BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye

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BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay FayeTitle: Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: April 2nd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Retellings
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 As he passed a hand over his eyes, I recalled the he could not have slept more than twenty hours in the last seven days. For the first time since I had known him, Sherlock Holmes appeared to be exhausted by work rather than inaction.

“Because if I am right,” he murmured, “I haven’t the first idea what to do.”

Lyndsay Faye’s debut novel Dust and Shadow imagines what it might be like if Sherlock Holmes and John Watson investigated and solved the Jack the Ripper murders. While she tackles some of the more sensitive issues regarding women and people who are not well-off white men, Faye brings to life that Holmesian Victorian London as if Doyle himself might have imagined. The details of day-to-day life are so vivid and believable that there were times while I was reading this that I forgot it was a pastiche.

This novel is a bit slow at first and really takes about a third of the novel to get to the really interesting bits, but once you’ve hit that mark, the story sweeps you away. Holmes is our cynical, cold, cerebral detective, and Watson is our devoted and daring narrator. Faye’s Watson illuminates the humanity of every character in the novel and develops them well. The addition of Mary Ann Monk, a prostitute who proves herself to Holmes and Watson to be “a woman of extraordinary fortitude. Compared to Doyle’s historically sexist and racist writing, Faye’s Victorian England and the characters intertwined are presented in a more modern and humanist light that I found refreshing, daring, and forward.

While I have read many historical documents and fictional narratives surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders, I found Faye’s (and Holmes’s and Watson’s) deductions and conclusions regarding the murderer to be enlightening, engaging, and well-researched.

As usual, we readers are seeing the story unfold through Watson’s eyes and Watson’s pen, so there are times when we should question Watson and his presentation. Did things happen so neatly as Watson writes them out to be? Watson, when writing these narratives, already knows the end and the resolution, so are any of the details exaggerated or changed to fit a narrative? And there are times when Watson and ourselves as readers have no clue what Holmes is about to do, and that’s what I think really drives this story (and any good Sherlock Holmes story).  Holmes already knows the answers, but we need to know them, even if “on occasion his dictatorial glibness grated upon [our] nerves.” But that’s what keeps us reading until the very end.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes in any form, find Jack the Ripper fascinating, or just like a good murder mystery, pick Faye’s novel up immediately.

Faye has a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories coming out in early 2017, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her Holmesian mysteries.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan DoyleTitle: The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes, #2) by Arthur Conan Doyle
Series: Sherlock Holmes #2
Published by Penguin Books
Published: March 6th 2008
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 153
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 ‘The division seems rather unfair,’ I remarked. ‘You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?’

‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’ And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

I’m making an effort to read every one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories because (gasp) I haven’t yet. A Study in Scarlet is a strange miasma of events, traversing from foggy, gaslit London to the wild American west that disconnected me as a reader. The Sign of Four reminded me much more of the traditional Sherlock Holmes story. I do think Conan Doyle’s strength as a writer is the short story, but this novella is an engaging read through Victorian London.

In The Sign of Four, Mary Morstan has received one large pearl a year for the last six years until she receives a mysterious letter revealing that she is a wronged woman. She visits Holmes and Watson to get to the root of the mystery. Watson falls in love with Morstan over the course of the narrative (nearly instantaneously, I might add), and Holmes finds the greatest pleasure in keeping his mind active, away from boredom. The blatant racism and misogyny (however authentic to the time in which it was written) is difficult to read in today’s times and that certainly takes away from some of the enjoyment of the story for me.

However, the appeal of Sherlock Holmes still remains. Watson’s a sharp narrator who is consistently challenged by Holmes’s charming arrogance. With enough action to keep you glued to the page as the narrative propels itself forward, it’s always a pleasure to see how Doyle manages to bring it all together, however messily or neatly.

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, by Ransom RiggsTitle: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Series: Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #1
Published by Quirk
Published: June 7th 2011
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

We cling to our fairy tales until the price for believing in them becomes too high.

Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is one of those odd books that I liked but also didn’t like. It’s difficult to explain, and the only thing I can come up with is that I like the premise and I like the atmosphere created, but I found the characters and a lot of the writing to fall flat. I couldn’t put it down while I was reading it, but after I finished the book, I just felt sort of ehh.

It’s pretty much a meh execution of a really excellent idea. I was expecting something scarier, but it wasn’t all that scary. The writing most of the time felt juvenile, and I feel like I might have liked this book had it been shelved in the children’s section rather than in Teen/YA. I have expectations of depth of writing when books are categorized in certain sections, and this being shelved in the YA section most of the time is misleading in terms of the depth of the story.

The best parts about this book are the weirdly manipulated photographs that add more to the story than just the words (which shouldn’t be the case, but it is) and Miss Peregrine herself. I like the idea of time loops and that the children are stuck in them forever, and I wish that idea was developed a little bit more in this book (and maybe it is in the following books!).

I wish the book had a different narrator. Jacob seemed bland and boring, and I’m over the whiny rich boy narrators because I felt he had no depth and no change in character, but I do understand the bland character as a narrator as it allows the reader to self-insert and connect with the story more (which is not the greatest tactic in grabbing your reader’s interest).

I may eventually pick up the rest of the series (or borrow them from the library) because while I enjoyed this story for what it was, the executed concept fell flat and didn’t totally wow me enough to rush out and read the next two.

BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

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BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne LeonardTitle: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard
Published by Penguin
Published: December 30th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
AmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

He burned for her, and she for him, and it was as unstoppable as rain in spring.

