Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I’ve finally finished Jane Eyre! I am, as usual, embarrassingly behind the times.

So a little history about my experience with this book. By the time my two youngest siblings were born, my parents had twigged onto the fact that I liked books and got me one new book for each new sibling (to help the transition, I think?). The books I received were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and unfortunately, I did not like them. I couldn’t even finish them. For some strange reason, the language made my head hurt. So I put them aside.

When I grew up, I had even less reason to read Jane Eyre. I heard that Bronte spoke disparaging of my favourite Jane Austen (and I reread her books all the time) and was like ‘clearly she doesn’t have good judgement'.

Then, I found out about Jane Steele, the rewriting of Jane Eyre where Jane becomes a murderess. That sounded fun, and since I’m the type that would like to read the original before reading the rewrite, I decided that if I could read Dickens and Braddon, I could probably handle Bronte.

Well, I just finished the book and while I liked it well-enough, I didn’t love it.

If you haven’t heard of the plot of Jane Eyre, basically Jane Eyre is this despised child who becomes a governess who falls in love with a pompous guy who has his mad wife locked in an attic.

My biggest impediment to enjoying the book wasn’t the language (surprisingly), but Jane herself. There were parts where I was like “you go girl” (mostly the parts where she stands up for herself) but she came off as someone who thought herself superior which made it hard to like her.

In fact, while Jane acts like she has low self-esteem, the way the book is written makes it sound like she delights in how she thinks lowly about herself. And more than that, the way she thinks of girls and women who are not like her is off-putting. There are two bright, vivacious girls in the novel - Adele, the girl she teaches, and Miss Oliver.

Adele is somewhat spoilt but charming child and while Jane professes to have an affection for her, you never really see or feel it. And despite her horrible childhood, she’s happy when Adele becomes a “pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled.” Her Aunt Reed was definitely horrible, but didn’t she want Jane to basically be what Adele became (okay she had some family issues but her charges against Jane were her attitude and behaviour)

Not to mention that she doesn’t seem to mind the fact that Adele’s dad is determined not to acknowledge her. Even though Jane grew up an orphan and probably knows what Adele feels.

As for Miss Oliver, she’s this slightly flighty but essentially good-natured heiress who makes friends with Jane. After acknowledging her charms, Jane just has to add “she was not profoundly interesting or thoroughly impressive.”

All this, plus the fact that Jane the narrator doesn’t give Adele and Miss Oliver the space to develop into well-rounded characters made Jane come off as the self-superior kind which I found to be fairly irritating.

And let’s not get me started on Mr Rochester; who is only superficially similar to another pompous character: Darcy from P&P. Darcy was pompous and socially awkward but he had a good heart. Mr Rochester basically promised himself to someone (think of what happened in Sense and Sensibility) and got her to break it off. Not to mention locking his wife in the attic and trying to force Jane into bigamy.

Overall, I’m glad I’ve finally read Jane Eyre because she’s an important part of Western literature. The language is a little heavy but there were points in the novel where I was genuinely rooting for, and admiring, Jane and her principles. That said, I don’t see this book as something that I will return to over and over again.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

When I was younger, I absolutely loved Inkheart and The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. So when I received an invitation to review The Griffin's Feather, the second book in the Dragon Rider series, I decided that I had to start with book one.

Dragon Rider follows the adventures of Firedrake, a dragon searching for the mythical place called the Rim of Heaven, where dragons can live in safety. It's not that he wants to leave his home, but the humans are coming and the dragons in his valley must either leave or die.

Yes, humans are coming. I went into The Dragon Rider not knowing what to expect and was surprised to find out that this was set in the present day. And Ben, the lonely boy that Firedrake meets and who accompanies him on his journey is equally surprised by the existence of dragons. But Ben quickly adapts and along with Sorrel, the bad-tempered brownie, and Twigleg, the homunculus, the four begin their quest. Unfortunately, their quest attracts the vicious Nettlebrand, hunter of dragons.

To be honest, I was a bit confused at the beginning, but that is definitely because I am not used to audiobooks but borrowed the audiobook of this. Once I got the hang of it (and skimmed the Wikipedia page for a summary of what was going on), I really enjoyed this story. It's broken into several segments, as the team visits different places in an attempt to figure out exactly where the rim of heaven is.

Even though this is called The Dragon Rider, I feel like the book really is about Firedrake and his quest. True, Ben gets a bit more airtime in the latter half of the book, but the beginning of the book almost always sets the tone for me and the tone was: this is Firedrake's story. Ben was a nice character, although a bit too oblivious at times, but my favourite character was definitely Firedrake, the kind dragon.

The supporting characters, Sorrel and Twigleg, were interesting too. Sorrel basically played the role of the grumpy character with the heart of gold. Twigleg was a bit more interesting and probably had the most character development in the book - he starts of serving Nettlebrand but traveling with Ben and the others help him to change.

