Review: My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin RachelNear the end of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, the protagonist, Philip Ashley, reflects:

“My tutor at Harrow, when teaching in Fifth Form, told us once that truth was something intangible, unseen, which sometimes we stumbled upon and did not recognise, but was found, and held, and understood only by old people near their death, or sometimes by the very pure, the very young.” (316)

Philip was raised by his cousin, Ambrose, who travels to Italy for his health and meets a mysterious woman named Rachel. Ambrose, a confirmed bachelor, surprises everyone by marrying Rachel. Before Ambrose is able to return to Cornwall with his bride, he falls sick and dies. At first Philip is sure that his new cousin Rachel bears responsibility, but when Rachel appears at his door in Cornwall, he quickly becomes entranced by her. But is she guilty of Ambrose’s death?

I picked up this book because I love, love, love Rebecca. This book is not quite as good as Rebecca, but once again, du Maurier’s gift for rendering the Cornish coast setting and for creating interesting, troubled characters is on display in My Cousin Rachel. Rachel reminded me in many ways of Rebecca, the titular character of du Maurier’s more famous work. Even upon finishing the book, I’m still not sure what to think, and I admire the way du Maurier deftly tied the beginning to the end and brought the story around full circle. I very much enjoyed the minor characters in this book, as well. Seecombe, the butler, was particularly enjoyable. I didn’t have the sense of reading a book so gripping I couldn’t put it down, which did happen with Rebecca, but I certainly found My Cousin Rachel enjoyable. I picked it up to read for the R. I. P. Challenge, but I didn’t finish it in time. I do think that readers who enjoyed Rebecca will like this book, too, but as I said, it’s no Rebecca. Truthfully, though, few books are. I’ve been looking for a gothic read of Rebecca‘s caliber for some time now with no luck.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer

[amazon_image id=”B003A7I2PU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Dream of Perpetual Motion[/amazon_image]Dexter Palmer’s novel [amazon_link id=”B003A7I2PU” target=”_blank” ]The Dream of Perpetual Motion[/amazon_link] is a steampunk reimagining (of sorts) of William Shakespeare’s play [amazon_link id=”0743482832″ target=”_blank” ]The Tempest[/amazon_link]. The protagonist, Harold Winslow, is a greeting card writer from Xeroville. He writes his memoir while trapped aboard a zeppelin—the good ship Chrysalis—with only mechanical servants and the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent to keep him company. His life becomes inextricably linked with that of Miranda and her father Prospero Taligent’s at the age of ten, when he spends all of his money at the Nickel Empire carnival to obtain a whistle that will secure him an invitation to Miranda’s tenth birthday party. At the birthday party, Prospero promises each of the 100 boys and girls their heart’s desire. Harold becomes Miranda’s playmate until Prospero catches them kissing and banishes Harold from Miranda’s fantastic playroom.

Almost 3/4 through the book, Harold says,

Perhaps you know the kind of man I am, dear imaginary reader. I have never felt as if I have known anyone well. I have never had that sense of instinctive empathy that I am told comes to lovers, or brothers and sisters, or parents and children. I have never been able to finish a sentence that someone else starts. I have never been able to give a gift to someone that they have liked, one that surprises them even as they secretly expected it.

Whenever I looked into faces and tried to discern the thoughts that lay behind them I had to make best guesses, and more often than not it seemed my guesses were wrong. (location 5167 on Kindle)

I think that is the crux of what I didn’t like about the book. The characters were not terribly likeable. They were entertaining, especially Prospero and his servants Gideon and Martin, but no one else brought out my empathy as a reader (excepting Harold as a boy, but he sheds that quickly in the novel). I have no quibbles with Palmer’s writing, which is funny and tragic and at times had me highlighting choice phrases, but the most important thing to me about any book, almost without exception, is the characters. If I do not like any of the characters, it’s hard for me to like the book. The plot of the novel is weird, but I could have let that go if I had been able to empathize with Harold.

Another criticism I have for the book is this sort of underlying misogyny that I see sometimes in science fiction and fantasy. Palmer’s women characters are, without exception, unpleasant and untrustworthy. Shakespeare’s Prospero is concerned with Miranda’s virginity, which is a theme that Palmer takes up in this novel. Prospero seeks to prevent his daughter from becoming sexually active, but when she does, he sees her as ruined. Harold never explicitly says so, but he gives the impression that he agrees with Prospero on that account—sex ruins women, and the proof is in his description of every female character in the novel.

