Tag Archives: classic

Mini-Review: A Christmas Carol

I have not read a Christmas story at Christmastime since childhood. For some reason, Christmas traditions have never really crossed into my reading life. But picking up Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol this year is really making me rethink what I should be reading around the end-of-year holidays, just as surely as it’s reminding me to embrace the Christmas spirit this season.

achristmascarolAbout the book: “Bah. Humbug!” is what Ebeneezer Scrooge thinks of Christmas. He has devoted his life to making money– and hoarding it. He is not interested in spending time with the remaining family he has left, and as for sharing his wealth with them, or with anyone– why shouldn’t they earn their own fortunes, as Scrooge has earned his? He frowns upon all those who take an entire day off of productive pursuits to celebrate Christmas. So he closes his office on Christmas Eve, determined to be unhappy all through the holiday. But that night, he is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, who laments his choices in life and offers Scrooge another chance. To avoid his partner’s gruesome fate, Scrooge must accept the visits of three Spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He must learn their lessons, before it is too late!

“Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought.”

If I were to voice any complaint about this story, I would say only that it’s predictable. But I should also acknowledge in that case that time and the book’s status as a classic are probably the greatest contributors to its predictability. I knew going in which ghosts Ebeneezer Scrooge would see, and what effect they would have on him. But again, I think that comes down to the fact that this is such a well-known Christmas story. I remember seeing the Mickey Mouse version of it, with Donald Duck starring as Scrooge, several times in my younger years; and that wasn’t the only adaptation I encountered, though it stands strongest in my memory.

And then again, the predictability of the story also helps demonstrate what I believe to be the greatest strength of the book: that even for readers who know exactly what to expect from the plot, Dickens captivates readers with his prose and his characters’ heartfelt emotions so thoroughly that the story is still worth reading. It was not only Scrooge’s transformation that held my attention, but poor Tiny Tim’s plight, the fate of Scrooge’s wife, and the games at his nephew’s Christmas party (and the guest with a crush on the niece’s sister). A Christmas Carol is packed with smaller stories inside the main plot that run through quite a range of emotions.

Best of all is the narrative style with which Dickens presents his story. He writes easily and informally, as though telling a story to a close friend. He’s often addressing the reader directly, emphasizing the fact that the story is going on in some window that only the writer can see, and the writer is pulling the reader closer to let him/her in on the secret. It’s a great balance that gives the story a sort of raw, honest feel, though it’s also begging to be shared, or shouted from the rooftops. No film adaptation I’ve seen of this same story has interested me so thoroughly or promised to stick with me as well as the book will– and that is because no one tells it better than Dickens. If you’ve ever been intrigued about A Christmas Carol, let me tell you, reading the book is worth it (and it’s a short book, so really you have no excuse).

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will charlesdickensdefinitely be reading more from Charles Dickens in 2018. I will be especially interested to see if the narrative voice I found in A Christmas Carol will be apparent in his other works, or if his style changes across novels. I think I’m less familiar with his other books, classics though they all are, so I’m excited to start fresh. I’m thinking either A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations will be in my plans for 2018.

Coming up Next: I’m just starting Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I’ve been having a surprising amount of fun with the dregs of my 2017 reading challenge– all the books I put off all year are finally being read, and they’ve been great. I don’t know why I’ve been putting off the titles I have, because I’ve particularly enjoyed reading them this month. I hope the trend continues with Smiley’s novel, which is the first book in a family saga trilogy that takes place in Iowa. One of the blurbs on the cover states that her writing is very Dickensian, which makes me hopeful after my experience with A Christmas Carol.

What seasonal reads are you checking out this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Mini-Review: The Color Purple

I do love a good classic, but generally I go into them knowing they’ll probably be dense and a little slower to read. I picked up The Color Purple because I needed a book from the bottom of my TBR for my 2017 reading challenge. The fact that it was on the bottom and a classic besides had me wary about how long it would take (I’m still hurrying to wrap up some 2017 goals) and how much I would actually enjoy it. But by about the tenth page, I knew: I was going to finish it within 24 hours, and I was going to love it. Thank you, reading challenge.

thecolorpurpleAbout the book: narrated through letters addressed to Celia, her sister Nettie, and God, Celia tells the story of her life in 1930’s Georgia. She’s a colored woman in a place and time that’s still very prejudiced, but she’s also found very little love in her childhood family, and in the family she was forced to marry into as an adult. She does, however, make some interesting friends after a fashion and begins to see the wrongs that have been done to her, as well as the ways in which she can rise up against them and persevere.

