Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday Gift Idea

For devoted readers of this blog, there is really only one possible gift this year: Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick. Lizzie wrote the beloved (and hopefully on hiatus, not cancelled) Fine Lines column for Jezebel, which revisited classics from our youth with an affectionate, if gimlet eye. Some of my most adored essays topics: The Westing Game, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler, and every word she wrote about Madeline L’Engle. For the record, I am a Vicky girl and A Ring of Endless Light is one of my favorite books ever.

Anyhow, Lizzie is hilarious and super smart. The only drawback to bestowing Shelf Discovery upon a lucky recipient, is that you should be prepared not to see her for a week or two as she will immediately embark on a massive re-read campaign. Or so I’ve heard.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More Holiday Books!

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

David Sedaris begins his collection of holiday essays with an autobiographical tale of his experiences as an elf in Macy's SantaLand. His chosen name was "Crumpet," and his experiences in SantaLand are both hilarious and a little horrifying. If you've never read Sedaris--God forbid--Holidays on Ice is the perfect place to begin.

Sedaris is amazing. His writing is succinct and enviable. He's my humor hero. I once waited almost three hours in line to get his newest collection of short stories, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, autographed. I had promised my good friend X--- that I would get her book autographed as well, as she wasn't feeling well and had gone home right after the reading. It was midnight. I was tired. I had been standing in line for almost three hours. This is the only explanation for what happened when I finally met Mr. Sedaris (again, my humor-essayist hero):

David Sedaris (very polite): Who would you like these signed to?

Me: Oh, myself--Elizabeth--and my friend X----, please. I love your new collection!

David Sedaris (more polite banter while signing books): Thank you. Where's your friend X---? Did she come with you?

Me: She did, but she fell asleep during your reading and then decided to go home. (Dawning horror when I realize what I've said.)

David Sedaris: Cold stare. Completely understandable cold stare.

Me: Oh no, not because it was boring! She wasn't feeling well! Your reading was excellent! (More incoherent, frantic babble.)

David Sedaris continues to stare at me. He scribbles something in my book and hands it to me. I'm shuffled out of line by attendants even as I'm continuing to apologize.

It was so, so incredibly embarrassing.

When I get out of the bookstore, I check what he's written in my copy, expecting something like "You are incredibly rude," "I forbid you from reading any of my books every again," or even, justifiably, "Screw you." I should have expected more, of course, and he delivered: "Friendship is a cancer."

Oh, David Sedaris, I love you.

If you like David Sedaris, try his sister Amy Sedaris' I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Filled with helpful recipe tips including some truly terrible-looking jello molds and hints on how to entertain all ages, sexes, and inebriation-levels, I Like You is pure gold, especially with the kitschy, old-school photos.

I picked up Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake because I thought the title was pretty funny--I, too, have been told there would be cake and there was no cake, none! which is always disappointing--and the autobiographical essays within lived up to the humor the title promises. Crosley chronicles her life as a young woman living in New York and her childhood in a suburb of the same city, from the horror of her mother giving her "the talk" to trying to figure out why, for the love of God, would any of her dinner guests leave poo on her bathroom rug.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Holiday Books

I set out with the best of intentions to compile a list of fun holiday reads, only to discover that the books I re-read around this time of year only have one thing in common. They're massive. My traditional holiday reads are 1) The Lord of the Rings and 2) all the Harry Potter books except the second one. Harry Potter does have great holiday scenes, but they're kind of a non-recommendation. You've either read Harry Potter or you haven't and nothing I write will change your mind on the subject.

So I wracked my brain, scoured my shelves and came up with the following list. Of two books. Um, hopefully Elizabeth can do better. I did come up with a rather long list of holiday books that I hate. You'll find that at the end of the post.

1) Little Women. It references Christmas in one of the greatest opening lines ever! And it just keeps going from there: pickled limes, burnt bangs, and the stupidest rejection of a proposal of ALL TIME. It was my favorite book for about ten years (I think it kind of brainwashed me into becoming a transcendentalist for a while). Regardless, Little Women is heartwarming and long, both integral ingredients for a cracking holiday read.

2) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's the most random appearance of Father Christmas ever! He arrives, distributes weapons to the underage and unsupervised children, and then, with nary a ho ho ho, drives off in his non-flying sledge. But the rest of the book (and the series) is awesome and since most of the action takes place in an endless winter, it's totally holiday appropriate.

Holiday books I thought of but refused to list for parenthetical reasons:

A Prayer for Owen Meany (irrational hatred of John Irving); The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (irrational hatred of children who constantly misbehave); A Christmas Carol (irrational hatred of Jim Carrey and anything he's associated with); and The Gift of the Magi (irrational hatred of morals that are FORCED DOWN YOUR THROAT).

So it appears I might actually be something of a holiday book Scrooge. Does anyone have suggestions I missed? Impassioned defenses of books I maligned? I know there are good holiday reads out there, help me out!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jellicoe Road

“It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I’d ever seen, where the trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-La.”

Jellicoe Road kills me. Seriously. Every time I read it (and I’ve read it four times now, not bad for a book published in the U.S. in 2008), I cry. Not a few happy tears at the end of the book, but Beth-dying ugly crying – for at least half the book. The first time I read it, the tears didn’t kick in until the end, but when I re-read it, I barely made it past page 10 before I was a goner.

When Elizabeth and I were talking about it, our conversation basically went like this: “It was so good.” “I cried.” “It was so embarrassing; I couldn’t stop crying.” “It was awesome!”

So I realize all this crying might put some of you off, but that would be a shame. Because Jellicoe Road is lovely. It’s beautifully put together and as the characters slowly emerge, you can’t help but feel affection for them, all the more because they’re not immediately easy to get to know.

