Pure – Andrew Miller

Paris, 1785. A year of bones, of grave dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love…. A year unlike any other he has lived.

Jean Baptiste Baratte is a young provincial engineer trying to make a future for himself in Paris. He is given a task, to clear the cemetery of les Innocents, to remove the corpses piled up in the pits year after year, to demolish the church, to cleanse the foul air which is spreading throughout the neighborhood. It is not an easy or pleasant task but the young man sets to it and tries to do his job as best he can. He hires men to dig the pits, finds a new place for the old sexton and his young niece to live in, survives an attempt on his life which leaves him with horrendous migraines, and falls in love with Heloise, a young prostitute.

Pure From the back cover blurb I thought this book would be a perfect fit for me. The promise of an adventure, of sinister discoveries, of mysteries unraveled, together with the beautiful cover design which reminded me of Poe, it looked like one very interesting book. But no, it wasn’t meant to be. Not quite, anyway.
It’s not the melancholy air of the story, or the beautiful rhythmic prose which I really loved, or the characters – no dear story, it’s not you, it’s me. I wanted more more, when there were whispered rumors about a beast living in the deep charnels of the cemetery, more when the men discover the bodies of two young women buried decades ago but still in near perfect condition, more when Jean Baptiste is attacked in the middle of the night and left to bleed to death in his room. These were tantalizing morsels spread throughout the book but unfortunately they were not given much room in the story.

Instead, we get a lot of details about the lives of the miners who leave their jobs in a provincial town to come and dig the graves of les Innocents – taciturn men under the rule of a mysterious leader with violet eyes (how intriguing, I thought, I wonder who that man is, but this is yet another unexplored thread). Their lives are ruled by their job and soon enough it’s beginning to get too oppressive. Drink is allowed, then tobacco, and then women, to enliven their dreary work of digging the bones. Ironically, it’s the things the church condemns that keeps the men at their jobs, as if erasing the place from the city requires letting go of rules and reverting back to a more instinctual state. The church is demolished and in the process a man dies, an accident. Then follow rape and suicide, unexpectedly.

Even though the people who live in the vicinity of the cemetery appear not to approve of its demise – the death of a cemetery, there’s a certain poetry to that – none but one dares to do something about it. What they do doesn’t change the plans regarding the cemetery but it profoundly alters Jean Baptiste.
It’s the end of an era, it’s a big change for the neighborhood, and some people have trouble letting go. Some lives begin and others end in the slowly disintegrating world of bones and foul miasmas. The cemetery is but the backdrop for all the dramas unfolding, a breeding ground for love and hope, despair and violence – the old priest is slowly losing his mind, for the sexton’s niece, Jeanne, is the end of her childhood, for Jean Baptiste is the beginning of a new life.
The stories are told in rich detail, the dialogues in particular – Jean Baptiste’s interview with the minister who hires him is one of my favorite scenes in the book. And yet, I wanted more, more mysteries and more answers. My dissatisfaction with the story is no doubt due to my penchant for ghost stories, for horror and suspense, for the deep dark pits of the human soul. So, dear story, we’ll part ways as friends. I do like you very much but I wish I could have loved you instead.

Some of my favorite passages:

about the Palace of Versailles:

The palace is full of mirrors. Living here, it must be impossible not to meet yourself a hundred times a day, every corridor a source of vanity and doubt.

Some of those who lived beside the cemetery had started to find the proximity an unpleasant one. Food would not keep. Candles were extinguished as if by the pinch of unseen fingers. People descending their stairs in the morning fell into a swoon. And there were moral disturbances, particularly among the young. Young men and women of hitherto blemishless existences…

For his part, Jean-Baptiste prefers not to think of bones as having owners, names. If he has to start treating them as former people, farriers, mothers, former engineers perhaps, how will he ever dare sink a spade into the earth and part for all eternity a foot from a leg, a head from its rightful neck?

For the time it takes to walk back to the house and up the stairs to his room, he imagines himself the happiest man in Paris. He does not light a candle – he sits on the bed in the cool almost-dark as thought wrapped in the purple heart of a flower.
How simple it all is! And what idiots we are for making such a trial of our lives! As if we wished to be unhappy, or feared that the fulfillment of out desires would explode us! Briefly – the old reflex – he wants to examine what he feels, to name its parts, to know what kind of machine it is, this new joy; then he lies back on the bed, laughing softly, and like that comes close to sleep before sitting suddenly bolt upright, everything uncertain again.

*My rating: 3.5/5 stars
*Read in June, 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 10 Comments

Once Upon a Time – Wrap up

onceup8200 small Today is the last day of the Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge that Carl has been hosting every year from March 21st until June 21st on his blog over at Stainless Steel Droppings. Any books that fall into any of these categories: fairy tale, folklore, fantasy and mythology, can be included in the challenge.

I had a great time participating this year and managed to read nine books and watch one movie, and also co-host Angela Carter Week together with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat.

I read about djinni (in two books!), a golem, angels, fairy tale re-tellings, a quest for immortality, fairies and genies (the kind that come in a bottle) and a half woman-half bird character that traveled with a circus. The only book I didn’t finish was Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, and that’s because there were many versions of the same tale and it got quite boring after a while so I decided this is the kind of book I would dip in now and again rather than try and read it all at once.

My favorite book was The Golem and the Djinni – most of all because I didn’t know much about these two fairy tale characters and this book brought them together in a very original and interesting way. This is also one of the best books I’ve read this year and would recommend it to everybody.
A big thank you to Carl for hosting this challenge; I can’t wait for September, when it’s time for R.I.P.
Here’s a list of my reviews and this is Carl’s review site for the event:

Frozen – movie review
The Golem and the Djinni – Helene Wecker
Poison – Sarah Pinborough
Fate – L.R. Fredericks
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – A.S. Byatt
Angelology – Danielle Trussoni
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me – FORTY NEW FAIRY TALES edited by Kate Bernheimer
Dreams & Shadows – C. Robert Cargill
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Did you participate in the challenge this year? What was your favorite book?

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Angela Carter Week – The End

ACW badge 4This has been a most interesting week. I had planned to read two books and managed to do that but I also got to see what other bloggers chose for this event and their perceptions shed a new light on my own thoughts. I’m in two minds about Carter’s work. I found The Bloody Chamber quite enjoyable but Nights at the Circus was a bit too rich for my taste. I am, however, grateful for having read this author because even if it hasn’t made me a great admirer, I can certainly appreciate good writing and Carter is one of the most resourceful authors I’ve read so far.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people joined Caroline and I for this week of fairy tales and symbolism. The most popular choices seem to have been the novels Love and The Magic Toyshop.
A big thank you to everyone who has participated, and if you haven’t done it yet, please add your link to Mr Linky here.
Thanks to Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat, my co-host for this event. You can find a list with all the reviews in her wrap up post. I hope we get to organize more events like this together and I hope many of you will join us again.

Now I’m off to read Marina, a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón which I discovered this past weekend. So far it has echoes of Great Expectations and I’m enjoying it.

Have a great week, everyone!

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Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

ACW badge 4 Today is the last day of Angela Carter Week, an event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat. Because of all the different time zones of all the participants and because, if we want to be accurate, this event ends at midnight on Sunday the 15th, the last post will be up tomorrow and will include the links to the reviews of all book bloggers who joined us in reading the work of this unique author.

I managed to finish Nights at the Circus today, but in all fairness, it wasn’t easy. What began as an intriguing journey into the fantastical world of Carter’s work with the stories in The Bloody Chamber, proved to be a different thing entirely with this novel.

Nights at the Circus The story begins with an interview. Sophie Fevvers (which is just another name for feathers) is a miracle of nature. She works in a circus as an aerialiste, displaying her talents with the flying trapeze and dazzling the world with her wings. Part woman, part bird, she claims to have been hatched and not birthed, and Jack Walser, a young American journalist sets out to find out the truth behind this incredible story.

“Is she fact or is she fiction?” is the aerialiste’s favorite slogan and together with her trusted chaperone/friend/foster mother, she spins a story that literally makes Walser dizzy. From being found by Lizzie on the doorsteps of a London whorehouse to a childhood spent playing Cupid for the customers, to working in a house with other girls such as Sleeping Beauty and the Wonder, through kidnaps and a train wreck, this story is a roller-coaster filled with so much symbolism it made my head spin. Fairy tale characters abound, there’s also a pig who can spell, tigers who can dance, monkeys who take matters into their own hands, a shaman, a clown who loses his mind during a show and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Carter crams every page with philosophy, symbols, and references to various literary works or authors including Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Dante. No paragraph is left free, no sentence untouched, and the story spins in all directions, here telling the tale of a character, here we find out about another, all linked and tied together to the mysterious bird-woman or the journalist who follows her across countries in the name of curiosity and later, in the name of love.

