Thursday, December 2, 2010

The White Stag

by Kate Seredy

Winner of the 1938 Newbery, this slim book is a fairy-tale adaptation of Hungarian legend, from the Biblical hunter Nimrod to the historical Attila the Hun, Scourge of God, in four generations.  The miraculous beast of the title inspires the Hun and Magyar tribes (led by the warriors Hunor and Magyar respectively)  to head west, looking for a plentiful paradise ringed by mountains promised by Hadur, the war god whose sword Attila is destined to find.

This is a bizarre book for children, and a bizarre choice for a children’s award.  It has no historical value, being only legend, though Seredy grafts Attila onto her mythological genealogy.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s frankly unworkable as a fairy tale either.  There’s no reason to admire or sympathize with the bloodthirsty warriors who murder their way through Europe, and it’s such a brief tale there’s no time for the reader to feel anything for them in any case.  There’s no denying that it’s beautifully written, but I just couldn’t get past the baffling subject matter, nor the abrupt and wholly unsatisfying ending.

two stars

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


by Daphne du Maurier

The narrator, an unnamed and naive young woman, marries Maxim de Winter, a gloomy widower whom she meets in Monte Carlo.  Arriving at his prominent estate, Manderley, she finds herself instantly rebranded as “the second Mrs. De Winter” and is overpowered by the long shadow of Rebecca, the dead first wife, whose decoration, mores, and schedule still dominate.  Rebecca’s lifelong maid, Mrs. Danvers, in particular, is cold to the new wife, constantly comparing everything she does to the way it was done by Rebecca.  Eventually, the narrator learns of the terrible secret – murder – that haunts Maxim, and is the reason why Rebecca’s shadow can’t be erased from Manderley.

While it’s indisputably a classic of suspense, I was rather ambivalent about this novel.   On the positive side, du Maurier paces the novel wonderfully, setting up a truly creepy atmosphere and then letting the suspense pile up unbearably before the secret is out, whereupon the nail-biting begins anew as the resolution is uncertain.  On the negative side…  Well, first, personally, my interest in this book was probably dimmed by my familiarity with the great Hitchcock film version, which changes very little.  Second, I found the writing to be overly prolix, especially in the lavish purple prose of the opening chapters.  Third, I found the narrator to be rather unsympathetic, as she had very little backbone; it isn’t that her timidity strained credulity, as her behavior in such a situation seems rather probable for a certain kind of wallflower, but it doesn’t make her more sympathetic.  Finally and most damningly, I found Maxim to be a totally unsympathetic cad, not coming to his wife’s defense when she was clearly being bullied by the servants, and he clearly knew her for what she was, an unworldly and non-wealthy girl who was unused to servants.  Then there’s the fact that we, the reader, have only this man’s word for what happened to Rebecca and even if it were true he seems to have admitted to killing a woman he believed to be pregnant at the time  – yet he is clearly meant to be a viable love interest for the put-upon narrator.

three stars

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Red Dragon

by Thomas Harris

When a deranged killer nicknamed the “Tooth Fairy” (because of his penchant for biting) savages two families, retired FBI profiler Will Graham is lured back into the hunt.  Having been seriously injured in his last case – in which he captured the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter – Graham is reluctant, but it drawn ineluctably to putting himself in the killer’s head, despite his unraveling love life.  Harris switches the reader occasionally into the experience of the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, who prefers the name “The Red Dragon” after the series of paintings by Blake – and we learn of the terrible childhood that shaped him even as a blind co-worker, innocent of his brutal side, unknowingly brings the humanity out in him by her romantic interest.

This is a brilliantly executed novel – graphic, gruesome, gripping in its terrible suspense and the palpable evil that builds up in its pages.  But Harris, once a crime scene reporter, has also done thorough research in everything having to do with his subjects: pathology, graphology, psychology – all of which make the drama more real and immediate.  The characters are fully realized; Graham is a flawed hero with a darkly troubled past, Dolarhyde is a tragic monster that, but for a few preventable accidents, could have been human.  Fast-paced, taut, and all too real, this is a terrific thriller.

five stars

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Love In a Cold Climate

by Nancy Mitford

The sequel to The Pursuit of Love, this book has Fanny (married to a husband who may as well not exist, for the purposes of the book) watching in amazement as Polly, the great beauty of the season and daughter of the socially-conscious and fabulously wealthy Lady Montdore, refuses all suitors until finally claiming a husband amid such scandal she is disinherited.  Enter Cedric, a fabulously outrĂ© homosexual, who now stands to inherit all, and who becomes fast friends with Lady Montdore, introducing her to all manner of self-improvement and Continental ideas about fashion.

