Friday, June 29, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I can't remember exactly when I purchased We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I do remember why I picked it up off the shelf. That cover! I didn't know anything about Shirley Jackson, but I loved the creepy illustration on the front. I took it home with me and even started reading it, but for some reason I never got past the first few pages (my fault, not the book's). The cover art still intrigued me though, so I knew I'd get back to it one day. I put in on my Classics Club list last year and I decided that now was the time to give it a try.

The plot concerns the troubled and mysterious Blackwood family. When the story begins, the youngest remaining Blackwood, Mary Katherine (or Merricat as she likes to be called), is heading into town to pick up groceries and choose library books for her household. Merricat is eighteen and she lives with her older sister Constance and her infirm uncle Julian in a large, older home at the edge of town. As Merricat goes about her errands, it becomes obvious that there's something odd about her family. The townspeople react to her with either fear or outright rudeness and children playing in the street sing creepy nursery rhymes about her as she passes by. Merricat makes up odd little games and sayings in her head to get back home safely. The entire trip emits a distinctive, foreboding feeling.

Once Merricat makes it home, more details slowly begin to emerge about her family. Years ago, most of the Blackwoods were murdered in a poisoning incident. Arsenic was mixed into the sugar they were all using for dinner one night. A total of four people died, including Merricat's mother and father. The only survivors of the incident were Constance and Uncle Julian, who didn't use much, if any, sugar, and Merricat herself, who didn't eat her dinner as she was sent to her room as punishment for something. Constance was put on trial for the murders, as she was the one who prepared the food that night, but she wasn't prosecuted due to a lack of evidence and the general belief that such a nice, innocent girl wouldn't do such a thing. She was, however, found guilty in the court of public opinion. As a result, the townspeople give the family a wide berth, hence Merricat's poor treatment in town.

The trauma of the trial has left Constance broken. She refuses to leave the house at all and spends most of her days doing chores, cooking, gardening, and caring for her uncle. Julian, who is ill and most likely suffering from dementia, constantly relives the day that most of his family members died and obsessively works on writing a history of the incident. Merrikat, despite being a young adult, acts like a mischievous child. There is something otherworldly about her behavior. She buries small personal items to protect the house, makes up odd rules for herself regarding what she can and can't do, thinks up magical words of protection to keep her family safe, and smashes things when she gets upset. As Merricat is the only narrator, her unusual point of view lends a feeling of oddness and unreliability to the story.

The three Blackwoods are getting along fine, in their own weird way, until the arrival of a guest disrupts their routine. Charles, their estranged cousin, arrives at their home and inserts himself into their family. He claims to be there to help them in the wake of the poisoning. Merricat instantly hates him and sees him as a demon, but Constance is willing to welcome him in. At first, his presence seems like it might help nudge them back towards some sort of normalcy, but it becomes obvious after a time that he has some ulterior motives behind his visit. His increasingly distasteful actions set Merricat on a quest to try and send him away that ends up having weighty consequences for the family.

This story was weird and wonderful. It's a slim little novel, but it manages to leave quite an impression within its 146 pages. I was completely engaged from beginning to end with it. The whole mood of the novel is so surreal, and Merricat's narrative voice is so odd, that you can't really know what's actually happening and what is just a quirk of her imagination. It seems obvious that she is mentally ill, but she holds so fast to her beliefs and the rest of her family is so eccentric, that you are constantly second-guessing yourself about story events.

As the novel is so short, nothing feels superfluous and nothing gets boring. Shirley Jackson does a wonderful job of creating a heavy atmosphere packed with story elements that make you think. There is a surprising amount of emotion stirred up in this story; this isn't merely a creepy, entertaining read. Themes of guilt, judgement, isolation, and kindness move throughout it's plot, raising all kinds of questions about what's right and wrong for the Blackwood family. I genuinely felt bad for Constance and Merricat, and was rooting for them to be okay as I read.

I generally wrap up my reviews by mentioning a few story elements that I didn't like or was confused by, but I really can't find anything to criticize in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This was one instance where the beautiful cover completely lived up to the story inside. This is the kind of classic that's fun to read, keeps you guessing, and gives you that unbalanced, weird feeling that comes with truly creepy books. This is a new favorite for me, and I'm quite glad that I chose it as one of my Classics Club reads.

Challenge Tally:  
Classics Club (#80 on my list): 30/100 

Total Books Read in 2018: 27

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith

After reading the rather lengthy Giants in the Earth last week, I wanted a lighter read next. I decided on Jennifer E. Smith's Windfall, a young adult impulse purchase that I made last year (based on the pretty cover). I had a feeling that this would probably be a fun story, but would ultimately end up on the donate pile afterwards. Since I'm looking to get rid of some of my books before I move in August, I figured this was a good choice.

The plot concerns Alice, an eighteen-year old girl making her way through her senior year of high school in Chicago. She hasn't had an easy time growing up; both her mother and her father ended up dying just over a year apart from each other when she was nine. Ever since then, she's lived with her aunt and uncle. Her life with them is great, but she struggles daily with the pain of losing her parents. To make matters more emotionally complicated, she's been secretly in love with her best friend Teddy for years, and is on the verge of finally confessing her feelings to him. 

At the start of the novel, Alice buys Teddy a lottery ticket for his eighteenth birthday. To everyone's astonishment, it ends up being a winner. All of a sudden, Teddy goes from scraping by in a one bedroom apartment with his single mom to being a multimillionaire. This windfall is a blessing for his family, but as the months wear on, this newfound wealth changes Teddy. A more arrogant, careless version of himself begins to emerge, which devastates Alice. She abandons her plan to confess her feelings and begins trying to resign herself to the fact that the jackpot she brought to her best friend might end up separating them forever. Windfall is a novel about the randomness of life and the power of money, with both of its characters learning about how some moments in life irrevocably change everything that comes after them--and it up to you to make those changes good ones or bad ones.   

This was a nice read, with a surprising amount of emotional depth to it. While Teddy and his money are what most of the events in the novel revolve around, the story is still mostly about Alice and her quest to define herself after the loss of her parents. Since their deaths, she has filled her time doing what was important to them. She volunteers at a variety of places, plans to move back to their old hometown of San Francisco, and focuses her college search on Stanford, the university her mother loved. While her life is good and these plans are fine, she's beginning to realize that her identity is getting swallowed up in things her parents valued, and as a result, she's not sure who she is. Teddy's lottery winnings force her to reevaluate what she's doing with her life, as she starts to realize that the future she hoped for with him might not happen. Smith writes her inner thoughts and dialogue with others beautifully, with many heartbreaking and introspective moments emerging. Alice's character felt real and well-developed, and I found myself rooting for her as I read.

In fact, I could have done with way less of Teddy, as his self-centered, immature nature grew under the influence of all his money. He said so many uncaring, tone deaf, and mean comments to Alice over the course of the the story that I was completely fed up with him. I couldn't understand why Alice persisted in mooning over him when he hurt her so regularly. Alice comments several times throughout the story that she know he has flaws, but can't help feeling the way she does about him. This is a common trope in young adult fiction - liking the "bad boy" even though you know it's not healthy for you - and I don't find it to be particularly realistic or compelling. Of course, Teddy is revealed to have a heart of gold underneath all that bravado, which, hey, might be true. However, I didn't feel like Alice needed to deal with this project of a boy when she had so much work she needed to do on herself. It would have been a less orthodox, and more brave choice, to have her remain his good friend, but this novel ends the way that most young adult romances do. 

So, my initial thoughts about Windfall turned out to be true. It was a fun read, but not a special favorite. I would not hesitate to recommend this to a teen reader interested in romance, but I don't think adults will find a ton to hang onto here. It was an entertaining few hours, with a surprising amount of emotion to it. It will be one for my donate pile, where I hope it will find its way into the hands of a teen reader who falls in love with it.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 13 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 26

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rølvaag

I first came across Giants in the Earth when I was still in high school, probably about 15 years ago now. I was bargain-hunting at a bookstore that was going out of business at my local mall. The prices on everything were slashed significantly, and I ended up with loads of classics for a steal. This novel was one of them. I had never heard of it before, but I could tell from the cover that it was a famous one. I took it home and it has sat on my shelves ever since.

When I was searching for a novel for the "translated classic" prompt for my Back to the Classics Challenge this year, I remembered this book. I was pretty sure it was a translated work because of the author's name, but I did a little bit of research just to be sure. I discovered that O.E. Rølvaag occupies an interesting place in the literary cannon. He was born on a small island off the coast of Norway in 1876. He spent his youth as a fisherman there. His family was poor, and Rølvaag did not attend school regularly, but a deep love of literature helped to keep his mind sharp. He read everything he could get his hands on, including translations of many classic American and British works. When he was 20 years old, he decided to try and make a new life for himself in America, and moved in with an uncle who owned a farm in South Dakota. Eventually, he pursued a college education there and became a novelist and professor of literature at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He achieved the American Dream.

The reason his background is interesting is because he straddles the line between Norwegian and American literature. He was born and raised in Norway, wrote all of his novels in Norwegian, and writes about Norwegian characters. At the same time, his writing was heavily influenced by American writers, his novels are set in America, and he did all the actual writing while he was living in America. Whether you consider his works to be Norwegian, American, or something in between depends on how one likes to classify literature, but he certainly is a unique sort of author.

One thing that isn't hazy, however, is the fact that Giants in the Earth, his most well-known novel, is a translated work. Rølvaag wrote it in Norwegian, published it in Norway first, then assisted in translating the text to create an English version. In my copy of the novel, he includes an author's note at the beginning of the text describing how difficult it was to translate the work into English, owing to his use of several Norwegian idioms and references. To help offset this, he includes footnotes throughout the text to help contextualize some of the characters' comments and situations in the story. This note satisfied me that this novel was an excellent choice for my challenge. Not only was it translated from another language, it would be my first book written by a Norwegian author. I started reading, excited to learn something new.

Giants in the Earth tells the saga of Per Hansa and his family as they immigrate from Norway to America to begin their lives as homesteaders in the Dakota Territories. At the start of the novel it is 1873, and Per Hansa, his wife Beret, and their three children are slowly making their way west in a wagon to start a new settlement on the prairie with their friends. Once they claim their land, the family settles down to begin establishing their farm. It isn't an easy task, and the family faces all sorts of struggles as they get started. Inclement weather, social isolation, medical problems, difficulty with crops, and plagues of locusts all threaten to ruin their fragile settlement. However, Per Hansa's irrepressible enthusiasm and unparalleled good luck get them through most events more or less unscathed. He proves to be a savvy businessman and a wise farmer. Before long, he is doing better on his land than most of his neighbors are. They all help each other as they move through the seasons, and form a tight little Norwegian community that grows larger through the years as more settlers slowly begin to show up.

One problem that Per Hansa can't solve through his hard work and business acumen, however, is the depression of his wife. Beret did not want to leave Norway and give up all her friends and family to move to America, but ultimately agreed to follow her husband. She was never able to overcome her misgivings, and is constantly terrorized by the wide, empty prairie. Her frequent worry is that there's "nothing to hide behind" so far away from civilization. She is lonely, frightened, and begins to suffer scary episodes in which she doesn't act like herself. When the locusts descend upon their farm, she has a complete mental breakdown that lasts for years and takes a tremendous toll on the family. Even when she comes back to herself, things aren't ever the same. Her sadness runs throughout the novel as a sharp counterpoint to Per Hansa's love for their new home, casting a shadow around the edges of everything and reminding readers that there was more to homesteading than dealing with the physical difficulties.

The parts of the novel dealing with Beret's mental illness were the most compelling to me. I felt a connection with her throughout to novel, as I am also on the brink of a big move and have some misgivings about it. Like her, I have an enthusiastic and smart husband that is excited for the change. Also like her, I am dreading leaving everything I know behind. I don't mean to say that my difficulties will be anything like hers were-- I am moving across my own country to a normal city where I have every expectation of being relatively happy-- but I understand the fear and the sadness at leaving. This empathy connected me with the story more deeply than if I had read it at any other time in my life, so I'm happy that I waited until now. I was also pleasantly surprised that the mental health of a female character was explored so deeply, as a lot of older novels don't spend much time on their supporting women. Per Hansa mentions a few times that he blames himself for Beret's condition and admits that he should have paid more attention to her feelings about moving, which I liked. While her mental illness wasn't exactly his fault, it shows that there is more to his character than building, business dealings, and farming. He created an amazingly successful home in spite of incredible difficulties, but his pioneer story isn't a happy one, and it's because he comes to understand that he was a bit too self-centered. For a home to be happy, the needs of each family member need to be met. Beret's weren't.

I really enjoyed reading this novel, but not in the usual way. There were stretches that were boring, I didn't always understand how time was flowing, and some characters dropped out of the novel for oddly long stretches (including some of Per Hansa's own children). The male character's names were so similar to each other that I was often confused, and the last section of the novel was too dissimilar to the sections that preceded it. I'm not even sure what to make of the ending. However, I ultimately felt that the journey was absolutely worth taking. I learned a lot about how the early Norwegian pioneers settled in this country, and caught a glimpse at a way of life completely different to my own. I also learned a lot about Norway in general, due to the footnotes throughout the novel. Rølvaag's descriptions of the prairie, especially the sections that talked about the snow, were beautifully crafted and a joy to read. This wasn't exactly a page-turner, but it was a true, old school saga that is worthy of the acclaim it has received over the years. It reminded me a lot of Little House on the Prairie, which is a series I only ever partially read as a kid, but loved all the same.

It's funny how random little events can bring neat things into your life. If that bookstore hadn't been closing all those years ago, I probably still wouldn't know anything about Giants in the Earth, and that would be a shame, because it was a really unique reading experience. I'm glad that I chose this for my reading challenge this year. It didn't end up being a special favorite, but it was a worthwhile read and I know that I will be thinking about certain aspects of it for a long time.

Challenge Tally:  
Back to the Classics (a classic in translation): 7/12
Classics Club (#98 on my list): 29/100

Total Books Read in 2018: 25

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Knowing by Sharon Cameron

After I finished reading The Forgetting a few weeks ago, I decided that I liked it enough to continue on with the series. I downloaded The Knowing onto my Kindle and started reading it right away. This is a pretty rare move for me as I'm generally not that into young adult dystopian series anymore, but for some reason, the first book struck a chord with me. I was into it. So, I got myself  back into the city of Canaan and read on to see what happened next.

**There will be spoilers for The Forgetting in this review**

The Knowing is more of a companion novel to the series than a sequel. It is set 100 years into the future from the events of The Forgetting, and focuses on completely different characters. The narration is split between protagonists. The first, Samara Archiva, is an 18-year-old girl living underground in the city of New Canaan. She is one of the Knowing, an elite group of people living in the community that are incapable of forgetting anything. She can remember everything she's ever experienced from being in her mother's womb to precise pages in books she's read. Being one of the Knowing has significant challenges; without the power of time to blunt the edges of painful memories, Samara experiences her worst moments over and over. Many of the Knowing learn to store their memories deep inside their heads and ignore the bad ones, but Samara has never been particularly good at this skill. She isn't alone in this struggle either; the Knowing that can't control their memories frequently commit suicide to escape the pain. Unlike most, who just accept this as an unfortunate fact of life, Samara has a plan. Through reading forbidden books in the New Canaan archive, she learned about how the Canaan of old experienced the Forgetting, and she makes it her mission to sneak out of the city and bring the ability to forget to her people.

The other protagonist, Beckett Rodriguez, is a crew member on the Centauri III, a spacecraft that's on a mission to discover what happened to the original settlers that Earth sent off into space centuries ago to start a new colony on a different planet. He has dreams of becoming an anthropologist and finding the lost city of Canaan, which lost all communication with Earth when they first landed. The story starts as his ship is arriving after a four year journey through space. He is selected for an early scouting mission with a fellow crew member, and together they set off to try and find evidence of human life. Everything gets off track, however, when Beckett is injured in a fall and runs into Samara. The pull between the pair is strong and instant, and he is driven off his course of scientific inquiry quickly by a desire to help Samara with her mission to forget. As the pair soon discovers, powerful people in New Canaan are determined to stop them from finding out more about the Forgetting, and will use any means necessary to prevent them from bringing any changes to the city.  Together, they must push through the danger and secrets to discover the truth about how memories control the city and to find a way to bring peace to its people.

Much like with The Forgetting, I was instantly drawn into this novel. I liked that fact that it wasn't a direct sequel, and I thought the idea of Earth coming back to the planet to figure out what went wrong centuries before was an interesting idea. The mysteries of New Canaan were remained intriguing, and I was always engaged in the story, waiting to see what would be revealed next. I really like the universe Cameron created in these books and this novel dug into enough new secrets and intricacies of it to keep me happy.

I enjoyed the new protagonists as well and I thought the split perspective was very engaging. Samara is a character has suffered a lot of emotional trauma due to her memories, and I thought Cameron's depiction of the internal struggle between her natural grit/bravery and her emotional issues was well done. It was interesting to ponder the idea of what it might be like if you could remember every single day of your life down to the smallest detail. I suspect that it would be difficult, just as it is in the story. Beckett's heart and intelligence were nice character traits to experience as well, even if he ends up throwing out his training and objectivity to help Samara a little too easily for my taste. It's also worth mentioning that both Samara and Beckett are people of color, which you don't often see in young adult science fiction novels. I appreciated the diversity.

The only slight issues I had with this one were the length and occasionally, the clarity. This novel is around 450 pages, and at times, I felt like the action was slowing to a crawl. It wasn't bad enough to get me overly frustrated with the story, but I do feel like the novel might have benefited from some additional editing. In addition, I was often confused on how the society of New Canaan evolved from the people shown in the first novel. The connections between the two books weren't as clear as they should have been. The action of the story wasn't enough to explain everything that happened in the missing 100 years between the books, so Cameron often resorts to massive info dumps through Samara's memories and books from the archive, which didn't fit into the story as smoothly as they could have. By the end of the novel, things are a bit more clear, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe the 100 year jump was a bit too far. There was a lot of "showing" instead of "telling" here.

Despite those concerns though, I still enjoyed The Knowing. It's definitely not as strong as the first book in the series, but it was still a solid few hours of escape. This is definitely a pair of books that I could recommend to students in the future. Cameron leaves the door open for future sequels here as well, so maybe I'll get the chance to head back into this world in the future. I actually kind of hope to get that chance. These books have me hooked, plain and simple. It's nice when that happens.

Total Books Read in 2018: 24

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

I randomly pulled The Forgetting off my shelves with low expectations. I picked up this young adult dystopian story at my school's book fair a few years ago. I assumed that this would be a book I read purely in order to be able to recommend it to my students in the future. I read a lot of teen novels for that reason. I like having a big library in my head that I can pull from when kids ask me what they should read next. I assumed that this book would be like most of the ones I read for this purpose- entertaining, but not particularly special. Once I started reading, I was surprised to discover that I was hooked. I raced through the pages in the course of a few days and stayed entertained the whole way through. It's so nice when a book catches you by surprise like that, isn't it?

The plot focuses on a teenager named Nadia the Dyer's Daughter. She lives with her mother and sisters in Canaan, a town built behind stone walls that people are not permitted to go beyond. They live their lives simply, making what they need to survive and sharing with each other freely. They are led by a council that regulates their living patterns very closely, Everyone works, sleeps, and wakes at the designated times and there are a long list of rules and rituals to be observed. All of this structure is necessary due to what they call "The Forgetting."

Every twelve years, a mysterious phenomenon causes everyone in Canaan to lose all of their memories. They do not know what the phenomenon is or how to stop  it, so they simply live with it the best they can. All of the structure and rules built into their society are meant to combat it and help society reestablish itself after every cycle of forgetting. The most important measure the town takes to protect itself is the keeping of books. Each citizen of Canaan writes daily in a journal, which they keep on their bodies at all times. As their books are filled, they are stored in an archive. When a Forgetting comes, everyone rereads their books to remind themselves of who they are, and they go on living the best they can. Their original memories never return, so their books are all they have to maintain some form of identity.

Things are different, however, for Nadia. She doesn't forget. She is the only one she knows of that has completely intact memories, and she has suffered greatly for it. She remember all sorts of painful things, like how her father wrote himself out of their family during the last Forgetting. He falsified several books and abandoned his wife and daughters, then moved elsewhere in the town and started a new family. She also remembers how the days before the last Forgetting were chaotic and violent, with people giving in to all their basest desires and worst inclinations, since no one would remember what they did, including themselves, afterwards. She lives in fear of the next Forgetting and has taken several sneaky precautions to keep her family safe from all of the terror and potential abuses that come with a Forgetting. She has never told anyone she remembers, as her emotions surrounding what she knows are too difficult for her to articulate to anyone.

As the next Forgetting approaches, Nadia begins to notice some curious behavior from council members. As she thinks about what she sees, she begins to question the way Canaan runs. She wonders about how their way of life was originally organized and why more official efforts haven't been taken to stop the Forgetting, or at least to understand more about it. Her curious mind combined with her memories lead her to make some startling discoveries about her town. She realizes that her memories give her the power to change things, and maybe spare her family the pain and confusion of eternally forgetting each other. She will have to act quickly however, and be braver than she has ever been to make enough people believe things they can't remember about themselves and they way they live.

Looking at the reviews on Goodreads for this one, I found that opinions on it are very mixed. Some find it to be boring while others absolutely love it. I definitely fall into the latter camp here. I thought the story was intriguing and different and that plot points were unveiled at a good pace. I was always theorizing about what might be going on, which is the mark of an engaging story. I didn't immediately guess all of the twists either, which I am usually able to do with young adult dystopian novels. Cameron's prose was easy to read and had this nice, solemn quality to it that I enjoyed. I liked Nadia's character too; She was bold and logical, but at the same time introverted and quiet due to the weight of retaining her memories. She does have a romance with a character named Gray, and I thought it actually added to the story rather that detracted from it, as a lot of young adult romance subplots tend to do. If young adult dystopian novels are your thing, I would definitely recommend this one. It's not perfect by any means, but it is a level above a lot of the other stuff out there.

The highest praise that I can give The Forgetting is that immediately after reading it, I downloaded its sequel, The Knowing, onto my Kindle. It is extremely rare for me to actually want to read the sequels to young adult novels, but I wasn't ready to leave Canaan behind yet. There were still some things I was curious about learning, so I'm diving back in for more. For those wary of embarking on a new series, know that The Forgetting stands alone the way it is. It is a self-contained story with an ending. The Knowing is a companion to the novel, and it is set way in the future, making it a nice option for people that would like to continue on with the world. The fact that I am choosing to do so is a total surprise to me, but it's a very nice one. I started reading The Forgetting assuming it would go straight onto my donate pile. However, it ended up being a keeper.

Total Books Read in 2018: 23