A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver (The Giver, #1)The Giver by Lois Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Exciting isn’t quite the right word to describe this book, but it was certainly difficult to put down. It starts with Jonas, just days before his idyllic community will hold the yearly December Ceremony marking all of the children turning a year older; this year Jonas will be partaking in the Ceremony of Twelve and receiving his Assignment. He will be informed of the career that has been selected for him and embark upon a regime of training. Jonas is different. He is chosen as his community’s new Receiver, a mysterious position few know anything about. When he begins his training with The Giver, he soon begins to see his community in a new light. To see the things it is lacking. And while his work with The Giver and his Assignment introduce him to capabilities he never suspected, when the unexpected happens and he has to try to save someone he loves, will he be strong enough?

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The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, & Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Edited by Andrew Wright

The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger AbbeyThe Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey by Horace Walpole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Combining powerhouses of Gothic literature Radcliffe and Walpole with the insightful parody of the Gothic tale that is Austen’s Northanger Abbey, this helpful text could stand proudly alongside any English Literature coursebook, while being dramatically more engaging. I had been wanting to read each of these books for quite some time; seeing the three of them in one volume at the library seduced me to depart from my themed reviews and I am delighted to have seized the opportunity. Here’s a brief overview of the separate novels:
Only the linear nature of time prevents The Castle of Otranto being the bizarre lovechild of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors and every haunted castle story every written. This weirdly comic tale of an ambitious family whose oversized birds finally come home to roost can’t quite decide if it wants readers to laugh or cry, so it mooshes together mistaken identities with murders and aims to achieve both at once. I’m hoping Walpole was inventing the Gothic genre when he wrote this.
My one disappointment in this collection relates to The Mysteries of Udolpho: space constraints necessitated the version included here be abridged quite heavily. The full story runs 300 000 words over four volumes; about half the length of War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged, roughly as long as Middlemarch, and about six times the length of Fahrenheit 451. Pruning was justified, but disconcerting. If you pay attention to the tiny printing on the cover and the specific chapters that make up each individual volume, you will notice when something has been omitted. If, like me, you are bellyflopping into the body of the text, you are presented with a choppy, confusing story that changes countries and secondary characters in the time it took you to flip a page. We meet the St. Aubert family in their bucolic cabin in the French countryside, and saunter along with Monsieur St. Aubert and daughter Emily as the duo travel to the seaside in the hopes of restoring St. Aubert senior’s flagging health. The wheel of fortune turns and Emily is deposited unceremoniously with the unscrupulous, mendacious Montoni family deep in the Apennines, in the secluded, crumbling Udolpho castle, where who knows what creeping horrors await her? Certainly not us, that part got edited out. The editors smoosh on an ending of sorts, but if you’ve never read The Mysteries of Udolpho before, this chopped up offering may leave you unsatisfied.
Northanger Abbey is a delight. Our staunchly average heroine, Catherine Morland, adores Gothic novels (she’s reading The Mysteries of Udolpho) and hopes with all her heart to have a Gothic adventure of her own one day. When she joins her friends Eleanor and Henry Tilney at their home, her determination to see an eerie portent in every cabinet and a mystery down every well-lit hallway brings her sharply up against good sense and rationality as Austen subverts the genre. It’s an excellent conclusion to this collection of Gothic works, and yet another example of Austen’s genius.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe, #4)The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two women are missing. Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by the wealthy husband of the one, Derace Kingsley, to track her down after he goes a whole month without hearing from her. The other, Muriel Chess, falls into Marlowe’s lap, so to speak, when her husband chances across her body in the lake of the remote mountain village where they live. Muriel Chess and Crystal Kingsley were both last seen in the same place and on the same day, but beyond that and their passing acquaintance with each other there is nothing tying these two women together. Chandler’s stripped down writing and simple sentences drag Marlowe through the morass he’s landed in and by the end of the story there are crooked cops, a crooked doctor, and a truly hideous scarf of green kidneys on an egg-yolk yellow background. It’s classic noir fiction, and Chandler doesn’t disappoint.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Personal Growth: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

