Jac L’Etoile has returned to the States from France, leaving behind the love of her life, Griffin North, and facing an uncertain f...moreGiveaway on my blog!
Jac L’Etoile has returned to the States from France, leaving behind the love of her life, Griffin North, and facing an uncertain future in terms of lost motivation and a lack of direction. In Connecticut, her old therapist and mentor, Malachai, shows her the secret and ancient rock formations on his family's estate that appear to be Celtic; the revelation helps jolt Jac out of her fugue, but more so does the letter she discovers Malachai has been hiding from her, a letter from her friend Theo Gaspard whom she knew at the Blixer Rath clinic in Switzerland. Jac was at Blixer when she was fourteen, sent by her grandmother to see if Malachai and the other therapists could hep her with her hallucinations. Theo was two years older, and while they never fit in with the other teenagers at the clinic, they became close friends. But Malachai sees Theo as a danger to Jac, and warns her against him.
Theo lives on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, an island full of caves and ancient Celtic sites. In his letter, he asks Jac to join him in searching for evidence of the Druids, and Jac is all too eager to oblige. There are mysteries within mysteries in Jac's life: she and Theo have an unusual connection which neither of them really understand, and Theo has an ulterior motive in calling Jac - whom he hasn't seen since he abruptly left Blixer Rath well over a decade ago - to Jersey.
At Wells in Wood, the very old, rambling stone building the Gaspards have lived in for generations, Theo discovered a letter from the celebrated French author, poet and statesman Victor Hugo to his ancestor, Fantine Gaspard, in which Hugo mentions a journal hidden in a cave only the two of them know of, that will tell a story no one has heard before. A story about the Shadow of the Sepulcher... also known as Lucifer.
Since the loss of his wife, Theo has perhaps an unhealthy obsession with finding Hugo's journal and learning more, and amongst all these Celtic ruins and ancient ritual sites, Jac is easily drawn into the mystery. The layers of mystery only deepen, and the truth becomes more complicated, as the past threatens to overtake the present and obliterate the lives of Fantine's descendants.
I wasn't at all aware, when I agreed to review this, that Seduction was part of a series. Having read it, I can tell you that it doesn't make all that much difference. The previous book, The Book of Lost Fragrances, is also about Jac and this book does mention some details from her summer in Paris, the setting of the other book, but it made no real difference that I hadn't read it or any of the other books in the series, all of which feature different characters (as far as I can make out).
Reincarnation is a theme, and an integral part of the plot, but there are so many layers to this novel that it's hard to say what is the main theme. Victor Hugo plays a role, and a convincing one at that, as he recounts, in 1855, certain episodes from his time living in exile in Jersey, where he held over a hundred séances - at first to ease his grief after his eldest, Didine, drowns, but it becomes a kind of unhealthy obsession that worries at him, especially after they make contact with Lucifer - the Shadow of the Sepulcher - who offers him a deal: restore his reputation in poetry and he will bring Didine back to Victor. But as Hugo learns, the Shadow's methods are abhorrent: he lures young girls away from their beds at night and brings them to the brink of death, at which point Hugo finds them and the Shadow tries to get him to let the girls die so Didine's soul can take their place.
In the present, Jac's story of her time at Blixer Rath, her unusual friendship with Theo and what it means that she hallucinates things from Theo's life - and his previous lives, not that she believes in reincarnation - weaves in and out of the narrative, gradually adding blocks of knowledge to the foundation of mystery that this novel rests on. There is another side to the story too: a Celtic family in 56 BCE facing a horrific situation, the three players in the drama playing out their tragic roles down through the ages until, finally, it reaches the Gaspards and Jac, with her unique ability to see Theo's past life, learns the truth behind the strife between Theo and his younger brother, Ash, and Theo's wife, Naomi.
There are so many layers to this gothic-horror, mystery-suspense novel, it's a wonder that it works at all. If I untangle them slightly, there are two plot-lines: Victor Hugo's encounters with the Devil and the bargain he offers, and the search for the lost journal; and Jac's ongoing problems with hallucinations, her resistance to Malachai's belief in reincarnation, her visions from 56 BCE and Theo's past life. Somehow Rose weaves these together to make one solid story, but I'm not entirely convinced they fit together all that well.
I was engaged by Victor Hugo's story, which was full of spooky atmosphere and chilling details, and brings that wonderful sense of Victorian Gothic Horror to the story - which is nicely linked to the present through the rather oppressive and monstrous Gaspard mansion which is perched on the edge of the cliff, and even the Victorian house hidden away in the woods that Ash lives in. Jersey itself is a vivid setting, full of dark woods you can get lost in, precipitous cliffs, mist and even wolves. All the more apt for the spookiness of Jac's visions and the slightly menacing atmosphere between Theo and Ash, the Gaspard brothers. There's also their great-aunts, Minerva and Eva, who have their own secrets. This is certainly a book about airing the past and healing old wounds.
As interesting as the story was - and the multiple layers or dimensions to it did appeal to me - I struggled a bit, reading this. Rose's prose is perfectly competent but her style, her "voice", isn't one that really worked for me. It's hard to say why, it's just one of those things. We all have our own unique brain patterns, the rhythms of our mind and our own voice, even if we're not writers, and sometimes we find authors whose own voice, or style - their "way with words", how they construct sentences - aligns well with our own, or balances it or engages or stimulates or what have you. And other times an author's voice jars, or annoys, or bores us. Rose's voice just didn't quite engage mine, so that I too-often found my mind wandering. It's not an easy thing to explain, especially when I can't say that there's any particular reason why I didn't "click" better with this novel. It has so many elements that should have completely engaged me, but that didn't. Perhaps part of the problem was that there was so much going on here, and for a while I simply didn't know what story I was reading or where it was headed. It's not going to be that way for everyone, obviously, so I don't want it to detract from anyone's interest in reading this. But, this being my personal review, it's important to note it.
Seduction has many strengths, not least of which is the depth of Rose's research - into Victor Hugo, the Celts, the art of creating perfume and any number of other things. It's rather exhausting to think of it. Rose has created a deeply atmospheric, multi-layered novel of mystery, suspense and gothic horror, weaving the lives of centuries into one complex tale. There is a scene at the end that I found to be horrific and tragic and that still makes me want to cry just thinking about it, but that just made the revelations all that much stronger, and caring about a novel's characters makes the reading experience linger for a long time. I may have struggled to connect with the characters and the story in some ways, but it isn't a story I'll forget in a hurry; as for the characters, so will it echo and resonate over the years with me.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via France Book Tours. (less)
In 1932, Zelda voluntarily enters the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, a private mental hospital attached to John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. It is from there that Erika Robuck's story takes off, introducing us to our narrator at the same time as we meet the Fitzgeralds. Anna Howard is a psychiatric nurse, thirty-five and possibly widowed - her husband Ben never returned from the Great War, and her daughter, Katie, died of pneumonia when still just a child. Alone, Anna puts her energies into caring for the patients in her care, and is drawn to Zelda, quickly forming a bond with the fragile woman.
Zelda is a complex sort, artistic and creative yet struggling against her husband's anger that she is writing a novel that tells the story from a woman's perspective, at the same time as Scott is working on his own version: Tender is the Night. Years ago, Zelda had let Scott read her diaries and he kept them, using them as material for his novels and refusing to return them. Finally, he hid them and they were never seen again. Zelda becomes quite convinced that if she can get her diaries back, something in her will be mended, like putting back a piece of her soul.
