Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is best known for The Haunting of Hill House and has a reputation for scary stories. I’m not keen on stories that have a net effect of making me more afraid of the dark, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle presents a different kind of horror. Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood live with their uncle in a grand mansion at the edge of a town filled with fearful and envious people. The reader understands, as the Blackwoods do, that their only security lies in seclusion. Between mounting tension with the town and the unexpected arrival of their grasping cousin, it is clear their security cannot last indefinitely.

[NOTE: As the suspense of the story is entirely dependent on not knowing when or how this dam will break, if you have a copy of this work that includes Jonathan Lethem’s introduction DO NOT READ IT before the book. When he discusses WHALitC, he dissects it point by point to thoroughly and completely spoil it for anyone who might be reading it for the first time.] read more

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus, has the roots of a good story, but her writing isn’t strong enough to make use of them. The bulk of her 512 pages are filled with nondescript descriptions and repetitive phrases. The general idea: Celia and Marco have been trained from childhood to participate in a decades-long dual within the confines of the miraculous Le Cirque des Rêves, which is only open at night. Neither of them has an understanding of the rules or knows how the victor will be chosen. Fortunately, the back cover elucidates this little mystery for the reader: “Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing.” I purchased this book with the expectation of a high-stakes contest, but after hundreds of pages of pretty illusions (color-changing dresses, ice gardens) there is no sensation that anything is at stake. Celia and Marco attempt to ‘control’ the circus by creating new attractions for its guests, but without criteria to rank their efforts or to understand what these exhibitions mean for their livelihood, it’s hard to view them as competitors. It was easy to set this book down despite the shamelessly cryptic one-liners that end many chapters. read more

Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

It’s tempting to review this book as a fictional work and discuss characterizations and plot, but Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a rigorous recounting of actual events. It sat on my reading queue for years as I expected a dry list of dates, places, and events. This book is so much more—it has brilliant flow and pacing, the town is vividly described, and it’s deeply emotional. If the story weren’t true, In Cold Blood would be the greatest work of crime fiction I’ve read. Because it reads like a novel, with “characters” and suspense, I have my usual urge to avoid spoilers though I imagine the line is different with a heavily publicized, 53-year-old murder case. I suspect many young readers approach the book as I did with only a little foreknowledge. I knew only that four members of the Clutter family were killed and two men were hanged for their murder. Capote controls the pace of the story so expertly as to provide unbearable suspense and tension; to preserve this, I won’t include the details of the murderers’ capture. read more

Review: Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

This book was required reading for two of my college lit courses: one for modern women authors and other titled “queer theory.”  The former because Written on the Body was written by Jeannette Winterson in 1992; the latter because the unnamed narrator is of an undefined sex and gender. The obvious question: how can you write 190 pages in close, first person narration without indicating whether the speaker is male or female? So much in our society carries the understanding of being “for women,” “for men,” it seems unbelievable that a character won’t imply a preferred identity through their choices. In creating this ambiguity, Winterson is careful to never push her narrator too close to conventional ideas of masculinity or femininity. read more