I realize I’m being a little obscure, but Jellicoe Road is one of those books, like Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, that’s better read with very little prep. If you’re a fan of interesting writing and strong heroines, I’d encourage you to just go grab a copy now and start reading.

For those of you who want a little more info before committing, I’ll dig in a bit.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Alas, Poor Yorick . . ."

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

If you've never read a graphic novel, please start with Brian Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. The first in a series, Y: Unmanned is at heart a social critique, one which is told with compassion rather than derision. It also happens to contain some of the most humorous dialogue I have ever had the pleasure to read.

Y opens with Yorick Brown--young, broke, recent college graduate--pining for his girlfriend, Beth. While Beth is in Australia on an anthropological dig, Yorick spends his time perfecting his amateur escape artistry and attempting to train his pet monkey, Ampersand. Needless to say, Yorick is an unlikely hero. He seems especially unlikely to survive a mysterious plague which kills every mammal with a Y chromosome--except for Yorick himself and Ampersand. The world is plunged into chaos, and as the last males alive, Yorick and Ampersand are valuable commodities.

While at first this seems like an adolescent fantasy--the only man in a world full of women?--Vaughan respects his audience too much to allow Y to fall into a tawdry cliche. Personally, the idea of a world populated only by women (or men) sounds pretty horrifying to me, and it's not a pretty picture according to Vaughan, either. But don't get me wrong; this book is in no way misogynistic. In fact, it's populated by some of the strongest female characters I've encountered. Specifically, Agent 355 and Dr. Allison Mann, the government agent and geneticist who locate and protect Yorick in an effort to determine what, exactly, has caused the "gendercide."

By the end of the series, Vaughan and the excellent artist Pia Guerra have explored love, hate, sexuality, the bonds of family and friendship, and the pressures of unexpected responsibility. I fell a little bit in love with Yorick, Agent 355, and Dr. Mann--and I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the (very affecting) end of the series. Please read Y: The Last Man. You will thoroughly enjoy it and hopefully, for those graphic-novel-doubters out there, become addicted to the genre.

***I would suggest borrowing the series from the library; it's composed of ten books at $15.00 each, which can get a bit pricey. The movie version is due to be released soon (about which I'm definitely reserving judgment) so I'd check these out before cinema hype makes library queues long.

If you like Y: The Last Man, try another of Vaughan's graphic novel series, Runaways. The first in the series, Pride and Joy, introduces a group of teenagers thrown together throughout the years when their parents meet. . .for what the teens discover isn't bridge, gossiping, and discussing their children's college plans. Their parents are the Pride, a group of super villains and criminal masterminds who plan on their children following in their dubious footsteps. Needless to say, the majority of the teens aren't too excited about this idea, thus the title of the series. While Runaways doesn't have the depth of Y: The Last Man, it's surprisingly introspective for a teen graphic novel series. The only downfall? The binding of the books is awful--they quickly fall apart. Another library visit is definitely recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ciao Bella

Oh, Twilight, you crazy phenomenon you. The romance! The longing! The glittering vampire skin! The unbearable yet somehow strangely engaging dialogue and prose! Kerry's excellent review of Stephenie Meyer's novel aptly points out all Twilight's flaws and good qualities so well that I feel my review will pale in comparison, as it will consist mainly of ranting. But, if you've read this blog at all, you know I can't resist a good rant.

Let's get one thing out the way. Twilight is set in Forks, Washington. No offense to the good people of Forks, but Forks is in no way a romantic setting. It is always wet. The novel's title also holds double meaning, as it perpetually seems to be overcast twilight in Forks. Obviously, this is the perfect place for vampires to dwell, but may induce a severe case of SAD in humans. Bella would probably have been too busy taking Vitamin D to get involved with anyone.

Plausibility of Forks as a romantic setting aside, I really enjoyed my first reading Twilight. I viewed it as pure, mindless entertainment, but the more I thought about the characters and plot, the more disturbed I became. This book is aimed at young adults, and certain actions which may seem romantic to a young adult seem creepy and weird to adults, namely breaking into someone's house to watch them sleep. This is not romantic, people, this is a call-the-cops-stalker-alert activity. Edward, while a brooding hunk of handsome vampire, is a tad too intense for my liking, and worst of all, Bella is boring. There, I've said it. (Typed it? Anyway, it's out there.) Bella is such a boring, anti-heroine heroine. The entire novel she generally waits for things to happen to her rather than being proactive, and she's a bit of a wimp. Yes, I was a wimp when I was a teenager, and I still am in lots of ways (namely when I encounter clowns or the only time I rode a moped), but young adult novels are meant to inspire teens, not encourage them to lay about the house, anxious and a-flutter.

The Seattle Public Library's Teen Blog, Push To Talk, created a fabulous post, Better Than Bella, specifically about novels with more gutsy, realistic heroines than Bella for teen girls to relate to. All the titles the librarians recommend are good reads, especially Vivian Vande Velde's Companions of the Night and Annette Curt Klause's The Silver Kiss. In this vein, I have offered up vampire-themed book suggestions with heroines you'd want with you on a dark and stormy night. Say ciao to Bella, and read these titles instead of the Twilight Series:

Sunshine By Robin McKinley

Sunshine was recently republished, no doubt because of the current vampire craze. If you were lucky enough to read it when it was released in 2003, you'll know that Sunshine is a bit of a departure for McKinley, who is known for her award wining fantasy and retelling of fairy tales. The classic McKinley prose and character development are present, but Sunshine is (I apologize for the irony here) dark and modern. Set in the near future in which a magic-based war has devastated most of the world, Rae enjoys her simple life as a baker in her stepfather's cafe. . .until she is kidnapped and imprisoned by a vampire. Her escape and subsequent realization of her own magical powers is enthralling reading. Here's to hoping that McKinley will publish a sequel.

Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse Series

The Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire novels start off with Dead Until Dark, in which the eponymous heroine Sookie, a telepathic bar maid in Bon Temps, Louisiana, is looking for her life to change. Vampires have recently "come out of the coffin" with the development of synthetic blood, and Sookie, not exactly normal herself, is pretty excited about meeting one. She's even more excited when she realizes that she can't read vampires' thoughts (telepathy is apparently a serious impediment when dating normal men), and before the reader knows it, Sookie is in a steamy relationship with Bill the Vampire, as the locals call him, while simultaneously trying to stay out of the way of a serial killer and simply living her life.

Harris manages to infuse realism in the magical; Sookie's telepathy is more troublesome than helpful, and you sympathize with the vampires for having to deal with the grating political aftermath of their "revelation" while realizing that the majority of them see humans only as snacks. Sookie is one of the most likable heroines I've come across in ages, and she's sassy to boot. (Just thinking about this book makes me start using Southern terminology.) If you're looking for something funny yet occasionally dark, the Sookie series are for you. Just prepared to become addicted--Harris recently published the ninth book in the series and, of course, there's the new HBO series, True Blood, which is based on the series. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It had to happen at some point

In honor of this week’s New Moon movie release, I thought Elizabeth and I could do a little back and forth on Twilight, the first of Stephenie Meyer's hugely popular teen vampire series.

Here’s the thing. I realize these books are totally anti-feminist and weirdly evangelical. The fourth book, Breaking Dawn, was so bad it seriously nearly gave me a stroke while reading it (Renesmee? Really? REALLY?). And the mania they've spawned is a bit on the creepster side.

But the first book? The one that re-started this whole vampire craze? That somehow made hero Edward charming instead of EXTREMELY creepy? It’s, um, actually kind of awesome.

Back story: I was living in Vietnam when Twilight was published, so getting my hands on a copy wasn't an option. However, I’d heard enough buzz that, when I was in Oxford on my way home, I wandered into a bookshop and picked up Twilight to read a few pages. A few hours later, I had no feeling in my legs from sitting on an uncomfortable seat, and I’d finished the whole thing. When I could have been looking at amazing architecture! Or punting down the Cherwell! Or, at the very least, devouring the entirety of the Sainsbury candy aisle. So what drew me in?

It’s not Stephenie Meyer’s immortal prose, that’s for sure. But Twilight is a bona fide page turner. And Meyer does an excellent job of creating a thoroughly modern gothic novel (and as you know, I have no defense against a good gothic). The setting of Forks, Washington totally suckered me in (keep in mind that I hadn’t been home in over a year and at that point missed even the rain). Reading it evoked the feeling of being in a small Washington town when the clouds and rain make you feel totally closed in.

And the plot works. New-to-town Bella explores Forks and meets mysterious and amazingly attractive Edward. Sinister things happen. They're stuck in a tiny town on the Olympic Peninsula surrounded by trees and water. Bella and Edward get closer, despite his best efforts, but she knows he’s hiding things from her. What's not to like? Plus, Meyer credibly evokes the intensity of high school emotions. Yes, Bella’s a bit on the extreme side, but for anyone who remembers how high the stakes seemed during their teen years, she doesn’t come across as crazy.

Nope, she saves that for books two, three, and four! Okay, so later books in the series took things that were mildly problematic in the first book to a whole new level of KrazyTown. My primary concerns: Bella doesn’t actually seem to have any real girl friends; she cares about her boyfriend more than her education; her life goal is to become a vampire before she gets older than her boyfriend; oh and Edward is creepily possessive and controlling in a way that's a wee bit patronizing. And that’s just book two. I still can’t talk about book four without getting mildly hysterical. It’s just too painful to realize those are hours of my life I’m never getting back.

However, as fall digs in and rainy days made for reading become more plentiful, you could do way worse than to pick up Twilight. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about Breaking Dawn.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

One Single Solitary Castle

Of Elizabeth’s two crumbling castle stories, I’m ashamed to admit I have finished only one: I Capture the Castle. But it’s so good and I have so much to say about it, that it’s probably a relief to everyone involved that I haven’t quite gotten through A Brief History of Montmaray.

I’m always surprised to realize I didn’t actually read I Capture the Castle growing up, but in my twenties. It just has that intangible feeling of a childhood classic with all of the qualities I associate with books I devoured growing up. For starters, it’s splendidly evocative of a lost time and place – in this case, rural England between the wars. And it’s a literary novel, literary in the sense that the characters love books and reading and throw out allusions to Joyce, Austen, and Thackeray as a matter of course. It’s a novel that makes you think because the characters talk about big ideas and small ideas in a way that gets your mind whirring.

However, what truly makes the book is, of course, its young heroine, Cassandra Mortmain. Described by a vicar of all people as “Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp” (p.111), Cassandra is much more self-confident and dryly funny than poor long-suffering Jane and much kinder to her fellow human beings than Miss Sharp. Her resilience is fortunate given that her family is sliding past genteel poverty and fast becoming concerned with getting enough to eat. Cassandra is one of life’s observers – her journal entries make up the entirety of I Capture the Castle and the novel is filled with her sometimes biting, sometimes naive, and almost always hilarious take on what’s going on around her.

I Capture the Castle makes one long for a beautifully lazy English summer. While the action in the book takes place over a year, the most vividly rendered scenes occur in the summer – when the hill behind the castle seem as much a part of the book as Topaz, Cassandra’s part-wise, part-daft stepmother.