The book improves slightly toward the end as the action picks up the pace, but over all, I can’t say I liked it. The narrative was complex and difficult to follow at times, and the characters did not redeem the story.

Rating: ★★½☆☆


The Peach Keeper, Sarah Addison Allen

[amazon_image id=”0553807226″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Peach Keeper: A Novel[/amazon_image]Sarah Addison Allen’s novel [amazon_link id=”0553807226″ target=”_blank” ]The Peach Keeper[/amazon_link] is the story of the unlikely friendship of Willa Jackson and Paxton Osgood, who are linked through shared family history and not much else. Willa’s great-great-grandfather built a house called the Blue Ridge Madam in Walls of Water, North Carolina. In 1936, Willa’s family lost the house. Years later, she feels oddly drawn to the Blue Ridge Madam, now in the hands of the Osgood family. Paxton Osgood is the president of the Women’s Society Club and is planning the unveiling of the newly restored Blue Ridge Madam at the society’s gala. She asks her twin brother Colin, a landscape architect, to come home to Walls of Water to landscape the Blue Ridge Madam. A family secret binding the Osgoods and Jacksons is unearthed when Colin’s crew removes a peach tree and begins digging deeper to plant a live oak and finds a suitcase, a frying pan, and a skull belonging to a magic man named Tucker Devlin.

I could barely put this one down. It’s hard to describe it. It’s part chick lit, I suppose, but also part magical realism, ghost story, mystery, and romance. It’s a perfect summer read. Allen’s characters are well-drawn and likeable. The setting of small-town Walls of Water with its tourists and shops alongside ancient town families was pitch perfect. I think perhaps no one does gothic like Southern gothic, and though Allen’s writing style is completely dissimilar, this book is an oddly cogent mashup between William Faulkner and Joshilyn Jackson. Family secrets, grand old Southern mansions, friendship, and devilish charmers are good building blocks for stories. I liked both Willa and Paxton as protagonists, and I found Colin, Sebastian, and even Tucker Devlin charming. I would definitely read more of Allen’s books. I picked this one up after reading Stephanie’s review. Darlene at Peeking Between the Pages has another good review.

I’m not sure this book is for everyone. Some readers will be turned off by the chick lit aura or the magical realism, but I found it utterly charming and completely Southern. Parts of it reminded me of a book I have deep affection for called [amazon_link id=”0807114103″ target=”_blank” ]I Am One of You Forever[/amazon_link] by Fred Chappell. If you are a fan of Sarah Addison Allen’s, give Fred Chappell’s novel a try. It’s harder to find and was published by a smaller press, but it’s a gorgeous book.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book has enough of the macabre to qualify for the Gothic Reading Challenge.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlo Ruiz Zafón

[amazon_image id=”0143057812″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_image]Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel [amazon_link id=”0143057812″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] begins with a trip to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a vast, labyrinthine repository for books of all kinds. Daniel Sempere’s father, a bookseller, cautions his son that he must never speak of what he sees to anyone—it’s a great secret. Ten-year-old Daniel is allowed to choose a book for his very own, to be its protector and champion and rescue it from obscurity. A mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax catches his eye. He devours the book, but when he tries to find more books by Carax, he discovers that someone has mysteriously been burning all of Carax’s works, and his copy of The Shadow of the Wind is one of the rarest books he will ever encounter. One day, Daniel is confronted by a man calling himself Lain Coubert, the devil in The Shadow of the Wind—the man who has been attempting to obliterate Carax’s works from the literary landscape. Daniel feels compelled to learn more about Carax. As Daniel grows, his life begins to eerily mimic events in Carax’s life.

The novel is an excellent mystery involving the obsession with reading and with true love. Jonathan Davis’s reading is superb. If he is not a native Spanish speaker, he certainly sounds like one. The audio book kept me riveted. I looked forward to my commutes so that I could listen to the story unfold. If I have one complaint, it is that the audio version employs mood music. On the one hand, the music was a cue to listen carefully as something very important would be happening, but it needed to be modulated differently—sometimes I strained to hear Davis over the music. As with any audio book, it is hard to go back and easily re-read portions, which is something I really wanted to do as I listened to this book. The story itself can be somewhat hard to follow—it takes twists and turns. However, Zafón brought the streets of Barcelona alive. Anyone who loves books should enjoy The Shadow of the Wind.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this book as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Gothic Reading Challenge. I am making steady progress in both challenges. I have six more books to complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and fourteen more books for the Gothic Reading Challenge. Yeah, I bit off more than I could chew with that one.

