Monday, November 28, 2011

Another Year Another Challenge

I did complete one of the book challenges I set out to last year, the What's in a Name Challenge 4. I liked this one because it wasn't overwhelming and it provided plenty of flexibility for reading preferences but still made me read a few books I might not have otherwise just to meet the category requirement. I did have a lot of trouble finding a book with a size in the title that I hadn't already read so ended up outside of my norm, but it was okay.

Last week I was notified of the 2012 What's in a Name 5 challenge so I quickly signed up. Here are the title categories:
1. A topographical feature
2. Something you'd see in the sky
3. A creepy crawly
4. A type of house
5. Something you'd carry in your pocket, purse or backpack
6. Something you'd find on a calendar

Here's the link if you want to sign up:

As for the reading challenge that I failed to complete, I think I did not give myself enough time based on other obligations. I may look it up and see if they are starting anew in 2012.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs

This book was not what I was expecting even though I am not sure what I thought it would be. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is somewhat of a World War II story and somewhat fantasy/science-fiction. The hero is your average sixteen year old American boy who isn't really so average after all. When his grandfather dies, Jacob sets out on a mission to understand his last words and make sense of some peculiar photographs he left behind.

Abraham Portman's parents sent him to a rescue mission in England prior to the outbreak of WWII. As he came to understand the monsters who were killing his people, he decided to leave the safety of the orphanage and join the war. But nothing is really as it appears in this rather eccentric novel. The war is real, the monsters are real and so are the peculiar children in Miss Peregrine's care. Scattered throughout the book are photographs of these curious kids, which just adds another quirky dimension to the story.

Overall, this was a quick and fun read. I did feel like the book was split in two halves and almost two genres (part one adventure and part two fantasy/sci-fi). That may have been intentional since Jacob says his life can be described as before and after the event. Another downside was the ending, which was a little open-ended and could lead to a sequel.... but not so much that you were left hanging. I think Harry Potter fans would like this one.

The House of Seven Gables

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have always liked The Scarlett Letter and re-read it twice in the past few years as both kids went through high school. For some reason I never gave a thought to reading The House of Seven Gables; I'm thinking because it received such little acclaim when published and throughout history. After finally reading it, I think that was an unfortunate disregard to an excellent novel, and in light of the themes, I almost wonder why this book isn't chosen instead for high school reading requirements.

Some themes that stood out to me were: the sins of the father passing down from generation to generation, the self-fulfilling prophecy, wrongful imprisonment, good overcomes evil but doesn't necessarily repair the consequences suffered along the way. Other things I noticed were comparisons between the young and beautiful Phoebe with the old and unsightly Hepzibah, Judge Pyncheon's  immaculate new mansion with the decaying family house of seven gables and the Pyncheon's with the Maule's.  I loved the writing style, the descriptions, the ideas, the symbolism and thoughts. The characters were well developed and interesting.

In the preface of the book, Hawthorne identifies this story as a romance rather than a novel so that he could include the proper mix of realism and fantasy allowed by that genre and that is why I think the book has been so under-appreciated. The House of Seven Gables is not a romance in the sense of a romantic relationship, rather it is the dramatization of a moral issue using imagery and symbolism with an optimistic ending. No matter how it is classified, it is a true classic.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Big Sleep

by Raymond Chandler

From the very first page of The Big Sleep I felt as if I were reading an episode of Dragnet (the tv show). The detective, Philip Marlowe, is the stereotypical tough guy private eye, morally upright yet willing to use force or deceit for justice's sake. The characters in the story were also as expected in this type of crime fiction: gangster type bad guys and sexy dumb women, who Marlowe teases and uses as needed but quickly casts them aside as unnecessary nuisances in crime solving. While I say this story was really stereotypical, I must acknowledge that when it was written (1939), this was a ground-breaker for the modern detective novel.

The book was a quick read, but despite the innovative credit due I felt the story was rather disjointed with a confusing mission that never seemed to become clear. Another issue I had was that the detective never made a misstep and knew how to respond to threats almost before they were made. Some of the situations were unbelievable, like when Marlowe was handcuffed (behind the back), yet not only was he able to start a car, he removed a gun hidden in a door panel and used it perfectly to kill an assailant coming straight at him!

On the plus side, the depiction of LA in the 40's was great. The dialogue was full of that generational slang and the writing made it easy to recreate the characters and mood of that era.

I picked this book to specifically meet the final requirement for my What's In A Name challenge; so I have finally completed that task. I really had a hard time finding a book with a size in the title that I hadn't already read.

My rating may not be fair justice to the pioneer of the American hard-boiled detective novel and maybe would have improved had I read a later work. Originally, I wanted to read The Long Goodbye, also by Chandler, but so many reviewers insisted on reading The Big Sleep first that I followed the advice. So for this work alone, from a modern perspective it was okay.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Romancing Miss Bronte

by Juliet Gael

I had planned to expand my reading horizons since I've read so many historic novels lately, but it seems I am trapped in this genre! A friend of mine, with whom I share similar reading tastes, recommended Romancing Miss Bronte, so I took the bait.

Before reading this novel I knew very little of the life of Charlotte Bronte or her family. After reading I feel I have a greater insight into her literary works. Much of her writing is auto-biographical, to the extent that she relied on many of her personal experiences to create characters and themes in her books and poems. The author included several excerpts of Ms. Bronte's correspondence and facts from her travel journals, as well as diaries of close acquaintances when writing this story.

Charlotte lived a dreary, difficult and somewhat tragic life. As a young girl she watched her mother and two older sisters die from tuberculosis. She was forced to abandon formal education in order to care for her father, who was going blind from cataracts, an alcoholic and perhaps schizophrenic brother, and her two younger sisters, while she pined away for a beloved professor. The three sisters together published a collection of poems that fell flat. Soon afterward all three published novels (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey), but only Jane Eyre received accolades. Following this, Charlotte watched as one by one her siblings fell ill and died. More than half of the novel concerns this first part of Charlotte's life; the "romancing" aspect doesn't begin until late in the story, paralleling her life.

I enjoyed learning this information about Miss Bronte's life and thought the author did a good job of maintaining a style appropriate to Bronte's own. Toward the end the story took on a bit more of a romance novel undercurrent than I like, but overall I'd recommend this if you are familiar with the works of the Bronte sisters (and if not, you should become so).