Claymores and whether they resembled Clare.  While Teresa does superficially resemble Clare--she is a beautiful, blond young female--they actually are quite different both in their designs and their personalities.  Clare is serious and solemn and very willing to sacrifice herself to protect the humans who despise her from Yoma.  But Teresa is not afraid to bend or break the rules of the mysterious organization for which she and the other Claymores work.  She is fierce and has a bit of an attitude going on; I liked her a lot!  The first few chapters of this new story line about Teresa involve her seeking out a Yoma hiding among villagers and being followed through the woods after she finishes her job there, first by a strange, mute girl and then by a group of bandits intent on humiliating Teresa.  Yeah, needless to say, they've got another thing coming!

I love this series so far.  Honestly, I half-wish I had not picked the first volume up, because now I will become addicted to the series and have to read the next twenty-four volumes in the next week or so.  Then, I will have to watch the anime and obsess over it when I should probably be doing preparatory reading for graduate classes next semester.  Oh well!

I am keen to learn so many things about the characters, their backstories, and the world of Claymore.  Are all Claymores female?  How does one become a Claymore, and what is this organization that sends Claymores to different villages to kill Yoma?  I cannot wait to read the next volume and am considering breaking into the library tonight to get it a few hours early!

This manga has

strong female characters              lots of action       gore                         monsters                  

These three manga volumes count towards my goal in the 2016 Graphic Novel/Manga Challenge!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Genre: Gothic romance
Pages: 650
Published: 1794

"'But my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning?--Have you gone on with Udolpho?'

'Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil....I am delighted with the book!  I should like to spend my whole life in reading it.  I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.'  

--Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I had wanted to read The Mysteries of Udolpho for a long time, ever since reading the passages in Northanger Abbey where Catherine and her ridiculous friend Isabella discuss how perfectly scary it is.  I tried for the first time nearly a year ago, but was unable to make it past the first hundred pages.  My initial impression was that the book was hopelessly dull and long-winded.  Radcliffe spends pages describing the picturesque landscapes which Emily and her father experience during an extended journey by carriage.  Very little of importance happens in those first hundred pages.  Emily herself is a somewhat dull protagonist, not exactly unlikable but so stiff and formal and helpless as to be irritating at times.

Now, having said all that...

I was not so put off by Udolpho that I didn't eventually return to it.  I sensed that maybe it had not been the right moment to read this book.  I tried again a couple of weeks ago, taking the book along on a long road trip so that, I thought triumphantly, I would be forced to read it out of sheer boredom!  As it turned out, I need not have worried.  During my second (and successful) reading of The Mysteries of Udolpho, I am happy to report that I found my inner Catherine Morland.  After those uninspiring first hundred pages, I became swept up by this sentimental story and very invested in finding out what horrible fates or happy endings might befall the characters.  Far from having to force myself to read it, I could barely put Udolpho down!  Once I stopped inwardly scoffing so much at the more wooden dialogue or rolling my eyes at the lengthy descriptions of scenery or Radcliffe's poems extolling the virtues of nature (inserted liberally throughout the book, even during otherwise frightening or suspenseful parts), I began to understand why this Gothic romance was heralded as such a thrilling sensation, a bestseller of its day.

The setting is sixteenth-century Europe and the premise is classically Gothic.  Teenage Emily St. Aubert has to leave her peaceful family home in the French countryside after her beloved parents die.  After enduring another painful separation from her beloved Valancourt, who would marry her if her aunt allowed it, Emily is forced to leave France and everything that she knows.  She must move with her aunt and her aunt's sinister new husband, a certain Montini, to Montini's isolated Italian castle, which appears to be haunted by at least one mysterious ghost, if not several.  In addition, Emily's captivating beauty and youthful innocence are such that nearly every man she encounters seems to want to marry or kidnap her.  She is subjected to the unwanted attentions of several remarkably persistent suitors and, at the castle of Udolpho, surrounded by bandits, Venetian prostitutes, and cavaliers who have turned to banditry to make a living.

