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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) by Joan Lindsay

Description:

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

The first time I read Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was maybe 13 or 14 and had come straight off seeing of the movie of the same name (directed by Peter Weir) on TV.  Both the book and the film carry the narrative in a strangely quiet way, trusting the story to invite and beguile readers and viewers for years to come.  For me, with my love for all things unexplained and mysterious and slightly supernatural, that made it all the more haunting.

In my recent re-read of the book, I was reminded once again of how the quiet voice of the omnipresent narrator slips past one’s guard.  It insinuates itself into one’s thoughts as it tells the story of a women’s school in 1900 Australia.  Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the subtleties at play require one’s full attention or you’ll miss the clues that paint the final picture.

There are a variety of characters that work against and play off of each other – from unpleasant and cruel (Mrs. Appleyard), to the ethereal (Miranda), to the lost and hopeless (Sara).  And while there are a few male characters one might think of as leads (Arthur and Mike), this is primarily a story about women.  It’s about how, in the aftermath of the events at Hanging Rock, their lives change from existing in the protective web of their expected roles in society to the uncertainty of life’s cruelties and uknowns.

Told in the frame-work of being based on actual events, Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted many readers over the years.  It has also inspired many amateur detectives determined to solve the mystery of two missing schoolgirls and their teacher.

In essence, the book and the movie are to 1967 what The Blair Witch Project was to 1999.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

This haunting tale can be found at your local bookstore or online.

So, I had my first solo book reading a few days ago…..

……and I learned a few things from that experience.

  1. I could have had more material prepared to read. [1]
  2. Given that it was a hot day, I could have brought some refreshments. [2]
  3. It was suggested I stream it live on Facebook for others who weren’t able to attend to share in the experience. [3]
  4. I now have a better sense of timing it. [4]
  5. Confidence is key.

Those five things are my immediate takeaways from the experience.  I had a lovely crowd of 11 and I sold one book.  Successful turnout?  I’d say so.  This was, as I’ve indicated, my first solo book reading.  I’d been a part of a couple of book readings before, including one at a writers conference.  That event involved multiple authors – in both cases, the only ones in the audience to hear me read were the other authors. [5]

The biggest takeaway for me was being confident in my own work.  It’s easy to hide oneself in a crowd of like-minded and talented writers.  But here, I was exposed to the public, vulnerable, easily seen.  I couldn’t hide.

Still, I did it.  And that takes a bit of courage.

So now, for the next book reading I prepare, I have a better sense of what to do.

And that, you can be sure, I’m looking forward to. 🙂

[1] It took a combined total of maybe 10 minutes to read the two pieces I had selected.

[2] Lemonade and water would have been my first choice, obviously, but the location was in the conference room at the local library, so that’s a possibility I need to check on for next time.

[3] I hate to admit it, but I’m not sure how to work the streaming feature on Facebook, though I’m sure someone might have been able to figure that out. Next time!

[4] I had created an event page and blocked out two hours.  In reality, it took just under an hour. Now I know.

[5] The other authors read amazing excerpts from their works – the only negative was that none of us made any sales.  And we should have.

Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova (2017)

From Amazon’s book description:

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by political oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

I picked this book up about a week ago, primarily because I’d read Kostova’s The Historian years earlier and fell in love with the world she evoked.  Also, Vlad Tsepes (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and terrifying historical leader) was the driving focus of the story.  Kostova’s voice is rich, intelligent and literary, but she never talks down to her audience.  Rather, she invites us in with simple human concerns that we all share – letters, lost luggage, art. Upon accepting that invitation, we stumble into a world that is both familiar and alien.

The Shadow Land is another such invitation.  Set in Bulgaria, both during the aftermath of World War II and the (recent) present, I wasn’t sure what to expect, beyond the book description.  But I remembered The Historian and how much I loved that book, so I was more than willing to give this one a chance.

I.  Could.  Not.  Put.  It.  Down.

Every chance I could, when I wasn’t at work, or working on my own projects or learning French or being out with my horses or friends, I was curled up with this book.  I tuned out this world that I live in and poured myself into this story.  As a voracious reader with a habit of re-reading favorite titles, this one is definitely in for a re-read.  I’m sure there are details that I missed on the first go round.

