Reginadelmar’s #CBRV post #25 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

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Once again I’ve just finished a book set in England. Hmmm.  Fingersmith  has been around for quite a while, but I just discovered it a few weeks ago. The story is set in the Victorian age and quite literally begins in a den of thieves in London. Sue is a pickpocket or fingersmith who has grown up under the tutelage of Mrs. Sucksby.  Mrs. Sucksby is a one woman orphanage, or baby farmer, taking on unwanted infants and selling them when opportunities arise. Mr. Ibbs lives in the same house and fences stolen goods.

One of their colleagues is alleged to be a “Gentleman” who has run through his own money  gambling and engaging in other spendthrift behaviors. He has discovered an orphan girl, Maud, who will come into money when she is married.  She lives with her strange uncle in a manor 40 miles outside of London. Gentleman persuades Sue to act as a lady’s maid to entrap Maud into marriage, and then to  dispose of her in a mental hospital when they’ve secured the money. Sue is reluctant at first, after all she’s an illiterate thief. Gentleman instructs her in how to be a lady’s maid, and she believes that she will be bringing back a tidy sum to share with her cobbled together family.

The plot seems simple enough and there’s the rub. Waters takes you on a fascinating journey with intricate twists and turns. It’s a tale of manipulation, but who is manipulating whom is part of the fun.  Add to this a bit of eroticism and Victorian sexual hypocrisy and it stays interesting throughout its 580 pages.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #30: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

Let me start by saying that gothic novels aren’t my thing, and had this been run-of-the-mill gothic, I would never have made it past the first chapter of this 1,000-plus-page volume. But nothing Joyce Carol Oates writes is ever run-of-the-mill, and while I still had to struggle with myself to pick this up night after night, I persevered to the end of this 1,000-plus-page volume.  Did I mention that this is a very long novel?

Oates’ story focuses on a series of Inexplicable, Indescribable and Unspeakable horrors that are visited upon the wealthy high society families of Princeton, New Jersey at the turn of the last century, with the particular focus of “The Curse” being the apparently golden family of the highly-revered former New Jersey governor and retired Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade. The history of The Curse is, in fact given us in the form of a narrative by a fussbudget Princeton historian 50 years’ later, and begins with the sudden appearance in 1905 of an oily and sinister character amidst the Princeton aristocracy. Before anyone can agree on where he came from, who invited him, and what he even looks like, our shape-shifting demon seduces Slade’s favorite granddaughter Amanda, and carries her off on the night of her long-anticipated society wedding to his “Bog Kingdom,” where he starves, gang-rapes, tortures, and eventually adds her to a large collection of former wives who have been broken and turned into garbage-eating slaves under his reign.

Amanda’s stunned brother and young cousins are now beset with nightmarish visions and voices in their heads which eventually drive them to suicide, leaving patriarch Winslow Slade in an agony of grief and despair. Other high-society families—the Van Dykes, the Burrs, the Strachans, the Bayards, the FitzRandolphs—are soon all afflicted in one form or another, with the ghosts of dead family members flickering in and out of view, beckoning to the living to join them. Cardiac arrests, strokes, fainting spells, and mental breakdowns begin to decimate the privileged families that run this university town, while extramarital affairs flourish, spouses turn on each other, mothers turn on their children, and people start dropping like flies.  All the while, the families struggle to keep up appearances, the women to gossip in private about the “unspeakable” events occurring around them, the men to sagely expound on growing threats to the white race, male supremacy, and their class superiority. Our historian’s narrative is stitched together from a pastiche of de-coded journal entries, letters, documents, public speeches, and hearsay, making for some mighty confused and confusing reading and adding greatly—and unnecessarily—to the overall length of The Accursed.

Oates now adds another layer to her story, the rampant racism against blacks, Jews, and immigrants that lies at the heart and soul of these privileged families. We are brought into the drawing rooms of these aristocrats as they expound on the natural superiority of their race and class, and we are presented in graphic detail with the lynchings and targeted murders of the underprivileged to which the power elites turn a blind eye. After flipping over one rock—that of the American aristocracy of the time–Oates now flips over another and offers terrifying and grotesque portrayals of some of the nation’s leading cultural and political icons of the era, from Jack London, Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair, to Woodrow Wilson (Princeton University’s president at the time), former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, and standing President Theodore Roosevelt. The displays of gluttony, addiction, misogyny, bigotry, hypocrisy, corruption, and downright hatred of humanity by these characters on both side of the divide are positively Dantesque, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or throw up over Oates’ descriptions of London’s Satyric drunk fest or Teddy Roosevelt’s meat-gorging frenzy in the face of Sinclair’s vegetarian asceticism.

Oates mixes a variety of genre in The Accursed—mystery, horror, romance (of a sort), history, and political and social commentary. There are demons, vampires, spectral snakes and ghosts galore, but the real horrors are revealed through her aggressive exposure of the decadent underpinnings of privileged American society. And despite my sympathies with much of what Oates is trying to accomplish with her satire—for that is what The Accursed ultimately is–, I felt that her story repeatedly foundered, even stalled out, with her bizarre turns and twists into gothic horror, her interminable descriptions of social conventions, her extraneous characters, her inexhaustible details on the descent into madness of a number of her prominent characters, etc. I also found the fatal game of draughts between the 10-year-old Todd Slade—an Inexplicable if ever there was one—and the Bog King, to be so absurd as to be positively laughable, despite the fact that it was supposed to be a plot turning-point for the entire story.

Of course, the core to the mystery isn’t solved until the bitter end, when Oates’ historian lets us read Winslow Slade’s “Covenant,” which the old man was prevented from reading from the pulpit. It is unfortunately so strident in its all-caps pseudo-Biblical hysteria that I feel much of the effect of the confession was, in fact, blunted. Which is sort of the way I feel about The Accursed as a whole.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #8 The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately to complement the two selections we’re reading in twitter book club #1book140 (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow).  Jane Aiken has been mentioned as an influence in a lot of author interviews that I’ve read lately so I picked this book up from my library.

I have to say, this book is not at all what I was expecting it to be.  Because of the title, and the ominousness of the wolves in the first chapter, I was expecting book to be some form of supernatural story.  In fact, it’s really a classic Gothic storyline, the sort which implies the supernatural but ultimately has a reasonable explanation for everything.  That makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book, but I really did.  Just because it’s a genre book, and thus adheres to certain generic traditions, doesn’t mean that it isn’t well-written or fun to read.

This book is almost like a cross between Jane Eyre and the Little Princess.  Cousins Bonnie and Sylvia are living in sprawling mansion Willoughby Chase under the charge of their governess, the villainous Miss Slighcarp.  Bonnie’s mother is very ill and her father has taken her to tropical climes in hopes of finding a cure for her illness.  As soon as the children (and the estate) are completely in Miss Slighcarp’s charge, misfortune reigns down on these two plucky heroines as Miss Slighcarp and her conspirators seek to take over the wealthy estate and dispossess the two girls.

One of the pleasures of this book was that I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to turn out (though I felt that the two main characters would triumph in the end, I really did not know exactly what their happy ending would look like).  Aiken’s descriptions are so evocative that I was completely sucked into the brooding yet innocent world of her story.  While the characters have some of the oversimplification that one particularly sees in vintage YA literature (a la Little Princess), in the context of this fairy tale-ish world, the lack of complexity didn’t really bother me.  Particularly given that the plot was much more suspenseful than is usual for vintage YA.   Good stuff.

mandasarah’s #CBR5 Review #2: Such Wicked Intent:The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

Once again, Kenneth Oppel is brilliant at creating realistic characters.  Victor Frankenstein is arrogant, reckless, stubborn, and not a little selfish.  But his grief and guilt over his brother are genuine, as are his bravery, loyalty, and endless curiosity.  You can easily see how when Victor stumbles across these mysteries, he’s compelled and driven (by a variety of factors, not all of which are noble) to follow their dark paths as far as he can.  Mr. Oppel paints of clear picture of the type of person Victor is and how his actions will eventually lead to him becoming THE Victor Frankenstein.