There is a reason why, when you mention Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to certain people, their eyes light up and their lips purse into an "oooh" before they tell you just how wonderful a book it is... but refuse to go in to anything vaguely plot-specific if you have not yet read it. These people will only say limited things when pressed, opting for phrases like "I don't want to say too much" or the always infuriating "you'll see." At most, they might quote its famous opening line: "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." This is usually accompanied by self-satisfied smiles, as one might observe on the cat who got the cream, and then they will sit back to purr over the memory of reading the book now that the discussion is clearly over, for nothing more will be said when it comes to specifics.

Forgive me, then, for my purring, but Rebecca is a reading pleasure that simply must be experienced to be understood. I first read Rebecca in high school after having my first encounter as described above. Because the person in question was a girl I always held in high regard, I allowed her appreciation to push me into picking up the book... and I don't believe I set it down until I had finished. I found it left me breathless as it surged forward with twists that other "suspense" or "mystery" novels look upon with deep, covetous envy. I loved it and joined the legion of "oooh"ers who simply would not say too much.

The downside to sitting in silent appreciation and not discussing the plot of a novel means that it's entirely possible to forget certain details. The horrifying realization that I had actually forgotten the exact ending of Rebecca came upon me a little less than a month ago. Now I realize that perhaps this is to do with the fact that Rebecca's true genius lies in crafting a scene and pervading atmosphere, but I knew the only thing to do was to re-read the book. This is exactly the thing many readers wish for... the chance to read a favorite book again "for the first time," though my reading was always accompanied by a familiarity of tone and scene. Eventually, the facts came back to me and the ending was once again remembered, but having started, there was no way to stop. Only the intervening holidays allowed me to set the book down at all... allowing me the supreme joy of reading the last half while snowed in to my parents' home, a blizzard raging outside that demanded I do nothing except drink tea and turn pages. Who was I to defy the elements?

The very basic storyline concerns an unnamed narrator recounting events that occurred as she was still a very young woman, though just how much time has passed between those events and the telling can't be all that long. Without family or any other means of support, she had taken as job as a companion to a rather boorish American woman and together they were in a hotel on the French Riveria when they met Maxim de Winter, a wealthy English widower who is not terribly interested in grand socializing, particularly with the older American woman, but who takes a quiet though immediate interest in our narrator (even though the reason for this is rather a mystery to her). After two weeks of car rides and luncheons (during which the American woman has been ill), the narrator's employer decides they should leave for New York straight away; with the thought of never seeing Mr. de Winter again in her mind, the narrator impetuously rushes to his room to say goodbye -- and instead, he suggests they marry. After a quick and quiet wedding and an Italian honeymoon, he takes her back to his family's estate, Manderley, and the story really begins as the young narrator struggles with her inadequacies in filling the role of lady of the estate, particularly under the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Maxim almost never speaks of her and the narrator is too scared to raise the issue, though the rather spectral housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is only too willing to speak of her beloved Rebecca, a charming and beautiful woman who did everything well and was apparently beloved by all. Rebecca was drowned a year earlier in the bay during a squall, but the narrator is always aware of Rebecca's presence in the house and her own inability to live up to such a perfect predecessor.

It's pure, undistilled tension as you really connect with the fears and insecurities of the narrator. It's also filled with twisted, tortured relationships and long, beautiful descriptions of gardens. It's those detailed passages that really capture the emotions coursing through the book -- the loneliness, isolation, fear, and longing. This reading will likely kick off a Daphne du Maurier reading kick on my end... as winter is the perfect time to curl up with something dark and suspenseful.

Seriously, though, it's brilliant.

I don't want to say too much... but you'll see.


Hector and the Search for Happiness

When dealing with a topic like happiness and a quest to discover how to "achieve" it or to compile a list of lessons that might help others be happy, a sense of whimsy is more than a little appreciated. Thank goodness that Hector and the Search for Happiness has this in spades. Told with a narrative tone befitting a fable for adults, Francois Lelord's novel was originally written in French and is a European best-seller. Now we Americans (who pride ourselves on the whole pursuit of happiness thing, at least in theory) have the ability to learn from Hector and his many lessons as he travels the world to learn what makes us happy.

This is how Gallic Books summarizes this novel:
Hector is a successful young psychiatrist. He’s very good at treating patients in real need of his help. But many people he sees have no health problems: they’re just deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Hector can’t do much for them, and it’s beginning to depress him.

So when a patient tells him he looks in need of a holiday, Hector decides to set off round the world to find out what makes people everywhere happy (and sad), and whether there is such a thing as the secret of true happiness… Narrated with deceptive simplicity, its perceptive observations on happiness offer us the chance to reflect on the contentment we all look for in our own lives.

This is a pretty accurate description of the basic plot, even if it neglects to mention just how amusing things are. I could almost hear Stephen Fry narrating the general story as we went along, that's the kind of tone it struck. Despite Hector's obvious intelligence, he was a little naive as he went along, taking an approach as a child might to studying adults and figuring out what made them tick. I particularly enjoyed an early moment in the book where Hector asks his girlfriend whether she's happy and she starts to cry and asks if he's leaving her. Desperately backpedaling (without any clue as to what he's said wrong), he insists he's simply trying to determine what makes people happy and so he starts keeping a list of truths, most of which actually do apply to just about everyone. The particular amusement that comes with Hector, a successful and intelligent therapist, is the fact that simple facts of life become great truths, and everyone could do well to remember little things when faced with over-complicated situations. He travels from "his own country" to various places, including the country of More (gee, one guess as to what country *this* might be) and notes that people in More aren't any happier because they have more... in fact, they tend to be even less happy than people in other countries where they have less, but might reprioritize their values. It's not that Lelord ever tries to beat us over the head with anything (I imagine that depending upon what each individual reader values, one would notice ample evidence supporting certain things or a lack of focus on others), but instead he seems to phrase these truths about happiness in as abstract a way as possible without being totally inaccessible.

Lelord's small novel will indubitably charm any reader with a sense of humor, as will Hector himself. Genuine and full of a honest openness, Hector and the Search for Happiness will not have you reassessing the things that make you happy, but will probably make you appreciative of the fact that you didn't have to travel all around the world and survive Hector's ordeals to learn his lessons... indeed, you probably know them already, though you may not have distilled them into such simple truths. I might avoid giving this one as a gift to anyone who is trying to figure out just what makes them happy (as Hector comes off as a bit dim and clueless at times, and one would hate to inadvertently imply something to the person on the receiving end, though Hector is always lovable if not always conventionally "moral"), but most literate people will find Hector a charming fellow and well worth the quick read.


The Towers of Trebizond

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

So begins Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, a quietly compelling and incredibly amusing story of various English expats traveling in Turkey. Having completed the novel, I find that it's actually surprising how many elements of the story can be captured in this single opening sentence. The dominant present of aunt Dot, the bestowing of a crazy camel, the question of being beholden to others, the Anglican mission. It might seem like a somewhat strange book for a modern reader, but I must say that I found myself oddly captivated by it.

Laurie is our narrator, a young woman without much direction of her own... and not much money, either. She's traveling with her aunt Dot (who, naturally, foots the bill) and their current focus is Turkey. Aunt Dot is seeking to write a book about Turkey (and indeed, everyone they know these days seems to be writing a book about Turkey) with a focus on the plight of women. Laurie will draw the accompanying illustrations while Dot discusses how miserable these Muslim women must be in their current state. The book, however, is a secondary concern, as Dot's true goal in this expedition is to be an Anglican missionary, converting Muslims to the Church of England (again, with particular focus on women). Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg is also accompanying them on their journey, as Dot feels a priest would be a necessary addition to a missionary group, and while Dot and Father Hugh don't quite see eye-to-eye on everything, they all go forth, arguing about who has to ride the camel (which belongs to Aunt Dot and which might be going slowly insane). Laurie recounts their various travels from city to city, encountering acquaintences and exploring on her own. There's certainly a melancholy air to Laurie, more about which one gradually uncovers as the novel goes on, and there's also a rather interesting view of religion expressed by one who has always had it apart of her life and yet who isn't totally convinced of its necessity or even her place within a church should she wish to believe.

As a bit of an Anglophile, this unconventional and casual (yet quite knowledgeable) discussion of the Church of England is certainly interesting... particularly given how ludicrous the overall missionary role is when clearly is ragtag band will get nowhere with any locals. The really captivating part, though, is how much the narrator is struggling with her own religion. I wouldn't necessarily call this book religious in any way (as it's not trying to persuade the reader to any understanding), but it certainly is an articulate account from one who wants to believe and yet has sincere questions. Even more poignant is Laurie's other major struggle (and it isn't giving anything away to simply note that it is, indeed, romantic in nature). The Towers of Trebizond draws you in and catches you unawares -- suddenly, one is completely wrapped up in this odd little volume, a novel that clearly belongs to another time but still possesses timeless concerns and emotions.

There are incredibly funny bits to it all -- I expected Aunt Dot to be a kind of Auntie Mame and while she is not that, she is still a ridiculously amusing aunt without any intention of being so. The total distrust of foreigners is ratcheted up in these particular places where everyone is suspected of being a spy for everyone else. The camel is a riot -- alternately suffering from insanity and amorous moods -- to the point where one almost laments the fact that transportation these days is not quite so independently minded. Almost. The sudden emergence of random people in strange places is delightful -- indicative of the world becoming smaller and the way particular places become trendy. And any reader can understand the idea of certain types of literature rising up to be all the rage, so the fact that everyone seems to be writing a Turkey book, often at the deliberate expense of others, becomes a fascinating background.

I don't quite know what mood you should be in to pick up this novel for prime enjoyment, but I do hope you select it with an open mind and the desire to simply be absorbed in a story that is (most likely) far beyond your immediate life. Drizzly afternoons with tea (aka something that feels just as English as Laurie) strike me as an excellent setting. As a character, Laurie might not do anything wild and adventurous, but I can assure you that her quiet and deep observations will always stay with me. Indeed, the whole of The Towers of Trebizond will stay with you long after you have finished reading it as you think on its contents and what it is that you would consider your own coveted lands, even if they only live on in memory.


Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, without a doubt, the most charming book that I've read all year. Thought-provoking without being pushy, softly complex without being overwhelming. Helen Simonson's delightful novel focuses on a quiet English country village and the complications that result when both small and large changes start to creep in. Edgecombe St. Mary is comprised of named cottages, a Lordly estate, a members-only club, and a reluctance to change how life has been lived for years... so it's a particularly interesting turn of events when one of the members of the community who would be least likely to endorse change winds up involved with a number of minor signs of progress that feel like enormous issues for everyone else.

Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) is a widower and leads a fairly quiet life where the big event of his week might be a round of golf. While he was born in India (his father, also an army man, was stationed there), Major Pettigrew has lived in Edgecombe St. Mary for most of his life and his family is well-respected in the village. He puts a great deal of stock in both personal and family honor, though that being said, his only family now consists of his son (a London high-flier that his father can hardly relate to) and a small handful of extended relations (his younger brother's family). At the opening of the novel, Major Pettigrew has just received a call alerting him that his younger brother has died of a heart attack, so the Major isn't quite thinking straight when he answers the doorbell, dressed only in his dead wife's tattered housecoat. At the door is Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani woman who runs the village shop where locals can purchase small odds and ends between visits to larger shops in the nearby town. Having only intended to fetch the newspaper money on behalf of the ill paper boy, Mrs. Ali becomes the Major's unlikely caretaker that morning when she assumes charge of the light-headed fellow.

Once given this opportunity to sit and converse, they discover that they share a large number of things in common, including a love of reading, and the Major finds that staging casual run-ins with Mrs. Ali in the weeks that follow is topping his priority list. Well, at least it vies for the top spot with retrieving a family heirloom from his brother's widow (an old and valuable hunting rifle, one of a pair that the two brothers were given by their father on his deathbed, with the intention to reunite them one day). At the funeral for his brother, the Major's son turns up, engaged to an amazon-like American, and giving more than a hint that if they were to sell the two valuable guns now (aka cash in on the son's presumed inheritance early), they'd make a killing. Disappointed in his son's lack of reverence for the guns (that have meant perhaps too much to the Major himself), he stubbornly attempts to forge through with his own hope of simply reuniting them, not fully processing what the other gun must have symbolized to his younger brother (whose family is under the impression was always a bit slighted in favor of the elder). The major struggles to hold on to the things he has cared for in the past, yet they seem to slip away as he spies a very new love growing in his heart and the question of how much the past matters in favor of the future is a question never absolutely stated but certainly implied. So how much can he keep with the old traditions while embracing new opportunities at living his life? Even if the Major is rather old-fashioned by modern standards and is often bemoaning the manners of the young, Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali find themselves becoming town gossip... and not in any kind of charitable way. Aside from the obvious mixed-race-couple issues, there's also the fact that she's a shopkeeper (working class, you know) and her dead husband's Pakistani family expect that she'll give up her shop to the newly-arrived nephew. As a result, she'd be absorbed by the husband's family, "taken care of" in a way that essentially requires her to give up her independence. And then there's this issue of the rather surly nephew's somewhat mottled recent-past and his newly appeared love-child. On top of all this, the town itself might be seeing a drastic change as the presence of surveyors suggest the local lord might be selling land to offset the costs of owning a manor house, turning their sleepy town into a snooty estate community and poorer members of the community might be squeezed out. With fascinating religious and racial issues coming to surface, this once-sleepy town is sure to be shaken up... and the Major is quite surprised to find himself on the opposite side from where he's been all his life.

Major Pettigrew jokingly refers to himself as "an old git" when speaking with the younger set, though the reader will surely love him off the bat. His humor is sharp and biting (which one can see might have been a problem as it pertains to raising a somewhat insecure son), though his moments of being flustered at confrontations are quite genuine. He's very real and complicated, struggling to deal with his budding mixed-race relationship, his apparently selfish son, and his finally receiving recognition from the lord of the manor just as the village depends upon him to take up the case against the new construction. He grasps and clings at ideas, flustered as they slip off and he has to reconsider his position on a number of fronts. Simonson creates incredibly real scenes of cringe-worthy awkwardness that anyone can recognize from family politics. A large number of characters in this novel (aside from the Major and Mrs. Ali) are people that the reader would love to smack upside the head, but Simonson is such an excellent writer that even they can sometimes have their redeeming features. Background characters rarely feel one-note, populating this small town with very real prejudices and concerns. So many protagonists pretend to evaluate themselves and change within a novel, but Major Pettigrew's assessment of his own desires and the struggle to reach new understandings are very believable, making him even more lovable as a slightly flawed but clearly well-intentioned man. Mrs. Ali, too, has her own internal struggles that are quite poignant, but the real stand-out character is the Major in this love story for those who thought they were past the age where one could experience such grand emotions.

I know I've given a lot of detail here, so it might be odd for me to note that one of the things I appreciated about Simonson's novel was the fact that every detail seemed just enough and the reader was never overwhelmed with excess. Scenes were painted perfectly and while there is a lot going on in this supposedly-sleepy town, I never felt as though Simonson had lost the thread of a storyline in favor of another. My heart swelled and fell along with the Major and Mrs. Ali... and now that it's available in paperback, I'll be urging many friends to pick it up. I certainly hope you enjoy Major Pettigrew's Last Stand as much as I did -- it's truly a gem for those of us who cling to our romantic notions in a changing and sometimes heartless world.


Ivy and Intrigue

Are you a Lauren Willig fan? Need a Pink Carnation fix for the holidays beyond The Mischief of the Mistletoe? Check out Ivy and Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas, a short and sweet little novella (or perhaps really just a longish short story?) posted on Willig's website that offers a Christmas glimpse at the ones who started it all -- Amy and Richard (along with the modern-day Eloise and Colin). Originally serialized for posting, the story features events that would fall after The Masque of the Black Tulip, but not before The Deception of the Emerald Ring in the whole Pink Carnation chronology. It's only a handful of chapters, following the original couple through a bit of marital miscommunication. While happy on the whole, each one has become increasingly concerned as a result of some small grumblings from the other that running a spy school doesn't have the same thrill as being an actual spy -- and each of them yearn a bit for the old days. Amy is worried that Richard resents her for playing a role in his unmasking as the Purple Gentian and Richard is worried that Amy feels her time in the field was far too short, cut off as a result of marrying him. It's something every nearly-newlywed couple goes through, I suppose... the questioning as to whether or not you've held back your spouse in their spy career.

Needless to say, things will be solved to Pink Carnation satisfaction and along the way, we get to interact with a number of favorite characters. If you missed Amy's not-quite-stealthy-but-still-quite-effective ability to bash people over the head, you'll be quite pleased, indeed. It's short and sweet and a nice little dose of holiday cheer -- though if you're reading The Mischief of the Mistletoe this season, you might hold off and save Ivy and Intrigue for next year's holidays. Just the same, it's always fun to revisit characters (and I feel like I actually remembered who everyone was as a result of Mischief), so fans of the series will certainly be amused.



The Imperfectionists

So... I'm telling you now that my sudden and vehement dislike of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists is totally irrational and cannot be defended with any argument that paints me as a level-headed reviewer. Up until approximately five pages from the end of the novel, I would have given this a three-and-a-half-out-of-five star review... not necessarily because I enjoyed every single moment of the novel, but because I thought it was an interesting look at the fascinating and rather endangered industry of newspaper publication.

Then a dog was killed and I'm sorry, but I immediately experienced a flash-back to my six-year-old self, uncontrollably sobbing because a story I was reading started with the drowning of a kitten. It's a horrific, staggering moment and I started to worry that I might actually cry into my scarf, standing on the subway in rush hour, attracting covert glances from other winter-clad commuters, while some child in a stroller would stage whisper, "Mommy, why is that lady crying?" Thankfully, I held it together, but my ability to enjoy any part of the novel had vanished.

My significant other laughed at me when I said this, then realized I was serious, but I yield to you the same points I yielded to him. Yes, I understand that the author didn't actually kill a real-life dog. Yes, I understand that the killing of the dog is supposed to be a horrific and heart-breaking moment (even if it's totally unnecessary). No, the act of killing the dog was not itself described, but rather, simply the fact/means of it stated. But because it was in there at all, my opinion of the book plummeted and I just cannot recommend this to anyone in good conscience. You see what I mean? It doesn't matter for me that up until then, I was thinking mildly positive things about the work. I know this is ludicrous and I know that I can read about people dying without batting an eyelash. Kids can die and I wince (like any normal person), but there's just a line a writer can't cross for each one of us and mine happens to be furry. I'm a terrible, unacceptably biased reviewer and I'm sorry.

The Imperfectionists, aside from being a novel where a dog is murdered, focuses on the employees of an English-language newspaper based out of Rome. The newspaper in the present day is clearly failing, but the employees trudge on, putting out the paper every day under increasing amounts of stress. Told in a series of snapshot stories that each focus on a different person, the stories weave through their lives to show private agonies and professional failures. There's very little happiness here (though perhaps a few small victories are recounted) as we read about the editors, publishers, and reporters that have had their lives changed by the paper. It covers the entire lifespan of the paper -- from its founding after World War II to its modern-day closure -- and while most of the characters live in the present time, there are short glimpses back at the lives of its previous employees.

While reading The Imperfectionists, I found myself recalling Joshua Ferris's And Then We Come to the End, another novel that follows several employees of a company that's going under. Even before the dog incident, I would say I far preferred And Then We Come to the End, and I'm betting that Rachman had read that one. Ferris is a far better writer than Rachman, who I felt relied rather heavily on the emotions stirred simply by the facts of the situation -- the decline of newspapers (which most, if not all, literate people are somewhat saddened by) and job loss. The writing itself seemed on the more positive side of mediocre (inoffensive? passable?), but still made me feel that this novel was overwhelmingly over-rated in the praise I've seen bandied about.

What The Imperfectionists *does* have is the benefit of being set in Rome. Having been in Rome a few months ago, I was pleased by the frequent mentions of specific places and neighborhoods, which allowed me to remember the twisting streets and odious traffic. I was surprised no mention was made of vespas. Given that this is a novel where it's clear things will Not End Well, it's to be expected that the tone will be relatively serious -- though there are several funny moments, even if they are often of the black humor or cringe-worthy variety. These are not happy people, by and large, and the turmoil in their lives both inside and outside of the office reflects this. A large number of tragic things happen in the course of the novel (tragic things are, after all, much more newsworthy than happy things), though they usually consist of what would be private gossip and never something printable (save for a few individual deaths). Children die, relationships are shattered, betrayals are engineered, and tempers are lost... the last item happening practically on every page. There's a pervading sense of loss... lost leads, stories, and profits... lost loves, friends, and children... lost innocence, lost opportunities, and lost dreams... and, of course, lost jobs.

Unless you're the wallowing type, I wouldn't recommend this for anyone who's recently lost a job. Nor would I really recommend this as a great "set in Italy" novel, though I did enjoy the conjuration of the city. And, it might go without saying, I wouldn't recommend this to those who are overly-sensitive to violence against animals. (It really just comes in out of the blue, folks. I'm not this crazy all the time.) If you have none of these problems and you can overlook the so-so writing, then I hope that you enjoy the novel, as it shows a certain amount of promise on the part of Tom Rachman. (Though perhaps I'm thinking that because the novel's already been optioned by Brad Pitt and that certainly can't hurt one's career.) The Imperfectionists inspires thought (even if I can't quite call it "thoughtful") and has glints of wry humor that keep the reader afloat in this portrait of a declining industry... I just wish the loyal, harmless dog would have made it to a really nice farm where he could chase rabbits.



Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of those classics where everyone is familiar with the story, but many people assume they can survive without reading the actual book and simply scrape by with movie adaptations. This is simply not so, my friends. Dracula is a fantastic literary creation and to only be "vaguely" aware of the basic story is to cheat yourself out of a magnificent tale. If you're sick of sparkly vampires, then return to the granddaddy of them all... and he'll show you that real vampires are not covered in glitter, sensitive, or interested in redefining "vegetarian." They're devoid of souls and they are rather intent on killing/stealing your girlfriend.

This is my second reading of Dracula and it was even better than I remember. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, I'll do a very quick summary. The novel is told from several perspectives through a variety of means -- mostly diaries/journals with the occasional letter or telegram tossed in to ratchet up the suspense value. Vampires, beautiful women, blood, death, insanity! It's awesome.

Unlikely as it may sound, it all starts with a business trip. Jonathan Harker is an attorney who has traveled to Transylvania to assist some Count with an international real estate transaction. Sounds fairly boring, right? (Well, aside from the fact that in the late 1800s, any kind of big travel experience is major.) Of course, it's somewhat disconcerting how all these villagers keep crossing themselves when he explains where he's going or they try desperately to dissuade him. Huh. Weird. (http://beatonna.livejournal.com/#entry_140802">See the first Hark, A Vagrant comic here.) Upon arrival at Castle Dracula, Harker is totally unaware that his host is undead; Dracula just seems to keep crazy hours... and there don't seem to be any servants... and they only seem to talk at night... and soon Harker realizes he's a prisoner. Hmmm. Something fishy's going on here. Finally, when Harker sees his host crawling up the side of the castle, his growing suspicions explode into full on freak-out. His journal entry cuts off after he makes an attempt to escape (and after an encounter with three beautiful woman who clearly want to drain him of his blood and perhaps more), so we're left to wonder for a while as to what became of our somewhat dim-witted fellow.

We then switch the focus of our story over to Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra (aside from this small diversion about a ship that arrives with only a dead captain strapped to the helm and a ship's log that suggests something was killing them off one by one... but surely that can't have any play in our main story, can it?). Lucy and Mina write back and forth about their lives and loves. Mina is engaged to Jonathan Harker (and is starting to get concerned when his letters drop off) and Lucy's juggling suitors before receiving three marriages proposals in one day from three friends -- though she accepts the last, Arthur Holmwood. The men remain friends, though Dr. John Seward (who heads up a lunatic asylum) and Mr. Quincey Morris (a brave American) are still in love with Lucy and hover about while Lucy seems to be falling more and more ill. Even a visit from Mina only does Lucy a little good before Mina receives word that Jonathan is in some foreign hospital and she runs to his bedside. Mina, reunited with Jonathan, marries him while abroad (otherwise it wouldn't be seemly, don't you know); meanwhile, the big guns are brought in to figure out Lucy's mystery illness -- Dr. Van Helsing arrives with a crazy theory that he refuses to tell anyone about until it's too late.


Or rather, Dracula. The man (still a man?) himself was on that cursed boat where the crew was picked off one-by-one and now he's on English shores. It's up to Van Helsing, Lucy's grief-stricken suitors, Mina and Jonathan to put a stop to the blood-sucking monster (and Lucy, btw)... but will they be able to succeed without sacrificing yet another of their own?

That's all fairly simplistic, but one of the best parts of this book is watching everyone run around, wondering what could possibly be wrong with Lucy, while the modern reader fights the impulse to shake them all... but of course, how could the characters possibly know? It took this novel to essentially define an entire category of supernatural being so that we would all know the signs. Obviously, Bram Stoker didn't invent vampires, and even Count Dracula himself is based on the

Dracula is one of those books that proves a novel's merit does not always rest in some big reveal. You can know the ending and still have a wonderful experience with just the telling of the story. Every modern reader knows what's going on, and yet the book is still fabulous. It's full of thrills and chills and adventure. The multiple formats allow for perspective shifts that actually add something to the story rather than take away (to the point where it's almost disappointing when everyone is collaborating towards the end so everyone knows what's going on). The female characters are a bit wimpy (except for the lady vampires who nearly ravish Harker) and I find it hard to believe that Mina's excellence is so exemplary that the man fawn over her as they do, but so it goes. It also seemed a bit too easy to dispatch of Dracula the way they did, but I guess any ending would be somewhat unsatisfactory when it ends with the mega-vampire biting the dust. Still, the majority of the novel is a delightful and ridiculous ride. If you haven't read it, you're in for a treat and if you're like me and have read it... well, there's nothing wrong with going back for another bite.


The Mischief of the Mistletoe

Mischief of the Mistletoe is the latest adventure in the Secret History of the Pink Carnation series and this time, it's a Christmas romance! For those looking for the usual Lauren Willig fare, you'll find that this installment comes up a bit short, though it's still an amusing holiday read. Normally, Willig bounces between the historical love story that occupies a single book and the modern storyline that ties all the books together, but this time we simply have the love story without cuts to modern counterparts. Perhaps to make up for that, we have an intense reliance upon characters featured from previous books (and if you're like me, you might need a cheat sheet to remember who is who) coupled with a return to events from previous books to get another perspective on events that have already unfolded and match up some secondary characters.

Arabella Dempsey is used to being a wallflower... she's used to being passed over and ignored, though it still hurts when the young man who had previously been flirting with her shows his true colors and marries her much-older, wealthy aunt. As Arabella had served as her aunt's companion for years, it was always assumed that the aunt might eventually adopt Arabella and so leave the girl her money -- and while Arabella isn't exactly a London debutante, it would certainly help, given her father's poor health and three younger sisters to care for. With financial and romantic dreams crushed, Arabella makes a hard decision -- she is going to teach. She gets herself a position at Miss Climpson's institution for young ladies and accepts that her social position is getting even lower for it, but whatever helps feed the family, right? Of course, what she doesn't count on is running into Reginald (aka "Turnip") Fitzhugh, a young man whose sister attends Miss Climpson's and who literally knocks into her and drops a Christmas pudding on her foot. He doesn't remember that he's already met (and danced with) Miss Dempsey, and probably wouldn't remember this encounter either, except that she chases after him with the forgotten Christmas pudding... and then she nearly has it stolen from her by some ruffian. Turnip helps Arabella to her feet yet again and when they discover that the muslin wrapping has a secret rendezvous time written in French, well... let's just say that Turnip won't be forgetting Arabella's name now as they make plans to figure out what plan is afoot. While Arabella assumes it's a young lady making plans to meet a lover, Turnip thinks there might be secret spy goings-on (after all, he may not be allowed to spy for the Pink Carnation, but he certainly tries to deflect attention with his outrageous wardrobe). They may not think they're getting any closer to solving the mystery, though they themselves seem to develop a certain closeness... but can social circles be overcome by the magic of Christmas puddings?

It's a cute little romance, but quite honestly, the main storyline doesn't touch on the weird part. The thing is, Arabella's best friend is... Jane Austen. Um... yeah. I understand that Mischief of the Mistletoe is influenced by Austen's unfinished manuscript, The Watsons, but it's a little distracting to have Jane Austen as an actual character. I know, I know, fiction can do all kinds of things, but there's something about using Austen that just isn't cricket. It's one thing to attempt to finish an manuscript, it's another to involve the lady herself. Willig is quite delicate in her treatment of Austen, though, and doesn't really do anything out of character. Most of her meatier dialogue is modeled from her letters, and otherwise she's simply being a good friend to Arabella, engaged more in observation than any direct intervention.

Fans of Willig will be amused at this small diversion and I will give Willig immense credit for the fact that her next real novel will be published in January 2011. So if this felt thin, we don't need to wait long for another new read. Quite impressive, really, considering that while this is certainly shorter than the usual book, it's much more than just a silly side story! So Happy Christmas and enjoy the pudding (or don't, as descriptions of it here hardly make it seem like a truly appealing treat).