Monday, July 25, 2011

Bram Stoker - "Dracula" - Giveaway & Review

After reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - a modern day re-telling of the Dracula legend, I just had to follow it with the Bram Stoker original. It's been awhile since I read a classic piece of literature (back in January, I delved into Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami), and it wasn't until about 50 pages in that I was able to adjust to the 19th century vernacular. While it took me longer to finish (about a week), it was well worth the extra effort to become immersed in a Gothic masterpiece.

Before delving into the pages, my perception was tainted by the Dracula caricature distributed by Hollywood, most notably the immortal 1931 Bella Lugosi performance of a wild-eyed, cape-wearing villain lurking in the shadows. I didn't know much about Stoker's actual storyline, and I was surprised at how fleetingly the count appears in the novel. Even though his motivations dictate the majority of the action, Dracula plays more of a supporting role letting a host of other characters take the lead.

It's funny, but in both
The Historian and this earlier rendition, Dracula comes across as cartoonish. For Stoker's 1897 audience, the limited development can be attributed to the fact that the subject of vampires was considered quite shocking for the time period. Yet as one of the main contributors to the horror genre canon, the writing style is nevertheless quaint and antiquated for 21st century sensibilities. Much of the dialogue comes across as affected with overly exaggerated emotion. It's like watching a silent movie filled with fluttering eyelashes and arched eyebrows with melodramatic lines such as, "On your living soul I charge you that you do not die - nay, nor think of death - till this great evil be past."

I was not steeped in vampire lore and only recognized the name Van Helsing from the 2004 movie starring Hugh Jackman. Needless to say, the vampire hunter of Stoker's creation is an elderly Dutch physician who speaks in stilted English and proceeds against his foe more through trial and error than any definitive knowledge. He employs the superstitions he encounters in his research to combat Dracula - garlic, a crucifix, even wafers of the Holy Eucharist. He comes across partly as a comedic figure who is bumbling through his investigation, but in the end through happenstance or luck ends up on the right track.

Interestingly, Dracula is written in letter/journal format much like the technique used in
The Historian. The main characters each lend a hand to advance the narrative. Jonathan Harker, an English clerk, begins the tale as a prisoner in Dracula's Transylvanian castle. Mina Murray, his fiancee, begins to the see the connection between Jonathan's tale of captivity and her friend Lucy Westenra's strange behavior. Leading Lucy's three suitors to be drawn into the mix - her betrothed, Arthur Holmwood, a titled nobleman; Dr. Seward, the caretaker of an insane asylum and Quincey Morris, a plain-speaking, adventure-loving American. After Lucy's tragic "death," they all band together under Van Helsing's leadership to put an end, once and for all, to the undead entity named Dracula.

Stoker excels in setting a scene. He is a master at creating atmosphere. It feels as if you are sitting in the horse-drawn carriage with Jonathan Harker as he ascends the Carpathian Mountains to the very heart of Dracula's lair. You can feel the mist in your face. You can hear the wolves howling in the distance. You can see the terror in the eyes of his fellow passengers. The aura of foreboding is palpable. Another captivating scene is the arrival of Dracula's ship at the English port of Whitby. A horrific storm heralds the vessel's appearance on the horizon. Battling the wind and waves, it runs aground of its own accord without a crew. The body of the dead captain is tied to the wheel, a crucifix in his lifeless hands. Horror writing doesn't get much better than this.

Overall
, a thrilling journey back to the Victorian beginning of popular culture's vampire obsession.

Dracula by Bram Stoker is available for $3.50 at Amazon.com

Review copy purchased at Anthology Used & New Books.

Congratulations to our winner: Alison Fees!

Review featured on Examiner.com's Book Corner home page

Monday, July 18, 2011

Elizabeth Kostova - The Historian - Review

I've been meaning to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova for over two years. A good friend entrusted her copy to me, I admit for far too long. I have to say the nearly 650 pages of the hardcover edition were a bit off-putting. However, being a vampire-aholic - Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc., I knew it was about time for me to sink my teeth into this one.

Surprisingly, what stood out for me wasn't the modern day retelling of the Dracula myth, it was Kostova's description of European travel that enticed me as a reader. I loved following Paul and his daughter as they journeyed from one city to another taking in the architecture, culture and personalities of each locale. But what really whetted my appetite was the indulgent food imagery. Picnics of fine wine, aged cheese and homemade bread. Taking tea at quaint, out-of-the way cafes. Sumptuous dinners at French restaurants or the home of an Italian friend. For me, Kostova nailed setting the culinary scene to get anyone's taste buds watering.

In terms of pacing, I think the novel could have been trimmed by half. The novel progresses through at least three time periods: the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s with sprinklings from the modern day as well as the 15th century of Dracula's domain. These different eras are bridged in the novel mainly through a character's correspondence via letter or diary entry. However, this writing style becomes overused. For example, we get our first glimpse of Dracula through a recorded account. We never get to meet him in real time. This takes away from the inherent build-up of his much anticipated arrival.

Where Kostova excels is her look at Eastern Europe under the throes of communism. For an American historian, the freedom to follow Dracula's trail through Bulgaria and Romania is impeded by these governments. It is only through the insider access provided by Helen, Paul's traveling partner and native Hungarian, that these insular societies are breached. The closer the two get to Dracula, the more they are put under surveillance by these Communist regimes. It creates an interesting push-and-pull dynamic within the hunt for Dracula.

The novel asks the ultimate question: Can the legend of Dracula be real? Kostova does an admirable job of delineating his back story. The Transylvanian noble who held back an Ottoman invasion through the depravity of his barbarity. Out of a perverse sense of enjoyment, he even impaled thousands of his own people. At a time when the printing press was in its infancy, the tales of his atrocities spread wildly throughout Europe.

And they live on to this day. The current spate of vampire induced frenzy indicates the level of attraction the myth still fosters in our creative subconscious. Kostova's tome was released in the summer of 2005, while Stephenie Meyer's Twilight was published in the fall of that same year. You would think a film adaptation of The Historian would be a no-brainer. Here's hoping this New York Times best seller makes its way to the big screen - just for the European scenery alone.

Overall,
The Da Vinci Code meets Twilight.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is available for $25.95 at Amazon.com and at TheSwanThieves.com.

Review copy provided by a personal friend.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Beth Hoffman - "Saving CeeCee Honeycutt" - Giveaway & Review

It is truly a gift to read a book with so much heart. I knew I was in for a treat when Saving CeeCee Honeycutt arrived in my mailbox after I won it in a blog giveaway at Year of the Bookwormz. It came packaged with a bright orange spatula and a bag of gummy worm candy. My curiosity was piqued. I couldn't wait to see what was in store to merit such a unique pairing.

Let me tell you, author Beth Hoffman does not disappoint. The story centers around 12-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt. She loves to read. She's a straight-A student. But she doesn't have a single friend. Why? Because her mother is slowly losing her grip on reality, falling prey to mental illness. She has made the two of them the laughingstock of their small Ohio town, adorning herself in pageant gowns and smeared lipstick. Her father, a traveling salesman, is cognizant of the problem, but for the most part washes his hands of the situation. CeeCee is left alone to deal with her mother's temper tantrums, flights of fancy and reckless behavior. Tragically, the unthinkable happens when her mother is hit and killed by a truck while walking to the Goodwill store in search of yet another used prom dress.

The first part of the narrative is heartbreaking, yet gripping. Instead of becoming melodramatic or dark and heavy, Hoffman illuminates the breakdown of CeeCee's home life with a gentle touch. You can empathize with a mother who yearns for her past glory as the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. She is a woman trying desperately to return to a time and a place where she was happy. She loves her daughter ferociously, and she tries with all her might to pull herself together, but her will is not strong enough to withstand the unforgiving predator of despair. She is homesick for the South of her childhood, and for some reason feels that world is closed to her forever. With an outlook so bleak, it was virtually impossible for anyone, let alone a 12-year-old girl, to change her warped mindset.

But the title is Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, and saved she is, when Great Aunt Tootie arrives to transport her to her mother's world of beauty and wonder in Savannah, Georgia. Her father gives up custody of her, and she is free to begin a new chapter in her "Life Book." The spirit of the novel resides in the bond formed between the elderly and the young. CeeCee's psyche is patched back together by her senior citizen aunt and her venerable maid, Oletta. The two women, although advanced in years, shower love, attention and comfort on this woe-begotten child. During the summer of 1967, they teach CeeCee how to live again. She learns how to open her eyes to nature, to savor a home-cooked meal, to cherish the time spent with others.

These women allow CeeCee to feel safe and protected. She is given the space necessary to hit rock bottom so that she can begin to reclaim the rest of her life. The time and patience they bestow on CeeCee allow her to vent her frustrations over her lost childhood and to mourn the death of her mother. They take her into their world wholeheartedly. There are uplifting passages of CeeCee experiencing the ocean for the first time and enjoying sweet tea out on the porch. They teach her how to enjoy the simple things in life, while exposing her to new situations like visiting a nursing home and hosting a garden party. They expand her horizons and open up her world.

The book is not in the least bit schmaltzy. It is underscored by a dose of reality. Underlying racism rears its ugly head placing CeeCee in a dangerous predicament. The immorality of an adulterous father is confronted. The emotional pain of losing a mother is relived. The fear of a genetic predisposition to mental illness is discussed. But now CeeCee is surrounded by people who love her offering her a support system that she can depend on. As she starts a new school year full of promise, you can't help rooting for her to triumph.

Overall,
every page is a delight. This is a MUST read!

There are so many great passages in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, I just have to share some of my favorites with you. It is such a beautifully written book.

• When a chapter of your Life Book is complete, your spirit knows it's time to turn the page so a new chapter can begin. Even when you're scared or think you're not ready, your spirit knows you are.

• Everyone needs that one thing that brings out her passion. It's what we do and share with the world that matters. Far too many people die with a heart that's gone flat with indifference, and it surely must be a terrible way to go. Life will offer us amazing opportunities, but we've got to be wide-awake to recognize them.

• I know you're scared, but you gotta grab hold of yourself. Every time you give in to your fears, you're lettin' that man win. And every time you do that, he gets stronger while you get weaker. Givin' in to your fears will rob you blind. You'll end up a prisoner to that man for the rest of your life. Don't let nobody rob you of your freedom.

• The human mind is an amazing thing. It protects us when we can't protect ourselves. Sometimes when we're holding pain and it gets to be too heavy or goes too deep, we have to give in to it, let it knock us over and pull us all the way down. Once we hit bottom, we rest in a quiet place for a while. Then, when the pain eases and we're ready to face the world again, we come right back up.

• It's what we believe about ourselves that determines how others see us.

• It's how we survive the hurts in life that brings us strength and gives us our beauty.



Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman is available for $25.95 at Amazon.com and at BethHoffman.net.

Love what you read about author Beth Hoffman? Follow her on Twitter @Wordrunner (She is known to personally respond!).

Review copy provided by Year of the Bookwormz.

Congratulations to our winner: Hattie Norman!