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches: A NovelDeborah Harkness’s debut novel A Discovery of Witches combines several elements I like—a great gothic house (and a castle), supernatural creatures (especially witches; I love witches), and academia. Diana Bishop, a rather reluctant witch and descendant of Bridget Bishop—the first “witch” executed in the Salem Witch Trials, is a professor researching the history of alchemy in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she is able to call forth a manuscript called Ashmole 782, believed lost for over 150 years. Diana suddenly attracts the attention of several other creatures—witches, daemons, and a vampire named Matthew Clairmont. Soon the two make even more startling discoveries—hidden inside Diana’s DNA are predispositions for just about every magical power witches possess. Together they must discover what Ashmole 782’s secrets are; why her parents were murdered when she was a child; and why daemons, witches, and vampires want to prevent them from discovering anything (and from being together).

A review on Amazon describes this as a combination of The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, and a romance, which is just about right, except I’d throw Twilight into the mix. It’s certainly better written than The Da Vinci Code and perhaps Twilight, but not Harry Potter. It must be hard to write about vampires right about now. For one thing, we want the strange Byronic dangerousness of the vampire, but we don’t like the whole murdering people to eat deal. We have, if you’ll pardon the pun, taken the fangs out of our vampires. Edward Cullen is a great example of this phenomenon, and Matthew Clairmont is not terribly different. Despite the author’s attempts to tell us otherwise, he never comes across the page as very dangerous. Nor do any of his “family.” The vampires that do seem frightening are all bad guys. Despite lacking some teeth, they are fairly charming. I particularly liked Marcus. For astute readers, there’s a reference to another famous vampire in chapter 13 (I think—it’s hard to keep track when you’re listening) that vampire fans will enjoy. Harkness also dispenses with some of the vampire myths—her vampires can go out in the sun without incinerating (or sparkling).

I actually liked the witches much better, especially Diana’s aunts Sarah and Em. Sarah has a sort of hardened no-nonsense way of speaking, and Em is just sweet. I absolutely love their house. I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to read it. The daemons confuse me. I can’t tell what they are that makes them different from humans except for exceptional creativity and intelligence. They don’t seem to have any supernatural powers like vampires or witches. Harkness’s witches, I understand, but I would have liked to have understood her vampires better.

I think I enjoyed this book on audio perhaps more than I might have in print because Jennifer Ikeda was such a great reader. She can do a variety of accents easily—French, Australian, and Scottish. She made each character sound different and instantly recognizable. I did find myself wishing I were reading the hardcover in some parts so I could easily flip around and check things.

However, I admit I don’t care a lot for the main characters, Diana and Matthew. Are they just grown up versions of Bella and Edward? Well, kind of. Diana is Bella with a little bit more self-esteem and attitude, maybe. The descriptions of the places, the food, and the other characters made me keep listening, and I enjoyed it enough to read the sequel, which I might enjoy more because of where it will be set (a bit spoilery, so I won’t give it away). Diana and Matthew are a strange couple. They seem a little forced together as though they were set up by a good friend and are trying to make a go of it without really feeling any sparks.

It’s a worthy debut, and I think it will likely be fairly popular. Despite my feelings about the main characters, I did enjoy the book and look forward to the next one.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Diana’s aunts Sarah and Em and Matthew’s best friend Hamish qualify this book for the GLBT Challenge. The supernatural elements and ancient houses make for a great Gothic Reading Challenge read. I need to read 17 more books for the Gothic Reading Challenge.

The Little Stranger

The Little StrangerI have never read anything written by Sarah Waters before. I had no expectations going into this book. The art teacher at my school said I would like it, and that the last page was a doozy. If what I think happened is what happened, then she’s right.

The Little Stranger is the story of Dr. Faraday and his long-standing obsession with Hundreds Hall, the home of the Ayres family. He first encounters the family as a small child when he visits the estate as part of an Empire Day celebration. Taken with the charm of the house, its grandness, its stateliness, he prizes a small acorn decoration from a plaster border in one of the passages in the house. The next time Dr. Faraday enters the house about thirty years later, it is to treat the Ayres family’s maid Betty. Dr. Faraday gradually becomes closer to the Ayres family and even becomes indispensable. Strange things start to happen around the house: a girl is badly bitten by the otherwise docile Gyp, the Ayres family dog. Strange marks begin to appear on the walls and ceilings. Objects move. Is it the ghost of poor little Susan Ayres who died before her younger sister and brother were born? Or is it something even stranger and more mysterious?

