Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Review - The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susannah Clark - A Primer on the World of Faerie

Anyone who read and loved Susanna Clarke’s award winning novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is likely to find himself both enchanted and charmed by the stories contained in The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

To begin with, the actual book itself is gorgeous, but in a whimsical, rather than a pretentious, manner. The hardcover edition is embossed rather than jacketed, in shades of black and grey, and decorated with vivid pink petunias. Inside, the paper is thick and creamy, and interspersed among the pages of the book’s eight stories are twenty-two equally charming and whimsical black and white illustrations by Charles Vess.

Seven of the eight stories contained in The Ladies of Grace Adieu have been previously published and date from 1996 to 2004. The final story in the collection, “John Uskglass and the Charcoal Burner,” is the only new addition. All of the stories were new to me, however, and I found all of them to be thoroughly enchanting.

In keeping with the arch tone of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the collection opens with a fictitious, though very believable, foreword, ostensibly written by one James Sutherland, the Director of Sidhe (Faerie) Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Whether fictitious or not, Professor Sutherland would appear to be the perfect person to have collected these lovely stories into one volume. His aim, he tells us, was two-fold:

The first is to throw some sort of light on the development of magic in the British Isles at different periods; the second is to introduce the reader to some of the ways in which Faerie can impinge upon our own quotidian world, in other words to create a sort of primer to Faerie and fairies.

And, as promised by Sutherland, all of the eight stories are related in some way to the world of Faerie. All take place in a Britain with more gateways to Faerie than one could have possibly have imagined – or wanted. And all involve the difficulties human beings face when they wittingly or unwittingly encounter the creatures we know, but may not recognize, as fairies.

The fairies in The Ladies of Grace Adieu are the same ones encountered in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, at times, deceptively charming, at other times, downright dangerous and sadistic. And, as Professor Sutherland points out in his foreword, these eight stories demonstrate “the appalling unpreparedness of the average nineteenth-century gentleman when he accidentally stumbled in Faerie.”

The collection is framed by stories featuring characters from the magnificent Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The opening story, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” takes place in Grace Adieu, a little fictional village in Gloucestershire, the parish of Henry Woodhope, the brother of Arabella Strange. And, although Arabella doesn’t make an appearance in this story, her husband, Jonathan Strange, does.

The ladies in question are Mrs. Field and her ward, Miss Cassandra Parbinger, two women who visit, with noticeable regularity, Miss Tobias, the governess at Winter’s Realm. (Winter’s Realm being Grace Adieu’s great house.)

While most of the village assumes Mrs. Field and Miss Parbinger are visiting Winter’s Realm to spend time with the two orphaned children under Miss Tobias’ care, we learn this isn’t exactly the case:

It was said that the great-grandfather of these children had studied magic and that he had left behind him a library. Miss Tobias was often in the library and what she did there no one knew. Of late her two friends, Mrs. Field and Miss Parbinger, had also been at the house a great deal. But it was generally supposed that they were visiting the children. For ladies (as everyone knows) do not study magic. Magicians themselves are another matter – ladies (as everyone knows) are wild to see magicians.

When two gentlemen make a visit to Winter’s Realm, bringing with them a strange and weary young woman, the story takes a very dark and sinister turn and even Jonathan Strange, himself learns something new and surprising about the kind magic that can be wrought by women.

The final story in the book, “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner,” the only one written specifically for this volume, features yet another character from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – John Uskglass, of course. This, too, is a dark tale, as Uskglass is punished and tormented, however it lacks the sinister quality found in the other seven stories.

The second story, “On Lickerish Hill,” is one most readers are either going to love or heartily dislike. It’s written in a very old, rustic dialect that can be charming and whimsical in small doses, but highly annoying and difficult in larger ones.

“On Lickerish Hill” is narrated by a seventeenth-century Suffolk bride whose husband has invited the antiquarian and writer, John Aubrey to stay at his country home. I found this story enchanting and thought Clarke did an excellent job of imitating Aubrey’s style:

Mr. Meldreth, a sweet, shy gentleman the colour of dust, is for Insects and haz 237 dead ones in a box… Mr. Foxton haz shewne by Irrefutable Arguments that Cornishmen are a kind of Fishe…

Another favorite of mine was “Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower,” no doubt the darkest and creepiest story in the book. In this story, a diary tale written in the tradition of Bram Stoker, Alessandro Simonelli, who thinks he’s Italian but is actually part fairy, seeks to protect the women of his village from the diabolical schemes of his fairy kinsman, John Hollyshoes.

Other stories focus on the Duke of Wellington, Mary, Queen of Scots, a magical bridge built by fairies, and a young woman determined to wrest the soul of the man she loves from a demented fairy woman. Clarke even manages to show us that the simple and genteel act of embroidery can have serious consequences when Faerie intervenes.

Clarke’s writing in these stories is just as wonderful as it is in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though of course, the shortness of the stories causes it to lose its Dickensian touch. Her arch Austenesque wit, however, is still very much in evidence, especially when she turns her gaze to the domestic scene:

Mr. Hawkins said nothing; the Hawkins’ domestic affairs were arranged upon the principle that Fanny supplied the talk and he the silence.

She also gives, as one reviewer has said, “filigree attention to detail,” such as shown in Fanny Hawkins’ ambiguous directions to Mrs. Mabb’s home:

Beyond the hill there is a little green valley and then an ancient wood. Mrs. Mabb’s house stands betwixt the stones and the wood, but nearer to the wood than the stones.

In the end, people looking for a sequel to Jonathan and Strange and Mr. Norrell won’t find it in The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a big, sprawling, multi-layered masterpiece, as rich as a seven course gourmet meal. While the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu are written in the same mannered tone, they have a much lighter touch. And this is exactly as it should be. No short story could contain the panorama and energy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Readers should approach the short stories contained in The Ladies of Grace Adieu for what they are – short stories, and enjoy them for their own sake, not compare them to Strange and Norrell, for that would be very unfair and it would also be selling the stories short.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is “must” reading for anyone who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or for readers in love with the world of Faerie. These are stories that are enchanting, graceful, whimsical, and dark. Stories that are everything we’ve come to expect from a writer as good as Susanna Clarke. Stories that, in the end, reflect the very essence of Faerie, itself.


Recommended: Definitely, to lovers of fantasy and those interested in the world of Faerie.

Author Interview - Alan Brennert Talks About "Moloka'i" and His Upcoming Novel "Honolulu" - An LCC Exclusive

Literary Corner Café is proud to publish this exclusive interview with writer, Alan Brennert, the author of the best selling novel Moloka’i. His latest novel, Honolulu will be released on March 3, 2009, and it promises to be just as good as Moloka’i.

Alan was born in Englewood, New Jersey, however since 1973 he’s lived and worked in Southern California. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from California State University at Long Beach, and did graduate work in screenwriting at UCLA.

Alan’s written short stories, teleplays, screenplays, and even the libretto of a stage musical, Weird Romance, which was produced in 1992 by the WPA Theatre in New York, and has since been licensed for more than a hundred regional, high school, and college productions, both in the United Stated and abroad.

Alan earned an Emmy in 1991 for his work as a writer/producer for the TV series, LA Law. He’s been nominated for an Emmy on two other occasions, a Golden Globe, and three times for the Writers’ Guild of America Award for Outstanding Teleplay of the Year. He received a People’s Choice Award for LA Law, and his short story “Ma Qui” won a Nebula in 1992.

Moloka’i was not only a best selling novel; it was a runaway hit with book clubs and reading groups. Honolulu lends itself equally well to book club discussion.

We know you’ll find this interview as enlightening and fascinating as we did.

I know your father was an aviation writer, and you have a degree in English, but when did you realize that you wanted to write for a living? What was the catalyst?

This sounds like canned ham, I know, but I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. The closest thing to a catalyst I can recall is receiving a toy typewriter, around age ten, from my parents—which I then used to type up the plot of an animated Oz cartoon I’d seen the night before. But the impulse to write must have been there before, or why else would my parents have given me the typewriter?My father wrote the bulk of his aviation articles in the 1940s, and by the time I came along in ’54, he had stopped writing—I think he’d told all the stories he had to tell, having been a pilot flying out of Teterboro Airport in the 1930s—and was working as a sheet metal operator for the Alcoa Company in Edgewater, New Jersey. So I didn’t grow up, strange to say, with a real awareness of him as a writer. I only discovered his work after I had already started writing, which I guess says something about genetic inheritance. But having been a writer himself, my dad never discouraged me from pursuing it as a vocation, and he and my mom certainly never hesitated to buy me any bizarro comic book I expressed an interest in, including one that would spark another passion of mine: Dennis the Menace in Hawaii, published around the time of Hawaiian statehood in 1959. It took me twenty years to follow in Dennis’s footsteps, but I made it and it’s changed my life in so many ways.

You've written screenplays, teleplays, developed miniseries and pilots, written short stories and novels. You've won an Emmy, a Nebula, and other awards. How did it feel to win such prestigious awards? Did it change your outlook on writing at all?

