Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Working as a governess to teach and raise the spoiled rich children of England’s upper class, Agnes Grey discovers what it means to be invisible. Unappreciated and unacknowledged by those she works for and among, she struggles to hold onto her morals and her sense of self.

Her father’s dreams and impractical business plans slowly lead her family to financial ruin, so at the age of nineteen, Agnes begs to be allowed to take a position as a governess and earn her own keep. Filled with dreams of inspiring young minds and earning the love and devotion of the children entrusted to her, she soon discovers that her lack of social status leads to a lonely and empty life among the higher class families who employ her.

The novel is highly autobiographical, and at least one incident was later admitted by Charlotte Brontë as taken directly from Anne’s experiences as a governess.

As a huge fan of the work of the other Brontë sisters, most notably Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had hoped another Brontë novel would prove as darkly gothic as the others – in this I was disappointed. Had I done any advance research, I may have discovered that Agnes Grey was described by the critic George Moore as having “all the qualities of Jane Austen.” I am not an Austen fan. I could have been warned.

While there is nothing specifically wrong with Agnes Grey, it is a classic example of the moralising Victorian novel, and as such while well written and interesting (enough that I read it on one sitting), it was not particularly exciting (I read it while flying, and had nothing else to distract me).

Paperback: 248 pages

First Published: Thomas Cautlby Newby, December 1847

Current Edition: Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN-10: 0192834789

ISBN-13: 978-0192834782


The year in review, and the year to come

What a year it has been. With a total of 59 posts, I still did not quite make my goal of reviewing “one book per week.” I was also perhaps a bit over-confidant at the beginning, reviewing the three Emily books, the Sevenwaters trilogy and the Hunger Games trilogy in single posts. It made sense at the time, as they were easier to review together. But I then missed 11 weeks though the year, three in a row while sick in March, and the others while reading the two killer books of the year: Moby Dick and Anna Karenina. Suddenly, the idea of banking a few reviews on books like those seemed smarter, and would have left me only five reviews short of my goal.
The most popular reviews of 2011, in order of popularity, were:
  1. Review: Barney’s Version
  2. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet
  3. Book Review and Giveaway: The Nymph and the Lamp
  4. Jane Eyre: book & film review
  5. Review: The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
  6. Drive by Saviours by Chris Benjamin
  7. Come Thou, Tortoise
  8. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  9. Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen
  10. A Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

I will again be attempting to post one book review per week through 2012 – with a better appreciation for how difficult it can be when other factions of life get busy. I have also taken the #50BookPledge through Harper Collins – which is exactly as it sounds, a pledge to read 50 books through the year.

To help me out with the blogging side, I am hoping to recruit a few guest bloggers. If you are interested in submitting a book review (or a few) please leave a comment below. You can do it right away, on a book you have already read or are currently reading, or set a deadline for yourself later in the year. I am happy to link back to your blog, if you have one.

Cheers, and happy new year!

Halloween reads: Frankenstein retold, and The Lunenburg Werewolf

I love Halloween. I love to be scared. So this time every year, I try to find a scary story or two to read after the sun goes down. This year, I found many.

First, my book club pick for October was The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Theodore Roszak. A scholar and Frankenstein ‘expert,’ Roszak rewrites the classic tale in the voice of Frankenstein’s foster-sister-turned-bride, Elizabeth. (There is of course some ridiculous irony in a man rewriting a novel that to many proved that a woman could write ‘like a man’ – in order to give its primary female character a voice.)

The premise of the Memoirs is that Victor and Elizabeth were raised to form a prefect alchemical union or the ‘chymical marriage.’ Filled with pagan and alchemical ritual and highly erotic, the novel presents Elizabeth as a partner to Victor in his early research, sharing similar goals, but recognizing danger in his ambitions. The story is told or presented by Sir Robert Walton, who also narrates the original Mary Shelley novel, and is a combination of (often disjointed) letters and diary entries written by Elizabeth.

I will say that the novel was original and intriguing, but hardly the feminist tome it claims to be. Elizabeth is still overly diminutive and dependant on Victor and not at all a ‘strong female character.’ Adding witches and midwives and lesbians to a story does not make it feminist literature.

Worth a read if you are interested in alchemy and early science, with a mystical theme.

Mass Market Paperback

Publisher: Bantam (Oct 1 1996)

ISBN-10: 0553576372

ISBN-13: 978-0553576375

Next up in my spooky reads is Steve Vernon’s latest collection of Nova Scotia ghost stories: The Lunenburg Werewolf. I love me a good ghost story – and all the better if it is a) true/based on truth and b) local – as in, there is a very slight possibility that I could also witness the phenomena, thus making it 400 times as scary.

