R.I.P. IX – intro post

RIP 9 badge My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold-
Some vault that oft has flung its black
And winged panels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,
Of her grand family funerals-
Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portal she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone-
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.

(Edgar Allan Poe – excerpt from “The Sleeper”)

I’ve been waiting for this event to start for months now, but when I saw Carl’s post this rainy morning I still could not believe it. Surely, it’s not September yet, I said to myself and rushed to check the calendar. It may not be September but this doesn’t mean we can’t start early. This makes me very, very happy, because I’ve been choosing my books all year and watched them lovingly, wondering which I should read first. So I sat down to write this post to the sound of Sister of Night by Depeche Mode which is a dark, dark song, and perfect for the occasion.

If you’re new to this, R.I.P. is short for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, a reading event which takes place every year from September 1st to October 31st. During this time you can read anything from these categories:

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.

You can also watch movies that fall into these categories and there’s even a read-along of “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson hosted by The Estella Society. I’m hoping to join if I find a copy of the book this weekend.
Many thanks to Carl for hosting this event – in its 9th year now, and may it go on for many more – and to Abigail Larson, the artist who created the gorgeous badges.

These are the books I would like to read, plus Frankenstein by Mary Shelley which I found on projectguttenberg.com and so I’ll be reading it on my tablet. I’m probably not going to be able to read them all, considering that two of them are short story collections (and quite chunky, too) but one can only hope.
Now, the question is, which should be first? Any suggestions?
Are you taking part in R.I.P. this year? What are you planning to read?

RIP pic 1

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On the Holloway Road – Andrew Blackman

After reading A Virtual Love last year, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to read On the Holloway Road, Andrew Blackman’s first novel who won the Luke Bitmead Award in 2008.

Because it was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I was a little worried that I might miss something important if I don’t read that one first, but decided to go ahead and read it anyway. Perhaps I’ll read Kerouac’s book one day, but I’m in no hurry.

On the Holloway Road The story follows Jack and Neil, two young men in their twenties who strike a friendship one night in London, on the Holloway Road. Jack lives with his mother and dreams of one day finishing his novel, a complicated story that he had been trying to complete for a while with no success. Neil is a drifter, a free spirit who takes things as they come, whose exuberance and joy for living are mixed with a carefree attitude and little thought to consequences. Neil lives in the now. Jack lives in the shadow of it. Both of them are united by a lack or purpose, of a tangible goal, until they decide to take a road trip in Jack’s car, follow the road, have adventures, see what might happen. But their dream of embracing the spontaneity of the unknown doesn’t quite fit with the regulations of the present. There are rules to be obeyed, and before long Jack breaks a few, which makes him constantly worry about having his driver’s license revoked.

Neil is exciting to be with. His brash actions, loud mouth and exuberant attitude make Jack feel like a pale copy of who he thinks he should be. Neil is the spark, the adventure, the unknown. He is a shooting star, a meteorite burning brightly before crashing to the earth, the flame that burns the moths attracted to its light. He wants something new, something fascinating, something that’s never been tried before, while Jack is just content to tag along in the hope that some of his friend’s enthusiasm for life will rub off on him. He admires Neil but he’s also a little afraid of him. Although he would like to be more excited about things going on around him, he feels he can’t. In a way, it felt like something was holding him back, what that was, I don’t know. Fear perhaps, of standing out too much, of breaking the rules, while trying in his quiet way small acts of rebellion against the system – not owning a cell phone or holding a job.
Over the course of their trip they discuss friendship, work, and that ever present issue, the purpose of life.

As I was reading I was wandering what will happen in the end, how long will the trip last, what revelation will they come to. Will they find a purpose, a solution, a conclusion, a job, maybe Jack will finally catch a break and finish that novel, perhaps even become famous, and will Neil finally quench that anger that seems to be burning inside him, making him restless and volatile? In a way, I dreaded the ending, because I knew my expectations were unrealistic, but I was unable to let go of hope, of something better for the protagonists after their modern day trials. I was not disappointed. The end came crashing, and it was fitting, even though I had hoped for something less heart wrenching. I had hoped that Jack would finally be able to shake that feeling of gloom and do something, anything that would lift him from the pit he seemed to be descending into day by day. I even think he managed to climb up halfway at least when he met Neil, but it didn’t last long. In the end, he was down even deeper.