Emily's chamber at Udolpho is down the corridor from a room which all the servants are terrified of, a room from which she thinks she can sometimes hear beautiful music being played.  In one corner of Emily's room is a sinister old door which leads down an unknown passage and which might permit anyone to force their way into her chamber as she sleeps at night.  And then there is the infamous black veil, the black veil which hangs over something extraordinarily gruesome, something utterly horrid... er, what is it? Emily faints not once but twice after having pulled back the veil and seen what lies behind it, but Radcliffe does not tell us what it was that terrified her heroine until nearly the end of the book!  I found this strange and very vexing, because like Catherine in Northanger Abbey I felt I had to know what was behind that veil.  Reading about Udolpho did give me a strong desire to visit some ruins and castles in the Gothic style, though not to spend the night in one of them!

Emily's guardian Signor Montini is no guardian at all, but rather wants to steal Emily's family fortune, and vows that he will torture or kill the young heiress if she does not sign over her estates to him.

Emily, while a rather uninteresting heroine in some respects and never what one might call "strong," nevertheless does have a strong response to Montini's demands:

"'You may find, perhaps, Signor,' said Emily, with mild dignity, 'that the strength of my mind is equal to the justice of my cause; and that I can endure with fortitude, when it is in resistance of oppression.'

'You speak like a heroine,' said Montini, contemptuously; 'we shall see whether you can suffer like one.'"

I liked Montini's sinister threat there!  It made my inner Catherine Morland gasp, 'Oh my, what next?'

Emily is the quintessential Gothic heroine who would inspire many others in the next century of literature, and she certainly does suffer in each setting she encounters (though the book is called The Mysteries of Udolpho, there are also a number of scenes in Venice, southern France, and at a monastery among other places).  She is oppressed and punished for her attempts to lead the sort of moral life she thinks her mother and father would have wanted for her, separated from the only person in the world who loves her (Valancourt), and mistreated by the people on whom she is legally dependent.

The theme of the importance of fortitude and inner strength resonates throughout the book.  Another reoccurring theme is the superiority of the life of the mind and the quiet admiration of nature over the corrupting influences of the city, material wealth, and vice which have made Madame Cheron (Emily's aunt) so frivolous and Montini so vicious.  Emily's father, a gentle and intellectual nobleman who gave up his life at Paris and other European capitals to retire to his country estate with his family, instills a love for nature in Emily, a love which is shared by her beloved Valancourt:

"'These scenes,' said Valancourt, at length, 'soften the heart, like the notes of sweet music, and inspire that delicious melancholy which no person, who had felt it once, would resign for the gayest pleasures.  They waken our best and purest feelings, disposing us to benevolence, pity, and friendship.'"

Landscape with Travelers by Salvator Rosa
 While I found Radcliffe's nature poetry to be mediocre and rather intrusive upon the story,  I did appreciate some of her scenery descriptions and I concur with Emily that nature and simple pleasures such as friendship, family, and good books are some of the greatest things in life, far superior to those material and industrialized things touted by some as indispensable.  I understood where Radcliffe was coming from and felt that this book helped me to better understand the times in which she wrote.

This was during the Industrial Revolution in England.  As cities and their populations expanded and industry grew, many people saw cities as centers of vice and inhumanity and longed for simpler times in the countryside before the time of enclosure and the building of railways.  The nostalgia for "medieval times" is far from new, but was a key part of Romanticism.  Like other British Romantic writers and artists, Radcliffe was enamored of landscape paintings like those of Salvator Rosa.  Salvator painted nature at its most gorgeous but, like Radcliffe, he also liked to create some seriously creepy scenes!  This beauty at right is entitled "Witches at Their Incantations."  It reminds me of some of Goya's darker paintings.

This combination of strong admiration for nature and fear of primeval darkness, barbarities of antiquity, and/or the supernatural is very evident in Udolpho.  At one point Emily comes across an old instrument of torture and, imagining the gruesome work it might have done in the not so distant past, she swoons.