I can’t pretend it’s not a great feeling, walking onto the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as the orchestra plays the theme to L.A. Law. But I’d also written scripts for China Beach, which was also nominated for best dramatic series that year, and honestly that series deserved to win as much as we did that season. So I was happy to get the Emmy, but I think I had enough perspective to know that what separated me from my friends Carol Flint and John Wells on China Beach was less talent than luck.

You've written both short stories and novels as well as screenplays, teleplays, and even the libretto of a musical. Do you find one form more difficult than the others, or "just different, requiring different skills?" Al Zuckerman of Writers House once told me that screenwriters very rarely become successful novelists. Of course, this isn't true in your case – you've won awards for your teleplays – you've been very successful, and Moloka'i was a very successful book, very well received by those who read it. Do you agree with Al Zuckerman's statement, do you think a screenwriter has a different mindset, or do you think novel writing skills can be learned if screenwriters simply apply themselves?

Well, I must take some exception to Mr. Zuckerman’s statement. Sue Grafton, Robert Crais, and April Smith all began their careers writing for television and have enjoyed considerable success as novelists. Stephen J. Cannell created TV series like Wiseguy and The Rockford Files and now has a thriving career writing mystery/suspense novels. Going back a generation or two, Frank De Felitta was a television writer/director who became a bestselling novelist with Audrey Rose, and—questions of literary merit aside—Sidney Sheldon was an Oscar-winning screenwriter long before he turned to books.

If there are perhaps more novelists who have become screenwriters than the other way around, I think this is partly attributable to the fact that there’s a greater financial impetus for novelists to become screenwriters than for screenwriters to become novelists. Unless an author hits the bestseller list first time out of the gate, a career in books is often a very slow build (as I can attest, having written novels off-and-on for 25 years before I had my first bestseller in Moloka’i) and unless a screenwriter has, like me, a longstanding desire to also write prose, it’s a hard road to travel, and far less remunerative than scriptwriting. That said, there are different skill sets involved. Screenwriters rely on action, dialog, and cinematic imagery to tell a story; novelists have to engage readers on other levels as well. David E. Kelley, who I worked with on L.A. Law, once told me that he could never write a novel because “I hate writing narrative”—what mattered to him was what the characters said to each other, the drama. And he’s fantastically good at it—that’s his gift, why should he try writing a book? Similarly, novelists often feel constrained by the restrictions of the screenplay form—such as the necessity of keeping scenes 2 to 3 pages, max, when in books they’re accustomed to nearly unlimited space to develop characters and plot. Not everybody can master both forms, and not everybody wants or needs to.

Many writing instructors say that due to its tight focus the short story is the most difficult form of writing, with the exception of lyric poetry. As someone who's written both short stories and novels, and written them successfully, do you agree with this statement?

Not in my experience. I had the opposite problem when I first started writing. Short stories were easier for me because the structure was simpler: a short story doesn’t always have to be complexly plotted, it can be a simple mood piece, or a small window into someone’s soul, or a defining moment in a character’s life. A novel has to be sustained at much greater length and has to keep a reader’s interest for 200+ pages. My first novel, a paperback thriller that shall go nameless, was a typical first novel—lots of youthful energy but precious little structure. My subsequent years in screenwriting gave me a more solid grasp of structure, and I think I’m a better novelist now because of that.

Do you feel more at home with one form of writing than with others? For example, do you feel more at home with short stories than with novels?

After Moloka’i and Honolulu I’ve come to feel more at home writing novels. I’m actually working on a short story now—the first I’ve written in ten years—and it took me a while to get back into the mindset of doing short fiction. At first, all the ideas I kept coming up with turned out to be better suited to novels!

I know you decided to write Moloka'i when the miniseries you wrote for Kevin Costner's production company was not picked up by the network. The miniseries, if I'm not mistaken, was about the founding of the state of Texas, where Moloka'i takes place at a leper colony on the Hawaiian island of the same name. Why did you choose to set your book in Hawaii, a place so different from Texas? What drew you to the story? It seems a big shift in gears and one requiring much research.

The miniseries was based on a fine novel by David Marion Wilkinson called Not Between Brothers; I had no special affinity for Texas myself, my job was to dramatize David’s vision. But I have had, as noted, a long love affair with Hawai’i—I’d been going there at least once a year for twenty years when I began Moloka’i—and so felt comfortable using the islands as a setting for a novel. At first I imagined it would be a contemporary story set on Moloka’i, but the more I learned about Kalaupapa the more I realized that this was the story I should be telling. The fact that I had just done a historical script in Not Between Brothers did give me the confidence to tackle a historical novel, but I soon discovered that Moloka’i required enormously more research than I’d had to do for Brothers. Still, it was a subject I was passionate about, and I enjoyed every minute of the research and writing (and all those brutal research trips to Hawai’i).
In Moloka'i, your protagonists are a native Hawaiian girl/woman and a Japanese man. In Honolulu, your protagonist is a young Korean woman. Is it difficult for you to write about people from other cultures? And, since you're a man, how difficult is it making a point-of-view character a woman? Did you feel a connection with Rachel and Sister Catherine in Moloka'i, and with Jin in Honolulu? Or did you feel more of a connection with the male characters in the books?

You have to feel a connection with your protagonists, regardless of their gender, or you can’t make the reader feel a connection. I’ve always been a very emotional writer, and since women tend to be freer in expressing their emotions, writing from a female point of view is comfortable for me. Writing from a different cultural viewpoint is much harder. Rachel wasn’t too difficult, because she grew up in a fairly Westernized Hawai’i and I knew a good deal about Hawaiian culture going in. But Jin presented me with challenges. In writing about a character’s childhood, for instance, a writer tends to look to one’s own childhood for touchstones. But time and again I would write something, then find myself thinking, “Would kids have done that in Korea?”—and I’d scurry to my research books, where half the time I would find that, no, they wouldn’t have done that in Korea, and I’d have to go back and revise what I’d written. Just locating some of the necessary historical reference—such as how girls were named, or not named, in that era—required days and days of scouring library databases for a book that might yield one or two useful lines of information. But I do like challenges, and even if Honolulu took a little more time to write than I’d anticipated (and ask my editor: it did) it was important to me to get it as right as I could make it.

Is there anything in particular you want to say to your readers with Moloka'i and Honolulu, and do you feel you've accomplished what you set out to do?

Both books are about the history of a place I love—a history which mainland readers often aren’t familiar with—so if I can help raise awareness that, for example, Native Hawaiians really had no say in whether their homeland was annexed to the United States, I’m proud to do that. And both books are concerned with the ordinary people behind the history—that’s what I’m primarily interested in exploring, and I hope readers are as well.

You've written so much. Is there a particular theme in your writing, something you really want to explore? In your Nebula winning story, "Ma Qui," which everyone should read, by the way, revolves around a ghost. Ghosts fascinate many of us. What about you? Are you fascinated by their possible existence, or is this theme simply an outgrowth from your work on The Twilight Zone?

Ghosts are always an appealing device for writers since they can serve as metaphors for so many things: memories, pain, loss, the human capacity for evil, or for good... Or they can be treated more literally, as in “Ma Qui,” where my creative impulse was the question, “What if every religion is right? What if each belief system makes its own heaven and hell?” I’m not sure I believe in the existence of ghosts, but I don’t disbelieve, either: I like to think I’m a true agnostic, willing to keep an open mind.

(This exclusive interview with Alan Brennert will be continued.)

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Book Review - The Classics - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - “This abyss where I cannot find you! I cannot live without my soul!”

When I read Wuthering Heights the first time, as a teenager, I thought it was the most romantic book I’d ever experienced. I still feel that way, but now, as an adult reader, I’m far better able to appreciate the book’s violence, its extreme use of the natural world, the juxtaposition of primitivism and civilization and the book’s beautiful structural symmetry.

Wuthering Heights opens in 1801 with the narration of Lockwood, a self-styled misanthrope who, despite his aversion to society, has been thwarted in love and is now renting Thrushcross Grange in Yorkshire from its owner, the dark and brooding Heathcliff.

Annoyed by the housework being done at Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood sets out for a walk one wintry day and arrives at Wuthering Heights just as the snow is beginning to fall. He finds the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights very strange people, indeed. Besides Heathcliff, there’s Catherine Heathcliff, a beautiful young woman Lockwood mistakenly believes to be Heathcliff’s wife; there’s Hareton Earnshaw, a semi-literate young man who is the uncle of Catherine; and, there’s Joseph, a religious zealot.

Although Lockwood tries to make his escape back to Thrushcross Grange, the snow and the darkness make it impossible. Zillah, Heathcliff’s cook, takes pity on Lockwood and installs him in a room which, she says, Heathcliff would prefer be left unoccupied. Although Zillah doesn’t know to whom the room belongs, Lockwood notices three names written across the window ledge: Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, and Catherine Heathcliff. That night, the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw Linton appears to Lockwood, unsettling him further and, the next day, he returns to Thrushcross Grange.

