Saturday, January 21, 2012

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden

      The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is the book that sparked my love of literature. I’ll never forget the day in third grade, when I was eight-years of age, when my teacher announced that she would be reading this book to the class, and afterwards showing the movie(specifically the 1993 adaptation). The moment she began to read the entire class of rambunctious(and at times, ill-behaved) children became entranced by the narrative. Afterwards, I read any title that bared any similarity to The Secret Garden, from Stewart Little to James and the Giant Peach, from The Princess and the Goblin to The Velveteen Rabbit. Essentially, anything that was available in the juvy fiction section of the library I read with earnest. Still, no childhood book holds a greater place in my heart than The Secret Garden.
         The story begins in India. Mary Lennox is the spoiled daughter of parents who do not love her. As she has known little love, she shows little in return. Early in the book, she is cited as the most "disagreeable-looking child ever seen". Though it is of little wonder why she is so disagreeable, as readers are told the full story of her life in India before tragic circumstances sent her to live with a relative in the moors of Northern England. For you see, while in India, Mary’s parents and the entire house of staff and servants became inflicted by one of the most deadly maladies in history—cholera. Forgotten as she hides away in the manor nursery, Mary is discovered the next day by officers who come to inspect the decimated household. It is then that she learns the fate of her parents, though Mary is hardly sad. How can be expected to miss those who barely occupied a fraction of her life, and who she only saw from distances and doorways? So begins Mary’s long journey back to England and to Misselthwaite Manor where her guardian, Archibald Craven, resides. Then begins her new life, and it is filled with mystery, hidden relatives, strange boys, and the ever evolving character of the moors around her.
        This story is delightfully complex for one aimed at children. Mary, who is an all-together unlikable (yet understandable) sort undergoes great growth of character while the story progresses. She learns what it is to have friends and how to love something and feel loved by it in return. She never looses her fire however and puts up with absolutely no nonsense. And it isn’t just Mary who changes. The bleak and dull moors around the manor, which Mary hates at first, change with the seasons and in turn mark moments of growth in Mary’s character. The writing is delightful, though older readers who are being introduced to this book for the first time will have to keep in mind that it was written for a younger audience and as such is paced fairly quickly. Despite being aimed at children however, this book achieves many of the desirable elements that one would look for in a book aimed at adults. The writing is consistently good and easy to follow and the characters(even Mrs. Medlock) manage to achieve more than two-dimensions and come off as thoroughly human. The ending is also very fulfilling, and the only thing that readers will want for is for more story. Because of childhood nostalgia, it is difficult to give this story anything less than a perfect score. So naturally, I won’t bother trying. The Secret Garden is a part of the public domain, do readers who own e-readers or who don’t mind staring at their computer screens can download this gem for free at Project Gutenberg. For us traditionalists who enjoy a physical book, this title isn’t too expensive (the Puffin Classics edition pictured above sells for $4.99 U.S.D.) and it can also be found at most libraries.
     So, are you looking for a light read to help reawaken the child in yourself? Or perhaps you have a young relative who is either fond of reading or one that you would like to see take up the rewarding life-style of a book nerd. Look no further than The Secret Garden.
Rating: 5

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Clare.B.Dunkle's The Hollow Kingdom


   The Hollow Kingdom is the first in a trilogy written by author Clare B.Dunkle. In the story’s prologue, readers are introduced to the horror of a young girl who, seventy-years prior to the story’s onset, is kidnapped by goblins and made to stay in their underground world. Readers are left wondering who this girl is, not knowing how important a role she’ll play in the story to come.
      Seventy years later, Kate and her sister Emily Winslow are sent to live with great aunts in the English country-side after the death of their beloved father two months prior. As the late Mr.Winslow had no son, the lands were—according to the laws of the time—passed down to the closet male relative. This left Kate and Emily without a home, and forced them to relocate into a strange environment with relatives they barely knew. In truth, a relative of the girls’ mother, Hugh Roberts, had been assigned legal guardianship, but wanted no part in raising the girls. It was then that they were turned over into the care of their great aunts, and it was then that the story really begins. The girls’ new home is located near Hallow Lake, and situated by Hallow Hill. After inquiring about the origin behind these names, the two are engulfed with wild tales of goblins and kidnapped brides. Little did the two suspect that such legends would turn out to be painfully true. Dunkle guides us through Kate’s plight to avoid capture from a seemingly morally ambiguous goblin king, all the while combating her relative Hugh Roberts, who would like nothing better than to see her and Emily leave "his" lands.
    I have to say, I really love this book. The writing is nice and descriptive, but not overly descriptive so as to serve as a distraction. The story is intriguing, and readers will be surprised at how Dunkle manages to take assumptions based on appearances and turns them upside-down with her array of unique goblin characters and the foreign world which they inhabit. The eventual turn the story takes surprised me too, which is something not a lot of books manage to accomplish. Underneath the initial layer of this story lies an interesting commentary on ethnocentrism, as well as a unique perspective in regards to the dark issue of abduction. Dunkle doesn’t romanticize this issue either, but she does provide a rather unique scenario in which readers are asked to evaluate this goblin culture’s motives regarding kidnapping, as well as their view of our human culture. The only real complaint I’ve ever had with this book is a strange transition in chapter ten, right before part II of the book. I’ve always felt like something was missing in between this gap, and every time I read this book the absence of that something always bothers me. I can’t comment to a greater degree without giving too much of the story away, but I will say that despite this awkward area, this book is a good one. Readers familiar with Young Adult novels(specifically ones belonging to the fantasy genre), will definitely find many likeable features in this story. It can also serve as a good introduction into the fantasy genre for a reader unaccustomed to it, as the amount of magic in the book isn’t overwhelming, and the explanations of said magic are fairly simple. Overall this book is a great read, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new reading companion.

Rating: 3.7/5

Louisa May Alcott's The Inheritance

   When one thinks of Louisa May Alcott, Little Women is surely to come to mind. While this is undoubtebly Alcott’s most infamous work, would be readers might be surprised to learn that she authored well over fifty works, including works of fiction, plays, short stories, and poetry. One particular work was produced in 1849,(though unpublished until 1997) when Alcott was just seventeen years of age! This work was The Inheritance.
     At its heart, The Inheritance is a sentimental fairy tale, full of romance, suffering, and characters so pure and noble that they only exist in fiction. The story details the Hamilton family and, more specifically, the family ward, Edith Adelon. Edith is a somber, yet good natured, Italian girl who was brought to the family by the late Lord Hamilton. While traveling in Italy, he came across this beautiful young waif singing sweetly in the yard of her orphanage. He was warmed by her friendless situation, as well as her fair face and lovely voice, so he brought the young girl to live with his family in England and serve as a companion to his young daughter Amy. The story commences in the present day, where readers are introduced to all of the unique personalities that inhabit the Hamilton manor. There are the two young Hamiltons, Amy and Arthur, who are praised for their good natures and benevolent spirits. Their mother, Lady Hamilton, is a stern, discerning woman, though she is capable of great love and warmth in regards to her kin. Lady Ida Clare, the niece of Lady Hamilton, is a prideful and frigid woman who—though once rather beautiful—fears that she is loosing her beauty in her old age and thus resents the docile charms and good looks of Edith. As the story begins, the Hamiltons are awaiting the arrival of Arthur’s dear friend, Lord Percy, who he praises as the noblest man he has ever known. Upon Lord Percy’s arrival, a string of events are set forth which in turn lead this story down the road of jealously, unrequited love, and the all encompassing theme that praises kind and gentle hearts to win favor over all others.
         This story really does read like a fairytale, and I found it to be rife with flowery prose and noble sentiments typical to most fairytales. In many ways, this could seem a turn off for some. The characters could easily be classified as stock characters, as most of them hold only one outstanding trait and very little true character development is seen amongst the pages. Even I, who am well acquainted with the Fairy Tale genre, found the constant need to praise Edith’s heart, beauty, and voice to be a tad too much. However, when viewed as a sort of American fairytale, these perceivable flaws are mostly forgiven. While Edith could come off as what is known as a Mary Sue—an unrealistic, wish fulfillment heroine—, when read as a fairytale, the otherwise overbearing repetition of her kind and pure character become charming and romantic. The narrative of The Inheritance reads similar to stories like A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. While I personally find more depth in Burnett’s work, one cannot deny the charm of this little known Alcott gem. If you’re in the mood for a romantic fairytale, put the Disney away and give The Inheritance a try. It is very much a Young Adult book, and as such is a quick and easy read for even the most time pressed individual.

Rating: 3/5