CHILDREN OF THE MIND by Orson Scott Card | Review

Children of the Mind is the fourth and final novel in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Quartet. This series begins with the well-known Ender’s Game, which tells the story of a young boy recruited and trained to be part of the International Fleet seeking to destroy the alien “buggers” that are a threat to Earth. The series was originally supposed to be a trilogy, with this novel initially being the second half of the third book, Xenocide. This final installment attempts to wrap up all loose ends in that have been woven and tangled throughout the series as the repercussions of Ender’s involvement in the universe finally take their course.

In my opinion, this series could have ended after three books and I would have been completely fine with it. While I enjoyed the first three books in this quartet immensely, Children of the Mind was an unexpected disappointment. Instead of an exciting, suspenseful, thought-provoking conclusion, this novel is actually slow, tedious, and rather dull to read. Other reasons why I dislike this novel include:

– Everyone is arguing. Ender and Novinha. Jane and Miro. Miro and Val. Miro and his entire family. (Miro is very angry, clearly.) Peter and Si Wang-Mu. The list goes on and on. After a while all of these arguments start to sound petty and unimportant when everyone is actually supposed to be saving the universe.

– It feels like nothing really happens. I usually love character-driven novels– but only when the characters are actually interesting and worth rooting for. When a plot moves slower than a sloth and there are few characters worth being invested in, what actually happens in the book? (Answer: not much.)

– I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end. Rather than going out with a bang, this series ends with a confusing firework of random events. I was hoping for some clarity and closure, but no such luck.

It’s not fun to write negative reviews of books you expected to enjoy, but sometimes it has to be done. I highly recommend the first three books in the Ender Quartet (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide) but Children of the Mind is an optional read as far as I’m concerned.

What are your thoughts on Children of the Mind or any of the books in the Ender Quartet? Would you recommend continuing on with books in the Ender series? How do you deal with disappointing books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe | Review

“The narrative drive of Stowe’s classic novel is often overlooked in the heat of the controversies surrounding its anti-slavery sentiments. In fact, it is a compelling adventure story with richly drawn characters and has earned a place in both literary and American history. Stowe’s puritanical religious beliefs show up in the novel’s final, overarching theme—the exploration of the nature of Christianity and how Christian theology is fundamentally incompatible with slavery.” {Goodreads}

First published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin has often been described as the book that launched the Civil War. Despite not having read it until recently, this book had been mentioned often enough in past history classes that I figured I had a pretty good idea of what reading it would be like.

Well, I stand corrected.

There’s no denying that the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remarkable. The story goes that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” This novel was a powerful tool for those fighting to end slavery before and during the Civil War; however, it’s easy to forget the story’s antislavery intentions when a modern reading of it reinforces disturbing racial stereotypes. Slaves are often portrayed as ignorant, unconditionally loyal to their masters, and eager to please as many people as possible. I was also taken aback by the glaring religious overtones in this novel; as someone who isn’t religious, it felt as thought I was being pelted with Christian beliefs over and over and over again. Then there’s the fact that this novel was written by a white woman who wrote a novel based on secondhand accounts of slavery from fugitive slaves. Where is the accuracy there? The authenticity? (Hint: there is none.)

This tension between the novel’s historical importance and the actual content and story within the book itself makes writing a review of it much more challenging than I initially expected. The story itself was captivating and entertaining, and I genuinely wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen to the characters. I quickly became invested in Uncle Tom and his family while simultaneously feeling uncomfortable with how they are portrayed as one dimensional caricatures of human beings. Andrew Delbanco  has more clearly and eloquently put my conflicted feelings into words in his New York Times review of David S. Reynold’s “Mightier Than the Sword.” Delbanco writes:

In my experience, students can be embarrassed by it. They recognize it as a valuable document for understanding the history of what we now call the “conversation” about race in America. In response to the prevailing view of black people as inferior beings (a view long held in the North as well as the South), it lifted its black characters to the status of impossibly virtuous victims — just the elevation that James Baldwin felt was a kind of contempt. When Baldwin called Stowe less a novelist than an “impassioned pamphleteer,” he meant, in part, that her characters don’t seem capable of selfishness as well as self-sacrifice, or of pettiness and jealousy along with piety and wisdom. In short, they don’t seem human. Reynolds calls Baldwin’s a “blinkered critique,” though he concedes that Stowe trafficked in the clichés of “romantic racialism” while reminding us, fairly enough, that what now seems “like racial stereotyping” was “progressive” in her day.

So where does this leave me? I’m still conflicted. Let’s just say that while I appreciate the immensely important historical significance of this novel, I’m so glad that our society has come a long way from the language and portrayals of characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 

What are your thoughts on Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How do you deal with books that give you mixed feelings like this? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith | Review

“Zadie Smith’s dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes —faith, race, gender, history, and culture— and triumphs.” {Goodreads}

Zadie Smith is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to read for ages but just never got around to doing so…. until White Teeth popped up on this term’s required reading list. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. How often is it that a personal and academic TBR line up?! (I mean, mine tend to line up pretty frequently, but this was a special scenario.) I purposely decided to put this novel towards the end of my reading list as motivation to get through the rest as quickly as possible. (Do I motivate myself to read certain books by rewarding myself with the chance to read other books? Indeed.)

I was honestly shocked when I read Smith’s short bio in the back of the book and learned that White Teeth was her debut novel. I once read a review that described this novel as “Dickensian” in scope and grandeur, and to be honest that is probably the most accurate description I could offer. There is a sprawling cast of characters from a diverse array of countries, backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, religions, and generations. Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on all of the characters, Smith introduces entirely new families and groups of people into the mix. These characters are not introduced simply as a way to further the plot; rather, they bring out different sides of pre-existing characters as well as more depth in the story itself.

White Teeth explores countless fascinating topics that are relevant in our society today as well as in their earlier context of the novel. Fate or free will, the end of the world, experiments on animals, the role of women in society, dualities, how we view the past in the present, the concept of multiple truths– the list goes on and on and on. It’s incredible how much Smith was able to pack into these 448 pages and still have it be a coherent, cohesive novel in which all the pieces come together at the very end. It helps that Smith’s writing and storytelling abilities are remarkable, as shown in her ability to reveal that seemingly simple and obvious ideas are actually fascinatingly multifaceted:

“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.”

Unfortunately, the ending was the weakest point of the novel in my eyes. I was expecting an epic convergence of all of the characters culminating in some sort of jaw-dropping reveal; instead, there was a confusing jumble of events that I still don’t really understand fully. Part of me wonders if that is precisely the point: life is messy and doesn’t really make sense or live up to one’s expectations all of the time. But does that really make a lackluster conclusion to an otherwise fantastic novel worth it? Not really.

Overall, White Teeth has made me an avid Zadie Smith fan who is incredibly eager to read more of her work. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel (despite its rather disappointing ending) and I look forward to reading much more of her writing in the future. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who hasn’t read Zadie Smith before!

What are your thoughts on White Teeth? Which Zadie Smith novel should I read next? Do you have a favorite? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK by Sandra Cisneros | Review

Woman Hollering Creek: And Other Stories explores life of women on both sides of the Mexico-USA border. Although mostly written in English, this short story collection does include bits and pieces of Spanish sprinkled throughout, which I really enjoyed as someone studying Spanish in college. It’s always fun to see how quickly your mind can go between multiple languages without you even realizing it in the moment (especially when you’ve been studying abroad for a while and haven’t had a chance to brush up on your Spanish in far too long…). However, I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary to know Spanish in order to take away a decent amount from this collection. (Although you might be a little confused at times!)

One of my favorite things about this collection is that it mainly focuses on the lives of women from numerous generations. From kids and teenagers to middle-age mothers and beyond, there is something here that everyone will be able to relate to in some form. Here we see women struggling to balance traditional, stereotypical, restrictive expectations of girls and wives with their own desires, ambitions, and happiness. While many of these experiences may be specific to those living in the middle of Mexican and American cultures, Cisneros also taps into seemingly universal themes of love, childhood, motherhood, nostalgia, etc. I finished this book feeling both frustrated at the gender inequality still present in our society and empowered by the prospect of women rising up to where we know we can be.

Woman Hollering Creek also provides a fascinating and important exploration of the culture surrounding the border between Mexico and the USA. For instance, this frontera cultural is reflected in the use of language in the story “Mericans,” the title of which demonstrates the mix of both cultures that form the chicano/a identity. The kids in the story seem like Mexicans from the perspective of the American woman, yet they also speak English. When the American woman is surprised that the kids speak English, one of the boys says: “we’re Mericans.” The name of the identity that with which the kids identify is not exactly American or Mexican; rather, this name represents the border between these two cultures. It’s also an example of a misunderstanding or miscommunication between these two cultures between the kids in the story might believe that they should pronounce “Americans” without the first letter. In this way, the use of language in this story demonstrates the cultural border because the work “Mericans” is a combination of two languages that mix between the physical border as well as the different cultures in these two countries in general.

Overall, Woman Hollering Creek is an incredibly important book in a society that often incorrectly views cultures as contained, distinct, and unchangeable identities. Perhaps if more people read even one of these stories they would have a greater understanding and appreciation for what can happen when people from all nations and backgrounds come together. I would highly recommend this short story collection, regardless of whether or not your Spanish-speaking skills are up to par.

What are your thoughts on Woman Hollering Creek? Any recommendations for other writing by Sandra Cisneros or similar short story collections? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

THE HAMLET by William Faulkner | Review

The Hamlet (1940), the first novel in William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, tells the story of Flem Snopes’ rise to relative power and influence in Frenchman’s Bend. Yoknapatawpha County is the iconic backdrop to this slow burn of a novel, one that sets the stage for future books and stories to be written about the Snopes clan. The novel is narrated by V.K. Ratliff, creating a center to which the reader can always come back to when Faulkner’s rambling excursions stray too far from the path.

As you’ve probably noticed from my incessant discussion of Faulkner’s works on this blog, I am an avid Faulkner-file. There isn’t a specific order that I’ve read his works in, so over winter break I decided to read The Hamlet because it was one of the only books I hadn’t read yet in the Faulkner section of my local library. This novel has everything that I love about Faulkner– rambling prose, layered stories, a sprawling cast of characters, and rather haphazard plot points that somehow all make sense when put together. The Hamlet is divided into four sections, each one focusing on different characters but somehow still connecting back to Flem Snopes.

Faulkner certainly doesn’t shy away from unsettling and rather disturbing topics, particularly in this novel. One section focuses primarily on the sexual objectification of Eula Varner, a young teenage girl (around eleven to fourteen years old for much of this section) whose teacher tries to assault her. There is also domestic violence, murder, and even bestiality when Ike Snopes pursues a cow. These sections are not enjoyable to read, but they do say a lot about how Faulkner viewed the South at the time. It’s certainly not a place that I would have wanted to live in.

One of my favorite things about reading Faulkner novels is noticing how they all intertwine. For instance, one section of this novel was originally published as the short story “Spotted Horses” in 1931, which I had read over the summer as part of The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley. Those horses are also mentioned as belonging to the Snopes family in Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying when Anne Bundren tries to trade for mules. While reading through Faulkner’s works one quickly realizes that they are an interconnected web of characters, places, and events.

Overall, The Hamlet is certainly not my favorite Faulkner novel but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. This novel isn’t something I’d necessarily recommend to someone who has never read Faulkner before, but it’s well worth reading if you’re looking for something besides his usual popular works (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, etc.). I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy!

What are your thoughts on The Hamlet? Do you have a favorite Faulkner novel? Let me know in the comments section below?

Yours,

HOLLY

OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens | Review

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is one of those classic stories that everyone thinks they know– that is, until they actually sit down to read the novel in its entirety. Prior to starting this book in the middle of a flight from England back to the States, I thought this would be the simple story of an orphan boy struggling to survive in Victorian England. This novel is exactly that– and so, so much more complicated. I should have known that nothing Dickensian could ever be simple!

The first thing that struck me is how violent, unsettling, and sad this novel is compared to what I thought it would be– though I suppose this should be expected from Dickens. A constant stream of Poor Oliver! ran through my head the entire time I was reading, especially in the beginning before I realized that this would be the tone of the whole novel. Unfortunately, the unrelenting dark tone of the novel ultimately made it seem as though the plot dragged on for far too long. There are only so many unpleasant plot twists one can endure before it all seems too much. The plot itself wasn’t slow– there were plenty of surprises along the way– but the unwavering misfortunes that occur made the books seem much longer than it needed to be.

The major redeeming quality of this book for me was Dickens’ clever, witty writing. While his characters may be over-the-top at times, the exaggerated characteristics they possess all say important things about society in the Victorian Era. For instance, the fact that Mr. Bumble is willing to give Oliver away reflects the harsh reality that orphans during this time period had to face as poverty reigned in urban areas. There’s no denying that Dickens was a masterful writer and storyteller, weaving bits of everyday life into his fiction.

“But, tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble’s soul; his heart was waterproof.”

I don’t have a lot to say about Oliver Twist in general because I have rather lukewarm feelings toward the novel. I didn’t love it nearly as much as I adored Great Expectations, but I didn’t completely dislike it, either. Personally, I feel as though this might have been a timing misjudgment on my part– I tend to be a mood reader, and starting this novel on a long flight when I was tired and didn’t have the energy to focus on Dickens’ curving, swerving plots. I’d definitely be willing to give it another chance in the future!

I would recommend this to anyone who, like me before I read this novel, thinks they know the story of Oliver Twist– chances are that you’ll be at least a bit surprised!

What are your thoughts on Oliver Twist? Do you have a favorite Dickens novel? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Feminist Fridays: GIRL UP by Laura Bates

Last week’s Feminist Friday featured five nonfiction feminist reads that I’d like to read in 2018. Fortunately, I’ve already been able to check one off the list: Girl Up by Laura Bates. I hadn’t intended for this to be the first nonfiction read of the new year, but I saw a copy of it in a bookstore a few weeks ago and couldn’t help being drawn in by the colorful, fun, creative design. Time to share my thoughts!

+ Covers countless topics. Social media. Body image. Self-esteem. Protesting. Harassment and abuse. Sex. Education. Careers. Confidence. Gender stereotypes. Sexism. History of feminism movement and inspirational women. Feminism today. The list goes on and on and on, yet somehow Girl Up never feels as though it is rushing through one topic to get to another; rather, every subject is given plenty of time in the spotlight. Bates also does an excellent job of connecting all of these concepts by referring to them in multiple chapters and in different contexts.

+ Educational, but not preachy. One of my biggest pet peeves is when books turn from fun and informational to preachy and almost condescending in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, Girl Up has a balanced blend of direct facts, Bates’ personal anecdotes, and experiences from other women that she includes as supportive evidence for her arguments. Reading this book feels like having a conversation with a friend who genuinely cares about your well-being– what more can you ask from a book?

+ Bates’ hilarious personality shines through. All I thought after finishing this book was: Where can I get my hands on more of Laura Bates’ writing? Her voice here comes across as authentic, genuine, honest, and incredibly passionate about everything she discusses in this book. I may have even started laughing out loud to myself as I read this in bed…

+ SO FUN. From colorful graphics and snarky comebacks to ideas of what to send someone when they text you an unwanted photo, Girl Up is definitely a book that will make you smile.

The only drawback of this book for me is its intended audience. Although it may advertise itself as a book geared towards teens and college students alike, much of the information and context of the book suggests a younger audience (maybe 15-16 years old?). Despite this disparity, I believe that readers of all ages can still take away something valuable and empowering from this book. 

I would absolutely recommend Laura Bates’ Girl Up to anyone and everyone, especially those who identify as women or who would like to know more about feminism in general. It’s important to have as many people as possible in our conversations about gender inequality, so the more the merrier!

What are your thoughts on Girl Up? Have any recommendations for other feminist reads? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

 

 

BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell | Review

“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

Such is the goal of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, a book which questions whether or not we’re better off with our modern society that is over-saturated with information at every turn. At a first glance, the thesis that we may not need to expel as much time, energy, and knowledge to make decisions as we once thought is argued quiet well. Not only does Gladwell provide a plethora of examples to support his argument, but the examples themselves are also from numerous different fields of expertise and involve a variety of different contexts and subjects. From speed-dating and museum curation to soda recipes and even predicting divorce, Gladwell’s examples broadly range from traditional to completely unexpected. I appreciate writers that go the extra step to conduct genuinely interesting and rather unorthodox research for their works, and Gladwell certainly fits that category.

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”

I enjoyed this book immensely while reading it; however, the more I thought about Blink after I had turned the last page, the more I realized how many gaps Gladwell left open. I was left with more questions than answers: Can we really trust our gut instincts after all? How accurate and reliable is “thin-slicing” in actuality? How do we go about improving our ability to “thin-slice” effectively? Gladwell is an incredibly skilled writer– so skilled, in fact, that he can persuade the reader of an idea that isn’t even clearly explained. I admire his talent for writing, but I would admire it even more if he used it to convey something solid and understandable yet still comprehensive.

A significant portion of book was dedicated to solely discussing the Amadou Diallo shooting in 1999, which was interesting yet also seemed like an abrupt change of topic. Here he touches on the role that biases and prejudices play in our snap decisions, but he doesn’t emphasize it nearly as much as I thought he would (or should have). In light of the heated discussions of police brutality happening across the United States recently, I thought Gladwell treated this topic a little too lightly for my taste (though I understand that this book was first published in 2005, over a decade ago). His decision to use a shooting as yet another example in this book is problematic in my eyes– considering Gladwell’s theory is mostly conjecture, the fact that he is confident enough to apply it to someone’s death strikes me as misleading.

Overall, Blink is a fascinating book that provides the reader with much to think about in regard to decision-making and our current information-driven culture. Although I’m not sure that Gladwell ultimately convinced me of his argument, I nevertheless think this is a valuable, interesting, and worthwhile read. 

What are your thoughts on Blink? Are there any other books by Malcolm Gladwell that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green | Review

How do I even begin this review of John Green’s long-awaited novel Turtles All the Way Down? If ever a book was at risk to be threatened by high expectations and hype, then this would certainly be the one. Like many avid readers of Green’s works, I was both eager and anxious to read this latest release. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would compare to his other novels and his writing would still strike chords with me as it did when I first read Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska back in middle school. More than anything, I was afraid of being disappointed. My inner Nerdfighter desperately wanted John Green to remain the gifted storyteller that I have always viewed him as being.

Ah, Holly of the past. Shouldn’t you have learned by now not to doubt John Green? As per usual, I needn’t have worried: I ended up reading Turtles All the Way Down in a single afternoon because I was so caught up in the story.

My worries that I would be less able to relate to characters who are still in high school crumbled upon reading the very first page. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, I think we’re all still a bit like our high school selves on the inside— at the very least, I can easily put myself back in my sixteen-year-old self’s shoes (made even more easy by the fact that they’re the same size as the ones I wear now) and remember feeling intensely awkward, stressed, insecure, and confused. Although my life is significantly different from that of Aza, the protagonist, I found myself quickly empathizing with her many conflicting emotions.

People often talk about how the young adult genre is apparently silly and shameful for adults to read. In her now infamous Slate article “Against YA,” Ruth Graham denounces YA literature by claiming that  “the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.” These motivations for reading YA literature– or any genre of literature, for that matter– may exist, but I would argue that they are certainly not the only reasons adults have for reading books like Turtles All the Way Down. Reading about characters who lively wholly different lifestyles requires empathy, a skill that some readers clearly must not possess if they cannot see the immense value in reading YA literature. In a novel such as Turtles in which the protagonist struggles with overwhelming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while simultaneously navigating her tumultuous teenage years, empathy is an essential key to understanding and growing from the reading experience.

Once that personal hurdle was crossed, the next aspect of the novel that struck me was John Green’s telltale writing style. Let me just say thatadore his writing style no matter how over-the-top, pretentious, and cheesy it may be at times. Whenever someone points out grandiose Augustus-Waters-esque dialogue to me, I can’t help but insist that that is precisely the point. I would certainly hope (and firmly believe) that John Green doesn’t actually think or expect all teenagers to speak like they’re in some sort of dramatic production. I think this somewhat pompous speech is Green’s way of emphasizing that teenagers are fully capable of being intelligent, intellectual, thoughtful people despite the media’s often negative portrayal of them. Take the following passage for example:

“We never really talked much or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe even more intimate than eye contact anyway. I mean, anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”

Is this cheesy? Yes. Is it true? Also yes. This is why I admire Green as a writer: he takes the time to delve into the little truths that so many writers skip over because they are supposedly too obvious, petty, or insignificant to be mentioned. As a fellow meticulous bookworm, I appreciate Green’s attention to detail. 

Of course, I could not write a sufficient review of Turtles without applauding Green’s intense, genuine, remarkable representation of mental health issues. Aza, like the writer who created her, lives with OCD. While I am fortunate to not also struggle with this particular disorder, I have experienced plenty of anxiety. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it was to read about a character who is not the “perfectly imperfect” girl we all for some reason aspire to be; instead, Aza is flawed in a way that most of us will never be able to understand from our own personal experiences. At times Green’s descriptions of Aza’s obsessive spirals were nearly anxiety-inducing in themselves, which is a testament to the raw honesty of this novel.

Overall, Turtles All the Way Down made me laugh, think, and remember why I continue to be an avid reader of John Green’s books. If you’re searching for a novel that will simultaneously captivate you with its characters and plot and move you with its genuine truth, then look no further!

What are your thoughts on Turtles All the Way Down? Do you have a favorite John Green book? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith | Review

Set in a castle past its prime in Suffolk, England during the year 1934, Dodie Smith’s enduring novel I Capture the Castle tells the story of a poverty-stricken family struggling to make it by. The novel is narrated by seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, a budding writer who chronicles her life in several witty, entertaining journals. Everything changes one fateful day when two American brothers arrive at the castle and inevitably fall in love with Cassandra and her sister, Rose. Straddling issues of class, gender, and cultural differences, I Capture the Castle is an engrossing tale that will capture you from the very first page.

I read this entire novel between the hours of six and ten in the morning while waiting for and boarding my plane from Oxford to my home in the States. It was a gift from a few friends (thanks, friends!) so I was eager to read it on their recommendation. Usually while waiting around I have a tendency to just listen to music instead of actually focusing on reading; however, I was completely captivated by I Capture the Castle right from the start. I ended up reading all four hundred pages before I was even a third of the way through my flight (it’s a good thing I brought a second book with me just in case!).

I credit this novel’s ability to grab and hold the reader’s attention to the clear, witty, genuine narrative voice through which this story is told. It’s difficult not to trust and root for Cassandra, whose first person narration of events is written with charm, humor, and often painful honesty. Cassandra writes about the horrifying details of the Mortmain’s family’s poverty as though it is but a trifle of a burden to bear, emphasizing her courage and strength as a teenage girl growing up in such conditions. Rather than complain about their lack of food, supplies, work, and family support, she emphasizes how much joy writing gives her as well as the few opportunities she does have to travel and explore beyond the walls of the castle. This novel is yet more proof that sometimes a narrative voice oozing with strong personality can make all the difference in how a story is perceived by the reader.

One interesting aspect of I Capture the Castle is the incorporation of many references to Victorian literature. Cassandra often thinks of her own life in terms of Victorian literature, once saying: “How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!” She even denounces Victorian heroines such as the Bennett sisters, saying: “But some characters in books are really real–Jane Austen’s are; and I know those five Bennets at the opening of Pride and Prejudice, simply waiting to raven the young men at Netherfield Park, are not giving one thought to the real facts of marriage.” At one point a Mortmain sister is described as being “the insidious type–Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” These references were so striking to me because in many ways they are exactly what we’re expecting from this novel as readers: we seek Victorian heroines who are swept off their feet by dashing wealthy suitors, yet this is not exactly what we get by the end of the story. Even the style of the narrative resembles that of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre due to the first person perspective; however, the similarities end with the endings.

Speaking of the ending, the last scene cleverly goes against everything we expect might happen from a typical Victorian novel. There is no happy ending for each and every character and not everyone ends up engaged or married; rather, it is bittersweet in its ambiguity. The vague ending is reinforced by the fact that this is a first person narration, meaning that Cassandra’s journal ends abruptly with no hope of being continued. Cassandra is left wondering whether or not she has truly “captured” the castle through her writing— though I feel as though it is safe to say that in this regard she has certainly been successful.

Overall, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is a heartwarming, heartbreaking, thought-provoking novel that is apparently perfect for reading in an airport or on a plane. I’m so grateful that my friends recommended this fantastic novel, so I’ll carry on the tradition by recommending it to you all as well!

What are your thoughts on this novel? Any recommendations for what I should read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY