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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Happy Halloween everybody!  I hope you are having a fun and safe holiday.  I am waiting for trick-or-treaters and trying to convince Reeses that Halloween costumes are not chew toys.

I really enjoyed The Woman in White!  It’s been a while since I read anything Victorian, plus it is really suspenseful, so it was perfect for Halloween reading.  The Woman in White is sometimes described as one of the first mystery novels.  Personally, it reminded me less of a traditional mystery and more of a Hitchcock movie.  Instead of trying to figure out “whodunnit,” the building tension and suspense of the story had me physically leaning towards the book, anxious to find out what would happen next.

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins

There are quite a few characters in this book, all delightfully different.  The first narrator is Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who meets a mysterious woman dressed in white late at night on the road to London.  His two pupils are half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who happens to look almost exactly like the mysterious woman.  Together Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright discover that the mysterious woman is Anne Catherick, a woman whose past connects her both to the Fairlie family and Sir Percival Glyde, Laura Fairlie’s fiance.  In the second half of the book, we meet the Count and Countess Fosco.  Count Fosco is both melodramatic and menacing.  The variety of these characters makes the book a lot of fun.

If you’ve read a Victorian novel before, you might remember that they tend to be long.  Many of them were originally published chapter by chapter in magazines, and The Woman in White is no exception.  In my opinion, it’s one of the best examples of this genre I have read.  Sometimes these books can get a little repetitive, because the writer knew it had been awhile since the last chapter.  Because this novel is told from several viewpoints, it felt pretty fast paced to me.  I also was really impressed by the characters.  Although Count Fosco and Laura Fairlie in particular resemble familiar, melodramatic Victorian characters (think of Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities), they don’t take away from the drama of the story.  It is really very well-written.  I give this book four and a half stars, and I’ll be adding it to my list of great Halloween books!  ★★★★1/2

Little me and little Becca dressed up for Halloween

Little me and little Becca dressed up for Halloween

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Halloween Book Suggestions

Ok, it doesn't quite look like this yet, but we're getting close!

Ok, it doesn’t quite look like this yet, but we’re getting close!

Fall is finally in the air here, at least in my section of the East Coast.  The maple leaves are looking good, but we’re still waiting on the oaks to change colors.  With a little less than two weeks until Halloween, it’s the perfect time to check out a scary book!  Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova   This is a fantastic novel.  You might want to read Dracula first, since its based on it.  Fair warning: this book will make you want to travel to central and eastern Europe.  I still have the travel bug to go to Slovenia, and it’s been at least four years since I read it….
  2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James   Quite simply the best ghost story I have ever come across.  If I had my way, it would be a core book for any basic American Lit class.  I listened to this as an audiobook (on the CraftLit podcast) and was absolutely amazed by James’s masterful plot.
  3. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux   In junior high, my classmates and I were big fans of this book.  Try to ditch any expectations you might have as a result of seeing plays or movies-the original is different and well worth reading.  Interesting side note: the author, Gaston Leroux, is also credited with writing the first locked room mystery.  It’s called The Mystery of the Yellow Room, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years.
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker   I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one.  It’s a classic for a reason, and the handful movies I have seen don’t do it justice at all.
  5. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen   If you’re not in to horror stories, how about a book making fun of gothic novels?  If you don’t want to lose any sleep over your Halloween reading, this is definitely a fun option.
  6. The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright   This is a ghost story for older children or young adults.  I read it in second grade and it thoroughly freaked me out.  It’s a great book though, just probably better suited to readers over the age of 10.

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The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig

Hello everyone!  Today I’m continuing the Print and Prose Halloween series with a new Halloween book: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla.  It was originally on my summer reading list, but I decided to wait for October since it was a Halloween book.  (This required great restraint, since I have been a fan of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series for years.  In 2009, Becca actually mailed the latest book in the series to me in Europe so that I wouldn’t have to wait until the summer to catch up.)

Manzanilla (aka manchineel) tree

Manzanilla (aka manchineel) tree

The Pink Carnation series is set in the early 1800s, usually in England.  If you’ve ever read The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Orczy, these books are supposed to be about the spies who took over after the Scarlet Pimpernel’s retirement.  They are historical fiction with elements of adventure, mystery and romance.

In the latest book, Miss Sally Fitzhugh has gotten a little tired of life as a debutante in London.  Unimpressed by the latest society rumors that the Duke of Belliston is a vampire, she takes a dare to go into his gardens at midnight.  There, she unexpectedly meets the duke himself.  Lucien has recently returned to England to solve the mystery of his parents’ murder, which has haunted him since childhood.  It quickly becomes clear that someone doesn’t want him to find out what really happens.  When Lucien is framed for a murder, Sally tries to help, and begins to suspect the Black Tulip, a deadly French spy.

