Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There were times when I thought this book, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” was a retelling of Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery.”

Six years before all but three members of the Blackwood family living on the family estate die from poisoning. Two sisters, Constance and Mary Catherine (Merricat) survive as well as an uncle who becomes invalid. Constance is arrested and tried but acquitted.

After the tragedy, the three live an isolated life. Constance leaves the house only to tend to her garden. Merricat runs errands into the town, which she hates to do because she is often taunted and ridiculed by the townspeople, who blame the girls for the tragedy. Uncle Julian spends his days writing a book about the tragedy and leaves the house until to sit in the sunshine in his wheelchair.

One day a cousin shows up and moves in. Merricat who believes in omens and sees the house as a living thing thinks she can protect or affect the house and those who live in it through the use of objects and words that have meaning and power and are magical. She sees Charles as an intruder and works to get him to leave.

That happens after a fire that destroys the house’s second floor, making what remains look like a castle. When the fire is extinguished the townspeople see it as an opportunity to take out their frustrations with the Blackwood family. They stone the house, smash windows, break furniture, shatter China, damage decorations, and leave the house in a shambles. The destruction stops when Uncle Julian’s body is found. He wasn’t able to escape the fire.

I’ll stop here because I don’t want to spoil what is a fairly good story.

I’d always thought that Shirley Jackson was a one-hit wonder, that The Lottery was about the only thing of note she’d written, until a few years ago when I discovered (and added to my very long list of books to read) her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve read that her writing is quietly haunting and frightening. This book was that and more. It’s well worth reading. I’ll be picking up The Haunting of Hill House soon.

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Review: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve tried to figure out how this book won a Pulitzer. There were so many better books in 1980. Was it because the author was dead? Was it because no one on the Pulitzer committee read any of the books nominated that year so they threw darts or drew straws or simply counted the pages?

I picked this book after reading a review claiming something to the effect that this was one of the greatest and funniest books ever written by a citizen of the United States since Mark Twain, and it also won a Pulitzer. Who could pass up a claim like that? I should have.

I think Mark Twain would have been ashamed. This book was far from great and only once did I find it anywhere close to amusing.

A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the most tedious, boring, and trite books I ever dragged my mind through (hoping that somewhere along the way the light would turn on and I would have that ‘aha’ moment that put the whole sordid affair in order). However, when the book ended with the main character riding away from the scene of his crimes, I said, “Is that it? That couldn’t be the end.” Then I checked to see if some of the pages had been torn out.

I’m thinking the title A Confederacy of Dunces might not reflect the story it attempts to tell, rather it says something about those who’ve read it.

Most of the book’s characters are either worthless human beings or approaching that status. The most worthless of all is the book’s main character, Ignatius Reilly, who seems to think he is God’s gift to humanity. Most protagonists are supposed to be flawed, but he is more than flawed. He is a pathetic, degenerate who would put any city’s sewage system to shame.

Did I mention this book is boring and tedious?

Page after page of the same drivel. There was one point where I thought the book was going to turn the corner. Ignatius got a job and proceeded to write a rather insensitive, insulting, but slightly humorous letter to a disappointed customer. If Ignatius had taken over the public relations or advertising department of the company it could have become a funny and entertaining book. Instead, the book continues on the same inane path, apparently trying to figure out what it’s all about, which it never managed to do.

I’ve wasted enough time on this piece of twaddle. If you are thinking about reading A Confederacy of Dunces. Don’t.

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Book Review: Origin by Dan Brown

Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stupid! That’s the first word that comes to mind as I begin my attempt to describe this book. After the DaVinci code, Dan Brown’s books have been gradually going downhill. This one may not have reached the bottom, but if not, it’s close. There was just enough plot to keep this thing trudging along, but all-in-all it was boring.