The Color Purple is written in dialect, meant to sound in the reader’s mouth or mind the way Celia (or her companions) would actually speak. This means the grammar isn’t perfect, the spelling is intentionally wrong in places, and the reader has to find the rhythm of the narration to read it at a normal pace. But, unlike some attempts at dialect writing, I had no trouble following this story, and I doubt many readers will struggle with the unusual style. It’s not my own dialect, so I can’t vouch for how accurate/inoffensive it may seem to others, but personally I had no complaints with it. The hardest aspect of the writing style for me to accept was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, which occasionally made it difficult for me to differentiate between Celia’s running commentary and someone else speaking.

“My skin dark. My nose just a nose. My lips just lips. My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh. My heart must be young and fresh though, it feel like it blooming blood.”

Even though the reader can see from the very first page how hard Celia’s life has been, The Color Purple is not overly heavy or depressing. She’s not an intrinsically sad or angry person, so even when I should have been outraged about something bad that happens to her, I found that reaction somewhat stifled by a greater interest in what would happen next, what it would mean for Celia going forward, because she herself always seems to be looking forward rather than back. That isn’t to say that the reader can’t appreciate the horrifying nature of some of the sins committed against Celia, but Celia’s tendency not to dwell on them overmuch provides a necessary sort of pull through the story that keeps the reader from throwing down the book in inconsolable despair.

“Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.”

On the contrary, the best thing about this book is how encouraging I found it, despite some difficult subject matter. If you’re a reader who likes to know what they’re getting into, let me warn you that there’s rape, spousal abuse, misogyny, prejudice, mutilation, displacement of native peoples and more. And yet, this isn’t a book solely for women of color, or even just for women. It’s full of positive messages about treating other people with kindness and finding strength from within. It’s about appreciating oneself first of all. It’s about righting wrongs, starting in one’s own family, in one’s own heart. There is history and culture here, but the morals they provide are accessible for all audiences, in a myriad of situations. The world needs more books like this: stories that keep the past from being forgotten, with the purpose of improving the future.

“The world is changing, I said. It is no longer a world just for boys and men.”

“Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book has been on my TBR for so long I don’t even remember exactly why I put it there. I knew next to nothing about The Color Purple before I started, but in spite of my hesitation it constantly surprised and impressed me. I will definitely be recommending this one, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve really been thankful for my reading challenge pushing me to read.

Further recommendations:

  1. Toni Morrison’s Sula is another short classic novel that focuses on prejudice toward African American citizens, and especially on the strife that prejudice creates within a smaller community. It’s a phenomenal tale of friendship and betrayal, with a hint of the fantastic.
  2. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a greater-known classic that’s also very easy to read and highlights the history of prejudice in America and the need for equality. This one is narrated by a young girl who learns some hard lessons about the state of her southern community when her father goes to trial to represent an African American man accused of raping a white girl.

What’s next: It’s starting to look definitely possible that I could finish my 2017 reading challenge list before the end of the month. I’m forging ahead with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I also know next to nothing about (maybe there are witches?) but am picking up for my challenge. I’ll have another mini-review up for this play shortly.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Lover

It’s crunch time for my 2017 reading challenge, so I’m trying to pick up as many books as I can to complete the challenge in the next two(ish) months. My latest challenge book has been Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, a book I started for school and never finished.

theloverAbout the book: A fifteen year-old French girl from a poor and hateful family meets a wealthy Chinese man on a ferry crossing the Mekong River in the early 1940’s. He claims to have fallen immediately in love with her, and she is in want of his money; so begins a year-and-a-half-long affair. The girl is narrating this time from a future point in her life, and mixed up in the telling of her first confusing love is the fate of her family and personal aspects of her transition to adulthood.

About the format: The girl becomes a writer after her affair, and is narrating her own story. She does so disjointedly, in block paragraphs separated by white space. Each paragraph is its own little story, sometimes reflecting on one character and jumping to another, often jumping in time, occasionally switching perspective between what it was like for the fifteen year-old girl in her present and what she thinks about herself and her lover when she looks back at that time.

This is not a book for the lazy reader– it is emotional and character-driven, with little plot and a lot of beautiful reflections on love and life, poverty and death and girlhood. There are gems here, for readers willing to mine for them. Great lines are not difficult to find, but putting the story together that connects the paragraphs, finding the common threads and noting juxtapositions between the paragraphs is more of an effort.

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line.”

One of my favorite things about this book is the way the tone of things change as the novel progresses. We see at first a poor but close family, but as the narrator’s “disgrace” grows as a result of her transparent affair, we learn that her mother is irresponsible and depressed, her elder brother cruel and selfish, the younger brother admired but insubstantial, and soon gone. At first we see the narrator accepting love as a means for money, but before she will even admit to herself that she can’t keep her fifteen year-old heart separate from the affair the reader sees that there’s more to her relationship with the Chinese man, as well.

“Very early in my life it was too late.”

My other favorite aspect of this book is that the beauty lies not in the plot or surprises of the novel, but in the telling of it. The narration is blunt and makes no effort to hide truths about what has happened to her, what will happen to her, and what she feels about it all. The beauty comes in the way she connects the affair to the ruin of her face, the loss of immortality, the severing of ties among her family that will begin soon after she leaves the lover. We see her learning and growing from the very first page, and the way Duras manages to convey both an understanding of the growth and a willingness to let the reader create his/her own morals from the hard lessons is magnificently done. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, the emphasis of The Lover is not on the morality of an affair between a young girl and an older man, but on its effect, both immediate and eventual. It’s sympathetic in its emotion.

“It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal.”

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Although I was absolutely drawn in by the rich and insightful prose, and marked many lines and perspectives that I’ll certainly revisit, the lack of plot made this a slower read for me. Generally plotless books seem to me to have little point; I would not say that The Lover has no point (it has many), but it was easier for me to read in snippets than altogether at once, despite its brevity. At barely over 100 pages, I didn’t need much actual reading time to finish this one, but I did need breaks to digest it between sittings. I wish my class in school had read the entire novel and discussed it more, because even though I absolutely enjoyed reading this book I feel that I could still learn more from it.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading two books, one a reading challenge book (Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever, a book I’m rereading from my childhood) and one not (Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter, a library book). The former is YA contemporary, a mild romance that deals more with grief and self-acceptance than love, and the latter is a mystery-thriller about a traumatized family learning the truth of an attack that left someone dead, when another attack occurs nearly thirty years later.

What are you reading as the year winds down?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Lambs

This year I picked up Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs as my Halloween read, but I ended up being so busy working the whole week that it went a little long. I watched the film once in high school, but most of the details didn’t stick, so almost everything in the novel seemed new and surprising to me.

About the book: FBI agent Jack Crawford is thesilenceofthelambshunting a serial killer that takes his victims’ skin. It’s taking a lot of time and effort from the FBI, but help comes from an unexpected source. Clarice Starling, FBI trainee at Quantico, is pulled aside to make a routine call on Dr. Hannibal Lecter. She’s not the first to be sent to him for answers about his crimes, and no one expects much from the visit. She’s supposed to be able to say she went, she spoke, she wrote up the report on the likely one-sided conversation. Except Dr. Lecter, nick-named Hannibal the Cannibal, former psychiatrist and evil manipulator of the human psyche, does have something to say to Clarice. He tells her something about the serial killer Crawford is hunting. When it becomes clear that Dr. Lecter knows who the killer is and the FBI doesn’t, Clarice’s involvement with Lecter and the current case increase, just as things begin to spiral out of control…

“Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”

About the format: the narration is third person omniscient, although it most often follows Clarice Starling. She is the link between Lecter and his vast knowledge of humankind, and Jack Crawford with the power of the FBI behind him. There are, however, several chapters dedicated to Crawford’s life, to Lecter’s, and even to Buffalo Bill’s skin-seeking endeavors, as well as his latest victim. These sporadic changes of pace keep Clarice’s search from becoming dull.