Over the years that follow, as Zelda goes in and out of professional psychiatric care and becomes increasingly unhinged, Anna remains her private nurse or, later, her friend. She never forgot about the diaries, so that, in 1948, when Zelda reaches out to her after years of silence, Anna takes it upon herself to complete this last task, to find or at least attempt to find Zelda's diaries and so give her friend some peace at last.
I've been putting off writing this review for a while because I'm just not sure how to articulate my thoughts and feelings, or even what they are in regards to this novel. This is Robuck's second book, following on from Hemingway's Girl (which I have but haven't read yet); Hemingway's hatred of Zelda Fitzgerald led to Robuck's curiosity about her, according to her author's note, and I can easily see what intrigued Robuck and what must have annoyed Hemingway. Zelda is one of those characters who would either repel you or call to you: clearly she called to Anna, yet Anna's continuing loyalty and love for Zelda never really made itself felt, or know, to me. I never really understood what lured Anna in. She questions it herself, wondering from time to time if she is just drawn to their celebrity, but decides this is not the case. Unfortunately, she never managed to convince me, or give me to understand just what it was about Zelda - or Scott for that matter - that held her loyalty. They weren't exactly likeable people, after all.
You definitely need Anna in this story, though. At one point I imagined how this would go, written from Zelda's first-person perspective, and the mess that would be made me shudder. She's incoherent at times, suffering from schizophrenia, and even when she's lucid and calm there's something distinctly unstable about her - that comes across clearly, especially in contrast to Anna's calm, stable and reliable sanity. In truth, Robuck did an excellent job at recreating both Zelda and Scott, their explosive relationship, their troubles and their insecurities. Even at their worst, they still managed to elicit some kind of sympathy or understanding in me.
What was jarring was having them juxtaposed against Anna's plain middle class existence. Anna is a lovely woman, the kind of woman who would make a great friend, yet she's not terribly memorable either: she was good at blending into the background when she needed to, which made her a good nurse to the Fitzgerald's, who never cared about witnesses to their fights or their passionate embraces. But she was such a huge contrast to the Fitzgerald's, who are still stuck in the mentality of the 20s hedonistic Jazz Age - wild week-long parties, the kind of lifestyle immortalised in The Great Gatsby: they lived like they were one of Jay Gatsby's parties, all the time. Lots of drinking - Fitzgerald was quite the alcoholic - and that kind of upper-class superiority that became faded and dowdy during the Depression years of the 30s.
If the novel were told from the third-person omniscient and merely focused on the couple, without anyone exterior's perspective, it would have been quite a different novel, and very contained. Having Anna narrate both highlighted the unrealistic lifestyle of the Fitzgerald's and put them into perspective in terms of how everyone else was living, and also isolated them into a bubble. Anna doesn't know their friends, their vast circle of acquaintances; she never went to lavish parties or danced the night away. She worked. She married. She had a daughter and she kept working. She didn't have a nanny, like Zelda had for Scottie; she didn't neglect her child so she could keep on partying. The contrast is jarring, but effectively so. The Fitzgerald's live in their own world, and it's one that is breaking down and rotting from the inside-out.
This is where I struggle: on the one hand, it all works really well and makes for a great story. On the other hand, there was just something missing, something that made it hard for me to really connect, and I can't figure out what that is, even two weeks after finishing it. Perhaps it's the writing style. Perhaps it's the Fitzgerald's, who were such unlikeable people that I couldn't understand Anna's loyalty to them, how quickly she would say "yes" to their demands and requests. It could be that the way we see the Fitzgerald's, long after the blush has faded from their lifestyle and Zelda's being committed, is deeply depressing in the way that only the "end of an era" can be.
One thing that helped was Anna's personal story, which begins so sadly yet ends so happily. Seeing her get a second chance like that stopped the story from sliding into seriously depressing territory - though I did find that the way Anna and many of the characters spoke rang rather modern. Occasionally I had to consciously remind myself that this is set in the 30s and 40s, because it sounded so contemporary at times.
The other thing I really enjoyed about this book was the atmosphere, especially those scenes that let the novel dip into Gothic Horror territory. Zelda's instability and craziness lent it some of that, but there were times when Anna experienced it herself - hallucinations or a creeping sense of dread, or when she visits one of the houses the family had rented many years ago in her search for the diaries, which has lain empty because there's something about it that scares people off. There's something about the Fitzgerald's that naturally leads into gothic horror land, and the atmosphere that surrounds Zelda is always a spooky, creepy one.
Overall, this made me much more curious and interested in the real-life story of Zelda Fitzgerald - and her husband, Scott - than I was before; before reading this I'd never spent any time thinking about her, or them as a family, and what their life might have been like. It makes me interested in reading the recently-released Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler - which has a gorgeous cover, it naturally drew my eye - which tells the story of young Zelda and how she met Scott, and their early life together. Though I can't help but think that now that I know how their story ends - tragically, sadly, depressingly - it would make reading Z all that more sad. Still, I do recommend this, especially if you're interested in the real lives of this celebrity couple and want to know more about them. They were both such flawed people, and so creative, their lives are endlessly intriguing. (For a more positive - and definitely better written - review of this book, visit That's What She Read.)
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Growing up in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) in the eighteenth century, close by the white chalk horse, Tristan Hart spent much of his childhood with his...moreGrowing up in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) in the eighteenth century, close by the white chalk horse, Tristan Hart spent much of his childhood with his best friend, Nathaniel Ravenscroft, the beautiful son of the village rector. Nathaniel has two characteristics that only Tristan seems to be aware of: one, he always, always, escapes trouble, seeming to disappear into thin air and letting Tristan take the blame for all their mischief; and two, he has a habit of suddenly snatching terns (a kind of bird) out of hedgerows and eating them raw. But he is Tristan's best friend; in fact, his only friend, as Tristan, unfortunately for the times, takes after his Jewish mother, Eugenia, with his dark colouring, while his older sister Jane looks like their father, the Squire.
As Tristan grows into an intelligent, ambitious young man, he finally gets his wish and leaves home for London to study anatomy and medicine with Dr William Hunter at the hospital of St Thomas. He stays with an old friend of his father's, the novelist-turned-magistrate Henry Fielding (he who penned Tom Jones: The History of a Foundling). But Tristan is more than a surgeon-in-training: he is psychotic. Since he was a boy he has suffered from the occasional hallucinating fit, a period of madness that quite takes over his rational self. More than that, Tristan has an obsession with pain. He does not like to be in pain, but he derives an erotic pleasure from inflicting it. A whore at the brothel of Mrs Haywood satisfies this side of him and teaches him much, but his fascination goes deeper: he seeks to investigate the affect of pain upon the body, and even hypothesises that pain could be an important step in healing.
It isn't until he meets Katherine, Nathaniel's young cousin, that Tristan finds a woman after his own heart. But there is a dark, painful episode in Katherine's past and the truth of it will unhinge Tristan and send him deep into his own insanity.
The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones is a multifaceted one: a personal history, even a coming-of-age story; a story of science, medicine and reason; a fable of local English folklore come to life, complete with scary fairies, deceiving goblins and changelings. It is a story of one man's journey into the darkest recesses of human desire, and a story that merges all of this together into a highly detailed work written with an eye to historical authenticity. As always I am amazed and deeply impressed by the amount of research and sheer dedication that must have gone into writing a book of this scope, and in this style.