I say action, though apart from the arrival of the two Cotton brothers, Simon and Neil, nothing momentous happens for most of the book. Oh there are picnics and dinner parties, Cassandra and her sister Rose scrap, and their father does anything to avoid getting started on his long-awaited second novel. But most of the fun of the story comes from Cassandra’s closely-observed record what happens in between the high drama – for example her attempts to take to strong drink to relieve the pain of a broken heart (one cherry brandy later and she’s given it up as too ruinously expensive).

As much as Cassandra might like to think of herself as an impartial spectator of human folly, by the end, she’s completely enmeshed in what’s going on around her and has 1) fallen hopelessly in love with a most unavailable man 2) plotted with her younger brother to force her father to resume writing whether he wants to or not and 3) taken control of her own destiny.

Which brings me to the end. One of my favorite things about I Capture the Castle is the ending. While I am often a stickler (sucker?) for a happy ending, in this case, a neat and tidy ending would have felt forced. Cassandra is eighteen and in love with a man just jilted by her sister. And so bright, ardent, and full of life that it would feel like cheating for her story to end neatly with all the strings tied up.

Cassandra herself references this problem in the middle of the book, when introducing the concept of the “brick-wall happy ending.” She characterizes it as, “…the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters.” (p.197) No such trouble here. Smith gives us exactly the right ending for a vividly intelligent eighteen year old – one that allows the reader’s imagination to fill in all of the beginnings awaiting Cassandra.


If you liked I Capture the Castle, you should try:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. A darkly hilarious romp through rural England, as seen through the eyes of one of the most self-possessed heroines of all time, Miss Flora Poste. Looking to gain life experience for her novel (and disinclined to work for a living), Flora goes to live with her distant relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. What she finds there is disorder and despair, D.H. Lawrence-style. As she is constitutionally incapable of abiding untidiness, Flora gets to work, setting her bizarre extended family’s lives in order. Hilarity, I need hardly tell you, ensues.

Don’t miss the excellent movie of Cold Comfort Farm– featuring Ian McKellen, Kate Beckinsale, and Rufus Sewell – it’s one of the rare cases when the movie is as good or better than its source material.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Plucky Heroines in Moldering Castles: Adventure, Romance, Diaries, and Nazis

Okay, so only one of these books actually involves Nazis, but the shadow of WWII is looming over both Michelle Cooper's recently published A Brief History of Montmaray and Dodie Smith's classic, I Capture the Castle. When I stumbled across a review of Cooper's Montmaray I immediately placed a hold on it at my local library. A young girl living on a fictional island nation of the coast of Spain during WWII is just the sort of novel that I love--and Montmaray lived up to my expectations and more. It has Nazis! Romance! Secret passageways! A droll yet endearing heroine!

But wait!

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle also involves romance, droll-yet-endearing heroines living in crumbling castles, a diary-style narrative, and family drama the likes of which I hope to never experience. While these novels are certainly distinct, the plot and narrative similarities between the two make it impossible for me not to associate them with one another--so, without further ado, here are both reviews:

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Sophie FitzOsborne is an odd sort of princess. She lives with her tomboyish younger sister, her beautiful, scholarly cousin Veronica, Veronica's slightly mad father (the King of Montmaray, on his good days), and approximately five villagers on the small island nation of Montmaray. Sophie's story begins with the arrival of a sixteenth birthday gift, a diary, sent from her beloved brother Toby. Cooper engagingly establishes the not-so-genteel poverty of Sophie's family and her infatuation with their housekeeper-cum-caretaker's son, Simon Chester, but the novel doesn't really take off until the arrival of a small group of Nazi scholars bent on discovering the Holy Grail--which they believe, due to an errant word by Simon Chester--may be hidden somewhere in the Montmaray Castle. The Nazis serve as a catalyst for change in the complacent FitzOsborne clan, and before Sophie realizes what's happening to her safe world, she's hiding bodies, solving the mystery of Veronica's missing mother, and escaping Montmaray during an harrowing air strike. While the novel has some humorous elements and Sophie herself is upbeat yet contemplative, Cooper examines the intricacies of family life and the painful excitement of change very well. Best of all, the ending is satisfying yet allows for the possibility of the continuation of Sophie's story.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain, like Sophie FitzOsborne, lives a crumbling castle and hasn't had a new dress in ages, but Smith's novel is more nuanced than Cooper's Montmaray. Cassandra's father published a lauded work of fiction and then proceeded to have writer's block for the forseeable future, but not before moving his family to an isolated castle (really a keep) in the British countryside. Cassandra is an utterly endearing narrator, and her growing-up is chronicled so beautifully and eloquently that it isn't difficult to understand why I Capture the Castle has a cult following. (Also Dodie Smith wrote One Hundred and One Dalmatians! How can you not love the woman who created Cruella de Vil?)

As with A Brief History of Montmaray, it takes outsiders to shake things up a bit for the Mortmains. When their new American landlords arrive, Cassandra's beautiful sister Rose sets her sights on the rich older brother, Simon--unfortunately, so does Cassandra. To complicate matters further, Simon's brother Neil appears to hate Rose, and the Mortmains' live-in family friend Stephen dotes on Cassandra. An eccentric model stepmother, Topaz, a largely absent younger brother, and the landlords' polished mother and friends complete the cast of characters.

I love I Capture the Castle because Cassandra is such a realistic and lovable heroine who deals with a difficult situation well. She doesn't even seem to resent her largely absent father. The family barely has enough to eat yet Papa Mortmain continues to read detective novels and have moods. The indulgence for his "genius" is the only part of the book that bothers me--it doesn't seem too realistic, but other than that the novel is a sensitive and engaging narrative of a young girl's tumultuous entry into adulthood. What makes I Capture the Castle even more compelling is the sense the reader has of knowing that although life is changing drastically for Cassandra, soon the world will undergo complete upheaval, as the novel is set on the cusp of WWII. You end up caring so much for Smith's characters that you worry about their lives post-I Capture the Castle, which in my opinion is a sign of a good read.

You will love I Capture the Castle. Read it and A Brief History of Montmaray immediately. For good measure you may want to watch One Hundred and One Dalmatians, too. I promise Cruella de Vil is just as fabulously frightening as ever.

Oh Georgette Heyer, My Queen (of Witty Regency Romances)

I am ashamed to admit that I barely knew who Georgette Heyer was until Kerry convinced me to read one of her novels (thank you, Kerry!). Georgette Heyer is amazing: engaging, witty, extremely knowledgeable regarding historical accuracy, and best of all, prolific. There is nothing better than discovering an amazing writer--and then discovering that she has written over fifty novels. Heyer reportedly wrote her first novel, The Black Moth, as a teenager to entertain her ill brother, and her writing only gets better and better from then on.

I completely agree with Kerry that The Talisman Ring and The Corinthian are some of her best works and thus the perfect Heyer novels to begin with. I particularly enjoy her strong-willed heroines and the pervasive humor of her novels. Some of my favorites titles are:

The Grand Sophy
This book manages to contain a young woman who eagerly and easily threatens moneylenders, lovingly meddles in her family's affairs, carries a firearm, and would most likely intimidate Napoleon himself. . .and best of all, a pet monkey. You will fall in love with Sophy--or at least learn to respectfully fear her.


Heyer's answer to Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a bit more serious in tone than some of her other novels (for example, good old Sophy) but farce and mistaken motives makes this one of her most humorous books, as well. The hero and heroine initially despise one another but learn to despise the ridiculous people around them even more (there is a hilarious scene in which the heroine, Phoebe, consoles a dandy who is literally despondent over the loss of his beloved gold boot tassels, which have been mauled by a puppy). So enjoyable.

Speaking of ridiculous people, this book is populated by them. Because I love Heyer's contain strong-willed, intelligent characters, this book was a bit of a shock. While heiress Kitty Charing and her cousin Freddy Standen may be strong-willed, they are incredibly ditzy. I literally kept waiting for the main characters to show up, convinced that Kitty and Freddy had to be secondary characters purely for amusement--but oh no, they are the main characters. And amusing main characters they certainly are. A change of pace for Heyer, and pure entertainment for the reader.

I recently scoured Powell's Books in Portland (if you've never been to Powell's you are seriously not living life to its fullest; I could easily sleep every night there and be happy) for Georgette Heyer titles and was ecstatic to many 1960s paperback copies complete with cheesy covers and, as Kerry mentioned in her post, completely inaccurate jacket descriptions. It was like discovering gold. I guarantee that once you read Heyer, it will be hard to stop.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Scary Funny

If I were strictly following the format of our blog, this would be my follow up post on scary books in honor of Halloween. Except I don’t read scary books. They, um, scare me. As Elizabeth so eloquently pointed out, horror should inspire you to double check your locks. It inspires me to double check my locks, look in every closet, under the bed, in the shower, turn off all the lights so I can see if anyone is lurking outside the window, and then check the locks again. I find this to be rather time consuming, thus I avoid scary books.

Instead, let’s talk about The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer. In keeping with the Halloween theme it has a villain. And people in costume/disguise. And it’s scary how funny it is. (Yes, I'll be here all week people.)

For the uninitiated, Georgette Heyer is the Grande Dame of Regency romance. Do not let the romance label deter you (not that it should in general, but especially not for Heyer). Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer-prize winning book critic for
The Washington Post, writes directly to possible nay-sayers in Classics for Pleasure, “What truly matters, though, is that Georgette Heyer remains as witty as any writer of the past century, as accomplished as P.G. Wodehouse in working out complex plots, and as accurate as a professional historian in getting her background details right.” (p. 85)

Speaking of complex plots,
The Talisman Ring has a doozy. It starts out simply with a death and an arranged marriage. Sylvester, Baron Lavenham is on his deathbed and makes his nephew, Sir Tristram Shield, promise to marry his granddaughter, the lovely Eustacie de Vauban. Standard fare, right? Except Sir Tristram is hopelessly pragmatic and Eustacie is…well, she's wildly romantic and a wee bit impractical. She longs for adventure and hasn't quite gotten over the indignity of being rescued from the Terror (i.e. the guillotine) by her grandfather before she could effect a thrilling escape.

What starts off as a book about two mismatched people bound to marry each other quickly explodes into a farce, complete with cross-dressing, smugglers, a Priest’s hole, a weaselly valet, Bow Street Runners, and a villain who arrives to perform misdeeds wearing, in all seriousness, a loo mask.

And let me relieve your mind. Heyer doesn’t make Eustacie become sensible or Sir Tristram grow to appreciate her tumultuous approach to life. She fully acknowledges that they’d drive each other to madness in hours (possibly less) and introduces two other lead characters. It’s all a bit Shakespearean and it works beautifully.

Especially as one of the lead characters is Miss Sarah Thane.
Miss Thane has all of Eustacie’s enthusiasm for adventure wrapped up in a ruthless practicality that alarms even the phlegmatic Sir Tristram. Here's a quick excerpt from when they meet at an inn (Miss Thane having taken the fleeing Eustacie under her wing after she fell in with smugglers) and are arranging a cover story:
"...unfortunately, you, Sir Tristram, knowing nothing of me, and being possessed of a tyrannical disposition - I beg your pardon?'

"I did not speak," replied Sir Tristram, eying her frostily.

Miss Thane met his look with one of limpid innocence. "Oh, I quite thought you did!"

"I choked," explained Sir Tristram. "Pray continue! You had reached my tyrannical disposition." (p. 87)
And so they go - their dry wit coupled with Eustacie's flights of fancy, thrown together with some truly bumbling Bow Street Runners makes me laugh until I cry every time I read it. Even when I'm on a bus surrounded by hipsters, who are looking in horror at me and the cover.

Speaking of the cover, it, like the plot, is a doozy. Thanks to Sourcebooks reissue of Georgette Heyer’s complete works, today's sheltered readers can pick up vaguely respectable looking copies of The Talisman Ring with no trouble at all. By starting to read Heyer few years earlier, I had to scour used bookstore shelves to find her books. And to find the gem that is
The Talisman Ring I had to get past a lurid 70s cover AND the most wildly inaccurate jacket text that I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. It mentions neither Miss Thane or Sir Tristram and instead talks about "the dark forest" and "a maelstrom of terror, deceit..." That book actually sounds perfect for a Halloween post, but it has nothing at all to do with The Talisman Ring.

Books you should read if you liked The Talisman Ring:

The Corinthian. Another one of Heyer's perfect light comedies, featuring a heroine who escapes from her miserable family by climbing out her bedroom window and setting off in search of adventure (oh she has a theoretical plan, but what's she's really looking for is adventure). However, I refuse to tell you any more about it because I'm planning on posting on it later. Just read it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Few Frightening Titles in Honor of Halloween

It's almost Halloween! Which may be my favorite holiday. Most of the population dressing in bizarre costumes while handing out candy? Best holiday ever.

I love watching cheesy horror movies. These movies (almost) never scare me, so I decided that I should branch out and read horror fiction. My reading tastes don't naturally gravitate towards horror, but I felt that I should give the genre a chance. It turns out that horror fiction is infinitely more frightening than zombie flicks or "Sleepwalkers" (although "Sleepwalkers" does involve incestuous cat-people and an incredibly bad Stephen King cameo). I've always felt that reading is a more personal experience than watching a movie, as a reader brings all his or her collected experiences to the text and enriches it. When you watch a horror movie, you're watching the director's idea of what is frightening; when you read a horror novel, your imagination embellishes the author's story in untold ways. These untold ways usually involve me triple-checking my window locks and getting paranoid when I hear a suspicious (read: completely normal) sound outside my apartment.

If you too would like to start triple-checking your window locks, read one of these deliciously scary novels:

Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac
I adore Joseph Bruchac. His books for children generally contain Native American themes and he never talks down to his audience, something I really appreciate in children's literature. Skeleton Man begins with Molly waking up to find her loving parents gone. When they don't return, a mysterious, very thin older man appears claiming to be Molly's great uncle. He takes her home, where she is locked in her room after she returns from school every day. As Molly becomes more and more despondent, she comforts herself with traditional Native American tales, which she relies upon to guide her to the truth about the disappearance of her parents and her eerie "great-uncle." Bruchac's story is never obvious; you know the great-uncle is up to something shady, but the end is completely unexpected. I read this book in a hotel room and got up to check the door lock twice--and this book is meant for eight-to-thirteen-year-olds. Apparently kids are hardier nowadays. James and the Giant Peach freaked me out when I was ten, let alone tales of kidnapping and missing parents.

Skeleton Man
is the perfect read for newcomers to the the horror genre. Frightening, but not nightmare-inducing.


I love Neil Gaiman. I know not everyone feels similarly, especially since some of Mr. Gaiman's more recent adult fiction hasn't been up to par, but his children's fiction is excellent. It's obvious that Gaiman truly understands children and how their imaginations can be wild, tumultuous places where an everyday event can be nightmarish. (It's also possible that I might have just been an extremely wimpy kid, as shown by my fear of James and the Giant Peach.)

Gaiman's Coraline is a fabulous example of his sparse yet affecting writing style (he's like the Kazuo Ishiguro of children's literature). Coraline moves with her busy, distracted parents to a new home. She's largely expected to entertain herself, which leads to disastrous results. During one of her explorations, she discovers her "other" home. At first this "other" home seems remarkably similar to Coraline's home, only better. There is delicious food and "other" children and "other" parents. . .who desperately want her to stay with them.

This book is creepy. I cannot describe it more eloquently than that-except to mention that the "other" people have buttons as eyes. Buttons as eyes. Just thinking about it give me the shivers. Read this book immediately! The film adaptation is very well-done, as well.

If you like Coraline, check out Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which just won the Newbery Medal. It's also a fantastic read.

If you're interested in young adult horror, stick with Lois Duncan. I scared the hell out of myself reading her books as a thirteen-year-old.

John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things is the perfect transition from children's to adult horror, as it chronicles a young boy's coming of age. Connolly normally writes crime fiction, so The Book of Lost Things is a bit of departure from the norm for him. When twelve-year-old David's mother dies during WWII, he relies on books for comfort and consolation. The line between reality and fantasy slowly beings to blur, until David finds himself in a land of violent fairy and folk tales, pursued by the Crooked Man. . .

The Book of Lost Things perfectly captures the horror of fantasy come to life. At the heart of the novel is a hero's quest to become an adult and overcome grief. David's progression through trials and tribulations is engaging yet tinged with sadness and triumph. There is also a nifty compilation of fairy tales at the end of the book.
Speaking of disturbing and violent fairy tales, one of my favorite authors, Angela Carter, is the creme de la creme of the dark fairy tale genre. If you haven't read her, immediately do so. She is amazing. Start with Heroes and Villains, a post-apocalyptic tale. After the apocalypse, society is divided into three factions: the Professors and Soldiers, the Barbarians, and the Out People. The Out People attack the Barbarians as the Barbarians attack the Professors and Soldiers. Marianne is captured during one of the Barbarians' raids. She is meant as a prize for the Barbarian Jewel. While this seems at first to be heading into some moderately cheesy science fiction territory, what follows is a bizarre, dangerous love story told in lush language peppered with disturbing imagery. I honestly cannot do Angela Carter justice. Her voice is incredibly unique and she defies a specific genre.

Hopefully one of these titles will inspire you to check your door locks. After finishing Skeleton Man or The Book of Lost Things you might even have to watch a Disney movie, which is my steadfast cure for reading something a tad too scary. Enjoy!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bonfires and Brainwashing and Sacrifies, Oh My!

Kerry covered Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard so well in her previous post that I struggled with something new to say about it--and sadly, I don't know much about old Pagan Britain or the environmental messages within the book (sorry, Kerry!). However, I do know that I love this book so much that I have an extra copy of it in my car.

That's right, in my car.

This is obviously the first of many nerdy revelations on my part. Seriously, though, The Perilous Gard is just that good. It was a 1975 Newbery Honor book and received glowing reviews upon its publication. The New York Times' Karla Ruskin describes Pope's ability to "treat the magic of her story with subtlety and intelligence [ . . .Pope] illustrates how events may be shifted and shaped into myth. When she is done we understand that what we call magic may be the reality of another life from a distant age altered by time and telling."*

Hopefully The Perilous Gard doesn't too closely follow the reality of another life from a distant age, as the Fairy Folk are big into human sacrifice and hoodwinking sick pilgrims. The dark elements of this book are what makes it so engaging; Pope manages to avoid stereotyping the Fairy Folk as a creepy people who live underground and regard humans as little more than prey (which they do to some degree), but instead as a dying group whose way of life is on the brink of extinction.

Pope's heroine, the awkward, lovable Kate Sutton, acknowledges the complexity of her experience with the Fairy Folk. Ins
tead of rejecting her time spent as a captive, she chooses to take what she can from the experience. When the Lady comes to her at the very end of the novel, Kate's final words to her are as follows: "Do you think I learned nothing from the time I spent in your land, when you let me live as you do?" Kate's ability to overcome a justifiable hatred toward the Fairy Folk--they did kidnap her and brainwash her friend Christopher--was incredibly affecting when I read this book as a ten-year-old. It was one of the first times I realized that nothing can be painted in black and white. Also, it has romance, adventure, ballads, self-sacrifice, incredibly ditzy sisters who write ill-considered letters to Queen Mary, kidnapping, bonfires, and more! How can you resist?

*The Perilous Gard, Karla Ruskin. New York Times (1857-current file); Sept. 15, 1974. ___________________________________________________________________
You can resist reading The Sherwood Ring, which is the only other book Pope wrote. When I first discovered this book I was ecstatic--a colonial American ghost story? Awesome. Unfortunately, The Sherwood Ring, while occasionally funny and peppered with historical tidbits, is no Perilous Gard. For example, the "declaration of love" scene involves the hero, British historian Pat, fondly telling the heroine, orphaned Peggy Grahame, to pay attention to a beautiful view because "you're not going to get a view like that when you're darning a basketful of socks somewhere behind the red brick university." Oh, the romance.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tudor Awesomeness - The Perilous Gard

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Kate Sutton is a lady in waiting to Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield when her flighty younger sister Alicia writes an ill-considered letter to Queen Mary. The letter enrages Mary and gets Kate exiled to the Perilous Gard, a remote castle owned by Sir Geoffrey Heron. That’s right Kate – not Alicia. Life in Tudor England? Not fair.

Our intrepid heroine is sent away to a remote location with only her host/jailer, Sir Geoffrey, his sullen younger brother Christopher, and a traveling minstrel named Randal to keep her company. At the Gard there are servants that she's pretty sure she can't trust (either because they seem totally shady or completely bird-witted). She’s physically isolated due to the remote location of the Gard and her banishment means she can't leave, no matter what happens. And of course there's the mysterious death of Sir Geoffrey's daughter Cecily. No one talks about it, but Christopher has shouldered the blame, and it makes the whole castle very tense. It’s only now when re-reading that I realized The Perilous Gard is actually a gothic novel in Newbery-winning disguise.

Being of an inquiring turn of mind (and really, she's stranded in the middle of a forest called the Elvenwood with nothing else to do), Kate sets out to discover the truth. What follows is a spin on the ballad of Tam Lin, which pits awkward, gangly Kate against the Lady, Queen of the Fairy Folk who live under the hill in a battle for Christopher's life.

Can I tell you how much I love this book? So much. Kate is prickly and ungraceful, but she’s also trenchantly funny and unwilling to give up in the face of what should be insurmountable obstacles. Her adventures as a serving girl under the hill (she's not a very good sneak and gets caught quite quickly) are some of my favorite part of the book. Kate is brought face to face with the Lady and with Christopher. Their interactions form the central conflict of the book, as Kate struggles to find a way out of their imprisonment, but also finds herself learning from the Lady and building a close friendship with Christopher.

*Major Spoilers* The final scene in the book – when Kate is confronted by the Lady still makes me a little sick to my stomach. It’s that good. The Lady, always a complicated thinker, offers to Kate magic to make Christopher love her (Kate's convinced that Christopher is in love with her sister Alicia and is at that moment literally standing in the cold, watching them together through a window, and despairing). Kate rejects the offer. Not because she doesn’t want what the Lady is offering with every fiber of her being, but because she knows the inauthenticity involved would poison the rest of her life. Her clear-sightedness allows her to escape the final trap laid for her by the Lady and emerge victorious in a meaningful way. Seriously, it's amazing. You should read it.

Random note: The Perilous Gard was my first introduction to the idea of Elizabeth Ex Machina (yes, I coined this phrase myself; no, I don't believe it's proper Latin). Is it just me or do half the novels set in Tudor England reach some dire point where no positive resolution seems possible, at which moment Queen Mary dies, Elizabeth ascends the throne, and all problems are suddenly solved? The lady was veeery busy in her first few days on the throne.