That said, I do have a minor quibble – the romance between Alexandra Boyd and a character barely seen, but highly romanticized in daydreams by Alexandra, seems idealized.  It does not feel based on real feelings or real interactions – I actually found her relationship with Bobby, her taxi driver, to be far more interesting and intimate than what actually occurred.

Overall, however, it is a minor quibble, it is my quibble and I intend to push this book on anyone who will listen.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Shadow Land                        by Elizabeth Kostova

So, I’m reading Red Mars (1993)…….

……..by Kim Stanley Robinson, in part because I love good science fiction, like Dune by Frank Herbert or Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. I’m also reading it because Mars is starting to look like a nice place to live.

I speak sarcastically. Sort of.

Science fiction is best when speaking to us about our social issues through the prism of the future and technologies that far surpass ours. Star Trek is famous for touching on politics, racism, sexism, war, and religion, among other things. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, regarded as the first science fiction novel, dealt with the humanity of the Other.

Set in the (not so distant) future of 2026, Red Mars and its companion books deal with the early days of terra-forming the red planet. Unlike the Genesis Project, which would take minutes as proposed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, transforming Mars into a hospitable planet would take decades, if not centuries. Against this backdrop of traveling for nine months to Mars and creating a new home on a hostile planet, there are a cast of characters from various countries. Some of these countries are political enemies of each other.

English is the Standard language, which everyone speaks. This is also a hindrance to the American crew if they do not speak another language (1), which then creates another layer of tension. Suspicions arise if a conversation is going on and you don’t know what’s being said. I’m about sixty pages in and, given the enclosed space aboard their ship, the limited number of people and the long voyage out (no cryogenic sleep), pairings, jealousies and intrigue are already creating problems.

That’s where things get interesting. Historically speaking, people pretty much behave the same way, regardless of the time. Science fiction explores the now from the time frame of the future (or the past). Sometimes that’s the most effective way of starting and maintaining a dialogue about social or political issues. If you’re already open to listening to a fictional story, then you’re also receptive to the ideas and perspectives presented.

Sometimes the best way to learn about a new idea or gain a new perspective is to come at sideways.

Image source: 8screensavers.com
Image source: 8screensavers.com

(1) Learning a foreign language is helpful in many ways – it could lead to job opportunities you might not ordinarily find and it is very good for the brain. Also, it will help you navigate should you choose to travel the world.

Recommended:
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Survival by Julie E. Czerneda

So, it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday…..

……..and he’s still sending chills up our spines with his haunting tales. His life was as strange and unhappy as his fiction and the circumstances surrounding his death is still a mystery. I’m not sure what his reaction would have been had he known that his work would live on the way it has, but I’d like to think he would be pleased. Morose, drunk and writing about walled up people, black cats and quoting ravens, but pleased.

Of all my favorite Poe stories and poems, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven rank high on my list of go-to re-reads. His prose is suffocating, relying heavily on descriptions of the senses (sight, sound, etc.). I feel anxious when reading his work, even though I know it’s only a story. I want to reach in and stop the Narrator from killing the old man in The Tell-Tale Heart. I want to prevent the tragedy in The Fall of the House of Usher and keep the Narrator in The Pit and the Pendulum from suffering at the hands of his captors. I’m having a bit of anxiety just writing this post and recalling my experiences in reading Poe.

If one can pick up a regional dialect by reading aloud the written word, then I suppose one could also pick up on the author’s emotional state at the time a particular story was written. Of all the contemporary authors in the horror and supernatural genre, Shirley Jackson comes closest to capturing that suffocating and claustrophobic element in her writing. At least, she does to me – I get agitated reading her stories in the same way I do when reading Poe’s.

In honor of his birthday, I pulled out my copy of his collected works and am planning to read some of my favorites. His influence can be felt in the works of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, HP Lovecraft, and many others.

If you haven’t read any of Edgar Allan Poe‘s stories, you’re missing out some excellent reading and an insight into another century.

Edgar Allan Poe (writer, adventurer, action figure) standing next to a collection of his work.
Edgar Allan Poe (writer, adventurer, action figure) standing next to his collected works.