SiddhartaSiddharta by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Siddhartha tells of the journey of one Siddhartha, a young man from the high Brahman caste who leaves his home and joins an ascetic sect (somewhat akin to followers of John the Baptist, or the Stoics) in a search for enlightenment. He is convinced there is one piece of knowledge that, once he finds it, will ease the feeling that there is something more his heart still wants. Hesse has carefully crafted each placid, melodiously repetitive sentence to lull you into a meditative calm while reading Siddhartha’s story. The revelations Siddhartha discovers throughout the book are a unique way of looking at the world, and this is an excellent story to start off a new year with.

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I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I, RobotI, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Isaac Asimov imagines the Earth of 2057 has just over 3 billion people on it. Is divided into four Regions: Eastern, European, Tropic, and Northern; each of these is run by a Regional Coordinator and all of them together are run by the World Coordinator. Humanity mines not just asteroids but other planets. We have colonized other star systems. In all of these endeavours we are aided by robots. In this collection of short stories which bears no relation whatsoever to the movie of the same name starring Will Smith, Asimov takes us on a retrospective of the growth of the robot industry through the eyes of one of its giants, robot psychologist Dr Susan Calvin. Her memories of the first robot nanny, to robots managing other robots, to robots shepherding whole industries, carry us along through the decades in the future while robots become an integral part of our society. This work of speculative fiction is mostly set far enough in the future that, even sixty years from the publication date, we can still speculate along with it. As of January 2018, Mercury remains unmined.

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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With all the beauty of a raging ocean, Memoirs of a Geisha will fill you with delight and sadness. A fictional account of a young girl whose familial misfortunes result in her being sold as a maid to an okiya, a geisha house; if she seems suitable to the women who run the okiya they will take her on and train her as a geisha. Her life is filled with beauty and heart-break. She lives through the Great Depression and Second World War, along with her own numerous private griefs inflicted by chance and deliberately, as the principle geisha in the okiya is a viciously cruel person, fond of using her power to hurt all around her, frequently for no reason at all. On top of that the culture at the time sets up these young girls as objects of desire, pursued by wealthy middle-aged men in bidding wars and interactions that will make your skin crawl. If this young girl from a poor fishing village can somehow survive the hardships and cruelties of geisha training and the loss of her family, will it be possible for her to find happiness and security in adulthood? Or will her enemies get the best of her?

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's WomanThe French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Complete madness. You think you are embarking on your typical Victorian era romance á la Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Byatt’s Possession, full of bleak seascape vistas, rich green fecundity, cruel winds, and thwarted love. It opens with an engaged couple, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, walking along the seashore one blustery day when they realize the motionless, sea-gazing figure before them is not some brooding fisherman, but is in fact a brooding female. One Sarah Woodruff, known through town as the French Lieutenant’s Woman due to her double misfortune in developing an attraction to the aforementioned military man when he was convalescing at her mistress’ house post shipwreck and his jilting of her at the end of such convalescence. Religion being what it is in the 1860’s, her bad luck is immediately punished with ostracization and poverty until Charles takes an interest in her. That interest develops along the lines you would expect…but then the author shows up. Fowles starts talking about his characters and their motivations. He makes visits of increasing frequency as the book progresses. He then adds insult to injury by thrusting in chapters which are revealed only too late to be from an alternate universe! You have emotionally committed yourself to this new direction the plot has taken and Fowles unceremoniously flings you back on your butt the next page; nothing of what you read has actually – in the fictional world of this novel – occurred. It is simultaneously a wonderful and infuriating novel, brilliantly upending the conventions of the “fallen woman,” while waving your expectation of those conventions in your face. After hardly being capable of putting it down all day, after finally finishing it, I can’t decide whether I want to fling it across the room or immediately start re-reading it. I look forward with trepidation and excitement to reading his other famous novels.