The above comprises the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights and in these first three chapters one can see the importance the natural world is going to play in the unfolding of this novel. Emily Brontë, herself, was a child of the moors, the snowstorms and the heather of Yorkshire. Although bleak, the Yorkshire landscape holds tremendous wildness and unbridled passion and Emily Brontë was deeply attached to that passion…so much so that she rarely spent any time away from home and, even as she was dying, her older sister, Charlotte, ran to pluck the last of the heather for Emily, one more time.

Wuthering Heights is deeply rooted in the beauty and wildness of the moors, something that can be found in the characters of both Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Both Catherine and Heathcliff are creatures of nature. Neither can tolerate the indoors for long, and they are happiest when they’re roaming the moors, among the heather, wild and free.

When Lockwood arrives safely back at Thrushcross Grange, he imposes on Nelly (Ellen) Dean to tell him the history of Wuthering Heights and, with Chapter Four, we leave Lockwood’s narrative and enter Nellie’s, which comprises the bulk of the book.

Wuthering Heights, Nelly tells Lockwood, is home to the turbulent past of two families, the Earnshaws of the Heights, and the Lintons of the Grange. Nelly sets the beginning of her story in the year 1760, when the master of Wuthering Heights returned from a trip to Liverpool with a "...dirty, ragged, black-haired" child he called Heathcliff. Although Mrs. Earnshaw and her son, Hindley, take an instant dislike to Heathcliff, Catherine sees in him a kindred spirit and truly, from the moment of their meeting, Heathcliff and Catherine, though their lives will not always follow the same path, will never be parted in spirit.

As the years go by, Heathcliff and Catherine grow close and, as Hindley put it:

It was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and after punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at.

Life, for Heathcliff and Catherine, changes one day when they come upon Thrushcross Grange and decide to spy on the Linton family. While admiring the Linton’s refined manners and fine clothes and furniture, Catherine is bitten by a dog and taken in to the Grange to recover while Heathcliff is sent back to the Heights. When Catherine does return home to the Heights, in many respects, she is not the same Catherine who Heathcliff left at Thrushcross Grange. This plot point marks the end of the almost idyllic happiness that Heathcliff and Catherine shared, just as it marks the beginning of Catherine’s desire to inhabit both the refined world of Edgar Linton, as represented by Thrushcross Grange and the stormy world of Heathcliff’s unbridled passion, as represented by Wuthering Heights.

Catherine’s brother, Hindley’s wife, Frances, dies soon after giving birth to Hareton, and Hindley finds himself lost in a downward spiral, morally, emotionally and spiritually. As Nelly Dean puts it he:

…had room in his heart for only two idols, his wife and himself, he doted on both and adored one.

Catherine, who is not aware that Heathcliff is listening, tells Nelly Dean that she wants to marry Edgar Linton, but her reasons, it would seem, are not the best:

…he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman in the neighborhood, and I shall be proud of such a husband.

Yet, Catherine knows that a marriage to Edgar Linton would, most probably result in tragedy, for she goes on to say:

I have no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now, so he shall never know how I love him, and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire….Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff….I am Heathcliff, he’s always, always in my mind, not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

These statements of Catherine’s are the key to her relationship with Heathcliff. I think it’s important to note that Catherine and Heathcliff never consummate their love, yet they love each other far, far more, and in a far deeper, more spiritual and enduring manner than do many people who consummate their love every day of the year. Heathcliff and Catherine have a connection that is deeper than love; more meaningful than love’s physical expression could ever be.

Despite their deep connection, both Heathcliff and Catherine marry others, and both marry for all the wrong reasons: Catherine for social standing and Heathcliff in an act of revenge. And predictably, these marriages lead to tragedy, the first being the death of Catherine Earnshaw Linton shortly after the birth of her daughter and Edgar’s, also named Cathy. There is a passionate scene between Catherine and Heathcliff that occurs shortly before her death during which Catherine asks for Heathcliff’s forgiveness. He answers:

It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands….I love my murderer, but yours! How can I?

And, the reunion between the still pregnant Catherine and the stormy Heathcliff is nothing if not violent. The two can’t get enough of each other, and their need for each other is so great that they find themselves tearing out each other’s hair and leaving bruises on each other as physical manifestations of their love.

The reunion of Catherine and Heathcliff, and Catherine’s death only a few hours later, mark the emotional climax of Wuthering Heights. In fact, if you’ve only seen a film version of this passionately romantic novel, this may be all of the story you know. But, there is much, much more, and it is in the second part of the book that Brontë displays the remarkable symmetry and structural balance of her novel, for the intertwining stories of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange have not concluded. There is a second generation of Earnshaws and Lintons and Heathcliffs who must have their say.

In detailing the story of the second generation, Brontë moves from the passionate, wind-swept world of violence and death back to the world of childhood. Is this a second chance? No, not really, for second chances don’t really exist, and especially not after death.

Although Cathy Linton is a strong and beautiful young woman, and in personality, if not in looks, resembles her mother, her cousin, Linton Heathcliff, the son of Heathcliff and Isabella Linton, is nothing like his father. Sick and peevish, Linton wants nothing more than to be indulged. And, it should be noted, that Cathy meets Linton in the same way her mother, Catherine, met Edgar…through trespassing on his father’s land. This is but one of the instances of symmetry with which Brontë has peppered her book.

Yet, even in this story of the “second generation,” the passionate love of Heathcliff and Catherine has not been forgotten. One night, eighteen years after Catherine’s death, Heathcliff, feeling close to death, himself, bribes the church sexton to exhume Catherine’s body just "to have her in his arms once again." And, he makes arrangements to have his own body buried with Catherine’s, so that when both return to dust and ashes, no one will be able to part them, indeed, no one will be able to tell "which is which."

The novel ends with a beautiful structural symmetry that shouldn’t really surprise any astute reader. Catherine Earnshaw, of the earlier generation becomes Catherine Linton. Catherine Linton, of the second generation, becomes Catherine Earnshaw. Life moves from the wildly violent Wuthering Heights to the placid and “civilized” Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff, after his death, is almost non-existent. Nothing of him is left behind and no one mourns his passing. But in Brontë’s world, that’s as it should be, since Heathcliff was not of this world; his world was Catherine, only Catherine:

The more ordinary faces of men, and women, my own features mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!

When Lockwood comes upon the graves of Catherine Earnshaw Linton, Edgar Linton and Heathcliff, he:

…wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for sleepers in that quiet earth.

Brontë made the necessary distinctions in class and education when writing each character’s dialogue. Each one of the personalities that people Wuthering Heights has a very distinctive voice. Sometimes the dialect is a bit difficult to read, but I think most readers will get used to it after a few pages. It’s certainly not enough to cause real trouble.

Most people see Wuthering Heights as the most romantic love story ever written. or perhaps the most passionate. Yet, as I mentioned previously, Heathcliff and Catherine, the book’s most passionate characters never consummate their love. Brontë never tells us exactly why, for the two certainly had several chances to do so. Perhaps it’s because they were raised as siblings. More likely it’s because Brontë knew that unconsummated love is often stronger than love that is consummated. It’s human nature to desire that which is out of reach and Catherine only becomes more out of reach, as far as Heathcliff is concerned, as the book progresses.

Wuthering Heights is a book that pushes the idea, and the ideal, of “union” to the extreme, especially in Heathcliff’s final wish to buried, not beside Catherine, but actually with her. It is also interesting to note that while Heathcliff has a tremendous propensity toward violence, we, as readers, never doubt his passion and love for Catherine. She is everything to him; she is his soul, perhaps even more than he was hers. And Heathcliff is definitely a Byronic character, filled with brooding darkness, stormy poeticism, and unbridled romanticism.

Another thing to consider when reading this book is that Brontë gave the most passionate and lasting emotions to, perhaps, her most flawed characters…Catherine and Heathcliff. In comparison, the love that Cathy and Hareton share is quite mild, and except for the two involved, quite forgettable. Another thing that is very important for me, is the fact that Bronte often ascribes seemingly “male” characteristics to females, e.g., the high spirits and stubbornness of both Catherines and seemingly “female” characteristics to males, e.g., the desire of Linton to be indulged.

Wuthering Heights is, of course, a story of excess, but it is a glorious story of excess. And I think part of its timeless appeal lies in the fact that most passionate women, if given the chance, would actually choose to be loved with the all-consuming love Heathcliff showed Catherine. Intense and poetic, Wuthering Heights richly deserves its reputation as English literature’s most passionate love story.


Recommended: Absolutely, not to be ignored.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Coming Soon - Honolulu by Alan Brennert

In 2003, author Alan Brennert published a book titled Moloka’i that became a surprise best seller, especially with reading groups and book clubs. Set on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, the book told the story of a Hawaiian girl who grew into womanhood at the island’s one time leper colony of Kalaupapa, where she falls in love with a Japanese man whose disease has brought shame upon his family.

In March 2009, Brennert will publish his second novel, Honolulu. Honolulu takes place in 1914, and explores Hawaii’s capital city through the eyes of a young Korean “picture bride” named Jin (which means “Regret”). (“Picture brides” were women selected by Asian [usually Japanese or Korean] immigrant workers through their photo only to be their wives.)

However, when Jin, who left Korea with such high hopes, arrives in Honolulu, she finds things are not as she expected and instead of joy, much sorrow and disappointment await her.

While I don’t like to categorize books, some people feel it’s necessary. So, with that in mind, Honolulu would fall into the category of historical fiction. And it sounds like very good historical fiction. Moloka’i was a beautifully textured novel, capturing all the sights, sounds, smells, etc. of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu promises to be just as good, if not better.

Yes, there are a lot of books about the role of women in Asian culture – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Snow Fox, The Kitchen God’s Wife, Wild Swans, and on and on. What makes Honolulu so memorable is the high quality of Brennert’s writing and the reader’s personal relationship with Jin. We really do see Honolulu and the Hawaiian Islands through the eyes of the young Korean bride. We learn much when we read Honolulu, but we’re also entertained as well.

Honolulu promises to be a best seller, just as Moloka’i was. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, one certainly has to admit the book was written with passion and love, and when you get right down to it, that’s the only way to write.

Learn more about Alan Brennert at his Web site:

Interview - Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature

An interview with the wonderful and fascinating Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea) on philosophy and literature.

“Literature does many, many things, and philosophy does one thing.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Book Review - The Sea by John Banville - "...all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it."

The Irish novelist, John Banville, is well known as one of today’s greatest prose stylists. Although his early books – Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton – all featured scientists, his later books have explored the world of criminal aesthetes and art experts, and most of them employ the fascinating, though sometimes frustrating, device of the unreliable narrator. This is true of his fourteenth novel, the 2005 Man Booker winner, The Sea.

The protagonist of The Sea is sixtyish art historian, Max Morden (names are always very significant in Banville’s novels). Plunged into a deep and seemingly endless sea of mourning over the death of his wife, Anna, from untreatable stomach cancer, and alienated from his only daughter, Claire, Max returns to Ballyless, a small town on the rugged Irish coast where he once spent a life altering childhood summer. Although as a child, Max stayed in the simple, inexpensive, and rustic “chalet,” the adult Max has ensconced himself in the far grander boarding house known as “The Cedars,” a place that, fifty years ago, was the summer home of a family the young Max worshipped, the Graces.

Although Max found Carlos Grace, the head of the family, to be nothing more than an arrogant boor, he was mesmerized by Constance Grace, Carlos’ wife, and later, by Chloe, Constance’s eleven-year-old daughter. (Fascinatingly, Chloe’s twin brother, Myles, is a constant presence through the book, though he never utters a single word.) It is Max’s recent tragedy – the loss of Anna – that has caused a much earlier tragedy – one directly involving the Graces – to haunt both his waking and his sleeping hours.

Like many of Banville’s protagonists, Max Morden is disparaging to the point of sheer exasperation. Stalled in the monograph he’s writing on French painter, Pierre Bonnard, Max describes himself as:

…a person of scant talent and scanter ambition, greyed o’er by the years, uncertain and astray and in need of consolation and the brief respite of drink induced oblivion.

Many times during the reading of this gorgeous book, one must stop and ask himself if Max is victim or predator. Perhaps he’s both. It’s rather difficult to tell because Max is so intent on inhabiting a world of ghosts – Anna’s and the ghosts of the Graces, for example – that he becomes rather ghostlike, himself, losing form and substance and becoming something of an amorphous shapeshifter, much like the sea, itself. This comes as no surprise. Anyone familiar with Banville’s work knows that ghosts are one of his favorite literary devices. They flit and flutter through his fiction like moths to a flame – melancholy, lonely people searching for a past they want to believe in, but sadly, a past that never really was.

As Max attempts to recreate his past at Ballyless, or what he believes to be his past, the major themes of The Sea – memory and loss – begin to emerge. The storyline is a simple one, though the structure of the novel is subtle and complex, always moving back and forth, back and forth, in and out, in and out, rhythmic as the tide. Max’s voice, though at times infuriating, is, more often than not, mesmerizing. The message of this book, I think, can be summed up in one sentence, a sentence uttered by Max:

…all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it.

From The Sea’s very beginning, readers can tell they are in for some tragic soul searching, albeit exquisitely beautiful soul searching.

As already mentioned, John Banville is a prose stylist par excellence. He’s as Nabokovian as Edna O’Brien is Joycean. And, though his novels are, without a doubt, unspeakably sad, and feature sometimes mortally wounded protagonists, they are written in prose that keeps us glued to the page, prose that’s luminous, glittering, beautiful, lyrical, and hypnotic. Banville’s books often wound emotionally, but they’re difficult to impossible to put down.

Some people mistakenly call Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago, a “difficult” and “demanding” author. While Saramago’s sentences can continue for pages and pages, once a reader “falls into” the cadence of the narrative, the reading flows as quickly and as easily as a snowball down an Alpine mountainside.

If any author’s prose is difficult, it’s Banville’s, gorgeous though it is, and this may be the book’s only shortcoming, if it can be considered a shortcoming at all. The Sea contains many mythic allusions and numerous embedded quotations from Yeats, Keats, Milton, Tennyson, Conrad, Shakespeare, Eliot, and Stevens, as well as recurrent analogies from the world of art. Some readers will love this, however those not familiar with the above authors names as well as the art world, won’t be able to unravel The Sea completely. Still, it’s going to be a life-altering read.

Sometimes, Banville’s prose seems a bit too gorgeous. It’s possible for a reader to find himself paying too much attention to the excruciating beauty of the metaphors and too little to Max. However, considering the tragic beauty of The Sea and its overall impact on the reader, this is but a quibble.

Most people believed Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George would win 2005’s Booker, or if not Arthur and George, then Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful exploration of cloning, Never Let Me Go. And both, of course, were worthy contenders. However, considering the violent beauty, the exquisite tragedy, and the depth of crystalline clarity contained in The Sea, it’s obvious this autumnal elegy was the right choice.

As Banville, himself, wrote in the glorious Gothic novel, Birchwood:

We imagine that we remember things as they were, while in fact all we’ll carry into the future are fragments which reconstruct a wholly illusory past. The first death we witness will always be a murmur of voices down a corridor and a clock falling silent in a darkened room, the end of love is forever two cigarettes in a saucer and a white door closing.

So it is in The Sea, only more so.


Recommended: Definitely, especially for those readers who love literary fiction.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Book Review - The Classics - Great Expectations by Charles Dickens "Great Expectations Fulfilled"

Great Expectations, a bildungsroman that spans approximately thirty years, yet still has an imitate feel, is the story of Philip Pirrip, or Pip, as he prefers to be called. Actually, there are two Pips in Great Expectations – the first is Pip the protagonist and the second is Pip the narrator, two distinctly different voices, since Pip is narrating his story many years after its events have been concluded.

Orphaned soon after birth, Pip was adopted by his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband, the local blacksmith, and “brought up by hand.” (Though Pip’s sister seems to take great pride in this fact, it’s not something I’d wish on any child.)

We first meet Pip in the marshy morning mists of a village churchyard, staring at the graves of his parents. In just a few moments, Pip will come face to face with the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, the person who, more than any other, will define the course Pip’s life will take.

Another defining moment in Pip’s life occurs when he is whisked away to the manor home known as Satis House at the behest of its owner, Miss Havisham, ostensibly to entertain Miss Havisham’s ward, a beautiful and self-possessed girl named Estella. Little does Pip know that Miss Havisham has other, sinister motives in mind. It is after meeting Estella that Pip makes the firm decision to change his lot in life and develops his “great expectations.”

Although not a particularly long book, Great Expectations follows Pip into adulthood, to London, where he becomes the best friend of Herbert Pocket, joins the ranks of the idle rich, and finally learns the deepest, darkest secrets of Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, and how their lives are inseparably intertwined. It comes full circle when, in the mists of the village at evening, Pip meets with the one person who has tormented his days and nights for years, and finally lays to rest the ghosts of the great expectations Estella awakened so long ago.

Although I’ve read and loved many of Dickens’ other books, I’ve never loved one with the passion and intensity I feel for Great Expectations. I thought this was a beautiful book and one that was perfectly constructed. At the suggestion of his friend, the author, Edward Bulwar-Lytton, Dickens changed the original ending. Many critics, including George Bernard Shaw, as well as Dickens’ biographer, Edgar H. Johnson, believed the original ending to be more consistent with the theme and tone of the book. Others, including John Irving, who wrote the Introduction to the edition I have, believe the revised, second ending is the more perfect. When you get ready to borrow or buy an edition of this book, please make sure both endings are included since they are very different.

Although definitely not as autobiographical as David Copperfield (and definitely not as sunny), Great Expectations’ Pip can surely be seen to represent Dickens, himself. And perhaps the two endings can be seen to represent (1) actual events in Dickens’ life, and (2) events as he might have wished them to be.

As with most superlative books, Dickens’ doesn’t spell everything out for the reader. I wondered why Dickens gave Pip’s sister such abominable characteristics, why he made her so hard and unloving, not only towards Pip, but toward her own husband as well.