The book is as much a gothic ghost story as it is the story of the waning of the British class system, perfectly encapsulated by Mrs. Ayres as quoted by her daughter, “She said families like ours, they had a—a responsibility, they had to set an example. She said, if we couldn’t do that, if we couldn’t be better and braver than ordinary people, then what was the point of us?” In the post-WWII setting of the novel, many of the old gentry like the Ayres family are rapidly losing their money and are unable to keep up their grand estates. Course, nouveau-riche families like the Baker-Hydes are moving into the nearby estates. Keeping Hundreds Hall going occupies all of Roderick Ayres’s time (nice touch with the literary allusion in that name). Meanwhile, Dr. Faraday has risen from a humble background as the son of a shopkeeper and former Hundreds Hall servant to become a doctor. Even as the last vestiges of the class system seem to be dying away, some parts of it hang on with a frustrating tenacity that prevents Faraday from truly advancing in the ways he hopes to.

This book has some genuinely creepy parts. I was a little spooked reading it at night. One portion late in the book concerning the haunting of Mrs. Ayres was actually scary. Readers who like a definitive ending instead of one you have to mull over and determine what you think happened—because Waters does leave it up to your interpretation—might not enjoy this book. It is slow to start, but parts of it are gripping and will keep you turning the pages. I am knocking off a star for the plodding pace in portions of this book and the fact that I didn’t like the characters very much (with perhaps the exceptions of Betty and Mrs. Ayres). It’s been a long time since I read a really good ghost story, and I enjoyed this book a great deal. I know I’ve enjoyed a book when I close it and wish I could write one like it. If you enjoy spooky ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, and The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, you’ll like this book. I’ve read it is also a cousin of The Haunting of Hill House, but I haven’t read that one yet.

Rating: ★★★★☆

This book is my seventh book in the Typically British Reading Challenge. One more book and I will meet the challenge’s highest level: Cream Crackered.


While I didn’t finish Dracula in time to meet the deadline of the R.I.P. Challenge, I did finish it within days of the end of the novel’s action on November 6 of some indeterminate year. One of the things I’ve noticed about reading a book like Dracula, around which a cottage industry of adaptations, homages, and even an entire genre have sprung, is that the story in the actual book becomes altered to the point that the reader had different expectations. For instance, I had the idea that the character of Renfield had a much larger role and was a servant of Dracula’s. I didn’t realize the Count came to England, and I was surprised by Dracula’s small role in the actual novel.

The novel holds up well as a gothic tale. I wonder how it might have fared had Stoker chosen to tell it with a straight narrative rather than as a series of journals. He is constricted by what his characters are able to report. I don’t know enough about vampire tradition to know if Stoker originated some of the aspects we have come to associate with vampire narratives: the fear of garlic and Christian artifacts such as crosses, crucifixes, and the communion host; the inability to rise during the day and activity at night; and superhuman strength that grows more powerful over the ages. On the other hand, I was surprised to discover that sunlight didn’t necessarily seem to be harmful to the vampires in this novel. They avoided it, but when coffins were opened during the day to look on them, they didn’t disintegrate into dust as Anne Rice’s vampires do (and hers are not afraid of crucifixes).

I am glad I read Dracula. It is a great read for anyone interested in how the literary craving for vampires came to be, but you won’t find the seductive and charming Louis de Pointe du Lacs, Lestat de Lioncourts, or even Edward Cullens in this novel. Dracula is just a monster, and there’s nothing attractive or seductive about it.

I read Dracula with the iPhone app Classics. I usually have one book going in DailyLit, one paper book, and one iPhone book. I haven’t decided which book I’ll read next on the iPhone, but I haven’t finished Crime and Punishment on DailyLit, nor have I finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle in print.

A short update on NaNoWriMo: I am a little behind the wordcount. By the end of the day yesterday, I should have reached 11,667 words, and I am currently at 9,304. It might not seem bad to be behind by 2,363 words, especially compared with some folks who are working with larger discrepancies than that, but it also means that in order to be caught up by the end of the day today, I need to write 4,030 words. And that is a lot for one day. I’m not sure it’s going to happen, particularly as I have two grad school assignments due. But we shall see. The writing is not coming as quickly or easily as it did at first, I think because I really did sort of know how to start off. Cross your fingers for me that things pick up. I’d really like to win NaNo this year.