Book Reviews: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“‘Merricat,’ said Constance, ‘would you like a cup of tea?’

‘No,’ said Merricat, ‘you’ll poison me.'”

I first discovered this book my junior year in high school, and I’ve been addicted to it ever since.

The book has been described as “a love song to agoraphobia,” and that seems just about right. Merricat and her older sister Constance live in their beautiful but mostly abandoned house in the woods. They used to live there with their family- parents, aunt, younger brother- but they all died a mysterious, painful death eight years earlier. The two sisters live a pleasant life, where Constance cooks and cares for their infirm Uncle Julian and Merricat protects them in her own way, but before long one small thing changes and it slowly destroys everything.

Merricat is one of my favorite characters ever. She’s twisted, she’s childish, she’s an unreliable narrator, and she makes for a fascinating read. She ambles through the story like she’s not a part of it, but she propels everything along. Apparently there’s a stage version of this book; I think Merricat is my dream role.

The mood of this book is spectacular- moody and airy, beautiful and frightening all at once. The characters are fascinating. The story is mysterious. I could read this book over and over again and never get bored. It steals my attention every time.

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what I want: a contest entry and a bunch of word vomit

I recently discovered Maggie Stiefvater’s blog and I, um, accidentally read it all.

I didn’t mean to. My plan was just to skim through and read the highlights of her writing advice. But somehow I ended up planting my butt on the couch and reading all the way back to her very first blog entry.

I really love Shiver. It’s the only book of hers I’ve gotten to read yet (although that will soon change, thank you Kindle Fire) but I loved it. And even that was an accident- I ordered the book for a gift, but accidentally got a well-loved used copy. Well, I couldn’t give that as a present, and so I kept it…and I read it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. So when I discovered her blog, it was fantastic to actually, you know, know who I was reading about as opposed from a random author’s blog stumbled upon on Google.

It made me a little embarrassed to realize how jealous I was. When I think about what I want to do when I grow up, I want to be like her. Writing and getting paid for it, traveling with friends to promote the book, having a family, being able to blog about silly things and writing things and all sorts of things. I’m a little green around the edges.

Of course, I would never be able to do tell her that. I mean, how mortifying would it be to run up to her all like “HELLO MAGGIE STIEFVATER (I’M SORRY I BUTCHERED THE PRONUNCIATION OF YOUR LAST NAME) BUT I REALLY WANT TO BE YOU WHEN I GROW UP.”

Now, if that doesn’t scream please, I’d love a restraining order I don’t know what does.

So I’ll just camp out back here and idolize in secret.

But in any case, one particular blog post of hers (found here) stood out to me. Her newest book, Scorpio Races, was just published, and while all I know for sure is that she wrote it, it’s in Ireland, there are water horses, and cake is involved, I know it’s going to end up on my Kindle in short order. Because Ireland, and horses, and cake…this is a tangent. Anyways.

She blogged about how she wrote the book she always wanted to read, and how it took several iterations before it was the right book. And that just made me think, painfully, of my book. My sad little book, locked away in a binder in my closet, above the shoes and to the left of the purses.

All I’ve wanted to do is write. I know, I know, everyone says that. But I really do love to write. My first stories, as a wee little second-grader were about a beautiful girl named Christiana who had coal-black hair and blue eyes and a massive wardrobe, and twin boys named Matthew and Michael were always fighting over her. Unfortunately, all I ever really wrote about was her lavish outfit collection.

Later my stories veered into talking-animal tales with a heavyhanded Christian moral (hey, when you grow up in the Bible belt and spend six days a week in church, these things happen) and then into overdramatic soap opera-y fairy tales filled with gory battles, fainting lovers, and heroic girls in armor. It was fantastic. Then I had the obligatory “I am going to be a poet!” phase in high school. I’m pretty sure I burned those.

I also discovered the magical world of fanfiction when I was in the eighth grade. And I still haven’t left. But that’s another story.

But at some point…I lost my spark. I just couldn’t write stories of my own anymore. I couldn’t do it. Everything fell flat. The last thing I wrote was in ninth grade, when I wrote a third of a novel and pitched it when I realized it was a Tamora Pierce/Rurouni Kenshin hybrid and it just wasn’t my story.

It wasn’t until I read the long-awaited last book in one of my favorite series a few years later and was sorely disappointed in the ending. I remember clearly looking at myself in the mirror (shut up everyone reads in the bathroom) and thinking I can do this.
It took three years and five failed attempts before I finished my book. It had everything I wanted to read about- snappy banter, ruinous old boarding schools, angst-ridden orphans, odd magical abilities, pet weasels, funny names. I finished writing it (by hand) in June of 2008. I typed it up, did some editing…

…and left it.

It’s almost four years since I finished it. Almost seven since I started. And while I daydream about holding my book in my hands, I haven’t done anything about it. A dozen people have read pieces of it. Three have read it completely. All of them (even the snooty English department girl) agreed it’s not perfect, but that the story is good. It’s enjoyable. It’s readable. P says he can envision it on shelves. They have been nagging at me for years just try to get it published, please, just try.
And yet the poor little binder sits on my shelf still, unread and unloved.
When I read the entry about how long it took Maggie Stiefvater to shape Scorpio Races into the right book, at the right time, it made my stomach do little unhappy flipflops. I did that with Beatrice, shaping and reshaping and cutting characters and trimming scenes and starting over again and again. It needs work (especially in the last half) but I still think there’s something there.

And I think I have more books in me. For the longest time, while I’ve let my book languish, I’ve thought I was done, I’m all booked out, that I can’t do it. That I shouldn’t even try to get it published.

Well, maybe I can. Maybe this year I can finally finish editing Beatrice and send off a query letter or two (or twelve). Maybe I can write more books, different books, writing all the books I always wanted to read but could never find on shelves.

And in the meantime, I’m going to read Scorpio Races, give myself a nice post-book coma that all good books give, and hope that someday I can do that to someone else.

Currently listening to: “Runaway Baby” by Bruno Mars

Book Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard a lot about this book, and I finally gave in and read it. I read it all in one sitting, when I was supposed to be asleep, but I just couldn’t close it.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a cold, disjointed, modern Puritan society. The government has crumbled in place of a theocracy and women are reduced to chattel. You can only hold so many positions- a wife of a Commander, an “econowife,” a Martha (a servant), an Aunt, or a handmaid. A handmaid is a woman still fertile in a barren society; she is assigned to live in a household for a two-year period and must try to become pregnant in the stead of the barren wife. Three failed attempts, and you get sent to the colonies.

We know very little about the narrator, catching only bits and pierces of her real self through her story. There is an urgency, almost a desperation, in how the story is told. When the book ends you feel unsettled, both by the fear you have for the heroine and the terrible thought that this might happen to us.

I’m glad I read this. It’s an amazing book, the best kind- the kind that makes you think. That said, the next time I feel like reading something light, I don’t think I’ll reach for this first.

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Book Reviews: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I kept walking past this book every time I did some shopping in Target and zeroing in on the fascinating cover. I just knew that this book was meant for me. I was so excited to finally load it onto my Kindle. And yet…while it was good, it was not what I expected.

I started to read this book with little prickles of excitement in my spine. I was prepared for a creepy book, the sort of book that would make me cuddle under the covers with my cat while I hope the shadows don’t leap out to get me. The opening was beautifully promising- the foreboding setup, the eerie photographs, the brutal incident in the very first chapter. I didn’t like the protagonist much, but I was prepared to see him grow and change as the story progressed.

And then…I got lost. The spooky tale I was expecting got lost in a myriad of eccentric one-off characters. The mystery unfolded too quickly, but crumbled in a maze of weird magic timey-wimey stuff and Welsh jargon. The love story was just plain awkward. And the protagonist I was hoping to root for was stuck as Bratty McSulkpants.

There were some absolutely brilliant moments in the book- a major plot twist involving a particular character made me gasp aloud, for instance, and a scene in the fishmonger’s shop had me scrabbling to hug my cat. For those moments, I think the book merits the three stars. But I was so torn between lauding the great moments and despairing over my disappointment over what I was hoping the book would be.

The book ends with clear plans for a sequel, and I’ll probably pick it up and read it. Hopefully it’ll take all the brilliant high points of this book and leave behind the muddle.

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Book Reviews: The Help

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started reading The Help on my brand new Kindle on Christmas afternoon and finished it the next morning. I enjoyed it, I really did, but I feel like there’s an unsettling kind of unevenness to it. One second it’s lighthearted and witty, the next it’s serious and shocking. I finally decided what The Help reminds me of- it’s like Hairspray for grownups.

I love the character of Skeeter. I feel like a lot of the unevenness of the story has to do with Skeeter’s awakening- she has been in her pretty little bubble for so long and the illusion is just beginning to shatter for her, so the story bounces from the funny moments to serious along with her growth as a character.

I do wish there was more resolution- an epilogue that gives the final explanation on what happened to everyone. I don’t think the book merits or needs a sequel, but I want to know how Aibileen’s writing career went, if Minny really left Leroy, if Skeeter made it successfully in New York- and if she ever revealed that she wrote the book.

The most interesting party of reading the book, however, was talking to my two grandmothers-in-law afterwards. My husband and I were having dinner with the family, and they asked me about my Kindle, and when I told them I’d read The Help, they immediately told me how much they loved it, especially since that was their era. My sweet paternal grandmother-in-law said that when she was a young wife and mother in Tennessee, she actually had help- a woman who would come some afternoons to clean and watch the kids while she ran errands. “Now, I never mistreated anyone or was cruel, but it just made me realize…I never knew what was going on at home or what she was going through,” she told me. “She was just the help.” It was sort of mind-boggling to hear that- that at one point the world really was like it was in The Help, that it’s not merely made up for a work of poignant historical fiction.

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the traditional Christmas Eve buffet:

  • homemade whiskey-brown sugar applesauce
  • crackers/cheese/sausage
  • vegetables and dill dip
  • Swedish meatballs
  • mini pigs in a blanket
  • tortilla rollups
  • sherbet punch
  • Oreo truffles
  • Russian teacakes
  • shortbread
  • candy cane cookies
  • gingercakes
  • peanut butter blossoms

I am now enjoying the traditional food coma while P and I watch Love Actually. He’s never seen it before. I feel like a terrible wife.

At some point we will open the traditional Christmas Eve gifts (Mrs. Claus always gets to the house before Santa does and brings us new holiday pajamas), put the presents under the tree, and crash.

Tomorrow will be stockings, then breakfast (baked eggs, sausage, pound cake with strawberry preserves, and sparkling grape juice), then opening presents during the commercial breaks of the Disney Christmas parade.

I adore holiday traditions.

I hope you’re all having marvelous holiday evenings! And you should tell me what your traditions are!