The audiobook I read was narrated by Brendan Fraser, who was brilliant. He did a whole range of voices for the characters, which helped me to distinguish them from each other and made them more endearing to me. I wish I found out about this book earlier because I can imagine younger me enjoying this even more than present me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

The Rainbow Troops is not only a fantastically written book, it also showed me that I can handle non-traditional narrative styles as long as they’re well written (for a time, I thought I could only read the ‘traditional’ style).

The Rainbow Troops follows the students at Muhammadiyah elementary school on Belitung, Indonesia. The school is at risk of closing down and the students and their two teachers must do their best to keep the school open.

That’s the main goal of the book, but the book is actually broken into three main arcs: the two trophies the students win (one for creativity and one for academics) and the fight to save the school. That said, the front few chapters are spent introducing the characters and the island they live in, as well as a few of their escapades, before they start on their quest for the first trophy.

The book is an autobiographical novel, which I’m pretty sure means “based on true events”. It’s also written a lot like a memoir, from the perspective of someone looking back on the past and telling you what happened. Ordinarily, that would be quite hard for me to read, since it’s full of opinions of the older narrator, but I found myself so entranced by the world created and the people in it that I didn’t even mind the narrative style. Just goes to show that good writing is what counts.

I do want to talk about the ending so BEWARE SPOILERS AHEAD. The book could have ended on an easy high, with them saving the school. Instead, it took a different route and showed how most of them didn’t succeed. Only Ikal, the narrator, and Kucai, their self-serving class president ever ‘made it good’.

The two geniuses in their group ended up living in poverty, their minds wasted. Another one of their friends, the decent but otherwise unimpressive Trapani, ended up in a mental hospital. Seeing how their country failed them despite the best efforts of them and their teachers was heartbreaking. While the book does go on from that crushing reveal to end on a slightly more hopeful note, I was still crushed by the ending.


Overall, this was a really good read. It’s not your typical feel-good story, but it’s not total pessimism either. Rather, it’s a story about how far determination and effort can go (and how far it cannot). Would totally recommend.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Real Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Mash

This was such an emotionally intense read, although thankfully, I knew what I was getting into when I started the book.

My Real Name is Hanna is the story of Hanna Slivka, a fourteen-year old Jewish girl living in Ukraine. Her childhood is happy, until Hitler comes. And with the Gestapo comes persecution, as their food runs low and once-friendly neighbours turn their backs. And then one day, Hanna and her family hear that Hitler plans to make their town Judenfrei - “free of Jews” - and know that they must leave their home in order to survive.

This book isn’t an adventure story. It is the story of one girl and her family trying to survive with dignity. As Hanna’s father says, “This is what those Nazis make us do, huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that - to live...”

And live they do. It is not an easy experience, especially for a girl on the cusp of womanhood, but Hanna and her family do their best to hold on to their faith and culture even in the worst of times. While they are sometimes forced to break certain rules, such as eating non-kosher meat, they try their best to live in a way that gives them dignity, and that means honouring their religion and culture.

I really appreciated how this book brought out the strength of the human spirit and of friendships. Next to Hanna lives Alla, a non-Jewish person who sells pysanka, eggs decorated with traditional folk designs. These eggs hold deep meaning and even though they are not Hanna’s culture, they represent the friendship she has with Alla and the strength that Hanna gets from it.

If you want to read about a World War II story set in a less traditional location, you’ll want to pick this up. It’s got heart and it’s got character, and though it is dark, it is also uplifting.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

Some time ago, I was browsing a thread on Unresolved Mysteries when this book was mentioned. Someone said that Christie was inspired by Hawley Harvey Crippen’s case for this book and I decided to check it out. Turns out I can’t find any corroborating evidence for the Christie-inspiration claim, but there is definitely a resemblance.

In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Inspector Spence comes to Poirot to ask for his help. An apparently guilty man (whose case Inspector Spence helped build) is about to hang but the good Inspector has his doubts. Since Poirot has nothing better to do, he decides to investigate the death of Mrs. McGinty.

If you’re wondering, the Crippen’s case (or a case remarkably like it) is one of the several sensational crimes that serve as a possible motive for the murder. There are differences, but the whole “husband murders wife, leaves behind corpse and flees with governess-mistress” part is the same (although Christie probably didn’t know that the ‘corpse’ found in Crippen’s house has been identified as male).

Despite the grim inspiration, I found this to be a classic Poirot mystery and lots of fun. The writer Ariadne Oliver appears here and between her muses on authorship and Poirot’s suffering stomach, there is a fair amount of wry humour. The plot also moves along at a good pace and I found that I reached the end of the story in no time at all.

Fans of Christie (like me!) or Golden Age mysteries will definitely enjoy this book! While it isn’t set in Poirot’s usual setting, seeing him try to navigate a small village that doesn’t know him added a new layer of humour to this book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Village School by Miss Read

It's been a bit stressful at work lately, since we're working towards our launch. And when I'm stressed, I tend to want comfort reads. And while I'm not sure how I heard of Village School, but this is definitely a comfort read!

Village School follows the only school of the village of Fairacre as it goes about the school year. While this is supposed to be a novel, it reads very much like a biography of the school and its headmistress. New students enter, a teacher leaves, they go through various village events, and so on. Life is placid (although there is some small drama) and on the whole, very cozy.

