Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Skinny on the Charles Dickens Christmas Books

Ever wonder why "A Christmas Carol" is the only one of Charles Dickens's Christmas stories to get a lot of attention? He wrote five of them after all.

The answer to this is that overwhelmingly, that story is his best. But if your Dickens holiday fix isn't filled by that wonderful story, here's my ranking of all five so you can decide if you want to pick them up this season. All except the last have a supernatural element which is satisfyingly mysterious.

1. A Christmas Carol. Hands down the winner of all the books. If you can read nothing else this season, this would be your book. It is more wonderful than any movie adaptation could ever be. One of my favorite lines is from the description of a grocery store during Scrooge's visit with Christmas Present. "There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe." No time to read it? I just discovered a new audio adaptation of the book. I haven't been able to listen to all of it but the beginning is marvelous. 

2. Cricket on the Hearth--A Fairy Tale of Home. Easily the winner of the cheesiest movie adaptations. This is sad because it's a very good story. But I guess if you give a filmmaker a lovely blind girl who makes dolls and a poor father who creates a rich, imaginary world for her, said filmmaker can't resist the maudlin. But the center of the story is not Bertha and her father Caleb. The central characters, John and Dot Peerybingle, are mismatched in age and John begins to doubt Dot's love for him. A beautifully written story, all is happily tied up at the end but not before several of the characters have gone through depths of human despair. Ignore any sappy movies you've seen and read it. It's so worth it.

3. The Chimes. This story paints the bleakest picture of the poor in all the Christmas books. Instead of a miser, Dickens uses a man named Trotty for his main character. In a very "It's a Wonderful Life" way, he learns what the consequences of his actions might be. His daughter is in love, but he doesn't believe that the marriage should go forth because of their poverty. I find this story distressing. The main character is such a nice little man and the visions he receives so horrible, that at the happy end, I find my heart still broken.

4. The Haunted Man. In this story, a bitter professor named Redlaw is haunted by past grievances and hurt. When a ghost offers him the opportunity to forget all his wrongs, he accepts. But something unexpected happens. He is still angry but doesn't know why and he spreads his bitterness to others. It has a satisfying happy ending and there are some memorable characters to make the story go along. The book is very atmospheric but doesn't have the appeal of the top three.

5. The Battle of Life. No supernatural beings in this one. Just interesting folks who seem to be in love with the wrong people.   Dr. Jedlar and his two daughters, Grace and Marion, live on a former battlefield. Dickens suggests that the memories of the battle haunt those who live on it.The character of Clemency Newcome, who is Dr. Jedlar's servant, is delightful and she gets her happy ending too. This one to me is the least Christmas-y and perhaps that's why I like it least.

All these stories are in the public domain. But if you want a hard copy, the Oxford Illustrated Classics version has all the original illustrations! And it's small enough to stick in a tote bag or backpack for some reading while waiting in line at the dentist's office or grocery store.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Its Movie Version

Before it was a movie, it was a remarkable book.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret won the Caldecott award in 2008. This made the book automatically unique. The Caldecott honors illustrations in children's books. The winner is almost always a picture book. Brian Selznick's book is hard to classify. It's part graphic novel, part text, but is full of illustrations, 284 to be exact. I lifted this quote from Wikipedia:

"Selznick himself has described the book as 'not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.'"

The illustrations have the beautiful etched quality of 19th century drawings and are wonderfully detailed. A wonderful draftsman, Selznick should be well-known for his illustrations alone. But the story in The Invention of Hugo Cabret is even more powerful than the drawings.

You will love figuring out all the mysteries in Hugo's life and you will go on an emotional journey with him as he tries to find out more about the family he has lost.  The less I tell you about the plot, the more you will enjoy the book. But I will tell you that the central theme is finding your own place in your world.

The new movie "Hugo" by Martin Scorcese (which you should really see in 3-D, by the way) looks like an instant classic to me. I was incredibly impressed by the vision that Scorcese created of a Paris of long ago. The walls of the train station even have beautiful period graphic advertisements. He creates magic using every trick that a film maker has that a novelist does not. He uses lighting, facial expression, and camera movement to give you a fascinating and gripping experience. But the novel has just as much power as the movie. And the illustrations make you want to read it again and again.

Before going to the movie, I was worried that the mystery and the disorienting strangeness of the book would be lost on the screen. One of the best things about the book was discovering page by page the mystery surrounding Hugo Cabret's life. Happily, there is plenty of mystery in the movie as well, even if you have already read the book.You may be a person who prefers seeing the movie first and reading the book second. I am the opposite. But either way you follow, both the novel and the movie should be experienced.

Selznick's website is one of the best author websites around. And you can find more information about automatons there. And their story is as fascinating as fiction. The Invention of Hugo Cabret's website will tell you much more about the automaton which inspired the book.


Monday, November 21, 2011

The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer

It is very difficult to talk about The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer without producing spoilers. I can only talk in the vaguest terms about the plot because one of the absolute strengths of the book for me was its unpredictability. The reader really is taken for a ride and cannot know what happens next. It is a true page-turner and I found myself really interested in what happened to Martin, the main character and to some extent, some of the secondary characters. I was impressed by Starmer's vision of a group of teens reimaging the world in a fair and cooperative manner. I was particularly taken by Starmer's view that each of the characters had a special strength or skill which made him or her essential to the well-being of the group. That's a pretty nice message to send out to the young in the world today.

The beginning is satisfyingly atmospheric and mysterious. The central portion of the book is a variant of the "last men on earth" genre and the ending I felt tied up too many loose ends and was unrealistically happy.

The Only Ones is marketed as a middle grade novel, but I consider it to be far too sophisticated for that age group. The main character, Martin, is a thirteen-year-old through most of the book and there are enough instances of teen worries, problems and desires for me to be unable to recommend it for pre-teens. There is no sex but a lot of boy girl interest and there is also enough violence to make me not recommend it to pre-teens. It also requires a highly developed sense of logic to unravel the plot. Younger readers might enjoy some of the actions in the book, but would have no real understanding of the workings of the plot.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Behold, Here's Poison

Lots of people who love Georgette Heyer's romances probably don't know about her mysteries. This is a shame. Her mysteries are charming reads. Always about the gentry, they open the door into a world that most of us will never experience.

Behold, Here's Poison starts with the murder of Uncle Gregory, an irascible soul that almost everyone was glad to be rid of. Then a cast of memorable characters verbally spar as the police try to figure out how and why he was murdered.

Two of my favorite Georgette Heyer characters appear in this book. One is the ditsy penny-pinching sister of Gregory. Miss Harriet Matthews runs the home on spartan principles. She dithers a lot. Another memorable personage is Mrs. Zoe Matthews, the sister-in-law of Gregory who is very canny and scheming and walks around saying completely insincere things like "It is always such a mistake to condemn people's little foibles. One should try to understand, and help them."

My favorite Inspector Hannasyde and his side kick, Sergeant Hemingway add to list of memorable people you will meet in this novel.

Of course, there is love interest. This is Georgette, right? And all comes to a satisfying close with a person you really didn't like being stuck with the murder rap.

A delicious read and well worth your time, Behold, Here's Poison  was originally printed in 1936. A lot of us Georgette Heyer fans have gleaned copies from used bookstores and have re-read them to the point that they are held together with rubber bands. My copy is a reprint from 1987.

But, luckily for you, it is now available new from Amazon and Barnes and Noble and is in Kindle and Nook format as well. This means you don't have to keep yours in one piece with a rubber band.

Oh, and the new cover has absolutely nothing to do with the book.  This isn't bad when you consider that the picture on the front of my cover gives away an important plot element if you look at it closely!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Interstellar Pig --A Creepy Halloween Read

Mwah-ha-ha! Today is a good day for finding a chilling and frightening read. Call me naive, but this YA book, Interstellar Pig, really scared me. In a good way. I read it as an adult and one would think I wouldn't have gotten so caught up in it. But I did. I was really surprised by some of the plot turns and was very satisfyingly creeped out by it. I really like that shivery feeling you get when a book really plays with your mind.

Interstellar Pig has to do with a beach house, some teens, some interesting neighbors and a fantastic and eerie board game. I like the idea of the game that sucks you in. I loved Jumanji and Ender's Game as an adult reader. And when I was small, the croquet game in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  made me very satisfyingly uncomfortable.

I'll be honest, I haven't re-read it since that first time many years ago. It left a powerful impression on me but I think it's one of those books that you wouldn't enjoy as much the second time as you know how the plot turns out. And if you do decide to read it, for goodness' sakes, don't look at any reviews that might have plot spoilers. You want to be surprised.

So if you're in for a quiet Halloween evening and have read all your Poe short stories to death, check this out of your local library or borrow from a friend. I may have to go to the Kingston  library and pick up the sequel called Parasite Pig.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another way to find a good book--Write your own!

Once upon a time, I decided that the only way to read the chick lit novel I was looking for was to write it myself. Which I did. Snarky and Sweet was the product of my first Nanowrimo contest. I've done two more since then and have signed up for another year. National Novel Writing Month is one of the craziest and most amazing ideas ever. You have one month to write 50,000 words. Sounds impossible but divided up into small chunks it's more than possible.

I strongly encourage anyone who loves to read to give this a shot. And if you've ever wanted to write a novel, this is your big chance. I've learned more about creativity from Nanowrimo than from anything else. Knowing that you have to write X number of words each day really makes those juices flow. Some days it was awful. I thought I was writing junk. Some days it just seemed to flow into unforgettable art. Strangely enough, when I went back to re-read my stuff, I found that the junk and the art were pretty much the same quality. Both needed heavy rewriting, but both had some pretty fun stuff that just popped out of my brain and ran to my fingers.

Join me in this adventure. You won't regret it!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Photo by Damon White
If you are longing for a good, long read I cannot recommend more highly A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Written in English, it is according to Wikipedia the longest novel in English published in one volume. But its claim to fame is far more important than its stupendous length.

The novel tells the story of four Indian families in the 1950s. Written with grace, wit, humor, some satire and great historical detail, the novel centers around one character's search for a suitable husband for her daughter, Lata. Mrs. Rupa Mehra leaves no stone unturned in her search for the right husband for her daughter. Lata is equally determined to make her own choice. But besides this central plot there are also the stories of four families, three of whom are Hindu and one Muslim. The book gives the American reader an insight into an ancient and complex culture.

There are disturbing incidents in the book. No saga of four families can be without tragedy. But there are also sublime moments of joy and even lighthearted fun. Throughout, the importance of family is a thread which ties the whole book together.

Vikram Seth's first book was in verse and you can see the influence of his poetic skills on the prose in the novel. While A Suitable Boy  was written in 1993, it is topical to review it now because the sequel, A Suitable Girl, is due in 2013.

You may or may not be surprised by Lata's choice. I was. But you will be surprised by the depth and breadth of A Suitable Boy.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Grand Georgette Heyer

Who else would I choose but Georgette Heyer as my first author in this blog about books that make you feel good? Georgette Heyer was a twentieth century English author who wrote mysteries and historical romances. Most of us love her best for her Regency romances. She wrote about the fascinating period in English history at the beginning of the nineteenth century so well described by Jane Austen. If you loved Jane, you will find Heyer's romances charming and entertaining. Although not the works of art that Austen's books are, Heyer's books use witty dialogue, a romantic setting and a deep understanding of human nature to produce an enjoyable read.

I read her books for the first time as a junior high school girl. They were recommended by my librarian. Then I forgot about them until graduate school told me she loved them for late night reading when she couldn't sleep. So I started looking for copies, all of them out of print. For the longest time, I guarded my copies found in used book stores. Most were held together with rubber bands. Then the Internet appeared and I could replace the most fragile ones on eBay. Now many of them are being reprinted for a new audience.

I couldn't possibly pick my favorite Georgette Heyer novel. But The Grand Sophy would be in the top ten. Amazon sells it here as either a print or Kindle book. . And find it at Barnes and Noble here in print or Nook versions. And, of course, you can find used copies floating around on the Internet as well.

In this novel, a troubled family receives a visit from their unfashionably tall and impossibly liberated cousin, Sophy Stanton-Lacy. She quickly decides to remedy the family's ills while finding romance for herself. She pulls out all the stops to get her cousins well-married by defying convention, meddling, matchmaking and generally creating havoc. And, of course, since it is a romance, all of her plans work out exactly as she wished. I love Sophy's style, her determination and her outrageous sense of humor.

I read and reread my Georgette Heyer books. They're witty. That's so hard to find in literature today. And they're fun. And they are squeaky clean in terms of language and sex. Read the ones in print and then seek out the ones out of print. Abebooks, one of the largest online used bookstores, lists her here in their top ten authors ahead of J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens. You won't be disappointed.