#FlashbackFriday: The Library Window

Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: This Friday I’m flashing back to 1896.

I normally don’t review books I read for my literature courses because they’ve already been widely reviewed. Why do you need me to tell you to read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? You’re probably going to read it at some point anyway. (If you haven’t yet, you really should; it’s a good one.)

The difference with The Library Window is that it’s not well known. Though she was a favorite of Queen Victoria and wrote over 120 books, she’s not studied much today. This post is my PSA that Oliphant is an author worth studying. She certainly deserves more than nine reviews on Goodreads.

The Library Window is a Gothic novella (or, if you want to be cute, “novelette”) around 50 pages long. It tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who begins to notice a peculiar library window across from her aunt’s home. While her aunt’s friends speculate that the window is a fake, the narrator grows more certain that it is, in fact, real. Over time, she begins to see the room behind the window and, eventually, a man living in it. She discounts the older ladies’ claims as a result of their poor eyesight, but the window and the man beyond it still seem not quite right. The narrator becomes obsessed with the man, perhaps to the point of madness.

This was Oliphant’s last book; she died a year later, having outlived her husband, brothers, and all her children. This fact makes the novella even more haunting.

It’s the sort of haunting I can tolerate though. As someone who’s successfully avoided horror movies, I’m not one to read scary books, and I don’t think this books is scary. It’s suspenseful and it sticks with you, but it’s not scary.

It’s hard to talk about this book the way I normally would. There’s no epic romance, but the relationship between the narrator and the man in the window she only sees from across the street is an interesting one. The cast is almost entirely female, but the main character is a girl who enjoys reading and daydreaming; she is a relatable character at first and a strange character later.

The plot is not remarkable in any way, nor is it unremarkable. It is what you’d expect from gothic literature, but that doesn’t detract from my experience of the book. It’s a page-turner because Oliphant writes it in an interesting way. She leads the reader to ask plenty of questions and never answers one without bringing up another. That said, she never answers all the questions, surrendering her story to the reader’s interpretation.

That’s what I love most about this story: its openness to interpretation. The meaning behind the elusive library window, the narrator’s growing interest in it, and her strange relationship with her aunt and her aunt’s friends opens the novel to multiple readings. Even more interestingly, since the book is not widely reviewed, I don’t think anyone has yet found a perfect answer to the meaning of the novella–and perhaps they never will. The questions that remain after the books’ conclusion add to the sense of mystery.

The Library Window is a brilliantly written novella that doesn’t have the readership it deserves.

Recommendation: Literature majors, especially those who appreciate Victorian and Gothic literature, will appreciate this book.

Since it’s such a quick read, I’d say those who enjoy suspense stories and don’t mind them being historical would also appreciate this novella. If you like Poe, this is perfect for you. It’s the sort of book that should be read around Halloween, anyhow. And it’s appropriate for the kiddos. It teaches them to stay away from strange men in the window and diamond rings. I might be stretching it a little, but you get the gist.

If you’re at all interested, please please please read this book.

The Heart Goes Last

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: Margaret Atwood’s new dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last, while initially well-designed, fails to make a lasting impression.

The book follows Stan and Charmaine, a young couple living in the midst of an economic crash. Desperate for safety and normality, they sign up for the Positron Project, a clean, structured town where inhabitants live and labor in the gender-separated prison of Positron for a month and stay in the fifties-esque town of Consilience the next. Atwood manages to patch together a world like that of 1984 and The Stepford Wives mixed with her own developments. When both Stan and Charmaine become involved with their “Alternates,” the people who live in their home the months the couple is in prison, the story becomes more complicated.

The novel focuses on the relationship between Stan and Charmaine, which becomes increasingly tangled as the plot progresses. Atwood does a fantastic job adding depth to the couple by revealing their candid, often disturbing thoughts. Even more hauntingly, the dystopian world Atwood describes so well could easily fit into the next few years.

Though unsettling, the book is, at least, an enjoyable read. Stan’s prison side job as chicken pimp, a woman romantically attached to a teddy bear, and the growing absurdity of the main couple’s situation prompt a few smiles.

Atwood’s voice is also impressive. Some of her lines provoke deep thought while others aim to entertain, and she writes so smoothly there is never a clash between the two. She is even able to catch me off guard with a couple plot twists that stomp my initial predictions away.

In the last quarter of the book, though, the story seems to get out of Atwood’s hands. The stitches that pull the novel together become more obvious and start to fray. The plot gradually loses its realism, pieces don’t match up quite right, and secondary characters lose their depth. Worse yet, the dystopian clichés that Atwood initially appears to use jokingly become more serious and groan-worthy. Near the novel’s end, the story’s humor fades and takes on a more moralistic tone.

Atwood crams the last few chapters with events meant to drive the main themes home, but, though interesting, these events seem too much like an afterthought. The final chapters don’t drive the main themes home as much as they pull these themes to the surface. By the end, Atwood bares the story’s already thinly veiled meaning to readers as though they are incapable of jumping to interpretations themselves.

Still, the central meaning is designed better than similar stories, and it is an enjoyable read.

The problem with The Heart Goes Last is not a matter of enjoyment, though. The problem is that the heart of the novel goes before the Atwood is finished, but she keeps working at it anyway, hoping a frenzy of shocks will keep it alive until the end. In truth, the story flat-lines before Atwood is willing to wrap it up.

Recommendation: Fans of Atwood might be able to overlook these issues and appreciate the author’s intent. I think fans of The Stepford Wives and more mature fans of The Giver may also value this novel. It is a likable read for a general audience, but those unable to enjoy books featuring extramarital affairs, customizable prostitute robots, and “Big Brother” settlements should stay away.

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book–even if I didn’t review it until it was published.

Focus on the Lyrics Friday: I See Fire

I’m terribly sorry for not posting last weekend. I didn’t skip out for anything fun; in fact, my weekend was spent doing homework. The highlight of last weekend was a tough call between the thesis workshop for the Honors Program and the dumpster fire for which my dorm was evacuated at 3 AM. We’re all okay, though a bit tired.

If nothing else, seeing the fire inspired me to take a closer look at Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” for this week’s column.


Lyrics

Oh, misty eye of the mountain below
Keep careful watch of my brother’s souls
And should the sky be filled with fire and smoke
Keep watching over Durin’s sons

If this is to end in fire
Then we should all burn together
Watch the flames climb high into the night
Calling out “father, oh, stand by and we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on
The mountain side high”

And if we should die tonight
We should all die together
Raise a glass of wine for the last time
Calling out “father, oh,
Prepare as we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on
The mountain side”

Desolation comes upon the sky

Now I see fire
Inside the mountain
I see fire
Burning the trees
And I see fire
Hollowing souls
I see fire
Blood in the breeze
And I hope that you’ll remember me

Oh, should my people fall then
Surely I’ll do the same
Confined in mountain halls
We got too close to the flame
Calling out father oh
Hold fast and we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on
The mountain side

Desolation comes upon the sky

Now I see fire
Inside the mountains
I see fire
Burning the trees
And I see fire
Hollowing souls
I see fire
Blood in the breeze
And I hope that you’ll remember me

And if the night is burning
I will cover my eyes
For if the dark returns then
My brothers will die
And as the sky is falling down
It crashed into this lonely town
And with that shadow upon the ground
I hear my people screaming out

And I see fire
Inside the mountains
I see fire
Burning the trees
I see fire
Hollowing souls
I see fire
Blood in the breeze

I see fire (fire)
Oh, you know I saw a city burning out
And I see fire (fire)
Feel the heat upon my skin
And I see fire (fire)
Uhhhhhhhhh
And I see fire
Burn auburn on the mountain side

Analysis

Sheeran’s song is based on Peter Jackson’s film “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” but there’s more to the song than just the description of fire. I may give away one or two spoilers about the book/film, so be aware if you haven’t yet read/seen it but intend to.

1) “Oh, misty eye of the mountain below / Keep careful watch of my brother’s souls / And should the sky be filled with fire and smoke / Keep watching over Durin’s sons”

I actually read this song as a sort of prayer. The “misty eye of the mountain below” is the “god” Sheeran addresses. The mountain has a heart (the Arkenstone), so why shouldn’t it have an eye, as well? Throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, eyes are a fairly important symbol. Both Sauron and Smaug, the primary villains of the two tales, have noteable flame-colored eyes. The Lonely Mountain to which this song refers does not have a fiery eye, but a “misty” one. While the other eyes’ ability (Sauron’s in particular) to see all is a reason for fear, the singer of this song calls for the mountain’s eye to see all and draws hope from it. It’s interesting that Sheeran would have the words “misty” and “mountain” in the same line, since there is a range called Misty Mountains in Middle Earth, but if I recall correctly, that’s the range where Bilbo finds the ring, not where Smaug lives. I don’t really know why he says the eye of the mountain is “below,” so any thoughts on that are welcome.

Also, I believe this part of the song is from the perspective of Bard, the eventual leader of Lake-town. He asks the mountain to “keep careful watch of [his] brother’s souls,” his brothers being the people of Laketown. If Smaug poses a threat to them or the dwarves, Bard also hopes the mountain will “keep watching over Durin’s sons,” or protecting the dwarves. While Bard and Thorin have their disagreements, they’re both willing to do anything for the people they lead. Both Lake-town and the dwarves (plus one hobbit) unite against the fire.

2) “If this is to end in fire / Then we should all burn together / Watch the flames climb high into the night / Calling out ‘father,’ oh, stand by and we will / Watch the flames burn auburn on / The mountain side high”

As I said before, a major theme of this song is how trials prompt unity. If the fire comes for them, they will all “burn together.” The song is a sort of disheartening battle cry. They will “watch the flames,” bravely standing together in the face of certain death. The idea of them calling out “father” also implies that their hope centers around a god of some sort, reinforcing my belief that the song is a prayer, much like a psalm. The “auburn” color of the flames is also important, as it paints them as beautiful, albeit destructive. Auburn is a reddish-brown color. I think the color is normally too brown to associate with flames, but the film was so dark in lighting and mood, it works in this case. Sheeran may also be playing with the word a little bit, since it has the word “burn” in it. Before looking up the lyrics, I actually thought the line was “watch the flames burn on, burn on” rather than “burn auburn on.” In any case, it sounds beautiful, particularly when sung by Sheeran.

3) “And if we should die tonight / We should all die together / Raise a glass of wine for the last time / Calling out ‘father,’ oh, / Prepare as we will / Watch the flames burn auburn on / The mountain side”

Yet again there’s a sense of camaraderie in that they plan to “die together.” In drinking “a glass of wine for the last time,” I associate them with Jesus and his disciples at The Last Supper, where they ate before Jesus parted. This time, though, all of them prepare to die. Again they call out “father” and instruct him to “prepare,” perhaps meaning for him to prepare a place in the afterlife as they “watch the flames.”

4) “Desolation comes upon the sky”

Desolation is defined both as a state of complete destruction and a state of anguish, misery, or loneliness. The word refers to the destruction–both physical and emotional–Smaug can cause. It’s particularly powerful in this context because the film off which Sheeran based the lyrics is the second in the series, titled “The Desolation of Smaug.”

5) “Now I see fire / Inside the mountain / I see fire / Burning the trees / And I see fire / Hollowing souls / I see fire / Blood in the breeze / And I hope that you’ll remember me”

The fire of Smaug is visible “inside the mountain” and “burning the trees,” but the other two images are a little more difficult to decipher. At the end of the film, Smaug declares, “I am fire. I am death.” He isn’t just an instrument for fire; he is fire. The fire the singer sees could very well be Smaug himself. In burning everything and everyone, Smaug is “hollowing souls,” stripping the people of Lake-town of everything they hold dear, leaving them empty and without purpose. Both fire and blood are dark red and associated with death, so the “blood in the breeze” could be fire itself. It could also be actual blood; dragons have teeth, too, after all. Not only do the lyrics teach physical unity in hard times by standing together; they also teach emotional unity by encouraging people to hold onto the memory of those lost. As the speaker claims, “I hope that you’ll remember me.” In the end, you can only hope you’ve done something to save someone before passing.

6) “Oh, should my people fall then / Surely I’ll do the same / Confined in mountain halls / We got too close to the flame”

The responsibility of a leader over his people is particularly clear in these first two lines. Because this mentions being “confined in mountain halls,” I’m beginning to think the song is actually from Thorin’s perspective. That doesn’t make total sense to me, but it has to be true of this part, at least. In the mountain, the group had a couple close run-ins with Smaug, “the flame.” If flame represents hardship or potential destruction, there are other flames, too. The madness of greed to which Thorin succumbed also led them “too close” to destruction.

7) “And if the night is burning / I will cover my eyes / For if the dark returns then / My brothers will die / And as the sky is falling down / It crashed into this lonely town / And with that shadow upon the ground / I hear my people screaming out”

Honestly, I think the first four lines here contradict each other. Basically, he says there are flames all around, so he’ll cover his eyes because when the flames go away his brothers will die. Maybe I’m misreading something? Because it seems like the flames would kill his brothers, not the darkness. Perhaps he means a metaphorical darkness, as in something evil? The image of the “sky…falling down” when Smaug sweeps over Lake-town with his flames is beautifully put for something so horrific. I like how Sheeran calls “this” town “lonely,” since it subtly links it to The Lonely Mountain. The “shadow” to which he refers is the shadow of Smaug raking fire across the town, causing Bard’s people to begin “screaming out.” It’s interesting how something so horrifying can be described so beautifully. I think part of that is due to the fact that the song is based off a film in which the special effects and scenery are stunning, even in scenes of desolation.

I think I’ve made it fairly clear by now that I’m a fan of Ed Sheeran and Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The final movie of the Hobbit series was released on DVD recently, and while I believe the movies should have been condensed into one or two films rather than spread out over three, I suggest watching them. And if you’ve already seen them, I suggest watching them again!

Top Ten Little-Known Novels

A little while back, Goodreads voted for the best books of 2014. If you’ve been following my account, I’ve read many good books this year, and quite a few were nominated in the Young Adult Fantasy category. I fully expected one of those high-rated novels to win. (The Winner’s Curse, These Broken Stars, Ruin and Rising, Heir of Fire, Cress, and The One were some of my favorites this year.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire won. I rated The Mortal Instruments series low recently. Also, I don’t believe Clare needs any more publicity. Her novels have already caught the eye of the film industry, reaching an even larger audience than they did before. Her bigger fan base is why she won, I’m sure, but it’s also why she shouldn’t have won.

Oh, well. Life is unfair.

Because of this little blip in my otherwise perfect reading world, I decided to make a list of my own praising the lesser read novels I have rated highly. Each of the 10 novels listed below has less than 10,000 ratings on Goodreads but five stars in my rating system.

  1. Enchanted by Alethea Kontis: 9,581 ratingsEnchanted brings the fairy tale world to life, mixing dozens of fairy tales in an irresistible concoction. Kontis focuses on the princess and the frog story (which, if you haven’t read the Grimm’s version yet, please do so; you’re in for quite the shock). This book was intoxicating to the point where overly-fantastical character names and nauseating romance seemed almost normal–exactly what I want from a fairy tale adaptation. I think it helped that I was such a fairy tale nerd. Plus, it’s safe for all ages.
  2. The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke: 9,395 ratings The Assassin’s Curse blends a middle-eastern setting with a magical world. What really bought my love in this book is the main character, Ananna of the Tanarau. Besides sounding like the French word for pineapple, Ananna is witty, intelligent, fiery, and really everything I could ask for in a main character. The assassin whose life she saves is equally as captivating and I couldn’t help but ship them. Besides, who doesn’t love a good pirate book?
  3. The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Francis Long: 3,804 ratingsThe Treachery of Beautiful Things is another book that mixes fairy tales, but it’s surprisingly dark and most of the characters have normal names this time! It drew more from the fey of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and less from the fairies of Grimm, Anderson, or Perrault. I loved the brother-sister relationship and Jack interested me from the start, shrouded in secrets as he was. Most of all, I loved the main idea that the more beautiful something is, the more treacherous it is (thus the title). It applies to the cover itself, which, though beautiful, annoys me because of the use of a stock photo… Nonetheless, The Treachery of Beautiful Things is a must-read for faery lovers.
  4. Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch: 3,668 ratings Snow Like Ashes is my most recent read, and since it just came out I’m certain it will gain more ratings soon. It certainly deserves it. Raasch first wrote this book when she was 12 years old, but it is in no way childish. The warring kingdoms plot is tired, but this novel is different in that the kingdom of the protagonist, Meira, was defeated. It is ultimately up to her and seven other refugees to save those who survive in labor camps. The use of magic in this book is also unique, since each kingdom has a conduit and each of the Season kingdoms lives constantly in their season. (Meira’s kingdom, for example, was constantly winter.) The use of an alternative weapon (a chakram) is applaudable and the fierceness and depth of Meira drew me to her from the start. Though I’m always a skeptic of love triangles (who could possibly win the heart of two men?), this love triangle feels natural. I mean, who couldn’t love Meira? Especially considering what the plot twist reveals…
  5. Stork by Wendy Delsol: 2,206 ratings Stork blends Norse myth with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Though it starts off in the usual “pretty girl’s parents divorce and she moves to new town and new school” format, Delsol constructed a one-of-a-kind plot. The main character, Kat, is the first fashion-savvy character I’ve read about in YA, but she was also funny (and, we later find, quite powerful). The series didn’t seem completely natural to me (the romance included), but the unique concepts really pushed this book to five stars.
  6. Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury: 1,934 ratings Just look at that cover! Wrapped is a historical fiction novel that features an intelligent (yet confined) debutante. I never knew the popularity of unwrapping Egyptian mummies among the wealthy during the Regency period; it’s simultaneously grotesque and intriguing. More points to this book for teaching me something new! I love the time period, the plot, and, most of all, the protagonist. Agnes is nerdy, funny, and complex; besides, who can resist a fellow Jane Austen fan? Between Agnes, the plot, and the cover, you’re sure to like this novel.
  7. Linked by Imogen Howson: 1,821 ratings By now, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out how much I judge books by their covers. Linked is no exception. Just look at that beauty! But the cover isn’t all. Howson’s sci-fi focuses on a once-popular schoolgirl turned ill. When the protagonist discovers the reason for her mysterious bruises, pains, and visions, the plot takes off, and I happily flew along. Twins, a love/hate relationship, and a run from a utopian society make this novel one of my favorites. (And the sequel is just as good.)
  8. Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick: 840 ratings Do not read this if you are passionate about historical adaptations remaining factual. Though the events of this historical fantasy are rooted in true events of the Russian Revolution, it does deviate quite a bit. I thought the fantastical aspects fit into the time period quite well, given the magical qualities of Rasputin. The main character, Natalya, is both loyal to the Romanovs and sympathetic towards Russian peasants. She is feisty, independent, and lovable. The love between her and Alexi was believable and subtle, and my main ship was even more convincing. It helps that I love the name Leo.
  9. The Glass Maker’s Daughter by V. Briceland: 595 ratings The Glass Maker’s Daughter threw me into a new world full of magic lightly based on medieval Italy, where seven entitled families practice each specialize in an art to the point of magic. The main character, Risa Divetri, grew up in the family that specialized in glass making–that’s what got me to pick up this book in the first place. Glass has always enchanted me; who’s to say it couldn’t hold actual enchantment? It impressed me because it had all the romance and intrigue without all the sex and gore. Risa’s magic did not manifest until later, but I appreciated that; after all, who needs magic to be special? Risa makes a path for herself without any supernatural abilities.
  10. The House of Windjammer by V.A. Richardson: 144 ratings How could this book not have more ratings? The House of Windjammer may have a slow start, but don’t let that stop you. I learned more through this novel than through any other book listed here. Did you know the Dutch were once so crazed about tulips they treated various varieties like investments or stocks? Did you know Dutch trade with the Americas was dictated by private companies (primarily the Dutch West India Company)? Did you know how much worse banks were back in the 1600s? The novel made clear the heavy amount of research the author did on the 1630s in Amsterdam. Even the characters are flawed to the point of realisticness. And did I mention there’s another love/hate romance brewing? My favorite kind!

These books deserve far more ratings than they have. (I feel like an ASPCA commercial: save the books!)

Do you know any other books that should be more popular? Comment below!