30 November 2010

Psycho, by Robert Bloch

Norman Bates.  What does this name evoke for you?  Perhaps a shower scene, blood, or a motel?  Maybe Mother?

Norman lives in the house on the hill above his motel off the old highway.  Travelers take the new highway that is a far distance away from the motel, so Norman rarely gets a guest to stop by and stay.

Except for Mary.  Mary's escaping from her job, the boredom of her life, and with forty thousand in cash that she stole from her sexist boss.  She's taking this money to see Sam, her fiance, and she's trading in one used car after another to throw the police and others off her tracks.  It's not like her to do something like this -- after all, she's given up her own future to make sure that her sister, Lila, gets to go to college, and succeeds with more opportunities than Mary ever had.

Less than twenty miles from her fiance's town, Mary decides she'll stop to rest at a small motel.  She'll get much needed sleep and freshen up. Tomorrow, she'll surprise her fiance with a made-up inheritance story and help to get him out of debt so they can marry.  Unfortunately, she's picked Norman's motel to stay the night.

You may know the rest.  There is the famous shower scene and screams of the beautiful young woman as she is literally hacked to pieces.  The story then continues with Lila visiting Sam to see if he's heard from Mary as it's been over a week since her disappearance, and together they try to track her down.

It's a short story at around 175 pages, and in this short telling, it is without a doubt, utterly terrifying. Particularly when the story is told from Norman's perspective.  He's quite an innocent, and his blackouts are written so genuinely that you truly do believe that Mother is really the problem.  But the problem is that people think Mother's been dead for twenty years.  An astute study in the question of when -- when does a person like this become who they are?  Who shapes them to be this way?  In several ways, it's a dated book, but overall, it feels strangely fitting even reading it today. Robert Bloch's tale of terror is frightening in its simplicity, and incredibly disturbing in several sections.  Had I read this story (inspired by the true life of Ed Gein) during the creepy month of October, I daresay I would have slept much.

No wonder Hitchcock brought this story to a visual medium.

Other fabulous blog reviews:
Book, Line, and Sinker
The Literary Lollipop

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


26 November 2010

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, but I will now.  I have never actually read an Agatha Christie novel until this week.  There.  I've said it.  And now I don't know which one I should read next.

I decided to pick one up because of Tales from the Reading Room's review of the non-fiction book Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days, by Jared Cade.  I was so caught up in her review of this true story of Agatha Christie actually disappearing without a trace for that period of time -- her car found the next morning after an argument with her husband, abandoned with the lights still on.  Once found after eleven days, Christie's family claimed she had memory loss.  I found this story so interesting and am curious to read what the author uncovered during those eleven days, but I felt it just wouldn't be right to read the non-fiction insight into Christie's life without first reading her stories.

So I picked And Then There Were None.  Ten unsuspecting individuals are lured to a beautiful home on Soldier Island, a place only accessible by boat.  They come from a variety of backgrounds, ages, genders, and social class.  There's nothing consistent at all about the group that is invited to the island, it seems.

One young woman is hired as a temporary secretary, an older couple is hired to prepare the beds, cook and serve the food, another is a former military man expecting to see old buddies from the war, there is a judge, a doctor, and more...such an indistinct cast rounds out the party.  But they soon find there actually is one common trait between them all.  Murder.  No one's ever been charged or served time, but somewhere along the way, their very dirty secrets have been found out.  And then one by one, they are killed.  One need only read the children's rhyme framed and posted in their rooms facing the sea in order to know what will next happen to one of their group.

It's such a quick read, one sitting only.  One unsettling page of murder after another -- but who could the murderer be?  Could it be someone hiding on the island or in the house?  Or could it be one of them?

"Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine..."

This is what I find unsettling.  Being in the company of strangers and knowing that murder is upon you, but knowing from whom and how it will come is a mystery.  You are only guided by a sing-songy children's rhyme posted in your room.  Who you think you can trust, you can't.  Creepy, right?  It's really a very interesting exposé into how a breakdown happens.  Breakdowns in trust with each other and in yourself.  The confidence one has in being logical is then lost and watching it splinter away can be a bit frightening.

Agatha Christie writes easily and effortlessly, and while it's a fairly simply told story, I had no idea who the killer could be.  And the ending was beyond disturbing, I felt.  And I can't wait to read more Agatha Christie soon -- is there one you recommend I should pick next?