While there isn't any actual plot, I love this book. The entire village came to life, not just Miss Read and her students. While not everyone is pleasant (I would not like to meet the Mrs Pringle) and some are have disconcertingly dark problems (Joseph's alcoholic father for example), the book does manage to remain rather light. Although Miss Read talks about the challenges of teaching in a rural village, with its lack of resources and primitive plumbing, she also talks about the children growing up among nature, of games played in a field with a cow, and how trips to the beach is an adventure for everyone.

I don't think a village like this exists anymore. For better or for worse, there is the internet, television, and modern plumbing (the last thing is definitely for the best). But I really enjoyed this book and I am so glad that this is a series because I will definitely be reading more.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

I’ve heard so many good things about Elena Ferrante (and followed the ‘uproar’ when her true identity was revealed) so I knew I had to try at least one of her books. I don’t quite remember why I chose this, but it was in my TBR list.

On one level, The Lost Daughter is a very simple story. Leda, a middle-aged woman takes a holiday at a beach after her daughter’s leave the country. She sort of makes friends with a large family there and ends up stealing the little girl’s doll and agonises over whether to return it.

On another level, The Lost Daughter is supposed to be about what can be an ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter. I have to say ‘what can be’ because although the book tries to make it sound universal, you never know when it comes to these sorts of things. The small events in plot provide an opportunity for the protagonist to reflect upon her past as a mother.

I am really of two minds about this book. On one hand, I see and appreciate the way that Ferrante brings out a deeper message in the story. Considering that I’ve been having a hard time getting past the first chapter of ebooks recently (I think I gave up on three books before this and one after), the fact that I finished what can be considered ‘literary fiction’ says a lot.

On the other hand, the story requires a lot of navel-gazing and that made Leda pretty unbearable because she just seemed so self-centered. I don’t expect her to be a martyr, but there were times where I just rolled my eyes at her.

Overall, I think I like this book. It’s not normally the type of book I read, especially in my “I read for fun and maybe education” days, but I appreciate what this story tries to do and I would be interested in reading more of Ferrante’s books. I guess the question is: what next?

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin

I heard that Edmund Crispin was one of the Golden Age mystery writers and knew that I had to try at least one of his books. The only one the NLB has (that wasn’t an audiobook) was Holy Disorders. After reading it, I have to say it was fun, but a little confusing.

Holy Disorders starts when Geoffry Vinter (a composer) is summoned by his friend and amateur detective Gervase Fen to bring a butterfly net to Tolnbridge. On the way, he gets attacked three times and rescued by Henry Fielding (not the author) and the two make their way to Tolnbridge. What starts out as a case of bodily injury turns into one murder, then two, and Geoffry finds himself the reluctant assistant to an enthusiast Gervase.

This was definitely a fun book - all the characters are delightfully zany and the plot is over the top in a good way. There’s plenty to chuckle at, with the author even breaking the fourth wall in one joke.

The main two characters (Geoffrey and Gervase) are also endearing and I thought they made a good detective-assistant duo. Gervase is far too eccentric to stand on his own as a character, and Geoffrey provided a good counterbalance to him.

However, the book was also confusing. I suppose the jokes and many characters and plot twists all happened too quickly, and I lost track of what was going on a few times. To be more accurate, I forgot who a few of the minor characters were. This proved to be a problem because a couple of them were suspects in the case. But, I found that going back and rereading helped a lot and I did eventually get the plot.

Overall, I thought this was an entertaining book. Once I got all the characters in order, I really enjoyed the plot with all its twists and turns. Hopefully I can find another book of his to read (or perhaps I should give the audiobook a shot)

Monday, September 3, 2018

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie edited by Leslie Klinger

I was intrigued by this book the minute I saw the title because I love Agatha Christie. In The Shadow of Agatha Christie is a collection of crime fiction by women writers who came before Christie. I’m not sure why it cuts off at 1917, but it does.

There are sixteen stories in this anthology and it starts with The Advocate’s Wedding Day. As a first story, I wasn’t too fond of it because it was all narration and not much story. In fact, it felt a bit like a story synopsis than a story. But we traveled towards the near past, I started to enjoy them more. Some of my favourites were:

- Mrs. Todhetley’s Earrings: This stars a young man named Johnny as the main character/narrator, although he isn’t so much a detective as a participant in the story. I liked this mainly because of the twist ending.

- The Statement of Jared Johnson: A confession, this one stars a reporter as a detective. The solution is really clever and the story is very enjoyable.

- The Blood Red Cross: I would love to read more from the authors of this story! The story is very Holmesian, with a detective and his archenemy. There’s a mysterious young lady and alchemical solutions, which makes for a fascinating case.

- The Winning Sequence: I don’t think this is a mystery story per se, although I guess it can fall under crime fiction. But it is a very poignant story and can probably serve as an anti-gambling ad.

The last story was Jury of Her Peers, which happens to be the first story of A Moment on the Edge, another anthology of women crime writers. I would highly recommend both books!