It’s Throwback Thursday where we review a Classic from literature. In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.
The Turn of the Screw
Henry James (Adult Fiction)
It’s Christmas Eve and, as is ancient tradition, ghost stories are being told by a group of friends sitting around a fire. Now a ghost story with one child in it would be—as everyone might agree—horrible, gruesome, and terrible even. But a ghost story with two children? Well, that would be just an inexcusable and abominable turn of the screw. Wouldn’t it? This is such a story.
Contrary to popular belief, just because a story is labeled a “classic”, doesn’t mean that you are automatically inclined to love it, rave about it, or recommend it. Sometimes old doesn’t instantly equate to great. The Turn of the Screw is one such book. Written in 1898, Henry James’ gothic novella is considered one of literature’s most famous ghost stories…but perhaps not the best. The story is verbose, inordinately descriptive, and James throws about commas like strings of beads during Mardis Gras (“They moved slowly, in unison, below us, over the lawn, the boy, as they went, reading aloud from a story-book and passing his arm round his sister to keep her quite in touch.”). Adding to the tedious reading that awaits even the most patient of readers, we are presented with an unlikable and unsympathetic heroine (a governess) who puts her own need for vindication and legitimacy above all else. As a result, she fails her employer, she fails her friend, and she gravely fails her two small charges. Those around her pay the ultimate price for her incessant need to claim victory and prove her sanity. The fact that she did it despite the ongoing harm she constantly inflicts upon two young children ultimately proves to be one too many turns of the screw.
Sometimes, when a story is exceptional, you got lost in it. Other times, the story just simply loses you. The Turn of the Screw is regrettably an example of the latter.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
Roald Dahl (Juvenile Fiction)
“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.”
Our story is told through the eyes of a seven-year old boy. He’s quite ordinary really, but we soon find out that this rather ordinary boy is about to do some particularly extraordinary things. Before he is eight years old, he tells us that he has had not one, but TWO encounters with witches…and he has lived to tell about it through this book. I implore you to read this book so that you too will know how to spot a witch, for witches look just like ordinary women. Miss the signs and alas poor reader, you might as well count yourself squelched!
Told in true Roald-Dahl fashion, the author gives us yet another whimsical, comical, and delightful story. Dahl treats us to a young hero who shows courage, cleverness, and cunning in the most dangerous and dire of circumstances. Even when he is at his lowest (and I mean that quite literally), our protagonist always seems to find the bright spot and never resorts to self-pity or defeatism. His “can do” attitude and spunk will cast a wickedly delightful spell on your heart and is sure to entrance readers of all ages. A few gory details of the supreme witch’s appearance may leave younger readers a tad squeamish, but it’s all told in good fun.
Dahl presents us with two very different groups of people whose appearance hide who they truly are. When the narrator’s grandmother poses a question to him about identity and appearance, he responds, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.” And that, friends, is about as bewitching and magical a message as you can hope for.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com
In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.
The Woman in Black
Susan Hill (Adult Fiction)
It’s Christmas Eve at Monk’s Piece. Lawyer Arthur Kipps, his wife and children are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories, as is ancient tradition. They all take turns until it comes to Arthur. “Now come, stepfather, your turn. You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one…” Arthur does know a ghost story. One haunted by a child’s anguished screams, an approaching pony and trap, a moving rocking chair with no occupant, and a mysterious woman in black. A ghost story made even more horrifying and terrible because this story is true…absolutely true.
I wasn’t familiar with Susan Hill before this book, but about twenty pages in, I was so impressed with the eloquent and nuanced writing style, and so immersed in the story, that I wondered if she was English. Sure enough, she is. There is no mistaking a truly adept English or British author. The turns of phrase, the sentence structure, and the painstaking attention to detail without being overly verbose all add up to an exceptionally well-crafted book.
Hill gives us a satisfying horror story which achieves its goal of raising the hairs on your neck and increasing the beats of your heart. By introducing noises in the dark, mysterious brushes against your body, and an invisible presence that always seems to be just right behind you, she goes to the very core of our fears and keeps them tucked into the deepest, darkest corners of our soul—very far away from the light. Hill gives us a gripping and suspenseful story that builds at a steady and progressive pace until the final climax. With one last blow thrown in at the end, it might be best to read this with a torch (flashlight) nearby…just in case.
* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com
The Invisible Wall
Harry Bernstein (Adult Biography)
“It was a quiet, little street, hardly noticeable among all the other larger streets, but what distinguished it from all others was the fact that we lived on one side, and they on the other. We were the Jews and they were the Christians.”
Harry Bernstein describes growing up on a street in the English mill town of Lancashire—one of two sides of the same street separated by an invisible wall, but bonded by poverty. He writes with fearlessness and bittersweet honesty about his selfless and strong mother who tries to make ends meet with the money left over from his father’s constant gambling and drinking. The reader is taken on an emotional rollercoaster that goes from tragedy and despair to triumph and delight. We cringe at his father’s heartlessness and disinterest in his own family, while we hold out hope for his mother who continues to wait for that elusive steamship ticket to America.
At times, Bernstein’s story is painful to read as dream after dream and opportunity after opportunity are unmercifully shattered. If this was a work of fiction, one could justifiably harbor resentment toward the author for his unusually cruel treatment of his characters. Knowing that this story is true makes it all the more unforgettable. This book truly took my breath away and kept me engaged from the very first page to the last.
The Invisible Wall made Harry Bernstein a first-time author at the tender age of 96. After reading his incredible and compelling story, all I have to say is, “Better late than never, Harry.”
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Helen Simonson (Adult Fiction)
Ernest Pettigrew (that’s MAJOR Pettigrew to you) is retired and enjoying his tea, books, garden, and a rather predictable life in Edgecombe St. Mary. That is until his brother unexpectedly dies, his son is dating some leggy American from New York, and he’s suddenly developed a rather uncontrollable fancy for Mrs. Ali, a widowed woman from Pakistan who runs the village shop. Why, it’s enough to leave this settled, retired gentleman rather…unsettled. And that won’t do.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was Simonson’s first novel and she didn’t shy away from sensitive and controversial topics. Instead, she fearlessly jumps in with both feet and tackles cultural and religious conformity head on. The book begs the question, “Is it possible for someone in the minority to be accepted by the majority: fully and unconditionally?” She broaches the subject with honesty and respect and, most importantly, shows us the fallout of when the heart overrides the horde. The front flap states, “Sometimes love does conquer all”, but I found that not to be entirely accurate. Love may conquer most, but it is not infallible. While the war may be bravely fought, there will be casualties and lives will be changed—whether for the better or worse depends of which side of the battle line you happen to fall.
All in all, Simonson succeeds in delivering a witty, charming, and delightful read and she gives us a main character deserving of his own BBC series. The writing is crisp and intelligent, the story advances at a steady and comfortable pace, and the list of characters range from the exasperating to the enchanting. All combine nicely—like a good cup of tea, a nice plate of biscuits, and a robust fire in the grate—to fulfill even the most particular of palates.