Top Ten Tuesday: Best MetaFiction

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

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July 28: Freebie (This week you get to come up with your own TTT topic!)

I made this list recently and decided to use it here. For the purpose of this list, I’m calling metafiction a “self conscious” novel. These books discuss, and think about themselves as works of fiction, within the context of the novel. So we have lots of books within books, narrative footnotes that continue to story while commenting on it, and other forms withing the novel (diaries, letters, poetry, essays, plays etc).

51va-sxea5l._ac_uy218_1.The Princess Bride by William Goldman – The author frames the story as an abridged  retelling of an older book with the boring parts taken out. He frequently alludes to these parts throughout the text.  In the film adaptation this was handled by having frame story in which a grandfather reads his grandson the novel. We see this in the book as well, but it’s less prevalent.

“He held up a book then. “I’m going to read it to you for relax.”
“Does it have any sports in it?”
“Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest Ladies. Snakes. Spiders… Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”
“Sounds okay,” I said and I kind of closed my eyes.”

 

71jfo2zkzvl._ac_uy218_2.If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino– This one opens with “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” Throughout the text the fictional reader and real reader’s relationship is discussed and addressed, blurring the distinction between fiction and reality. There are also several books within  the book that we read (at least in part).

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything: just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

810pcxbl3l._ac_uy218_3. House of Leaves by Mark Danielwski– This books is has text arranged in strange ways that mirrors the events of the story. It contains lots of footnotes (which also have footnotes themselves) that reference works that don’t really exist. There are several narrators some of whom directly address the reader. It claims to be an unpublished manuscript of a lost documentary film, annotated by a tattoo artists. There’s also an appendix of letters from the tattoo artist’s (insane) mother.

“This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish [the book] and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick or feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won’t matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how. You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place”

 

81oy308r7ql._ac_uy218_4. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles– This novel looks at the 19th century novel as seen through a late 20th century perspective. We read the story that takes place in 1867, and the narration that calls one’s attention to the fact that the 1867 plot line is in fact, fictional. This was handled in the film adaptation by having a second timeline in which we see the 1867 story line being made into a film.

“You may think novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement: as skilled furniture makers enjoy making furniture, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy’s back. I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.”

 

71scqfzfhel._ac_uy218_5.  Atonement by Ian McEwan– Minor spoiler alert: The book turns out to have been “written” by one of the characters in the novel. The reasons that the character has for doing this involve much bigger spoilers. Interestingly the film adaptation didn’t try to do anything fancy with a secondary timeline. The “reveal” is simply there at the end.

“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

 

51xunct3xjl._ac_uy218_6. The Keep by Jennifer Egan– In the first chapter, this shifts from a story about two estranged cousins a Gothic castle to being about a man named Ray who is writing the story as a part of a prison’s creative writing program. The two stories unfold, switching back and forth, as the storylines reflect  back on one another.

Being somewhere but not completely: that was home for Danny, and it sure as hell was easier to land than a decent apartment. All he needed was a cell phone, or I-access, or both at once, or even just a plan to leave wherever he was and go someplace else really really soon. Being in one place and thinking about another place could make him feel at home.”

81qh7u4anel._ac_uy218_7. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne– I remember reading this in college with a big, “WTF!?” expression on my face the whole time! It claims to be the memoirs of a country gentleman, but it’s really one digression after another, and sometimes the digressions have digressions of their own! We also get some sermons, essays, drawings and more mixed in there. I tend to think of metafiction as being postmodern, so it’s amazing that this book was written in the 18th century!

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;”

 

813yvojs9pl._ac_uy218_8.The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood– This book includes a story within a novel within a novel. Iris is publishing a book written by her sister, Laura. Her book is about Alex Thomas, an author pulp sci-fi, who has a complicated relationship with two sisters (who may be counterparts for Iris and Laura). It also contains one of Alex’s stories, The Blind Assassin. Got that?

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”

a150ni9rjrl._ac_uy218_9.Possession by AS Byatt- This novel follows two academics as they follow a paper trail, researching the love affair between two fictional 19th century poets. It incorporates fictional diary entries, letters, and poems. These devices are ultimately used to question the authority of textual narratives.

“Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other.”

 

71vksxqmbul._ac_uy218_10. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz– Susan is editing the new manuscript by best selling mystery author Alan Conway, known for writing in the tradition of authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. We read the manuscript along with her. But there seems to be a chapter missing. Specifically, the last one where we learn whodunnit! Susan figures that it’s a mistake and she’ll talk to Alan on Monday and get the missing pages. But then she learns that Alan has just died and the missing pages are nowhere to be found. As she starts looking for the rest of the book, Susan discovers that the missing portion of the manuscript may reveal more than just the murderer in the novel: it may also contain information about who was responsible for Alan’s own death. In this case not only the manuscript, but the title itself if a clue as to whodunnit.