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


23 November 2010

Daphne du Maurier's Classics of the Macabre

Have you ever read anything so deliciously unsettling that you wish you could go back in time so you could read it when it was first published?  So that you could experience it at the height of its newness?

Quite disturbing and uncomfortable feelings occurred while reading this week.  I attribute it to Daphne du Maurier's Classics of the Macabre that I received from the library, which features quite a creepy collection of short stories that were released with illustrations by Michael Foreman in 1987 to celebrate Du Maurier's 80th birthday.  I didn't read the short stories in order, but instead trounced around and first started with "The Apple Tree," which was so fiendishly enjoyable that I wrote a separate review for it.

I also kept thinking of how Tim Burton should really select a Daphne du Maurier short story for his next film, particularly one of my favorites below...


A quick overview of all stories in this collection along with a sample of the wonderful illustrations:

Don't Look Now.  A husband and wife vacationing in Venice and trying to move on from the death of Christine, their young daughter, are told by a psychic that she is actually sitting with them at the table.  Although the husband thinks it's all a ruse, the wife believes.  When the psychic delivers a warning message from the dead daughter that to stay in Venice will not bode well for them...
Frightening and unsettling.

The Apple Tree.  A tree in the backyard begins to prey on the guilty conscience of a widower's mind and reminds him of his dead wife.
I think my absolute favorite, and the first one I read.

The Blue Lenses.  A woman undergoes eye surgery to correct her vision, and her eyes remain covered for six weeks.  When she finally has the bandages removed, she encounters all the people she's been speaking with during her recovery in the hospital have the body of a human, but the head of an animal, one that truly represents them.
A very, very twisted ending.  Maybe this instead is my favorite?  While reading this, I kept thinking that Tim Burton should pick this as next film project.

The Birds.  Alfred Hitchcock selected this short story to make his famous 1963 film of the same name starring Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, and Rod Taylor.  Rumor has it that Du Maurier wasn't pleased with this film, and after reading the short story, I can see why.  Nothing quite captures the complete horror and eeriness of the freakish assault of thousands of birds on humans like setting it in the cold and dreary landscape of an English village by a beach, the crashing waves in the background.  Hitchcock's movie was set in California.
Although I enjoyed it, it wouldn't rank in my favorites of the other selections, surprisingly.

The Alibi.  An older married man finds that he's not pleased with his life and he decides that he shall select someone for murder.  A stranger, someone undetectable back to him, and selected in a most unusual way.  Pick this random street, then the 8th house down, perhaps this door...doing so, he comes across a wife and her small son.  He decides to rent a room from her apartment to use as his place to paint during the day, as he's fashioned himself to be an artist. While seeking to draw out his excitement of building trust with his future victim, could they have imagined how this would truly play out?
A very disturbing story, and one that gave me quite a shudder.

Not After Midnight.  A British teacher is vacationing in Greece at a chalet facing the sea.  The chalet apparently once housed a guest who unfortunately drowned and the hotel employees are a bit superstitiously hesitant around this room.  The teacher is a bit more curious than he should be, and slowly begins to investigate the circumstances of the previous guest's death, and the curious association that the victim had with another couple vacationing in the same resort.
Although frighteningly good, it wasn't my favorite, and I wish there had been one more story after this one, or if it instead ended with either Don't Look Now or The Blue Lenses.


I haven't read Daphne du Maurier before, so this collection of short stories was a brilliant introduction, and one that I read to participate in the Daphne du Maurier Challenge hosted by Chrisbookarama.  I found Du Maurier to be a bit like a twisted O. Henry -- the endings were never quite you imagined them to be, only much darker and haunting.  The writing was beautiful and truly set the atmosphere.  Now, I'm looking forward to picking up Rebecca, yet another creepy story, and the one that etched the author's name in literary history.

Happy Reading!
Coffee and a Book Chick


18 November 2010

Literary Blog Hop

This is my first time participating in the Literary Blog Hop, graciously hosted by The Blue Bookcase, and I am looking forward to the blogs that I'll come across and the visitors who will travel to my site. Welcome!

This week's question is:
Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction?  If so, how do you define it?  Any examples?

I absolutely agree that there is literary non-fiction.  There are so many a fine example that I find to be truly absorbing narratives that are based on fact.  It need not be a dreary and deathly boring overview of something true that's happened -- it can be wildly fun, engaging, and capturing the spirit of education and adventure.