The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastic mystery. It’s weird enough to capture the reader’s attention, technical enough not to be dismissed as overly fictional, and bold enough that the reader never knows what’s coming next. Unless you remember the film, of course. Harris uses an exquisite level of detail, some for characterization, and some to lay the groundwork for plot twists ahead. There’s enough of both that the plot twists remain unpredictable and the characters feel real and sympathetic. Everything is a clue– whether it’s a clue as to how someone will act, or a clue for catching the killer.

The only things that felt odd to me in this novel were the author’s continual use of full names long after the reader had a solid grasp on the main characters. Jack Crawford is almost always Jack Crawford, rarely Crawford and even more rarely Jack. Clarice Starling is occasionally Starling, but the narration always introduces her fresh in each chapter as Clarice Starling. Dr. Hannibal Lecter gets his professional title as well as both first and last names. This one, at least, remains intriguing because it reminds the reader that Lecter is both a frightening criminal and a renowned intellectual. He’s evil, but the reader can’t help rooting for him a little. And then there’s Buffalo Bill, who has several names, some more real than others. But this is only a minor detail, and at least the reader can be assured of never forgetting who is who, or which character is being observed at any given moment. The only other small detail that bothered me was the sentence fragments at the beginnings of the chapters. Harris uses these often to set the scene, but then moves back into full sentences as he goes back to plotting and characterization. His full sentences are so well-crafted that the fragments confused me almost every time, leaving me wondering where the other half of the sentence was hiding. Again, this is a small detail, a stylistic choice that doesn’t affect the story greatly.

On the other hand, I’d like to talk about my favorite aspect of the novel: the technical descriptions. The level of detail about the moths, the prison cells, the motives and methods for removing human skin, the workings of the FBI, Crawford’s medical care for his wife, the appearance of the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims. Harris certainly knows what he’s talking about, and by providing so much detail beyond the bare minimum that the reader needs to understand the basic workings of the plot, he gives this novel such a sense of reality. And reality, of course, is what makes a horror book so terrifying. Anything can happen in a book, but it’s the fear that there really are deranged humans out there who might kill for skin that keeps the reader gripped in the tale. Harris doesn’t let the threat of death carry the story– so many stories involve death. There’s something about the human body being harvested for its materials, regardless of who is inside the skin, that Harris conveys to the reader and persuades him/her to be frightened of. It comes off as way more than a plot device because through the details we see Buffalo Bill as a person, as much as anyone can; we see his obsession with moths, his love for his poodle, his longing for his mother. “The devil is in the details,” they say. And yes, he is.

“You’ll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it’s the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is quite possibly the best mystery/detective book I have ever read. I need to read more Thomas Harris, particularly the original trilogy about Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the series, so I think I’m going to go back and read book one. Lecter is highly intriguing as a villain, made all the more complicated by the fact that he’s not always a villain in The Silence of the Lambs. I’m eager to learn more about him.

Further recommendations:

  1. Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, book two of the Cormoran Strike trilogy. I enjoyed all three of the books in this detective/murder series, but I found book two particularly grisly and horrifying in a way that Thomas Harris fans may appreciate. Book three, Career of Evil, may also be of interest as it delves into the mind of the mysterious killer.
  2. If you’re looking for less detective work and a little more straightforward horror, try Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. I know Halloween has passed now, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year, and this ghost/haunted house story is a perfect fit for any time of the year that you’re looking for a scare.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading one of my reading challenge books, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It’s a romance between a young French woman and an older Chinese man (it’s no Lolita though), and it touches on some beautiful and devastating facets of impossible dreams and unchangeable fates. It’s really short, so I hope to have more details for you in a review coming soon.

Sincerely,

The Literary ELephant

 

Mini-Review: The Haunting of Hill House

I don’t usually review classics, but I couldn’t resist with this one. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a perfect October book, but it’s surprisingly little-known. I had an interesting experience with this one from the start– the copy I checked out from the library is an old hard-cover with no dust jacket, and it was not an edition logged into the Goodreads database. A mysterious start, perfect for this mysterious story.

thehauntingofhillhouseAbout the book: Dr. Montague is a studier of such “phenomena” as those that take place in haunted houses. He wants to write a scholarly book about these unnatural occurrences, and with Hill House, he believes he’s found the ideal place. It has a tragic history, a frightening facade, and no one in nearby Hillsdale will go near it or hardly speak of it. He arranges for various persons with past supernatural encounters to spend a summer at the house with him, to awaken whatever unseen spirits might be in the house and to record the events that take place. Thus four strangers meet at Hill House half in seriousness, half in jest, to discover just how real the rumors about the haunted house will turn out to be.

