8.28.2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Bookish Confessions



From The Broke and the Bookish:
Top Ten Bookish ConfessionsEveryone has at least one bookish confession... Join us in spilling our deepest held secrets around one of our most beloved pastimes. Everyone has a bookish confession. What's yours? If you have one feel free to share it, if not feel free to commiserate with ours

So, without further ado, Lauren's top ten bookish confessions:

1. I bought into the Twilight thing for a whole week. The movies are a separate monster, and I'm sure I'll find time to harp about that later but, for a whole week, I bought into the Twilight...thing. I did not sleep. In the span of four days (two of which were work days) I read the whole saga. I also read Stephenie Meyer's not-really-published "Midnight Sun" which, I thought, was the best writing out of all of it... yeah. That happened.

2. I went on an Ambrose Bierce kick a few months ago and borrowed this DVD of Ambrose Bierce stories and a paperback collection of his stories from the New York Public Library. Still haven't returned them. They're sitting in my desk drawer at work. I owe some money.

3. In case #2 didn't clue you in, I'm awful at returning library books. 

4. Reading annotated versions of books makes me feel totally cool and smart and stuff, so I do it on purpose.

5. Even though I've been told that I must, I have still never read any Tolkien.

6. I shunned Harry Potter when the novels were first coming out. It kind of had to do with the fact that my sister was totally into them and, for those of you who don't know me very well, I don't like to enjoy things that the masses enjoy. I'm kind of a little elitist, and I accept that. But then the first film was coming out and my mother told me that I could not go see the movie with her and my sister unless I read the books. I still stood my ground. Then my mother and my sister went on a cruise a few weeks before the first movie came out. While they were gone, I caved and read all the books that had come out up to that point.

7. I dog ear like crazy. My books, library books, doesn't matter. The only time I don't is if I've borrowed it from a friend and they're picky about that. Otherwise, dog ear dog ear dog ear.

8. I also mark up my own books. I write in them, I highlight, I notate...yeah.

9. I know that everyone says the play of Peter and the Starcatcher(s) is so awesome, but I love the books so much, I've avoided going to see it...I'm worried that it won't be everything I want it to be. And then I'll be sad.

10. Took a class called "The War Novel" I think sophomore year of college. Read half of the assigned books. Will never read Proust ever again.

8.26.2012

Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
(Penguin Classics Rev. Ed. 1998)
208 pgs
Eleanor has spent the last decade of her life caring for her invalid mother who has recently passed. Eager to start her life, she defies her sister's wishes and accepts an invitation from a doctor she doesn't know to come and stay with some other guests in a manor for the summer. She doesn't know what to expect, she doesn't know who will be there, or what the place will be like. She has no idea what the doctor (a paranormal investigator of sorts) has in store for her. She doesn't know that the house has been waiting for her. As things start going bump in the night, everyone is a bit on edge. But Eleanor, who has lived in the shadows for so long, enjoys the attention the events afford her. After all, the house seems to be making it all about her.

Unlike Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House does not possess (if you'll pardon the pun) of a specific malicious or malcontent spirit or entity; rather, it is the house itself which seems to harbor resentment and ill-will. The knockings on the walls and doors leave no marks, and the cold is the result of no draft. Some of the strange feelings one has in the house seem to be explained away by the original (strange) builder's uncanny habit of making everything just slightly uneven and askew, but for the rest, it's a mystery.


The Haunting of Hill House, is a thriller to end all thrillers. It has been incredibly influential in the genre of horror since its publication in 1959. Notably, Anne Rivers Siddons and Stephen King have been affected by Shirley Jackson's, dare I say, perfect story about a haunted house. As Siddons says (while discussing her novel, The House Next Door (1978)--a tribute, really, to Jackson's book):
A house... is an extension of ourselves; it tolls in answer to one of the most basic chords mankind will ever hear. My shelter. my earth. My second skin. Mine. So basic is it that the desecration of it, the corruption, as it were, by something alien takes on a peculiar and bone-deep horror and disgust. It is both frightening and...violating, like a sly, terrible burglar. A house askew is one of the not-rightest thigs in the world, and is terrible out of all proportion to its actual visitant... 

It's worth noting, of course, that the most unpleasant personalities (the housekeeper, and the doctor's wife) go about unbothered by the house; it is only the innocent who are targeted.

This is a theme that's harped on in the 1999 film adaptation "The Haunting" starring Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson. Taylor (the Eleanor - Nell - character) discovers that the original builder (who, in the book, had two daughters who lived into adulthood, and whose lives mirror that of Eleanor and her sister) had all of his children die in childbirth, lived as a reculse, and ended his days kidnapping children from the town nearby and murdering them. Their souls are trapped in the house (along with his) and can be seen in the very very creepy cherubic faces all over the place. It's a disturbing (and bad) film, and it kind of beats Jackson's original story to a pulp.