Below are my my favorites that are more current and what I would place in my literary non-fiction category.
What do you think?

A Moveable Feast...Read my review of my favorite Hemingway by clicking here.

The City of Falling Angels...Berent's quirky characters amidst the Venetian waterways and alleys.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil...My favorite Berendt work, and made my visit to Savannah, GA that much more alluring.

The Devil in the White City...Chicago's World Fair of 1893 and H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who preyed on the innocent women who traveled to Chicago.  I hear there is to be a movie soon, with Leonardo DiCaprio set to play H.H. Holmes

Happy Reading!
Coffee and a Book Chick


17 November 2010

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I've been diving into the classics lately, and I'm beginning to think I need to stay here for a little bit longer.  As I get older, it's much easier for me to read the classics now versus when I was in high school.  I remember reading Great Expectations then and struggling with it, ultimately not liking it.  I think it might be different twenty years later, you know?

Earlier this summer, I read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and absolutely fell in love with it.  It was my first Wharton read, and when I finished the book, I was curious as to which one of her stories I would next pick -- there are many to choose from, and even her life is fascinating, so I felt sure that even a biography of sorts would be a good way to go, too.  Over the weekend, the book I came across that jumped out at me was Ethan Frome.  It's a short book and only took a couple hours to read.

I'll say it right away -- I loved it.  Not quite as much as The House of Mirth, since there were a few things I wish were excluded in Ethan Frome which I'll get into later, but overall, Edith Wharton continues to rank right up there in my "favorites" category.

In a bleak town called Starkfield, Massachusetts, we meet Ethan Frome through an unnamed narrator, who has recently come to town.  The narrator provides the objective overview of Ethan, who becomes especially noticeable because of his disfigurement.  Feeling a bit more comfortable to share the gossip with an outsider, the local townspeople offer up the sordid details of Ethan's life, and thus our story begins.

Ethan's in his late twenties when the story starts.  Zeena initially came into the house to help tend to Ethan's mother while she was sick, and when his mother eventually passes on, Ethan can't stomach the idea of not having Zeena stay on.  So he marries her.  Not out of love, just purely out of fear of life without the routines and comforts that Zeena provided.  But, he sadly soon finds out that Zeena was only a good caregiver for one reason only. Zeena learned how to do everything because she herself is sick and weak all the time.  She stays in the room all day, and farm life in the bleak cold winters of Massachusetts isn't an easy life.  All hands need to be on deck to help, but Zeena isn't counted as one of them.  She's really more of an added burden to the hard life since she spends what little money Ethan makes on the farm on all of her doctor's visits, trips to see family, and newfangled medicinal concoctions that Zeena comes across.
Town of Thorndike, Maine
Since Zeena feels she needs help around the house because she can't do anything, they take in her younger cousin, Mattie, to help out -- Mattie's got nowhere to go after her parents have passed away, and at twenty-years-old, she feels closer in age to Ethan than Zeena.  Not to mention, she actually goes about and does stuff -- she's not the best help around the house, but she tries.  Mattie laughs, she's happy, she's interested in things.  And slowly Ethan realizes that he's finally feeling what true love is, and that he's falling smack dab into it.

Poor guy.  He's lived seven or so years with Zeena, who brings him down, sucks the very essence of life out of him, not to mention his pockets, too.  I found her to be a bit holier-than-thou and annoying.  And even though I'm not a fan of infidelity, I sort of got why Ethan strayed, even though it's really more of kissing and emotions than anything more.  Not that it makes his infidelity any better, but good gracious -- I'm surprised he didn't stray sooner!

But I had no idea for how the book would end. I didn't expect what these lovers would do to stay together, and how Ethan's life would end up.  I won't give one iota away because I know it's the kind of ending that you're all supposed to read and experience and turn the pages, gasping away at what happens.  Needless to say, that is how I experienced it, and I'm the better for it.  But I was so very, very sad for Ethan, and felt that if there's anyone who was the true epitome of bad luck, it would be Ethan.

My only difficulty with the story and which made me not love this book as much as The House of Mirth, was the unnamed narrator.  I couldn't stand the initial pages -- it felt a bit slow and boring to me, and it was only once Ethan's story started to truly take shape and the unnamed narrator wasn't in the forefront anymore that I found it was much more interesting and the book was a quick read.

I highly recommend -- you just have to get past the first few pages or so to get to the meat of it all.

