Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Dark Matter: A Ghost Story - a review, a little late

      I read Dark Matter by Michelle Paver way back last January.  I sadly did not review it then, and please believe me, it's not because it wasn't a good book!  On the contrary, it is a very good ghost story.  Now it's time for Carl's RIP ghost story reading challenge,  RIP 7, and so I thought I would review Dark Matter now, because really, this is a an excellent chilling ghost story, and in case anyone is looking for something really good to read for the challenge.


Dark Matter: A Ghost Story is set in the far Arctic north of Norway, in 1937.  It's written in journal form, a highly respectable way to write a ghost story.  Why is that some of the best are written in journal form, or in first person?  I think it has to do with the first-person narrative and how it always leaves an impression that it's only one view, and so it could be unreliable. There is certainly the sense in Dark Matter that the narrator, Jack Miller, is sensitive - the sight of a suicide being fished out of the Thames is what convinces him that he has to go on the expedition, even though he is the poorest, the grammar school boy to the 4 others university-educated men putting the expedition together.  He is hired as the wireless man, who will relay the three meteorological readings a day to the government, as well as maintain radio contact for the group - the communications man.  The site they have chosen, Gruhuken, is two days away from the nearest settlement, Longyearbyen.  And of course, shortly after they arrive and get settled, the camp leader Gus falls ill with appendicitis and has to be rushed to Longyearben, leaving Jack behind to monitor the weather so the survey expedition isn't a failure.  To quote so many horror movies, 'all alone, in  the dark."   The expedition is from July through the winter, only Jack only makes it as far as November.

Read what happens to him.  There is a terrible history at Gruhuken camp, a dark presence, a nameless dread that creeps into the camp after they get settled.  Watching Jack fall apart as the light leaves the sky and darkness settles in, and the increasing storms that cut him off from the world, is like watching a mind break apart - what would happen to most of us if we were thrust into this story.  It's chilling and makes for a story that simply can't be put down.

What haunts Gruhuken?  What makes everyone there feel ill at ease? No matter the light, the science, the routines, how can you cope with a creeping sense of dread?

It's similar to The Terror by Dan Simmons in that it is set in the north. I read The Terror several years ago in 2008, and it was on my list for favourite books of the year that year.  Here is my post for The Terror. It was so good that I didn't think anything could be as good set in the arctic, and then I discover this book, and yes indeed, Dark Matter is just as good as The Terror. It's shorter, and the effect of the terror is the same.  Awesome in both books.  I think that there is something about being in the far north, where the light disappears for months at a time, that makes it a perfect setting for ghost stories. Humans need the light to banish the dark.  Because in the dark, we never know for sure if it is real, or our minds playing tricks on us, which Jack struggles with and tries to reason with.   Read Dark Matter, and see what you think:  did Jack Miller break down, or was there something in the camp with him?  I think there was something with him.  I think once the light goes away, our natural tendency to believe in the unseen comes forth, and that's why we still need ghost stories, and enjoy them so much: because in our secret space within us, we know that the dark is still out there, and it is filled with what we won't let exist in the daylight.  I did enjoy the contrast of the science nature of the group, and how each tried to cope with that unscientific, unmeasurable feeling of dread.

Dark Matter is a wonderful scary ghost story, that gets at our deepest fears - fear of the dark, and what might be out there.  It is one of the best ghost stories I have read. 5/5

So if you are looking for something for Carl's challenge.........

I will be doing my post tomorrow - I'm busy putting my list together of books I have piled up over the year to read, and I am a little stunned to realize I have 18 novels so far!  and a ton of ghost/horror short story collections!

****Added a short time later:
Other reviews: 
 Bride of the Book God
I first read a review of this over at Bride of the Book God, and I've finally found her review to link to, here.  It was Bride's review, along with reviews in Entertainment Weekly, that brought this book to my attention.  Bride's review is excellent, too!

If you've read this, let me know, and I'll link to your review also.  The more the merrier!
added Sept 3/12***Geranium Cat left a comment that she read this for RIP V, so I went looking, and sure enough, she left a lovely review, here.  
Somehow I missed it then, for which I feel very sorry, as Geranium Cat and I have very similar taste in books. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a classic English novel about class, love, and work.  It was written in 1855, with an eye to the change in life up north with the industrial revolution - specifically, the cotton mills in Milton, in the north.  I have seen the BBC production and love it - Richard Armitage as John Thornton, mill owner, and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, southern daughter of a minister who leaves the church after a collapse of faith.  They move up north where he takes up a post teaching the classics as a private tutor, going to Milton because Mr Hale has a friend from his Oxford education days who owns property up there, and offers to help get him settled. Mr Thornton owns his mill, but leases the property from Mr Bell, Mr Hale's friend. 

What's fun is that Margaret and John dislike each other on meeting.  She thinks he is a boor, and rough, and a tradesman, and he thinks she is proud, and haughty, and knows nothing.  If you think Pride and Prejudice, you are right, as Gaskell wrote this with that novel in mind.  She has changed the setting, and added a great deal about English mill-towns and working-class life that make this novel so interesting to read now, but the real story is always Margaret and John, and how they learn to really see one another beyond their initial prejudices and beliefs.

I could hardly put this book down, which enormously thrilled me.  I was hoping for a deeper understanding of John and Margaret, as the tv show shows their change of feelings, but not enough to satisfy me as to their thoughts.  North and South thrilled me with showing me the workings of John's mind. He is a great character, stern, intelligent, and self-made - the modern English man, shaped by the freeing of the Industrial Revolution, wanting their freedom from the political decisions from London.  Fiercely independent as well, he also has a conscience, and as he discovers, an ability to love deeply, hopelessly, kind of like Anne Eliot in Persuasion.  Even though the novel is mostly from Margaret's perspective, John is a stand-out figure, marching across the page, intensely alive and stealing every scene, just as he does in the tv show. 

I have spent the day pondering why I like his character so much, and why I have difficulty warming up to Margaret. At first I thought it was how she was portrayed in the series, but as I read the novel, I realized that the character of Margaret is difficult to write.  She is one of those good heroines who take in the suffering of others and often exist in relation to others.  The most interesting part of her, the revelation that she loves John, is withheld from us, in the novel - we have to read between the lines, and I dislike this.  If we get to feel her shame at the lie she tells to protect her brother, and the despair that John knows about the lie, which leads her to realize she can only care so much about his good opinion because she cares about him, it would have been good to have that clear statement of her feelings for him in the novel.  We certainly get John's!  There is no doubt that she does love him, it's just that the final chapter has a rushed feeling, when so long of the novel is the set-up and building to her realizing that she has changed - she comes to love Milton, and the man who lives there.

That aside, and that's just me, I wanted to share in Margaret's understanding of her own heart, and the joy that she loves, as well as the sorrow because she thinks he no longer does - to have that emotional depth shown from her too, clearly.  This is a small quibble though, because this is a wonderful lively novel about life in mid-century England.  I was fascinated to read about the poverty, the change of circumstance the Hales find themselves in when they leave their comfortable Rectory for the cold life of the north.  The characters are all exquisitely drawn, the Hales, the Thorntons, and the Higgins, the three families that chiefly star in the different levels of society in mid-century Victorian England.  In the midst of this, we see the dark skies above the mill towns, the heavy dark fog, the bad air caused by the machines, and the difficulties faced between those men who have achieved ownership of their mills, and those who work underneath them.  Gaskell was well aware of the working-class in England as her husband's work as a minister took him among the lower classes of Manchester, one of the great manufacturing towns of England. She could see the changes for the women who could work, the struggles of families to earn enough to live on, and the working class fear that the rich were getting rich and not paying the workers their fair share.  So in North and South, there is a strike by the workers, that draw Margaret and Mr Hale to learn about the working class needs, versus the views spoused by John Thornton.  It's interesting to read now, especially as strikes still happen, with much the same causes and beliefs as back then. Not much has changed.

One of the things that is interesting about Margaret is that she does not really have any wants or desires of her own.  She doesn't have any intellectual leanings, doesn't study on her own, doesn't want  to be a teacher or do anything.  She doesn't even want to get married, particularly, and ignores most men .  There is no primping, no fashion talk except through her cousin Edith, who is rich, bubbly, empty-headed, and beautiful, everything Margaret is not. There is no jealousy, no wanting, nothing.  They love each other and are close, but Margaret doesn't want anything for herself.  She believes in fairness, and justice, but doesn't know what they mean until she goes to Milton and finds out that she has courage and cowardice in equal measure.  So despite her not wanting to do anything but be a support to her parents, she is an interesting character as she discovers who she is as a person.  This has to be one of the first novels that didn't have a female character constantly wondering if she would marry, worried about her prospects - which I think might have made a powerful novel if Gaskell had made her penniless and family-less when her parents die, instead of having her rich aunt whisk her away to London again, and then conveniently she is left money to become an heiress.  I think if Margaret had been forced to make her way in the world, that would have been an illuminating novel, but Gaskell had already gone there with Mary Barton, so she backed down a little with this novel. Margaret Hale is a good woman, a good character, virtuous and kind and intelligent, strong and considerate. 

I am so happy I finally read this novel.  As always,  the book is better than the tv series, at least for me.   We get to see the inner thoughts of the characters, their motivations, and know everything in greater detail.  The tv series is true to the book, and the characters, and the differences are minor tweaks, except the ending, which is better in the book, I think. She would never kiss him in public as they do in the tv series at the ending!  Even though it is very romantic and I love it, on tv, I prefer  how they come together in the book - very similar, but privately.  Much more in tune with their characters.  All in all, an excellent novel.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Olympics, new Rebus, and In the Garden with Jane Austen - book review

The Olympics are taking up much of my attention this past week.  I'm getting a little reading done, though only because we had a long weekend so I was able to read in the evening the past few days and finish a book. Darkfire by CJ Sansom, to be reviewed shortly..  I love the Olympics, I enjoy how the athletes try their best.  It's exciting and thrilling and sometimes heartbreaking to watch. 

At the same time, I had to share with you my excitement when I found on Amazon today that a NEW REBUS mystery is coming out!    

Yes indeed, John Rebus is back!  He is teaming up with Malcolm Fox, or rather, he and Malcolm cross paths.....all the old favourites are there, Siobhan Clarke, Big Ger Rafferty, and most of all, Rebus.  Still retired, and still pushing buttons and going where no one else wants to go.  Standing In Another Man's Grave isn't released here yet, there is no date out, and I'm still ecstatic.  NEW REBUS MYSTERY!!!! 

I thought for a change of pace that I would actually review a book today.   Some of the high heat and humidity  we have been suffering under have died away today, so that I feel energized and can think straight.  I'm posting while I can.....

In the Garden With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson

This was such a beautiful book.  Gardening and Jane Austen, what could be better? Well, this book takes bits and pieces of letters Jane, her mother, and her sister Casexened to the gardens in her various homes after her death.  It even shows some of the stunning gardens and settings she would have seen in her travels around south England, and wrote about, either to her family, or used as a basis in her books.        
I learned two big things reading this book:
1) Jane loved to garden and discussed flowers, fruits and vegetables and took an interest in raising the animals that were being raised for food by her family  She learned to raise animals and grow vegetables and fruit while growing up at the parsonage in Steventon, where her father was the rector. She and Cassandra looked after the animals, the chickens and the bees, and they often had what the house gardens and land offered as their main source of food.

2) that walking paths, garden paths, were used extensively in 18th century England.  Ladies didn't run, they didn't work out!  So to keep healthy, walking paths were built into gardens - thus, the ladies could go for several miles of walking if they walked around the gardens several times, depending on where they were living and the kinds of gardens around.  It makes me feel much better about my walking and less guilty that I hate working out (so I don't). Walking is good exercise,! 

I did not know that her brother Francis was wealthy enough to manage a country estate, which they did at Goodnestone Park.  This was the same brother who she visited for a short time in London, and who supported her and her mother after their father died. Goodnestone Park has several gardens,  and Jane visited her brother and sister-in-law frequently there.

There is alist at the back of the book, of the flowers grown in Jane's time. Unfortunately the original gardens at many of the places she lived are long gone now, however the head gardener at Chawton Cottage now (which is a trust historical estate) provided a list of the flowers grown now at the Cottage, with almost all the varieties used being available during the years Jane was alive.
-lady's mantle
star of Persia (allium)
basket of gold/gold alyssum
sweet William
 dianthus superbe
bleeding heart
geranium Buxton Blue
dogtooth daisy
Little Maid daylily
Madonna lily
winter honeysuckle, Hall's Honeysuckle
moonwort/money plant
maltese cross
yellow daylily
evening primrose
Jacob's ladder
garden phlox
Rosa Alba Belle Amour
Rosa centifolia Shailerss White Moss
black-eyed Susan
satin flower

I was delighted to see that I have some already in my garden, sweet william, daylilies, phlox, of course roses, money plant, maltese cross (though I can't grow these, they keep dying), Jacob's ladder, black-eyed Susan, alysum, and I dearly want to try growing some Hollyhock next year.

There are many pictures in this book, of the gardens and great houses that Jane would have visited, and pictures of the gardens at Chawton Cottage, old sketches if the gardens or houses don't exist any more, and delightful descriptions from Jane's letters, as well as excerpts from her novels. There are excerpts from gardeners of the time, thoughts on gardens, how to design them, what a successful 19th century garden should contain, the various uses of the garden. 

I found this book to be a delight for the soul.  It is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, with a cup of tea,  reading about gardens and life in Jane Austen's time.  It gives a rare glimpse of how Jane used the landscape around her in her novels, and when I reread them, I know I will have a better understanding of how she used the garden settings in her books. I love that she loved her gardens and was happiest when she could have one to tend, a cottage with a garden.  She was a woman after my own heart, and since I already love her novels, this is such a deep pleasure to discover about her.