Readers of the series will happily recognize the reinforcements from the Pink Carnation’s league who arrive to help Sally and Lucien.  Sally is convinced to pose as Lucien’s fiancee so that an agent, posing as her chaperone, can investigate.  The duke’s relatives plan to celebrate the engagement with a masquerade ball on All Hallow’s Eve.  Can Sally and the duke solve his parents’ murder before the killer strikes again?  And what will happen to their pretended engagement if they do?

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I recommend this series to absolutely everyone, because I want to be Miss Gwen next Halloween.  🙂  I love this series, and if you like books that are smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining, please check out either this book or the first in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.  I particularly recommend them to students.  Remember that dull ache in your head that you get when you’ve spent all week (or more) studying for midterms?  When I was an undergrad, I found that these books are the perfect cure!  I’ve been a fan ever since.  I give both the book and the series five stars.  I can’t wait for the next one!  ★★★★★

-Elizabeth
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The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Hello everyone, and happy October! Here at Of Print and Prose, we’ll be getting ready to celebrate Halloween by posting a Halloween-themed book review every Sunday. We’re starting with an old classic: The Castle of Otranto, the original gothic novel by Horace Walpole.

Cathedral of Otranto

Cathedral of Otranto

I have seen The Castle of Otranto and other gothic novels referenced in books before, so I wanted to read one for myself. I had an opportunity this summer to read it with a friend from my old book club. It was interesting to finally read a book I have seen mentioned so many times.

The Castle of Otranto has some supernatural elements, but it isn’t particularly scary or suspenseful. The basic premise is that unexplained events start happening to a family who may not have rightfully inherited the title and lands of Otranto. Everyone suspects the mysterious occurrences may be signs of divine retribution against the descendants of the usurper. Several mysterious strangers arrive and are caught up in the drama as the current Prince of Otranto tries to escape an old prophecy about his family.

This is an older novel than what I usually read, so it was a little challenging. In the edition I read, the punctuation, mainly the lack of quotation marks in dialogues, made it a little difficult to understand. Of course, Walpole also introduces the novel as a much older manuscript that he had discovered and edited, so it was meant to sound old-fashioned even to eighteenth century readers.

I would recommend reading this book mainly because it is the first of its kind. The whole genre of gothic novels and many horror novels were influenced by this book, so if you like having some historical context when you read, this is a great option. Also, if (like me) you felt you missed a lot of inside jokes while reading Northanger Abbey, this is the perfect place to start. I give this book three stars-I’m glad I read it, but probably wouldn’t be interested in reading it a second time.  ★★★

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Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll be reviewing a much more modern book!

-Elizabeth

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In The Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Readers, would you agree that you stumble upon some really great books when they aren’t books you would choose for yourself?  It is hit or miss for me, but generally, when I read something I never would have picked up off the shelf of my own volition, I’m pretty impressed.  You can expect a lot more books like this since my happiness project involves a monthly goal to read or watch something I never would have considered otherwise.  This book, In The Time of Butterflies, I picked up in an effort to change up the 10th grade novel at our school (I also hoped to make our curriculum a little less old, rich, white guy centered).  While Alvarez’s novel won’t be used as our school-wide novel for 10th grade, it was an interesting read nonetheless.

Set during the reign of dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, In The Time of Butterflies is a fictionalized account of 4 revolutionary sisters, the Mirabels – 3 of whom were assassinated for their work as revolutionaries opposed to Trujillo’s rule.  Told through four differing viewpoints – from each sister at varying points of the revolution – Alvarez artfully captures both the revolutionary activity and every day activity of these famous sisters.  She develops the characters to seem very much like real people, which is quite an undertaking when writing characters out of historical figures who actually existed.  The reader gets to follow the very unique experience of each sister from their first days in school, through marriage and children, to the fear and imprisonment leading up to their murders.

The thing I liked most about this novel was that it sparked my curiosity about a period in history that I don’t know much about.  I remember vague murmurings of Fidel Castro in Cuba during my history classes, but similar dictatorships in the Dominican Republic were never mentioned, and I’m already interested in learning more.  Additionally, I loved how real the characters were.  Yes, they were iconic revolutionaries.  They were also women with families who experienced exactly what you might expect when their world as they knew it came crashing down around them.  Throughout, I had a very real understanding that though working for the revolutionary was worth it for the fictional versions of the Mirabal sisters, it wasn’t always easy.  In fact, it rarely was.

There were times that the book was hard to read.  Admittedly, at times it was because the narrative became very long-winded and I was waiting for something to actually happen.  This is one critique of the novel.  However, other times, through no fault of Alvarez or her writing, the story simply became very intense, and something I needed to read in smaller doses.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, I’d recommend this book.  The different accounts were well-written and the characters were multi-dimensional and real.  Additionally, it’s an area of history that is recent and occurred close to home – yet many of us don’t know much about this, and that should be changed!  I give In The Time of Butterflies 3 stars.  ★★★

– Becca

When It Happens To You by Molly Ringwald

You can probably imagine my surprise when I learned at book club that Molly Ringwald (of Pretty In Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles fame) has added ‘author’ to her resume.  I grew up watching and have a nostalgic appreciation for her movies, but truthfully, I didn’t expect much from her writing.  While When It Happens To You was not my favorite book, I have to give credit where credit is due… it was a lot better than I was expecting and it led to a book club discussion that (I felt) brought people who were mostly strangers a lot closer than any of the other monthly discussions have.

The author (above center) in one of my favorite movies from high school, Sixteen Candles.

The author (above center) in one of my favorite movies from high school, Sixteen Candles.

When It Happens To You is a novel told through a series of vignettes from the perspective of different, but loosely connected, characters (a lot like the movie Love Actually).  This part worked really well for me, and I thought Ringwald did an excellent job of subtly including the characters’ connections to each other in a way that was realistic, believable, and interesting.  The stories are all told from a female character’s perspective and cover such topics as a spouse’s death, a transgender child, and a straying spouse.  This is where I was disappointed – while the writing itself was surprisingly sophisticated at points, the interconnected plots were incredibly stale and predictable.  The idea of a book with so many character narrators – all of whom are females – is so cool.  It really disappointed me that each woman’s biggest concern seemed to be the main male in her life – whether he be dead, cheating, or questioning a gender identity.  While the novel shed light on issues that are very real and present (the chapter on a transgender child was undoubtedly my favorite), it did so in a way that every other medium does, and I would have loved to see a fresher perspective.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate a book that can get a more real conversation out of a book club of people who don’t know each other very well.  For the first time, the book club I discovered via goodreads had a much more personal discussion of our own experiences, as opposed to our typical “I liked the part where _______ happened.” discussions.  For that, Ms. Ringwald must be given credit.  If you have someone to discuss the book with, or are a huge Breakfast Club fan, give When It Happens To You a try.  Otherwise, watch another hour of Lifetime to get your “overdone and overly dramatic” fix, and keep your eye out for something a bit more novel.  (Hah, see what I did there?)  I give When It Happens To You 2.5 stars. ★★ 1/2

– Becca

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National Book Festival 2014 (part 2)

Hello again! I got to see and do so much at the Library of Congress National Book Festival this year, that I couldn’t possibly fit it all in one post! Today I’ll write more about the authors I saw.

E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow

I started by going to see E. L. Doctorow, who won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction for his latest novel, Andrew’s Brain.  Instead of speaking alone, he answered questions in more of an interview format.  I was interested to learn about his inspiration for his books, specifically that he often imagines an image to begin his writing process.  (Sorry for the poor picture quality, the lighting in the conference center was a challenge.)

After that, I went to see Kai Bird, whose latest book is a biography of the CIA operative Robert Ames.  He talked about how he researched the book, which I appreciated, since a lot of the nonfiction authors just summarize their books.  This way I stay interested in reading it.  Besides, writing a biography about a spy poses some research challenges, since a lot of the information might still be confidential.  It made for an interesting talk.

 

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe signing my copy of Sinking Suspicions

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe signing my copy of Sinking Suspicions

I headed back to the Fiction and Mystery room to see an author who was new to me, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe.  She writes a mystery series set in Cherokee country.  As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to read it, so I bought her book and went to the signing.  (I might look for the other two books so I can read them in order though.)  Someone who got up to ask a question began with, “I haven’t read the series yet, but I like you, so I know I’m going to like your books,” and that’s exactly how I felt.  I think every year I found a great new book or series through hearing an author talk, and that’s probably one of my favorite things about going to the National Book Festival.

The last author talk I attended was by Lisa See.  I read one of her books, Peony in Love, in college.  Her new novel is set in California, and I enjoyed hearing about her family’s history and her research about the history of Chinese Americans in California.  I’d like to read one of her books set in my home state!

I started my Christmas shopping by going to two more book signings.  I got a book signed by Anne Hillerman, who is continuing her father’s mystery series.  (That was a nice surprise-we’ve got some big Tony Hillerman fans in the Of Print and Prose family.  I also went to Judith Viorst’s book signing and got two Alexander books signed, one for our nephew’s Christmas gift and an extra one to donate to our mom’s third grade class.  I was especially excited that the authors had time to personalize the books this year!  Although I didn’t see their talks, I plan on watching them on the Library of Congress website.  All the talks from the festival are posted here.

Judith Viorst signing a book for the third graders

Judith Viorst signing a book for the third graders