I expected more dragons. There weren’t enough dragons. As described in the back cover summary, Prince Corin is summoned and entrusted to free the dragons from a powerful neighboring country. He meets a young woman, Tam, who discovers her ability to see beyond while staying with the court at the royal castle. Ok, that seems perfectly fantasy enough. Some snippets from reviews in the first few pages also name the styles of Jane Austen’s novels and William Golding’s The Princess Bride. Awesome, right? Because I do enjoy those.

Ehhh. I wish this novel had some more advertising about the romance. It’s definitely a fantasy romance. It’s got fantastical elements in it, but it’s mostly about the instant romance between Corin and Tam. I don’t find instant romances in books all that believable, and I find it difficult to believe those romances will last longer than the span of time in whatever book in which it happens. With the references to dragons and politics, I was hoping for more of that. Not so dramatic as A Song of Ice and Fire, but something with a little more heft at least. Moth and Spark reads like endless court gossip.

However, once I realized I was in for a romance, it ended up being a pretty decent standalone novel. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s an escape from everything else, which is what some novels are excellent for. I think I liked it more for it being a standalone because I don’t think I’d read the rest in the series just because it isn’t something I expected. Anne Leonard’s a solid writer, and she can capture dialogue and romance well without it being too cheesy (although I will admit there are several moments of cheese that I rolled my eyes at). I just wanted more dragons, because I thought her dragon construction was incredibly interesting!

Post-Modern Victoriana; Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White

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Post-Modern Victoriana; Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the WhiteTitle: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Published by Mariner Books
Published: September 1st 2003
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 901
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
AmazonBook Depository
Goodreads

Agnes lowers the latest issue of The Illustrated London News to her lap, offended and upset. An article has just informed her that the average English woman has 21,917 days to live. Why, oh why must newspapers always be so disagreeable? Have they nothing better to do? The world is going to the dogs.

Michel Faber’s vast expanse of a novel delves into the life of a nineteen year old prostitute named Sugar. And by vast expanse of a novel, I mean it’s a doorstop. I sometimes felt awkward bringing it with me wherever I went because it’s so large. But it’s one of those novels that doesn’t feel large and impossible at all. It’s so engaging and lush that you very nearly believe you’re right there in 19th century London.

I read The Crimson Petal and the White many, many years ago, before I decided to go for my degree in English and before I really knew anything about post-modernism and Victorian literature. When I read it for the first time, I read it for the historical fiction aspect of the novel. Historical fiction, especially fiction set in England, is one of my favorite things to read, so naturally, a huge one that’s vaguely scandalizing was something meant for me.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of post-modernism, a very concise way to describe it is that there are many truths to one story, that there are different perceptions and ways to know something, and that life is infinitely more complex than our puny human minds could ever fully comprehend. The University of Pennsylvania (found in a link from Wikipedia), in a course description, suggests that

Postmodernism articulates a world that is culturally one of multiplicity, diversity, contingency, fragmentation and rupture and accepts that we now live in a state of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve.  Postmodernism promotes the notion of radical pluralism, many ways of knowing, and many truths. From a postmodern perspective knowledge is articulated from local perspectives, with all its uncertainties, complexity and paradox. This viewpoint suggests that knowledge is relational and that all reality is woven and rewoven on shared linguistic looms.

It’s one of those -isms that can never fully be explained because of the definition itself, but that’s one I particularly enjoy for a semblance of clarity.

Anyway, not to digress too much, Faber touches on this post-modern viewpoint in the terminology of itself and in the fact that one cannot return to Victorian England, so that viewpoint of that time is through the lenses of our own time. We, as readers, cannot help but interject our own views and perceptions of the world upon this as the author imposes his view of the time on us in tandem. The narrator plays with the reader on several occasions, dropping little bits about the state of women in that time and about authorship itself. Both Sugar and William aspire to be authors, but for William it’s an occupation, but for Sugar the prostitute it’s a means to pass the time with hopeful abandon; and Agnes writes vivid accounts in her diaries, which give major insight into her madness, only to discard them in a frantic act. Other characters speak about authorship, being an author, or even comparing their roles in life to roles in a novel throughout the course of the book.

A conversation between a poor man and Henry, William Rackham’s older brother, offers a quip that’s pretty clearly a dig at famous authors like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins:

“You ain’t a norfer, are ye?” he asks.
Henry repeats the strange word to himself silently, straining to divine its meaning.
“I beg your pardon?” he’s obliged to ask.
“Orfer,” repeats the man. “A fellow as writes books about poor men that poor men can’t read.”

Sugar, especially, having spent much of her time reading, compares her new role of governess to roles of governesses she’s explored in the novels she has read (which is a spoiler, my apologies):

Sugar steps back, confused: if she’s so superior in rank to the household servants, where does she get her deep-seated notion that governesses are lowly and despised? From novels, she supposes – but aren’t novels truth dressed up in fancy clothes?

The Crimson Petal and the White offers so much to a variety of readers, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed about it the second time around. My biggest frustration about it is the ending. It’s a bit abrupt, there isn’t much explanation as to why what’s done is done, and in some ways it reads to me as if Faber had to end somewhere otherwise it would continue on and on for ages. He’s apparently published a collection of stories set before and after the novel called The Apple that others have said read like “deleted scenes,” so I think I’ll have to find that in the library for further reading. I’m most desperate to know what happens to Sophie, William and Agnes’ daughter.

There is so much detail to delight in as you read this novel. Faber is a master at weaving those old world ideas and sensibilities with our modern perceptions in this, and you hardly know where one ends and one begins. It’s incredibly enjoyable, and I’m glad it’s my first read of 2016.

And, at the very end (more spoilers, but you’ve already made it this far), we as readers are offered the suggestion that someone we know, perhaps Sugar herself, wrote the novel, giving more rise to the post-modern ideas of authorship:

And to you also: goodbye.

An abrupt parting, I know, but that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?