As amusing as the first book was, this sequel is easily its superior; the officious, deluded, condescending Lady Montdore and the larger than life, colorful Cedric are both brilliant characters: unforgettable, unpredictable, hilarious, and strangely alluring despite their flaws.  The humor here is also less subdued, less sly than in the previous book: Lady Montdore sniffs that hardly anyone had heard of India until her cipher of a husband served as secretary there; Uncle Matthew comes upon Cedric in a shop and is so overcome with rage at his coat with contrasting colored piping that he begins shaking him, like a dog with a rat.  Mitford somehow makes all her characters, no matter how outlandish, also sympathetic, this is true even of the nasty Boy Dougdale, who is some sort of sexual predator and pedophile and ends up in a miserable, loveless marriage.  Everyone dismisses Boy’s groping of the underage Radlett sisters with a shudder and a shrug, as merely a breach in manners rather than a loathsome crime.  Well, it was a different age.

five stars

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Pursuit Of Love

by Nancy Mitford

A roman a clef, this book begins by describing the odd upbringing of the author's prominent family, here called the Radletts.  Six daughters grow up under the eccentric reign of their father (called "Uncle Matthew" by the narrator, cousin Fanny, who has come to live with them), who rages against foreigners and suitors, forms hatreds or admirations for others on a whim, and refuses to send his children to school.  In the style of the time, the daughters go to balls and are presented as "out," whereupon they marry.  One daughter, Linda, marries the son of a prominent banking family, but fails to find love with him or her next husband, a Communist activist.

Mitford details the ensuing scandals and the worries with subtle wit, balancing an almost-mocking, self-deprecating tone with the emotional tragedy of Linda’s tale.  The book is a deft satire of the upper classes, and has quite a few very funny scenes, such as when Fanny comes to visit Linda’s ugly baby, which the mother feel nothing for ("Pour soul," she says when it cries, "I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass"). 

four stars

[followed by Love In a Cold Climate

Friday, June 18, 2010


by Evelyn Waugh

Due to a case of mistaken identity, a mild-mannered columnist on country life, William Boot, is sent as a war correspondent to Ishmaelia, an independent African nation where dissent is brewing between long-time ruling family the Jacksons and anarcho-communist upstarts prompted by German and Russian interests.  Boot, though utterly stymied by the lackadaisical and corrupt Ishmaleian government (as well as his fellow journalists), and through no merit of his own, scoops everyone and returns to an unwelcome hero’s welcome.

The first time I read this was seventeen years ago.  I think I may have appreciated it a bit more this time around – it recalls Wodehouse in its muddled plot and tortuous misadventures of its characters, as well as the brilliant characterization through dialogue.  But Waugh is much more scathing: of the fatuous, ant-brained upper classes, of the bumptious but ultimately useless journalistic set, of the oafish and self-centered country dwellers.  More than a satire of what was then modern journalism, it’s a witty, often hilarious look at the caprices of human nature. 

[read twice: 9/1/93, 6/18/10]

four stars

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Full Dark House

by Christopher Fowler

Arthur Bryant and John May, two young police detectives, meet during the Blitz of London when May joins the Peculiar Crimes Unit.  Bryant’s unusual methods (contacting mediums, thinking largely in symbolism) and his unsettling social skills rankle May, but soon their personalities and strategies mesh.  They investigate a string of gruesome, perhaps symbolic, murders at the Palace Theatre, during a scandalous production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus In the Underworld.”  Meanwhile, in present-day London, an explosion at the unit takes the now elderly Bryant’s life, and May traces his old partner’s footsteps, trying to find out who killed him, and how in connects to their first case.

It’s a beguiling setup, very richly atmospheric, especially the 1940 scenes, which are clearly researched to the tiniest detail (brands of cigarettes, how women wore their hair, and so on).  While I took the “big twist” at the end pretty much for granted throughout the book (what, the main character isn’t really dead?), other twists and turns were highly enjoyable.  All the little hints and witty touches come together: Fowler plays fair with the reader, but this is much more a moody thriller than a whodunit, though it succeeds at both.  

four stars