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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Do say something, she thought, wishing only to hear him speak.”
Virginia Woolf writes deceptively simple sentences that often have an understated romance to them. To the Lighthouse wasn’t overtly challenging, but reading it I still had to focus on each line to follow the jumps of subject and point of view that Woolf often made. It’s very much a book of relationships; parent and child, spouses, adult friends; carried across decades. The Ramsay family has spent their summers at a holiday home in Scotland. Mrs Ramsay throws dinner parties and the eight children play together on beaches. Sometimes everyone will take a boat to the nearby lighthouse. It’s idyllic in that flawed way that family vacations have, when the family in question is basically good people. The children expect these vacations will continue forever. Life intervenes. We get lovely word pictures of dust and cobwebs usurping their cottage as years and wars pass before their next visit, with the youngest of the children now adults and the family smaller, grieving its losses. Mr Ramsay takes his son James and daughter Cam sailing to the lighthouse in years past, though my understanding from the writing is that James has never actually been before. Their last vacation had poor weather and though plans were made, the lighthouse visit did not take place. This last trip really showcases the complexity of the emotions Cam and James feel towards their father, and the relationships the guests have had with the Ramsays. The book as a whole is a touching depiction of the fleeting memories that make up eternity.

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Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy (Leather-bound Classics)Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy by Jules Verne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This huge book is a hodgepodge of some well-known sci-fi and fantasy tales, with some lesser known ones. The editors arranged them in order of publication, which also makes this book an interesting glimpse into the progression of fantasy/sci-fi through the mid-nineteeth to early twentieth century. With all the racist and sexist attitudes from those times, unfortunately. Thankfully some are better than others.
The Diamond Lens by Fitz James O’Brian (1858): The opening story shows us a young man obsessed with microscopy who stumbles across the secret to create the world’s most powerful lens, which leads to an unexpected discovery. Really reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, right up until the ending when I think the author looked at his watch and realized he was late for something important? Content warnings for murder.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864): The classic sci-fi tale of the professor and his nephew who decipher a text from a mysterious Iceland/ic explorer and embark on a trek to the planet’s core is one of my favourites.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888): Less a story and more a “Communism: You Should Try It!” instructional pamphlet. If pamphlets were 150 pages long. I struggled to get through this one, but it was interesting to read a story about one author’s vision of the world over 100 years in the future, which is set 17 years in our past. The things Bellamy assumed would change (which mainly didn’t), and the things he assumed would stay the same (which mainly haven’t), and the changes he didn’t predict made for a unique take. Not quite enough to make up for the dullness of the plot, but I gave him extra points for effort. Even if it wasn’t his doing.
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897): Another fantastic sci-fi classic. Wells’ tale of a Martian invasion – and its unexpected resolution – is something everyone should read.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912): Opening the “John Carter of Mars” series by the author of Tarzan is this action-filled novel where the main character discovers a mysterious cave which transports him instantaneously to an inhabited Mars. Fortunately it has a breathable atmosphere or this would have been a very short series.
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912): The original Jurassic Park, with dinosaurs and egos larger than life.
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1915): Did not live up to the high hopes I had for it, after having read White Fang and The Call of the Wild. A multi-generational band of apocalypse survivors roaming the States listens to its oldest member reminiscing about the disease that nearly ended the world.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915): Tied with Looking Backward for worst title, but a far better plot. Wealthy, mismatched college students chasing a rumoured all-women society bite off more than they can chew when they find that society and think they can just waltz in and be the cock of the rock. Content warnings for sexual assault.
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan (1928): In this extravagently racist tale, Nowlan imagines the second World War will be everyone ganging up on America…because industry? Who knows, because now China rules everything and only a few stalwart forest bands stand between us and total moral degredation in a society where ease and luxury abound (and that’s bad). Super duper racist, but not as sexist as you would think for 1928. Overall an interesting story, despite the somewhat unbelievable premise.
The Dunwich Horror by HP Lovecraft (1928): Classic Lovecraftian fantasy has this small town attacked by an interdimensional monstrosity whose origins may be alarmingly local. A great story for when you feel like something creepy. Content warnings for animal mutilation.

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