Fingersmith- Cleverly Dickens-esque or sadly underwhelming?

The wonderful ladies of my book club and I decided to venture down a new literary path with a novel that was described as being “a hypnotic suspense novel…of Dickensian leitmotifs” and an engrossing tale of lesbian fiction set in the Victorian era. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is the story of an orphan named Sue who lives in gloomy, dirty London, circa 1862. Her adoptive “mother” is a thief and baby seller (yes, she literally runs an orphan baby mill in her house like a modern person would have a puppy mill) and everyone else in the “family” are also thieves. Sue’s life is destined for nothing until a handsome con man called Gentleman proposes that Sue help him in a scheme to trick a young, wealthy woman out of her fortune. All Sue needs to do is play lady’s maid to this woman, help Gentleman to marry her and then commit her to a madhouse so he can claim her fortune for himself and give Sue a portion. Sue agrees to this plan and off she to goes to the English countryside.

Introduce Maud Lilly to the novel, the above aforementioned wealthy, young woman about to be duped into marriage. She lives a secluded life with her Uncle who is obsessed with writing a “dictionary” and is forced to wear gloves at all times to protect the precious books in the Uncle’s library. Maud is presented to the reader as being timid, delicate and in love with Gentleman, who has been posing as an art instructor to Miss Lilly. As Sue interacts with Maud in her role of lady’s maid and attempts to do her part to encourage Maud to elope with Gentleman, she begins to establish a friendship with Maud beyond that of lady and servant and eventually admits to herself that she has fallen in love with Maud. This causes her to start questioning her role in Gentleman’s scheme but in the end, she assists Maud in her elopement, is present when Maud and Gentleman marry and make the journey to the madhouse to have Maud unknowingly committed.

At this point in the novel, the conclusion of part one comes with a very Dickens-esque twist and the novel continues with Maud as the narrator. For all that I struggled to find a rhythm to this novel and did not devour it with my usually voracious appetite for an engagingly written tale, there were some plot twists and points that made this novel an interesting read:

1) At the end of part one, Sue ends up being the one committed to the madhouse under the name Mrs. Rivers

2) We learn that Maud was aware of the scheme to marry her to Gentleman and have her committed the entire time but her own deal with Gentleman was to have the innocent maid he would bring back with him from London committed in her place so she would be free of her Uncle.

3) Part two is told from Maud’s point of view and we learn that she was born in the same madhouse that Sue is committed to and her mother died there.

4) The “dictionary” her uncle is working on is actually a reference book for all known literary pornography of that time and she is forced to read passages from books of this nature to gentleman guest who have a similar interest in that genre

5) Maud also falls in love with Sue but still goes through with the plan to have Sue committed in her place so she can be free of her Uncle.

Part two ends with Gentleman taking Maud back to London and forcing her to stay with Mrs S., Sue’s adoptive mother. It is at this time that we learn Mrs. S. was the true mastermind of this plan for over 17 years. There is a convoluted storyline where we learn that Sue is really Maud and Maud is Sue meaning that Sue’s real mother was a wealthy lady that had escaped her abusive father and brother  and gave birth at Mrs. S. place. Her family found her and she begged Mrs. S to keep her baby safe with the promise that her daughter and the switched baby would each split her fortune on their 18th birthdays. Mrs. S agrees and gives one of the orphan babies, Maud, to the father and brother who take her and her mother to the madhouse where she is raised by the nurses until her Uncle claims her at a later time. Maud then turns out to be Mrs. S. child and not an orphan child at random. Mrs. S wanted to have Maud brought home so she could see her again and also claim all of the fortune that had been promised by Sue’s mother, the wealthy lady.

Still following? Congrats, because this piece of the novel was an absolutely bear to get through! Felt like I needed to draw it out with crayon so I didn’t lose who was who. The quick summation for the rest of the novel is that Sue manages to escape the madhouse, makes her way to London, perceives that Maud has replaced her in Mrs. S. life, attempts to exact revenge, learns the awful truth about plot and her birth, Gentleman is killed, Mrs. S. is hanged for the crime, Maud disappears, Sue comes into her fortune, returns to the country house, finds Maud living there and supporting herself by writing her own literary erotica and they insipidly declare their feelings for each other.

For a novel that is toted as pushing lesbian fiction to be more mainstream, I found this part of the book to be very lacking in development and not as central to the overall story line as I had thought it would be. My book club members and I picked this novel as we were intrigued by how a suspense novel involving a lesbian couple set in an era where relationships of that nature were kept in secret could be presented and were drawn in by the multitude of praise given to this title. I can praise the author’s historical accurate and chilling description of Sue’s time in the madhouse, but overall, I was underwhelmed by a book that I had high hopes for and that just sucks. At our book club discussion, my friends and I had too many questions that we would love to pose to the author: Why was the literary pornography piece included and written about so much? It didn’t seem to explain anything other than her husband’s depravity and then later give Maud a source a income. Why wasn’t there more development of Maud and Lilly’s relationship? Are our expectations to high in this modern age to appreciate the more subtle shadings of development the author employed to progress their relationship? Why in the hell was the last part so damn long?? 100+ seemingly endless pages on Sue’s escape from the madhouse, her travel to London, stalking Maud for days and then about 12 pages surrounding the culmination of all the cross plots and Gentleman death.

We have since been told that this is not the best of Sarah Water’s novels and while I am intrigued by the summations for her other works- Affinity and Twisting the Velvet- I find myself shying away from attempting a second title after being burned so disappointingly by Fingersmith. Guess I’ll soak my figurative fingers in icewater and see how I feel in a few weeks.

 

2 for 1 book plots

Over my long 5-day holiday weekend, I unabashedly indulged in two of my favorite activities: napping and reading. I think I made it through 4 or 5 books and as many hours curled up on the couch or bed napping. Ahh…glorious staycation.

I had an interesting observation with two of the books I picked up over the weekend and that was the plots seemed to be combination of at least two plots from other books/movies. For instance, Twisted by Andrew Kaufman seemed to be a blend of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Shutter Island.” Take one psychologist working with a serial killer in the wing of a asylum reserved for the top level crazies (the description of some of the other patients instantly reminded me of SotL; the scene where Clarice first meets Dr. Lector….walking down a long hallway because of course the person of interest is located at the end…having to pass by the other “crazies” including the sex fiend jacking off…that chilling first look at the patient/inmate in the cell…key camera zoom in), said psychologist starts to have strange things happening to him at work and at home, starts to believe that the patient/co-workers are plotting against him, goes on destruction mode to prevent patient from accomplishing sinister plot and final twist of the book is the psychologist wakes up in a mental hospital to realize his mind had created an entire fantasy world for a year to avoid dealing with the death of his son and the crazy serial killer in his fantasy was a twisted projection of his own psychologist who was pushing him to come out of his shell and thus became the fantasy villain. AKA- Shutter Island- detective and his partner investigate a missing person on an island that houses a mental asylum, detective suspects there is some crazy, sinister plot afoot between the doctors at the hospital, that they are out to get him so he can’t expose the truth of what happens at the hospital, goes on the, you guessed it, destructive rampage, only for the plot twist to also be that he is a patient of the hospital, his partner is his therapist letting him act out the investigation in an attempt to help him come to terms with killing his wife who had drowned their children. (Side note- at the end of the move, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character ends up being lobotomized.)

I hate to use the word cliché as I feel that has some negative connotation to it but I also think it is fitting. Twisted was an enjoyable read and I wasn’t sure where exactly the storyline was going to go but overall, I was glad that it was one of the $3.99 or less deals for Kindle. Somewhat re-worked plot aside, I would be curious to give one of the author’s other novels a try. My biggest beef with Twisted was at the end when the main character wakes up out of the fantasy and is ready to start living in the real world again, his wife basically says ‘oh honey, it’s ok that you retreated into yourself for an entire year, leaving me alone to deal with my own grief and reality but I don’t have a single iota of resentment against you so now we can just go back to our puppies and sunshine life again.” Ugh. Now before anyone starts posting comments that I’m being insensitive to the effects grief can have a person and that people don’t necessarily consciously choose to retreat from life in such a fashion, I’m more irritated that the author wrote an entire novel dealing with some very serious, deep issues and then tied the book up with a pretty, pink bow at the end in about 3 pages. I’m an absolute hopeless romantic and, generally speaking, love a happy ending but something about this one just bothered me. Anyone else read this story and feel the same?

The other novel, the Einstein Prophecy, well, I think you could argue that it’s a mish-mash of several similar plots- Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, and Monument Men. If you have seen all three movies, then you can essentially weave together the plot of this book. If you haven’t, honestly, watching each movie will be more entertaining and feel more original than reading this book. Again…thank you Amazon for the $1.99 pre-lease kindle deals. I might have cried if I had paid more

 

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

I have my (amazing) boyfriend to thank for the introduction to The Martian by Andy Weir. The manner in which he sucked me into the book was somewhat cruel, however, as he played the first minute of the audio book format he had downloaded but then left me hanging. Who does that? He knew that there was no way I could not be sucked into a book where “I’m pretty much f**cked” is the opening sentence.

Candid profanity and boyfriend cruelty aside, this story was immensely enjoyable start to finish. The author, Andy Weir, introduces scientific jargon and methodology that was believable* and understandable to laymen (pirate-ninja may be my new unit of measurement for anything outlandish and immeasurable!) while also portraying the main character Mark Watney as behaving and speaking in manner that I would expect from someone in this day and age. The dialogues between Mark and NASA personnel later on in the book are a perfect example of this. The excerpt below occurs when NASA comments on Mark’s planned cut he has to make to the top of one of the rover vehicles by drilling many, many small holes:

[11:49] JPL (aka NASA): What we can see of your planned cut looks good. We’re assuming the other side is identical. You’re cleared to start drilling.

    [12:07] Watney: That’s what she said.

[12:25] JPL: Seriously, Mark? Seriously?

There is also a “giggle out loud” moment where Mark laments the effects avoiding a windstorm has caused to his attempt to travel to a potential rescue site 3,200 km away. To outrun the storm and keep his solar panels recharging as efficiently as possible,  he ends up having to travel due south (vs the desired direct south-west route) and since  “Pythagoras is a dick”   makes 90km progress in one sol (Martian day) but only 37 km closer to his final destination. Thanks, mathematics.

This novel is wonderful example of human ingenuity in life and death situations but also highlights the sacrifices one human being would make for another. The crew that had been part of the mission with Mark in the beginning, and who safely get off the planet, decide to sacrifice years of their lives by changing course en route for Earth to return to Mars on a rescue mission (no warp speed travel in this book!) that could possibly cost them everything.

I would have liked for the ending (spoiler alert!) to be Mark and the rest of the crew’s triumphant return to Earth amid much fanfare, balloons, and confetti. The man survived on Mars for goodness sake! Doesn’t that deserve an epilogue at the least?

My only other disappointment was that the “green-skinned yet beautiful Queen of Mars” was not a significant plot twist but a glib joke mention in only one place. I say disappointment because same said- amazing boyfriend that introduced me to the book, led me to think this was going to be a character of interest. I was let-down a bit to think this novel might head down the  all to stereotypical Mars sci-fi path when it held such promise but then I was disappointment in myself for being gullible after I read the one mention of the Queen in the book. Probably a good thing my boyfriend and I don’t keep a gullibility score card…

All I can say at this point is if you are sci-fi geek, science geek or just everyday nerdy, read this book. Get the pure, untainted plot before the movie is released in October of this year and we see if once again Hollywood take a perfectly good story and “makes it better” to the point of being barely recognizable and full of unnecessary crap…pointing to you Peter Jackson and your Hobbit movie trilogy!

Happy Reading!

* Post Note- I say this book has scientific jargon and methodology that is believable, not that it is scientifically proven or accounts for every other know nuance of information we have on Mars, the sciences and engineering. The author wrote an enjoyable story with a nod to the sciences, not a scientific manual. Fair warning if you want all the facts validated and published in some scientific article before you can enjoy the story.

“Defeated” books and The 100 page rule

As my excitement to re-enter the blogging world increases, my mind has been whirling with books I want to review-some that I have recently finished and others that are on my (long) “to-read” list/stack. But one topic that keeps popping up is an idea to track all the books that have “defeated” me. What do I mean by defeated? Well, I apply this term to those special books that I enter into with a determined mindset to make it through to the very last page but, for one reason or another, just cannot continue to force myself to finish. Do we all have this category of books or am I just special? Even now, a few such books, which should have a “I defeated the reader” bookmark inserted at the last endpoint, stare at me with mocking spines from various locations on my bookshelf. I console myself that if I were to list every book I have read vs. those that I failed to finish, that the numbers would be heavily slanted towards the former category. Ha! Take that Wuthering Heights!!

So, for prosperity (sounds much more important then saying “for no reason at all”), I have created a page where I will list my personal “Defeated” books and the reasons why. I would love your comments on the books I list or to see what your own personal “defeated” books might be.

Least any of you think that a “defeated” books makes this rarefied list without effort on my part, I would like to hit upon the other half of this blog post title: The 100 page rule. I’m not sure how I developed this rule or if it was something I was taught to do back in my early, voracious reading days but with every book that I pick up, I try to get past the first 100 pages. This seems like a fair number of pages to allow for the magic of the plot and characters to capture my interest and hell, with books of 700+ pages, I’ll even generously increase this rule to 200 pages. After I hit the page mark, If I still feel like I would rather be waxing my own body hair (don’t ever attempt this unless you have a penchant for self-inflicted pain) or listening to hipsters talk about their beards over continuing to read said book, then I usually call it quits with clear conscious that I gave it my best.

With the “defeated” books, this can be some of the most painful 100-200 pages of reading a person ever does. It’s a singular kind of pain to attempt to get through a book that you really, really want to read for some random reason (don’t discount the power of personal glory and edification through conquering literature or the even more potent power of “you have to read this book!” peer-pressure) only to fail miserably and then be stuck with a half-read book along with now having to question the merit of you bibliophile status and place in the universe. 😦 Or again, is this just my reaction?

To end for today, I hope you visit the “Defeated” books page. It’s short at the moment but I’ll keep adding I as remember other attempted titles. There has to be a least a dozen right?

Giving this another go….

For some reason, I didn’t think that I had started this over 2.5 years ago. Crazy how fast time flies.

However, wandering thoughts down old paths aside, I find myself once again with a desire to share out to the vast, expansive network of the internet my commentary (both sarcastic and sincere) on the various books that I read/devour/attempt. Hell, I’m finally in a book club so there is the possibility for alcohol-induced and linguistically entertaining post in the near future if that keeps you coming back for more.

The book chosen for this month is “Fingersmith” which is portrayed as a dark, Victorian tale of Dicken-ish themes (orphans, thieves, smelly London, plot twist)…and I just found out the damn book was also made into a BBC mini-series which could have saved me slogging through 582 pages of, well, best to leave the “official” review for after the book club meeting in 2 weeks.

On a different subject altogether, it’s going to be over 100 degrees by Saturday in my neck of the woods. 😦 While this is way outside my temperature comfort range, it will provide a lovely excuse to stay holed up in the house next to an AC vent.

Stay tuned….