Almost nothing is what it seems here – Fevvers herself most of all. She is a “giantess” with a “big bosom”, blonde hair and blue eyes. She farts and spits and blows her nose with her fingers, drinks copious amounts of alcohol with the finesse of a drunken sailor, yet her vocabulary is only matched by her lust for money and that is great, indeed. Showered with gifts by admirers, invited to fancy diners, she is the wonder everybody admires, desires and obsesses over, but her calculated avarice and cunning saves her from more than one sticky situation.

I’m not sure if I liked this book. I certainly admire and appreciate the writing but certain passages I could have done without. The first part of the book – in which Fevvers goes down memory lane – was more interesting, and as for characters, I didn’t like any of them in particular. Reading this book was an odd sensation, and I’m beginning to think Carter works best for me in smaller chunks. Her prose is rich and abundant, a cornucopia of words spilling from the pages; her views on marriage, the freedom of women and the nuisance of men, quite obvious – sexuality, abuse of women, madness, fantastic elements, all are present or hinted at one way or the other.
While I did enjoy the nuances and musings, a few sprinkled here and there are fine, but a deluge is not, and at the end of the day I want to enjoy a good story without digging my way from under the symbolism. I am glad I read her work, even if it hasn’t made a fan out of me – not yet anyway (though I still think her short stories are great and would recommend them), I’m not sure if I would try and read any of her other books any time soon.

My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in June, 2014

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The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

ACW badge 4 This is my first contribution to Angela Carter Week, a reading event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@Beautyisasleepingcat.

The Bloody Chamber is a short story collection based on legends and fairy tales which take place in Gothic castles, great houses or dark woods, complete with grim surroundings, acts of cruelty and plenty of blood. Vampires and werewolves, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots, the tales remodeled, the protagonists are changed, not in name but in behavior.

The Bloody Chamber The first story, The Bloody Chamber, is based on the legend of Bluebeard, the famous man whose brides meet a gruesome death when they disobey his order – never to enter the forbidden room, you may have the key but not his permission. The temptation is great and the new bride only finds what the price for her betrayal is at the end, after the act is done – the consequences are never articulated but rather shown. What is different with Carter’s approach is the power she invests in women which gives them a chance at salvation. This was my favorite story – a perfect combination of exquisite language, mystery, and a great ending that’s not exactly happily ever after but close enough.

I loved this line:

“…the unguessable country of marriage.”

The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride tell the story of “Beauty and the Beast” in a new way. While the first begins like the original story, and is of a more delicate, romantic nature, the second is brutal and horrific in its originality – the young girl has to face the Beast as one would a master, after all, her father had lost her at cards and she was now his property. It’s a battle of wits as the protagonists try to get what they want but find themselves surprised by the answer to their requests.

It was the strangest thing, reading this – I liked the story very much but when I finished the last sentence I realized it was not the first time I had read it. Does this mean I was so engrossed in the story it totally blotted out the memory of my first reading it? I hope so.

I liked this new version of Puss in Boots in which a poor young man falls in love with the beautiful young wife of an old rich miser who reminded me of Scrooge so much I could almost see his bony hands counting the coins, eating meager suppers and keeping his wife under lock and key, much as he did with his money. Puss is the narrator, which makes for an amusing point of view as he describes the things he does for his master, from stealing dinner to delivering messages, and planning some risky escapades.

The Erl King and The Snow Child were two very strange stories and I’m not exactly sure what to make of them.
The Erl King has ample references to Red Riding Hood but the story is so full of symbolism it’s almost like a riddle. Are the main characters people? I have my doubts. It feels more like a love poem to nature, the words rich and laden with subtle meaning which I can’t quite grasp.

The Snow Child begins with a wish made by a count who goes horse-riding with his wife, a wish for a girl “white as snow, red as blood, black as that bird’s feather.” While I liked the beginning of this story in which the man – and not his wife – wishes for a daughter, the ending had quite the opposite effect on me.

The Lady of the House of Love – this is a story I have read before and read it again this time and liked it just as much. A vampire story, but like with the other stories in this book, it’s not what one might expect. The decrepit old house with its old, time-eaten furnishings, a young woman – a vampire – living in seclusion, spending her long years dealing Tarot cards, trying to see the future which is always the same. Until one day it isn’t, and a young man comes to this forgotten place and of course, that changes everything.

In The Werewolf, an unnamed girl is on her way to grandmother’s house but she has to confront a wolf on her way there and that’s not the most interesting part by far. The girl is tough, in spite of her tender age, she can handle a knife like any hunter and she uses it; it’s a story in which the characters switch places and there’s a big surprise at the end which reminded me of another famous fairy tale.

The Company of Wolves is the story of a young girl and the day she leaves behind her childhood. Gone are the days of a Red Riding Hood skipping merrily on the path through the forest, picking flowers. There are no flowers here but a game of seduction where the prize is life.

Wolf-Alice is about a girl who spent her early years with wolves but she is found and taken away and sent to live with people. She goes to live with nuns and later on, with an old duke who’s not exactly human. It is a strange tale in which the wolf-girl does what comes naturally to her and in doing so brings back the duke’s mortality.

This was perhaps the strangest collection of short stories I’ve read so far, not only because the characters sometimes switch places, or the unguessed endings which came so suddenly it was delightfully shocking but mostly because of the language. I found The Bloody Chamber the most accessible and the best of the whole collection. In it, the right amount of sensuous, descriptive, romantic and also brutal and tender language is used to tell a story in which the woman is not doomed as an act of curiosity (a second chance for biblical Eve if you like) but she is saved and not by a knight in shining armor either.
The heroines are mostly young girls on the brink of womanhood, that time in-between filled with confusion, apprehension and sexual curiosity. The men are either beasts or helpless, and the women hold the power – a feminist approach if ever was one.

The writing is rich and intricate, perhaps a bit too much, like the lilies cloying the atmosphere with their perfume in The Bloody Chamber – at times I felt like being in a dense jungle without a machete to make my way through. While I can appreciate the opulence of the language, there were moments when I wished for a cleaner, less intricate way of telling the story.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in June, 2014

*

I’m now making my way through Nights at the Circus, a novel this time – I’m nearly 80 pages in and very curious about it and glad to see the luxurious language is not as thick as in the stories, something which I find more enjoyable. Hopefully I will finish it by Sunday if not sooner.

What are your plans for this week and if you’re taking part in this event, how do you like Angela Carter’s work so far?

Posted in Challenges | 26 Comments

Angela Carter Week – 8 -15 June 2014

Angela Carter Week is finally here. What started as a casual remark on Beautyisasleepingcat, one of my favorite blogs, led to a one week event co-hosted by Caroline and I, as part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge.
Here are the guidelines:

- The event lasts for a week
- Choose one of the two badges for your blog/website
- You can read/listen (to) anything by Angela Carter
- Leave a comment with the link to your review here or on Caroline’s blog (or both) at any time starting today until the last day of the event.

Anyone can join, just leave your name in a comment. You can find my intro post with a list of Angela Carter’s work here and a list of all the participants here.
For this week I plan on reading a short story collection – The Secret Chamber, and a novel – Nights at the Circus. I’ll post the review for the first sometime next week, and hopefully I’ll get to finish the second by Sunday, the last day of the event.
Thanks to all the participants for taking part in this. I look forward to reading your reviews!
Enjoy!

ACW badge 4 ACW badge 2

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Shadow on the Sun – Richard Matheson

Shadow on the Sun Richard Matheson is a writer who doesn’t need a big introduction. Among his most famous novels which were later adapted for the big screen are A Stir of Echoes, I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. Famous horror writer Stephen King cites Matheson as “the author who influenced me the most as a writer”. It was this quote on the front cover that caught my eye at the bookstore, and the intriguing blurb at the back – a story set a century ago, Apaches, and a mysterious man “who may not be entirely human”.

The story starts with a meeting between a group of Apaches led by chief Braided Feather, and representatives of the U.S. government. Some of the important characters in the story are introduced right away – Billjohn Finley and David Boutelle among them. They have gathered to sign a treaty, which is followed shortly by the death of two young men who are discovered not long after the act, a fact which puts the whole treaty under question as the Apaches are blamed for their deaths. The men’s older brother is intent on revenge, and when he sees the strange tall man wearing the clothes of one of his brothers, he realizes he’s found the killer. But the stranger is after one man, the Night Doctor, and everybody who stands in his way is bound to end up dead. Who is the strange man, whose neck bears a savage scar, whose words came out as if he’d just learned to speak, and whose sight makes men lose their courage? There is no bullet that can stop him, no man who can stand in his way – his appearance strikes horror among people, and even the Apaches are afraid of him. Why else would they abandon their camp and seek refuge elsewhere?

This story gave me nightmares but I loved it. It’s told in a straightforward way, building on the suspense, and even if some scenes were predictable, the horror and savagery certainly made up for this little disadvantage. Matheson has incorporated into the story well-known elements of a Western – a tribe of American Indians complete with a shaman (or Night Doctor), an Apache whose drinking problem has kept him away from his people, an American who is able to see things in their true light and tries to keep peace between the two nations. I liked the book for its mystery, for the bravery of its characters, and not least of all for reminding me of the great Apache chief Winnetou, from the novel with the same name by Karl May, a novel I loved as a teenager. This may not be a novel with passages to swoon over but at a little over 200 pages long it’s a good story and a great choice for fans of the horror and Western genre.

My rating: 4/5 stars

Read in May, 2014

**************************************************

ACW badge 2 In other news, Angela Carter Week starts this Sunday, the 8th of June, a reading event I’m co-hosting with Caroline@beautyisasleepingcat as part of the Once Upon a Time challenge. For more details, including a list of Angela Carter’s books, please follow this link. A big thank you to those who have decided to join us and helped by spreading the word. If you’d like to be a part of this you’re more than welcome, just leave a comment and I’ll include your blog in the list. Also, if you decided not to participate after all, please let me know and I’ll delete your name from the list (but I hope that won’t happen).

The participants (so far):

Caroline @ Beautyisasleepingcat
Delia @ Postcards from Asia
TJ @ mybookstrings
Vishy @ vishytheknight
Fleur @ Fleur in her World
Priya @ Tabula Rasa
Vasilly @ classicvasilly
Helen @ shereadsnovels
dolcebellezza
travellinpenguin
Brona @ bronasbooks
Brian @ briansbabblingbooks
TBM @ 50yearproject
Yasmine Rose @ Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog
Stu @ Winstonsdad’s Blog
Kailana @ The Written World
Ellie @ Lit Nerd
Cathy @ 746books
Violet @ Still Life With Books
Candiss @ Read the Gamut
Mel U @ The Reading Life
Pearls & Prose
Danielle @ A Work in Progress
LindyLit

Posted in Challenges, The Book on The Nightstand | 10 Comments

The Day of the Triffids, On Writing, Slammerkin

A bit of old-fashioned science fiction, some writing advice and an 18th century story – what do they have in common? Nothing really, other than the fact that I’ve read them because I wanted a break from the fairy tales and if I don’t put them all into one post instead of three, I may never catch up on my reviews.

The Day of the Triffids The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

It’s no surprise I never heard of this book as I’m not a science fiction fan, but when it came up at my book club I thought it would be fun to read. Plus, the words “post-apocalyptic” have always held a sort of magic spell over me. It turns out my instinct was right. It was a fun and enjoyable book to read, which may be an odd choice of words considering I was reading a story in which the world was turned upside down in one night due to a meteorite shower and the people who watched it lost their eyesight as a result. It’s similar to the movie Blindness based on the novel by José Saramago, but with triffids – plants who have invaded the world and whose deadly stings can kill instantly.
The story is told from the point of view of William Masen, a Londoner, who wakes up after an eye surgery to find out the world he knew was no more. As one of the few people who still retained his eyesight, he set out to find out what caused this, and forms a partnership with Josella, a girl who was saved from blindness by a most terrible hangover which had her spend the previous night sleeping and thus oblivious to the meteorite shower. Together they navigate the perilous paths into this new world, complete with frequent visits to various pubs for a drink or two, being captured by blind people and used as guides, and having to survive the ever-adapting triffids.
The book has a very British feel to it which I enjoyed, like this paragraph which describes William waking up in the hospital the day the world went blind:

“No one, it seemed, was interested in bells. I began to get as much sore as worried. It’s humiliating to be dependent, anyway, but it’s a still poorer pass to have no one to depend on. My patience was whittling down. Something, I decided, had got to be done about it.”

Another paragraph is an echo of the world we live in today, which is most interesting, considering the book was written in 1951:

“The world we lived in was wide, and most of it was open to us with little trouble. Roads, railways, and shipping lines laced it, ready to carry one thousands of miles safely and in comfort. If we wanted to travel more swiftly still, and could afford it, we traveled by airplane. There was no need for anyone to take weapons or even precautions in those days. You could go just as you were to wherever you wished, with nothing to hinder you – other than a lot of forms and regulations. A world so tamed sounds utopian now. Nevertheless, it was so over five sixths of the globe – though the remaining sixth was something different again.”

The story gives ample details about the origins of the triffids, William’s life, as well as various philosophical musings like this one:

“The human spirit continued much as before – 95 per cent of it wanting to live in peace, and the other 5 per cent considering its chances if it should risk starting anything. It was chiefly because no one’s chances looked too good that the lull continued.”

While this is a gloomy story, there’s a pervasive feeling of hope, as the two protagonists build a life together in the new world. It has an “everything happens for a reason” feel, and a good ending.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

On Writing On Writing – Stephen King

It’s the second time I’ve read this book and found it just as good as the first time. Some parts I remembered, especially the ones about King’s childhood and his accident in 1999. Others I was happy to discover yet again.
The book is divided into sections – the first,C.V., covers details about King’s life and how daily things influenced his writing. There’s also a section with advice for new writers, starting with the tools you need in order to write, discussing whether writing classes are really necessary, how to find an agent, and fragments of edited work with explanations. At the back there’s a list of recommended books and I was happy to see a few of my favorites among them: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Drood by Dan Simmons, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and A Widow for One Year by John Irving. That list made me curious about writers I haven’t read yet: Pat Barker, Don DeLillo, Roberto Bolaño and Donna Tartt.

This is a book based on years of experience – you can see it in the tone, helpful, honest and to the point. It feels like a conversation with a friend, but I may be biased in my judgment, as I see most of his books that way. There were so many good passages – some have been used as quotes for years since this book was first published in 2000. And because there were so many and I wanted to be able to find them easily, I did what I rarely if ever, do with a book – underline favorite sentences of even whole paragraphs. Here are some of my favorites:

“If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

“…while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”

My rating: 5/5 stars

Slammerkin Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.

Slammerkin is the fourth novel by Emma Donoghue. I have heard of her famous “Room” but after reading from it at the bookstore, I decided that an 18th century tale would be a better choice for me.

Mary Saunders is a poor girl living with her family in London in 1752. She is five years old. That year her father dies in prison and eleven years later Mary is there as well, although the reason is not revealed until the end.
May is ambitious and determined that one day she will walk around the city wearing the finest clothes. It is her desire for fine fabrics and bright colors that would lead her to a life of prostitution and ultimately to leave the city as her life is in danger. There’s a pivotal point in the novel where Mary decides she’d had enough of life on the streets and decides to go back to her mother’s village and find her mother’s childhood friend, Mrs. Jones, and ask for her help.
This is a time that Mary enjoys for the most part as she becomes one of the family. The Joneses are nice people and they treat her well. Mrs Jones takes her on as a helper in her dressmaking business and once again Mary’s hunger for beautiful fine clothes is beginning to threaten the new life she has fought so hard for.

This historical inspired novel shows a rough side of London. There is little hope for the poor, and school is not deemed particularly useful, especially for girls. There’s never enough food, it’s cold, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor is as wide as ever.
The book is peppered with short clothes-related rhymes like these which give the story an almost playful tone:

Ribbon brown, ribbon rose
Count your friends and your foes

and

Ribbon green, ribbon red
The tale’s not told till you’re dead

Mary is not a particularly likeable character. I did sympathize with her at first – growing up with a stepfather and an overwrought mother who’s only too happy to get rid of her when the girl makes a mistake, but after deciding to change her life, Mary takes one bad step after another. The ending is shocking to say the least. I had hoped for some crumb of happiness for the poor girl but it was not to be. Her fault lay in wanting too much and too fast and she is punished for it. But perhaps I’m expecting too much from a sixteen-year-old heroine. It was a fun book to read but the only thing I’ll probably remember from it is the image of a young prostitute in a beautiful dress with a red ribbon in her hair.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in April-May, 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 8 Comments

Dreams & Shadows – C. Robert Cargill

“Do you believe in fairies?… If you believe, clap your hands!”
J.M. Barrie

onceup8200 small The seventh book I’ve read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge was Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill, a story in which fairies play an important part. After reading about djinni, golems and angels it’s the fairies’ turn, which, when I think about, I see Tinkerbell – fragile, tiny and mischievous.
The fairies in this book however, come in different shapes and sizes and they are far from being fragile and cute (some are, but not all). They live in Limestone Kingdom, a realm accessible only to their kind, and to those human children they have abducted. Ewan is such a child. Taken from his human parents from infancy, he grows up among the fairies, under the protection of Dithers, a monstrous creature whose job is to take care of the boy. In his place Dithers leaves a changeling, Knocks, an equally monstrous creature that can take the appearance of baby Ewan, and whose true nature is only visible to Ewan’s mother.