Set in the mid-1700s (the main part of the story is set in 1751-2), Wolf has written Tristan's narrative - told in the first person - as if it really had been written at that time. Complete with an older style of spelling and expressions and an abundance of capitalised nouns, it does take a while to get the hang of reading this book. As the narrator, Tristan is never "out of character" - unlike most historical fiction written today, the novel maintains this style throughout and never once drops into a more modern speak; no "gotten's" to be found here! It begins fairly slowly, and the capitalised nouns did throw me at first, but you soon get the hang of it and it speeds up. That said, Tristan is a very reflective, introspective sort of person and provides a lot of detail, so the narrative never feels especially fast.
The details, however, provide a fascinating look into the period in which it's set, one that I'm sure is modelled on Tom Jones itself (I haven't read it yet but I do remember watching a BBC adaptation many years ago - the one starring a very young Samantha Morton as Sophy). It contains some interesting tidbits, like the fact that until 1751 (or it may have been 1752, I lost track), the New Year was held in March. Then Parliament moved it to the end of December, and later they shaved off several days in September. I love getting these kinds of reminders that something we today consider as immutable - the calendar - was played around with a fair deal, and was far from fixed for the longest time.
Then there is the sense of atmosphere and the reality of living in this period, which is vividly rendered. Far from the rigid sensibilities and careful skirting-around-the-point of Jane Austen, writing some fifty years after Tristan's time, the earlier 18th century seems almost vulgar, in comparison. This was a time of great scientific exploration, when doctors and philosophers had made great inroads into what is now modern science, yet were still affected by centuries of superstition and folklore, which creates an unusual set of ideas to the modern reader, ones which are far from resolved today.
"Do you then admit the Possibility that every living Thing may have a Soule, of one Sort or another?" "I do not know," I said, looking him in the eye. "I know that I cannot equate Soule with Mind, as Descartes does. But to say that all Life hath a Soule would give Soules to the intire animal Kingdom." Do Animals have Minds? I wondered suddenly. Doth Thought equate with Sensation? 'Tis the old Problem: Doth Sensation dwell within the Mind, or in the Body? Mr Glass shrugged both his Shoulders. "Perhaps they have them," he said, and went back to his Study. Dr Hunter laughed. "I perceive you are a good Aristotelian, Mr Glass! 'Tis well enough; perchance what this Profession needs is a few more Englishmen who recognise the Necessity of a Place for God in God's Creation. Man is not a Machine, Gentlemen!" I joined in the Laughter, which was far from unkindly meant, altho' I still had achieved no useful Answer to my Query. Yet I began to ponder mine earlier Judgement that the Cadaver had been no more than a broken Clock; for if it were a Machine after Death, it had to have been one before it. I remembered again my Theory that mine own perceptual Difficulties had resulted from some physical Cause. The Machine of my Brain had become ill, and my Mind had suffered its Effects. [p.155]
Tristan is an interesting protagonist, one of those highly unreliable narrators whom you can't help but like, immensely so. He reminded me of Humbert Humbert, in that regard. I kept expecting him to turn out a lot worse than he actually did. I thought he might turn into one of those serial killers, a psychotic one who uses his victims for vivisection. And it's true that there were times when Tristan seemed to teeter on the brink of becoming such a man. Yet he is possessed of a conscience, and aspires to be a certain kind of man. A good man, who sees and feels the beauty in moments of raw humanity.
As the good Doctor's Blade bit into her Flesh, Lady B.--- screamed. At once, my Fire was back, as if 'twere never doused. Her Scream was a white Arrow, swift and light, a feathered Shaft vibrating with a stinging Hiss, and climbing, climbing, extatically high, one shining silver Note; but then, as it reached the Apex of its Flight it was suddenly gone. The Room rang with its Silence. "She hath fainted," said Dr Oliver. "Good." Good? I thought, with a cruel Spit of Anger. Good? My cheated Body howled Frustration. The aethereal Beauty of the Moment had dissolved into an ugly Lust that had neither Object nor Hope of Satiation. For the second Time, I could have wept. [p.180]
Interestingly, I found that my experience of reading so many erotica and erotic-romance novels over the last few years enabled me to understand Tristan and explore his life with an open mind on my part. I might not be able to relate to him, but I certainly enjoyed seeing life through his eyes, his perception, and feeling what he felt. The best fiction can do this for a reader, and Wolf certainly excelled at taking me right into Tristan's mind.
He recognises the kind of monster he is (one who is excited by a woman's scream) and owns it, but he also is honest about what kind of monster he is not. He is lucky indeed to have found Katherine, who actually needs to feel pain and cuts herself routinely, until she met Tristan anyway. The two are a perfect match, which makes Tristan's descent into madness so painful. I couldn't help but want things to work out for him, and for him to find happiness. He is not a bad sort, just different from what is considered normal.
One of Tristan's on-going hallucinations involves the fae: he believes that the gypsies who come through Shireland and its surroundings are actually fairies, and not a nice kind. I won't go into the details of it because it would rather spoil things, but an element that Wolf achieved extremely well - and this is what I meant by Tristan being an unreliable narrator - was in making the reader completely unsure as to what was real and what was Tristan's psychotic fantasy, or one of his hallucinations. I liked the way that played out, but for quite a while there I was almost in agony, for fear that Tristan was a lot madder than he realised.
I do know that there is terrible Monstrosity in me; that I, if I were to permit My Self, would happily and at one Moment's Provocation, transform into a Bloody Bones of chilling worldly Ambition and ruthless Curiosity, who would drag to my grisly Den and do real harm to Friend and Foe alike with little Care for anything except the Fulfilment of mine own Desire for Knowledge. I know too that this intellectual Evil, which is of a Species peculiar to me and other Men of Science, will remain within me, spreading its bloody Filaments thro' my Tissues until the Daye I die; but I will never seek its Excoriation. I control it. I am that Kind of Monster. [p.546]
I haven't yet referred to the title of the book, I just realised. I'm not sure how much to say and how much to leave for new readers to discover. I will say this at least: Raw Head and Bloody Bones are characters out of legend and superstition, the kind of fae creatures used to scare children into being good. As Tristan's friend Erasmus Glass tells him at one point, in an attempt to shake Tristan's conviction that they are real, every county has its own version, but they are nothing more than superstition. Tristan comes to identify himself as Bloody Bones, which also becomes Katherine's affectionate, intimate nickname for him; so who then is Raw Head, and what did he do to Katherine several years ago? The truth is more apparent to the reader than it is to Tristan, who is blinded by old loyalties and love.
But it is his journey into his own mind, its tricks and delusions as well as the truth it hides from his own self, that binds this whole novel together. The mix of folklore and science, superstition and reason, makes for one heady, imaginative story as Tristan seeks to find a balance within himself, between his deviant desires and his moral compass, as he also finds a way to combat those Fae foes that seek to destroy him. This book satisfied me on multiple levels: my love of fantasy and folklore, my fascination with the darker sides of human nature and what goes on inside a person's mind, my appreciation of a good story and my interest in history. Jack Wolf has written a compelling and highly original debut novel.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Belgian author Stefan Brijs brings to life a modern-day mad scientist and his greater-than-God ambitions in this utterly compelling, slightly terrifyi...moreBelgian author Stefan Brijs brings to life a modern-day mad scientist and his greater-than-God ambitions in this utterly compelling, slightly terrifying novel of the lengths one man will go to to achieve his goal.
On the 13th of October, 1984, Dr Victor Hoppe returns to his birthplace, a village called Wolfheim situated near the three borders of Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany, after a twenty-year absence. The villagers, nosy and gossipy and superstitious, remember the day clearly, as Dr Hoppe did not return alone. In the back of the taxi are three screaming babies, newborns, who are rushed into the doctor's family home and not seen again for some time - except by one young lad, who snuck up to the taxi's window and peered in, and got the shock of his life. He tells everyone that the babies had giant holes in their faces and he could see all the way to their insides.
