Monday, March 8, 2010

Jen On Books

So, over at Random Thoughts, I often do book reviews. I enjoy them a great deal, and I hope others do, too. I really have no way of knowing. I do know that people have bought different titles over the years, based upon what I've said about a book. Whether or not they've loved them as much as I did, I again have no clue. All I know is that when I read a book that I really love, I can't help talking about them. At the same time, if I read a book I didn't feel major love for, I can't help talking about them, too. Talking about books is one of my all time favorite things to do.

That said, I'm not a girl who is going to search for deep meaning and/or symbolism in a book. I enjoy a book because of the story. Technique is secondary to me. Without story, in other words, a book is pointless to me. It can be crafted in a completely unique, highly technical way that wins awards and credos from writers and readers the world-wide, but if there isn't a kick-ass story beneath it all…I, quite frankly, couldn't give a flying-you-know-what. Some people may turn up their noses at such an aesthetically based reason for reading books…but whatever. I like books. No, I LOVE books…and I think I'm like a lot of readers out there who never give a second thought to the underlying meaning of why an author chose to use this or that technique.

As a writer, of course I worry about those things a bit more… at the same time, though, my main focus is and will always be to tell a good story with characters people respond to.

This all goes toward my main point: I've decided to start doing book reviews over here at ATWOP. Hopefully I can spice it up with a wide variety of books that will interest you guys. I plan to keep doing reviews at RT, so continue to look for them there as well. That said, I feel the need to give a bit of a disclaimer. I'm not a girl who can censure her thoughts under the guise of "being nice." Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you I completely wear my heart on my sleeve—sometimes to my detriment. I shoot straight from the hip, so to speak…and yeah, I won't always love a book I review. The only thing I can promise is that I will give my honest opinion—so expect the good with the bad. Just remember that in the end it's all just my opinion. And as we all know…opinions are a dime a dozen. (Wow, how many clich├ęs can I actually cram into one blog post??) You can agree with me…you can disagree. Either way, I hope something I may say will spark some discussion. I LOVE to talk about books. (Have I made this clear? J) I couldn't care less (well, maybe a little) if you disagree – the point is, we're talking about books… and there ain't nothing better than talking about books.


My first official book review will be for THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters.

(Can I just say how jealous I am of Rachel?! Not a week after I finished this fantastic book, she was in the same room with this woman!! Oh man, that burned…that burned bad. *envy pangs envy pangs envy pangs* Not to mention Markus Zusak!!! Holy heck. I need another room for my pangs of jealousy.)

I found this book when I was perusing Stephen King's Best of 2009 list. Here's what he had to say:

This is a terrifying, engrossing ghost story set in the English countryside not long after World War II, but it's so much more. The ghost haunting Hundreds Hall may or may not be real, but the malevolence Waters evokes is unquestionable, and the first evil manifestation — involving an unpleasant little girl and a normally good-natured dog — is an authentic shocker. Although told in straightforward prose, this is a deeply textured and thoughtful piece of work. Several sleepless nights are guaranteed.

Is there any doubt as to why I chose to read this book out of all the books he listed? Anything that can terrify Stephen King HAD to be good! LOL. And it was.

A brief overview:

Dr. Faraday grew up the son of working class parents. I forget now what his father did, but his mother was a maid in Hundreds Hall, a huge estate owned by the Ayres family. In a way, he has always been fascinated by the grandeur of the place—but in a time when marked class distinctions existed in Great Britain, he could do nothing but admire it from afar. That is until years later… now a doctor, Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall to see to a young maid living there and is shocked to discover the estate that has enthralled him for so long is in a rapid decline. The matriarch of the Hall, Mrs. Ayres, is living there with her son and daughter, but the estate is in financial trouble. It's after WWII, their fortune is gone…the estate is crumbling around them, and the family is forced to adapt to a lifestyle they weren't brought up to live. Faraday befriends them, quickly discovering that there are far worse things going on at Hundreds Hall than a family struggling to maintain a dying way of life. There is something in Hundreds Hall…

*cue the scary music*

Okay…if you're looking for a balls to the wall ghost story with special effects and scream out loud moments, this isn't the book for you. The one thing that this book has going for it is subtlety. However, I would argue that it's that very attribute that makes this book scary as all hell. I won't lie to you – it scared the bejesus out of me. There were moments when I wanted to put the book down out of fear of being unable to sleep. I'm telling you, Stephen King nailed this book to a T.

What do I mean by subtlety? Well, I think most people, if they never read the back copy of this book, would never know it's a ghost story until they're well into it. On the surface, it reads like a literary novel…a family saga of sorts. A commentary on the times. I have to say that Waters captures the era perfectly. I at once liked and disliked the Ayres family. I disliked them for their snobbery. Their entitled attitudes. They've had a very easy way of life for a very long time, and despite the closing of the gap between the upper and lower classes, they'd do anything to hang on to it. This is seen by the way they insist on keeping hired help though they are barely able to afford basic upkeep of their estate. I also liked them because I felt sorry for them. In a lot of ways, they can't help how they were brought up…and to see their world literally crumbling around them had to be nightmarish. In the end, I started liking them despite who they were brought up to be.

At the same time, I both liked and disliked Dr. Faraday. I liked him because he's a hard-working man who was trying to carve out a decent living for himself. He came from nothing and managed to make something out of his life. That said, he was altogether too obsessed with Hundreds Hall and the Ayres family for him to gain my complete respect. I often times found myself annoyed with how he envied them…how he always took on the attitude that they were somehow better than him… or in turn, triumphed a bit in their downfall.

