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Miss Kate’s CBRV review #7: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

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This book is creepy.

The story is this: Dr. Montague studies the paranormal. To this end, he gathers a group of disparate people to investigate Hill House – a creepy old mansion that no one wants to stay in overnight. There’s Theodora – flirtatious and glam; Eleanor – mousy, lonely and weak willed; and Luke – heir to the property. 

They come together in the house, and in the course of the next few days they investigate the property as their sense of horror grows as the house itself seems to be coming alive. Not much actually HAPPENS for most of the book, but the feeling of dread is pervasive. Jackson’s descriptions of the dark, mildewy manse practically jump of the page.

This story is short – more like a novella. When the ending comes – and it does, abruptly – it’s quick and devastating.

Read more reviews at Cannonball Read 5: http://cannonballread5.wordpress.com/

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Miss Kate’s CBRV review #6: The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession, by Charlie Lovett

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Peter Byerly is an antiquarian restorer and book dealer. He is also in mourning for his wife Amanda. His friends and family despair of him ever pulling himself out of his funk.

One day while leafing through an old volume on Shakespeare forgeries, he finds a watercolor portrait of what looks like his late wife. It’s can’t be, because this picture was painted during the Victorian era.

This starts him on a journey to discover the truth about the painting and the book in which it was found. He also tries to tackle the mystery of whether Shakespeare actually wrote his masterpieces. The story moves back and forth in time, and I won’t spoil it by telling you more.

The Bookman’s Tale has been compared to Shadow of the Wind, another great story about book obsession. I can see it, but this actually reminded me more of The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, in that the book itself is almost a character. Some of the coincidences in this story are a bit too convenient, and there’s a little supernatural element towards the end that I felt didn’t really fit. If you love books, however, I think you’ll like this.

Read more reviews at Cannonball Read 5: http://cannonballread5.wordpress.com/

CBR V review #1: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

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(It’s July! Been reading like crazy, but I never seem to be able to sit down and actually write a review.)

I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the sequel Bring Up The Bodies. I enjoy her spare writing, how she can convey so much in only a few words.

Eager to read more from her, I picked up A Place of Greater Safety. I had no idea what I was getting into. Make no mistake, this is a good book. But it’s not an easy read by any means. It is the story of the French Revolution, as experienced by Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Young lawyers from the the provinces, they come to Paris to earn their fortunes. (As a side note: It’s been a LONG time since high school, and am embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember hearing the name Desmoulins before reading this book, although I was familiar with Robespierre and Danton.) Robespierre is slight, rigid, distant. Danton is his opposite – huge, overbearing, loud, sexually voracious. And ugly. That point is made often. Desmoulins is flighty, charming, pretty, a genius, and is a friend to them both. All are ambitious. They talk, scheme, conspire, cheat on their wives, argue and scheme some more.

They are exhausting.

We tend to like our Revolutionary heroes, well, HEROIC. We expect them to be self- sacrificing, uncomplicated, high minded patriots, willing to die for freedom. And personally, I like having a protagonist I can get behind. Perhaps that’s simple minded of me, but generally I need to get invested in SOMEONE if I am to stick to a 770 plus page book. And these are difficult men to root for. Truly. These characters – these PEOPLE – are complicated, frequently unsympathetic. There is no doubt that they firmly believe in their revolutionary ideals, but their fervor often takes a back seat to their personal ambition and appetites. The only one for whom this is not the case is Robespierre, and weirdly this only serves to make him even less sympathetic than the more human Danton. Robespierre is cold and hypocritical, condemning bloodshed on one hand while signing the arrest warrants of former friends with the other.

And this is, I think, where Mantel’s brilliance as a writer comes through. Her characters no longer seem like characters, but human beings, with good points and bad. We are forced to except them for who they are, not who we wish they were. Once I made peace with this idea my enjoyment of this book increased. She made me like the villainous Thomas Cromwell before, and she kept me reading here. (Although seriously? Desmoulins and his antics – and Mantel’s obvious love of him as a character – continued to annoy the crap out of me.)

Be warned. This is not beach reading. There is a cast of thousands, although fortunately there is a glossary to keep them straight. While Mantel writes in her notes that this is not meant to be a complete history of the French Revolution, there were instances where I did more research to understand exactly what was going on, and who was who. The petty rivalries! The squabbling factions! I hadn’t thought about the Brissotins or Girondists since…a really long time ago. There is a lot of information to process here. One criticism I do have is that Mantel will suddenly change the point of view, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. It happens throughout the book, and made it difficult to know exactly who was speaking/thinking at the time. Sometimes I had to go back and reread for clarification.

We can never truly get into the mind of a long dead historical figure. Mantel does a masterful job of filling in the blanks and framing the action with actual speeches, diaries and letters. I recommend it. Please read it and let me know what you think!

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