Monday, August 31, 2009

The Observations by Jane Harris - 416 pgs

Book CoverThe Observations is the story of Bessy Buckley, a young girl who is running from her horrible mother in Glasgow. Bessy's mother, having found a way to use the girl to provide an income, squanders the girl's money in drink and debauchery. When Bessy escapes from her mother, she begins a journey hoping to become a housemaid in a local mansion, but she is waylaid at a small estate where she is eventually employed by the lovely Arabella Reid. Working for Arabella is a strange undertaking for Bessy, for one minute Arabella is unusually loving and solicitous, and the next she is distant and penalizing. Although Bessy doesn't understand this behavior, she soon comes to regard Arabella, or "Missus," very highly and wishes only to please her and make her happy. One day, while snooping for clues about her Missus' odd behavior, Bessy finds a strange book locked in a desk drawer. She discovers that it is filled with descriptions of strange experiments that the woman is performing on the maids in her employ. Even more unsettling is the fact that Bessy herself and some rather unkind things about her are mentioned in the book. Hurt and angry at this unusual betrayal, Bessy decides to take revenge upon Arabella. Though Bessy does not intend it, things begin to get out of hand rather rapidly and soon Arabella is in serious danger. Though Bessy tries her best to repair the damage she has caused, Arabella continues a frightening downward spiral. Confused and scared, Bessy must use all her wits to save Arabella and herself from eventual destruction.

I found this book to be completely gripping. The plot was extremely well rendered and taut with psychological suspense and the author showed an amazing attention to detail. Causal references and plot points, when read carefully, began to shed a bright spotlight on situations in the house, and it was only at the conclusion of the book that I was able to examine the myriad of pieces and see the whole picture that had emerged.

There was also a good amount of satire and irony in this story, which I found delicious and perfectly at home within the context of the narrative. The perplexing behavior of Arabella seemed to push Bessy into heights of confusion and curiosity that were easy for me to share and understand, and as the clues to this mystery began to pile up, the darkness of the story intensified. There was no doubt that the author had an undeniable sense of atmosphere, and she painted her scenes with such a perfect mix of gloom, suspicion and dread, that it was easy to get caught up in from very early on.

The brilliant portrayal of the closeness and secretiveness of the Reid house was very symbolic of the relationship between the two women, and the scenery and the women worked and fed off each other in frightening and startling ways. Both the environment and the characters had a sense of coldness and remoteness about them, and I found the utter symmetry between the two to be a great touch.

I found Bessy to be a very intriguing character. At times she was totally repugnant and snide and at others very emotionally frail and accommodating, she was at once a walking contradiction. Hers was a very convincing voice that imbued the story with a good deal of credit and believability. It was interesting that as the book progressed, Bessy turned from confused and fawning servant into Arabella's merciless tormentor and finally, wracked with guilt, a most caring and attentive conspirator. Her shifts in these roles seemed very genuine and natural through the artistry of the narrative.

Though there were real villains in this book, they were not found where one expected, and were casually revealed, which I found to be a winning ploy. I spent most of the book wondering where the evil was to be discovered, only to realize that it had been somewhere unexpected all along. The point of this, I think, was to cloak both Arabella and Bessy in suspicion, to make them both seem villainous, when the truth was much more complex.

Unfortunately the book really fell apart at the ending. It was completely unexpected and seriously impacted my enjoyment of the story. The author opted for an undeserved happy ending which I felt was not remotely plausible. The conclusion of the book took something away from the story for me, and it almost made the entire journey seem unimportant. I found it to be such a shame not to be able to close this book with the satisfaction I had hoped for.

This was a riveting book in terms of character, plot and atmosphere that has not been widely publicized. Despite the contrived conclusion, I thought that there was a great dark energy about it and its twists and turns were exceptionally well delivered. If you are in the mood for a book that will sweep you away into its cluttered and close world and has a really unique ambiance, I would suggest this book to you. If you can deal with the substantially lumpy ending, I think it makes for an engulfing read.

Monday, August 24, 2009

BBAW Nomination

I was so excited to receive an e-mail saying that I had been nominated for a Book Blogger Appreciation Week award for Best Book Reviews! I wanted to say a huge thanks to those who nominated me, and also thank you for reading my blog and leaving such insightful comments here. I think there are some amazing blogs out there being nominated for awards, and I look forward to getting a chance to vote on some of them and seeing which ones take the prize. So, once again, thank you guys, you rock!

Missy by Chris Hannan - 304 pages

Book CoverDol McQueen is a young prostitute living in the Wild West. After a few unlucky mishaps at her boarding house, Dol and a few of the other working girls decide to strike out on their own in San Antonio. During the trip to their new town, Dol unwittingly saves the life of a pimp named Pontius who is on the run with a stolen crate of opium, and that's where her real troubles begin. You see, Dol is an opium addict, and although she would never dream of ingesting the contents of the crate, she knows how much it's worth, and she wants to sell it and use the money to straighten up her life. Although she's not ashamed of the life she leads, the "missy" she's addicted to coats her perceptions and she remains lost in a sort of indifference that keeps her blissfully unaware of her predicament in life. Dol's life is further complicated by her mother, who is perpetually drunk and abusive towards her and all the other settlers in the town. As Dol spends her days trying to stay clear of the angry pimp while trying to cage the opium, she must also attempt to keep her mother from drinking herself to death. When Pontius is set upon by a band of dangerous trackers looking for the opium and forcibly removed from the settlement, Dol and her companions go after him, into the blazing desert, bent on taking the prize. Now the girls must race to find the pimp and the crate before the trackers, Indians or thieves do. But during the harsh trip, Dol must leave the "missy" behind and with clearer perceptions beginning to dawn, she discovers the secrets to her mother's ambitions and desires, and comes to realize just what sort of person she herself really is.

I got a lot of enjoyment out of this book. Despite her bad reputation, Dol was a really fun character to get invested in. She had all the qualities of a great heroine, and the less desirable aspects of her personality made for immersive reading. I found her to be both smart and scrupulous, with a huge capacity for irreverence and humor sprinkled throughout. She seemed to always be plotting, and though many times she ended up with the short end of the stick, the more trouble she got herself into, the deeper I was drawn in. Her morals were relaxed at all times, and she had no problem making sure that she stayed on the very top of the heap, but she did it with heartfelt frankness, and though her convictions were very skewed, she still had them.

Although the book dealt with topics that are sometimes indelicate, there was no real baseness to the story, and most of the sexual endeavors of the lead females were not specifically detailed. In other words, this was not a shocking and dirty book. There were a few violent scenes, but nothing that I would say pushed the envelope. Some of the situations in the book weren't pretty, but the author had a way of writing them with a no-nonsense factuality, and didn't stoop to moroseness and darkness. Lets face it, the lives of a group of prostitutes in the 1800s are bound to be fraught with certain types of ugliness and unpleasantness. The fact that the author wrote with such humor while telling of these unpleasant times made the book a far different experience than what it could have been.

The plot was extremely well done. It was an odd story, full of action and pathos, but it dealt with a side of life that is under-examined and mostly hidden from polite society. And it was fascinating. There was no filler here. Each part of the action followed hot on the heels of the last, and the result was a story that moved along with a great clip and intensity. The story was both rich and playful, and Doll was a unique and entertaining narrator, showing gumption in the ways she both addressed and tackled the problems that seemed to attack her out of the blue. I also wasn't prepared for how funny this book was. I found myself giggling helplessly as some of the more savory details of the plot emerged. Though the writing style wasn't taxing, it also wasn't elementary, and the author employed a great use of irony throughout the book. It was the kind of story that your eyes hungrily gobble, and read frantically to discover the next muddle that this remarkable girl would get herself embroiled in.

I also liked that there were varying degrees of evil in the book. Whereas Dol's mother was a wicked woman who was intent on making her daughter unhappy, her character couldn't even hold a candle to the awfulness of Pontius, who in turn couldn't begin to be as malicious as the people who were hunting him. At times, Dol had to choose between the lesser of these three evils, and other times she was fighting all three at once. There were a handful of very memorable characters in this book, and they were well used to fully round out the narrative.

I was also amused at the relationships she had with the other girls. Though some had her full respect and admiration, others she derided and shunned, which made for some rather lively showdowns, especially towards the end of the book. Dol's addiction problems were also quite interesting. She never seemed to breach a certian level of depravity when it came to the opium, but it was clear that it was running her and not the other way around. There were some interestingly symbolic hallucinations and dream sequences, when Dol would go off into her own world after indulging, and some of them were brilliantly prophetic and fearsome. The ending of the book was completely satisfying, with all the loose ends being tied up nicely in a way that didn't feel forced or trite at all.

I wish this book had been longer. It was a great feeling to be so entertained and amused by Dol and her weird antics, and I would have gladly accompanied her further along her journeys, had it only been written. I think the author did a great job concocting Dol into a very sympathetic and winning character, and his sense sense of plot was magnificent. If you are looking for a really unique reading experience and really like your characters to have a lot of pluck, I would definitely recommend this book to you. It's both character and plot driven, and it has wonderful historical flavor. Remarkably entertaining.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, World of Wonders) by Robertson Davies - 832 pgs

Book CoverThis trilogy of novels housed in one volume tells the story of the entanglements of three men whose fates are intertwined by one seemingly insignificant event in their small town of Deptford. The trilogy begins with Fifth Business, which tells the story of Dunstan Ramsay. When Percy "Boy" Staunton wraps a snowball around a rock and pitches in at Dunstan, it misses his target and hits the head of Mrs. Dempster, the minister's wife. The injury causes Mrs. Dempster to go into premature labor, and shortly after pushes her into madness. Although Dunstan feels incredibly guilty, Boy does not acknowledge his part in the incident. Dunstan goes on to war heroism and academic greatness, but cannot forget his part in the awful business with the snowball, and unable to forget it, he makes himself responsible for the woman who was so seriously impacted by the events of that day. Fifth Business is Dunstan's autobiographical letter detailing his life of unresolved guilt and hidden shame at the mess he believes himself to be responsible for. The second book, The Manticore, begins with Boy Staunton lying dead at the bottom of a lake with the fated rock from the prank hidden in his mouth. Now his grown son David is looking for answers to his father's death, which leads him to Switzerland for a course of psychoanalysis. What David uncovers sheds a new light on Boy and his unstoppable ambition, and the effects this has had on the people he loves, or claims to love. It seems that Boy thought himself at the center of the universe, with everyone around him only minor stars to aid his progress. But the question remains: Did Boy really die by his own hand, or was there another culprit? The last book, World of Wonders, focuses on the boy born to Mrs. Dempster, Paul, a strange lad that is unwittingly kidnapped by a magician and indoctrinated into circus life. Although Paul travels many unhappy years with the circus and becomes jaded and hard, he eventually reinvents himself as a foremost magician and illusionist with the help of a strange woman. But he never quite forgets the troubles he had in Deptford, or his enmity for Boy Staunton.These three stories weave in between each other to reveal the three vastly different men that were shaped by that horrible incident in Deptford, and tell a story studded with magic, humanism, and regret that will enrapture even the most guarded reader.

It is really hard to do justice to this book, either in my summary or my opinions on it, because there was just such an all-encompassing depth and reach to this story. Though I have outlined the bare bones of the plot, what can't be described is the exact fullness of spirit and idea that this book contained. At times the story veered into the realm of dark magical realism, but that side of the narrative never felt fully explored. Instead, it just teetered on the edge of the fantastical and mysterious. Between the stories of the three men of Deptford, Davies discourses on many other subjects as well: the differences between egoism and egotism, the strange role mythology plays in everyday life, and the chaos that surrounds a life of charisma and magnetism. It is not a simple trick, and I found that in order to balance some of these heavy philosophies, at times the characters and the story suffered. It was not really a straight narrative because much of his speculations had the effect of wandering away from the main plot and going off into other tangents. Not that I didn't appreciate that, but it made the book a much more dense and involved read, and it was not really what I had been expecting.

At times I felt that much of the plot was just a wrapper for certain ideas that the author wished to express. It was almost like the two, the philosophy and the narrative, existed entirely separately and the plot seemed to provide a convenient backdrop for some of the author's more slippery ideas. Much of the story held my interest, but there was something elusive about the way it was constructed, something that made me hold it at an arms length and examine it with a mixture of disdain and awe. It was an odd book that seemed to feed on it's own mythology and quiet pandemonium, and at times it was very unsettling.

The book had a long cast of characters and all walks of life were represented, from the perverted to the saintly, but most of them were supporting of the main five or six that the action settled around. I found it odd that I didn't seem to like any of the characters, and though I understood their motivations, I found that one of the reasons I could not get fully enveloped in the story was due to the distance that I felt for these people. Many were strange and unsettling, and some were just plain hostile and sadistic. Not the normal types of people I find amassed all together in one book, which I think speaks to the author's great capability for developing characters that stick with you whether you want them to or not. At times I questioned the humanness of the characters because they didn't react in typically human ways. I found most of them to be quite cold and just short of compassionate, and most of their softer emotions seemed at best poorly directed and misguided, with a few notable exceptions.

I find it hard to put my finger on my exact opinions on this book. While I think it was a brilliant book that juggled many themes, philosophies and ideas very well, I remained a bit separated from it and felt that there was an aspect of emotional squalidness and cynicism that encompassed it that I didn't want to examine too closely or be too involved with. All of these things seemed perfectly calculated by the author but left me a little uneasy. I think it spoke to a lot of the more base instincts in human beings and at times those truths were uncomfortable to look at. Davies is honest and succinct in his estimation of man, but at times I would have liked a bit more hope and a bit less harsh realism.

Although I found myself holding back from the book, I have to admit that the writing, atmosphere and complexities of the story were top notch, and I believe this to be a superior story. As far as the breakdown of the book goes, I would have to say that the first of the books, Fifth Business, was by far my favorite. I enjoyed the intricacies of Dunstan's story and felt that this first book held the most interest for me. The second book, The Manticore, was a lot less interesting but there were some really astute and penetrating sections that really hooked me in. The last book, World of Wonders, was a mixed bag. The story started off great and up until about halfway through I thought that it would be the best of the three. Later sections dealt with Paul's time in the theater among a travelling group of actors, and I felt that section dragged on too long and was less interesting than any of the other sections of the trilogy.

Although I struggled a bit with this book, and my interpretations of it, I think that overall it was very thought provoking and extremely well written. Davies has written two other trilogies and I will probably be taking a look at both of them sometime soon. If you are the type of reader who is not put off by some of the more abject aspects of human nature and are looking for a book with very deep character portrayals interspersed with some fairly complex ideology, I would reccommend this book to you. If you take the time with this book, you will find something indescribably impressive lurking within the pages.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve - 400 pgs

Book CoverSea Glass, a novel set on the New Hampshire coast in the early days of the Depression, introduces several very different characters, all from different social classes, who come together under extraordinary circumstances. Honora Beecher is a young and naive woman, swept off her feet and quickly married to the secretive and charismatic Sexton. Sexton and Honora have recently pooled all their resources to buy an abandoned house on the coast, where they hope to share their lives. Sexton, a traveling office machine salesman, soon gets himself in over his head with some financial trickery and ultimately gets fired from his job. During this tough economic time, his only choice is to begin working at the mill, a job that feeds off the very souls of its workers. Vivian is a debutante with too much money and too much time on her hands. Running and hiding from her usual set after an unspecified difficulty, she finds herself on the New Hampshire coast with her close friend Dickie. Dickie has recently begun renovation on a house that he wishes to share with Vivian, but the stock market crash changes all that. Soon, Dickie has fled the scene in disgrace and Vivian is in sole possession of the big house. Whiling away her days alone, Vivian longs to make a change in her life, to find direction and meaning in the turbulent times. McDermott is a young mill worker. As he toils away repairing the machines that have robbed him of most of his hearing, he comes across some troubling news about the mill. Management is planning on cutting wages, increasing production, and lengthening hours; and McDermott has had enough. Quietly he becomes involved in a workers strike that will pull in the likes of Honora, Vivian, and Sexton. As these unlikely accomplices come together, they will discover new sides of themselves and new opportunities that had never before seemed possible. Unexpected loyalties will form, relationships will be tested, and lives will be forever changed by the events that they all become complicit in.

After reading so much praise for Anita Shreve's novels, I was surprised to find that this book fell so flat for me. I think the crux of the problem was that every aspect of the book was very subdued and, frankly, dull. I found all of the characters to be thinly formed and to have little to no tension or spark of life within them. They all seemed very drab and curiously passionless. Because of this, I never really felt any emotion for any of them. I didn't really care who was falling in love with who, or who was dealing with financial upsets or, well, anything that was going on with them. And it seemed like they didn't care either. The characters lacked the solidity that was necessary for me to engage with them, and as a result, the story was thin and unremarkable. There was very little emotional examination in these people; they just seemed to trudge along and let things happen to them without taking any kind of emotional stock of themselves or those around them; and when they did exhibit the perfunctory emotion expected of them, it didn't feel genuine or heartfelt. They just didn't feel very real or convincing and I found that to be especially frustrating. It made me want to hold them all at an arms length instead of investing any care or concern in them.

I also didn't find the plot to be all that interesting. Mostly it dealt with the striking workforce of the mill and the clandestine operations of the people organizing the strikes. There were other aspects of the plot, like the floundering intimacy between Sexton and Honora, the unlikely friendship between McDermott and a young boy who also worked in the mill, and a secret and ill-planned romance. However, all this paled in comparison to the emphasis that was placed on the strike at the mill, which portrayed the harsh conditions and unfairness of factory life and provided the backdrop for the melding of the characters, who were all of differing social classes. One could argue that the love story was meant to take center stage, but it was not developed or nuanced enough to take the reigns and move forward as the main plot element. I felt the plot to be a bit heavy-handed and not very engaging, and although it was very easy to read (which I am not sure is a compliment), I found that anything and everything distracted me from the story in front of me.

Here I must add that I did enjoy reading the letters that Honora's mother wrote to her detailing daily life that was strictured by depression era economies, but those were few and far between. I would have been more pleased to have read more in this vein, as it did tend to give the story some much needed atmosphere and historical resonance. Towards the end there was a shift in the storyline, and finally some action, but it was a brief plot sequence. Unfortunately, I had made up my mind about the book by that point and I was not swayed by the plot twist.

The conclusion was fully as disappointing as most of the book had been, with most of the characters finding new depths of misery in which to wallow. Perhaps an alternate and more satisfying ending would have made me a bit more charitable in my feelings towards this book, but I don't really think so. I can understand that some books are meant to be quiet and subtle, but in this situation, I think the book definitely suffered from the lack of tangible feeling and emotional depth and range. Maybe this is a particular writing trait of the author, or maybe it was unique to this book, but I didn't find it to be a very compelling or engrossing read.

Though I didn't particularly like this book, I have heard really good things about The Pilot's Wife, one of her other novels. Honestly, I wished I had read that one instead. This book was the second selection of our book club, and surprisingly, I was in the minority in my opinion of it. Most of the others in the group felt very strongly about the characters and their plights, and Sexton in particular was unanimously hated and vilified. Others thought that Honora was a very boring character in the first half of the book but that she later became more interesting. The conclusion seemed to be disliked by all that were present, but overall they agreed that this was an entertaining read. For my part, I don't feel that I can honestly recommend this book, as I feel that the sparseness of both the plot and characters detracted heavily from my enjoyment of it.
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