Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The book The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is meant to be a spooky, atmospheric ghost story, set in a crumbling old stately home in the English countryside. The "action" is glacial and the characters are frustratingly repetitive in their actions, so that the story quickly lost any spooky flavor for me.

The events in the novel take place in the years immediately following WWII. Dr. Faraday, a 40-something bachelor, is called out to the stately home, The Hundreds, to treat a new maid, 14 year old Betty. He quickly deduces that the girl is suffering from homesickness and unease at being alone at night in the cold, damp basement area of the house. She tells the doctor on this first visit that there's something bad in the house. Of course, the doctor dismisses any such nonsense (as he continues to do throughout the story) and basically tells Betty to grow up and stop her foolishness.

He then becomes acquainted with the owners of the house, the Ayers family, which has fallen on hard times (hence only having the one maid). The widowed mother lives there with her two children: Roderick, who was injured in WWII and Caroline. Both children are unmarried, in their 20s, and somewhat isolated. It also emerges that there was an older child, Susan, who died of diphtheria before her siblings were born.

Due to Roderick's injured leg, Dr. Faraday becomes a frequent visitor to the house, working on an experimental treatment to help Roderick regain movement. He is invited to a social gathering at the house which turns out to be held for the purpose of introducing the plain Caroline to an eligible bachelor who is new to the area. It is at this party that the first of several tragic events happens in the house.

This is where the story begins to break down. The reader is treated to exhaustive narrations of "strange things" that happen in the house, but that turn out to be not much of anything really (when we finally get to the point). As members of the house become convinced that there is something haunting it (although this thought is never so succinctly put into words), the doctor continues to treat the entire idea as ludicrous. The Ayers family begins to disintegrate, but it never seems to occur to anyone that they should, oh, I don't know, go away to the seaside for a change of scenery for a few days. You'd think that if you truly felt there was an evil presence in your house, the first thing you'd want to do would be to distance yourself from it. But no, everyone just keeps a stiff upper lip and carries on with the work of being haunted. {yawn}

So this goes on for a while until the inevitable crisis happens. Even after the final events play out, the doctor is still reluctant to believe that there was anything unusual going on in the house. So, really, what was the point of the story? If it was a real "ghost story," we saw precious little of the spirits. If the people living there were simply going quietly insane (as the doctor seemed to have thought), they surely took their time about it.

Oddly, Stephen King apparently named The Little Stranger as his favorite book of 2009. Strange indeed.
Final verdict for The Little Stranger: Two gherkins, for a promising start, but an overall disappointing story

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The English Civil War is the setting for the novel Rebels & Traitors by Lindsey Davis. The events in the novel take place between from the 1630s to the 1650s and follow the lives of printer Gideon Jukes and Juliana Lovell, whose husband is missing after a battle.

Gideon Jukes was born into a family of grocers. Unfortunately, he was the younger son, so there was no place for him in the family business. Through the intervention of an uncle, he was apprenticed to a printer. At the time, it could be dangerous work to be in the printing trade, depending on what sort of jobs you were asked to take. Eventually, Gideon becomes a partner in the printing business just as rumblings of revolt begin in the country. Gideon joins the armed London Trained Bands in support of Parliament and against the king. Meanwhile, the orphaned Juliana Carlill is married to a soldier in the Royalist service.

In addition to giving us a moving account of King Charles I's final moments, the book is a treasure trove of historical fact. There is much information about the daily lives of people during that time, as well as accounts of the people, battles and events that lead to the King's downfall. In addition, we have the love story of two characters who initially were on opposite sides of the conflict. All in all, the book is an epic saga of a turning point in English history.

I received a review copy of the book from St. Martin's Press, which in no way influenced my review.

Final verdict for Rebels & Traitors: Four Gherkins, for being a sweeping look at a turbulent time in English history

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The infamous "Moors Murders" of the 1960s were a clear influence on author Belinda Bauer. Her book Blacklands deals with a child murderer who buried his victims on a moor outside the small town of Shipcott. Some of his victims were never found.

Eighteen years ago, Steven Lamb's uncle Billy was one of the victims of killer Arnold Avery. Twelve year old Steven and his younger brother Davie live with their mother and grandmother in a run-down house. The entire family is terribly dysfunctional and unhappy, and Steven thinks that if he can only discover his Uncle Billy's remains, his grandmother will cease to be so angry and they can have a normal family. Whenever he has a spare moment, Steven goes out with a shovel and digs random holes on the moor, hoping to find his uncle's grave.

When Steven gets praise from a teacher for a letter-writing assignment, he gets the idea to write to Avery in prison and ask for help in finding his uncle's body. Avery knows he'll never be released from prison, but he hasn't lost his obsession with children. He spends his days reliving his crimes. When he receives the letter, he doesn't at first realize it is from a child. Instead, he thinks he can use the opportunity to manipulate the letter writer into providing him with more mementos from his crimes. He asks his correspondent, "SL" to send him a photo of a certain area of the moor, to help him to pinpoint where he buried the body. In reality, he wants to be reminded of the place where he buried another victim. In taking the photo, Steven makes a critical mistake which will put his life in danger.

While this book was somewhat suspenseful, the depiction of poverty, hopelessness and despair was just too overwhelming. Of course, I had no illusions that a book which centered around a child killer would be uplifting, but even with him in prison, everyone is miserable and takes it out on the children who are left. Still, the book does end on a somewhat more hopeful note, so it wasn't a total downer.

Final verdict for Blacklands: Two gherkins, for being a page-turning, if somewhat depressing mystery

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Poor Ross Poldark. First he was taken captive during the American Revolution and spent some time in a French prison camp. He escaped and made his way back home to Cornwall, but maybe he should have stayed in America! During his absence, his father died, his uncle set about making deals to sell off family assets, his family home is falling apart, and his beloved Elizabeth has gotten engaged to his cousin Francis. Not the sort of homecoming he'd imagined!

To be sure, Poldark had something of a shady past before leaving for the colonies. Still, it's hard not to feel sorry for a man who returns to a world that has so drastically changed. He immediately sets about trying to get one of his father's mines up and running again, and takes in a semi-wild country girl as a servant (who is meant to help the perpetually drunken groom and housekeeper he inherited from his father!). It seems that whatever he does, Poldark unwittingly makes enemies. The series plays out with duels, revolts, smuggling, murder, treachery and looming financial ruin -- things just don't go smoothly for Poldark!

First shown on Masterpiece Theatre in 1975, the epic story of Poldark is now available on DVD. It has been called the British Gone With the Wind. The first season consists of 16 episodes of intrigue, romance and beautiful scenery! I appreciated the fact that you can turn on subtitles as you watch. This is always helpful, since I don't want to miss anything! Although the series is 35 years old, it doesn't feel dated at all. The costumes are lovely and the rugged Cornwall countryside is beautiful and bleak. One of the DVDs in the set also has a very interesting overview of the history and current situation in Cornwall.

Thanks to Katie at Acorn Media, I have 3 copies of the first series to give away! To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post telling me what your favorite costume drama. Or, if you don't have one, what is a TV series that you'd love to see again? Please be sure to leave your email in your comments so that I can contact you if you are a winner. The contest ends on Thursday, Feb. 25 and the winners will be chosen by random.org. I'll contact the winners who will have 72 hours to respond, or I'll have to choose another winner.

I received a review copy of Poldark from Acorn Media, which in no way influenced my review.

Final Verdict for Poldark: Four Gherkins, for being a beautiful classic series with unforgettable characters

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell is the 22nd, and reportedly last novel that features her Inspector Wexford character. First introduced in 1964's From Doon With Death, Wexford has had to confront a variety of murder cases and social issues all while dealing with his conflicted feelings about his family (he loves his actress daughter Sheila more than her prickly social worker sister Sylvia).

In his latest outing, Inspector Wexford is confronted by a specter from his past, the evil Eric Targo. Although Wexford has never actually been able to prove it, he has long suspected that Targo has been: a) responsible for a number of murders attributed to others and b) stalking Wexford. Apparently, these suspicions have stretched back to Wexford's very first case on the police force. Why we've just now heard about this Targo character, after 46 years and 22 books, is not explained (other than Wexford telling his side-kick Burden that "no one would believe it"). We readers have been inside Wexford's head for decades, so it's odd he never even thought about Targo in all that time.

Still, on to the story. Wexford has noticed that the previously missing Targo (he'd apparently left the area of Kingsmarkham some time ago) is suddenly back in town. He isn't really doing anything sinister, but Wexford is suspicious. At the same time, Burden's teacher wife Jenny becomes convinced that one of her pupils, the bright and attractive Tamima Rahman, is being forced against her will into an arranged marriage. Although Wexford doesn't want to get involved, a policewoman, Hannah Goldsmith (self appointed "ethnic minorities officer") decides to follow up on the case. This part of the book really stretched the bounds of credulity. Hannah makes repeated visits to the Rahman family and their various relatives, questioning them all about the whereabouts and future plans of the daughter Tamima. Surely it's not accepted behavior for the police to just keep showing up at your house, asking the same questions over and over, when you don't perceive any problem and no crime has been committed? At first, Tamima is said to be away visiting relatives, first in Pakistan and then in London, but later even the family must admit that she seems to be missing. When Eric Targo disappears at the same time, it doesn't take much for Wexford to connect the two events.

I've always really loved the books of Ruth Rendell, but the latest ones have been a bit too heavy handed on the social issues. Her books generally had an unexpected twist at the end that I never saw coming, but the latest ones have been a bit of a let down. I don't want her to stop with the Inspector Wexford series, just to return to her old form of an engrossing "whodunnit" with an unexpected ending. Is that too much to ask?

On another note, good luck to Ms. Rendell who has been "long listed" for the Lost Man Booker Prize for novels that missed out being considered for the prestigious award in 1970 due to a rules change. The novel which has been nominated is A Guilty Thing Surprised, another Inspector Wexford book!

Final Verdict for The Monster in the Box: Two Gherkins, for being a somewhat disappointing outing with old friends

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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