Did I mention that Emily faints quite a lot?  I think everyone who has heard of Udolpho knows that the heroine faints all the time, and I did start the book knowing that much.  While she may be strong in fortitude and resistant to oppression, she is depicted as physically frail and easily overwhelmed.  I took the liberty of counting how many times Emily faints in the book, and I came up with eleven.  (I saw another reviewer on Goodreads said it was ten times, but I think they must have overlooked one scene where Emily fainted and then immediately fainted again upon reviving.)
Three Panel Review of Udolpho by Kate Beaton

While the fainting is a bit silly, Emily is somewhat justified in that she does end up in some truly harrowing situations.  The suspense  as Emily approaches the dreaded black veil or goes to plead with Montini on the behalf of her aunt is palpable, and once again I had difficulty putting the book down after I got through the first hundred pages. 

I was less thrilled with the last fourth or so of the book, which introduces many new characters all at once and contains a very silly plot twist, along with a pointless subplot about some secondary characters' adventures in a cave filled with bandits.  However, I did not find my attention lagging!  Another pet peeve is that we do not find out the fates of all of the characters, a few of whom disappear from the pages entirely.  Certain things are inconsistent; certain plot revelations are disappointing and others seem too incredible.

I did end up really enjoying Udolpho, though, and am very glad that I finally read it.  I would recommend to it any fan of Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, which parodies many elements of this book, but also to anyone interested in the Gothic genre.  I am feeling brave enough to add Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest to my to-read list and I may even try another of her bestsellers, The Italian.  What did Ann Radcliffe have against Italians, anyway?

This book is

verbose                    melodramatic              suspenseful         chilling

Monday, June 20, 2016

Top Ten Favorite 16th Century Releases

I absolutely love creating top ten lists for the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday, hosted over at the Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic, "top ten favorite 2016 releases so far this year," made me gulp.  A quick consultation of my Goodreads stats confirmed that I have not actually read any new releases from this year.  New releases are always difficult to get from the library, and I simply cannot afford to dish out the money for new hardcovers, lovely though they are!  So instead of listing my top ten favorite releases from 2016, I have decided to stray from the topic and list my favorite reads which were hot off the printing press in the 16th century!

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I taught this play to three classes of tenth graders this year, and I think most of them enjoyed it despite being a little scared of Shakespeare when we first started reading.

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

This play is a-mazing!  Despite his good intentions, Edward II of England is a weak king.  His wife Isabella and her treacherous lover Mortimer plot to overthrow him and get rid of Edward's boyfriend Gaveston, who is what thou might call a gold-digger.  

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

Admittedly I have only read small excerpts, but Spenser's genius blew me away!  I intend to return to this and read the entire book, someday...

Utopia by Sir Thomas More

More's quixotic and highly influential description of Utopia, a civilization more egalitarian than those of early modern Europe.

Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney

I recently reviewed this collection of romantic sonnets and really enjoyed them!

Essays by Montaigne

My copy of Michel de Montaigne's essays is more than a thousand pages; I'm not sure if I will ever finish every essay!  I have read quite a few in English and struggled through a few in Middle French.  I love his essays on libraries and reading, and his opinions seem incredibly "modern" for the time that he wrote.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

I have a hard time picking a favorite Shakespeare play, but Much Ado is my favorite comedy.  It has been the source material for endless romantic comedies since.  I particularly like the character of Beatrice.

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Another great Marlowe play, about an overambitious scholar who seeks to conquer death and encounters devils.  I have also read Queen Dido, but did not care for it as much.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

In my junior year of college, I chose Titus as the text for my final paper for a class on Shakespeare and Ecofeminism.  (Yep, there is a class about that and it was awesome!)  I have a fascination with Titus, and think it is an excellent and intriguing play once you get past the knee-jerk reaction of "gross, people unknowingly eating their own children!"  For a long time scholars were so mortified by the gore of Titus that they tried to argue that Shakespeare did not even write the play.  However, it is one of my favorites and rich in deeper meaning and symbolism!  I definitely recommend everyone give it a shot.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and other poems by Aemilia Lanyer

While she is probably best-known as a possible candidate for Shakespeare's Dark Lady in his sonnets, Lanyer was an excellent poet in her own right.  In a time when misogyny was rampant in literature and women almost entirely unrepresented, Lanyer made a strong case for women as poets and for women as, you know, human beings.  She was a feminist long before the word was ever used, and I particularly like her poem "The Description of Cookham."

