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.