Review: Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

This book has been on my radar since a colleague donated a copy to my classroom library. However, in the last few weeks, it was also chosen as the upper school summer reading selection at my school, so I would have had to read it this summer in any case. I bumped it up in my to-read queue.

Do you ever think that books come into our lives when we really need them? Sometimes I read the perfect book at the time when I absolutely need it, and this book was one of those books for me.

Everything I Never Told You is set in late 1970’s Ohio. The Lee family is a Chinese-American family. Their middle child Lydia, the one upon whom the family pins most of their hopes and dreams, is missing. In fact, the family does not know and will not learn for a while that she is actually dead. The novel is the story of what happens to the family in the wake of Lydia’s death as well as the story of all the events leading up to it. Each family member, including Lydia, suffers under the weight of the conversations they never had. At its heart, this book’s strongest message is about the emotional damage caused when people don’t communicate. However, for those who might be reluctant to pick up a book that might seem to be a downer, I’ll share that there is a note of redemption for the family.

I connected strongly with this book because one of the biggest problems I have is that there are a lot of important conversations I have needed to have with people in my life, especially family, that I have not had. I haven’t had these conversations for the same reasons as Lydia and all of the Lee family—fear. I carry the heavy weight of these conversations around inside me just like the Lee family did. I am learning that I need to change this behavior. This book is more than just a cautionary tale about the dangers of not having important conversations, but it was important for me to read at this time in my life for that reason.

We have recently suffered a tragic, sudden, and unexpected loss in our family as well. I don’t feel right laying out in a book review. I don’t know if that diminishes the loss or not. But having recently finished this book, this loss reminds me too that life is precious and fragile, and we are not promised time. We have to live the lives we want to live now and set aside the fears we have about others and what they will think. That includes family. Perhaps especially family. It’s hard, but our lives are worth it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Set in the late 1970’s, nearly 40 years ago now, this book counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge.

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Review: Euphoria, Lily King

Lily King’s novel Euphoria is based on the lives of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, respectively. While many of the details are changed, including some rather significant details, much of the story, as it unfolds, is firmly based on the actual experiences of the three anthropologists who worked together, for a time, on the Sepik River in what is today Papua New Guinea.

As the novel begins, Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen, are looking for a new tribe to study. At Nell’s insistence, the couple leaves behind their research on the Mumbanyo tribe when Nell felt she could no longer stand living the group. They meet up with Anthony Bankson, a fellow anthropologist from England, who has been alone in the Sepik, and is relieved and excited for the company of fellows. Soon, however, Bankson finds himself entranced by Nell. He is inspired by her intellect, insight, and work ethic—all aspects her personality that her husband both envies and disparages. Their lives become entwined as they work together, but Fen has secrets. Suddenly their relationships, their careers, and even their very lives are careening toward disaster.

While I understand why King took liberties with the stories of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson so that she could tell the story she wanted to tell, there are so many details drawn from their actual lives that it seems strange to me that she didn’t just go all the way with a historical fiction account of Mead in New Guinea. For example, like Bateson, Bankson had two older brothers, John and Martin, and their respective deaths prior to the start of the book, in battle in WWI and in a spectacularly public suicide under the statue of Anteros at Piccadilly Circus, were identical in all details to those of the real Bateson. I suppose you can’t make that stuff up. Like Bateson’s father, Bankson’s father was a renowned geneticist who coined the term genetics. Like Mead herself, Nell studied with Franz Boas and probably had an affair with Boas’s fellow student, Helen (who is based on Ruth Benedict).

However, as I said, the story does deviate from that of the historical anthropologists involved in some significant and rather spoilery ways, so I can’t delve too deeply in exploring those differences without endangering your enjoyment of the book (if you want to read it). Suffice it to say the details make for a highly romantic and cinematic story, especially near the end. I suppose reality didn’t play as well for King, hence the changes. Actually, the book would make a great movie—It has romance and adventure, humor, a complicated villain, and great characters—but based on the reading I’ve done about Mead, Fortune, and Bateson, just fact-checking as I read, I have to said their own real story would be equally good fodder for film.