Making this list was fun, but aggravating because I kept thinking of a favorite writer only to realize that they wrote in the seventeenth century!  Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by.  Feel free to leave me the link to your Top Ten Tuesday post when you comment and I will check out your list as well!

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Genre: mystery/thriller
Pages: 350
Published: 2009


Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice" of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She survived—and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club—a secret secret society obsessed with notorious crimes—locates Libby and pumps her for details. They hope to discover proof that may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club—for a fee. As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

All of the characters in Dark Places (including the narrator) are entirely unlikable and the subject matter is dark to say the least.  However, I found the book to be utterly intriguing and surprisingly excellent!

I devoured this one, my first Gillian Flynn, in a space of a few hours while sitting on the deck of a cruise ship this past week.  Whilst frighteningly pale people lounged around drinking martinis and frighteningly red people attempted to ease themselves into a hot tub without visibly cringing, I sat in the shade and indulged in this wild, expertly-crafted tale of murder, devil worship, and family skeletons.

From the moment I "met" the narrator Libby Day, I wanted to know more about her bleak life and her bleaker past, why she calls herself an "unlovable adult" and why in the world her brother Ben, now in prison, murdered the rest of her family when Libby was seven.  Libby is a very interesting character.  On the surface, she is a thirty-four year old woman who has never had a job or any dreams or real achievements, unless you count trying to pay the bills by writing a memoir about her murdered family.  She mentally beats herself up for relying on her gruesome celebrity status as the only survivor of the massacre to skate by without actually doing anything, yet it is impossible not to pity her for the horrors she has suffered.  In addition, Libby is pretty funny at times.  Her biting observations about certain characters and self-deprecating humor do a lot to lighten the mood of the book.
Libby describes her soul.

Libby's voice has the power to completely suck the reader into her little world, to let you see the things she saw and the emptiness she feels vividly.  However, the novel is not entirely in first person, because the chapters alternate between Libby's first-person POV in the present and flashbacks from the POVs of her mother, Patty, and her brother Ben.  So, the story unfolds rather like a film.  The author gives us little bits and pieces of what happened "that night" when Libby's family were killed, meanwhile Libby is trying to piece together everything in the present, sometimes working a bit more slowly than the reader thanks to our privileged insights from Patty and Ben's chapters, and sometimes having startling epiphanies.

I loved the way the characters kept me guessing, though I didn't really like any of the characters themselves.  However, my one complaint about Dark Places concerns its conclusion.  I felt that the big reveal of what happened to Libby's family that horrible night was a little, well, not deus ex machina, but rather diabolus ex machinaa devil from the machine, a cop-out on the author's part.  Those who have read it (more than 300,000 people on Goodreads alone!) will know what I mean by that.  To avoid spoiling anything, though, it suffices to say that I was not quite satisfied with the way the mystery turned out, although I loved every moment of Libby's investigation and the way it all unraveled.

I did feel a bit cheated, but on the other hand I put this rather disturbing tale aside without suffering from any lingering feeling of melancholy or despair at the way people sometimes treat each other in this world--a symptom I commonly have after finishing contemporary crime novels or watching thriller movies like Taken, etc.  Dark Places does indeed alight upon the dark corners of people's psyches, but ultimately the story is more hopeful than I had anticipated based on its beginnings.  Of course, it didn't hurt that there are few dark places or melancholy thoughts to be found on a cruise ship sailing leisurely through the Caribbean!

This book is

mesmerizing                               gloomy                        immersive

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Genre: classic novel
Published: 1859
Pages: 670 (paperback)

Synopsis: The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter is drawn into the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.


I recently gave in to re-reading temptation and revisited one of my all-time favorite novels, The Woman in White.

