The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouseReadalong I’ve included this book on my R.I.P. list every year since I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle in 2011, but this is the first year I’ve actually found time to read it, thanks to a readalong hosted by the Estella Society. They have posted some discussion questions for us today, which I didn’t see until I had already written my post…though I think I’ve said everything here that I want to say anyway. I’ll look forward to reading what everyone else thought of it!

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson. Dr John Montague, an anthropologist and psychic investigator, is renting Hill House for the summer in the hope of studying the supernatural phenomena and ghostly manifestations that he believes take place there. After assembling a list of people who have had previous paranormal experiences he invites them to stay in the house with him as his assistants, but there are only two who accept the invitation: Eleanor Vance, a shy, lonely woman of thirty-two, and the confident, outgoing Theodora. Accompanied by Luke Sanderson, whose aunt is the owner of Hill House, Dr Montague and his guests arrive at the house one by one and wait for something to happen.

Things do soon begin to happen but I can’t tell you too much about those happenings because as with all books of this type it’s best if you know as little as possible before you start. All I will say is that the story is told from Eleanor’s perspective…and Eleanor is not always entirely reliable. The supernatural element of the novel is quite subtle and you can never be completely sure what is going on. Because we spend so much time inside the head of a character who is unstable and insecure it’s difficult to tell exactly what is real and what isn’t.

The Haunting of Hill House I didn’t find this book as frightening as I’d expected, but that could just be because I deliberately avoided reading it late at night (I’m a coward when it comes to books like this). There are certainly some very creepy moments, though – without having to resort to graphic horror, Jackson is still able to unsettle the reader and convey the feeling that something isn’t quite right. I loved the descriptions of Hill House – it has all the characteristics you would expect a haunted house to have, including a tragic history – but there are very few physical manifestations of ghostly activity. The creepiness of the story comes mainly from the fact that we don’t know how much of the ‘haunting’ is caused by Hill House itself and how much is the product of Eleanor’s disturbed mind.

I had been looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House because of its status as a classic American haunted house story and because I loved the other Shirley Jackson book I read. I really wanted to love this one too, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t. It was good, but not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, if you’re new to Shirley Jackson, I would recommend either of these two books as a perfect read for this time of year.

China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls Lisa See is a Chinese-American author whose books deal with various aspects of Chinese history and culture. I had mixed feelings about the first one I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I loved Shanghai Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy, so I was looking forward to reading her new novel, China Dolls.

Beginning in 1938, China Dolls is a fictional account of three young women who meet at an audition for dancers at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub.

First there’s Grace Lee, who grew up in a small town in Ohio – a town so small that, apart from her parents, Grace has never met another Chinese person and has never even tasted Chinese food. She has come to San Francisco to escape from her abusive father and is hoping to build a career for herself in show business.

Then there’s Helen Fong, whose family is one of the richest and most respected in Chinatown. Her strict parents disapprove of her decision to work in a nightclub…until Helen points out that she will be earning much more than in her current job at the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Helen appears to have led a sheltered life, but is hiding some secrets which she is reluctant to reveal even to her friends.

Finally, there’s Ruby Tom from Hawaii. Ruby, who is the most outgoing and flamboyant of the three, also has a big secret: although she has allowed everyone to think she is Chinese, she is actually Japanese. If the authorities learn the truth, Ruby could be in trouble, especially when anti-Japanese sentiment increases following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Three girls with very different personalities and from very different backgrounds! Despite having little in common, they are drawn together that day at the audition and become friends, helping and supporting each other as they try to fulfil their ambitions. As the months and years go by, though, the girls find that their friendship is tested by a series of lies and betrayals, disagreements and withheld secrets.

China Dolls was compelling enough to keep me interested right to the end but I found it quite disappointing after Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. The main reason for my disappointment was something which should have been the strong point of the book: the friendship between Grace, Helen and Ruby. It just wasn’t convincing at all! The three of them didn’t even seem to like each other and were certainly not ‘like the Three Musketeers’, as they claimed. They said and did some terrible things to each other and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go their separate ways in life.

The structure of the novel, with the three girls taking turns to narrate chapters, was also a problem for me. I got the impression that the story Lisa See really wanted to write was Grace’s – she is the easiest character to like and identify with, and she seemed to get a few more chapters than the others too – so I think I would rather have had the entire book written from Grace’s perspective. Having said that, Ruby’s story had the potential to be the most interesting, particularly after Pearl Harbor, and she was also the only one whose narrative voice felt significantly different (filled with some of the lively slang of the period); the other two were interchangeable and sometimes it was easy to forget who was narrating.

Grace, as I’ve mentioned, was my favourite of the three girls but she didn’t have much competition as I really disliked both Helen and Ruby – particularly Helen, whom I never really felt I understood or could have any sympathy for, despite some of the ordeals she had been through. Of the novel’s other characters, only one or two play a significant part in the story, and the rest are just secondary – though I was interested to discover, after finishing the book, that some of the characters I’d assumed were fictional were actually people who really existed.

The historical backdrop of the story is excellent; everything feels thoroughly researched and we are given lot of great insights into the entertainment world of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular what it was like to work in a Chinese nightclub and the challenges facing the Chinese performers. The book deals with lots of serious issues – from racism and prejudice to domestic violence and wartime atrocities – but because the main characters were so shallow, I felt that these issues weren’t explored in as much depth as they could have been.

So, not a favourite Lisa See novel, but still worth reading for its depiction of Chinese American life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley

Named of the Dragon I love Susanna Kearsley’s books. I always know what to expect from them: a beautiful setting, some romance, some history, a touch of mystery and an element of the supernatural. Named of the Dragon, one of her earlier novels from 1998, is no exception.

Our narrator is Lyn Ravenshaw, a literary agent from London, who has been suffering from nightmares since being widowed and losing her baby son several years earlier. When one of her clients, Bridget Cooper, a children’s author, invites her to her boyfriend’s home in Wales for the Christmas holidays, Lyn accepts. She’s intrigued by the thought of meeting Bridget’s boyfriend, the author James Swift, and hopes she’ll be able to convince him to sign for her agency.

In Wales, Lyn and Bridget look forward to celebrating a traditional Christmas with James and his brother, Christopher, but Lyn’s holiday is disrupted by vivid and disturbing dreams in which a mysterious woman dressed in blue begs her to take care of her son. The Swifts’ neighbour, Elen, another young widow with a baby boy, is also having nightmares and Lyn soon becomes aware of a connection between herself, Elen and the woman in blue. With the help of the reclusive Welsh playwright, Gareth Gwyn Morgan, Lyn delves into local myths and legends in an attempt to make sense of what is happening.

Although I wasn’t really ready for a Christmas novel just yet (it’s only September!) I did love the Welsh setting. James and Christopher live in a farmhouse in Angle, Pembrokeshire and Kearsley describes the house and the surrounding area beautifully. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Pembroke Castle, where Lyn spends an interesting afternoon. I find that being able to see pictures of where a book is set really adds something to the reading experience and photographs of the locations mentioned in the book can be found on Susanna Kearsley’s website.

I really liked Lyn – Kearsley is very good at creating narrators who are easy to like and identify with, without seeming too good to be true – and there’s an interesting assortment of supporting characters too. Even Gareth’s dog, Chance, has a personality of his own. Bridget was a bit overwhelming at first – she’s the sort of person I would find annoying in real life and find annoying in fiction too – but I did warm to her after a while. I loved the hero of the novel, though I won’t tell you who he is (but if you know your poetry and your Arthurian legends, the fact that Lyn’s full name is Lynette might give you a clue). I just wished his romance with Lyn hadn’t been quite so subtle and that we could have seen them together more often.

There were lots of poems, myths, legends and historical facts worked into the novel, with literary quotes and references introducing each chapter. I was pleased to see that the story of Merlin and King Vortigern was included, having just read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart! It’s always fun to come across connections in your reading like that, isn’t it? The paranormal aspect of the story, though, didn’t seem to have any real purpose and didn’t resolve itself very satisfactorily. For that reason, this is not a favourite Kearsley novel and doesn’t really compare with her later ones such as The Firebird or The Rose Garden.

I have another of Kearsley’s books, Season of Storms, waiting to be read and am looking forward to it!

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

Gutenbergs Apprentice I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re someone who likes to read books. You will probably agree that the printing press was one of the most important inventions in history and you’re probably already familiar with the name Gutenberg. But have you ever heard of Peter Schoeffer or Johann Fust and do you know what part they played in developing the art of printing?

This novel, Alix Christie’s first, takes us to the German city of Mainz in the year 1450. Peter Schoeffer, a talented young scribe, has been called home from Paris by his adoptive father, Johann Fust, who is investing in an exciting new project: Johann Gutenberg’s mission to produce the first printed copy of the Bible. Fust has agreed to help finance this new enterprise and is keen for his son to become apprenticed to Gutenberg in return. Peter’s first reaction to Gutenberg’s printing press is one of horror and distrust; as a trained scribe he takes a lot of pride in the beauty of the handwritten word. In the end, though, Fust gets his way and Peter begins his apprenticeship in Gutenberg’s workshop.

What follows is the story of the long, slow process of creating the world’s first book to be printed with movable type. It’s a journey that will take four years and result in the printing of around one hundred and eighty copies of the Bible. Johann Gutenberg’s name will be remembered by history, but Gutenberg’s Apprentice shows us that Gutenberg did not work alone and Peter Schoeffer and Johann Fust are given the attention they deserve.

I was not at all surprised to learn that Alix Christie herself was apprenticed to master printers and can operate a press – I could tell that this book was written by someone with not only an excellent knowledge of printing but also a love and passion for the subject. We are given lots of detailed information on printing techniques, the design of alphabets and the creation and casting of metal type. Because these methods were so new and innovative, Peter, Gutenberg and the other craftsmen in the novel are learning as they go along, improvising and modifying things where necessary. It was all very interesting, but there were times when I would have liked a little less technical information and a little more story. With Peter and the others facing opposition from certain members of the church, the need to enlist the help of the town guilds, and the possibility of their secret project being discovered, this could have been an exciting and dramatic novel, but instead I found it slightly dry and unemotional.

I couldn’t help wondering if a non-fiction book on the same subject would have worked better for me because although I never managed to fully engage with Peter’s story, there’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating subject. Some of the themes the novel covers are timeless and universal, such as the conflict between new technology and traditional methods. From Peter’s perspective, after spending years perfecting the art of hand lettering, he initially sees the use of metal type as soulless and lacking skill and beauty. Gutenberg and Fust, however, insist that the printing press will allow books to be created cheaply and quickly, making them accessible to a much wider readership and Peter gradually begins to understand this point of view.

I learned a lot from Gutenberg’s Apprentice, so despite having one or two problems with it, I still thought it was worth reading. I have come away from this novel with a better understanding of something I knew very little about and an appreciation for the history behind the printed books I take for granted.

I received a special limited edition of this book from Bookbridgr for review.

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

The Twentieth Wife This story of seventeenth century Mughal India is the first in a trilogy of novels describing the history behind the construction of the Taj Mahal. In The Twentieth Wife, Indian author Indu Sundaresan introduces us to Mehrunissa, later known as the Empress Nur Jahan. The Taj Mahal was actually built in memory of Nur Jahan’s niece, but that part of the story must be told in the other two books of the trilogy as this one concentrates on the tale of Mehrunissa and her love for Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir.

Born to Persian refugees who are fleeing their country, Mehrunissa is abandoned by her impoverished father, Ghias Beg, on the road to India because with no money, no job and no home, he fears that he and his wife will be unable to take care of her. Luckily, fate steps in and Mehrunissa is rescued by the merchant, Malik, who befriends her parents and helps Ghias Beg find a position at the court of the Emperor Akbar. Growing up at court, Mehrunissa is taken under the wing of Akbar’s favourite wife, Ruqayya, and spends a lot of time in the zenana (harem) listening to gossip and witnessing the rivalries between the Emperor’s other wives and concubines.

