The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Read: 5 July, 2017

In the summer of 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which used the murder of a three year old boy as a narrative structure to look at how police and detectives functioned in Victorian society (particularly where the process of investigation of upper class households by lower class detectives ruffled class sensibilities).

The Wicked Boy doesn’t have the same impact. At first, I thought it was looking at the scandal of ‘penny dreadfuls’, then it look at the criminal justice system, then it looks at the treatment of mental illness, and then it veers off entirely to go over Australia’s participation in World War I.

I enjoyed every part of The Wicked Boy, but it didn’t have the same satisfying impact without the broader point. It ended up just being about this one boy, with broader issues only mentioned as interesting asides.

Buy The Wicked Boy from Amazon and support this blog!

A Memoir by Lady Trent #2: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Read: 24 January, 2016

I’m not a terribly huge fan of dragons but natural history? The Victorian era? Women who find a way to be badass despite the whole of their society weighing down on them? It’s like these books were written specifically with me in mind.

In this episode, Isabella mounts her first expedition without her husband, and finds herself caught in the middle of a multi-directional political struggle. And, of course, she and her companions make some pretty wonderful scientific discoveries along the way.

As with the first, this book is pretty much perfect. The characters are strong and come through really well, the pacing is spot on, the tone matches the content perfectly. I honestly can’t think of a single critical thing to say.

I’m seeing from reviews that many people found the book boring, mostly because it spent so much time away from the dragons. I guess I can understand, and it’s true that Brennan isn’t exactly Anne McCaffrey. It’s hard to see how this series would hold any interest at all for readers who just want dragons! and adventure!

It is a slower pace, and the dragons themselves are almost incidental to the characterization of Isabella – of her growth, and of her negotiation between the expectations of her gender and the hungers of her personality. But for the right audience (i.e.: me), these books are just glorious.

Buy The Tropic of Serpents from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels by Henry James

Read: 1 May, 2014
An International Episode
Quite an interesting story about national stereotypes, complete with an interesting twist. I rather liked Bessie Alden – who is independent, interesting, and quite a bit smarter than the condescending male characters. I was quite impressed with the way so many stereotypes were tackled.

Daisy Miller: A Study
Daisy is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl!

I quite enjoyed the story for the same reasons that I liked An International Episode – over and over again, Daisy Miller is defined by others based on her nationality, social status, and gender, and over and over again she shows herself to be far more complex than the simplistic ways in which she is viewed. It helped, of course, that the first part of the story is set in the area where I grew up and that the characters visit my very favourite castle.

The twist ending was unfortunate. It fit too neatly into the idea that women cannot survive social disgrace, even if we are meant to sympathize with them (as we’ve seen in Gaskell’s Ruth or Dickens’s Oliver Twist).

The Aspern Papers
A scathing look at the rights/morality of biographers. The main character is a huge fan of the deceased poet Aspern, and he infiltrates the home of an ageing former-lover of Aspern’s in order to find the titular papers – presumably letters that the woman may have kept from the poet. The story focuses on the invasion of privacy, and what rights public figures may have to their privacy – particularly after death.

The story is interesting and the descriptions of Venice are quite wonderful, but it felt personal and very bitter. All in all, a disturbing story.

The Altar of the Dead
I guess the theme of this story was forgiveness? I don’t know. It felt like an attempt at a Gothic tale, what with the creepiness of the guy who is so obsessed with death that he only seems to like people once they are deceased. But the story was odd, in a bad way. I felt bored reading it, as it lacked the intrigue and variation of the earlier stories. By the end, I just felt unsatisfied.

Turn of the Screw
Unfortunately, I accidentally watched a movie adaptation of this story fairly recently, and I think that my perception was much worsened by knowing when and how the next scare would be occurring. Despite this, I found the atmosphere creepy and the story compelling, even if the ending did feel rather rushed.

The story’s introduction was a nice touch, particularly where the teller, upon hearing a creepy story about a kid, introduces his own story by saying “you think that was creepy? Well, my story has two kids!!” (paraphrase, obviously.)

Beast in the Jungle
As with Altar of the Dead, I could never really grasp what I was reading. The story just went on and on with no real payoff.

Buy The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction from Amazon and support this blog!

A Memoir by Lady Trent #1: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Read: 14 July, 2013

A Natural History of Dragons is the first memoir of Isabella, Lady Trent, and chronicles her childhood obsession with dragons, culminating in her first expedition to study them.

Not only does Brennan cram everything I love into the book like she she was working with a checklist, she does it well. A Natural History of Dragons is well written, well plotted, clearly well researched, and all around super fun.

The illustrations fit the content and style of the story, and they are quite beautiful. The characters are great (Isabella’s adult voice is hilarious!), and Brennan deserves special kudos for having a romantic interest who is actually a decent and complex guy with his own inner conflicts, rather than just going the usual route of either having a manic-pixie-dream-guy or a macho jerk.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Victorian novel or if you have any interest in natural history or fantasy, I really couldn’t recommend this book more.

Buy A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

The Chronicles of Narnia #1: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Read: 23 June, 2013

My family had a set of the Narnia books when I was a child, but I can’t remember if they were ever read to me. Of course, I think I’m reasonably familiar with the books from the recent The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie, as well as a few of the movies in the old BBC series.

Even so, The Magician’s Nephew was completely outside of my cultural knowledge of Narnia. It was interesting to have such a “virgin” read, while at the same time knowing the stories that are being set up by the details.

C.S. Lewis was a Christian apologist, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not just writing a children’s story. If I had to guess, based on the content of The Magician’s Nephew, I would say that he is trying to a) introduce children to theological concepts, and b) write “correctly aligned” stories for children to read.

Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between allegory and brow-beating, and I feel that Lewis crossed it. The condemnation of Uncle Andrew is strikingly anti-science (the guy even uses guinea pigs, for goobley’s sake!), and the “we have to trust and obey Aslan no matter what, even if he isn’t communicating his intentions to us” bit was rather much.

I imagine that a child probably wouldn’t even pick up on these things, and there was plenty of really great ideas and excitement in the story. But reading it for the first time as an adult, it was rather groan-worthy at times – particularly towards the end.

Still, I felt that it was a nice way to prelude the rest of the stories, though I don’t think that it would have worked as a stand-alone story.

All in all, I did find it to be an enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to getting to the rest of the series.

Buy The Magician’s Nephew from Amazon and support this blog! Continue reading

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Read: 19 January, 2013

The use of describing a fictional land to make a political or philosophical point is nothing knew – after all, that’s how Atlantis got its début. Later, during the Age of Exploration, the explorer’s tale was combined with this fictional land device, giving us books like More’s Utopia and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which a seafaring explorer happens upon magical lands – each of which teaches us a lesson about ourselves and our society (and what these could be or become).

In The Time Machine, Wells modernises the premise, giving his protagonist a time machine instead of a ship, and sending him far into the future instead of into uncharted lands.

There’s no question that Wells was consciously creating a story of the Utopia or Gulliver’s Travels type, but he does it with a wink and a nudge. Over and over again, the Time Traveller makes assumptions about the futurescape he explores and what led to it, only to be shown wrong later and have to revise his theories. As usual, he learns that things tend to be a bit more complicated than they may appear at first (or second!) glance. Even at the end, when the Time Traveller is gone and we are left only with his theories and the narrator, the narrator calls the final theories into question yet again, informing us that the Time Traveller had always be prone to arriving at those types of conclusions, reminding us that the Time Traveller – the lens through which we see the future – is flawed and untrustworthy.

I found it to be an interesting read. Certainly, the injection of evolution into the poli-sci-ism of More and Swift gave the genre a neat new dimension. But I found it to be a bit short. I think I would have enjoyed the novel more if the 802,701 C.E. storyline had been a little more condensed, and the Time Traveller had gone to a few more points in history. Then again, I know what Wells was trying to do, and the book is certainly interesting and entertaining enough as is.

Buy The Time Machine from Amazon and support this blog!

Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales by Vernon Lee

Read: 4 July, 2012

Hauntings is a collection of short fiction by a somewhat little known late 19th/early 20th century writer. Most of the stories don’t deal with actual hauntings, per se, but rather with weird, possibly supernatural events.

Some of the stories, like “Amour Dure,” pulled off the suspense quite well. Others, like “Dionea,” were weaker. Regardless, they all had interesting ideas behind them.

“Oke of Okehurst” and “A Wicked Voice” worked well as a pair (and kudos to the editor for putting them together) – one centring the story around art and the other around music.

All of the stories showed an impressive depth of knowledge and a brilliant mind, but they lacked “tightness” and narrative skill. It was truly a shame because I found the stories so interesting, but had to struggle through their dryness.

If you’re interested in the time period and want to read something from a more off-the-beaten-track author, I do recommend giving Hauntings a try.

Buy Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales from Amazon and support this blog!

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Read: 23 October, 2012

It’s 1847 and the Franklin Expedition’s two ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror, are trapped in the ice just off the coast of King William Island. The summer thaw never came and, as the men face yet another winter in the ice, scurvy and starvation begin to set in. As if their situation were not already dire, a monstrous beast is lurking out on the ice and picking off the Expedition’s men in horrific and gruesome ways.

The book is huge, over 700 pages in my edition, and the majority of it is fluff. What we know of the Expedition’s fate is horrific enough to have have stood without the inclusion of the supernatural, and been better for being shorter.

The writing style was okay, but did leave a lot to be desired. Simmons apparently struggles with dialogue, so that, for example, Doctor Goodsir describes Captain Fitzjames as speaking “not condescendingly” about twenty times in the space of a two page dialogue.

Crozier is described as having “second sight.” Unfortunately, this is introduced while he’s in a delirium brought by withdrawal from alcohol, well into the story. This was used to cover irrelevant things (like the Fox sisters), as well as some of the future rescue attempts. I realize that Crozier had to have “second sight” for the ending, but the way it was introduced felt far too contrived – shoe-horned onto the character rather than an integrated part of him.

However, despite its flaws, Terror did offer me the opportunity to find out more about the Franklin Expedition, and reading about the real details in a story format helps me remember them. Overall, I’d say that this is a book I’m glad to have read, but that I didn’t very much enjoy the process of reading.

Buy Terror from Amazon and support this blog!

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Read: 16 March, 2012

The Road Hill House murder shocked Victorian England. The crime itself was brutal, of course, but what really shook the foundation of Victorian assumptions about social class and safety was that the murder took place in an otherwise ordinary middle class household and that the murder was evidently one of its inmates.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher follows the investigation of the murder and its aftermath, focusing on the lives of the Kent family and on Mr. Whicher, the detective, himself.

Summerscale does an amazing job of contextualising the murder and its aftermath. While she does go a little overboard in painting the Road Hill murder as the catalyst for change in Victorian society, she does at least make her argument rather convincing. Her writing style is approachable even for those unfamiliar with the era, and her frequent mentions of books and historical figures added extra fun to the reading for me because it brought back so many of my lessons from when I studied Victorian literature in university.

I highly recommend Mr. Whicher if you have an interest in the Victorian era, issues surrounding the interaction of law enforcement and privacy, or simply enjoy mysteries and want a little more background on real life detectives.

Buy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher on Amazon to support this blog!

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Read: 2006

Rachel Verinder has inherited a priceless diamond from her uncle, a corrupt and misliked British officer who had been stationed in India when he died. But shortly after she wears it for the first time, the diamond goes missing from her bedroom. A search for the missing diamond, and for its thief, ensues.

The Moonstone is the progenitor of the modern detective novel. It is, as T.S. Eliot described, “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.” This isn’t, of course, your average poolside detective fic. The Moonstone is filled with social commentary (some of it truly hilarious, such as Drusilla Clack reverse thievery of religious tracts). Collins’s treatment of Hindus is years ahead of its time.

The novel is memorable. Franklin Blake’s mad rant about the objective versus the subjective is still oft quoted in this household. Highly recommended for fans of Victorian literature who also enjoy a good whodunnit.

Buy The Moonstone from Amazon to support this blog!