The boy Ewan and the changeling Knocks meet later on in Limestone Kingdom. A third boy, Colby, enters the story with the help of a djinn whom he meets while playing not far from his house. The djinn does what all djinn do, he gives the boy a wish and Colby wants nothing more than to see magical creatures. This way, the triangle is complete – Colby and Ewan become friends, while Knocks is the enemy, their paths crossing quite often, even after Colby leaves Limestone Kingdom and comes back to the human world. But the fairies have wanted Ewan for a very special reason, and unless Colby intervenes, the boy’s fate is sealed. The story follows all three of them into adulthood while Ewan becomes a rock star, Colby is haunted by his experience among the fairies, and Knocks just wants revenge.

I loved the first part of the book. The background story of Jared and Tiffany who fell in love, married and had baby Ewan, seemed like something out of a fairy tale. After their baby is abducted and the changeling left in its place, the author gives a detailed explanation of the creature who performed the exchange, a Bendith Y Mamau called Dithers, whose ugliness is matched by his ability to play incredibly beautiful music. Such breaks from the original story come here and there in the form of explanations of one Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D., whose excerpts from several of his books give details about the creatures of the Limestone Kingdom.

The story however, did not hold its magic sway over me. I found none of the main characters (the boys) particularly interesting and was a bit bothered by the way the female side was represented, either as innocent looking but actually evil, or as self-sacrificing mothers and lovers. This is definitely “a boys’ book” and it made me feel somehow left out, as if I was peering through a glass door instead of being invested in the story.
It did not help that the blurb at the back proclaimed it as “…definitely going to attract readers of contemporary fantasy, particular those who enjoy Neil Gaiman’s adult books.” Now I do love Gaiman’s work (not all, though) and while I do see a hint of Neverwhere in it – parallel worlds, the ability of some of the characters to cross from one world to another – the similarities end here.

My favorite parts where those excerpts by Thaddeus Ray I mentioned earlier, which goes to show I liked the background information more than the story itself.
Bonus point for the cover, which is really nice, and it reminds me of Shadow Show, which was what attracted me to the book in the first place. Or it may have been the word shadow in the title. A goodreads.com search revealed this is only the first book in a series and the second one is called Queen of the Dark Things – an intriguing title but I’m not sure if I’ll add that to my TBR stack just yet.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in May, 2014

Dreams & Shadows Shadow Show - cover

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My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me – FORTY NEW FAIRY TALES edited by Kate Bernheimer

onceup8200 small I first saw this book on someone’s blog but unfortunately I have a bad habit of not writing these things down and I can’t remember the name of the blog. When I saw it at the bookstore days later, I grabbed it to read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. Forty new fairy tales, and the list on the front cover gave the names of Aimee Bender, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Joy Williams, and Francine Prose, to name just a few. Oh, the sweet anticipation such a book can bring! I looked at it lovingly, relishing in knowing I had more than five hundred pages filled with magical stories.

I should probably state right now I enjoyed most of the stories in the book but not all. A couple of them I didn’t finish. There was something about the setting, or in some cases the wording, that just didn’t resonate with me. Some authors blended fairy tales with present day reality and in some cases I found the result awkward. Others succeeded in creating that seamless fantastical story that stemmed from something old and grew into something interesting. And on some of the stories I may have missed out simply because I wasn’t familiar with the fairy tale and felt like this was an impediment in enjoying the story.
What I liked were the explanations written by the authors at the end of each story – what fairy tale their story was based on and what inspired them to write it the way they did.
The stories I did like, however, were truly beautiful, and here are the best:

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Baba Yaga and the Pelican Child, by Joy Williams

This was quite interesting, because I’ve come across a few Baba Yaga tales not long ago, in the Penguin Classics “Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov”, and while I didn’t finish that book, I read enough variants of it to make the whole story familiar. This version describes the house in the woods where Baba Yaga, her pelican child, a cat and a dog live together peacefully, until one day a stranger arrives and changes everything. He brings them sorrow, but fear not, the story doesn’t slide all the way into gloom; it also has a funny side and a more philosophical one. I loved it for the lesson it teaches and for this passage:

After this, Baba Yaga continued to fly through the skies in her mortar, navigating with her pestle. But instead of a broom, she carried the lamp that illuminated the things people did not know or were reluctant or refused to understand. And she would lower the lamp over a person and they would see how extraordinary were the birds and the beasts of the world, and that they should be valued for their bright and beautiful and mysterious selves and not willfully harmed for they were more precious than castles or the golden rocks dug out from the earth.