” ‘I think we are only afraid of ourselves,’ the doctor said slowly. ‘No,’ Luke said. ‘Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.’ ‘Of knowing what we really want,’ Theodora said.”

The Haunting of Hill House is, obviously, a haunted house tale. There’s something very different about seeing a scary house film and reading about one; in a book such as this, it’s the psychological nature of the story that contains the horror, and Jackson handles that well here. It’s like a cross between Ethan Frome and The Bell Jar. From early in the book, we see Eleanor’s vulnerability, the easy shift of her mind and her willingness to lie– to others and to herself. Throughout the book there is a sort of hidden danger behind what appears on the surface to be an ordinary summer trip to a big, abandoned house. It is up to the reader to decide how much of the supernatural to believe; and if you don’t want to believe any of it, the story still works because Eleanor does, and the reader can’t deny that Eleanor is changing, no matter what is happening with the house.

“No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.”

Eleanor, one of Dr. Montague’s recruits, is the sort of well-developed character that a person can read about over and over again, and reach different conclusions every time. Her malleability is apparent in her contradicting thoughts, but most notably in her dialogue. And her supporting characters do not disappoint. Dr. Montague, ever the scientist, seems to be studying his guests as much as the house. Theodora is pegged early as the girl who says just what the other person is thinking, and selfish Luke is a causer of mayhem between the two women who may otherwise have been friends.

If you’re looking for a classic scare that’ll keep you guessing, look no farther.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I loved this book. It’s short and to-the-point, it’s creepy and weird, and it keeps the reader actively involved in the constructing of the story. It really is up to the reader how much is to be believed. I also want to read Jackson’s The Lottery at some point. If it’s anything like Hill House, I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

What’s next: I’m still reading Martin’s A Storm of Swords but I really didn’t want to give up a whole week in October to reading that exclusively, so I’m reading it slowly in the midst of all these other books. So that review will still be coming up eventually, but I think first you’ll see my thoughts on Tales From the Shadowhunter Academy by Cassandra Clare et al. It’s the second collection of short stories between her older series and her newer ones (still in progress), and I’m getting really excited about finishing my Shadowhunter marathon so this should go quickly.

What are you reading this October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Hobbit

I cannot even count the number of people who have recommended this book to me over the years, or even the exact number of years I’ve been putting it off. But here is The Hobbit, my 77th book of 2017 (my goal was 73, so that was a happy realization), and my first foray into Tolkien’s oeuvre.

About the book: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. thehobbitHe lives a happy hobbit life in his hobbit-hole home under a pleasant hill. Hobbits are not usually adventurous, but when Bilbo finds himself hosting thirteen dwarfs and a wizard for tea one day, he learns of an adventure just beginning and finds himself swept along in it. The adventure is a quest– the dwarfs want to travel back to their old homeland, overthrow the dragon that has taken residence there, and thus reclaim their palace and treasure. They are each to be rewarded for their trouble with gold and silver and precious gemstones when the treasure is recovered. That is, if they can survive the harsh landscape and dangerous magical creatures they encounter along the way.

“…and they all felt that the adventure was far more dangerous than they had thought, while all the time, even if they passed all the perils of the road, the dragon was waiting at the end.”

Here we have an adventure story, arguably the quintessential adventure story, although Treasure Island could also make a good case for that title. As with many adventure tales, this book is largely episodic in nature, meaning a lot of small plots are strung together consecutively in one long linked chain. Knowing the gist of the quest from the beginning of the story helps combat the chaos of the journey, as does the narrator’s foreshadowing in places where the story seems prone to wandering (episodic tales are generally full of chaos and wanderings, and lack the typical rise and fall of tension that begins with a single problem, is faced with obstacles, finds its climax in some sort of confrontation and then resolves, whether for better or worse. In episodic tales, the tension rises and falls repeatedly through multiple climactic moments and resolutions). The Hobbit uses a mix of both main plot types by laying the episodic adventure over a traditional plot arc with gradually mounting tension.

