Sunday, September 25, 2011

Laura's Review - Annabel

In 1968, a baby was born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake, in a small Labrador trapping village. The birth was attended by a few village women, all close friends. One woman, Thomasina, noticed something unusual right away: the baby had both male and female genitalia. She was the only one outside the family who knew, and supported Jacinta as she struggled to accept what this would mean to them, and to the baby. Treadway decided the baby would be raised as a boy, and while Jacinta felt otherwise, she would not go against her husband. From that moment on the baby was known as Wayne, although Thomasina often called him "Annabel" in private.

Jacinta wished she could raise Wayne as both son and daughter, and only vaguely understood the challenges this could pose for Wayne as he grew up. Treadway desperately wanted a traditional, masculine son, and despaired at Wayne's more feminine interests. As a boy, Wayne was ignorant of the medical details, and knew only that he has to take special vitamins. He felt vaguely different from the other boys he knew, and his closest friend was a girl. While Wayne's medical treatment was costly, the more devastating impact was emotional. Jacinta and Treadway are unable to share their feelings with each other, and gradually this takes a toll. Wayne found it increasingly difficult to relate to either of them, and life only became more difficult as he matured and struggled to find his true self.

Kathleen Winter drew me into this story gradually, and skillfully. It wasn't a page-turner, but I was surprised to find myself emotionally caught up in this book. I despaired at Jacinta and Treadway's broken relationship, and each response to the family tension. My heart wrenched over the conflict between Treadway and Wayne, especially when Treadway's fears led him to destroy something very dear to Wayne. I also felt very sad for Wayne, who had a secret no one could understand, and coped with so much emotional trauma. As he approached adulthood, Wayne began to understand and accept himself, and I closed the book knowing his life would never be easy, but there were glimmers of hope for his future.

Cross-posted from my blog

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Laura's Review - The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is a good old-fashioned gothic mystery set in the 1940s, in an old and stately English house which is just as much a character as the Ayers family who inhabits it. We first "meet" Hundreds Hall through Robert Faraday, a local doctor whose mother worked in service at Hundreds when he was young. Some thirty years later, he is called out to care for one of the maids, who has fallen ill. There he also meets Mrs. Ayers and her adult children, Roderick and Caroline. The family has come on hard times since Mrs. Ayers became a widow. Roderick is struggling to cope with the estate he inherited. Money is scarce, and the family has been faced with difficult decisions to make ends meet.

Dr. Faraday offers to treat Roderick's war injury with an experimental procedure, free of charge. And thus he inserts himself into the life of Hundreds Hall, and gets all up in their business. He worries endlessly about Mrs. Ayers, and begins to fancy Caroline. At least that's what he tells us, because Robert is the story's narrator. He spends more and more time at Hundreds Hall. When Mrs. Ayers decides to give a party, the first in years, he finds himself on the guest list -- unusual due to their different social classes. Things begin to unravel at the party, when the family dog Gyp bites a young guest and leaves her severely disfigured. Progressively weirder things happen, with progressively greater impact on the emotional well-being of the Ayers family members. And Hundreds Hall falls into an even greater state of disrepair. It appears some sort of ghost is terrorizing the household, and it's very creepy indeed.

I was constantly torn while reading this book. My literary mind wanted to believe there was a ghost because after all, this is a gothic mystery/ghost story. My rational, analytical side dismissed that as nonsense and looked for a rational, analytical cause for all these mishaps. When I finished the book, I still wasn't sure. The ending is such that Waters might have given me the rational answer, which gave the story a chilling psychological thriller angle. Or she didn't, and there was just a lot of inexplicable weird and creepy stuff going on. If I could rewrite the ending, I know what I'd do. But I can't tell you; you'll have to read this book and form your own conclusions. I ended up docking my rating 1/2 star because it all left me rather frustrated.

Cross-posted from my blog

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Observations by Jane Harris (Jill)

The Observations
By Jane Harris
Completed September 11, 2011

The Observations is the story of young Bessy Buckley- a 15-year-old Irish prostitute-turned-maid who stumbles in to a Scottish manor called Castle Haivers. Escaping her past, she convinces the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, to take her on as a maid, despite shady skills or references. Bessy's tenure begins very strangely as Arabella has unusual requests: Requiring Bessy to stand and sit with her eyes closed for long periods of time; requesting a cup of cocoa in the middle of the night, only to make Bessy drink it; and ordering Bessy to collect her thoughts in a journal that she must read to Arabella every evening.

Strange things are afoot at Castle Haivers, and with each turn of the page, the events get more unusual. Soon, Bessy realizes she's one of a long string of maids in Arabella's past - and that one maid in particular, Nora, who was killed in a train accident, has left an indelible mark on the household. Bessy, out of curiousity and loyalty to Arabella, begins to piece together the mystery of Nora, and as she does, unravels tragedies that can't be undone.

Bessy is a lively narrator with a sharp tongue and street smarts. She could be crass but harmlessly so. Despite her unsophisticated rhetoric, Bessy is a fabulous storyteller and observer of events at Castle Haivers. As she reveals the atrocities of her past, my heart went out to the poor girl, and Bessy became a character I kept rooting for, despite her many blunders.

The Observations could be downright creepy then light-hearted and humorous. Jane Harris is a magnificent writer, and she grabs the Gothic tradition with fierceness. I couldn't get enough of Bessy's narrative, and I often was rapt by the story. I highly recommend The Observations to fans of Gothic fiction - if you liked Fingersmith or The House at Riverton, you will love this book too. ( )