The truth of Dr Hoppe and the triplets is both simple and horrific. Victor himself was born with a cleft palate - a hairlip - that he inherited from his father, a GP in Wolfheim. Even after having it sewn up, he's never been able to talk clearly. He's also a bit odd, and no one in Wolfheim really understands him - just as no one understood him when he was born in the 40s. The triplets were born with the same disfigurement, but that's not all. When Dr Hoppe hires retired school teacher Charlotte Maenhout to raise them and teach them for several hours a day, she too wonders about the children. Named after the Archangels Raphael, Michael and Gabriel, the identical boys are exceedingly smart but not physically strong. Their heads are too large, their eyes enormous, and when their sparse ginger hair falls out she can see big ropey veins running around their heads. But all Charlotte wants is to give the boys a chance to experience the world, and experience love, for it's clear they don't get any from their father, who views them mostly as patients.
What is the secret about the triplets? Where is their mother? Why are the boys dying? And can anyone stop Dr Hoppe on his trajectory to becoming a figure of sheer terror?
This book quickly became a new favourite of mine. Anyone who follows my reading patterns to any degree will know I'm drawn to slightly off stories, weird and quirky and psychologically thrilling, stories that keep you on your toes, that make you think, that make you uncomfortable. Not just any stories though: they have to be well told too, be interesting, and draw me in. Brijs - and his translator, Hester Velmans - succeeded on all counts. The style of this story brought to mind old village tales, local legends, a slightly fantastical quality. It's one of those stories far removed from you the reader/viewer's everyday life, and yet it takes on a larger-than-life reality.
There's certainly something prophetic about scientists called Victor, it seems. Victor Frankenstein showed us his utter determination to create life - and then his complete fear of his creation, and his realisation that he had severely transgressed in playing God. Victor Hoppe is a different kind of man entirely. The middle section of the book takes us back in time to Victor's birth, alternating telling the very sad story of his childhood with his time as a university student and genetics researcher, and the beginnings of his obsession with creating life - or immortality. Victor was born not just with a cleft palate (if you're not sure what it is, feel free to Google Image search it, just be prepared that it's not an easy thing to see prior to surgery); he also has a fairly extreme case of Asperger's Syndrome. Since no one really understood what that was or took it seriously for many decades after his birth, the kind of mistreatment and even abuse he received at the hands of his parents, the local priest, and almost all the nuns, is utterly tragic. You can see how easily he was set on the path that later took over his whole life.
Understanding Victor Hoppe's life renders him a more sympathetic character, but also, in understanding where he's coming from and what's motivating him, we also feel a greater sense of fear towards him. He becomes unhinged, irrational - or locked up within his own sense of what's rational - and unpredictable, or rather, predictable but in ways that terrify us. He is the perfect mad scientist, and with his Asperger's he's unable to relate to other people or understand why they might be upset about the triplets. He's brilliant yet severely lacking. The novel understatedly points the finger at the dean of the university where he worked, who failed to grasp the reality of Victor Hoppe and instead enabled him in his endeavours. It also opens its astute eye on Victor's father, who wanted to do right by his son but always reverted to more emotional response to the boy who barely talks, won't look him in the eye, and is noticeably odd. Society itself takes on some of the responsibility, but really all of this is more like a soft shadow resting, quiescent, under the lines; it's not the point of the story to lay blame for where individuals go off the rails, it's more that I am scornful of stories that simply label people as insane criminals, nefarious characters that no one should feel responsible for because they "were born that way" (yes I'm looking at you, Patricia Cornwell: this is my look of scorn being levelled on you).
In fact, Brijs touches on many different themes in bringing this brilliant story together; it's almost crowded with them in fact, except that the writing is so good that it all comes together so naturally. My brain was a-whir the whole way through, and so were my emotions. I hardly knew what to think or feel half the time, it's so complex and rich. The characters are full of grey: no one is perfect, no one is wholly sympathetic, all are flawed to some degree, just as in life. Here it is as if their flaws were magnetic, drawing them together then trying to pull them apart. The level of knowledge and understanding Brijs has of genetics research, infertility treatments and the medical history of cloning is impressive; the former teacher knows how to research a novel! I would love to read more of Brijs' work but I'm not sure that any of his other books have been translated into English yet.
The Angel Maker scores big on all the elements of classic storytelling that matter the most to me. Gripping story. Smooth, steady yet fast pacing. Realistic characters who yet manage that element of exaggeration that Northrop Frye isolated as the ingredient that makes for great storytelling and compelling characters (something Charles Dickens excelled at). A fully realised setting, a solid backstory, a climactic ending. In fact, the ending was almost melodramatic or over-the-top, but in the best possible way. More importantly, it worked for the trajectory the story - and Victor Hoppe - was on. With his obsession and possibly-warped understanding of Catholicism, it was the only ending that could have made sense. And by casting its intelligent gaze at the ethics of modern science and human ambition, the story manages to reach deep into the broader issues behind one man's warped and increasingly insane obsession. Also, I absolutely love this cover! There, I've told you more than I'd planned to about this book; now you must read it for yourself and see the magic at work!(less)
At her family's old rural manor house, Sterne, Emerald Torrington prepares to celebrate her twentieth birthday. Her step-father, Edward Swift, a lawye...moreAt her family's old rural manor house, Sterne, Emerald Torrington prepares to celebrate her twentieth birthday. Her step-father, Edward Swift, a lawyer, has left on an overnight trip to Manchester to approach an industrialist for money to invest in saving Sterne, a house badly in need of repairs - Edward won't be missed by his two oldest step-children, Emerald and eighteen-year-old Clovis, who have taken an intense dislike to the one-armed man, mostly because they feel their mother, Charlotte, remarried too soon (three years after their father, Horace, passed away from a long illness) or at all.
In the kitchens, Charlotte's longtime friend and companion, the thin, stiff widow Florence Trieves, works to prepare a feast and an impressive chocolate birthday cake with green icing, helped by the one maid, Myrtle, after the other, Pearl Meadows, declared she was too sick and left. At four the stableman Robert and his boy, Stanley, are to go to the station to collect Emerald's guests, her old friend Patience Sutton and her mother - unaware that Camilla Sutton has sent a telegram to say she can't come (influenza, which Charlotte assumes is a ruse to disguise Camilla's disdain at socialising with the lower-class family at Sterne), and has sent her son, Ernest, in her place. Earnest, now training to be a doctor (while Patience is studying at Oxford), is remembered as a red-haired boy with a squint corrected by the wearing of an eye-patch. Charlotte, in all her acquired snobbery, is disparaging of Ernest just as much as she is snide about Patience.
Clovis is behaving petulantly, Emerald sheds a few tears in the garden while weeding, and their oft-forgotten younger sister, Smudge (Imogen), says she is ill but is found wandering outside in her nightgown. But together they get things ready for the guests and the dinner party, only to have their plans and expectations thrown into disarray when Clovis returns from collecting the Suttons from the station with the news that there's been an accident on the branch line and the railway has told them they must put up the survivors.
Soon, a cluster of weary people from the third-class carriage make their way up the long driveway to Sterne, having missed the cart sent to collect them. Charlotte, unwilling to put herself out to see to them, leaves the arrangements to Emerald and Mrs Trieves. They put the passengers in the morning room with a fire and promptly forget all about them. On their heels comes another passenger from the train, a well-dressed man in a red silk waistcoat but no tie, who effortlessly charms his way inside the house - not as a survivor, shut away in the morning room, but as another guest to Emerald's birthday celebrations.