The character of Miss Havisham is, of course, totally unforgettable. A woman whose life “stopped” the day her lover left her at the altar, Miss Havisham never removed her frayed and yellowed wedding dress, and her large wedding cake still occupies its place of honor on the dining room table, despite the fact that it’s riddled with spiders, beetles, and even rats. Although many people can’t see beyond Miss Havisham’s manic, obsessive cruelty, she’s a truly complex character, and the sophisticated reader can both sympathize with and dislike her at the same time. We understand her and why she’s doing what she’s doing, but we certainly can’t like it.

The theme of Great Expectations is, of course, the futility of looking outside of oneself for happiness, and for this reason, the main characters undergo profound psychological changes, something that doesn’t happen in other novels written by Dickens.

There has been so much criticism of Dickens for both his sentimentality and his use of coincidence to drive the plot of his novels. Sentimentality is one of the reasons I read and love Dickens, and in particular, Great Expectations. Dickens was an emotional writer rather than an intellectual one. He appealed to the heart of his readers rather than to their head. Victorian emotionalism (and they were emotional) appeals to me far more than does postmodern intellectual architecture. I think so many authors today try so hard to keep sentimentality out of their novels that their books and characters are almost devoid of humanity.

The plot of Great Expectations does contain several huge coincidences, so if you simply can’t tolerate that, then best forget about this book, wonderful though it is. It probably wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s major publishing houses, though I certainly didn’t mind the use of some coincidence. I read fiction to be entertained, to be transported to another world, to get to know the characters and their world. As long as the coincidence adds to the story rather than detracts, I’m okay with it.

Great Expectations, though a story about mistakes, broken dreams, and painful personal growth, nevertheless contains much humor and wit. Personally, I found it a far more “human” book than A Tale of Two Cities, often seen as Dickens’ masterpiece.

I loved Great Expectations more than any other book I’ve read this year. Absolutely nothing about it annoys me, not even Herbert’s strange propensity for calling Pip “Handel.” For me, Great Expectations is the epitome of nineteenth century literature, and its characters, especially Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, are truly unforgettable.


Recommend: Definitely, one of Dickens' very best.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review - Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh "...memory, that winged host."

Brideshead Revisited is set primarily in England, between WWI and WWII, and is told in a frame, narrated only by Ryder, a narrator who seems sincere and reliable, and most of the time, sympathetic, not only to the reader, but to the plight of the characters around him.

The story proper opens in Oxford in 1921-1923, where Charles Ryder is a young student. Disregarding the advice of his very proper older cousin, Jasper, Ryder has taken ground-floor rooms in the university town. Jasper has warned Ryder that ground-floor rooms provide little peace and solitude and instead, open their inhabitants to a plethora of unwanted intruders. And so it is with Ryder. One night, hearing a group of partygoers making their way home, Ryder sees the face of Sebastian Flyte at his window, and his life is changed forever.

Brideshead Revisited isn't E.M. Forster's Maurice. The friendship that develops between Ryder and Sebastian isn't romantic in nature, though its bonds are, perhaps stronger and its endurance longer, than most romantic relationships could ever hope to be. Ryder, a lonely young man, whose mother died when he was still a child, has only his rather dotty father at home, and though far from poor, the elder Ryder is a penny pincher who seems to glory in a life of doom and gloom. We can't blame Charles when he becomes somewhat overly entranced with the Flyte family and with Sebastian.

And, truth be told, there are few of us who wouldn't be attracted to Sebastian - at least initially. He's brilliant, sensitive, and, it would seem, in every situation, charming. He's also, as we soon learn, more than a little flawed. If Ryder doesn't immediately see Sebastian's shortcomings, Jasper does, and he's quick to point them out to his younger cousin.

While Sebastian's family, the Flytes, of whom the head is the Marquis of Marchmain, probably wouldn't appear the slightest bit odd to us - today - they are quite a rarity in 1923 England. To begin with, they're Catholic - at least Lady Marchmain and the four children are - though all five espouse varying degrees of what constitutes "keeping the faith."

Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain, who isn't a Catholic - at least for most of the book, doesn't give a whit about keeping the faith, or keeping familial solidarity, either. While Lady Marchmain and the children remain ensconced at Brideshead, Lord Marchmain, for reasons never made entirely clear, although we know they have, in part, something to do with religion, has long ago fled England for Italy, where he lives in a decaying palazzo with his surprisingly likable and sympathetic Italian mistress.

Lord Marchmain, however, isn't the only family member to break with tradition. There's Sebastian's older brother, Lord Brideshead, who seems far more intent on collecting matchboxes than finding a suitable wife and ensuring the propagation of the Flytes. There's Lady Julia Flyte, a woman who goes her own way, and when first encountered by Ryder, is thoroughly preoccupied with her engagement to the non-Catholic Rex Mottram, a rather coarse and vulgar Canadian who is not at all suited to her...or to the Marchmain family. Then, there's Lady Cordelia, the youngest. Outwardly, she seems to definitely be "her mother's daughter," a devout young woman who is expected to become a nun. Presiding over Brideshead is the tragic figure of Lady Marchmain, a woman whose devotion to her faith and sensitivity have rendered her totally unable to cope with the problems given her by her children.

While the first half of Brideshead Revisited is rather gay in tone - we see Ryder and Sebastian enjoying idyllic picnics of strawberries and champagne, setting off on summertime drives through the leafy English countryside, and, like many university students, indulging in one round of parties after another, all in the company of Sebastian's ever-present teddy bear, Aloysius - the second half of the book, which takes place in 1938, becomes something else entirely and takes on a decidedly darker, more tragic tone.

To my dismay, the most interesting figure in this family tableau, Lord Sebastian, has all but disappeared, having become an inveterate alcoholic and taken up residence in a Spanish monastery in North Africa. He turns out to be his father's son after all, as both indulge their propensity to flee that which they do not care to ignore or change. I found Sebastian the most interesting character in the book, by far, and I desperately wanted to know more about him, but sadly, that was not to be, for Brideshead Revisited is Charles Ryder's story and his alone.

Ryder, during the second half of the book, is not so preoccupied with Sebastian as he is with Julia, whom he meets by chance on board ship while both are still married - to others. Marriage, however, doesn't stop them from indulging in their love for each other or from discarding their respective spouses and returning to Brideshead. But Brideshead revisited isn't at all the Brideshead that Ryder once knew. With Lady Marchmain long dead, Lord Marchmain, now ill and feeble, makes the decision to return to his ancestral home to die in his Renaissance bed, a decision that will have far-reaching effects on Julia, and by extension, on Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited often seems to be a polarizing book. There are those who say it's Waugh's finest and those who say it's by far, his worst. Although I was disappointed not to learn more about Sebastian, for me, this book, because of its scope and structure, is quite definitely Waugh's masterpiece, though I'm certainly not blind to its shortcomings. The irony contained in the author's earlier books is still to be found, as is his extensive use of detail. This book, however, is more spacious, more sweeping, though it lacks the wit and abrasive quality of Waugh's earlier works.

Waugh's writing is, sometimes, at its best, and sometimes, not quite up to par. The worst of it is contained in the sections during which Ryder is describing his love for Julia: sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover.... On the rough water...I was made free of her narrow loins.

Well, that's really not very good, but then I didn't expect it to be. The love between Ryder and Julia isn't nearly as believable as the friendship between Ryder and Sebastian. Perhaps Waugh, a convert to Catholicism, let his own feelings get in the way of his writing. Perhaps, as I strongly suspect, he never wanted us to believe in Ryder's and Julia's love in the first place. We do know Waugh intended the theme of the second half of the book to be focused on Julia's spiritual redemption. He's told us so. The trouble is, I personally found Julia to be a very annoying character. Had she simply disappeared from the book soon after her initial appearance, I would have been happy.

Whatever your feelings about Brideshead Revisited, the book certainly can't be dismissed, or even judged against, Waugh's corrosive satires of the Mayfair set. Whether you love it or hate it or feel something in between, Brideshead Revisited is definitely one of "the" defining books of England between the wars. It's a very intimate glimpse of a way of life that was rapidly passing away as a new one was being born. It's a story of physical decay and spiritual rebirth. As Ryder, himself says, while watching his troops being billeted at Brideshead:

It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

In middle age, Charles Ryder himself, a major player in the tragedy of the Flyte family, is burning anew, though not in the way he expected, among the ancient stones of Brideshead.


Recommended: Yes. It will either be your "favorite Waugh" or your least favorite. Let me know which!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review - The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry "I do remember terrible dark things..."

In The Secret Scripture, Irish novelist, poet, and playwright, Sebastian Barry gives us an intimate look at two persons: Roseanne McNulty and Dr. William Grene. It’s a fascinating look and one I don’t think most readers will soon forget.

Roseanne Clear McNulty has been a patient in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in western Ireland for the last sixty years. A native of Sligo, Ireland, Roseanne believes she could be one hundred years old, though no records indicating her true age can be found, and her admittance records to Roscommon have been destroyed. Now, Roscommon, an old, crumbling, Victorian institution, is going to be destroyed, and its chief psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene must decide which of his patients is well enough to live life in the “real” world, and which should be transferred to the new mental institution that is being readied.

With little to look forward to, Roseanne begins to set down her life story, writing by hand on scrap paper. She desires to leave a history of her life, though she says she is but a “remnant woman,” a thing left over, with no one outside Roscommon who even knows her name.

Roseanne’s haunting reminiscence is seemingly for her eyes only, or for some reader of the future. She writes in secret, and every time she hears someone approaching, she hides the pages of her manuscript under a loose floorboard near her bed.

Since Dr. Grene’s assessment of Roseanne has been made more difficult by the loss of her admittance records, he, too, begins to write – not a memoir, but rather a diary, which he calls his “Commonplace Book.” Through Roseanne’s testimony of herself, and through Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book, we come to know both of these fascinating and supremely human characters intimately.

Roseanne’s testimony makes up, by far, the bulk of the book, and it’s skillfully and masterfully woven with the writings of Dr. Grene so the effect is of a seamless whole. Although I felt I would have liked it a bit more had Barry made the tone of Dr. Grene’s writing a little more distinct from Roseanne’s, despite the similarity, Roseanne’s is still the more lyrical, the more haunting, the more graceful of the two. She takes us back to her childhood in Sligo, and as she details her life there, her sadness, her grief, and above all, her love for her father, Joseph Clear, a man who cherished the sermons of John Donne and Sir Thomas Browne’s “Religio Medici,” we come to see that Joe Clear was most certainly the love of Roseanne McNulty’s life. Her feelings are so beautifully detailed they are almost palpable. I would have liked to have known more about Joe Clear. His sufferings are so great, he reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley or Job, himself, yet he is, at all times, totally believable.

This is not to say that Dr. Grene’s sections aren’t arresting. They are. As he searches for the truth about Roseanne, we not only experience his private tragedies along with him, we come to see this gentle and compassionate doctor is also tortured by doubt and riddled with undeserved guilt. And, though her testimony is quite fascinating, the more Dr. Grene learns about Roseanne, the more we begin to doubt her reliability as a narrator.

As Barry weaves Roseanne’s testimony with the words of Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book, we move from Sligo between the wars to the present and back again. The more Dr. Grene learns about Roseanne, the more questions are raised – in his mind and in the mind of the reader. Were all Roseanne’s tragedies based in reality? Or were some the product of her own imagination? Who should Dr. Grene believe, Roseanne or the Catholic priest, Father Gaunt, whose account of Roseanne’s history differs considerably from her own? Perhaps both are truthful and both are not. Memory, after all, is subjective and filtered through personal experience, and Roseanne, herself, admits that “no one has the monopoly on truth.”

The Secret Scripture is written (but never overwritten) in sensitive, beautiful, lyrical prose, and gorgeous imagery, a testament to Barry’s power as a poet. Although Roseanne and Dr. Grene certainly take center stage, the book is populated by an entire cast of ghostly, though beautifully drawn minor characters – Roseanne’s enigmatic father, her beautiful, emotionally fragile mother, the chilling Father Gaunt, the crusty John Kane, an orderly at Roscommon. Even Eneas McNulty, the protagonist of Barry’s earlier book, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty makes an appearance that will impact the lives of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene forever. Ireland, itself, and its tragic history are present in every page of this elegiac novel, and we come to learn more about the power the Catholic Church wielded over the country’s residents, and how inhumanely the Protestant population, which included Roseanne, was treated.

As gorgeous and haunting as The Secret Scripture is, and as human and unforgettable as are Roseanne and Dr. Grene, some readers are bound to be put off by a melodramatic plot twist that comes very near the end of the book. Although I would have preferred Barry not to have included this twist, I found the book so wonderfully written that it really didn’t bother me that much. Other readers, however, will find that it nullifies all that has gone before. Personally, I trust Barry’s storytelling skills and believe there’s a reason why he decided to include this rather soap operaish and guessable twist.

In the end, I found the means most definitely justified the end, and though I would have rather Barry not included the ending twist, the journey, for me, the gorgeous, heartbreaking, lyrically beautiful journey, was worth the destination. I will not soon forget either Roseanne McNulty or Dr. William Grene, and I will certainly treasure this book and read more of Sebastian Barry.


Recommended: Definitely.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review - The Haunting of L. by Howard Norman “…writing, writing as if to beat the Devil.”

It is March 1927, and twenty-nine-year-old Peter Duvett, a photographic darkroom assistant attempting to flee his demons, travels from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Churchill, Manitoba, a community of about 1,500 situated on Hudson Bay.

Duvett just happens to arrive in Churchill on his new employer’s wedding day. Vienna Linn, a rather macabre and sinister man who photographs newly baptized Eskimo for the local Jesuit missionaries, is marrying the attractive, red-haired Kala Murie. Kala, though not a photographer herself, has a definite interest in photography. She’s a devoted follower of Georgiana Houghton, a nineteenth century spiritualist and author of The Unclad Spirit, a book Kala’s made her bible. The book details the subject on which Kala occasionally lectures – spirit photography – in which an “uninvited guest,” not present when the photo was taken (he or she being already deceased), appears after the photo is developed.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there are several surprises on the Linn/Murie wedding night that create an interesting, though not wholly believable dynamic among the three main characters.

The book quickly takes on a wonderfully noirish tone as we learn of Radin Heur, a wealthy and eccentric London collector who, in the past, had paid Linn to photograph tragic and gruesome accidents. The fact that Linn probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near the scene of the accident is solved in a way that’s caused both Linn and Murie to flee from Heur – at least temporarily.

A lot of things – melodramatic things – happen in The Haunting of L. – adultery, murder, attempted murder, suicide – and the book is wonderfully atmospheric, capturing perfectly the cold, the snow, and the desolate isolation of northern Manitoba. You’d think, with all the above, it’d most certainly be a page-turner if ever there was one. And yet, the book drags. Surprisingly, it just plods along until reading it becomes more a chore than a delight.

The story is told from the point of view of Duvett, and this, I think, is part of the problem. Peter Duvett is so passive, so complacent, so totally without imagination or curiosity that it’s next to impossible to care about him. Linn and Murie don’t fare any better as far as character development is concerned. Both are shallow and underdeveloped, and I found Murie, in particular, despicable, though it’s Linn I should have despised.

The Haunting of L. is the third book in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, the other two being the magnificent The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. The Haunting of L. is written in the same elegant, pared-down prose that’s found in the first two, and Norman provides much food for thought, but, as with its characters, he never gets around to developing any of it and his book certainly suffers. This is a story that “could have, should have, would have” been so very much, but, though beautifully written, just isn’t.

I could have forgiven Norman this shallowness had it not been for the ending. All through the reading of this mysterious, creepy novel, I had no idea how it would end, but I certainly didn’t expect the come-out-of-the-blue, pat ending provided by Norman. Despite the flat characterization, Norman managed to create an original story and a plot that continually twists and turns. He got the three principals in so much trouble one would think there was no way they could dig themselves out. And apparently, there wasn’t. The ending is far too easy, too implausible, and it left a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Haunting of L. despite its lovely writing. However, I can enthusiastically recommend the first two books in the trilogy, mentioned above. These books still contain the lovely, evocative writing found in The Haunting of L., but they don’t suffer from flat characterization and a tacked on ending.

By all means, read Howard Norman. Just skip this particular book.


Recommended: No, but do read Norman's other books. They are terrific.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Updated Book Review - Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - I'm Underwhelmed

When Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning volume of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies was published, I didn't read it. For one thing, I'd just read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (and it's huge) and Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters, and while I absolutely loved both books, I was suffering from a surfeit of Indian fiction, at least at that time. But more than that, I gave The Interpreter of Maladies a pass because of all the hype. I've been let down by hype in the past. More than once. Surely the book couldn't be that good, I told myself. Surely Lahiri's prose wasn't that sparkling and fresh.

When Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri's third book of longer short stories was released, I'd "sort of" decided to give it a pass as well. I have plenty to read, and didn't really need anything new. However, I was shopping the other day and there was the book, lying on a table right in front of me. I couldn't resist. But please keep in mind, I approached the book with a mind to dislike it.

At first, I was astounded by the beauty and grace in Lahiri's stories. No, the plots aren't much to speak of. Nothing earth shattering really happens. These are just normal people living normal lives. Yes, they're Bengali-Americans, but so what? Lahiri writes about the universality of the human experience, not about experiences that are unique to Bengalis or Bengali-Americans.

I was impressed with Lahiri's spare and unadorned prose, with her understatement. But as time went on, my good feelings about this book were replaced by some not-so-good. For one, the surfeit of elementary grammar mistakes, such as using "one another" instead of "each other" when speaking of only two people. This would be okay in a memo or an email, but not coming from a Pulitzer Prize winning author. An Amazon reviewer has already pointed out the numerous grammar mistakes, so I won't do so here, but please know, they are they and in spades.

Another thing I came to dislike about the book was the flatness of the storytelling, the lack of vivid details. I'm not talking about cheap "hooks" or action scenes that are found in less-than-great detective stories or thrillers, neither of which I really like, but sensuous details - the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of things - description that makes use of the five senses. It just wasn't there and I found Lahiri's prose pleasant, but flat. It didn't come to life vividly like Alice Munro's always does, or William Trevor's. Pulitzer or not, I don't think Lahiri has mastered her craft.

Personally, I can't understand criticism of Lahiri because she writes about Bengali-Americans. Doesn't Alice Munro write about Canadians? Doesn't William Trevor write about the Irish? Didn't Chekhov write about Russians and Eudora Welty about people of the American South? No, I wouldn't be able to read Lahiri every day. But neither would I be able to read Alice Munro or Chekhov every day. That part doesn't bother me nearly as much as the flat prose and the grammatical errors, neither of which should be tolerated in a Pulitzer winner.

If you're new to Lahiri's writing, Unaccustomed Earth probably isn't a good place to start. Although at first impressed, after letting the stories "settle" for a while, I came away from the book feeling very let down, very underwhelmed. No, the stories aren't bad, but they're not stellar, either, and definitely not up to the caliber of Alice Munro or William Trevor. Certainly not Chekhov. When it comes to the masters, Lahiri can't even come close.


Recommended: Only to her fans.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review - Two Lives by William Trevor

Every time the great Irish writer, William Trevor publishes something new, critics everywhere say it's the greatest thing he's ever written. And it is. Until he writes something else, that is.

Two Lives, however, has won a special place in my heart, and while I love everything Trevor writes, I doubt that anything will ever top Two Lives for me.

Two Lives is composed of two elegant and elegiac novels, each centering on a fiftysomething woman, and each taking place during the summer of 1987.

At first glance, the lives of Mary Louise Quarry and Emily Delahunty couldn't seem more different. Mary Louise, an Irish farm girl and the heroine of "Reading Turgenev" has lived in a home for the mentally and emotionally disturbed and impaired for the past thirty-one years. Repressed and emotionally fragile, the only experience Mary Louise has ever had of love, despite an early and ongoing marriage, revolves around her dying cousin, Robert, who lived with his mother in a crumbling Irish country house and who shares his love of Turgenev with Mary Louise.

While Mary Louise's life constantly turns inward, Emily Delahunty, the outgoing romance novelist who takes center stage in "My House in Umbria," looks to others for emotional sustenance. The abandoned daughter of carnival performers, Emily's always made her own way in the world, and unlike Mary Louise, she's had a great deal more experience of love than most. At least the "business" side of love, and it's this business side that's paid for her charming villa in the Umbrian countryside not far from Siena.

When we first met both Mary Louise and Emily, each woman is dealing with a traumatic event that has, at least temporarily, turned her world upside down. Trevor tells us each woman's story as he moves from the present to the past and back to the present once again. Little by little, we learn how these two women, who've lived such extraordinarily different lives on the outside are, at their core, so very, very similar. Each woman constructs her life around fantasy, and though Emily Delahunty may, at first, seem the stronger of the two, as we read on, we learn this isn't necessarily true. Mary Louise's inner resources might not be so much in evidence, but there's no doubt they run deep. In the end, a perceptive reader can reach no easy conclusions about either woman or the people with whom she shares her life and interacts. The line betwen reality and fantasy is deliberately blurred. But that's William Trevor. In the master writer's hands, nothing is clear-cut, nothing is easy, and nothing is quite as it seems.

Although there are mirrors and echoes of each novella in the other, Trevor has said he didn't set out for this to be so. He didn't plan a book containing two novellas, each revolving around a woman who needs to construct a fantasy life in order to survive. Instead, Trevor tells us "one tends to write out of an obsession and the obsession didn't end when I finished the first one."

The "first one" was "My House in Umbria," the story of Emily Delahunty, though most readers consider "Reading Turgenev" the superior novella. Certainly the Booker committee did when they shortlisted it for the prize in 1991.

Both "Reading Turgenev" and "My House in Umbria" are gorgeously wrought novels. Each is infused with Trevor's trademark melancholy, bleakness, insight, subtle wit, and above all, his tremendous compassion for the entire human race.

Once again, William Trevor has shown us there's no finer author writing in the English language today.


Recommended: Most enthusiastically. Along with Felicia's Journey, this is Trevor's finest work in a lifetime of fine works.

Why We Respect Michiko Kakutani

Michiko Kakutani. If you've written a book, especially if you're a firsttime author, chances are you fear her. If you don't know who Michiko Kakutani is, she's the lead fiction book reviewer fo the "New York Times," and has been for quite a few years now. Her opinions are greatly respected, with the possible exception of those whose writing she doesn't like, and over the years, she's gained the power to make or break a writer's career.

As a serious reader and a serious "still learning" writer of literary fiction, I both admire and respect Michiko Kakutani. Too many reviewers, and this includes not only professional reviewers, but amateur reviewers who want to increase their "page rank," etc., pander to publishers by giving a book praise it doesn't deserve.

Sure, everyone's entitled to his or her own opinion, and we all have different ideas on what makes a book good. Up to a point, all writing is subjective, but only up to a point. Good, clear, emotionally involving writing does carry objective rules, and they're rules every writer needs to master before he or she goes about breaking them for the sake of "art."

I used to be a far more trusting, and naive, reader than I am today. If a professional reviewer said a book was "mesmerizing," "hypnotic," and "haunting," and assured me I'd never be able to forget it, I believed him or her. I'd run out and immediately buy the book, and more often than not, I'd be terribly disappointed.

I like and respect Michiko Kakutani for having the courage to tell us a book is bad, or at least less than extraordinary, when it is. But no, I'm not a sheep, I don't always agree with even her. She praised Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and though I found much to admire in that book, I also found much that was less than stellar, especially from a Pulitzer Prize winning author. For example, Lahiri consistently uses "one another" rather than "each other" when she's speaking of only two persons. My eight-year-old niece knows better than that, and that's just the beginning of the plethora of grammar mistakes I found in this volume of short stories. And Lahiri's writing, though elegant and understated, is also flat and abstract.

Still, even though Michiko Kakutani and I disagree about certain books, I respect her courage and the fact that she is her own person. Very few novels can legitimately be called "a masterpiece." Even fewer are as close to perfect as possible. I hope more and more reviewers, both professional and amateur, will follow her lead and start giving readers a more honest and balanced assessment of books under their review, an assessment designed to help the reader in choosing whether or not to read the book, rather than one that tries to promote the book itself, no matter what its merits.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why We're NOT Wild About Red Room

When we first heard about Red Room, we thought it was a terrific idea. In fact, two of our editors even had Member (not Author, editors aren't always authors) pages over there. Not anymore.

For one thing, both of our editors got a nasty computer virus from Red Room that completely erased their hard drives in fewer than thirty seconds. (Luckily they had everything backed up on CD.) Now, we'll give Red Room this - they can't police every single thing that every single member puts up on their "space." However, Red Room's owner, Ivory Madison claims she raised more than $3.25 million to fund her project, so one would think she could put up a Web site designed by a legitimate designer and not use a drupal content management system riddled with bugs. The site's terribly unattractive, but still, this isn't its major drawback. Not everything that's good is attractive. However, things don't line up properly on Red Room, other things overlap, the directory of authors and members isn't in alphabetical order, etc. When one wants to read an author page, things are okay, but when one wants to read a member page, one's presented with a totally white screen - until the reader scrolls down, down, down, down, down and finally sees the member's profile. This shouldn't be. Sure, we know Madison can't spend her entire booty on Web design, but for $10,000 she could have the best Website in the world - and she has a site that looks, well, to put it charitably, bad.

Touted as a "MySpace for Writers," that's exactly what Red Room is. And really, if you're a serious writer, why on earth would you want to be on a "MySpace?" Now, we've got nothing against MySpace. It's secure, it was designed by actual Web designers with Cold Fusion, and it serves the purpose it was meant to serve, the purpose it states it serves. However, serious writers write, they don't hang around Red Room writing blogs about the paucity of their lives and leaving comments for others who should be writing as well. In fact, if a writers wants exposure, much better to actually BE on MySpace than on Red Room. Or Associated Content. Both sites have millions of members, and both sites are secure and free from viruses.

The advertising that a reader can "connect" with A-list writers like Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, and Maya Angelou on Red Room is half true, half not true. At best, as we see it, it's a slanted truth. Yes, these writers have publicists who put up pages for them, but these are, as we said, A-list writers. They're WRITING. They aren't blogging on Red Room and "connecting" with readers. If you truly want to connect with one of these writers, write them a letter through their agent or publisher or through their official Website.

Ms. Madison says she'll be adding publisher, agent, and editor pages to Red Room. We aren't fortune tellers, but we don't feel this is going to work. Publishers, agents, and editors are the busiest people in the world. We should know - most of us are editors. We read, we have breakfast meetings, we have lunch meetings and dinner meetings, we take work home with us almost every night and every weekend. We skip social events and getting our hair done. The last thing we have time for is surfing a list of D-authors on Red Room.

The A-list on Red Room already has representation. The remainder, the active writers and would be writers on Red Room are, for the most part, D-list authors. People the general public has never heard of. If they already have representation, they don't need it. If they want representation, they're going to have to get it the traditional way.

As for Madison's own writing, she wrote a comic book. Just one. And it's ranked approximately three million on, with one review, awarding it only one-star.

This is our opinion only, of course, but we don't like Red Room, and we feel if you're a writer who wants to be taken seriously, you'll steer clear of the place. Red Room is rapidly becoming the place serious writers DON'T want to be seen.

Another problem with Red Room, even if it were attractive and even if were populated by A-list authors (and there's nothing wrong with B- and C-list authors, many of them just need a little more publicity) is the fact that when a reader is browsing your Red Room page, there are so many distraction to take him or her AWAY from your page. Other blog entries and comments, etc. People see something that interests them, and they immediately click away from your page and go on to another. You want the focus of the reader's attention to be on you and your writing, not on someone else's.

Content is king, and the bottom line on Red Room is that the content just isn't good.

Example: We found this comment on Red Room: Anybody can dawn a bulbous red nose, fluffy red wig, baggy clothes and giant shoes and bulldoze around like a clown in disguise, but the impostor will eventually be unmasked. - Ben Campbell

Now, the comment above is supposed to be from a PUBLISHED WRITER. What published writer worth his salt, we have to ask, would write "Anybody can dawn...." If this wouldn't be so sad, it would be hilariously funny, and this shows you the calibre of "writers" that frequent Red Room. The correct word is, of course, "don." Dawn, Ben Campbell, is that special time of day when the sun comes up. :)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Rocky Road to Short Story Publication

If you’ve ever submitted a short story to a magazine for publication, you know how easy it is to just give up when the rejection slips start coming in, and they will come in, even if your story is magnificent. However, if you’ve mastered your craft, and you’ve done the best job possible writing your story, giving up really shouldn’t be an option.

It’s not easy to get a short story published, even an excellent one, unless, of course, your uncle is the fiction editor at “Vanity Fair,” and I’m assuming he’s not, or you wouldn’t be reading this, but neither is publication impossible, even for a new writer. New writers are being published almost every day, and with a lot of dedication and hard work, you could be one. However, don’t think you can submit less than your best and be published anywhere. You have lots and lots of competition, and your work’s going to have to be good. It’s going to have to be very, very good.

I’m going to assume that you’ve mastered your craft, and if you’ve mastered your craft and if you’ve written the best story you can, you’ve also been meticulous about checking your spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The one and only time a mistake in spelling or grammar is acceptable is when you’ve created a character who uses less than perfect grammar herself. Whose poor spelling or grammar is a part of his or her everyday speech.

Your story might make perfect sense to you, but then, you’re the author, you know exactly what you want to convey. Before sending it out, it’s a good idea to let a few other people, preferably not family members, read it. (Family members are just too close to us to make good readers.) If these people have a hard time keeping track of what’s going on, or find gaps in your narrative, you’ve obviously still got some rewriting to do.

There are hundreds of magazines and Websites that publish short stories, some of them glossy and prestigious, others a little more humble looking. Obviously, we’d all love to be published in “The New Yorker” or “The Paris Review,” but realistically, this probably isn’t going to happen, and truth be told, these magazines, prestigious as they are, might not be the best fit for your story. This is where research comes into play, research you’re going to have to do.

Grab a copy of the current Novel and Short Story Writers’ Market. This indispensable book lists thousands of publications and gives you enough relevant information about each so you can make a decision as to whether your story is likely to find a warm welcome or a rejection at the magazine you’ve been considering. You don’t want to send a romance to a magazine that only focuses on highly literary stories. Why waste their time and yours?

You should make it a habit to become as familiar as possible with as many literary publications as possible. It’s imperative you read as many literary magazines as possible that publish work similar to your own writing style. Why? Because you need to stay abreast of what’s being published, and because you don’t want to submit a story, no matter how good, to a magazine that’s just published one very similar in plot or theme to yours.

Set realistic goals for yourself. The big glossies pay the most for short stories, and certainly being published in “The New Yorker” is a “career maker,” but if you have no publication credits, it’s far better to stick to the smaller presses, ones that make it a point to consider and support superlative new writers. You won’t make much money at first. In fact, you might not make any money at all, but publication in a reputable literary journal, at this stage, should be reward enough.

If you’re not determined to see your story printed on actual paper, you might want to try an online literary site. The upside of this is that there are a lot of online literary journals, and most of them consider novice writers. The downside is that though you’ll be published, your chances of being read won’t be nearly as great as if you’d been published in a traditional magazine, instead.

If you really, honestly, truly believe your story is stellar, but you lack publication credits, you might consider entering it in a contest. You’ll have to pay an entry fee in the range of $10 - $20 per entry, and the prizes will probably range from nothing but publication to $5,000. Just make sure the contest is legitimate because there are a few bad apples out there that can spoil the whole barrel.

Remember that uncle we talked about? The one who’s the fiction editor at “Vanity Fair?” Now’s the time to summon all of your courage and ask him if he’d consider your story for publication. Use any contacts you might have – professors, editors, other authors. I know, I know. I hate to “ask” others for help, too, but sometimes we all need a little.

Some publications are incredibly picky about their submission guidelines, while others are much more flexible. Whether picky or flexible, it’s absolutely imperative you read and understand each publication’s submission guidelines carefully, then follow them to the letter.

Happy writing and good luck.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Writing a Book Review

If you’ve written a book, you understandably hope the reviews written about it will be positive. You also hope the reviews will be well written and most, but not all, professional reviews will be. However, many amateur reviews, such as those found on sites that sell books will be poor to mediocre. I suppose many of the authors of poorly written reviews don’t really care – they probably just want to express an opinion, and they did and that’s fine. Others however, probably want to write better reviews, but simply don’t know how to do so.

I’ve found that many reviewers confuse a book review with a book report, and they really aren’t the same thing at all. A book report is usually written by a student under eighteen and focuses on giving us an account of what happens in a novel – the major plot, characters, and the main idea of the work.

Book reviews are usually longer than book reports and usually aren’t an academic assignment. Rather than concentrating on “What the book’s about,” a book review usually only gives us a “sneak peak” at the plot. The bulk of the review, or at least half of it, concentrates on the strengths and weaknesses the book, the reviewer’s overall impression of the work, and perhaps details on purchasing the book.

If you really want to write a professional like book review, there are things you need to do before you read, as you read, and when you’re ready to write.

Before You Read

Before you even begin to read the book you want to review, you need to consider some of the elements you want to include in your review:

Author – Who is the author of this book? What else has he or she written?” Has the author won any awards? What is the author’s typical style of writing, and does this book adhere to that style, or is it a departure for the author?

Genre – Is the book you’re reviewing a mystery, romance, memoir, a volume of poetry, etc.? What is the book’s intended audience?

Title – Many reviewers ignore the title of a book, but it’s a good idea to tell readers how the title fits in with the work you’re reviewing. How is it applied in the work? Does it adequately encapsulate the message of the text? Is it interesting or uninteresting?

Arrangement – Is the book arranged in sections? Chapters? Some other way? Is there an introduction? If so, is it enlightening? Does it contain spoilers about the book’s plot?

Book Jacket, etc. – Book jackets often contain blurbs that function as mini-reviews. In addition, many people are very interested in a book’s cover art. Does the book contain any photos, maps, or graphs? Do the binding, page cut, and typescript contribute to or detract from the work as a whole?

As You Read

As you read, think about how you’ll structure the first part, or summary portion of your review. You’ll probably need to take at least a few notes on the following:

Characters – Who are the main characters in the book? How do they affect the story? Are they sympathetic and easy to empathize with or not?

Themes/Motifs/Style – Do any themes and motifs stand out? If so, how do they contribute to the work as a whole? Are they effective? How would you describe this author’s writing style? What kind of reader do you think would enjoy this book?

Conflict – Conflict is the essence of fiction. How is this book’s main conflict set up? Is it effective?

Key Ideas – What is this book’s main idea? How does the author present it in a way that’s unique and will appeal to other readers?

When You’re Ready to Write

After you’ve finished reading and you’re ready to write your book review, begin with a short summary of the work, but don’t give away too much or you’ll spoil it for the reader. A lot of reviewers lead the reader up to the rising action and no further. The final portion of the review needs to concern itself with the reviewer’s opinion of the work and why he or she felt the way he did. When you’re ready to write your review, remember that following:

Remember your audience – Remember, your audience has probably not read the book. Don’t ruin it for them by giving away key elements.

Deal only with major issues/characters – Obviously, you can’t cover every character and plot point in the book, so deal only with the main ones. What did you agree with? Disagree with? Why?

Organize – The purpose of a book review is to critically evaluate, not to summarize. Keep your summary brief and leave plenty of room for your evaluation. Often the ratio of summary to critique is half and half, but it’s better to give your critique more time and effort than your summary.

Evaluate – You can’t evaluate the entire book, so it’s best not to even try. Choose a few points you consider important and concentrate on those. What worked well for you? What didn’t? How does this book compare to others written by the same author? Did you find the characters and theme well developed? Was the writing subtle and restrained or was it too melodramatic and possibly overwritten?

Publication Information – Many book reviews include the publisher, the price of the book, the year published, and the ISBN.
Like all other forms of writing, a book review needs proofreading and possibly revision. If you can write consistently good reviews, and do so on a regular basis, you’ll definitely develop a following of loyal readers of your own.