Side Note
I couldn't help feeling the shared circumstances of the husband in Daphne du Maurier's short story, "The Apple Tree" that I just read, and Ethan Frome.  They certainly could have commiserated quite a bit on their miserable marriages and sad lives.  Has there been any characters from different stories that you felt would strike a good friendship?

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


15 November 2010

The Apple Tree, by Daphne du Maurier

Part of the reason why I've been wanting to read Daphne du Maurier is because I signed up for a challenge hosted by Chrisbookarama a while ago...and I've been feeling a touch guilty every time I look at the beautiful button of Du Maurier on my sidebar.

Thankfully, I've read a few short stories in the past day that I now feel comfortable to post tonight for this challenge.  I picked up the collection of short stories in Don't Look Now, which are selected by Patrick McGrath (my review of his book Asylum can be found by clicking here), but I've been eager to read "The Apple Tree" which is not included in that collection.  I tried to find it in a couple of the regular places I go to, but to no avail.  My husband, the kind soul that he is, surprised me tonight -- after deciding to stop into one of the libraries we hadn't been to in a while, he found Daphne du Maurier's Classics of the Macabre and surprised me after dinner with it, opened to "The Apple Tree."

Here's what drew me in a few weeks ago from Wikipedia:

"The Apple Tree" follows the actions of a man who, following the death of his neglected wife, suspects her spirit inhabits an old apple tree in his garden which he resolves to remove, but never gets around to doing so. That is his mistake.

The collection that my husband picked up was published in celebration of Daphne du Maurier's 80th birthday, complete with wonderful illustrations by Michael Foreman.

"The Apple Tree" tells quite a story.  A fairly downtrodden husband is married for over twenty years to Midge, who doesn't quite nag or even pick.  Instead, her very nature is so thoroughly passive aggressive that she simply seeps into her husband's guilt, compelling him to obey to her every meandering subtle prod.
Nagging wives, like mothers-in-law, were chestnut jokes for music-halls. He could not remember Midge ever losing her temper or quarreling.  It was just the undercurrent of reproach, mingled with suffering nobly born, spoilt the atmosphere of his home and drove him to a sense of furtiveness and guilt.
Following a quick bout of influenza turning into pneumonia, Midge passes away.  He feels a sense of freedom, unburdened by the chains of her subtlety that he felt for so long, and he begins to enjoy life.  The crispness in the air is more clearly felt, the ability to go for a stroll around the grounds more inviting, popping into the local pub or to simply pass the time in his living room -- all are free for him to do without any guilt.  Without any annoyances.

But creeping just below the normalcy of the new life he's experiencing, the apple tree in the back begins to be a bit more...noticeable.  He's never really looked at it in the past, but now it's a bit more prominent.  The withering branches almost become more sickly and pronounced.  The apples from the tree taste sweet to others and instead give him a sick and rotting taste.  The wood burning brightly and fragrantly in a fireplace becomes for him a stench that even lingers in his mouth, making him sick.

I found this short story to be incredibly unsettling and disturbing.  Riding just below it all is a sense of something truly creepier.  Into the husband's subconscious is a tangible and real version of his once living wife, quiet and martyr-like that she was.  Could her spirit be inhabiting a simple and old tree?  Or could the husband be slowly going mad? I started to wonder if after a lifetime of something that he is burdened with, can he truly feel comfortable without it?  It seemed as if he placed his wife's existence into the sad tree, that sits so forlornly behind the house, almost as if to say that if not for his neglect, perhaps it could be something more.

What a freakish enjoyment I had in reading this story -- you really should check this out, if you haven't already.  Du Maurier has become a new favorite for me.

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


Thanks to all our Mailbox Monday hosts!  Julie at Knitting and Sundries is hosting this month, and thanks to Sheila at Book Journey as well for her Mailbox hosting!

This was a good week, check it out!

Have you read any of these? If so, which one should I start with?

From My Reader's Block, I won a giveaway for the following books:
From Raging Bibliomania, Heather was kind enough to send to me:
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue
  • Stash, by David Klein
From The Literary Feline, I received:
And the rest I received from Paperbackswap, purchased at my local independent bookstore, The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Florida, or purchased at a church sale yesterday:
Happy Reading!
Coffee and a Book Chick


14 November 2010

Thanks to A Novel Source!