I’m Here, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Olga is a woman over forty who feels emotionally abandoned by her family and friends. In her attempt to recover a semblance of usefulness, she goes back to the house of her landlady, where she used to live many years ago. What she finds there, and the dialogue that follows gives the impression that something very strange is going on. The interpretation of the ending is up to the reader – because reality and imagination go hand in hand, it’s a bit difficult to choose a straight answer. A bit like the movie “The Life of Pi” – what was real and what wasn’t?
I liked it for the unexpected twist and also for this:

‘Baba Anya, I came out here thinking this might be the last refuge for me.’
‘There’s no such refuge for anyone on earth’, Baba Anya said. ‘Every soul is its own last refuge.’

The Brother and the Bird, by Alissa Nutting

This is a truly creepy story of a weird family manipulated by an evil woman. There’s also a juniper tree, a murder and a disturbing dream. This is the story that gives the name to the book:

‘My mother, she killed me’, the voice sang. ‘My father, he ate me. My sister, she saved my bones….’

Hansel and Gretel, by Francine Prose

The way this story starts made me feel curious and repelled at the same time. Curiosity won, so I kept reading. Hansel and Gretel (or Polly and Nelson) are newly married and visiting one of Nelson’s friends, an Italian artist named Lucia. She’s the mother of his former girlfriend, “the love of his life”, whom Nelson hasn’t seen in years. This makes for some awkward conversation amplified by the out-of-place behavior between Nelson and Lucia. Years later, when Polly comes back to the place for a visit, she is reminded of the whole experience and gathers a new understanding of what it means to be young and foolish.

‘At that time, I often did things because they seemed like a good idea, and I often did very important things for lack of a reason not to.’

A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin, by Kevin Brockmeier

Told from the narrator’s point of view, this was one very unusual and entertaining story. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is just that, half of somebody, and the way the story unfolds, you’d think this is the most natural thing in the world. Half of Rumpelstiltskin also has a job, goes out just like everybody else and has to face comments regarding his appearance.

In the shower, Half of Rumpelstiltskin scours himself with a bar of marbled green soap, a washcloth, and – for the skin of his extremities, as stubborn and scabrous as bark – a horsehair scrub brush. He lathers. He rinses. He dries himself with a plush cotton towel, sousing the water from his pancreas and his ligaments and the spongy marrow in the cavity of his sternum. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is the only man he knows whose forearm is a hard-to-reach place.

The Color Master, by Aimee Bender

This is one lovely story which combines colors and textures into a beautiful re-telling of a fairy-tale in which a king wants to marry his own daughter. To celebrate the wedding, he asks for unusual clothes for the future bride – a dress the color of the moon, another, the color of the sun. These are not so easy to make, and the whole process is described – the selection of colors, the dying of the fabric, all supervised by the Color Master whose health is faltering. But there are other ingredients that go into these special clothes.

‘Remember, the Color Master said. She sat up, in bed. I keep forgetting, she said, but the King wants to Marry his Daughter, she said. Her voice pointed to each word, hard. That is not right, she said, okay? Got it? Put anger in the dress. Righteous anger. Do you hear me?’

Blue-bearded Lover, by Joyce Carol Oates

A very short but intense story, whose mystery pulled me in from the first sentence. There’s a poetry to the language, and a darkness in its words. Will the young wife open the door? Will she die like the others before her?

A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper, by Rabih Alameddine

A young girl on the brink of womanhood, sickness and sexuality are brought together in this story – a combination that works well to create a hybrid that serves not only to remind of the old fairy tale but to give it a twist that is truly modern and unexpected.

He seemed surprised at the lack of a response. I wanted to tell him that it was not his fault, that she had not wakened, had not moved, in a hundred years. I wanted only to save him time, to protect him from frustration. I wanted to tell him she was not the one for him, not at all. But he bent his golden torso and smelled her, inhaled deeply, and I almost fainted.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in April-May, 2014

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