You'd be hard-pressed, I think, to find any haunted-house story or film (or tv series--American Horror Story, anyone?) from the last few decades that was not influenced by Shirley Jackson, and The Haunting of Hill House is just the tip of that iceberg. I strongly recommend it be your first stop on any course through American Horror Fiction.

8.25.2012

Review: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
Vintage (reprint ed.)
First published in 1983, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black follows Arthur Kipps, a young London solicitor who, to improve his position within his firm, takes on the task of settling the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford. When he arrives, the locals seem kind but are wary of him, and they attempt to caution him away from completing his task; it seems Eel Marsh House could be, in a way, cursed. Haunted.

Those words don't exactly get tossed around lightly, and Kipps doesn't exactly catch on: determined to get his promotion, Kipps rallies and spends a handful of frightful days and nights at Eel Marsh House. The residence exists on its own kind of island in the marshlands; it is only accessible at low tide, via the Nine Lives Causeway (are you seeing a symbolism pattern here? Nine Lives Causeway, Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow?) I'm certain that some of my own trepidation while reading was due in part to my familiarity with the story, but that speaks, nonetheless, of Hill's gift for thrilling her reader.

A short 176 pages, The Woman in Black is a page-turner that packs a quick hard punch in the gut of anyone who's ever feared that bump in the night, gasped at the rocking chair in the nursery that seems to move of its own volition, or needed to fast-forward past the swingset in the opening credits of "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" (i.e. me)

I have not yet had the opportunity to read or see Stephen Mallatratt's stage play adaptation of the novel, a production of which has been running in London's West End since 1989, but my understanding (from friends who have had that chance) is that it's a fairly faithful adaptation, utilizing a similar story-within-a-story device as the novel. I have, however, seen the most recent film adaptation. Twice. It's not really as faithful, as there are some major changes and additions. The thing about film in general is that you don't need to put in extra effort to creep out your viewer. Especially with this kind of source material, wherein Hill manages to send chills down one's spine with just words; she doesn't need a soundtrack in a minor key, or gore, or a muddy handprint on the front door (saw the movie and didn't catch that the first time? me too.)

It's too far away so you can't see it
in this picture, but go back and watch
the movie. When Kipps first arrives at
Eel Marsh House. Muddy handprint
on the door.
As my high school english teacher loved to point out: nothing is more terrifying than what might be imagined in the mind's eye. The film, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, definitely puts some extra effort into terrifying its audience, not really trusting them to scare themselves adequately with that which is unseen. The backstory for the woman is changed a bit. The effect her presence has on the neighborhood is changed quite a bit. The stakes are higher. By comparison, the novel could be called sedate.

If you didn't like the film (too gruesome? too much emphasis on creepy ghost children?) don't let that dissuade you from reading the book. The novel is milder, more straightforward, and will still give you that spine tingle you desire without the Hollywood excess.

8.24.2012

Review: Sweet Talk, by Julie Garwood

Sweet Talk
by Julie Garwood
Dutton Adult
August 7, 2012
368 pgs
A guest review by Jessica Pruett-Barnett

When I was in college, my RA kept a stash of romance novels underneath her bed. It was awesome because she had an open door policy and I lived with her so...free romance novels whenever I wanted! Her books generally featured a strong-willed woman (who maybe has sisters that get their own books...awesome!) who ended up with a man equally strong-willed and awesome in bed. When I moved to New York, I ended up with a roommate who loved romance novels even more than my college roommate. Hannah's books tend to be series featuring firefighters, police officers, NASCAR drivers, even a boutique sex hotel in Manhattan (my favorites!). After reading Julie Garwood's Sweet Talk, I gave Hannah my copy to read ASAP.

In Sweet Talk, IRS agent/attorney Olivia Mackenzie is investigating her father's business on the down low because she thinks that he is running a Ponzi scheme. When Olivia meets with a man she thinks will help her find evidence against her father, he attempts to kill her, leading FBI agent Grayson Kincaid (with a name like that, you know he is going to be good in bed) to save her. They both feel the attraction immediately, and he helps her in her investigation, leading to an emotionally-charged (and sexy) conclusion. 

I think the storylines in romance novels are generally overlooked, and that is why they can have a bad reputation as a legitimate genre. While not reinventing the genre, Garwood wrote an engaging plot, complete with corruption (timely!) and murder (always exciting to read about). Her Olivia and Grayson are fully developed and mirror each other in a way that is important for romance novels as you can really see them staying together.

There are two major sex scenes, which is appropriate for a novel of this size (about 350 pages in my advance copy) that also has a pretty involved plot. The initial scene is written extremely well, with no pulsating member in sight. The title of the novel comes out of this scene: Grayson says “Wow” after they have both orgasmed, and Olivia asks if that is his versions of sweet talk. He asks if she needs sweet talk and she says “No, 'Wow' pretty much said it all.” That is a good summary of their relationship.

The only point in Sweet Talk that didn't ring true is in the second sex scene. Olivia is determined to tease Grayson, to “make him beg,” but can't. She thinks “when it came to sex, how could she have thought she was superior.” It was so out of character for Olivia to say something along those lines that I was thrown out of the story. They are equals everywhere else in this book, does he really have to best her sexually? That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Sweet Talk and have already put a few of Julie Garwood's books on my Amazon list.

8.23.2012

Review: True Believers, by Kurt Andersen

True Believers
by Kurt Andersen
Random House
July 10, 2012
448 pgs
Kurt Andersen's True Believers, new from Random House last month, is written as the memoir of a woman with a more than colorful past. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Karen Holl├Žnder (or Hollander, as she's known later in life) had a midwest upbringing and a Cambridge education which led to her work as an attorney, a law school dean and, most recently, a potential nomination to the Supreme Court. But she turns down the latter even before it's truly offered and goes on a campaign to revisit her past all because of a dark secret she's been harboring since the late sixties.

As a teenager, Hollander and her friends were, as I'm sure many teenagers were, obsessed with the dashing mystery that was James Bond. The juxtaposition of her memories of their playacting against the memories of the actual crime they set out to commit later in life is marvelous. But any time the action is supplanted with fact-listing or present-day events, the momentum slows, and the novel suffers.

The problem seems to be the format of the memoir as a whole. Andersen fails to capture the autobiographical style and the story drags. What could be a very relevant picture of innocence as radicalism in today's political climate reads instead like a rather dull un-nuanced picture of the baby-boomer era. The author has, whether intentional or not, set Karen Hollander up as a kind of Briony Tallis. She's done wrong. She knows she's done wrong. So she writes about it and dredges up the past and tries to atone for her mistakes.

But the difference is that, at the end of McEwan's Atonement, you (assuming you have a heart in your body) have your heart wrenched out and Briony, despite her mistakes, is completely sympathetic. But in Karen Hollander's case, she's not written well-enough to sustain any kind of sympathy. And her off-handed good intentions that drive the story aren't enough for the reader to honestly care about what mistakes she made and what they meant.

If we're to take anything from this book, it would seem to be that this picturesque story of youth is dragged down when tied to the present by the loss of idealism: we in the present/future of the novel cling to sarcasm, to realism, to naturalism, to cynicism, and we've forgotten our idealism along the way. We're too content with our lives; technology makes life too easy, keeping us over-medicated and too sane for any real revolution to ever happen again. But that's on a meta level; it doesn't excuse the stylistic failure of the novel nor the lackluster voice that drives it.

8.22.2012

Review: The Concubine's Gift, by K. Ford K.

A guest review by Jessica Pruett-Barnett
The Concubine's Gift
by K. Ford K.
Creative Space Independent Publishing
January 2011
230 pgs

I am, perhaps, overly harsh when it comes to entertainment. If I don't like a movie within 5 minutes, I turn it off. This obviously doesn't occur when I am in the movie theatre (if I am paying $13 for a movie, I will finish it and LIKE IT), but I often send back my Netflix movies unfinished. "Cashback"? Sent back. "Debating Robert Lee"? Shoot me. The same goes for theatre. I don't leave at intermission much (Crimes of the Heart, South Pacific, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and that awful college production of Exit The King all deserved it, I swear), but when I do it was out of boredom or my hatred of Tennessee Williams. 

Books, however, I finish, even Sophie in the Haunted Brothel in New York City (although a bottle of wine was needed for that...also, the Amazon link for that isn't working, so I give you this gem: an excerpt from Sophie in the Haunted Brothel in New York City). There is always something the pulls me towards the end, whether it be an unsolved crime or the need to know if Sophie manages to run away from her murderous pimp who killed her best friend and makes her live and work in Greenwich Village in a time period unknown (I don't think they have punctuation in that time period judging the author's inability to use a period).

I couldn't finish The Concubine's Gift, by K. Ford K. I only wish it was bad. Unfortunately, it was worse: it was boring. I know the story takes place near a bordello because the back of the book told me so. It also told me that Bernice, the main character, is sexually inhibited; but, really, with a name like Bernice she wasn't going to be a wild and crazy hooker. Fifty pages in and the most I get out of the story is that Bernice is ashamed to have sexy dreams and a silly, stereotypical (borderline racist really and inappropriate as today isn't Racist Tuesday) story about a girl who was sold into sexual slavery and became a prostitute in China.

Romance novels are supposed to be fun and provide an escape into a fun scenario. I don't want to imagine being a hopelessly sexually oppressed woman who equates sex with shame, and whose sexuality is awakened by magical powder from an old Chinese prostitute. I want to be a strong woman who has awesome sex with a firefighter, or an FBI agent, or with a bartender in Manhattan's newest sex hotel. I think K. Ford K. needs to read some modern romances to see what a modern woman wants out of a romance novel: shame need not apply.

8.21.2012

Review: Auraria, by Tim Westover

Auraria, a novel
by Tim Westover
QW Publishers
March 3, 2012
386 pgs
Tim Westover's Auraria is an original and fantastical semi-allegorical condemnation of capitalism. The novel, new from QW Publishers (this year), champions natural resources and the power of nature while simultaneously mocking the mythology of bourgeois initiative with an inventive plot and setting full of ghosts and larger-than-life creatures, moon maidens and will 'o the wisps. But while the story may be rife with anti-capitalistic feelings (much in the same way that Jaws can be interpreted) it also promotes integrity and ingenuity: the backbone and nervous system of the American dream.

The plot is somewhat reminiscent of both The Great Gatsby and The Bible...if you can imagine. It follows Holtzclaw (a Nick Carraway character) who, employed by a Mr. Shadburn, seeks to buy up the lands of a mystical and illusory Appalachian valley known as Auraria for the purposes of tourism and industry...at least, this is what he believes. In reality, Mr. Shadburn is, in fact, planning an hotel and spa for tourists, but his intention is to bury Auraria, to sink it and all it stands for. (Note: Although this story, with its moon maidens and terrapins, is fictional, it's worth pointing out that Westover based it upon an actual Georgia ghost town).

Holtzclaw is at once guided and distracted by a young girl who calls herself Princess Trahlyta, who seems to be part nymph and part ghost (fun fact: Princess Trahlyta was a Cherokee princess, the legend of whom serves as the false legend that Shadburn and Holtzclaw invent in order to stir up interest in their tourism scheme). Those with any Latin/ romance language/ science background will see what's coming next: Auraria is basically a gold mine. But not just any mine...this gold comes not from the earth, but to it, sloughed off of the bodies of moon maidens who see it as we would see sweat. Their bathing in Auraria's streams over the years has caused there to be the smallest particles of gold in all of Auraria's waters, even the rainwater. And it is this gold that Shadburn both needs and detests. It would be easy to cast Shadburn as the villain, but the gold seems to be both champion and villain of this strange little myth.

The plot itself is a little weak (some characterizations seem forced, and a certain romance is neglected for the better part of it) and the author's use of adjectives is a bit overzealous. But the setting, a secluded place with its own mythology and norms (much in the way of Inkworld or Terabithia or Narnia) is exquisite. It's both an interesting ghost story and an astonishingly visual and cinematic fantasy. In the right hands, a film adaptation (fantasy? horror? it could be both!) could be gorgeous.

8.20.2012

Mailbox Monday 8/20/12

 
Well hello.

Deepest apologies for my absence. Things have been a little nutso in my corner of the world. I won't bore you with the details, but I'm back now.

To celebrate my return to the blogosphere, I'm posting a review a day for the next 6 days because, while I haven't been posting or reviewing, I have been reading. So hooray. After this week I plan on going back to posting my regular review once or twice a week plus memes.

This week's reviews will include:

Auraria by Tim Westover (Tuesday 8/21)
Guest Review: The Concubine's Gift by K. Ford K. (Wednesday 8/22)
True Believers by Kurt Anderson (Thursday 8/23)
Guest Review: Sweet Talk by Julie Garwood (Friday 8/24)
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (Saturday 8/25)
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Sunday 8/26)

As for Monday Mailbox business, it's being hosted this month by 5 Minutes for Books; in the time since I last posted, I've received two books:

The first book was Wookie the Chew by James Hance, whose website is a geek's delight.


Along with Wookie the Chew, I also purchased two prints (this one and this one...and I'm seriously considering buying this one and this one). Hance is right now running a special print "Off to Save the Princess" in an effort to save his own beautiful little princess, Madison. Madison is 7 and is suffering from a stomach ailment with too many letters in it. All proceeds of that print go to support Madison's medical/ travel expenses. For more information about "Hugs for Maddy," click here.

The second book was an ARC of Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz's newest book This is How You Lose Her which will be published by Riverhead on September 11th.

Happy Reading!