“I had chosen to play the detective—and if there is one thing that unites all the detectives I’ve ever read about, it’s their inherent loneliness. The suspects know each other. They may well be family or friends. But the detective is always the outsider. He asks the necessary questions but he doesn’t actually form a relationship with anyone. He doesn’t trust them, and they in turn are afraid of him. It’s a relationship based entirely on deception and it’s one that, ultimately, goes nowhere. Once the killer has been identified, the detective leaves and is never seen again. In fact, everyone is glad to see the back of him.”

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Tropes

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

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August 20: Favorite Tropes (a trope is a commonly used theme or plot device) (submitted by Andrea @ Books for Muse)

1. Mysterious school

2. Slow burn romance

3. Small towns

4. Missing/Absent parents

5. Family secrets

6. Gothic

7. Neo-Victorian

8. Time Travel / Time Slips

9. Dual Timelines

10. Fairy Tale retellings

The Book Courtship Tag

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I was tagged by the wonderful Jessie @ Dwell in Possibility to participate in The Book Courtship Challenge.

Phase 1: Initial Attraction (A book you bought because of the cover)

51jim7nty8l-_ac_us218_The  Children’s Book by AS Byatt– I love the contrast between the blue cover and the green jeweled dragonfly. Since I’ve read other books by AS Byatt and liked them, and since the synopsis (about a British family before and after WWI) interested me, I decided to buy it. But the cover definitely helped me make that decision. But apparently, I shouldn’t judge books by their covers (who knew?) because this was a bit of a disappointment.

 

Phase 2: First Impressions (A book you got because of the summary)

51cztvl1wgl-_ac_us218_The Wildling Sisters by Eve Chase– This one was difficult because I usually pick books based on their summaries. So I just went with the most recent.

When fifteen-year-old Margot and her three sisters arrive at Applecote Manor in June 1959, they expect a quiet English country summer. Instead, they find their aunt and uncle still reeling from the disappearance of their daughter, Audrey, five years before. As the sisters become divided by new tensions when two handsome neighbors drop by, Margot finds herself drawn into the life Audrey left behind. When the summer takes a deadly turn, the girls must unite behind an unthinkable choice or find themselves torn apart forever.

Fifty years later, Jesse is desperate to move her family out of their London home, where signs of her widower husband’s previous wife are around every corner. Gorgeous Applecote Manor, nestled in the English countryside, seems the perfect solution. But Jesse finds herself increasingly isolated in their new sprawling home, at odds with her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, and haunted by the strange rumors that surround the manor.

Rich with the heat and angst of love both young and old, The Wildling Sisters is a gorgeous and breathtaking journey into the bonds that unite a family and the darkest secrets of the human heart.

It’s got a few elements I love: mysterious house in the English countryside, dual timeline, hints of murder… It wasn’t brilliant but it was an entertaining read.

Phase 3: Sweet Talk (A book with great writing)

61gfhxkbrll-_ac_us218_Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff–  I can see where someone might not like this novel; there aren’t really characters who the reader has sympathy for, and if you don’t like stories with multiple threads that don’t come together until later in the book, you won’t like this. But it’s hard to deny that Groff’s prose is an accomplishment. At times it’s weighty: when the focus is on a rather pretentious character it becomes so full of metaphors and literary references that it can be hard to “get”. But that’s intentional. When the perspective changes so does the writing.

 Phase 4: First Date (A first book of a series which made you want to pursue the rest of the series)

51znbwc8r-l-_ac_us218_The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati– I am impatiently waiting for the second book in this series to come out! It takes place in NYC in 1883 and follows two female doctors, Anna and Sophie. There’s romance, mystery, and some real historical figures like Anthony Comstock. Comstock saw himself as a protector of morality and in this novel, he serves as a kind of villain. But all together, it’s a lot of fun.

 

Phase 5: Late Night Phone Calls (A book that kept you up all night long)

41ieqbejzwl-_ac_us218_Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James– This is the most recent book to give me the “just one more chapter…” problem. It’s not great literature but it’s a fun read. In 1921 Jo works as a paid companion to Dottie, the aunt of her husband Alex, who died in WWI. When she goes to live with Dottie at Wych Elm House, she’s exposed to things that go bump in the night, family secrets, and the fact that her late husband might not have been entirely truthful with her. This book did a nice job with atmosphere and it kept the tension going with some plot twists and turns.

Phase 6: Always On My Mind (A book you couldn’t stop thinking about)

51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– This book is hard to describe because some elements are so beautiful and others are so ugly. The prose is lovely. Its one of the few books where I would read and savor certain parts again and again. Some of the content is beautiful too; dealing with family, friendship, and love of all kids. But some of what the main character endures is so ugly. The fact that Yanagihara’s writing can be beautiful even when she’s describing horrors is somewhat disturbing. I still think about the characters sometimes as if they’re real people.

 7: Getting Physical (A book you love the feel of)

51j0fpre5nl-_ac_us218_Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock- This book is a tactile experience. It’s a love story told through the letters of two artists. You take each letter from the envelope and read it. Often there’s a postcard in there, and some decorative stamps as well. The letters are on different stationary, sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed. The story itself is good too! One of these characters might be mentally ill and hallucinating the whole correspondence. Or Griffin and Sabine might actually have a psychic connection from different universes.

Phase 8: Meeting the Parents (A book you would recommend to your friends and family)

51vrv0hceml-_ac_us218_Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi- First of all, I’m cautious recommending books because one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. I need to know something about someone and their tastes before recommending. But this is one I’d recommend to most people. It’s a “memoir in books”. Nafisi had to leave her job as a professor at the University of Tehran due to repressive policies. But she invited seven of her best female students into her home each week to discuss classic Western literature. I think this book really explores how fiction can take people outside of themselves, how it can inspire people to create real-world change, and how it can help people survive in difficult times. I came away from this book feeling, perhaps for the first time, that reading a novel might be the most subversive thing a person can do.

Phase 9: Thinking About the Future (A book or series that you know you’ll re-read many times in the future)

61bwr8sfvhl-_ac_us218_Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards– This is a lovely, comforting book. I remember picking it up randomly as a kid and falling in love with the characters and the setting. And when I flipped to the “about the author” page and saw that Julie Edwards was actually the married name of the Julie Andrews (who I knew and worshipped thanks to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) I was wowed. I reread it a few years ago, and it still put a smile on my face. I think it might be one to revisit in the future when I need something comforting and cozy.

Phase 10: Share the Love (Here’s who I’m tagging)

(Sorry if you’ve already been tagged, and there’s no pressure to participate if you don’t feel like it)

If I didn’t tag you, don’t let that stop you, go for it!

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Dual Timeline Novels

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

February 20: Books I’ve Decided I’m No Longer Interested In Reading

This topic didn’t really speak to me. My thinking is that if I’m no longer interested in reading them, then why waste time writing about them? So instead I decided to look at one of my favorite fictional genres. I love dual timeline narratives in which the past and the present interact in some way. It could be a literal interaction; such as someone from the present having contact with someone in the past, or it could be more thematic- the present day character learns about some past event that illuminates something that s/he is experiencing. My “rules” for this list are that there isn’t allowed to be any literal time travel. Each character needs to remain physically in his/her own period. Visions of the other period are allowed though. Also, only two primary timelines are allowed. We can learn bits and pieces of what happens in between, but the main narrative focuses on two timelines. Here are ten favorites:

51pv4ly0mtl-_ac_us218_1. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton– I was initially reluctant to read this after having been rather disappointed in Morton’s debut The House at Riverton. But I’m so glad that I gave her another chance because now she’s one of my favorite authors! This story starts off with a little girl, turning up abandoned on a ship from England to Australia in 1913. The only clue as to her identity is a book of fairy tales in her suitcase. Years later, her granddaughter, Cassandra, inherits a cottage in Cornwall, and journeys to England to discover the truth about her grandmother’s origins. She discovers that the key to the puzzle exists before her grandmother’s birth, with a Victorian country house full of family secrets. Friendship,  rivalry, betrayal, romance, and murder all play out in stories within stories. But even though the narrative is intricate (to say the least) it’s not hard to follow. Each chapter heading tells us exactly when and where the bit we’re reading takes place.

51iaiuahol-_ac_us218_2. Mariana by Susanna Kearsley– Susanna Kearsley has written many wonderful novels in this genre. For me, this one is a standout but anything she’s written is a reliable bet. Julia Beckett moves into an old farmhouse, one that she’d wanted to own since childhood. But when she moves in, she begins dreaming of Mariana, a British woman who lived in the house in the 17th century. Mariana loved her neighbor, Richard, a Loyalist, whose politics put him at odds with her uncle. Though their romance ended in tragedy, Mariana and Richard loved each other too much to stay separated. Their love will come full circle in the present day, and Julia will have an important role to play in the resolution.

51c-asvgcil-_ac_us218_3. The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Setterfield– Reclusive author, Vida Winter, has never told anyone the truth about her life story. When she’s old and ill, she hires Margaret Lea to write her biography. Margaret listens in fascination and disbelief as Vida tells her story of gothic weirdness. It’s complete with twins, a ghost, a governess, a fire, and a secret that’s never been shared. Margaret has her own issues with trust and intimacy, and her own past. Through listening to and telling Vida’s tale, she may find some resolution in her own life.

5160vyclkel-_ac_us218_4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel– During a performance of King Lear, Arthur Leander, famous actor, has a heart attack onstage and dies despite the best efforts of an EMT in the audience. The EMT, Jeevan, later learns that on this same night the terrible flu began to spread. There is no cure, hospitals are flooded, and people begin to panic. Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves in his apartment as the world around them falls apart.  Fifteen years later, Kirsten, who as a small child appeared in that fateful production of King Lear, is an actress with the Travelling Symphony. This is a performing arts troupe that travels from one settlement of the ruined world to another. They perform Shakespeare and play music for the small communities of survivors because “survival is insufficient”- people need reminders of what it means to be human. When they arrive at St. Deborah by the Water and encounter a cult and a violent prophet who doesn’t let anyone leave. The book covers twenty years during which the twists of fate that link these disparate characters are revealed.

51lo8bgzurl-_ac_us218_5. The Plague Tales by Ann Benson– In 1348, a Spanish doctor  Alejandro Canches is tasked with keeping the court of Edward III alive during the plague. Nearly 700 years later, in a futuristic 2005 (the book was written in 1995 so 2005 was the future then!) Janie Crowe, a physician comes across a soil sample that contains a microbe that may unleash the bubonic plague on a post-Outbreak world that has already been decimated by disease. As the book progresses, these two separate stories of doctors fighting disease begin to intertwine in interesting ways. This book can be read as a standalone, or as the beginning of a trilogy. It’s followed by The Burning Road and The Physician’s Tale.

51iqjeozjvl-_ac_us218_6. A Cottage by the Sea by Ciji Ware– Blythe Barton was one married to a Hollywood power player. Then she walked in on him in bed with her sister. One messy divorce later, Blythe takes refuge in Cornwall, where she’s rented a cottage for the summer. She meets Lucas, the owner of the cottage that she’s renting. Jack is a widower, the father of a young son, who is trying to keep his estate going. Blythe wants to help. But she soon begins to have dreams and visions of Lucas’s ancestors. In the 18th century, the estate belonged to a woman, also named Blythe Barton. She was married, against her will, to a man named Christopher, though she loved his brother, Ennis. All three have tragic fates, but observing these historical events gives Blythe the perspective she needs to move on with her own life.

41xgjp2alkl-_ac_us218_7. The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve– In 1873, two women living on the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, were found murdered. A third woman survived by hiding in a sea cave. In the present day, photojournalist Jean goes to the island with her husband, Thomas and their daughter Billie. The plan is for Jean to shoot a photo essay for a magazine about the murders. They take a boat with Thomas’ brother Rich and his girlfriend, Adelaine. As Jean is drawn into the murders that happened so long ago, Thomas and Adelaide are drawn to each other. All of the characters, in both timelines, are heading toward disaster. The book is based on real murders that happened on the island Smuttynose, though the contemporary story is fictional. Actually, the historical story is fictional too since the crimes in the book happen in a way very different from the story that came out in court at the alleged killer’s trial. The book was given an ok film adaptation in 2004. It’s worth a look if you like the story, but it comes as no surprise that the book is better.

51h-9e-csql-_ac_us218_8. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood– Like The Weight of Water, this is based on a real-life murder. In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were murdered in Upper Canada. Grace Marks, a maid in the household, and James McDermott, a stableman/handyman, were convicted of the murder. McDermott was hanged and Grace Marks was sentenced to life in prison. That much is historical fact. Atwood’s novel begins after Grace has been incarcerated for some time. A committee that believes in her innocence hopes to have her pardoned and released. Since Grace cannot remember the crimes, they hire Dr. Simon Jordan, a psychologist to evaluate her and determine her sanity. Dr. Jordan meets with Grace and listens as she tells him the story of her life, leading up to the day of the murders. We follow Grace’s story and at times we wonder about the truth of what Grace tells Dr. Jordan. She seems to make an effort to keep his interest. We’re left with a sense of ambiguity. How much of what Grace tells is the truth? If what she tells isn’t the truth, does that mean she’s lying? This was recently made into a netflix miniseries that was also pretty good.

61hyvemt7ol-_ac_us218_9. Possession by AS Byatt– In the 19th century, poet Randolph Henry Ash, known for being a devoted husband, had an affair with his fellow poet Christabel LaMotte. At the end of the 20th century, scholar Roland Mitchell discovers evidence of the secret romance and begins to investigate. His quest leads him to LaMotte scholar, Dr. Maud Baily. The two become obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened between Ash and LaMotte, and their own romantic lives begin to become entwined with those of the poets. Both stories are told in parallel and come to echo one another in interesting ways. The book had a film adaptation that wasn’t bad on its own but made some fairly significant changes from the novel.

51ixaf4tmsl-_ac_us218_10. The Eight by Katherine Neville–  In 1790, Mireille, a novice nun at Montglane Abbey is tasked with helping her cousin, Valentine, disperse the pieces of a chess set in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. The set was a gift from the Moors to Emperor Charlemagne, and now it’s sought by power-hungry men and women including Napoleon, Robespierre, and Catherine the Great. In 1972 computer expert Cat Velis is sent to Algeria on a special assignment. Before she leaves, she is asked by an antique dealer to find the Montglaine Service, the same chess set that Mireille had tried to protect. It’s rumored to be in Algeria. As Cat tracks down the chess set and learns its history, she discovers the power that it contains.  The author wrote a sequel in 2008 called The Fire but I haven’t read it yet.

51timps1ytl-_ac_us218_11. The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor- Yes I know it’s supposed to be ten but I had trouble deciding between a couple, and I ended up just including an extra book. This is also based on a real incident. In 1917, England was still in the grips of the most devastating war that it had ever seen. Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, two cousins in Yorkshire, announced that they’ve photographed fairies in their garden. They release the photographs and become a national sensation. A country torn apart by war seems to have found the magic it desperately needs. Eventually, though, Frances and Elsie feel that they must tell the truth about the pictures. In 2017, Olivia Kavanagh inherits her grandfather’s bookshop and discovers an old manuscript. She becomes immersed in the story it tells, that ties past to present. But when she discovers a photo, she learns that reality and fantasy may be intertwined as well.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Neo-Victorian Novels

This is for That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday. The topic this week is

January 16: Bookish Resolutions/Goals

However, I feel like I covered a lot of that in some of my recent posts, so if anyone wants to know what my 2018 reading might look like check out these posts.

Since I love Victorian novels, I decided that this week I’d do top ten neo-Victorian novels, written in a Victorian style.

41swp08eytl-_ac_us218_11. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters– I remember reading this on a train. I got to a point mid-book where I had to stop reading and look around and see if there was anyone around me who I could tell about what I’d just read. I won’t say much about the plot because it would be a crime to spoil some of the twists and turns in this book.  It features thieves and con artists, an heiress, orphans, and pornographers. There is murder, deception, betrayal, and long-buried secrets (all some of my favorite elements of Victorian fiction) You can look at it as a critique of Victorian moral hypocrisy, a mystery, a love story, or a gothic melodrama. I personally think it’s all of the above.

51yolftykzl-_ac_us218_2. The Quincunx by Charles Palliser– This book is a tale of a family inheritance (as is a lot of Victorian fiction) and the reader is led through a very twisted family tree and numerous plotlines. It’s a big book (about 800 pages) but it doesn’t seem like work. Rather, the reader suspends disbelief as the hero is flung from rags to riches to rags again. Pay attention to the number five as you read this. The title refers to a heraldic symbol in five parts, that appears at important points in the text. The novel itself is in five parts, each dedicated to a different family with which our narrator becomes involved. It’s a neat trick, that for the most part, the author manages to pull off.

51t906lssol-_ac_us218_3. The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox– This book opens with our narrator, Edward Glyver, committing a murder. He later tells us that this murder was practice, just to make sure he could do the deed. His true target is Phoebus Rainsford Daunt. The narrative takes us back in time, and we eventually learn who these characters are and why Glyver wants to kill Daunt. But as we follow Glyver’s twisted logic, we come to realize that he’s an unreliable narrator. Is Daunt really the monster that Glyver makes him out to be? This book is followed up by a sequel (which could be read as a standalone) The Glass of Time, which some say is even better than the first. I think it read more easily, but I was glad that I’d read the first novel because I was able to appreciate certain elements more.

51sdee-q1sl-_ac_us218_4. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles- This book explores the relationship between amateur naturalist Charles Smithson, and Sarah Woodruff, an independent woman with whom he falls in love. It follows a lot of the conventions of the Victorian novel (and is set in Victorian England) but it simultaneously critiques those conventions and explodes them. The author inserts himself into the story as an omniscient narrator as well as (briefly) a character. He tells us about what is happening in the character’s world, what will happen to it, and what the character’s future will be. He also offers the reader three possible endings to the story, from which the reader can choose. Because of the innovative form, I don’t know if I’d call this Neo-Victorian. Maybe Post-Modern Victorian or Meta Victorian would be more accurate.

51j8xsssd0l-_ac_us218_5. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber– The heroine of this novel is Sugar, a Victorian prostitute with a love of books and hopes for a better life. She becomes involved with William Rackham, a wealthy perfumer. His patronage of Sugar brings her into his world, where she meets his “hysterical” wife Agnes and his daughter Sophie who is left mostly in the care of others. Faber explores the notion of morality a lot, emphasizing that the line between “good” citizens and those who they look down upon is subjective.  There is sex in this book (unsurprising given Sugar’s occupation) but the description of sex, and really almost anything physical, has a clinical tone to it, and our peaks into Victorian bedrooms don’t leave out the chamber pots. So while there is an emphasis on physical acts and processes that most Victorian writers wouldn’t touch directly, it seems like a warning against thinking that Victorians were too prim and proper to get dirty.

61hyvemt7ol-_ac_us218_6. Possession by AS Byatt– This novel features a dual timeline. Two academics in the late 20th century uncover a secret love affair between two Victorian poets. We read a great deal of the work of these two fictional poets. The male poet’s work is reminiscent of Robert Browning, while the female poet’s work recalls Emily Dickenson. The two scholars engage in a sort of competitive romance that contrasts their era’s expectations of romance and sex with that of their subjects. I wouldn’t recommend this book to the casual reader because it’s demanding. You have like Victorian style poetry,  and read excerpts of fictional biographies and scholarly journals.  All of this is important to the overall story and characters, but it does make it a rather dense read. Though I suppose the same could be said of many Victorian novels.

41likqxjkrl-_ac_us218_7. The Prestige by Christopher Priest– Many readers may be familiar with the 2006 film adaptation of this novel. While the adaptation was good, I think that the novel will still hold several surprises for readers. It brings us to the music halls of Victorian London, where two magicians each have a seemingly impossible illusion. They compete to learn the other’s secrets. But what begins as professional rivalry turns into an obsession with consequences that their descendants will feel for generations.  The novel plays with a lot of conventions of the Victorian sensation novel; family curses, multiple narrators, doppelgangers, and seances. But, while for the most part, it’s a Wilkie Collins style thriller, it occasionally ventures into HG Wells territory.

61n06chw1ol-_ac_us218_8. The American Boy by Andrew Taylor– Thomas Shield, a London teacher, becomes tutor to a young American boy named Edgar Allen Poe and his friend, Charles Frant. While the book tries to present the young Poe as the catalyst for the novel’s events, really the focus of the novel is on Shield and his love for Frant’s mother, which causes him to become involved with the mystery of her late husband’s death.  Actually, the novel recalls more of Wilkie Collins’ work stylistically than anything that Poe ever wrote. But while I felt like it was somewhat mistitled (the original title was apparently An Unpardonable Crime, which fits better), it’s a historical mystery that’s entertaining enough so that it didn’t bother me too much.

51h-9e-csql-_ac_us218_9. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood– In 1843, Grace Marks was convicted of the murders of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress. Some believe that she’s innocent. Others don’t. But was the 16-year-old Grace old enough to be held responsible for her actions? Did she understand what she was doing? Was she sane? Grace herself claims to have no memory of the murders. A group that believes that Grace is innocent hire Dr. Simon Jordan to try to find out the truth about what happened. Dr. Jordan works in the new field of psychology and is very much in the same position as the reader, as Grace tells him her story. But is Grace telling him the truth? Is she an innocent victim or a femme fatale? And are those two archetypes really the only options for Grace? This is based on a real murder case. Atwood maintains ambiguity throughout. Recently a well done Netflix miniseries, based on the novel was released.

51c-asvgcil-_ac_us218_10. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield– Vida Winter is a famous author who is most famous for her collection of twelve short stories. Over the past sixty years, she has created several life stories that she claims have been hers. Now, near the end of her life, she hires biographer Margaret Lea to tell her true story. It’s a story of gothic strangeness, of a governess, a ghost, an abandoned baby,  a house fire and a truly bizarre family. As Margaret tries to verify its truth, she doesn’t realize that Vida’s final story is ongoing and that she’s got an important role to play. This book has two timelines; one is the story that Vida is telling, and one is a contemporary timeline in which Vida tells her story to Margaret. However, stylistically the book is very Victorian. As a heroine, Margaret recalls Jane Eyre in that she seems sensible and repressed, but there is a lot going on beneath the surface. The Yorkshire setting recalls the Brontes, and thematically there’s a bit of The Turn of the Screw in there as well.  It also featured a twist that made me put the book down and go “wow”.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books I Struggled to Get Into But Ended Up Being Worth the Effort

For The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

September 5Ten Books I Struggled to Get Into But Ended Up Being Worth the Effort

These are all books that I considered putting down at one point (though in several chases they were assigned for school, but if they hadn’t been I may have considered it!) but I ended up being glad that I didn’t.

41cqtfv5hpl-_ac_us218_1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky- This was a book that I read with my AP Lit class in high school. I read it again in a 19th Century Novel class in college. It’s not easy going because a lot of what occurs takes place in the mind of Raskolnikov, the main character. Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex student living in St. Petersberg. He believes that there are some people who are a drain on society, who take advantage of the little guys, and who the world is ultimately better without. Surely we’d all be better off if these people would be put to death…. After a lot of deliberation, he kills Alyona Ivanovna, a greedy pawnbroker. In the process he also ends up killing her sister, Lizaveta, who happened to witness the crime. Once he makes his escape, Raskolnikov can’t get a moment’s peace. He worries obsessively over the details of the murder. Raskolnikov isn’t what you’d call psychologically sound. So spending a lot of time in his head can get confusing, and occasionally frustrating. But it’s worth it overall, to watch this feverish, tortured man, do the inexcusable, while truly believing it to be the best thing for society overall. It’s interesting to see him begin to realize the horror of what he’s done and wonder if redemption is possible.

418rxncl2rl-_ac_us218_2. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski– At first it feels like there’s too much happening here. We begin with the story of Johnny Truant, a tattoo artist who confesses to being “an unreliable narrator”. He’s looking for an apartment and his friend tells him about the apartment of Zampano, a recently deceased old man. In Zampano’s apartment, Truant finds a manuscript called “The Navidson Record” which is an academic study of a documentary film, which may or may not actually exist. So we have Zampano’s study of the film, Truant’s autobiographical asides, a transcript of part of the film, interviews with people involved in “The Navidson Record” and masses of footnotes. We also get some narration from Truant’s mother through a self contained set of letters. It gets overwhelming! But as we read, we discover that there are small cues to keep the narratives straight, and that eventually they all come together to create a whole.

61eiooixctl-_ac_us218_3. Middlemarch by George Eliot– I read this for a college class and initially it seemed like a huge chore. We had what seemed to be endless descriptions of this town. The subtitle of the book is “A Study of Provincial Life” and for the first few chapters it seemed more like an academic study than a novel. Fortunately, as time went on, we become more involved in the lives of the town people. To a large extent, the focus is on the life of Dorothea Brooks, and the career of Tertius Lydgate and how the two intersect. But significant attention is also given to the courtship of two townspeople, and one man’s disgrace. I was surprised to go from dreading reading about dry facts, to slowly becoming involved in the lives of these characters.

61hyvemt7ol-_ac_us218_4. Possession by AS Byatt– Byatt says that she wrote it in response to author John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In ‘Possession’ I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the text

The novel portrays two present day academics, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who investigate the life and relationship of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (based on Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and Christabelle LaMotte (based on Christina Rosetti). They follow a trail of clues hidden in letters and journals,  to find out about the true nature of the Ash-LaMotte relationship, before rival colleagues do. The extensive diaries, poetry, and letters of the main characters are presented in the book as is the fictional poetry of Ash and LaMotte. All of this, and the academic way that Roland and Maud think, can initially make this feel dense and inapproachable. It takes some patience and getting used to.

51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_5. A  Little Life by Hana Yanagihara– This isn’t a book that hard to read because anything about the text itself is difficult. Rather it’s hard because it’s is so sad, and deals with so many difficult and taboo subjects. Four friends graduate an elite college and begin their lives in NYC. Willem is a kind hearted aspiring actor. JB is a painter of Hatian descent.  Malcom is an architect from a biracial family, who still lives at home. Jude is a lawyer of unknown ethnicity. Though the narration is omniscient and we meet all the characters, the bulk of the focus falls on Jude. We’re first told of an “accident” when he was a child that wasn’t really an accident, but left him permanently disabled and in a lot of pain. Then we learn that the orphaned Jude has a tendency to cut himself. We also learn that he hates sex, and that he doesn’t believe that he deserves any of the devoted friends and family that he has. It’s some time before we learn the truth of Jude’s life before he met his friends at college. When we do learn about it, it’s more horrific than anything we imagined. Some reviewers called the book “melodrama” or even “torture porn”. But it doesn’t embrace the elements to shock the reader, but rather to access an emotional truth. When Jude finally tells a loved one the truth, this person tells him that it wasn’t his fault. He was a child. He was the victim of people who preyed on his innocence and desperation, and that none of what he experienced has made him unworthy of love. Jude struggles to believe that, and to live a good life- one that he has earned through his own hard work. He loves other people and he tries to let them love him in return. For most of us these things aren’t a struggle at all. But for Jude they are a constant battle. But there’s tremendous beauty in that effort.

51zpob-ijil-_ac_us218_6. Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett- Frances Crawford of Lymond is a Scottish nobleman accused of deceit, treachery, treason, rape, and murder. He’s only guilty of a few of those things. He returns to Scotland in 1547 after several years in exile for reasons that won’t be revealed for some time. His own brother has vowed to kill him. But for rather complicated reasons, Lymond, accused of treason, may be the only person who can save his country from an English invasion.  I think the series is definitely worth reading (based on the first two books) but they’re not easy reads. We don’t really get inside the character’s thoughts much, so it’s often a while before we understand what’s going on and why.  The main character is a brilliantly educated polygot who often makes references that I don’t get right away. So it takes some effort to get into. Another author would have told us early on what’s happening, what Lymond is accused of and what accusations were false, where he’s been for the past few years and why he’d return to Scotland. In that case, the action of the book, would be front and center. The fact that Dunnett leaves the character’s motives so unknown makes this an interesting, sometimes confusing take on the historical fiction genre.

 

51j8xsssd0l-_ac_us218_7. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber -In 1870’s London, Sugar is a prostitute in a brothel. Like many in her profession, she longs for a better life. William Rackham is a well-to-do businessman takes Sugar on as a mistress, and she’s draws herself into his life; his mentally fragile wife, Agnes; their deceitful housekeeper Clara, their mysterious daughter Sophie…. The characters aren’t easy to classify. Is Sugar a bad woman scheming to manipulate a wealthy man and get his money? Or is she a woman who was dealt a bad had, doing what she can to make her way in a world that’s not very kind?  At times the author suggests the answer to this question, but never outright answers it. But it’s not an easy read. At 922 pages it’s a long haul and we really see the ugly side of Victorian London, in a way that Dickens spared us.

51yxivihhl-_ac_us218_8. The Magus by John Fowles– Nicholas is an Oxford grad who takes a job as a teacher at a school on a remote Greek island. Over the summer, he becomes bored, depressed and lonely. Then he meets Maurice Conchis, a wealthy recluse who lives on the island.  Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis’ psychological games. At first he sees these games as a sort of a joke. But as they grow more elaborate and intense, Nicholas reaches a point where he isn’t able to tell what’s real and what isn’t. The reader can’t tell either and it gets kind of trippy. Several portions of the book have a “what the heck was that?” quality to them. But that ambiguity is also what makes it interesting.

51656aeukhl-_ac_us218_9. East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood– Lady Isabel Carlyle leaves her husband an babies to elope with Frances Levison. She bears Levison’s illegitmate child before she realizes that he has no intention of marrying her. He deserts Isabel, who is then disfigured in a train accident, and her child is killed (because apparently bad things really do happen in threes!) Lady Isabel gets a job as a governess in the household of her former husband and his new wife. This allows her to be close to the children she abandoned. But the pressure of keeping up the facade becomes too much for her. I read this because I was interested in Victorian “sensation” novels. I enjoyed it, in spite of, and at times because of, its rather implausible plot. But it’s also tough going at times because of the various shifting and double identities.

414n0roja3l-_ac_us218_10. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard– This play shifts between modern day Sidley Park and the same locations in the early 19th century. In the past, Thomasina, the daughter of the house, and Septimus Hodge, her tutor. The present day story concerns Hannah and Bernard, two academic researchers investigating a scandal caused by Lord Byron when he stayed at Sidley Park. The two story lines interweave math, physics, literature, philosophy,  architecture, and philosophy. I was assigned to read this in the summer before I started college before my freshman seminar. It made me very nervous about not being smart enough for college, because I felt like a lot of it went right over my head! But when we started to go through it in class and analyze it, I realized how clever, funny, and enjoyable this really was.