While Smudge sneaks out to the stables to get her pony, Lady, to take upstairs to her bedroom so she can draw her portrait on her wall, the other guest arrives. John Buchanan is a wealthy mill owner in his early thirties who has his eye set on owning Sterne, either through marriage to Emerald or buying it when the family realises they can't keep it. Emerald isn't interested in him, though, but John is nothing but friendly and good-natured and has patience too. Clovis has taken a shine to the new uninvited guest, who says his name is Charlie Traversham-Beechers - a name none of them can remember, except Charlotte and Mrs Trieves, who are caught in a state of shock at the sight of him.
As the evening progresses and the passengers - who seem to be multiplying - grow evermore restless, Emerald's dinner is taken over by Charlie, who comes with his own kind of mischief and, perhaps, an ulterior motive. He manages to bring out their streaks of cruelty and turn them on themselves. And yet, the most shocking revelation is still to come.
Taking place over the course of twenty-four hours, the family and their (invited) guests go through a kind of rebirth, as all their prejudices and snobbery come to the fore and then... In the new light of day, what will be left of Sterne and its inhabitants?
I was expecting something fairly conventional when I started this book, so what a delight it was to find it developing a brooding gothic atmosphere - one that went from pure atmosphere and implied menace to an all-out ghost story. Combine a really old house with a tense family and, as the title says, the uninvited guests, and you've got a story that goes from a day in the life of some unpleasant people to something altogether surprising, peculiar, surreal even.
When we are first introduced to the individual family members and their interactions with each other, we are presented with the kind of English rural "genteel" family with upper-class aspirations that we've encountered before, the family we love to hate, with their small-minded prejudices and careless snobbery. Charlotte epitomises this, while her son Clovis is the carefree, rather petulant lad with romantic (read: melodramatic) leanings. Smudge is the forgotten, precocious (but really very lovely) youngest child, who gets into all sorts of trouble and yet is so neglected that you can't help but love her (and hate Charlotte even more). Emerald is harder to pin down: she's an elegant, beautiful young woman, but it's not until I write this that I realise I know nothing about her except that, as a child, she loved science. I don't know what her own dreams and aspirations are, whether she has any goals, or what her life is like outside of this one day. Same can be said of Clovis. Contrast that with her friend Patience who is an "academic" and Ernest, the medical student in his final year. They are "good sorts", and of a higher class than the Torrington-Swifts, which is perhaps why Charlotte is so mean towards them.
For such a short book (only 259 pages in my edition), there is a lot going on here, some of it subtle and whimsical, some of it more overt and stronger. Watching these regular people who were expecting a fairly ordinary dinner party, devolve into a kind of manic desperation was fascinating, and skilfully orchestrated. And watching them mature overnight due to their experiences and grow stronger together as a family - and friends (and lovers) - created a warm kind of connection with the characters and the story. Characters like Charlotte didn't change completely, but she did mellow and become more affectionate towards Smudge, for instance - maybe that was just the effects of the day after, but I like to think they were longer-lasting than that.
One of the most impressive things about the story was the gradual building-up of the atmosphere, which completely took me by surprise, in the best way possible. There was such a sense of menace hovering in the shadows, behind closed doors, lurking... somewhere. You could feel it seeping into the lines and pages, like catching something in the corner of your eye that unsettles you but you don't let your mind focus on it because a part of you knows it's too scary. There are even moments of a kind of supernatural drama, like when the passengers first arrive at Sterne, and Emerald gets a kind of presentiment, or the wild elements herald them:
She was obeying a prompt, an instinct left over, perhaps, from an earlier time; the instinct that stops a mouse in its short-sighted tracks when a cat is watching it from a chair; that makes a dog lying by the fire tremble, and whimper, when there is no one near to see.
And as she stopped, there came, of a sudden, a hard gust of wind behind her, striking her through her dress, forcefully, blowing all thoughts of convention from her mind. The heavy front door was closed, but the chill struck Emerald's back, finding its way through the jamb and hinges - through the solid wood itself, it seemed, as a cold wave will sometimes catch one as one leaves the sea and knock the breath from the body. [p.53]
With all this pent-up atmosphere and growing menace (I keep coming back to the word because it really does capture the sense you get), I kept thinking - with a chuckle - that there was going to be a murder soon. Especially when Charlie turns up and starts making mischief. But the direction the story takes if far more supernatural, delving deeper into the realm of ghosts and pure strangeness. Jones pulls it off completely, though, blending the supernatural with the historical, making it all somehow entirely plausible, even when quite over-the-top. And always, always, the atmosphere builds, the tension grows, the mystery deepens.
Smudge could only glimpse the faces at the table, but she felt a terror clutch at her, for they were empty, staring, unlike the faces she knew; just as the feeling in the house, suddenly, was unlike any feeling she had ever known before. She could only see the stranger, Traversham-Beechers, clearly, and to her young eyes, he appeared to have a line drawn around him, a line of darkness, that was - as she only so lately had observed - very much like the charcoal smudges that she had made on her wall. Those lines though, were material; dust and finger, plaster and art - this was freakish, of nothing she could understand and nor did she want to. She saw the cruelty in his face, sensed the atmosphere; he was like a magnet, the air was thick with the pull of him. [p.171]
Jones succeeds admirably with this story, so very different from her first novel, The Outcast. There's humour here, for a start: this was a surprisingly funny story. The humour isn't always from the characters' mouths or antics, but from the situations, or from the construction of the characters themselves. Irony laces through the story, becoming quite interesting when it mixes with the sense of menace. It is especially prominent (the irony, that is, not the menace) when describing Charlotte's character, or the Torringtons as a family - a family that aspired to a higher class than that which they were from, who had bought Sterne when Emerald was a baby and yet pretend it is a grand family estate, long in their line.
It did take me a while to get into the story, which starts off quite slowly, and Jones' style - again, different from the other book of hers I've read - lacked fluidity at times, due mostly to a punctuation style that gave my eye a tic (please, use more semicolons!), and yet was still quite beautiful, poetic and fluid at others. Once the dinner is underway, things speed up and get very interesting, very quickly, and it's hard to put down. I greatly enjoyed this novel, for the atmosphere Jones created; the tension she so artfully built; the irony that kept making me smile; the characters who seemed to real and understandable, in all their flaws; and the delightful gothic plot that goes so well not just with old manor houses, but the Victorian and Edwardian periods in general (I know, it's two years after the Edwardian era, but this pre-WWI era doesn't have a name like that that captures it so well, so I'm borrowing it!). With its satire of the social-climbing English family, with all their painful class consciousness', nestled neatly within the gothic - or is it vice versa? - it's hard to say what kind of novel this really is, and that blurring of the genre lines is part of what makes it avidly readable.
This is another book I bought for the pretty cover, and was ultimately disappointed by. I try not to think of star ratings while I'm reading a book, b...moreThis is another book I bought for the pretty cover, and was ultimately disappointed by. I try not to think of star ratings while I'm reading a book, but with this one I would oscillate between being 2-stars-annoyed and 4-stars-entertained, all within the space of a couple of pages. It took me a long time to read - there was a gap in the middle where I put it down for a week or so and then struggled to pick it back up again (and not just because it's heavy!). If we have to compare, though, this is a better written book than the other recently released paranormal YA with a gorgeous cover and a similar setting, Fallen.
Ethan Wate lives in a small town in Gatlin county, in South Carolina. It's one of those small American-south towns where everyone knows everything about everyone, no one ever leaves, and they religiously reenact battles from the Civil War. Ethan's mother, an historian, died in a car accident and his father lives in his study, writing gothic horror novels. Cared for by Amma, who practices voodoo, Ethan has never felt like he really belongs here and yearns for the day when he can leave for university.