Mehrunissa is only eight years old when she has her first glimpse of Prince Salim, who is marrying his first wife. That first glimpse is enough for her to make up her mind that one day she too will marry Salim and become Empress. When Salim falls in love with her several years later, it seems that Mehrunissa’s wish could come true…but of course, things don’t go exactly as planned! The Twentieth Wife follows Mehrunissa and Salim (or Jahangir as he becomes known) through years of separation, unhappy marriages and political intrigue. Do they eventually marry? Well, the title of the novel gives us a big clue so there are no surprises there, but the path that leads to Mehrunissa becoming Jahangir’s twentieth wife is a long and eventful one, and you can expect plenty of drama along the way: rebellions, assassination attempts and the scheming of Mehrunissa’s rival, Jagat Gosini.

I found a lot to like in this novel, but not everything worked for me. My biggest problem was that with the romance between Mehrunissa and Jahangir forming such a central part of the story, I didn’t find that romance convincing enough. I struggled to see the attraction of Jahangir during the first half of the novel. He was an alcoholic and an opium addict, too easily influenced by unscrupulous advisers and was even plotting to have his father murdered. He started to redeem himself later in the book, but is still not high on my list of favourite romantic heroes!

As for Mehrunissa, I found it difficult to accept that she could fall so passionately in love at the age of eight with a man she didn’t even know and that her love for him could continue into her adult life despite only meeting him once or twice more in all that time. I got the impression that she just wanted to marry him because he was a prince rather than who he was as a person and I didn’t start to really believe in their romance until near the end of the book.

I did like the way Sundaresan writes about India. The Twentieth Wife is a very descriptive book: the clothes, the buildings and gardens, the food and drink, the traditions and rituals of court and the zenana are all described in vivid detail. I do enjoy reading historical fiction novels set in India, though I’m sorry to say that most of the others I’ve read were written by non-Indian authors (M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions is my favourite). I wasn’t aware of Indu Sundaresan until I saw The Twentieth Wife listed as one of Aarti’s suggestions for A More Diverse Universe and I’m pleased I decided to give it a chance. I’m not sure I like this book enough to want to continue with the sequel, but it was good to have learned a little bit about a period of Indian history I knew nothing about. While I didn’t love this particular book I would still be happy to try one of Sundaresan’s others outside of the Taj Mahal trilogy.

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This was my second read for A More Diverse Universe hosted by BookLust.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave With only four of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels still to read, I decided that for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week I would try one of her Arthurian novels instead. The Crystal Cave is the first in the series and introduces us to Myrddin Emrys, better known as Merlin. I should begin by saying that I have previously read very few novels that tell the story of Merlin or King Arthur (T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is the only one that really comes to mind). I wasn’t sure that The Crystal Cave would be my type of book and I wondered if I would regret not picking up another of the romantic suspense novels for the reading week. Well, I can assure you that I didn’t regret my choice at all!

The book is set in 5th century Britain, a land of several warring kingdoms held together by Vortigern, the High King. Vortigern has invited the Saxons to Britain to help him rule, but they are disliked by the people and Vortigern’s throne is soon under threat not only from his own son, Vortimer, but also from two other princes – Ambrosius and Uther who are exiled in Less Britain (Britanny). This is the world into which Merlin is born.

Our story begins with six-year-old Merlin living in the home of his grandfather, the King of South Wales. Merlin’s mother is the King’s daughter, Niniane, but the identity of his father is unknown as Niniane has refused to reveal his name. Merlin is a lonely child, despised by his grandfather, but he is also very intelligent, quick to learn and has a special gift known as ‘the Sight’. One day he rides out into the hills near his home and discovers a cave inhabited by a man called Galapas. Inside this cave is a second, smaller cave filled with crystals in which Merlin has visions when he looks into the light of these crystals. When fate takes him across the Narrow Sea to Less Britain several years later, Merlin meets the exiled Ambrosius and makes some important discoveries about both the past and the future…

The Crystal Cave is a great book and is now one of my absolute favourites by Mary Stewart. It obviously has a different feel from her contemporary suspense novels, but there were also some similarities and I could definitely tell it was written by the same author! Whenever I read a Stewart novel I expect a strong setting with vivid descriptions and I certainly got that with this book. Merlin’s travels take him through England, Brittany and Ireland, to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, to the wonders of Stonehenge and, of course, to Wales:

There were rain clouds massing in the west, but in front of them, like a bright curtain, the slanting sunlight. One could see on a day like this why the green hills of Wales had been called the Black Mountains and the valleys running through them the Valleys of Gold. Bars of sunlight lay along the trees of the golden valleys, and the hills stood slate-blue or black behind them, with their tops supporting the sky.

One thing that surprised me about this book is that it does not have such a strong fantasy element as I’d expected. While Merlin certainly does have visions which foretell the future, many of the things he does have very little to do with magic and more to do with his observations and understanding of science and of human nature. I loved the way his character was portrayed; he felt so believable and real. It probably helped that I don’t have a lot of previous knowledge of the myths and legends surrounding Merlin which meant I had no preconceived ideas and could just concentrate on enjoying Mary Stewart’s version of the story. I’m so pleased I chose The Crystal Cave for the Reading Week and am now looking forward to meeting Merlin again in The Hollow Hills!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Malaya and is narrated by Teoh Yun Ling, a Straits Chinese woman who, at the beginning of the novel, has retired after a long and successful career as a Supreme Court Judge in Kuala Lumpur. Returning to the Cameron Highlands area of the Malayan Peninsula – a very special place for Yun Ling, being the site of both the garden of Yugiri (‘evening mists’) and her friends’ tea plantation, Majuba – she makes the decision to write her memoirs, even if that means remembering things she would rather forget.

In a series of flashbacks, we go back with Yun Ling to the 1950s, during a time of conflict known as the Malayan Emergency. This is when she first comes to Yugiri and meets its creator, Nakamura Aritomo, the former gardener to the Japanese emperor. Yun Ling hopes Aritomo will design a garden in memory of her sister but he refuses, offering instead to take her on as an apprentice so that she can learn how to do it herself. At first, she finds it difficult to be near Aritomo (she and her sister, Yun Hong, were both imprisoned in a Japanese camp during World War II) but as they work together in the garden Yun Ling slowly begins to come to terms with the traumas of her past.

This is the second novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng and enjoyed a lot of success following its publication in 2012 – the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Having now read it, I agree that it’s an excellent book and deserved its success. Until recently, I had very little knowledge of Malaya (or Malaysia as we now know it). Now I have read two books in two months (The Separation by Dinah Jefferies was the first) and I’m finding it a very interesting country to read about. The Garden of Evening Mists covers three different periods in the country’s history: the Japanese Occupation of the 1940s, the Emergency of the 1950s, and the more recent past, probably the 1980s, in which Malaysia is an independent country.

We wait a long time to hear what exactly happened to Yun Ling and Yun Hong in the Japanese camp, but we do find out eventually – although certain details continue to be withheld or only hinted at. It’s understandable as this is Yun Ling’s own story to tell and she can choose what to say and not to say; some memories may be too painful or uncomfortable to bring to the surface. It was the wartime sections of the book that I found the most gripping and emotional, however. I was particularly moved by the story told by Tatsuji, a Japanese art collector who visits Yun Ling in the present day, about Japan’s kamikaze pilots.

This is not just a book about war and suffering, though. Gardening, as you might have guessed from the title, also plays a big part in the story. Gardens are usually peaceful places to sit or to walk – and reading about gardens feels peaceful too. I don’t have a lot of interest in gardening myself but I was fascinated by the descriptions of Yugiri and the techniques used by Aritomo to create illusions of depth and distance. He puts so much thought into where to place every rock, every stone. As well as gardening, Aritomo is also a master of other art forms including woodcuts (ukiyo-e) and tattooing (horimono), and these were interesting to read about too. Other aspects of Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian culture are also covered in the novel, such as storytelling and mythology. But most of all, this is a book about memory: memory and the act of forgiving and forgetting.

There are so many ideas and themes packed into this wonderful novel and I’ve only managed to discuss a few of them here. I haven’t even mentioned how beautifully written it is and how cleverly it is structured. As I read, I wanted to go back and read earlier passages again because things were taking on more and more meaning as more layers were revealed. It’s that sort of book.

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I read The Garden of Evening Mists as part of A More Diverse Universe hosted by Aarti of BookLust. The event doesn’t end until Saturday 27th September so there’s still time for you to join in.