“Now is the time for our esteemed Mr. Baggins, who has proved himself a good companion on our long road, and a hobbit full of courage and resource far exceeding his size, and if I may say so possessed of good luck far exceeding the usual allowance– now is the time for him to perform the service for which he was included in our Company; now it the time for him to earn his Reward.”

The best aspect of The Hobbit, as I saw it, was the narration itself. The tale is told from some third-person perspective that knows future and past, can see various characters’ thoughts and motivations, addresses the reader directly, and acts as a general all-knowing guide to Middle-earth. There is a time in the book when Bilbo Baggins is said to be writing a memoir, and I find myself attracted to the idea that Baggins himself is the narrator of this tale, relying on accumulated knowledge of magical creatures and the parts of the story that must have been told to him in order to present himself as a nearly omniscient narrator.

“I may be a burglar– or so they say: personally I never really felt like one– but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less.”

I was also fascinated by Gandolf. He seems to be a fallible creature, and yet he’s always in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the right time so that things work out in a certain favorable way that they wouldn’t have been able to if he were present. He speaks of prophecy to Baggins, and though not much is discussed about it, I like to believe that he was so sure of Biblo’s skill and luck and general agreeableness due to some unmentioned prophecy. There is no other explanation given for his insistence on Bilbo Baggins accompanying the dwarfs on their journey, and for his surety that the hobbit is just the “burglar” they need. I would’ve loved to learn more about him, and I hope he makes a reapparance in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (I really don’t know anything about it, please don’t spoil me).

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

The songs woven throughout the story are also highly entertaining, especially when the reader tries to put a tune to them while reading. 🙂

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really haven’t been in the mood for episodic stories lately, but there was just enough of a traditional plot arc to get me through this one. The quest is mapped out early, so I had no difficulty reading through all the small mishaps along the way to the Lonely Mountain, knowing that there would a battle for the treasure at the end of the tale that would give the journey purpose. I highly enjoyed Tolkien’s narrative style, and am definitely planning to continue with The Fellowship of the Ring, though I think I’ll wait until I’ve finished the Song of Ice and Fire series first to keep my fantasy details straight. I found a lot of little details in The Hobbit that reminded me of details from Martin’s series, and I wasn’t surprised– I would be more surprised if you could point me to a fantasy writer who wasn’t in some way inspired by Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Chronicles of Narnia is a phenomenal adventure saga for readers young and old alike who area after fantastic journeys and magical creatures. The Magician King, by C. S. Lewis, is the first Narnia book (in chronological order, which I recommend), and it’s both easily readable and utterly engrossing.
  2. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust would be a great choice of fantasy for adult readers who are looking for something short and sweet and very reminiscent of The Hobbit. This one follows a boy who travels beyond the village of Wall to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he thinks he loves, and finds a whole world of adventure.
  3. I you’re not afraid of a long book, pick up George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I know the size of the novels in his Song of Ice and Fire series are intimidating, but they are worth the time. There are some similar elements of world-building between Martin and Tolkien, although A Game of Thrones is much more political and character-driven.
  4. For more adventure stories without all the fantasy elements, try Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the story of a teenage boy setting off with pirates in search of hidden gold. There’s no magic in this one, but if you like the constant misadventures of The Hobbit and don’t mind learning some nautical terms, you’ll enjoy this one just as much.

Coming up Next: I’ve just picked up Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, the final book in the Mortal Instruments series. It’s immensely long and I won’t be finishing it by the end of the month (which is only a few hours away), but I’m eager to see how it all ends for Clace and Simon and the Lightwoods et al, so I’m predicting that it won’t take me long to finish this one.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Every now and then I like to pick up an Agatha Christie book, because no one writes complex murder mysteries like Agatha Christie. This time, I picked up her 1933 Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, because 1. it’s going to be a movie later this year that I’m interested in seeing, and 2. it fulfills a slot on my 2017 reading challenge: a book based on a true story.

About the book: Hercule Poirotmurderontheorientexpress (world-famous detective) needs to make quick arrangements to get back to London, which lands him on the almost-full Stamboul-Calais coach of the Orient Express. What he doesn’t know is that he has hurried onto a train in which a murder is about to take place–and when it does, who better to solve it than the renowned detective? There is a doctor on board, and a director of the train line, who follow Poirot step-by-step as he interviews each of the surviving passengers on board, examines their luggage,  and uses logic to assemble a solution that sorts truth from lies–and identifies a shocking murderer… or murderers. To complicate matters, at the same time the murder was being committed, the train hit a snowbank and has been unexpectedly stopped on its track, away from stations and civilization–which means that the culprit/s must still be on board, feigning innocence and posing further threat to those remaining.

“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

This murder features a complex but logical conclusion. Poirot is an observer of psychology, and extremely skilled in putting together clues and discrediting lies with cunning attention to single words or phrases, or the exact placement of items. Christie presents the clues… and then Poirot shows all of the characters the “obvious” solution they’ve been missing all along, the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight.

In this particular case, though, I don’t think there is any possibility for the reader to guess the final solution before it is given. Poirot discusses the clues in the narration, but he also holds back details. For instance, there’s an important grease spot in this story that is noted briefly as a clue. But Poirot does not point it out to the others on his team until he knows what it means. And until he confides its meaning to them, the reader would not be able to figure out the answer to its presence because the crucial placement of the spot is not divulged in the narration until the time when the solution is presented. Although this is only one small clue, it is a good example of withheld information– and when there is information withheld from the reader, the possibility of the reader being able to reach the same logical conclusions as Poirot decreases. It is possible that the reader could make a wild guess and be right about the murderer/s and motives, but it’s not possible for the reader to follow the clues to that conclusion. For that reason, this book will appeal more to readers who like to be led through a well-crafted mystery, but not as much to mystery readers who like trying to solve the case themselves before the solution is revealed.

“But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?”

The only downfall is the wide cast of characters. Christie presents around a dozen characters with equal importance, giving only the most necessary details about each of them, one after another. It can be difficult to keep them straight throughout much of the story, and furthermore, it can be difficult to attach any sort of like/dislike to any of them when they’re all given this equal weight in the narration. If the reader can’t keep them separate in mind and maybe choose a potential murderer or two to stake a guess on, it can be harder for the reader to feel invested in the characters, and thus in their story.

Additionally–and I’m still on the fence about whether this is a strength or weakness–there’s quite a bit of diversity in this book, and it’s noted in the narration. Normally that’s a good thing, but here it’s also used as a sort of plot device. Different characters are judged in their ability to murder in certain ways by their nationality. I do not pretend to have any psychological training or skill in identifying patterns of murders, but it seemed odd to me that an Italian would be more suspect of a murder simply because it was a stabbing than an Englishman. Or for an American woman to have a more likely murderous temper than a Swedish or German woman. I appreciated seeing multiple nationalities, multiple languages being spoken, etc. but I did think that they were played upon rather oddly while Poirot and crew fished for suspects.

About the ending: there are some interesting twists in this book, but none so great as the end solution to the mystery. I was more pleased with the ending than any other part of the book, because the end is both terrifying in its implications and humorous in the conclusion that the investigators choose to accept. The book wraps up quickly, but is stronger for doing so. I wish I could say more without spoiling the book, but I will say that it’s my favorite end to a Christie novel so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was nearly a 5 star book for me, but I had so much difficulty keeping a few of the characters straight. There was a helpful chart with the layout of the train carriage and the passengers’ sleeping berths on it, and I did reference that repeatedly, but some sort of appendix that would’ve given me the key details on each character would’ve helped further in keeping the names attached to the right facts. But either way, this is definitely one of the best (maybe even the actual best) Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read. I was not bored or overly confused at any point, like I occasionally am in Christie’s complicated mysteries. I want to read more Christie. And I want to see the new movie adaptation for this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Choose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie if you’re looking for a similar mystery. This one features ten characters stranded on a small island, where they all begin to die one by one. Everyone is suspect until they’re dead–but will the mystery be solved before there’s no one left?
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great new psychological thriller with one key detail in common to Orient Express: a murder has been committed on board a ship at sea, which means that the killer is still on board. In this book, though, the journalist investigating the case finds herself also in danger of being killed, and her attempts to find the truth are further complicated by the fact that no one else on the ship will admit the dead woman ever existed.

What’s next: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps more commonly recognized by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones.) Check back soon to see if the second volume is as fantastic as the first.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant