Nov 24 2009

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like AliceLast night I finished Nevil Shute‘s 1950 novel “A Town Like Alice“. I had very little idea what the story was about before opening the book, which is perhaps the best way to start any read. I’m not even certain how I found my way to this book. It might have been something as stupid as having heard the catchy 1982 The Jam song, “Town Called Malice” (which has nothing to do with the book). Whatever the reason, after seeing a great deal of positive reviews on Amazon.com, I got a copy and proceeded to read. I’m glad that I did.

The story revolves around a woman named Jean Paget, who comes into a large some of money when an uncle (that she met once as a child) dies alone in Scotland following WWII. The trustor, an older gentleman named Noel Strachan (who drapes a melancholy pall over the entire book), finds the sole heir and takes her under his wing. As the paperwork is settled, he befriends the young woman and learns about her harrowing past during the war, where she partook in a death-march around Japanese-occupied Malaya. It was during this period that she met an Australian prisoner-of-war named Joe Harmon, who did his best to steal food for the starving women and children on the march, but ultimately paid the price for his efforts.

There is a great deal more to the story, but I’d be doing readers unfamiliar with the book a disservice by revealing anything more. I will note however that the book wanders a bit. I guess this is inevitable since it follows a person’s life across a number of years but there are long sections (it’s not a very big book) that had me wondering “how does this add to the story?”. I can only assume that Shute included more than he needed as a testament to the real-life people that he’d met and modeled the characters after, e.g., Carry Geysel and Herbert Edwards. The hardships endured by the story’s main characters are impressive; the fact that they fall shy of the events that inspired them are astonishing.

“You won’t know if [your time] was wasted until you come to the end of your life,” I said. “Perhaps not then.”

4 out of 5


Oct 8 2009

The Castle of Otranto

Horace WalpoleFirst things first… Before today, I was completely unaware of  Horace Walpole‘s 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto“. I encountered the title by chance on LibraryThing and proceeded to download a copy from the Gutenberg repository. I was intrigued (that word keeps popping up!) about a story described as the first Gothic novel (i.e., a story containing horror and romance). I was also interested to see how an 18th century author dealt with fantasy elements, e.g., apparitions, damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, hereditary curses, superstition, etc. The book does not disappoint (though it is very “over the top”).

“The Castle of Otranto” was originally published under a pseudonym, and marketed as a translation of a 15th century Italian manuscript of a Crusades-era (11th to 13th centuries) tale. *deep breath* The “translation” was well-received originally, until Walpole finally admitted that it was a work of pure fiction… at which point the praises turned sour. Think: 18th century “Blair Witch Project“. The movie was MUCH better if you believed the uncredited early screenings were real, than it was after you’d seen the “doomed” actors final hurrah on the MTV Awards.

So did I like this chance find? Yes, I did! The story rolled along quickly and kept my interest throughout. It is packed with turns and twists and intrigues (hmmm…) and a healthy dose of the supernatural. Maybe it’s just me, but my only advice is to keep your dictionary handy, the book is a vocabulist’s wet-dream.

“The fellow made no answer, but continued pointing towards the courtyard; and at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried out, ‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!'”

3.5 out of 5


Oct 7 2009

Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeAre you looking for a tale that’s dark, cold, moody, haunting, romantic, and depressing as hell? Look no further! Today I finished Edith Wharton‘s 1911 novel “Ethan Frome“. Wharton is probably best known for “The Age of Innocence” (which I haven’t read, but won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921). After reading Frome, I may be exploring more by this author.

It starts simply with a businessman visiting a bleak New England town called Starkfield. After seeing a crippled, strong, and quiet man named Ethan Frome, the businessman sets out to learn more about him. His curiosity is further piqued upon discovering that no one wishes to speak of Frome’s troubles. After meeting the man, the businessman learns more about his life, love, and trials than he may have wished (though it’s unclear whether he actually learns these things, or if the book simply outlines all the details that he can never know).

This story is unrelentingly bleak and depressing. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t like it because it was depressing but because it illustrates how little we know about the lives of others and how little thought we give to the struggles,  trials, and sufferings others carry with them through their lives.

“I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

4.5 out of 5