Review: The Poisoned House by Michael Ford

Book: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release date: August 1, 2011
Source: ARC for review from NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) Life can be cruel for a servant girl in 1850s London. Fifteen-year-old Abi is a scullery maid in Greave Hall, an elegant but troubled household. The widowed master of the house is slowly slipping into madness, and the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs.Cotton, punishes Abi without mercy. But there’s something else going on in Greave Hall, too. An otherworldly presence is making itself known, and a deadly secret will reveal itselfâ??-a secret that will shatter everything Abi knows.

First impressions: I adore it when stories start with outside information. In this case, the book opens with a statement that the story that follows is based on letters found inside the estate many years later. I practically rubbed my hands together in anticipation. That kind of literary device makes it all seem more real to me as a reader, and I was super psyched to dive into this one as a result.

Lasting impressions: Similarly, the book ended with an obituary outlining events as they transpired beyond the scope of this tale. It gave me a better sense of justice and finality for the story as a whole, and I liked that we got to see how things ended up instead of just how they ended when the plot came to its natural conclusion.

Conflicting impressions: As much as I liked the plot, the spooky elements weren’t quite spooky enough, and as a result, the action dragged.

Overall impressions: I am definitely becoming a gothic fiction fan. The old house full of sad memories, strange occurrences, and a mystery of love waiting to be uncovered. Gets me every time.

Here, Abigail Tamper is a servant girl in Greave Hall. The lord of the manor sequesters himself away for much of the time, and Abi’s only friend in the house, Lord Greave’s son, is off serving in the military. Enter Mrs. Cotton, the domineering sister-in-law to Lord Greave who tries to live above her station and treats her fellow servants like garbage. Abi is often the recipient of Mrs. Cotton’s abuse, and when we first meet her she is trying to run away.

Abi’s plight is depressing, and until she starts to witness ghostly acts, I have to admit that I found her quite boring. She’s a sad little thing, with not much hope in her world, and it was dreary to say the least. Once she witnesses her mother in the face of a medium Mrs. Cotton has secretly hired, Abi is convinced that the things gone missing and strange handprints found in unlikely places are her dead mother come back to deliver a message.

Tempting fate, Abi sneaks out during a dinner party to try and hire the medium to help her. Without any money, however, she’s forced to give up a sacred pocket watch that belonged to her father in order to walk away with nothing but a ouija board. Doom and gloom! I started to grow frustrated with the lack of options Abi faced, and started to wonder if we’d ever find out anything that could rescue us from boredom.

Luckily, the last third of the novel really picks up. Lord Greave’s son returns, and he’s up to no good. The tension in the house rises as he asserts himself over Lord Greave and steps on the toes of Mrs. Cotton. Abi uncovers more clues, and several surprising things happen that keep us wondering what will happen next.

This is a great read for fans of gothic fiction, but the story wasn’t quite compelling enough or scary enough for my tastes. Abi is a likable protagonist, and I wish I could have connected with her more. Though I felt for her plight, and particularly her unjust interactions with Mrs. Cotton, I didn’t become completely invested in her life. That emotional distance made it hard to ride the slower parts of the book, despite finding the overall story interesting.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Review: Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

Book: Haunting Violet
Author: Alyxandra Harvey
Publisher: Walker Childrens
Release date: June 21, 2011
Source: ARC received from I Read Banned Books Tour
Summary: (from Goodreads) Violet Willoughby doesn’t believe in ghosts. But they believe in her. After spending years participating in her mother’s elaborate ruse as a fraudulent medium, Violet is about as skeptical as they come in all matters supernatural. Now that she is being visited by a very persistent ghost, one who suffered a violent death, Violet can no longer ignore her unique ability. She must figure out what this ghost is trying to communicate, and quickly because the killer is still on the loose.

Afraid of ruining her chance to escape her mother’s scheming through an advantageous marriage, Violet must keep her ability secret. The only person who can help her is Colin, a friend she’s known since childhood, and whom she has grown to love. He understands the true Violet, but helping her on this path means they might never be together. Can Violet find a way to help this ghost without ruining her own chance at a future free of lies?

First impressions: We first meet Violet as a 9 year old child in the opening chapter, and she quickly drew me in to her hard London life of poverty and cons. Her mother swindles the rich society ladies with fake Spiritualist readings and seances, while Violet follows the script and occasionally picks pockets. It was a fascinating setting for a ghost story.

Lasting impressions: One of my favorite reads so far in 2011. A historical gothic YA book that was equal parts frightening, delightful, and heartfelt.

Conflicting impressions: It seemed like there were a couple of inconsistencies, though I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that I read an advance copy. A few times while reading I was scratching my head and flipping back through the pages, trying to figure out if we’d ever received that information before. At two different points, the color of Violet’s eyes becomes important, but I couldn’t find a mention of them at any time prior to these points. Odd.

Overall impressions: Quite simply, I wanted to hug this book when I was done with it. I wanted to climb under the covers and put it under my pillow, whispering “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” And of course, when it comes to explaining why exactly I loved it so much, I find myself coming up short.

Violet Willoughby has spent her entire life at the whim of her con artist mother’s moods and lies. Forced to help her mother with the various tricks and preparations for the then-uber-popular psychic readings and seances, Violet has never believed in spirits. Her mother, Celeste, has filled her head with lies about her father, and Celeste’s ego and beauty drive her to pursue a life of deceit (rather than honest work) in order to raise her young daughter.

Celeste is an awful person, and a worse mother. Unsatisfied with her poor station in life, and desperate to win her way into the society life of the peerage, she conducts herself as a medium – though she is a complete fraud. In order to pull off the various parlor tricks required for the seances and readings, she takes on a young boy named Colin, who also helps Violet pick pockets when they’re short on food money. It’s a hard life with few certainties save for the fact that Celeste will always be critical of Violet.

After a short chapter where we get a snapshot of this life when Violet is 9 and Colin is 11, we fast forward seven years to 1872. Violet, her mother, Colin, and a young maid are traveling to a country estate for a weeklong party held by an avid Spiritualist. It’s a big week for the family, and if they pull it off, it could mean the end of destitution and a real chance at a better life. Violet is being courted by a wealthy, handsome boy named Xavier, who can persuade his family to allow him to marry her (without a dowry!) based on her beauty and the fame of her mother. Violet seems ambivalent at best toward Xavier, but recognizes that without him she likely will face a life as a seamstress or cook.

I loved how well Alyxandra Harvey manages Violet’s feelings in this difficult historical time. She is play-acting the part of a lady while at this function, but she knows deep down that she doesn’t belong. The beautiful part is that she’s not sure she wants to. There is a certain freedom to being poor, without the expectations and rules and stifling conversations. Yet no one wants to stare a life of hard labor in the face and embrace it full on. Would she rather sew all day long until her fingers bleed or sit in a parlor drinking tea and reading books to her heart’s content? Not much of a question really, but she also struggles with whether being married to a dreadful bore is a price worth paying.

Shortly after arriving, and during the first of several readings by Celeste, Violet has a startling encounter with a ghost. Having never believed in them, it takes her a while to accept that she truly has developed the ability to speak to the dead. This is when the spooky kicks in. There are ouija boards, brushes with death, and various attempts to communicate before Violet, with the help of her friend Elizabeth, decides she must find out what happened to the ghost Rowena. Most of the book revolves around this murder mystery, and Violet was like our very own 19th century Nancy Drew. She bumbles around, trying to nose her way into everyone’s business to determine who killed Rowena, because if she doesn’t she’s afraid that either Rowena (and the other pesky spirits who are on to her new medium status) will never leave her alone, or the killer will strike again.

The mystery contains lots of red herrings and lots of action. I thought it was well paced and had appropriate amounts of clues thrown at us from time to time. Interspersed throughout the story are further complications to Violet’s well being and her relationship with her mother. There is a dramatic turn of events around the two-thirds point, and it serves as an important catalyst for Violet to decide what she wants out of life. She also starts to develop feelings for Colin, which only makes it more difficult to decide whether to marry Xavier.

Ultimately, this is a story about a girl who grew up never believing in the Spiritualist movement, only to wind up being a true medium herself. Violet must decide what to do with her gift – ignore it and whatever is bothering Rowena, or accept that she can choose to help people instead of exploit their grief like her mother did. Violet is such a likable character, with a quick wit and a heart of gold despite the hardships she endured under her controlling and wicked mother. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially if you at all enjoy historical or gothic tales.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Thank you to I Read Banned Books Tour for lending me this copy!


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Jane Eyre: A Book and Movie Review

Book: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte
First published: 1847
Source: Project Gutenberg free download

Summary: (from Goodreads) Charlotte Bronte’s impassioned novel is the love story of Jane Eyre, a plain yet spirited governess, and her arrogant, brooding Mr. Rochester. Published in 1847, under the pseudonym of Currer Bell, the book heralded a new kind of heroine–one whose virtuous integrity, keen intellect and tireless perseverance broke through class barriers to win equal stature with the man she loved. Hailed by William Makepeace Thackeray as “the masterwork of great genius,” Jane Eyre is still regarded, over a century later, as one of the finest novels in English literature.

First impressions: It’s always a bit of an adjustment jumping into the classics, and Jane Eyre is no exception. I was surprised at how quickly I fell into Jane’s story, though, and consider this to be very accessible even for the most casual reader.

Lasting impressions: What an incredible journey for our young heroine! Jane experiences some of the toughest situations life can throw at you. Throughout the course of the story she is at times loveless, penniless, homeless, and friendless. When she does meet the few people in her life that bring her joy and affection, they are often torn from her in cruel ways. Yet Jane never lets life get the best of her. It’s easy to see why she has been such an inspirational character for nearly two centuries.

Conflicting impressions: While Bronte’s dialogue sings, some of the descriptive scenes can get quite boring. The book covers a large chunk of time, so I found myself getting impatient when I was ready to move on to the next section of the book. In particular, after she leaves Thornfield Hall and moves in with St. John’s family, I was anxious to get to the part where I knew she’d be reunited with Rochester.

Overall impressions: Jane Eyre is definitely one of my new favorite characters. She is a passionate girl in a time where girls should be anything but. Orphaned at an early age, she is brought up by her aunt – her mother’s brother’s wife – who promised her husband on his deathbed that she would care for the child. She despises Jane, however, and shows her absolutely no love or kindness. As if that isn’t bad enough, her son torments and beats Jane when no one is looking, and when Jane strikes back she is punished for it.

After one particularly unjust confrontation, Jane is locked in the room where her uncle died, and she experiences a haunting that terrifies her until she faints. After this incident she is sent away to Lowood School, where she remains both as student and teacher until adulthood. It is at Lowood that Jane makes, and loses, her first friend. Helen teaches Jane the value of restraint and acceptance in the face of brutality, which serves Jane well as she develops into a young woman. The impetuous nature of her childhood seems to cool a bit, and when Jane emerges as a strong woman from Lowood, she is much more reserved and capable of handling tough circumstances.

Jane’s first job outside of Lowood is as a governess at Thornfield Hall, a property owned by Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester. He has a young girl, Adele, as his ward, who he took care of after her mother died in France – a woman Rochester seems to have spent quite a deal of time with. He is blunt, direct, overbearing, and not particularly handsome. He has a dark past that he hints at and ultimately is revealed later in the book. He is an intriguing character to be sure, and given Jane’s own direct nature, the two engage in some zinging dialogue that carries you through the pages effortlessly.

It is through Rochester that Jane begins to understand real partnership. They are equals, relying on each other for strength, comfort, and the joy of each other’s company. Jane has had no real contact with men, and at times Rochester takes advantage of this fact, as well as his station as her employer, to toy with her feelings. What could seem brutish and unseemly is rather understood to be merely the insecurity of a man who feels he is not deserving of any kind of love or happiness. When he finally reveals his true feelings, you get the urge to smile through your tears and punch him on the arm for putting us through all that.

While at Thornfield, Jane also experiences a number of seemingly supernatural events. She hears voices and footsteps in the halls, wakes to find Rochester’s bed on fire, and on the eve of her wedding, sees a strange creature in her closet ripping her veil. I really liked these spooky elements of the story, and I may be developing a bit of a crush on gothic literature because of it. If you haven’t read the book, do yourself a favor and don’t read the plot summary beforehand like I did. I think the reveal behind the ghostly occurrences is quite powerful and surprising, so I promise not to spoil it for you here.

When Jane is forced by circumstance to leave Thornfield Hall, she ends up losing her belongings in a carriage and finds herself suddenly without money, food, or shelter. It is during this portion of her story that Jane proves herself to be wonderfully resilient. With another small kindness bestowed on her from a man called St. John, she manages to slowly build herself back up, eventually securing work again as a schoolteacher and having her own place to live.

I won’t give away the entire ending, but despite all odds against her, Jane’s story is a happy one. It is also a lesson in the power of who you choose to call family, how you choose to live your life, and what you choose to make of the life given to you. Your real family may disappoint you, and complete strangers may give you just what you need to get through the end of the day. One day you can be full of sadness, and the next may bring you complete joy. It is a journey, but one that should be endured and celebrated no matter what happens, for you never know what tomorrow will bring. Jane Eyre is a magnificent and truly timeless story.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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I also saw the movie this weekend, and highly recommend it, particularly if you like period dramas. The movie has to skip over some material, as the book encompasses a LOT of story. We are given only the briefest of glimpses into the time Jane spends with her aunt and at Lowood School, with the majority of the movie taking place at Thornfield Hall. I found this appropriate since Jane’s romance with Rochester is such a major point of the book.

The cast was exquisite, and the two leads portray Jane and Rochester with the perfect balance of decorum and playfulness. They downplay some of Rochester’s faults (because Michael Fassbender ain’t exactly hard to look at, if you catch my drift), and portray Jane as a bit more dense than she comes across in the book. Judi Dench is a dream as Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, often getting a big laugh from the audience with nothing more than a glance.

I did have an issue with the Big Reveal – in the novel it is quite a bit more shocking than it came across on film. That was disappointing, especially given how much they played up the supernatural stuff throughout the movie. There was also an inexplicable change to the relationship between Jane and St. John that I didn’t quite get. I thought it was much more effective as written than how they handled it in the movie.

The movie seemed to match the book’s pacing – slooooow. Neither version is jam packed with excitement, even given the volume of events that take place and the nature of the action. I found the movie quite enjoyable regardless, though I am always a fan of 19th century British dramas. If the story interests you but you don’t have the time to read the book, definitely go see the movie – and then email me so we can gab about it!

Giveaway Winner and MORE Challenges!

Thank you to everyone who participated in my Huntress/Hunted by the Others/Waterfall giveaway! Random.org has revealed the winner as:

Rebecca Mallary!
Congratulations Rebecca! I have emailed you at the address provided, and your books will be ordered for you by the end of the week. Enjoy!


I didn’t get any new books to report this week for In My Mailbox, so in my boredom I decided to just sign up for more challenges! Okay, boredom isn’t totally correct since I’m crazy busy with school at the moment, but I did spot some good ones for books I wanted to read anyway, so here goes!


First up is Bookaholic Does Blogging’s Black Dagger Brotherhood challenge. Starting April 1st, we’ll be reading all 9 of the BDB series books and discussing them. Ashley has set up a nice format where we can comment either at her blog or on a Goodreads group she set up, and I’m really looking forward to this interactive format. You can participate in the challenge, the book club, or both! I’m going to try to participate in both, although I have a tendency to not follow through well in Goodreads groups. Hopefully this one will break that curse!

Okay, this one looks quite challenging, but also like a really fun way to get some new reads. It’s Life with Books’ Take a Chance Challenge 3. The point is to find new books to read in different ways. There are ten categories to try and complete. Crossovers are accepted and books can be read in any format. Challenge runs January 1-December 31, 2011.

1: Staff  Memberâ??s Choice: Go to a bookstore or library that has a â??Staff Picksâ? section. Read one of the picks from that section.

2: Loved Oneâ??s Choice: Ask a loved one to pick a book for you to read. (If you can convince them to buy it for you, that is even better!)

3: Bloggerâ??s Choice: Find a â??Best Books Readâ? post from a favorite blogger. Read a book from their list.

4: Criticâ??s Choice: Find a â??Best of the Yearâ? list from a magazine, newspaper or professional critic. Read a book from their Top 10 list.

5: Blurb Book: Find a book that has a blurb on it from another author. Read a book by the author that wrote the blurb.

6: Book Seer Pick: Go to The Book Seer and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

7: What Should I Read Next Pick : Go to What Should I Read Next and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

8: Which Book Pick: Go to Which Book and use the software to generate a list of books. Read a book from that list.

9: LibraryThing Pick: Go to LibraryThingâ??s Zeitgeist page. Look at the lists for 25 Most Reviewed Books or Top Books and pick a book youâ??ve never read. Read the book. (Yes â?¦ you can click on MORE if you have to.)

10: Pick A Method: Pick a method for finding a book from the choices listed below (used in previous versions of the challenge).

  • Random Book Selection. Go to the library. Position yourself in a section such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Children (whatever section you want). Then write down random directions for yourself (for example, third row, second shelf, fifth book from right). Follow your directions and see what book you find. Check that book out of the library, read it and then write about it. (If you prefer, you can do the same at a bookstore and buy the book!)
  • Public Spying. Find someone who is reading a book in public. Find out what book they are reading and then read the same book. Write about it.
  • Random Bestseller. Go to Random.org and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1950 for the min. and 2010 for the max. and then hit generate. Then go to this site and find the year that Random.org generated for you and click on it. Then find the bestseller list for the week that would contain your birthday for that year. Choose one of the bestsellers from the list that comes up, read it and write about it.
  • Sounds hard, right? Well, if you finish them all, you enter a drawing to win a book of your choice, so all of that tough reading can pay off.

    I’m trying to broaden my horizons and read more fantasy books. Darlyn and Books is running this challenge. I am going to enter the Fascinated level and try to read 6 fantasy novels this year.

    I kept meaning to sign up for this one and never got around to it. I can’t think of many Gothic books I’ve read…ever…so this will be a good opportunity for me to explore some fiction I don’t usually read. I think I’m going to like it, though, since it’s lots of mystery, spooky castles and paranormal stuff. Count me in! I’m going to participate at The Darkness Within level and read 5 Gothic books this year.

    Reading Challenge Addict
    Also, since I am a CRAZY PERSON and signed up for all of these challenges, I felt obligated to sign up for the Reading Challenge Addict challenge as well. With entry into the Reading Challenge Addict challenge, it becomes my 16th challenge, putting me at the Out of this World level (16+ challenges). Yikes.

    Visit my Challenge Index page to keep track of all this craziness and leave me suggestions if you have titles to recommend!