Ugh, I have gone on for far too long and I haven't even touched on the interesting thematic exploration of the disappearance of old pagan Britain and the possible environmental messages! I will leave that up to Elizabeth - I'm sure she'll be thrilled.


Books to try if you loved The Perilous Gard:

Dorothy Dunnett's The Lymond Chronicles. Six hulking books with tiny print and untranslated allusions in at least five languages. What on earth could they have to do with the simplicity and charm of The Perilous Gard? A lot! I swear! These books evoke the heady intellectualism and political maneuvering that characterize the Tudor period like none other. And the anti-hero at the center of it all, Francis Crawford, keeps things interesting even when you want to kick him across Scotland. Not for the faint of heart or easily bored, but definitely worth trying if you like historical fiction. The series starts with The Game of Kings.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Airhead redux

Here’s the thing. Unlike Elizabeth, I adore Meg Cabot. I love her stand-alone books like Teen Idol, Avalon High, and Jinx. I love her chick lit like The Boy Next Door. And I love her blog. So I’m a bona fide fangirl. And yet, despite all my predisposition towards anything by Cabot, I HATED Airhead. Hated it. I didn't manage to make it to the end of the book (which isn't very long to begin with) and can't imagine picking up the next book in the series.

*Spoilers* Elizabeth outlined the plot below, and that pretty much sums up my problems with the book. I just kept thinking, really? REALLY? This is patently ridiculous. I usually adore sci-fi and fantasy and am willing to suspend my disbelief for the flimsiest of premises. However, Airhead's plot holes made me want to toss it right at one of my pristine, newly painted walls.

It didn't help that while Em has some traditional Cabot heroine traits (great sense of humor, idealistic, a bit disaffected), she's also kind of...annoying. Maybe if I'd met her in a novel when her brain hadn't been transplanted into the body of a supermodel, we would have hit it off better. The point when I started mentally saying, "Dude, clearly there's been some sort of brain surgery shenanigans, but could you just get over yourself, stop whining, and take charge?" was the point when I decided my time was better spent elsewhere.


Books you should read instead of Airhead:

Teen Idol. Set in Cabot's native Indiana, this book takes a fluffy-sounding premise (teen movie star attends small town high school to prep for a movie role!) turns it into a story about listening to yourself, doing what's right, and paying attention to what's right under your nose. God, why do I make everything sound like an after-school special? I was never even allowed to watch them growing up!

Basically, Teen Idol's sweet, funny, and a little snarky, much like Cabot's writing style. The heroine, Jenny, is a down-to-earth problem solver, who is genuinely nice, but also nobody's fool. She manages to keep a level head as her fellow students (including her best friend) implode with the excitement of having a genuine celebrity in their midst. Plus, years before Glee started winning hearts and minds, Teen Idol features a significant show choir sub-plot. And that my friends? Is made of win.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ironically, I immediately followed up
The Disreputable History with Meg Cabot's Airhead. (I'll get to the ironic part in a minute--besides the title, of course.) I've heard lots about Meg Cabot--everyone loves The Princess Diaries series, and I have to admit I did see the movie, mainly because I have a girl-crush on Anne Hathaway--but I've always thought that her books looked a little, well, boring. The Princess Diaries series was frothy and fun, but nothing else of Cabot's really interests me. However, based on interviews and her web page, Meg Cabot seems pretty cool and I felt like she deserved a second chance. Thus, my Airhead adventure.

First of all,
Airhead is indeed boring. I was right. (Who doesn't love saying that?) If you don't believe me after this review, read it immediately and please tell me how horribly wrong I am.

I was
initially put off by the title, but it was the only Meg Cabot book checked in at the library, so voila, Airhead it was. Also I feel like the girl on the cover is Kate Bosworth but Kate Bosworth probably doesn't need supplementary gigs as a book-cover model. Anyhow, Airhead is about a slightly nerdy, average-looking girl (Em) who is involved in a freak accident along with a famous supermodel (Nikki). But wait! Em wakes Nikki's body. Did you know that brain transplants are commonplace for the rich, the famous, and corporations avoiding multi-million dollar lawsuits? I sure did. The rest of the book chronicles Em's trials and tribulations as she settles into the supermodel lifestyle (in an truly absurd plot twist, Em is required to fulfill Nikki's modeling contracts). Cabot's prose is engaging and Em is easy to relate to, but the premise is so ridiculous that I had a hard time relating to the characters at all. Also, the irony of reading a fabulous feminist-themed books such as The Disreputable History and then jumping into a supermodel brain-transplant plot was not lost on me. I haven't given up on Meg Cabot, but for now, pass on Em and stick with Frankie, kids.

Books you should read instead of Airhead:

Maureen Johnson--her books are intelligent chick lit. Her characters are generally thoughtful and very well-realized. Also, her web page is really pretty. Yes, I am swayed by such things as web page prettiness.

My Johnson favorites are Devilish and The Bermudez Triangle. In Devilish, high school senior Jane has to save her best friend Ally's soul. Ally, it seems, has sold her soul to a local demon without quite realizing the consequences of dealing with the devil. High school is hell after all! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

The Bermudez Triangle
deals with more realistic topics (I was going to say "serious" topics but selling your soul to a demon is pretty darn serious). When Nina leaves her best friends Avery and Mel (the three girls compose the titular triangle) the summer before her senior year to attend a "pre-college" camp, she comes home to find that Avery and Mel are now a couple. Johnson details the intricacies of friendships, sexuality, first relationships, and family so well and with great candor and sensitivity. A must-read.