I first picked up the book after one of my professors showed our class five minutes of a clip from the film version which stars Andrew Lincoln (Rick from The Walking Dead).  In the scene we watched Marion Halcombe, looking wan yet determined in her rain-soaked pale nightgown, climbs across a narrow ledge outside her second story window in order to eavesdrop on the conversation of her sister's cruel husband Percival Glyde and his friend, the Italian Count Fosco, on the patio below.  Marion edges along the ledge past a window and only just avoids being spotted by a severe-looking woman who appears in the window to draw the curtains.  She then manages to overhear enough of Glyde and Fosco's conversation, despite the noise of the rain, to ascertain that her sister Laura is in terrible danger from some scheme the two men are planning in order to steal her inheritance.  Fosco drinks two glasses of sugar water and the rain increases so that Marian can hardly hear what the men are saying or keep from slipping on the ledge...  A rattled Marian eventually manages to return to her bedroom, but alas falls ill from having been so long out in the rain.  Caught in a feverish sleep for days, she is unable to warn Laura of the danger she faces.
Walter Hartright encounters the woman in white

While the film is in many respects different from (and inferior to!) the book, this scene was more than enough to pique my curiosity.  I wanted to read about this brave and almost reckless heroine Marian, who seemed so different from the passive women in some other Victorian novels, and to find out about this diabolical scheme to steal her sister's fortune.  I also wanted to learn more about the machinations of Count Fosco and his incongruous love of sugar.  The Woman in White was therefore a book that I commenced reading both with very high expectations and a strong feeling that I was going to love this book.  Approximately three years and four re-reads later, I can confirm that the powers of this suspenseful "sensation novel," written in 1859, have indeed stood the test of time.

Like Dracula, which it predates by several decades, The Woman in White is an epistolary novel.  The story is told through the written accounts of different characters, chiefly Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe.  However, Laura Fairlie's family lawyer, her hypochondriac and misanthropic uncle Frederick, and even one of the villains also take their turn at narrating.  Each of the characters has a unique and engaging style of narration and, like his better-known colleague Charles Dickens, Collins did not scruple to give them all interesting quirks or to pair humor with dire situations.

Count Fosco is one of my favorite Victorian villains.  A far cry from the archetypal Gothic villain who twirls his mustache and rides a black horse, Fosco is an elderly and extremely fat Italian gentleman.  He delights in taking care of his beloved pets, little white mice and parakeets. His wife seems to adore him, he stands up for Marian and Laura on several occasions, has impeccable manners, and absolutely loves the opera.  His words and his character are such that at times even the reader, like Marian, wonders if they haven't terribly misjudged the Count.

I adore that very forthright and intelligent Marian Halcombe.  She is not merely determined to win or be won by a suitor, or to passively survive the machinations of the villains, but to protect her sister and foil the schemes of those who would threaten her.  She is fearless and determined when facing villains who can wield all the advantages, granted to them by their gender, of education, power, and wealth against her.

Said schemes and the plot twists of the novel are masterfully executed.  While I own that I am the worst at guessing plot twists or mystery murderers, The Woman in White is riddled with surprises.  Even while reading it for a fourth time, I found myself wondering "How in the world are the heroines going to get out of this situation??"  The mysterious and titular woman in white is also not who I expected her to be.  Though this is not a ghost story, she and the other characters are certainly haunted by their pasts.
Wilkie Collins

I really cannot recommend The Woman in White enough.  Marion is one of my favorite narrators in any novel, and she and the other characters greet me like old, eccentric friends whenever I revisit this book.  Wilkie Collins' writing style is one that never fails to engage and delight and he succeeds in creating the eerie Gothic mood one might expect from this sort of novel.   The novel is from start to finish so suspenseful that I imagine any reader would have difficulty putting it down for more than a few minutes at a time.  My only complaint is that it tends to overshadow other classic thrillers that I read.  Just as I and many other readers are still searching for the next best fantasy series to Harry Potter, I am still searching for the Victorian thriller that is nearly as good as The Woman in White!

Some favorite quotes:

"The best men are not consistent in good--why should the worst men be consistent in evil?"

"Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper."

...and the best of Frederick Fairlie (Laura's hypochondriac uncle): 

"I sadly want a reform in the construction of children.  Nature's only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise."

"I am a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man!"

This book is

suspenseful, extremely well-written, populated with memorable and likable characters

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