A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It’s Throwback Thursday and we’re reviewing one of literature’s classics!  During the month of December, we’re reviewing books that celebrate the season.  Enjoy!

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol    

Charles Dickens (Adult Fiction)

How does one go about describing Ebenezer Scrooge?  Perhaps our story’s narrator says it best: “Oh!  But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!  a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”  Yes.  That will do nicely.  But no matter how vile Scrooge is, he has an equal by the name of Jacob Marley, his business partner that’s been dead seven years to the day.  This very night, Marley will pay a spectral visit to Scrooge in hopes of salvaging his former colleague’s soul and thus sparing him from an afterlife laden with rusty chains and regret.

A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ beloved and cherished Christmas song to the world.  First published in 1843, this classic story is divided into staves (or staffs) rather than chapters where every character is a note, every ghostly visit is a movement, and every revelation is a crescendo that builds to the climax when Scrooge realizes the dire consequences of his avarice and malevolence.

There are more than two dozen film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but nothing quite compares to reading and absorbing Dickens’ original words, which contain a few subtleties that are otherwise lost when presented visually.  One example is that prior to Marley’s visit, the characters of Bob Cratchit and Fred are nameless and simply given titles such “clerk in the tank” or “Scrooge’s nephew”.  This omission would lead the reader to conclude that these characters are inconsequential; however, it is only later in the book when we realize what an important part these individuals will eventually play in Ebenezer Scrooge’s road to redemption.

I love the many moral and spiritual lessons we can glean from A Christmas Carol: “In order to fully realize life, one must love and be loved in return”; “Learning begins with listening”; “It’s important to learn from the mistakes of others”; or, if you’re a businessowner, “Treat your employees nicely”.  My personal favorite is taken from Marley’s visit with Scrooge where the former says, “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”  In an uncertain world where, despite careful planning or our best intentions, life doesn’t always go the way we wish, and it is therefore important to remember that if there is a chance—no matter how slight or remote—then there is still hope.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

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The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs (J)

The House With a Clock in Its Walls

The House With a Clock in Its Walls  

John Bellairs (Juvenile Fiction)

It’s the summer of 1948.  Newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt is on a bus headed to New Zebedee, Michigan to live with his Uncle Jonathan.  Lewis is only ten years old but lately, only questions seem to plague him.  Where am I going?  Who will I meet?  What will happen to me?   But rather than getting answers, only more questions await Lewis upon his arrival.  Questions like why does his uncle prowl the halls after midnight and listen to the walls?  How does the stained-glass window change its image?  Why are there so many clocks in the house?  Soon, all too soon, Lewis will discover the truth behind these questions and he just might not like the answers.

John Bellairs gives young readers a book full of magic, mystery, and mayhem.  At the heart of this story, the author introduces us to a young boy who is alone, unpopular, and an outcast.  Parentless, he yearns for a friend and is willing to do anything in order to acquire one.  In his pursuit for acceptance, Lewis has to make a choice between keeping a friend and keeping a trust.  His decision comes at a cost that proves to be more than Lewis can possibly pay.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a ghost story that is suspenseful without being too scary.  Perhaps the most frightening thing in this book is how our young hero is relentlessly bullied and disdainfully discarded by a neighborhood boy.  Any child who has been excluded from a group or made to feel inadequate because of his or her appearance will certainly relate to Lewis’s unfortunate predicament.  Because of this, Bellairs provides us with a lesson that makes this book well worth the read:  If you have to prove your value just to keep a friend, is that a friend that’s truly worth keeping?

Happy Halloween from The Dusty Jacket.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

 

The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn (J)

The Old Willis Place

The Old Willis Place  

Mary Downing Hahn (Juvenile Fiction)

There are just two rules that siblings Diana and Georgie Eldridge have to follow: don’t let anyone see you and do not leave Oak Hill Manor.  But after the terrible thing happened, there would be many more rules to come.  All of these rules were easy enough to abide by until the new caretaker of the old Willis place arrived with his daughter.  Things would quickly get a lot more complicated.  Caretakers came and went (there were too many to count), but this one had a daughter—a daughter the same age as Diana.  Diana wanted a friend so badly, that she was willing to break any rule just to have one.  But at what cost?

This is a ghost story with some surprisingly heavy themes given that it is written for ages 7 to 12.  Besides dealing with theft, trespassing, and murder, we are given an older sister who, by selfishly putting her own wants and needs above all else, puts both herself and her younger brother in danger.  She lies to her sibling not once, but several times and flirts with severing the bond of trust that the two share.  Once trust is broken, can it ever be fully restored again?

This book is filled with plenty of action and suspense and, despite some scary and disturbing bits at the end, younger readers will become enthralled and immersed in this wonderfully spooky ghost story.  What I like most about this book is that Hahn delivers a powerful moral message that readers of any age can appreciate.  Despite suffering from separation, grief, loneliness, and fear, Hahn gives us two children who demonstrate the importance and value of extending mercy to the unworthy and offering forgiveness to the undeserving.  And that isn’t scary at all.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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

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.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (J)

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 Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow   

Washington Irving (Juvenile Fiction)

About two miles past the village of Tarry Town, there is a little village which is perhaps one of the quietest places in all the world.  It’s known as Sleepy Hollow and is thought to be bewitched.  Residents have been known to see strange sights or to hear voices in the night air.  There is never a shortage of ghostly tales or haunted spots, but the dominant spirit that holds dominion over all is the lone headless figure on horseback.

If you think Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is similar to Disney’s 1949 animated Halloween staple, think again.  Irving gives us three characters (Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Van Brunt a/k/a Brom Bones) with three very different desires (to be the boss, to be the bride, and to be the best).  First, we have Ichabod Crane who, contrary to his appearance and demeanor, is quite the adept opportunist.  He woos old Baltus Van Tassel’s daughter, Katrina, motivated not by his passion, but rather by her purse for Ichabod realizes that she is the natural heir apparent to her father’s estate.  Then there’s the charming Katrina Van Tassel who is as manipulative as she is beautiful.  She leverages Ichabod’s feelings for her merely to motivate her apathetic suitor, Brom, toward matrimony.  Lastly, we have Brom Van Brunt who is nothing more than a jealous and possessive man-child with a penchant for childish pranks and an aversion to adult responsibility.

Irving gives us an emotionally charged and haunting tale of ghosts, legends, love, greed, and jealousy…all tightly wrapped within a thick, black cloak and sitting high atop a powerful, red-eyed steed.  All is not what it seems to be in the tranquil hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, and master storyteller Washington Irving reminds us that appearances can be deceiving and fear only has the power we give it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.scholastic.com

 

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

The Woman in Black.jpg

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.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman (YA Horror)

Coraline.jpg

Coraline   

Neil Gaiman (Young Adult Fiction)

Coraline (not Caroline) Jones lives in a rather large house with her mother and father.  Because the house is much too big for just one family, she shares it with Misses Spink and Forcible (they live in the flat below) and the crazy old man with a big mustache (who lives in the flat above).  The day after she moves in, Coraline goes exploring.  She IS an explorer after all and exploring is what she does.  She explores the gardens, the tennis court, and even the old well (which is very dangerous so it’s best to stay away from it).  Soon, she begins exploring her house, which leads her to a door (which is kept locked), which opens up to a brick wall.  But one day, the brick wall isn’t there and Coraline decides to go through the door, because that is what explorers do.  It’s not long before Coraline realizes that she should have listened to the mice (in the flat above) and NOT have gone through the door.  Mice are smart.  At least they pronounce her name correctly.

Coraline is a wonderfully spooky and thrilling tale of a young girl who is clever, brave, and kind.  Her curiosity tends to get her into mischief, but a level head and a compassionate heart always seem to allow this little explorer to come out on top.

In his book, Neil Gaiman shows us different kinds of love.  There’s the I-love-yellow-Wellington-boots-in-the-shape-of-frogs love and the I’d-love-for-you-to-go-away-so-I-can-work love and then the I-love-you-so-much-that-I-will-give-you-everything-so-you’ll-love-me-too kind of love.  Throughout our story, Coraline deals with all of these:  her own love for quirky things; the love from her parents who often don’t seem to notice her; and the demanding love from a strange being that will go to any length in order to acquire and keep it.  The Ancient Greeks identified eight kinds of love.  Psychologists state there are seven.  For Coraline, there is only one kind of love and that is the love she has for her mother and father.  It is this love that gives her the will and the strength to fight against seemingly overwhelming odds and terrifying beings in order to find her way home again…and back to love.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 10/2/2018

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com