On the Holloway Road is the perfect name for this adventure of self discovery, not only because that is the way the two protagonists take to get out of the city, but because even though the journey brings about some self discoveries, in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all like the name of the road, hollow.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

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Candide and Other Writings – Voltaire

Candide I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, and when I saw a copy at a library book sale I immediately grabbed it and added it to my TBR shelf. And because lately I’ve been reading a lot of slim books, I finally picked this one up and started reading. This book contains three stories: Candide, Zadig, and Micromegas, and also an interesting summary on the life and works of Voltaire (real name Francois Marie Arouet), whose rebellious nature and radical philosophical ideas made him famous.

“He never hesitated to use his personal fame to convince, provoke, and inflame where he thought necessary. He contributed greatly to the creation of modern forum of political/moral debate by fostering an environment of inquiry and interpellation at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.”

Denounce, without being able to be accused of being an informer; bite, without cruelty; trample, without malice; kill, while maintaining the appearance of the most angelic innocence.

*

The first is the story of Candide, an innocent, well-mannered young man who lives in the castle of the noble Baron of Thundertentrunk in Westphalia and studies philosophy under the tutelage of Pangloss, who used to teach “the science of metaphysico-theologo-cosmologo-noodleology”. That is, he was a firm believer in the idea that there is no effect without a cause and that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. This idea will follow Candide in all his many adventures, as he is rudely kicked out of the castle for inappropriate behavior towards beautiful miss Cunegund and travels across continents in the hope that one day he will be reunited with her.
Those adventures include a very painful encounter with the Bulgarians, natural disasters, finding unlikely friends in odd places, and killing in the name of love.

While the descriptions and some of those adventures may sound quite brutal, there’s an underlying layer of mockery that prevents the reader from taking things too seriously. Voltaire uses his great talent for satire to talk about religion, war, love, friendship, slavery, and the greed for money, among other things. He places Candide in the most brutal and uncomfortable situations, his only defense and ally his ideas instilled in him by his tutor, Pangloss. There were times when I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, or be outraged, but it is clear that in this story Voltaire pokes fun at the injustice and corruption of the times.

Candide is just a simple man, neither exceptionally witty nor knowledgeable about the world, and sometimes wonderfully idealistic especially when it comes to love and placing his trust in his friends. The idea that drives him, to be reunited with his love, doesn’t turn out like he expected; in fact, in a vicious twist of fate, the very qualities he admired the most in miss Cunegund are lost and our hero is faced with an uncomfortable decision. But because he is such a positive character, he does what he thinks is honorable and finds contentment in living a simple life.

The whole story has a feeling of Arabian Nights about it, not only because of the astonishing reversals of luck and incredible adventures, but also because of the chapter titles that give a clear idea of what is going to happen. This feeling is even more prevalent in the next story, Zadig, which takes place in Babylon.

Zadig is a rich young man, wise and educated, kind-hearted and good looking, possessor of an array of fine qualities that make him respected and envied by his fellow men. In spite of all his many attributes, he finds himself in some very sticky situations, whether by the hand of envious people or trapped by his own beliefs. He is in turn the adviser of a king, slave, champion of the oppressed, and umpire of philosophical as well as commercial disputes. Still, his great talents are put to the test when he falls in love with queen Astarte, wife of the king, and he is forced to leave the castle for fear of being killed.

Once again Voltaire explores what it means to be human, and how a gifted man whose only purpose is to help others is in turn punished, almost killed, and in the end forced to run for his life. His tribulations seem never ending but one thing Zadig never does is to try and change his nature. In spite of his many misfortunes, he remains true to his own character, even if that almost always seem to turn out badly for him. This is a story similar to that of Candide, but also different. While it follows the same pattern of trials and tribulations the main character has to go through, Zadig is wise and lucky enough to recognize people’s intentions and to save his skin. The ending is a bit brighter this time as well, but the happily ever after doesn’t come easily. From all three stories, this is the most fairy-tale like.

Micromegas, the third and last story, was quite a surprise. Gone are the fairy tale/Arabian Nights influences that seem to heavily influence the first two stories, to be replaced by space. Using science fiction as a background, Voltaire tells the story of two beings – Micromegas, who lives on a planet that revolves around the star Sirius, and a native of Saturn, the Saturnian. They are huge beings by our standards and posses a much longer life span. In their conversations, they explore topics like the senses, colors, and time. They decide to travel together to see other places and they arrive on Earth.

Voltaire describes our planet as seen by the two travel companions. They judge its size and appearance, find it “ill-constructed” and “irregular” and decide that no “people of sense would wish to occupy such a dwelling”. They look for signs of life and can’t seem to find any at first, but when they try harder they discover a ship and try to communicate with the people on board, some of which are philosophers. The exchange that ensues is quite funny.

Under the shelter of philosophy, Voltaire explores once again universal issues – the passage of time, knowledge, wars over the possession of land, the nature of human soul, religion. Man is never satisfied with how much time he has, or how much land he has, or how much knowledge he has, but then neither are the two visitors. In spite their difference in size and life style, the visitors are astonished to discover they have quite a few things in common with the inhabitants of the strange shaped planet. But perhaps the most astonishing thing happens when Micromegas promises to gift them with a rare book that contains “all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things”. I confess I was curious when I got to this part and couldn’t wait to see what was in the book. It was opened in Paris, at the Academy of Sciences, but if you really want to find out what was in it you will have to read the story. All I can say is that it made perfect sense, and the story couldn’t have had a better ending.

This is my first encounter with Voltaire’s work. Behind references to famous philosophers – Locke, Leibnitz, Aristotle, and Malebranche, some of which I knew and some new to me, his work is made accessible by the universal themes he explores. His tone is in turn sarcastic and funny and sometimes biting. He’s not afraid to expose an injustice, punish an evil or poke fun at sensitive topics. His characters are not perfect but their nature, be it simple or wise, is tested to the limits. He sparks witty dialogues that underneath their academic knowledge hide social and political issues valid to this day. He made me wonder. He made me nod in agreement. And he made me realize that time has done nothing to the nature of man, that issues that were discussed and dissected more than two hundred years ago are still fresh today.

I leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“We have more matter than we need,” said he, “the cause of much evil, if evil proceeds from matter; and we have too much mind, if evil proceeds from the mind. Are you aware, for instance, that at this very moment while I am speaking to you, there are a hundred thousand fools of our species who wear hats, slaying a hundred thousand fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them, and that over all the earth such practices have been going on from time immemorial?”

*

“How long do you people live?” asked the Sirian.
“Ah! a very short time,” replied the little man of Saturn.
“That is just the way with us,” said the Sirian; “we are always complaining of the shortness of life. This must be a universal law of nature.”

*

…“you see how it is our fate to die almost as soon as we are born; our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom. Scarcely have we begun to acquire a little information when death arrives before we can put it to use. For my part, I do not venture to lay any schemes; I feel myself like a drop of water in a boundless ocean. I am ashamed, especially before you, of the absurd figure I make in this universe.”

*

“I have seen mortals far below us, and others as greatly superior; but I have seen none who have not more desires than real wants, and more wants than they can satisfy. I shall some day, perhaps, reach the country where there is lack of nothing, but hitherto no one has been able to give me any positive information about it.”

*

“The dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than we are. The Dutch fetishes who have converted me tell me every Sunday that we are all the children of Adam, blacks and whites alike. I am no genealogist; but, if those preachers say what is true, we are all second cousins. In that case you must admit that relations could not be treated in a more horrible way.”

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

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The Time Keeper – Mitch Albom

The Time Keeper It’s been years since I read Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, but I still remember the book as one of the best memoirs I have come across. Its message of love, life, and acceptance in the face of death had left me in a state of melancholy for days, and having seen his latest novel, The Time Keeper, at a library book sale, I immediately grabbed it and began reading the first pages on the spot. But I didn’t finish it that day. I kept it, like a little treasure, to be savored later, after a chunky book perhaps. Weeks later I picked it up again and this time it didn’t take me long to go through it.

Mixing fantasy with religious elements and real life situations, the novel tells the story of Dor, the first man who began to measure time ever since he was young. From hours to days and months and then years, measuring time with sticks, then water, Dor becomes obsessed, and what started as a hobby slowly takes over his life. When his wife dies, Dor is punished to live his life in solitude, in a cave, haunted by the words of the people who, having perfected the measurement of time, complain of having too much or too little of it. After many lifetimes spent inside the cave, where time has stopped, Dor is sent back among the people to find and save two souls as a way to better understand his creation.

How do you save two people, one who wants to die because of a broken heart, and the other who thinks the future holds the key to a longer life span? How do you tell them that time is precious, that it can’t be turned back, that you have to make the most of it now? How do you tell them that broken hearts can mend and that money can buy so many things but never time? Will Dor succeed in his mission? Will he be able to make two people truly understand the meaning of time and in doing so, understand it himself? Or will he forever be punished to listen to the tormented voices complaining about something they can’t control?

Once again, Albom has tried to explore human emotions in a tale that seems magical and real at the same time. Fast paced, told in snippets that alternate between stories without getting confusing or losing focus, this is a story of time and a reminder that no matter what we do, time will run its course and it can’t be stopped.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

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A writing project, a new favorite author, and The Rats

I have been busy these past couple of months. I finished my first novel (started last year during NaNoWriMo), which made me very happy. The ending eluded me for quite some time but when it came it was perfect and worth the wait. Some things cannot be rushed, but they can’t be left unfinished forever, either. And with November just around the corner, I’m already thinking about novel number two.

I still managed to find enough time to read, even if only for a few minutes every night, though to be honest those minutes ran into an hour or more and there were many times when I looked at my watch to discover with astonishment that midnight had already come and gone. So I became great friends with instant coffee – a double edged sword, because while it served to wake me up in the morning, it also kept me up at night. But I’m not complaining, because I got to read some amazing books. I was planning to wait until September and read them as part of R.I.P., a challenge hosted by Carl from Stainlesssteeldroppings, but then they looked too tempting to wait that long. So I didn’t.

Speaks the Nightbird – Robert McCammon

A historical fiction novel placed in 1699 in The Carolinas, Speaks the Nightbird is a mystery that kept me turning all of its nearly 800 pages in quite a hurry. Matthew Corbett is a young clerk working for Magistrate Woodward. He is twenty years old, sharp of mind, and curious, a trait that will often land him into trouble. But these qualities are essential, for the work that needs to be done in Fount Royal, the town he and Woodward are traveling to, requires a mind able to untangle a case of witchcraft.

Speaks the Nightbird1

Rachel Howarth is a young widow accused of using the dark arts to kill two men, one of them her husband. Witnesses swear to having seen her perform unnatural acts, and the founder of the town wants nothing more than to see her burn at the stake. But in spite of the damning testimonies – as witnesses confess to all having seen the same thing – Matthew finds there’s more to the whole story and he starts investigating on his own, as Woodward falls ill and fights for his life.

The most intriguing part in the book was reading about the people of Fount Royal. It seems that the colonies, with their promise of a new life, had attracted a fair share of people who hoped that by leaving behind their old life, they could hide and forge a new one. The local teacher, the doctor, the traveling preacher and the rat catcher, a young actor, a servant, the smith, they all have their own secrets to protect and as Matthew begins to stir things up and makes connections, he is able to get to the heart of what is truly haunting the fledgling town. He finds treasure in an unexpected place, befriends a slave, travels through dangerous territory and barely escapes with his life on more than one occasion. He meets Indians, is attacked by a giant bear, and learns that truth requires the highest price, which he is willing to pay.
What made him an interesting character was not only his curiosity, but also his need to expose the truth. An orphan, Matthew grew up in an orphanage, and had very few friends. Magistrate Woodward chose him as his apprentice, and the two men had a relationship close to that between a father and a son. Woodward had his secrets, too, and Matthew heard snippets of them at night, when the magistrate was tormented by nightmares.

This was my first Robert McCammon book, and I loved it so much that when I finished reading it I went out and bought the second one. It’s the first in the Matthew Corbett series, with a total of five books released so far, out of the ten book series planned by the author. Two books down, three more to go, and as for the rest I’ll just have to wait patiently. If you’re curious, here’s an excerpt from the author’s website.

Speaks the Nightbird The second book in the series, The Queen of Bedlam, starts in 1702, three years after the first one. Matthew is now working in New York, a town in its infancy, and his employer is Magistrate Powers, a friend of Matthew’s old mentor, Magistrate Woodward.

Murder is haunting the streets of New York, claiming the lives of three respectable citizens: a doctor, a successful businessman, and Matthew’s old enemy, Eben Ausley, the manager of the orphanage where Matthew grew up. Eben’s murder piques Matthew’s curiosity, and once he sets his mind to discover the connection between the victims, there is nothing left to do but get to the truth.

Details from the first book come back now and then, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that you can well enjoy this book even if you haven’t read the first one.
The Masker – as the killer is named – proves to be quite a mystery, but Matthew is up for the challenge. With the help of a few friends, among them Marmaduke Grigsby – the owner of the local newspaper, and his granddaughter, Berry – an ambitious artist in the making, Matthew gets to work. His curiosity attracts the attention of a few notable people, one of them his future employer, Mrs Herrald, who runs an agency specialized in “problem solving”. It’s not long before Matthew discovers that the assignment he’s working on, establishing the identity of a mysterious elderly woman nicknamed “the Queen of Bedlam”, is connected with the Masker’s murders, and once again he’s right in the middle of things. Danger is not far off, and Matthew is yet again forced to use all his wits in order to escape alive.

As in the previous book, McCammon succeeds in setting up an interesting case quite early in the book, and then proceeds to throw doubt upon a few of the characters. Everybody has secrets, and as they slowly surface, it feels like a well constructed web with astonishing ramifications. Who is the woman nicknamed “The Queen”, and why does she always ask for the “King’s reply”? Why is the local reverend standing in front of Madam Polly Blossom’s whorehouse at night, crying? And why is a young and successful lawyer living his life as if in a hurry to get to the end of it? As Matthew begins to understand, he uncovers a plot of astonishing proportions, and makes a deadly enemy. The blood card, a white card with a bloody fingerprint, is left for him at his house, and Matthew knows what that means: a death vow given by Professor Fell, the person whose plans he has managed to ruin in his quest for the truth. And he also knows that the Professor’s threat is the reason why he can’t let people get too close, for fear they might be killed because of him.

I had to admit I liked Speaks the Nightbird better because of its setting and also the shadow of witchcraft under which the events took place. For the longest time I was not sure what to believe, and when the ending was revealed it was so unexpected and at the same time perfectly reasonable.
The Queen of Bedlam felt more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, which is also fine, but it didn’t have the same impact on me. I would still recommend the both of them. I’m happy to say that Robert McCammon has just become a new favorite author and I’m eager to read more of his books.

The Rats – James Herbert

My first James Herbert novel was The Secret of Crickley Hall, a great story of a haunted house, and since then I’ve made a mental note to read more of Herbert’s work. After seeing this 2014 edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, I decided it was about time to get reacquainted with Herbert’s work.

The Rats
“The Rats” was James Herbert’s first novel, published in 1974. This novel is followed by two sequels, Lair and Domain, and I’m looking forward to reading both of them sometime in the future.

Reading “The Rats” reminded me of the time when I was reading Stephen King’s The Shining. Not since then have I felt so scared, but Herbert’s novel went further and made my skin crawl. The imagery is quite graphic, with detailed descriptions of people being eaten alive by a new species of rats, faster, bigger and apparently more intelligent than their ordinary cousins, the sewer rats. Herbert gives enough details about each of the victims to make them sympathetic to the reader, but after a few gruesome deaths I started to wonder if this was ever going to be more than an endless description of rat feast.

Enters Harris, a young teacher at a local high school, who takes one of his students to the hospital after the boy gets bitten by a rat. The boy dies the next day, and as more victims arrive at the hospital and then die a painful death, the city officials try to get to the source of the problem. Harris becomes involved in the operation, and gets to see the huge rats for himself while trying to protect the students from a rat invasion. It all sounds awful, doesn’t it? At just under 200 pages, the book is packed with enough action and detail to satisfy the appetite of any horror fan. I loved it.

The ending is a promise of more gruesome things to come, and I look forward to discovering them. My only regret is that there wasn’t a book with all three novels in it. That would have made me one very happy horror fan.

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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

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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

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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?

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