 

 

So, many years ago, I read Good Night, Mr. Holmes…..

…….a novel by Carole Nelson Douglas. It’s a re-telling of A Scandal in Bohemia, told from the point of view of Irene Adler’s companion, Penelope ‘Nell’ Huxleigh. Of all the novels written by various authors set in the Holmes-ian universe, I found these to be closest in spirit and tone to the original stories, while having its own voice and sense of humor.

There are eight titles in the series, of which I only have five (I know, a serious oversight that I am working to correct). Of these novels, two are closely related to the original story, A Scandal in Bohemia – Good Night, Mr. Holmes and Irene’s Last Waltz (it was later re-issued as Another Scandal in Bohemia in 1994).

Narrated by Nell in the same way as Holmes’ adventures are told by Doctor Watson, we follow Irene, Nell and their companions as they travel. Along the way, they meeting significant people of the time, such as Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (the latter two of whom were contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Irene and company also find themselves involved in cases that remain a mystery today. In Chapel Noir and Castle Rouge, gruesome murders in Paris echo similar crimes that had occurred only months earlier in London, raising concerns that perhaps Jack the Ripper wasn’t finished. Nellie Bly, who helped Irene hunt down Jack the Ripper in those novels, later involves her in a case that delves deep into Irene Adler’s past.

It always seemed right that ‘The Woman’ would have her own mystery series, with Sherlock Holmes as a minor character. With the great detective enjoying a continued popularity in film, television and novels, it’s refreshing to step into that world and view it and him through the eyes of a villain, a friend, a nemesis, or a respected equal.

If you come across them, snatch them up and read. You’re truly in for a fun and exciting read.

The Irene Adler series, by Carole Nelson Douglas.
The Irene Adler series, by Carole Nelson Douglas.

Recommended:
Good Night, Mr. Holmes by Carole Nelson Douglas
Good Morning, Irene by Carole Nelson Douglas
Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminisit (A Biography) by Brooke Kroeger

Author website: Carole Nelson Douglas

So, when I was ten years old…….

………I read Oliver Twist for the first time. It was a paperback Signet edition, with tiny print and no illustrations. It’s probably an intense book for someone so young – certainly, the themes of child abuse, murder, gangs and orphanages would be enough to deter some.

I loved it.

I loved Fagin and the Artful Dodger and, despite the perils of their life choices, I wanted to be a part of that gang. It seemed wildly romantic and fun, even if it was dangerous. Then again, I was also ten years old, so what did I know? But I was frightened of Bill Sykes and I desperately wanted Nancy to escape and be happy in a different life.

I don’t remember a lot about Oliver himself, though, which is weird, because it is his story. Even though it was told in third person, he should have made more of an impact on me, but when I think about him as I write this, all I can come up with is a colorless character. Then again, he is the avatar through which the reader experiences the story, the emotional roller coaster, so I guess that’s why he didn’t make much of an impression on me.

I even loved the musical (Food, Glorious Food is quite catchy) – not the movie so much, but the stage version really captured my imagination. I would listen to the soundtrack and re-read Oliver Twist many times through high school. I attempted to read some of Charles Dickens’ other work, especially The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but they didn’t quite capture me the same way that Oliver Twist did.

At some point during my twenties, I gathered up a bag of books to take over to my local used bookstore, where they do trade – bring in some books, get store credit to use at a future time. My copy of Oliver Twist went with it. I figured it was time, I hadn’t read it in years, so may as well let someone else enjoy and get something out of it.

About ten years later, I went to that same bookstore and was browsing through their classic literature section. I happened upon a copy of Oliver Twist that greatly resembled the copy I had given up. I remember thinking, Well, I don’t have mine anymore, and I did like it and I should probably read it again.

Then I opened the front cover – there, on the first page, giving the short biography of Charles Dickens, was my name, scrawled in a ten year old’s handwriting.

Of course, I bought it. You don’t send a book out into the world and not take it back when it shows up again.

Recommended:
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Drood by Dan Simmons

My copy of Oliver Twist. The characters on the cover are the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver.
My copy of Oliver Twist. The characters on the cover are the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver.

So, I’m re-reading Stephen King’s IT……

……..which is one of my favorite novels by King, ranking right up there with The Stand‘Salem’s Lot, and the Dark Tower series. At one time, I had nine copies of this particular title. I know, that’s quite a bit. But two copies are in Spanish, one’s a British publication and the rest were various American printings, including the one with the cover of the TV movie, featuring the fabulous Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.

I weeded them down – I kept the Spanish copies, the British copy, the American hardcover and one of the paperbacks, which I refer to as my expendable copy. Expendable, because it is so well-read and battered that some of it is being held together by tape. This one I am not afraid to read while in the tub or on a trip – it’s already worn out, so what’s the worst that could happen to it now?

In any case, I hadn’t read IT in a long while before picking it up a few days ago. It was like slipping on a comfortable sweater or pair of shoes – worn, familiar, loved. I know every word of this massive tome. In fact, I’ve read it so many times, that I will skip my least favorite parts in order to devour my favorite ones. Because I know IT so well, I don’t miss much. Sometimes I focus and read every single word that King put down in this tome.

Derry, Maine is a small town like any other with its secrets, its routines, its people. I grew up in a small town not so different from Derry, although located some three thousand miles away to the west. My childhood friends are now my grown-up friends and they resemble, to some degree, the Losers Club of 1958. Although we did not face off with any killer clown from outer space, we had our share of adventures. That sense of familiarity creeps up on you, much like the thin wisps of fog that creeps inland from the sea.

The attention to detail that King puts into this novel pays off in ways that still hold up, no matter how many times you read it. I read IT for the first time when I was 17 and I haven’t stopped, nearly thirty years later. In spite of the many times I’ve read IT, I am always caught by surprise by a phrase or event. On some level, I’m even willing some things to change, even though I know it will always turn out the way it had before.

And I never fail to cry at the last line written before closing the book.

Clockwise from top: American HC edition, British HC edition, travel copy, Spanish edition.
Clockwise from top: My copies of ‘IT’: American HC edition, British HC edition, expendable copy, Spanish edition.

Recommended:
IT by Stephen King
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
On Writing by Stephen King
Danse Macabre by Stephen King

So, one of the most unsettling writers of the 20th Century…..

……would have celebrated her centennial birthday last week, on December 14, had she not passed away in 1965. Cited as an important influence by Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman and many others, Shirley Jackson wrote story upon story that left her readers unsettled and haunted with the ambiguity within her words.

I’ve been reading her work from an early age, most notably The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which ranks as my personal favorite of her fiction, topping We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), The Lottery (1948), and Hangsaman (1951). Her non-fiction, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages recounts life at home, her children and the various ‘adventures’ they encounter. Her deliciously dark wit and humor are in full display in those tomes, and I highly recommend reading them.

Reading her fiction is a fascinating experience – for me, I start to notice a physiological reaction to her prose. In reading Hangsaman, I felt a low level anxiety in following Natalie’s thoughts and interactions as she left home for college. There was also that sense of foreboding, the shadow of unknown dynamics at play, and feeling suffocated by Natalie’s fellow students. There is the sense that she is at the bottom of the totem pole in the social hierarchy.

Every time I read The Haunting of Hill House, I root for Eleanor to overcome her insecurities, to let go of her guilt and to embrace her newfound freedom, both from her family and from Hill House itself. I feel her anxieties and hurts and indignations as if they were my own. But the story never changes, no matter how many times I read it and wish otherwise – Eleanor’s fate is already written and acted out, before one even picks up the book.

Shirley Jackson knew how to invite one in to her stories, knew exactly how to hook and keep you in it until the last word. She allowed the story to envelope you, insinuate itself into your imagination, haunting you long after you had shut the book and put it down. Her prose is quiet and engaging, simple, yet complex.

She is, for me, one of the writers I wish most to emulate, using my own voice and skills to strike that same haunting and sparse tone.

On the year of her one hundredth birthday, I join the ranks of writers who find inspiration in her work. I continually marvel at her ability to bring the darkness of every day life into the light and the suffocating spiral of ambiguity and uncertainty infused in her characters.

 

Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Opening paragraph to The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Recommended:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

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