Victoria Jelinek

Burial Rites

Burial Rites book coverThe novel, based on a true story, takes place in Iceland in the early 19th century. Agnes, a housemaid, has been charged with murdering her former master and is sentenced to death. But as the ground is too hard to bury a body till the spring, she awaits her execution at an isolated farm located in the valley where she grew up.

Initially, the family who own the farm are horrified that a convicted murderess will be living with them and they avoid her as much as is possible. It is only Toti, a young, inexperienced priest Agnes has chosen to be her spiritual guardian, who listens to and attempts to understand her. Despite being a pariah to the family on the dilapidated farm, however, Agnes finds the routine of its chores comfortingly real, and slowly opens up to Toti about the circumstances surrounding the murders. It is through her telling of these details that the family – overhearing her in the small shack of a farmhouse – learn that there is another side to the scandalous story they’ve heard.

A dear friend who recently visited left this behind for me to read. Hungry for English, I devoured it. I found it lyrical, haunting, and quietly dramatic, particularly as it takes place in the harsh environment of Iceland among the impoverished (majority). So I truly did enjoy it and I appreciate that this is author Hannah Kent’s debut novel, which is a great accomplishment. Even so, its primary tale (a convicted housemaid kills her masters), based on a true story, as well as its circa (early 19th century), keenly recalls Margaret Atwood’s book Alias Grace. As a result, I couldn’t help but read Burial Rites in a critical fashion, comparing it to Atwood’s book throughout. In my opinion, while a good read in a very similar ‘vein’, this book is not as good as Atwood’s in terms of literary prowess, insight, wisdom, and cultural and historical knowledge and complexity.


The Testament of Gideon Mack

The testament of Gideon MackReverend Gideon Mack is a troubled man, an unfaithful husband, and a theological skeptic. For him, the existence of God, the Devil, heaven and hell are on par with the existence of fairies and ghosts. Till he nearly dies and is rescued by someone who seems to be Satan himself.

Inspired by a Scottish folk story, this novel is an intriguing blend of legend, history, memoir, and fiction. The subject matter is compelling and the writing is exceptional. I love the concept of a conversation with the Devil (very Faustian and potentially epically moralistic) borne of the Scots, who are down-to-earth, wry, and irreverent. I also appreciate that while the story is focused on Gideon’s experience in life, death, and resurrection, it also prompts the reader to consider the very nature of faith. All this said – and allowing for the possibility that my mind wandered too easily from the lyrical pacing of the book – I found the tale overly long and felt it was a bit of a chore to finish the last several chapters…


The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea book reviewIn 1708, a fleet of French and Scottish soldiers almost succeeded in landing the exiled Stuart prince in Scotland to reclaim his crown. In the present day, author Carrie McClelland wants to turn this story into her next bestselling novel. Settling into the shadows of an ancient castle in the highlands of Scotland, she creates a heroine named after one of her own Scottish ancestors, and begins to write the tale. Soon after, she finds that the details she’s intuitively including in the book are factual, and she ponders whether she’s dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only person alive who knows the truth about what happened over 300 years ago.

I was skeptical about reading what looked like a tome of historical fiction, but my doubt was quickly allayed. The concept is great – a writer has characters and their actions, circumstances, and dialogues, coming to her as memories, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The locale is vividly, but not overly described, and the Scottish landscape is romantic. The characters – both in the present day and during the 18th century – are compelling. The story is suspenseful (and there’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Finally, without being drawn into tedious text-book-type writing, I learned a great deal about the Jacobites, the feuds between Scotland and England, and the alliance between France and Scotland, which is immensely interesting and explains a lot about the social politics between these three countries today.






Gulliver’s Travels

Gullivers Travel book coverAuthor Jonathan Swift wrote that the purpose of his writing, “is to vex the world rather than divert it.” Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes scientists, academics, snobs, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and – unfairly – women. Swift further parodies travel writers’ preoccupation with appearing to be “experts” in everything they write.

Lemuel Gulliver, a sea-loving surgeon and “everyman” travels to four lands and has numerous adventures. The imaginary worlds, fantastic characters, and exaggerated stories of Gulliver’s strange and exotic adventures, draw the reader into the narrative (and inspire film adaptations). Gulliver begins the journey larger than life in the land of the tiny Lilliputians, and after observing mankind’s tendency toward greed and selfishness, he finds himself most contented in a land of horses governed by reason. The moral of the novel suggests that the only ideal world is one in which humans do not rule.

“Satire,” Swift wrote, “is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” The staying power of Gulliver’s Travels lies in the fact that the more things seem to change, they really don’t: mankind has been, and continues to be, motivated by avarice and folly. The practice of economically exploiting other countries was the policy of English and French colonial governments during Swift’s time, just as modern world powers go into underdeveloped cultures and consume their resources. Conflicts of religious ideology, as observed in the battle of the “Big Endians” and the “Small Endians,” are still apparent, as evidenced by the discord throughout the Middle East. Even the feuds between the “High Heels” and the “Low Heels” in the novel continue between and among current political parties.

Despite Swift’s critique of humanity and its institutions, however, he seems to have felt passionately enough about mankind to hope that those who read the book would reconsider themselves and the world around them in order to help make it a better place – “vex” readers into thinking, rather than “diverting” them into switching their thoughtfulness off.





Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre book coverFor Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about one of my favorite romantic novels, which I just happened to re read recently. It’s good that I re read it, too, because when I had to read it in high school, I was not impressed – I found it decorative, stilted, and, well, boring. This time, decades letter, I realize how much I didn’t understand in the first reading (as well as how badly my English teacher taught the book!). Jane and Rochester’s relationship is ‘saucy’ and risqué, with motifs of masochism. Moreover, Jane is not the dull woman I initially thought she was, but a spirited and thoughtful feminist who challenges the status quo of society.

Set in nineteenth-century England, the novel begins with the story of young Jane, an orphan who lives with an aunt who dislikes her and doesn’t show her any kindness or affection. When she’s ten, Jane is sent to Lowood, a charity school; despite the cruelty of its headmaster, Jane develops physical, intellectual, and emotional strength. She leaves Lowood School to become a governess for Adèle, the ward of Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Jane and Rochester fall in love despite the difference in their ages and social positions. Mystery surrounds Rochester, however; strange sounds and occurrences abound in his manor. Jane leaves Rochester after the revelation that he is married and his wife, who is insane, is being held captive in the attic at Thornfield. After much suffering, Jane becomes the mistress of a village school. She later discovers that she has living relatives and inherits a fortune, which enables her to return eventually to Rochester as an independent woman.

Jane’s life unfolds as a dramatic adventure within an atmosphere of psychological dread and the constant threat of ruination, typical of Gothic novels. Even as there is mystery, suspense, and horror, which define the genre, the novel addresses social issues of the day. Throughout the narrative, Charlotte Bronte raises questions about the limited education provided in church schools, the expectations and opportunities for women, the value of family connections, and the importance of romantic love even when it conflicts with personal principles or the strict values of Victorian society. As a biographical note, which I think enhances one’s understanding of the book, Brontë incorporated into the narrative several elements from her own life. After Brontë’s mother died, an aunt assisted in caring for the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Maria, Elizabeth, and Emily). The sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge, a school for clergymen’s children. The cruel and hypocritical fervor of the headmaster in Jane Eyre is based upon the evangelical minister who ran Cowan Bridge. Jane’s loss of her dearest friend at Lowood School to tuberculosis recalls the deaths of Brontë’s two sisters who died of tuberculosis at Cowan Bridge. Like Charlotte Brontë, Jane becomes a governess, which was often the only professional option for an educated woman at the time. The role of governess provided a good vantage point for Brontë to observe and write about the oppressive social practices of nineteenth-century Victorian society. Reflecting Brontë’s early feminist ideals, Jane is rebellious at a time when women were expected to be docile and obedient. Through Jane Eyre, Brontë challenges Victorian mores by suggesting a woman’s merits demand the same respect as a man’s; moreover, she challenges the conventions of Victorian literature by creating a well-developed heroine with a rich inner life.

But even as Jane questions gender expectations, societal conventions, religious practices, and the importance of love in marriage, this is not a didactic or dogmatic book. It is, ultimately, a passionate and seemingly impossible love story set within a spooky atmosphere, whose central tenet is the individual’s quest for an independent identity (still very relevant today), which is why it’s one of the most widely read novels all time.

Hostile Witness

By William Lashner

Hostile Witness book coverHard luck Philadelphia lawyer Victor Carl yearns for the opportunity to get rich, be respected in the legal community, and have hot women begging to date him. Then William Prescott III, upper-cruster from one of the city’s most distinguished firms, comes knocking at his door. Prescott wants Victor to represent a councilman’s aide who is, along with his boss, accused of extortion, arson, and murder. It’s a high-profile court case that promises everything Victor longs for, and all he has to do is turn up and do whatever Prescott tells him to. But Victor can’t be quiet when it’s evident someone is setting him and his client up to take a nasty fall. He may be desperate, but he’s no one’s patsy.

I read a Victor Carl short story by this author, which inspired me to buy a book about him ‘cause it was well-written and I like the hard-boiled detective fiction genre, with characters such as Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. These guys were tough mavericks in violent, double-crossing milieus, who were unflinching in their determination to achieve justice.  This book doesn’t disappoint in terms of its main character, plot, and setting, but it is overly long and consequently repetitive, while Hammett and Chandler’s novels are concise and to the point – just like their (anti) heroes.





Dark Places

Dark Places book coverBy Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

This novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on, the day that the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!