The Lunenburg werewolf delivers, with a great collection of well-known and obscure Nova Scotia ghost stories, from the werewolf of the title, to better known stories like Amherst’s Esther Cox and the phantom ship of the Northumberland Strait. Vernon first weaves the tale, much my grandmother once would have done, and then follows up with descriptions of alternate versions and where applicable, possible non-ghostly explanations for the phenomena. This, and his earlier collection “Haunted Harbours” are both great to add to the collection of any folklore or ghost story fan.

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 15 2011)

ISBN-10: 1551098571

ISBN-13: 978-1551098579

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod

I don’t even know how to begin reviewing this book. So excuse me if I ramble.

I don’t read short stories. I think the only other short story collection I read start to finish was by Alistair MacLeod. Short stories have never really spoken to me the way a novel does. I read for escape more than anything, and I need to be wrapped up in a story, consumed by it, to really enjoy it. So I struggled at first to read this.

Admittedly, the first story, Miracle Mile, didn’t really speak to me. Adolescent boys. Athletes. Risk takers. I bunch of things I never was. Then the next story, Wonder About Parents, spoke to me a little too well. I was in tears. And I am not a parent. So I put the book aside for a while, not picking it up again for almost two months. At which point I read the title story, Light Lifting, and was absolutely blown away. Funny how that can happen. It just got better from there. Adult Beginner I made me extremely happy merely for not ending the way I cynically thought it would. The Loop was absolutely brilliant, and Good Kids, also fabulous, reminded me of my days in a large family, one of the “good kids” (but not always living up to it) and the expectations that came with that. Even The Number Three, whose conclusion I wasn’t happy with, was so well set up I can’t say I didn’t like it.

What I remember about this collection is not so much the stories, but the characters. The people stand out – their fears, their choices and their regrets.

MacLeod has a gift for creating characters. Within a few pages, you know them. They are as familiar as your uncle, your neighbour, your coworker. Your heart breaks for them – because I must say, these are not happy stories. Happy stories are nice for family story time, but past the age of ten, does anyone really enjoy or believe them? Not really. (I’m not that much of a cynic, really. But life is difficult. Part of being happy is realizing and accepting that, no?)

I won’t bore you with descriptions of plots. I will just tell you to buy the book. Keep it on a side table in your most comfortable room. Pick it up once or twice a week until you’ve read it through. You won’t be sorry.

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Biblioasis; Reprint edition (April 5, 2011)

ISBN-10: 1897231946

ISBN-13: 978-1897231944

* Short listed for the 2010 Giller Prize.

52 book reviews in 52 weeks

I’ve never been big on new year’s resolutions. Until last year. On January 1, 2010 I resolved to get my finances in order, save a minimum of $5000, take a leave of absence from work, and volunteer my time & talents in Africa. I did it. I blogged about it, if you would like to know more.

So following that success, I have decided resolutions are good things. This year I made a few more. I wanted at least one to involve writing. I enjoyed blogging from Africa. I intended to continue blogging regularly, but once home, the posting slowed considerably. See, I never was much for journaling. Even in junior high, when pretty much all girls keep a diary, I tried, but found it more of a chore than a release. It’s not the kind of writing I enjoy. I want a project, and a deadline.

Another thing about me: I love to read. I’m rather obsessive about it. I read quickly. Very quickly. I can easily read a book in a day, provided I am interested enough. Sometimes, even if I am not. I just need to be bored in that case. I wrote a few book reviews in university, when I worked for the student newspaper, and always enjoyed the process.

And so, this blog is my new year’s resolution for 2011. I will read more. I will write more. Once a week, I will post a book review, for your reading pleasure, and my personal development. Breaking this down further, I will be posting reviews of books I read in the past, but I also resolve to read at least half the books I review this calendar year. So 26 books. At least two per month. Some of these have been pre-determined for me, as my book club meets monthly, and we selected a year’s worth of books in advance at our October meeting (allows time to add them to our Christmas wish lists). So you can look forward to reviews of the following:

  • Kiss the Joy as it Flies, Sheree Fitch
  • The Bishop’s Man, by Linden McIntyre
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • Light Lifting by Alexander McLeod
  • Drive-by Saviours by Chris Benjamin
  • Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill
  • What is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  • Good to a Fault by Merina Endicott
  • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  • Room by Emma Donoghue

Also, I want to start reading new books. Within a month or two of release. While the book club habit of pre-selecting books in great for budgeting and book sharing, it means I am busy reading other things and keep adding new books to the bottom of the priority list, not getting to them till the buzz has died down, or worse, until someone has already ruined them for me. This year I will stay on top of new releases, and try to post one “new” review each month.

Have suggestions for what I should read and review? Please send them my way. I’ll be looking for ideas.