Over the summer before he starts grade eleven (or it could be grade ten, I'm not sure), he dreams every night about a girl he can't see, about holding on to her hand while something tries to tear them apart. Even though he never saw what she looked like, when he first sees Lana Duchannes, the new girl, on the first day of school, he knows it's her. She's the niece of Old Man Ravenwood, a recluse who lives in Ravenwood, the oldest house in Gatlin - because of this, she's immediately ostracised by the other kids. But Ethan is drawn to her, and pursues a friendship despite her initial animosity.
That they share a connection is undeniable. Ethan can hear Lana in his head, and it's not long before they are communicating telepathically. After that, it's not such a big step to take in her true nature: she's a Caster, and on her sixteenth birthday she'll be Claimed - she'll either become a Dark Caster or a Light one, and because of a family curse, she has no choice in the matter.
As the days count down, Ethan only becomes more determined to help Lana and unlock the secrets of her family.
I have, not issues, just problems, with this book. Let me first mention the things that worked, for me. I loved that it was told by a male character. These stories are usually about a mysterious, attractive boy and the female narrator's experience falling in love with said problematic boy. Here it's flipped over: Lana is the withdrawn, beautiful, ultimately dangerous love interest that honest Ethan falls for. He's a smart boy, better educated than his peers and doesn't share their "southern" mentality. To be honest, the people of Gatlin County do not come off well. All the stereotyped small-minded ignorance, religious superstition and conservative views of the American south are portrayed in all their cringe-inducing glory. It did actually make it harder to read, because such blatant small-minded ignorance is painful (no matter where it occurs).
There's great atmosphere in the book - set in a similar location to Fallen, it had much greater success at building a visual representation but still struggled to capture the other senses - smell, especially. Hot and humid and stormy places tend to have remarkable smells. There are some nice gothic touches but nothing terribly original. I liked the changing nature of Ravenwood.
The prose is solid but there's something unsatisfying about it. It lacks something that I can't quite put my finger on. At times the story is engrossing, but at others it's slow and dull - through it all, the prose holds steady, but ultimately has nowhere to go. One of the problems with it is that it couldn't capture the chemistry between Ethan and Lana. Their feelings for each other were lacklustre. Ethan tried, but Lana was so obsessed with her impending doom - or possibility of - that she often came off cold, aloof and uncaring. The authors included some nice quiet moments meant to solidify their relationship, but such scenes - scenes that I would normally love and that tend to be make-or-break for me - failed to hold my interest.
It took me a while to figure out what the numbers heading each chapter meant - they're dates, but because Americans write them backwards it wasn't immediately apparent. The dates do add some structure but it's not really necessary - Ethan, who narrates in first-person, keeps track of time well enough on his own, and since I stopped noticing the numbers it didn't do anything for building tension.
Part of the problem, plot and pacing-wise at least, is that there was no mystery as to when the Claiming would happen - Lana's sixteenth birthday - or what. Ethan's comment in the prologue about the story ending with a grave lends some uncertainty and tension, but the book is so long that the authors failed to keep that anticipation going. The beginning was strong, but once Ethan and Lana got together and her secret was out in the open, it floundered, struggling to be interesting in the build-up to the Grand Finale. It was too easy for me to stop reading, and too hard for me to finish. Too much dead wood, perhaps; too many stock characters; too forced, in the end. Including the parallels, which the authors highlighted, to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird - it would have been fun, if Stephenie Meyer hadn't already done it with "Romeo and Juliet" and Wuthering Heights. (And speaking of the ending, it was confusing. It seemed to have two different endings that didn't gel, that contradicted each other, but by then I simply didn't care if it was meant to be a clever narrative device or not. I just wanted to understand.)
Here's where my jaded, seen-it-too-many-times cynical side comes out. Maybe I just read it too soon after Fallen. Maybe I've read too many of these YA paranormal romances and I need a break. Maybe I'm just tired of reading about American high school kids, whose experiences are all so similar and the school system portrayed so clichéd and awful, that you can't help but start to wonder if that really is what it's like there. Maybe I'm just annoyed that I can't get hold of many books, YA or otherwise, set in my own country. And maybe it's just the end-of-the-year grumps, the winter blues, which I do tend to get, that's making it hard for a book to really grab me - after all, I normally prefer the long novels compared to the short. In which case, it almost seems unfair to read anything. Almost. At the end of the day, there's no such thing as removing yourself and all your baggage from the reading experience, so I really shouldn't apologise for it.
This is a fine debut achievement for the authors, and it has been picked up by Warner Bros for a movie. I don't know if it's the first book in a series, but the ending does allow for a second novel.(less)
Miss Alexia Tarabotti has many things against her. First, she is half-Italian and has the nose and skin to prove it. Second, she is a twenty-six year...moreMiss Alexia Tarabotti has many things against her. First, she is half-Italian and has the nose and skin to prove it. Second, she is a twenty-six year old spinster who must chaperone her silly younger half-sisters to balls where she would like to dance but where no one asks her to. Third, she is assertive, has an independent streak, and talks too much. Fouth, she is soulless.
Her soulless state is a secret from everyone but the paranormals - she is, after all, on the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) register. The vampires know of her, as do the werewolves and ghosts, but humans don't even know the soulless, or "preternatural", even exist.
So imagine her shock when a vampire in a very cheap shirt tries to bite her neck. Her soulless state neutralises him, but he keeps trying, so she is forced to use her trusty custom-made parasol to fend him off. When she accidentally kills him, the head of BUR, Lord Conall Maccon, is soon on the scene. Lord Maccon is also alpha of the Woolsey pack and he and Alexia have constantly butted heads ever since the hedgehog incident when they first met a few years ago.
It's soon apparent that something's not right with this dead vampire, aside from his embarrassing fang lisp. He didn't belong to any of the London hives, even though he smells - according to Lord Maccon - of the Westminster hive. The cases of disappearing vampires and werewolves, and the appearance of new rogue vampires, increases, and Alexia herself seems to always be in the thick of things. A wax-faced man keeps trying to kidnap her, and Lord Maccon has set BUR paranormals to guard her. It might not be enough to save her life, but as long as she can get a cup of tea and some decent cake Alexia is up to the challenge of discovering what is really going on.
One of the fun things about genre fiction is how fluid the boundaries are. Soulless is such a rich mix of genres and sub-genres that trying to pinpoint them all makes you dizzy, and yet it works wonderfully. Marketed as Fantasy/Horror, I can tell the publisher was also a bit confused as to how to sell this one, because it could just as easily have ended up in the Romance section. The romance isn't the main point of the novel, though, which is why it fits better in Fantasy - it does have a happy ending, romance-wise, though. The steampunk elements are slight and generally subtle, but important to the plot, and there's definitely a touch of the gothic.
Set in a more mechanised London - roughly 1870s, going by the clues - with a history of vampires and werewolves incorporated into society dating back to Henry VIII (the real reason behind the schism with the Pope), it seamlessly integrates new and fictional history into Victorian society without losing any of the prim and proper-ness of the period (more on that in a bit).
The story is fun in more ways than its mish-mash of generic tropes. Possessed of an ironic humour with a slight tongue-in-cheek touch - aimed at the social mores of the day - Soulless has witty banter and intelligent observations. Alexia can be at turns annoying and loveable, but always sympathetic. Lord Maccon the werewolf has his moments of also being a bit of a twit, but there's balance between wanting to laugh at him and respecting him that saves his character from being a buffoon. Besides, he's a romantic hero.
Theories about the soul are integral to the story, including the idea that vampires and werewolves exist because of too much soul, rather than none at all. Alexia, having no soul, can revert a vampire to human just from a touch. Aside from Alexia's own calmly reasoned opinions on the subject, the "truth" of the matter is very much open and quite fascinating to think about.
Soulless also breathes fresh life into the paranormal genre, blending more traditional vampires etc. with a few new twists. These aren't ridiculously handsome, all-powerful specimens: if a man was bald in life, he'll be bald as a vampire. The addition of the ultra-gay Lord Akeldama, who left his hive over disagreements about waistcoats, pokes irreverent fun at the hyper-heterosexuality of contemporary vampires.
There are a few slow points to the plot, but I often found the book hard to put down. The "bad guys" you can spot from the beginning, so it's not much of a mystery; the attempts to abduct Alexia add danger and threat to the tone of the story, and it's nicely dark and even macabre at points. It bothers me that, despite it's very English setting, it's littered with American spelling - absolutely jarring and completely weird, when they do that. Removes some of the authenticity of the setting and period, too.
The Victorian time period - which is lengthy (1837 - 1901) - has already produced great works in literature, such as that of Dickens, H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Contemporary genre fiction though has been slow to utilise it, especially Romance which possibly gets side-tracked by the illusion of gloom and prudish hide-the-ankles-of-the-table sexual repression (whereas they were just as horny and sexually active as any other period - and sex also took on what we would now see as gothic overtones, such as in the treatment of female hysteria by giving orgasms - the vibrator was invented around 1870 for doctors to give their upper class female patients orgasms).
It's fantastic to see writers like Laura Lee Guhrke (in Romance) and now Gail Carriger, bring new life to what is arguably one of the most fascinating time periods in British history - fascinating for all the changes that occurred, for being the "beginning" of the modern period, for being a time of flux and inventions and new ideas and Freud and vivid contradictions and even the beginnings, late Victorian-era, of feminism. There is some Fantasy of the steampunk variety already set in this period, but not a lot. I certainly hope to see more genre fiction set in this period, but it will need some thorough research.(less)
This is another book that has been lingering around with a bookmark sticking out of it since October. It's not that it's a hard read - on the contrary...moreThis is another book that has been lingering around with a bookmark sticking out of it since October. It's not that it's a hard read - on the contrary, for an "old" book, it's incredibly readable. I don't know who did this translation or whether that has anything to do with it, but it is easy to read. But to be honest, it lacks something. It's just not as dramatic as the musical, though it has its moments.
I've never seen the musical, sadly; I've only the seen the most recent movie version - which I liked (Gerard Butler, woof!). There are quite a few differences, in the characters' roles and in the ending, though the overall story is the same I think. I think pretty much everyone knows this story but just in case: it begins with the two managers of the Paris Opera House handing over the place to the new managers, Richard and Moncharmin, with dire warnings of the opera ghost. The new managers laugh at this and think the old managers are having a joke on them, and refuse to pay the ghost his "allowance". Even when disasters start occurring, they don't believe.
One of the disasters is for their lead opera singer, Carlotta, to lose her voice. She is replaced by Christine Daaé, who proves to have a remarkable voice - she has been trained by the "Angel of Music", who is actually the opera ghost who is obsessed and in love with her and carries her off to his home under the opera. Only the Vicomte de Chagny, Raoul, even seems to notice, and that's because he too loves her.
I won't bother to tell the rest of the plot; if you don't know it already, you probably don't want it spoiled. One of the big differences between the musical and the book is the character of the Persian, which is only in the book. The Persian is a police officer who followed the Ghost - Erik - from India and Turkey, mostly, I think, to keep an eye on him. Erik's past is all explained in the Epilogue, and it's a lot more complicated than in the musical/movie. It was great to have the character fleshed out so much, though his story is also rather bizarre.
But speaking of the Persian - it's when he enters the story that it drops off considerably. There's a whole chapter, in the cellars under the opera, that's quite boring and confusing. In fact, one thing I can't get my head around is Erik's house on the lake under the Opera. The Opera was built over a lake?
All the comic elements you'd be familiar with are here, namely in the form of the managers, who drive themselves quite crazy. Madame Giry is only an box-seller in the book, and Erik is portrayed as rather ruthless and a monster. The book is, no doubt, a product of its times - while it does say that Erik was always treated as a monster because of his monstrous face, it doesn't really make the connection that he is not inherently a monster but is perceived by others as one, and so they made him who he is. He cashed in on his looks, in other words, in the only way he could. All he wanted was "to be loved for himself." A tragic tale.(less)
I am definitely guilty of wanting to read a book simply because I love the cover, though I do take into consideration the plot as well. But here we ha...moreI am definitely guilty of wanting to read a book simply because I love the cover, though I do take into consideration the plot as well. But here we have a dark, gothic novel set in the early 1700s, more twisted and mad than Mr Rochester's crazy wife, complete with resourceful heroine and beastly experiments done in the name of science and medicine, set against the stinking refuse, pollution, grime and decay of London, as well as the political and religious freedoms, traditional superstitions and swaggering success (and plummeting fall) of the stock exchange.
Why wouldn't I want to read it? What's not to love?
Eliza Tally is the only child of a village midwife and herbalist, who knows she doesn't have long before the villagers openly declare her a witch, and so seeks to set her daughter up. She misjudges though when the young merchant's son claims they're not lawfully wed, and his father arranges for the pregnant Eliza to be sent off to London, to work as maid servant for an apothecary whom he is paying to keep her out of the way. Eliza goes willingly, expecting the apothecary, Grayson Black, to give her an illegal abortion.
Mr Black, however, has other uses for Eliza. Born with a disfiguring birthmark covering half his face, he is of that society of physicians and scientists looking for proof between the then-popular theory of maternal impressions and deformed babies. A pregnant woman who has a hare cross her path will give birth to a child with a harelip, things like that. It gets more and more grotesque, though, and by frightening Eliza with her fear of dogs Black expects her to give birth to a dog-like monster.
In his household is another maidservant, Mary, an idiot with a cleft palate, hairlip, little sense, and a childlike wonder for things, especially small animals. When his experiment with Eliza fails to bring the results he craves, and his addiction to opium becomes more and more pronounced, he turns to Mary, encouraging her love of monkeys.
It is not until Eliza looks at the pictures inside one of the books Mr Black has her return and collect from the bookseller, a French refugee with his own designs on the servant girl, that she realises what the nature of her master's work really is. A prisoner of his house, which is ruled over by his forbidding wife and the apothecary's assistant, Edgar, Eliza must find a way to rescue herself and Mary, before Mary's baby becomes a freakshow. (Even Eliza believes it will be a monster.)
The story is narrated by Eliza with all her lower-class frankness, nothing dressed up or masked or hidden but all the vulgarities on display, creating a very vivid portrait of the period, the people and her own predicament. Her chapters are separated by Grayson Black's journal entries and "scientific" notes, by letters to and from the apothecary or his wife, playbills for tonics and the like, giving us an added insight into what was going on in Grayson's mind, and what has happening beyond Eliza's knowledge at the time. They are brief but insightful, allowing the reader to piece things together and know more than Eliza, in some respects. (How she came by these documents is explained at the end.)
The prose is engrossing, and while there is little actual dialogue you don't even notice because Eliza relates all with no embellishment, her perspective at once ignorant and astute, her hopes gleaming through the cracks in her awful situation. The characters are morbid and, in their own way, grotesque - surely an irony they failed to see. The question of, who is the real monster? is an apt one - ethics, Clark says in her note at the back, weren't even considered while the emminent scientists of the day vivisected living dogs for study. There was no need for the story to visit a real freakshow; the house of Grayson Black is freakshow enough, simply by dint of its inhabitants being so grotesque. It is frightening what was considered medicine not so long ago, even though it is a foundation of sorts for modern medicine, but all the bleeding, cupping, leeching, and idiotic ideas regarding giving birth are terrifying.
As a historical novel, The Nature of Monsters is alive with detail and a great portrait of the time, albiet from a particular perspective and class of society. As a story, it's at once tense, chilling, gripping and absorbing, its natural morbidity softened by Eliza and Mary, and the hope of a happy ending. It's not a love story, more a story of survival, and the real fascination comes not from the medical freaks, but from those who study them and think to blame all the problems and defects of newborns on women and the theory of maternal impression.(less)
Spoilers! Frankenstein is the first book written by Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, fri...moreSpoilers! Frankenstein is the first book written by Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend of Lord Byron), and her most famous. First published in 1818, she later revised it for its second printing in 1823, adding a preface that cleared up conjecture as to what she was writing about, changing the relationship of Elizabeth to the family (in the original, she is Victor Frankenstein's cousin, in the second she has no blood relation but was adopted by the family) to remove any suggestion of incest, and she also removed any hint that Frankenstein created the creature out of vice.
If you're not familiar with the story as Shelley wrote it, Frankenstein is about a young Swiss man, Dr Victor Frankenstein, who is a student of the natural sciences. He becomes absorbed by the idea of creating a living being and spends two years collecting body parts from the deceased and feverishly working in his laboratory. But when he instils it with life and it wakes and looks upon its creator, Victor is horrified and flees from his creation.
He spends months in illness, nursed by his best friend Henry Clavel, before returning to his father's home in Geneva, Switzerland, where his two brothers, Earnest and William, and his adopted sister Elizabeth live (his mother has already passed away). Before leaving Ingolstadt in Germany, where he was living and studying at the university, he receives a letter from his father telling him that his little brother William has been murdered.
On his arrival to his home town, he sees his creature in the dark wilderness, and becomes convinced it murdered William. A servant girl, Justine, is accused and hanged for the crime, and Victor goes traipsing off into the wilderness with his depression. He encounters the creature, who begs him to listen to his story, and we learn what has passed with the monster since Victor created and abandoned it. It is a heart-breaking story, and goes some way to explaining the monster's mind.
The monster's main purpose in telling Victor his story is to beg him to create a companion for him, a woman of his own species. Victor at first agrees, going to Britain with Henry and collecting new body parts. But he destroys the being before bringing it to life, and in retribution the monster kills Henry. Victor is accused, and spends some months in an Irish gaol before being released. Upon returning home to Geneva with his father, he marries Elizabeth, who the creature strangles to death on their wedding night.
His father dies from the shock of all these tragedies, and Victor chases after the monster, determined to end it once and for all. The chase takes them to the northern Alps, and continues across the ice in sleds, before Victor is rescued from an accident and taken on board a ship that has been trapped in the ice. He tells the Captain his story, who writes it all down to send to his sister back home, before he weakens and dies. The monster returns and pledges his own suicide by fire, since there is no more reason for him to live.
I did enjoy this, though it's not an easy read in the sense that the writing style is, for want of a better word, awkward, often clumsy. When I think about it, it's accurate enough for a story retold by one man (Captain Waldon), as told from memory by another (Victor), who in turn retells other people's stories (namely, the monster's). In such a case, details are bound to get lost in the retelling, though of course the dialogue is accurately remembered. But it does make it hard going at times: I kept getting pulled up short by glaring omissions, or confusing jumps. As someone in my bookclub put it, the story is good, the book not so great.
Frankenstein could easily be described as timeless, since there's little that anchors it firmly in the period in which it is set (1700s), and you can read all sorts of relevant themes into it. Shelley apparently wrote it as a warning to scientists and against the Industrial Revolution in general, reminding them that they are not God and of the dangers of over-reaching themselves. I would take it a step further, and say it is a warning against not taking responsibility for your actions, especially those of science in delving into new and strange areas (like nuclear weapons, cloning etc.). Right up to the end, Victor thinks he is blameless:
During these last days, I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness and misery. (p.235)
So although he can acknowledge that he was responsible for the creature, he does not see any connection between his neglect of the monster and the way the monster turned out. In other words, if he had stayed by the creature's side, taught him ethics, morals etc., he would have preserved the lives of his own loved ones and the greater populace in general.
The nameless creature was abandoned by Victor because it was ugly. That's it: he was f'ugly:
I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room. (p.51-2)
Talk about shallow. The creature, left to his own devices, with no language and no knowledge but that Victor is his creator, yearns to be loved and wanted. Stumbling through the countryside, he discovers fire, discovers berries and things to eat, but is persecuted and beaten by any humans he comes across. He tries so hard, and while he does not make the best decisions, he has the mind of a child in a giant's body, and with his unusual circumstances should hardly be judged along the same lines as anyone else. Victor creates a monster by seeing only a monster, without taking the time to learn its true nature, as does everyone else. They could not look beyond appearances.
Even today, we would probably react in the same way: that doesn't make it any less our fault for creating a being with so many faults. In this case, it is the lack of nurture - i.e. it's environment - that created the ture monster, not nature. It's not that I seek to justify the murders the creature committed. But the creature wasn't born evil, he was turned evil by humans. Grrr. I just didn't like Victor and wish he had been more accountable for being so irresponsible. Yes, he was young, enthusiastic, and thought he could take God's place:
A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (p.47)
This is the meaning behind the subtitle: the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was a Titan whom Zeus punished eternally for creating men out of clay, and bringing fire from the heavens and gifting it to humans. Zeus chained him to a rock and every day a bird would peck out his liver, only to have it grow back so the next day a bird could do it again. Nice. So is the loss of Victor's family, his best friend, and his bright future his punishment?
Another reason why I don't like Victor Frankenstein is that he is so selfish, arrogant, self-centred, self-indulgent, melodramatic and egotistical. Aside from wanting to bring dead body parts to life so that he could be worshipped like a God, the fate of Justine, for example, brings out his true character:
Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim [Justine:], who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony. (p.87)
Yes, not even poor innocent Justine, sent to the gallows for a crime wholly Victor's fault, suffered as much as he. He could have stepped in and confessed, but did not want people to think him mad. Add "proud" to the list of his sins if you please. Later, he marries Elizabeth, despite the monster's threat that he will come to him on his marriage-day. It's always about him, he doesn't notice the pattern of the monster murdering his family and friends in order to make him feel this misery, and so realise it's his bride the monster will target: no, it's all about him, Victor.
He marries Elizabeth, making her just as miserable as he is, and took her to a secluded place where he intended to go head-to-head with the monster, only to find Elizabeth strangled to death in the bedroom. He puts people in danger, then whines about how miserable and wretched he feels when they die, yet doesn't seem to regret anything.
This is just my take on the book, and like true art, it can be read in a number of ways. It's definitely a good idea to read the book to know the story, though, because the movies that have been made about Frankenstein since the 1920s are way off the mark. Though I would imagine studying the popular culture side of the story would be just as fascinating as studying the book itself.
A note about this edition: This is a handsome book, with nice thickish yellowish old-style paper and print, it looks exactly like how it was originally published. But there are no notes or appendices or introduction, so if you're studying this book you might want to get a different edition. It's also the revised edition, not the original 1818 one, though the revised one is more common now. (less)