Brown follows a rather simple, sometimes trite, character and plot development. Once you understand the patterns his books become somewhat predictable. This one followed that format meaning superhero Robert Langdon happens to be at some event where something happens that will threaten the world. However, with the help of a lovely woman that he, for one reason or another, has no chance to take beyond the confines of the mystery, using his intelligence and eidetic memory (similar to photographic) to accomplish superhuman feats to discover the solution that only he can find to save the world. In this case, the mystery presented is: how did life begin, where is humanity going, and is there a God? However, there is a subplot which I think was the primary plot which involved an AI supercomputer, Winston, that should you knew was going to override its programming simply because it was created in such a way that there was no reason why it shouldn’t.

Along the way, there was too much description, too many boring facts, and inane statistics. Just about every page included some detail that Mr. Brown apparently believed was important enough to explain in far more detail than the story required. It was as if he was saying, “Hey reader, look at what I found, isn’t this amazing. I found this fantastic bit of trivia that you, my reader, would be too stupid to ever know about so I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

In the end, this book was especially disappointing because it could have been so much more. Either Dan Brown had a publishing deadline he had to meet and therefore wasn’t able to develop this book beyond the obvious plot (some people you expected to die, died. Some people you knew were innocent, were innocent. The real driving force you thought was driving the plot turned out to be the driving force you expected). There were at least a dozen times I thought the plot could have gone in a different direction than the most obvious, but almost always there were no surprises. Because of that, this book was tedious and I found myself skipping entire paragraphs. I could have skipped entire chapters, but if the book is well written, skipping chapters will usually mean I have to go back and read the chapter I skipped.

I found this book particularly stupid because it seems to be trying to prove either God does not exist or the existence of God is unnecessary. The flaw is the proof offered actually leaves open the likelihood that God is necessary in order to create the so-called proof that God does not exist. In this book, the character trying to develop that proof has to change the programming of a creation story simulator in order to find the solution he’s looking for.

The only way we are going to prove the existence or non-existence of God is to die. If our existence continues after we die, then God exists. The other option pretty much excludes God from the equation.

I’ve been disappointed in the last three Dan Brown books I’ve read. This will probably be the last time that happens.

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Book Review: Scumble

Scumble (Savvy, #2)Scumble by Ingrid Law
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scumble is the second of a three book series by Ingrid Law for middle grade readers (Savvy [a Newbery medal honoree], Scumble, and Switch). It’s the story of a special boy and how he learned to be special.

On their 13th birthday, every member of Ledger Kale’s family gets a savvy, a special superpower, that is usually different from all the other savvies of the family. For instance Ledge’s mother can persuade people with her words, his grandmother was able to trap radio broadcasts in jars so that they could be stored and opened and enjoyed at another time, and a great-uncle could create ice or snow storms.

The problem with the savvies was that no one ever knew what it would be and the recipient had to learn how to control and use it. In Ledge’s case, this proved to be disastrous. His savvy was two-fold. The first, he took things apart, but when he got it he couldn’t control it so anything in the area was liable to come apart in a sudden explosion.

When the story begins, Ledge’s family has been invited to a cousin’s wedding. However, they are waiting until the last-minute to leave, the last-minute being Ledge’s 13th birthday. They want to be able to identify his savvy so they might be able to help him control it otherwise he might ruin the wedding.

Good plan, in theory.

Shortly after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake things start exploding: a light switch, a doorknob, a garage door opener, a can opener, a stopwatch, a lamp, an electric nose-hair trimmer, a toaster…

When the Kale family finally hops into the family van for the long drive from Indiana to Wyoming, things don’t get any better for Ledge. The muffler falls off the van, wheel bearings break, a tire comes loose. Eventually, they limp into Sundance, Wyoming where Ledge meets a girl his age, Sara Jane, and trips over her feet. A moment later his hormones kick in, and he inadvertently takes the door off the Sheriff’s car and blows up a motorcycle.

During all this Ledge learns to recognize when his savvy is going to do something because he gets itchy and feels like ants are crawling across his skin.

That happens again while he’s having a problem outside the barn where everyone’s dancing and celebrating with the bride and groom. Sara Jane, an outsider has shown up. The rule is that strangers are not to know about the family secret, their savvies. Moments later Sara Jane knows there is something different about this family and as she runs off Ledge is upset. Moments later his skin is itching, his stomach is upset and the barn starts creaking and groaning. There is nothing Ledge can do as he watches his feelings tear the barn apart and send it crashing to the ground.

Needless to say, things are going to get better for Ledge, although there is more damage, destruction, and some jail time along the way.

I enjoyed this family friendly fantasy, a tall-tale, a coming-of-age story of an ordinary teenager learning to control his fears as he suddenly becomes far from ordinary.

Although this story is well written and rarely drags, it wasn’t quite as good as Ingrid Law’s first book, “Savvy.” Scumble was a bit harder to get started. It began suddenly, but not suddenly with activity, suddenly with a description telling what was going on rather than showing it. The characters also weren’t as well-defined. They didn’t ‘feel’ as warm or friendly as did the characters in Savvy. That’s all minor though. In the end, this is a good book. I’d recommend it to anyone, child or adult. Stick with it past the first 25 or 30 pages and it will entertain you the rest of the way. You might not believe what is happening, but you will enjoy seeing it happen.

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Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clever, quirky, convincing, and captivating.

Fifteen years old, Christopher Boone, finds a dead dog. It’s a dog he likes, his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, killed with a garden tool. Christopher decides to find the killer. He begins an investigation a la Sherlock Holmes and decides to write a book about it. The book we are reading is the book Christopher is writing. Thus, begins a journey that will take Christopher farther out of his comfort zone than he ever imagined.

“I do not like people shouting at me. It makes me scared that they are going to hit me or touch me and I do not know what is going to happen.”

Christopher’s mother is deceased, so he lives alone with his father. The boy prefers to stay home, loves quiet places, orange crush, licorice, math, and animals (especially his pet rat, Toby). He never tells lies, other than white lies, which he says are half-truths or misleading truths. He has trouble expressing his feelings and often screams in frustration. He hates informational overload, new places, crowds, doesn’t trust people, and especially hates being touched by anyone to the point that he will lash out at anyone who touches him.

Christopher is a genius (his knowledge, memory, and math skills are phenomenal) but he is also autistic.

“My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,507.”

After finding Wellington’s body, Christopher is accused by the dog’s owner, Mrs. Shears, of killing it. He punches the policeman who makes the mistake of touching the boy while questioning him about the dog. That gets Christopher arrested and taken to the police station, where he is released into his father’s custody. Christopher’s father tells him to stop his investigation and to “keep his nose out of other people’s business.” Unfortunately, the boy’s curiosity about Wellington’s death leads him to something even more disturbing. A neighbor tells him his mother had an affair with Mr. Shears before she died. This does not bother Christopher because his mother is dead, and he records it in the book. For Christopher, it is just another detail in the investigation into the death of Wellington. A short time later the boy’s father finds the book and is so upset he flies into a rage, gets into a fight with his son, demands that Christopher totally stop his investigation, and throws the book into the trash.

A few days later Christopher looks for his book. It is no longer in the trash, so he searches the house for it and discovers some letters addressed to him from his mother. He realizes he has been lied to, that she is alive and living in London with Mr. Shears. Christopher runs away and heads to London to be with his mother. He must do things he’s never done before: go to a train station, buy a ticket, ride a train, go underground to a subway station, and ride the tube.

“And then the next train came I wasn’t so scared any more because the sign said TRAIN APPROACHING so I knew it was going to happen.”

Mark Haddon’s portrayal of the thoughts and actions of an autistic person is impressive. If I’d been told it was written by an autistic child I would have believed it. Christopher’s autism was presented in a way that allowed the reader to appreciate his quirky, sometimes logically illogical behavior, but also his attempts to overcome his issues and solve the mysteries confronting him. A couple things I especially liked: Christopher numbers his chapters with prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, etc.) which confused me at first because I thought I’d skipped the first chapter. Also there was Christopher’s  variation on the ‘show, don’t tell‘ writer’s directive. Christopher often adds to his story by including drawings of things he has seen, maps he has created or discovered, and charts explaining his reasoning as well as some of the actual math problems that are part of his story.

All-in-all I loved this book and want to know how Christopher fares with his plans for his future.

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