The thing that is so damn scary about this book is that it's just a story about a family… the story of an aging house falling down around them… the societal changes going on at the time… a doctor who befriends them at a time when they really need a friend… Everything is just so damn normal and then some reaaaaaaally freaky things begin to happen. It's so subtle at first, you almost don't know what to attribute the events to. Are the family members simply paranoid…suffering from delusions…involved in some form of mass hysteria brought on by the war and the stress of losing their way of life? Are they simply reacting to a creepy old house? The interesting thing is that you Never Really Know. Not even when you reach the final page of the book.

This subtlety makes this story believable. I could picture everything in this book actually happening. The characters and place were so real to me…the events so subtle that the jump to believability was a very easy one to make. There's this great part when the son of the family is telling Faraday about some of the things that had been going on in the house. I won't give away the details, but he talks about how ordinary everything was and how that made it all the more frightening.

"It was all the more sickening, somehow, for the glass being such an ordinary sort of object. If—I don't know, but if some beast had suddenly appeared in the room, some spook or apparition, I think I would have borne the shock of it better. But this—it was hateful, it was wrong. It made one feel as though everything around one, the ordinary stuff of one's ordinary life, might all at any moment start up like this and—overwhelm one."

And then there's Faraday. I'll admit I did a bit of surfing on the net to see what other reviewers thought of him. I was actually quite surprised to see I wasn't in agreement with any of them – at least those that I read. Everyone seemed to think that Faraday was this great, unbiased narrator who was able to look at the events at Hundreds Hall in a completely objective manner. He didn't believe anything paranormal was occurring so somehow that kept him at a distance and left him uninfluenced by the events and people. I'll tell you what… this SHOCKED me. As I said before, I'm not one to overanalyze a book, but I've never seen a character that embodied the "unreliable narrator" more than Dr. Faraday. My opinion only, remember, but I didn't believe a dang thing he said or thought… because quite frankly, I think he lied to himself throughout this entire book. In a way, his obsession with Hundreds Hall blinded him to the possibility that anything could be wrong, and this in turn, turned him into a catalyst that helped sustain the events that were transpiring. In fact, I'd argue he made them worse. He's essentially a good person, yes, but I think his major flaw was his complete fixation on getting a piece of the lifestyle he once dreamed about so fervently as a child.

In the end, though…I could be way off point. That's the great thing about this book. You won't really know what happened in the end.

All I do know is that it scared the living daylights out of me. There's one particular scene that left me wanting to hide under the covers until morning… lol.

The writing is beautiful…evocative…and Waters really encapsulated the time and place. To put it simply, I loved this book. When I finished it, I wanted to turn right back to the first page and start it all over again. It's definitely a keeper.

Has anyone else read it yet? Do tell . I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. J



  1. Oooh, Jen, this book sounds EXCELLENT! And while I am not one to rub it in - no, truly - you are *so* right to be jealous that I got to hear Sarah Waters talk about her books. She's fabulous! And to clear up that issue about Faraday, she actually described him as an unreliable narrator when talking about the characters in her book, so your take on him is spot-on.

    I bought three of her books after hearing her speak- AFFINITY, THE NIGHT WATCH, and FINGERSMITH - now I'll definitely have to run out and grab this one, too!

  2. Wow, this sounds like an amazing book. I'm scared, though, because Faraday sounds a bit like what's her name in Rebecca. I couldn't stomach that book because of the protagonist being so clueless and spineless. I mean, get over it! If you think your husband and the housefull of servants are still in love with Rebecca, then call them up on it! Don't wait till the tail end and find out that they hated her all along. Sheesh. Sorry :-) But if he's not a weak guy, simply unreliable, then that's okay :-) Another one for the wishlist... Sigh... They should have library-related lottery tickets, where if you win, you get a lifetime gift certificate for books and shelving...

  3. Damn, Jen, you're really good at this review stuff, eh? (g) Now I must read this book! Damn you!!!

    Rach -- I am officially jealous that you live where you do (with that Writer's week) and I DON'T! :P

  4. Dear Jen,

    Awesome post! I've been studying this book lust for most of my life. So many people make it so complicated. After all these years of thinking, talking, etc., I've come to the same conclusion as you; you said:

    I enjoy a book because of the story.

    That's why people either like something, or not. I remember being at Surrey the year that Da Vinci Code came out. So many people were whining that Brown did not deserve his success because he's not a good writer. And maybe he isn't. But in my opinion, he deserves every bit of his success, because he got so many non-readers to read his book. And the millions who read it and enjoyed it for a simple reason: THEY LIKED THE STORY!!!

  5. Rachel,

    I am well and truly JEALOUS. :) And yay for all of those books -- they all look SO interesting. I've dipped a toe into THE NIGHT WATCH. We shall have to compare notes. (g)


  6. Deniz,

    I wouldn't say Faraday is anything like the 'little fool' in REBECCA. LOL! Feel mean calling her that, but that's what she was known as for most of that book it seemed. :)

    Anyway -- I think Faraday is simply wrong about a lot of stuff. He has talked himself into believing a fair number of things, and his view of the situation as a whole is totally skewed. And far more complicated, he doesn't really understand his own motivations and desires. He's a good character...just totally and completely unreliable. I liked him, in other words...was irritated with at times..felt sorry for him at others. Best kind of character to read, imo. :)


  7. Kristen,

    Thanks! And YES, you must read this book. :)


  8. Stephanie,

    You're absolutely right. People really like to tear apart the success of others, don't they? I'm constantly amazed when people criticize Stephen King for instance. Wordy or not, that man can tell a story.

    Methinks the green-eyed monster is at work with a fair amount of these opinions. :)

    I didn't know anything about the Dan Brown controversy until I joined Compu. LOL. I liked the book. *shrug* Would I cringe at the writing today -- after my writerly-learnin'? Probably. But like his style or not, that man knows how to suck readers in. So like or hate the Stephenie Meyers of the world...just be glad they're there. They get people to the bookstores...and YAY for that. :)