Two months ago, I had a wonderful time attending the SIBA Trade Show in Daytona Beach.  Not only did I pick up 47 not-yet-released books, I also met some truly fantastic bloggers!

Well, I was the most ecstatic when the lovely Stacy at A Novel Source invited me to participate in the return of her Sunday Serenade which posted today! A Novel Source is one of the first that I came across when I started blogging, and she was also one of the most welcoming, so I thank her kindly for featuring me on her site!

Pompeii, Italy...
I got a chance to talk about my favorite books, which authors would I invite over to hang out with (Hemingway and Wharton, wouldn't that be interesting?), my "children" Roma the Dog and Puppy the Cat, and also talked about my best friend and fabulous history loving husband, Jason!

If you've not had a chance to hop by to her site, please do -- A Novel Source is always informative, passionate, and insightful!  Thank you, Stacy!

Happy Reading!
Coffee and a Book Chick


11 November 2010

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

A young girl, her mother, and little brother are all taken by the Soviets, shoved into train cars for a six-week journey. It's 1941, and this is Lithuania.  It's a part of history that many don't speak of.

The History I Should Know About
Following WWI, the Baltic States (made up of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were established as independent nations.  In 1939 however, Stalin and Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact in which they agreed to not attack each other.  A part of this agreement also included which areas they would control in Europe, and Josef Stalin was given the Baltic States, and part of Poland. Citizens who were on "the list," anyone from writers, professors, military, doctors, etc., who were considered anti-Soviet, were carted off with their families -- men were sent to prisons and the women, youth, and elderly were sent to Siberia.  All were considered prisoners no matter what age they were, and they were sentenced for ten years or longer for having committed no crime.  Many don't know about the 20 million people that died during Stalin's reign.

Below is the video from the website for the book -- take a look.

Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.

From the book's website:
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?  That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.  
In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is preparing for art school, first dates, and all that summer has to offer. But one night, the Soviet secret police barge violently into her home, deporting her along with her mother and younger brother. They are being sent to Siberia. Lina's father has been separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. All is lost. 
Lina fights for her life, fearless, vowing that if she survives, she will honor her family, and the thousands like hers, by documenting their experiences in her art and writing.  She risks everything to use her art as messages, hoping they will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive.

Book Review
I spent the entire evening reading Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  Part of Philomel Books, a division of Penguin, Sepetys' debut is a Young Adult book scheduled for release in March 2011.  Incorporating true accounts and experiences from survivors, this fiction novel follows one girl, fifteen-year-old Lina, and her mother and younger brother through the aftermath of the Non-Agression Pact and Stalin's plans.

It's a frightening story.  With the NKVD guard watching, the transported Lithuanians were sentenced to work on a kolkhoz, a working farm, and sentenced for ten years and longer.  Farming for beets, digging holes, and only rationed 300 grams of bread per day, Lina and her family struggled to survive.  There is no medicine and no warmth during the cold Russian winters at their gulag.  Prisoners are starved, humiliated, and die.

Lina's artwork was always startlingly realistic for her age.  As several prisoners did based on true accounts that Sepetys gathered during her research, they documented tragedies through writing, drawing, and wood carvings.  Throughout Lina's "sentence" in the camps, she tries to draw as much as she can, atrocities forever etched on the scraps of paper she can find.

Fearful for what may happen, though, should they be caught, this evidence was destroyed or buried in the ground and never spoken about.  Even after they were released years later, survivors were still afraid of being charged with another crime and returning back to the prisons, so they kept their stories buried.

This is probably one of the best Young Adult books I've ever read.  It's an intense and tough subject matter of unspoken history, and the writing is both vividly descriptive and heart-wrenching, but also maintains the authenticity that this is told from a teenager's point of view.  Sections that struck me the hardest at times were those that recognized that even in the depths of sadness, there were moments of hope and love.

Mark your calendars for March 2011 -- this is a book you cannot pass up.  Ruta Sepetys' debut Young Adult novel has weaved in so many layers of history, family, and adolescence into one story of truth and hope that will never be forgotten.

About the Author
Born and raised in Michigan, Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.  The nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 and did not reappear until 1990.  As this is a story seldom told, Ruta wanted to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin's cleansing of the Baltic region.  Ruta lives with her family in Tennessee.  Between Shades of Gray is her first novel.

Visit the author's site by clicking here.

FTC Disclosure:  I picked up this book during the SIBA Trade Show in Daytona Beach.

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick