Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier (2009) K

Date Read: 1.29.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


When Elizabeth Philpot and her sisters move to Lyme Regis, resigned to a life of spinstershood tucked away in a modest English seaside village, she finds herself befriending a queer fossil hunter, Mary Anning. Through Elizabeth’s education and readings, and Mary’s instinctive knowledge of the shore, they grow together in their mutual love for paleantology and fossil hunting. But the lives of the Philpots, Annings, and the very town are turned upsidedown when Mary discovers a prehistoric extinct fossil, causing an uproar in the scientific community and the entrance of many distinguished gentlemen in the field. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth and Mary explore a friendship that is strained by their respective failures to find a suitor, and interwoven with the fervor and drama of scientific discovery in a male dominated intellectual society is the sorrow and resignation that comes with spinsterhood.


For me, Tracy Chevalier has never quite accomplished the same breathtaking, luminous achievement that was The Girl with a Pearl Earring  with her other books, but Remarkable Creatures is a complete turnaround. I ran away to BNN one day, picked it up for two hours, and simply could not put it down so I paid the $26.95 + tax to have the privilege of finishing it that very night in my bed. Overall, Remarkable Creatures is the historical novel I’ve been craving for a long while, whisking me off to 19th-century seaside England and embroiling me in the scandal, loneliness, and scientific discovery of the time.

Remarkable Creatures made me fear for my own life, made me examine my aspirations and accomplishments, and specifically the incredible brevity of a lifespan. Elizabeth and Mary have such purpose and drive, and are both gripped by an urgency to uncover more and more truths, working furiously to overcome social and cultural barriers. I, on the other hand, sit in my cubicle writing mundane scripts and am safe from the discrimination and prejudice of a century ago. And once Elizabeth and Mary reached a certain age in their lives, the despair seeped in, and both resigned themselves to many stagnant, loveless remaining years.

Continue reading Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier (2009) K

In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant (2006) K

Date Read: 12.14.06
Book From: Boston Public Library
Reviewer: Kakaner


Bucino is a dwarf who serves one of the most beautiful and successful courtesans in Rome. However, the war forces them to flee to the courtesan’s birthplace, Venice, where she is forced to build her career and reputation again out of nothing.


In a much tighter and well-written second novel, Sarah Dunant takes us through the intriguing and dazzling world of the courtesan. The plot is basic yet appropriately ambitious, the simple voyage of a determined woman who manages to rebuild her life through hard work and large helpings of wit. The linearity of the story made room for a lot of other elements to shine through, particularly character development. It is apparent that this book was well-researched, and Dunant’s comfort with the subject matter allowed her to weave a fresh story with historically educational tidbits. Sometimes there were couple page long descriptions of courtesan techniques and how-to’s for wooing men, and they were terribly fun and interesting. Despite the very controlled approach to the novel overall, Dunant definitely took some liberties towards the end and added some flair and drama to the story. However, the novel as a whole was very effective and engaging, a relatively easy read for any historical fiction fan.

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Sarah Dunant

The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (1994) E

Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

Continue reading The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (1994) E

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen (2006) E

Date read: 11.1.09
Read from: Borrowed from my brother
Reviewer: Emera

In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Jankowski receives news that an automobile accident has killed both of his parents. On top of that, he’s now penniless, as his parents secretly mortgaged their house and his father’s veterinary practice in order to pay for his Ivy-League education. After fleeing his final exams at Cornell in despair, he impulsively jumps a passing train, and discovers that it’s the circus train of The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. With no better prospects, he becomes the show’s veterinarian, and quickly learns that the circus’ glittering exterior is fueled by squalid, back-breaking labor and a brutal social hierarchy. Jacob finds his only kindred spirit in Marlena, the show’s beautiful horse trainer – who is, unfortunately, married to August, the show’s charming, amoral, and increasingly violent animal manager.

If you couldn’t tell from the description, this is a damn entertaining novel. Though Gruen’s writing lacks elegance and subtlety – I found myself rolling my eyes several times at particularly clunky descriptions, and was uncomfortable with her simplistic treatment of mental illness – it ably delivers drama and action. And ultimately, the most winning aspect is the historical immersion. In spite of the predictable plot and characters, I continued reading just to soak in more of the fascinating details of circus life. Many of the novel’s most memorable elements – from wayward, garden-raiding elephants to pickled hippopotamuses – are in fact based on historical anecdotes, as revealed in Gruen’s afterword. The framing device of a 93-year-old Jacob reliving his past while in an assisted living facility is also surprisingly moving and thoughtful.

Overall, Water for Elephants is enjoyable, if not excellent. If you like old-fashioned showbiz and sordid glitz, you’ll likely have a good time with it.

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Sara Gruen

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2009) K

Date Read: 9.26.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


The story follows Doctor Faraday, a lonely bachelor who calls upon the residents of the once glorious Hundreds Hall and begins to form a friendship with the remaining family and staff that reside there. His friendship to the family becomes a crux on which they rely, and soon he finds himself involved in ever stranger circumstances at Hundreds Hall.  The interactions of the story are characterized by mysterious fires, writings, and sounds with the underlying ever-increasing tension of Faraday’s relationship to the mother and daughter of the house.


It took me a really long time to review this because I couldn’t form a concrete opinion. Basically, there was good and bad, but the good was oh so good and the bad was characterized by raging mediocrity. Every time the scales tipped in favor of one side, I’d remember something to the contrary and the dilemma would reassert itself.

The Good: Superb writing and storytelling. Of course, it is apparent from Waters‘ four previous novels that she knows how to write, and once again she demonstrates her ability to spin a tale out of not an incredible amount of material. I was reading along the first 100 pages, and I was still, somewhat inexplicably, waiting eagerly to find out what would transpire during Faraday’s fourth visit to the same dreary hall. There’s no rampant drama or lgbt overtones that characterize her previous novels, which I found quite refreshing, as if I were here for the sole purpose of enjoying raw word manipulation.

Continue reading The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2009) K

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) E

Date read: 1.4.06
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Stevens is the quintessential English butler: dignified, humorless, and obsessively devoted to his work, he defines his life through his service to the late Lord Darlington. Convinced for decades that he has contributed to humanity by serving a great man, Stevens begins to reevaluate his experiences as he embarks on a country drive through postwar England. As he does, he finds that many of his memories – of his unthinking adulation of Lord Darlington, and of his difficult relationship with Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper – begin to take on a disturbing cast.

The Remains of the Day, like all Ishiguro novels, is intimately psychological and beautifully, beautifully written. Ishiguro always strikes a balance between wandering reminiscence and tight, artful construction. Reading one of his novels is like opening a tiny box to find an intricately meandering labyrinth inside. It takes patience to make your way through, but the delicate tension throughout presses you onward and lends a sense of direction and quiet urgency to the narrative. I haven’t read a novel of his in several years (this is an old review), but I have always had the sense that he paints with light and shadow: my memories of scene from his books are suffused with soft light and atmosphere, like dreams or out-of-focus photographs.

Ishiguro’s characters often seem to exist in voids of their own creation, set adrift in their memories until they are finally driven to seek out real contact and attempt resolution. For the first half of The Remains of the Day, you meet almost no other characters except through the lens of Stevens’ recollections, so that you half-believe his immaculate persona – until Miss Kenton appears on the scene as a disruptive force and exposes his pettiness and hypocrisy, both to the reader and himself. This is a novel about self-delusion, history and personal history, and the ways in which we can be reconciled with them – again, themes central to most of Ishiguro’s works.

The only disappointment to me in reading The Remains of the Day was actually the last two pages. I found the ending was a little too abrupt and pat, too suddenly transformative, almost out of character. Perhaps it will sit better with me with a re-read and a reintroduction to Stevens’ character, especially since a lot has changed in my understanding of people since my first read.

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Kazuo Ishiguro

Pompeii, by Robert Harris (2003) E

Date read: 1.22.06
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

Attilius, newly appointed aquarius (engineer) to the great aqueduct Augusta after the disappearance of the previous aquarius, is charged by the scholar and general Pliny to repair the disrupted aqueduct. With the water supplies of nine cities at risk, Attilius travels to the corrupt and vice-filled Pompeii to investigate the mysterious break, near Mount Vesuvius. As he travels, he finds that the damaged aqueduct and missing aquarius are only two of many strange omens – sulfur contamination, strange smoke, earthquakes, and inexplicable sounds like those of “walking giants,” all issuing from Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii was very well-written and full of fascinating historical detail, but it simply failed to hold my interest as a novel. I pin this on a lack of interest in the characters, who seemed like afterthoughts of the historical research: realistic in their various roles of Roman citizenry, but psychologically uninteresting. The heroine, for example, was a rather generic  “No, father, I shall not marry without love!” type. The atmosphere is satisfyingly gritty and ominous, however, and gathers strength as the book continues, culminating in a fantastically powerful description of the volcano’s final eruption.

All in all, Pompeii is a readable, carefully researched record of the last days of Pompeii, but lacks in character development and emotional involvement.

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Robert Harris

Affinity, by Sarah Waters (1999) K

Date Read: 12.26.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner


Margaret Prior becomes a “Lady Visitor” at the Millbank prison. There, she takes in the prison experience, from the food to the garb to the treatment of the prisoners and takes steps to befriend and be a source of comfort for many of the inmates. As her visits progress, she finds herself drawn to one girl in particular, a spirit medium Selina Dawes, convicted of spiritualistic fraud and assault. Soon, between her own declining health and the nature of her friendship with Selina, Margaret finds herself hopelessly committed to the Millbank prison and tangled up with mysterious spirits.


Well, I don’t really know how to approach this review. I could either review it superficially and not give away the story, or try to convey everything I want to and ruin everything by implication. I’ll… just… charge ahead as best I can and see where it takes me.

Overall Affinity was a much easier read than either Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith because it was so linear and set in one place– the prison and Margaret’s house were the only settings and the prison was the only plot. As a result, the circumstances definitely called for a slow, steadily snowballing story.

Continue reading Affinity, by Sarah Waters (1999) K

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See (2005) K

Date Read: 7.28.07
Book From: Borders Piracy
Reviewer: Kakaner


Lily is born to a poor village family, but a prominent matchmaker notices Lily at a young age and informs her that her physical beauty may promise a prosperous marriage. To help the process, Lily is paired with a laotong (Chinese companion for life), Snow Flower, to increase her credibility and status. For their entire lives, Snow Flower and Lily share a deep friendship and endure their hardships and married life together.


Back when I first reviewed this book, I wrote down “Good… awesome… but not mindblowing”. And it was exactly that. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is such an excellent book– great character development, writing, plot, historical references– but it is never one that I immediately think to recommend to people. It’s definitely a book that misses the wow factor, and as engaging as it is, fails to completely immerse the reader in the world. I found myself reacting very strongly to events in the book, but not coming away feeling attached.

Overall, many elements of the plot are a bit of a reach in that I think it was extremely unlikely that all of these fortunes would fall upon a common Chinese village girl. In this way, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha, another book that clearly knows its history and society’s makeup but reaches a bit too far to make an interesting and compelling story. However, if you focus on just the laotong relationship instead of how it came to be, it really is quite beautiful. Their dialogues really impress upon the reader the objectification, cruelty, and lack of purpose experienced by Chinese women.

It’s certainly a book to read if you are interested in historical chinese traditions. In particular, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan contained one of the most vivid accounts of footbinding I had ever read. See devotes an entire chapter to Lily’s hardships during her footbinding experience, underlining the layers of tensions between Lily and her family that accumulate because of this process. It is extremely instructive in the nature of the relationship between parent and child in older chinese cultures, as well as the female to society.

If you liked Memoirs of a Geisha, you will enjoy Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but prepare yourself for a different emotional journey.

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Lisa See

Unveiling our Top 10 YA Books List

The time has come for another list! As you will all soon come to realize, Emera and Kakaner have a dire weaknesses for creating and maintaining lists. We are also both fanatic collectors and readers of YA books, even in our post-teenage years

The list is reproduced below, but its permanent home is on our Lists page here:

The Black Letters Top 10 YA Books

In alphabetical order by author:

  • Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
  • Ella Enchanted (1997) by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Justin Norton
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O’Brien
  • The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
  • Bridge to Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson
  • The Perilous Gard (1971) by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare
  • Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli
  • Dealing with Dragons (1990) by Patricia Wrede

Well, we started with about 20 choices and it was slightly tricky narrowing it down to 10. The genres range from fantasy to urban fiction to historical fiction to animal fiction, which we believe is a pretty healthy smattering of YA genres. If anyone hasn’t read any of these, well, he or she should. All these reads would probably take about an hour, two hours tops, and promise to be most rewarding.