King’s characterization reminds me quite a lot of Hemingway’s: tough women idealized by the men; over-the-top alpha males; masculine men who are also in touch with their feelings. The writing, too, was perfect for the story it told: spare in some details, leaving readers to put pieces together; poetically descriptive in other places. The characters seemed visceral and real. King makes the reader feel the heat and steamy damp of the New Guinea, and I felt as though I had traveled down the Sepik with all three of the main characters. I definitely found myself more interested in Margaret Mead, and her fellow anthropologists after reading this. Aside from an introductory course in college, I know little about anthropology, and I have to admit, some aspects of this science are troubling to me. There is always the whiff of the colonial about it when I read about it. I can’t put my finger on what it is that bothers me. Euphoria is a quick read. I had the paperback, and though the length is about short-average (257 pages), the paper is thick, and the font is largish. I think I probably read the whole thing in about five hours.

I am not sure if the photos are copyright, so I didn’t want to post them here on my blog, but you should definitely check out this exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has a wonderful picture of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (what a heck of a name!), and Gregory Bateson together, along with their notes about the personality classification system the three of them developed after reading Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture together, an incident that is described in breathtaking detail in the novel. In fact, I had run into this idea without knowing Margaret Mead had anything to do with it in some professional development. Four major personality groups are divided on points of a compass (those who fall between two groups tend toward the intercardinal points on the compass. For the record, I identified myself as a “South” with some “West” tendencies. Here is a link to a PDF about the system. I will be anxious to talk about this aspect of the book with my fellow book club members, most of whom have also had this training and/or experienced an opportunity to define themselves on the compass.

Euphoria is a unique novel. I’ve never read anything set in Papua New Guinea before (nor am I likely to again, as it’s just not a setting writers use). I have also never seen anthropology tackled quite like this in fiction, though it does remind me a bit of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ultimately, I think it’s a better novel than State of Wonder; I realize I gave State of Wonder 5 stars as opposed to the 4.5 for this novel, but I think I just really hated Fen, and were I to rate State of Wonder now, some time after having read it, it is probably more of a 4 star book for me. But I don’t go back and rethink or change ratings, which are based on my gut response right after finishing a book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel The Historian was my first read of 2016. I actually started it some time in November, but I set it aside and just dipped in and out until this last week, when I read the bulk of the novel.

The Historian is the story of Vlad the Impaler, sometimes known as Dracula, and the historians interested in tracing his existence and locating his final “resting” place. The unnamed narrator of the story becomes embroiled in the search for Dracula through her father, Paul, who disappears mysteriously. She embarks on a quest to find him, and through some epistolary and framing elements, she gradually learns the story of her own parents’ quest for Dracula, taken up when her father tried to find his missing mentor and dissertation advisor, Bartholomew Rossi.

The novel has been compared somewhat unfairly to The Da Vinci Code because it has elements of scholarship and elements of a literary thriller, but I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. It is better written, and the characters are somewhat more developed than Dan Brown’s characters; however, there is still the sense that most of the characters are almost sort of like action figures the author is moving around instead of really well-drawn characters. Intriguingly, it is the minor characters, such as Rossi, Helen’s mother and aunt, and the Professor in Instanbul, Turgut Bora, who emerge as more interesting and fully formed than any of the protagonists. I question whether the framing device was really necessary. I don’t think the structure of the plot needed to be quite so complicated because it didn’t really do a whole lot to further the plot. All of the stories within stories were not confusing or hard to follow so much as they seemed unnecessary. Still, even with these criticisms, I would say I enjoyed the book and found it to be a sufficiently creepy vampire story, and not just a vampire story, but also a story of the Cold War and the complicated issues scholars might have dealt with in trying to conduct research behind the Iron Curtain. I have read criticism that the climax in this book is not really a good payoff, and I would agree with that criticism. On top of that, I think the reader leaves the book a bit confused (or perhaps that’s just me), especially as to why the author chose to end the book in the way she did.

I’m a little confused about how to rate this book because while I enjoyed it, it’s not without some serious flaws, and some people might not enjoy the book at all because of those flaws, but ultimately, for what it is and what it does do, I went with four stars. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set mostly during the 1950’s and 1970’s in many locations in Europe. Some exploration of medieval Romania and Turkey in the characters’ research.

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Review: Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly, narrated by Emily Janice Card and Emma Bering

I believe I’ve just finished reading my last book of 2015, and it was a re-read of one of my favorites, Jennifer Donnelly’s novel Revolution. This time, I listened to the audio book. I have this book in hardcover, Kindle, and audio book, but I hadn’t listened to it until this week. It was even better on a re-read than it was the first time I read it.

Since I reviewed the book last time I read it, this time, I really want to mention a couple of things that struck me. First, this book is tightly written. It all works. I picked up on so many things I missed on a first reading. The sections of Dante’s poetry correspond well to Andi’s descent into darkness and her literal descent into hell in the catacombs, where she is, naturally, accompanied by Virgil. I was so swept away with the plot the first time I read that I missed some of the artistry of the writing. Equally impressive is Donnelly’s research. She fictionalizes some details. Andi’s thesis focus, the composer Amadé Mahlerbeau, is fictional, as are her Nobel-prize winning father and his historian friend G. However, they all have their basis in historical or contemporary figures who do similar work. Another thing I noticed about Donnelly’s writing is that she allows the reader to be creative and connect the dots. She doesn’t knock you over the head with the connections. She wants you to do the work. She wants you to do some digging and find out what she has learned.

I also noticed how well Donnelly pulls off the twinning. Maximilien Robespierre and the schizophrenic Maximilien R. Peters, who is responsible for the death of Andi’s brother Truman, work very well in a pair and serve as an interesting symbol of the brutality and stupidity of the world and the cyclical nature of history’s desperate individuals. It’s almost not too hard to believe that Alex might reach across history, 200 years in the future, to save Andi and let her know that just because the world goes on, stupid and brutal, it doesn’t mean that she has to—she can be a positive force for good in the world. She can make people happy. The world can be a scary, crazy place. Particularly today, we see a lot of stories in the news that make us despair and make us want to give up. Perhaps in the end, all we have left to do is to do the good that we can. We don’t have to participate in the world’s brutality and stupidity.

Donnelly said in an interview that “a good story with a compelling character that’s well written should appeal to anybody.” I think that’s why this book is so good. Andi may be a teenager, but the fact that she is a young protagonist doesn’t make her story any less applicable or interesting. This book really makes me want to write, and that’s always the sign of a really good book to me—the ones that make me want to write.

Emily Janice Card narrated most of the book, while Emma Bering narrated Alex’s diary entries. Both narrators were brilliant. Card especially does a brilliant job bringing Andi’s sarcastic and hard edge to life. You can hear the chip on her shoulder. Card happens to be the daughter of Orson Scott Card. I read that she was named for two of my favorite writers (and Orson Scott Card’s, apparently): Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë. I really didn’t want to stop listening to this book. I have to be doing something mindless while I listen to audio books or else I get distracted from the story. When I didn’t have anything mindless to occupy me while listening to this book, I pulled my hardcover off the shelf and read along with the narrators. I need to go back and re-read a few favorite passages.

Last time I read this book, I was craving more books just like it, but I’m afraid there probably aren’t any. It’s brilliant.

Keep scrolling for the book’s playlist. You don’t want to miss it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

The playlist for this particular book is massive and varied, as Andi is one of those folks who loves music. All kinds. I suspect it needs a bit of revision because there are musical references on just about every page of the book. That’s another thing I love about it. The music.

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Sunday Post #37: Complete

Sunday PostI didn’t post last Sunday because I was returning for my favorite conference, the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. It was great. I picked up some excellent free and cheap books and enough book recommendations to keep me busy for a long time.

NaNoWriMo is going well, word-count wise. I think I’ll finish. I’m not excited about the book as I’m nearing the end. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s a fanfic or if it’s because I’ve run out of steam. I was delighting myself writing it at the beginning, but I haven’t even wanted to read what I’ve written lately to my husband. Still, I’m making myself plug away and finish it. Even if I’m not enjoying it as much as I was, the story is still coming remarkably fast. One thing I think I’ve learned this month is that I have a lot of stamina and speed when I give myself permission to write a crappy first draft and turn off my internal editor.

I have completed my goal of reading 52 books for the year. In fact, I just finished the 53rd. In the last week, I’ve finished five books and reviewed four:

Today, I finished listening to an audio book of Amy Snow by Tracy Rees. I was torn over this one for a long time. It was okay, not great. It’s actually a bit over-the-top campy at times, and I think somewhere near the beginning, I realized that Rees was writing a send-up of those overwrought Victorian novels (or I hope she was; otherwise, oh dear). Mrs. Vennaway should remind just about every Brontë fan of Aunt Reed—horrible to a child for just about no reason. In fact, Amy Snow does owe a bit of a debt to those other books. The main character’s self-deprecation is grating, though, and she never becomes as strong or interesting as Jane Eyre. If you read it with an eye toward thinking of it as an homage, then it’s fine. I finished it, more to discover the ending to the novel’s puzzle than anything else, but I found the ending unsatisfying, even if fairly complete. Still, if it’s an homage, it’s a fairly clever one. For a light read, it was well-researched, at least. The setting managed to intrigue even when the characters didn’t.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’m counting Amy Snow as my Surrey book, since that’s where the Hatville estate where Amy comes from is located.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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Review: Fiercombe Manor, Kate Riordan

Kate Riordan’s novel Fiercombe Manor is the story of Alice Eveleigh, a naive young woman who lives in 1930’s London with her parents. Alice becomes pregnant after having a short affair with a married man. To spare her family shame, Alice’s mother sends her off to Fiercombe Manor in Gloucestershire, where Edith Jelphs, an old friend of Alice’s mother, lives. Alice’s mother tells Mrs. Jelphs that Alice’s husband has tragically been killed in an accident. She plans to collect Alice and the baby and put the baby up for adoption after it’s born (though she does not confide these plans to Mrs. Jelphs).

As Alice settles into Fiercombe Manor, she notices a sort of brooding sadness in the valley, and over time, she comes to learn about the tragic history of the Stanton family, who owns the manor. Alice is particularly transfixed by the story of Elizabeth Stanton, who had been Mrs. Jelphs’s employer when Mrs. Jelphs first came to Fiercombe as a young woman. Elizabeth’s imprint seems palpable in a strange presence Alice feels as well as a diary and a few keepsakes left behind. Alice spends the summer of her confinement wrapping herself into the mystery and wondering if her own fate might be somehow wound up in the tragedy surrounding Fiercombe Manor. She begins to wonder also if the valley isn’t cursed in some way that she will not be able to escape.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The house is a very real character in the book and reminded me not a little of Thornfield Hall or Manderley. Is the house haunted? Can tragedy truly linger around a place? Or is Alice just sensitive and emotional because of pregnancy hormones? She wonders all of these things herself. She also finds herself drawn to the Stanton heir, Tom, who befriends her and shares some of his own tragic secrets with her. Mrs. Jelphs and Ruck are interesting characters as well. Ruck has a little bit of old Joseph, the caretaker of Wuthering Heights, and Mrs. Jelphs might be Jane Eyre‘s Mrs. Fairfax or perhaps Rebecca‘s Mrs. Danvers. In fact, the novel manages to pay homage to these forbears without ever coming across as derivative.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its exploration of women in the Victorian era. Left with few options and no rights as well as abysmal mental health care, some were forced into rest cures or sent to asylums. I thought of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s brilliant short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” quite a few times as I read. It’s a shameful and shocking part of women’s history.

In the end, the setting is the star, and if Alice is a little bit stupid at the beginning, we can forgive her, as she manages to redeem herself in the ending, which is both satisfying and not as unrealistic as I thought it would be. I definitely felt for Alice in her desperate situation. Though she has a few more options than Elizabeth Stanton before her, she is still a woman with no money of her own, few marriage prospects, and no family support. She will likely remind many readers of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, or The Thirteenth Tale. I must hasten to add that this book is not the equal of those I’ve mentioned, but if you liked any of them and want to escape into a good, creepy yarn, you should enjoy this novel.

Rating: ★★★★★

This was a great final R. I. P. read, though I think I’m going to keep going with the creepy books. It also puts Gloucestershire on the map for the Reading England Challenge and is yet another Historical Fiction Challenge read as well.

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Review: Things Half in Shadow, Alan Finn

Alan Finn’s novel Things Half in Shadow starts with a fun premise: the protagonist, Edward Clark, is a Civil War veteran and reporter who is assigned the task of exposing Philadelphia mediums as frauds. He has a background that no one, least of all his ingenue fiancée, Violet Willoughby, knows about—his true identity is Columbus Holmes, son of the great magician Magellan Holmes, who killed his wife (Columbus’s mother) and is now rotting away in Eastern State Penitentiary. Unfortunately, Edward makes a nemesis out of a fraudulent medium named Lucy Collins, who threatens to expose Edward’s secrets unless he agrees to help her put her biggest competitor out of business. But Edward and Lucy get a little more than they bargained for when they discover Lenora Grimes Pastor is a real medium—and they become implicated in her murder when she dies mysteriously in the middle of a séance.

This book is fun, and it moves at a brisk pace. The characters, particularly Edward Clark and Lucy Collins, are engaging. The historical details ring true (mostly). However, I didn’t find the ending satisfying. It’s probably the case that the author intends to write a sequel, but few of the loose ends are tied up, and the ending felt rushed compared to the pace of the rest of the book. The clues were not carefully laid for the reader to notice. The reader doesn’t want to feel completely blindsided by the events in the last 100 pages of a mystery. I think it’s fine to surprise the reader, but the dots need to connect, and the clues need to be laid. Otherwise, it feels like a cheat. I would have said it was sitting on four stars until the ending. However, most of the reviews I’ve seen rate it higher than I have, so your mileage may vary, and it’s definitely worth checking out. In fact, most of the reviews I saw gave it 4 or 5 stars. In the right hands, I think it would a fun movie. It sure has enough action scenes for a novel set in a time that couldn’t include a car chase (it did include a carriage chase, if you can believe it). I can’t say that it didn’t hold my interest. I was just looking for more out of the ending.

Rating: ★★★½☆


 

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Review: The Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night is the second in her All Souls Trilogy. In the first book, which I read and reviewed here, witch and historian Diana Bishop calls forth the mysterious manuscript Ashmole 792 from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, arousing the curiosity of many other “creatures,” including vampire Matthew Clairmont.

This book picks up Diana and Matthew’s unlikely love story as they prepare to timewalk to the past in the hopes of recovering the mysterious alchemical manuscript known in their time as Ashmole 782, which Matthew hopes will reveal genetic secrets of creatures and help Matthew discover why creatures are dying out. Using Diana’s power to travel to the past, Matthew and Diana go back to Elizabethan London, where Diana discovers her husband is a member of the legendary School of Night. And that’s not his only secret. Diana discovers she has some massive hidden powers, and she rubs shoulders with just about everyone of note in early 1590’s London and Prague.

I have to admit I find both Diana and Matthew pretty grating. People (annoyingly) fall in love with both of them right and left, while they have eyes only for each other. And of course, they have flawless appearances as well. Harkness falls into the trap of making her characters too physically perfect, so she gives them other flaws (that aren’t really flaws). I know they are not supposed to be normal people—they are a witch and vampire—but I still found them both pretty unsympathetic. Even when you’re writing about supernatural creatures, you want your characters to seem believable on some level. On the other hand, as this kind of book goes (think Twilight) this series is entertaining enough. It’s hard to believe even a vampire like Matthew would somehow be to connected to pretty much every major figure in Renaissance London and Prague, too. And I mean, it runs the gamut, from Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, aka the Maharal of Prague, a witch who created the legendary Golem, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and more shadowy types like John Dee and Edward Kelley. One can’t deny that Harkness did her research. One wonders if all of it had to be thrown into the book.

Like I said, though, these books are entertaining enough, and they will definitely appeal to people who are looking for fun books about vampires and witches. Jennifer Ikeda’s reading works well with the story and doesn’t hit any wrong notes.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★☆

I can’t count this one for the R. I. P. Challenge, even though I think it would be perfect if you’re doing the challenge and looking for something different to read. I started reading it before the challenge started, however. Given that most of the book is set in the past, I do feel it can definitely count for the Historical Fiction Challenge. Diana and Matthew travel from American to Renaissance London, and then to France and Prague, so it’s hard to figure out exactly where to map it for my settings map, but I’m settling on London, as I’d say the bulk of the action takes place there.

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Re-Reading King Lear: “Read Thou This Challenge”

I have mentioned before that I’m re-reading some books in preparation for teaching them. I have taught King Lear before, but it has been a few years, and a play as complex as Lear demands a re-read before any preparation for teaching it.

At one point, if you had asked me what my favorite Shakespeare play was, I probably would have said King Lear. I can’t say with certainty that my answer is still the same, but it’s because there are so many of his plays that I love. In fact, most often, I say it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I do love teaching Shakespeare. There is so much richness, and if I do agree with Harold Bloom on anything, I think I can at least agree that Shakespeare seemed to understand the spectrum of human nature like no other writer (I am not sure I’d say he invented the human). This play in particular examines the complexity of family in some really fascinating ways. I will be curious to see what sort of a backstory my students imagine for this family. Why would Goneril and Regan cut their father out? What had their childhood been like? Was Cordelia’s different? Ian McKellen says he imagines that perhaps Cordelia is the daughter of Lear’s second, more beloved wife, whom he lost in childbirth, and that when he looks on Cordelia, he sees this beloved wife. I find I like that idea quite a lot.

As I re-read, I decided to listen to a production. The Naxos Audio production is brilliant. A word to the wise: if you listen to this production and follow along, be mindful of the fact that it uses the First Folio text, which differs from some published editions of the play that also incorporate the First Quarto. Lear is played in this audio book by the great Paul Scofield. It was published to commemorate Scofield’s own 80’s birthday (Lear mentions being “four score” in the play). He is brilliant in the role. I actually teared up listening to his reunion with Cordelia in Act IV, and his tears over her death were also hard to take. Lear is hard; he casts away the daughter and servant (Kent) who love him in favor of those who tell him what he wants to hear, and finds out his mistake too late. He’s a hard man to feel empathy for, but Scofield definitely manages the task. Kenneth Branagh plays the Fool and Toby Stephens plays Edmund.

In addition to the Naxos Audio production, I also listened to a Shakespeare Appreciated production that includes commentary. I found the commentary, particularly the historical context, extremely helpful. If you are a student or really want to wring all the understanding out of the play that you can, I would recommend this audio version. I don’t think the dramatization is as good as the Naxos Audio production, but it is still good, and the commentary is especially helpful.

I am waiting on tenterhooks for James Shapiro’s new book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 to come out (October 6!). Very excited to learn even more about the historical context that produced this play, especially because Shakespeare changed the ending familiar to audiences to a tragic one in which SPOILERS pretty much everyone dies.

Rating: ★★★★★

I’m counting this as my book set in Kent for the Reading England Challenge. Much of the action at the end of the play takes place at Dover. I’m counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge, too, as it is set in ancient Britain, and Shakespeare was writing in Renaissance England. It does imagine a pre-Christian era in Britain. I can’t count it for R. I. P., as I started it before the challenge. It might qualify, though, if you want to read it for that challenge. Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out is the most ghastly thing in Shakespeare, if you ask me.

 

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Review: This House is Haunted, John Boyne

John Boyne’s novel This House is Haunted is the story of Eliza Caine, a teacher grieving the recent death of her father. She responds to a mysterious ad for a governess in Norfolk, in part for somewhere to go, now that she’s learned her father never owned the house in which they lived and she’s being unceremoniously thrown out, and in part to escape her sadness. As soon as she arrives on the train, she realizes not only that she has been hired under false pretenses, but also that there is a presence in Gaudlin Hall, the home of her young charges Isabella and Eustace, that does not want her there.

Anyone who is familiar with ghost stories/madwomen in the attic tropes will recognize this story. With serious nods to both The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre, as well as bit of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and explicit homages to Dickens, many readers might well accuse this book of cribbing from more illustrious forebears a bit too much. Perhaps there isn’t a whole lot here that is new. As a ghost story, it’s fairly predictable, and despite some pretty chilling scenes (as I described them to my husband, I realized based on his reactions that they were scary at least in the abstract), I wasn’t really scared. I didn’t really want to be terrified. I don’t read much horror for a pretty good reason. It’s not my favorite thing to imagine the absolute worst people do, and I can’t stand gore at all. But a creepy ghost story, like, for instance, The Little Stranger? I’m all over that. This story wasn’t really like that. I think it might make for a pretty interesting atmospheric movie, but it didn’t really deliver any seriously good chills, at least not for me. But it is a quick read, and the story was engaging enough for me to keep turning the pages. It was a nice way to get my feet wet for the R. I. P. Challenge this year.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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