Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Rebecca

I got bogged down with some difficult books this month, which slowed my reading considerably. I reviewed my actual favorite book on my personal blog, so I’m kind of covering the leftovers here. BUT! That’s not to say I didn’t like any of them. In fact, my second-favorite novel of the month was Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and I liked it quite a lot.

But first, real quick, what slowed me down: I waded through Long Man, a new novel that’s receiving rave reviews but which just never quite grabbed me. Possibly I needed the audiobook companion … more and more, I find it difficult to get into books unless I have a couple solid hours with a good audiobook version. On the flipside, I listened to an audiobook lecture titled Philosophy of Mind that was not exactly boring, but was technical and difficult. I thought I was reasonably good at philosophy, in a layperson way, but no. I found a lot of the content so abstract and almost mathematical as to be nearly impenetrable. And because it was only aural, I kept losing my concentration. Lesson learned: have an audio and visual copy of most anything before jumping in. (Yay for libraries.)

On to Rebecca. Although I got a degree in English literature, I’d never read du Maurier before. Last year Rebecca kept coming up in book review after book review. It seemed every new novel was an homage in some way to this 20th-century classic. So, because a book about a haunting kept haunting me, I figured I ought to give it a whirl.

My first surprise was that it was a 20th-century novel. I was thinking… ghosts and English estates and brooding lords-of-the-manor, gotta be 1820 or so. That would be because the novel draws heavily on the Bronte sisters. However, it’s actually fairly modern, more Great Gatsby than Wuthering Heights. Rebecca was published in 1938, the same year this photo was taken:

That is my grandmother. Isn’t she lovely? She was 21 at the time, approximately the same age as the nameless narrator who tells the story of Rebecca. The narrator is a stand-in for du Maurier herself, who wrote the novel as an exploration of her own jealousy—her husband had a previous paramour that du Maurier suspected he was still a little in love with. (My grandmother, as far as I know, never had this issue.) Rebecca is not really a ghost story, I discovered—or at least not the story of an actual ghost. There is nothing supernatural here, in spite of the gothic setting and tone. The titular Rebecca does indeed haunt the narrator, but she does it by simply having existed and lived a huge life that the narrator, her opposite, constantly bangs into. Where the narrator is small, self-effacing, plain, uptight, moral, and a bit weedy, Rebecca was tall, extravagant, beautiful, luscious, and wicked.

Of course, the real center of the story is the truly evil Mrs. Danvers. The housekeeper steals every scene she is in. I couldn’t help thinking of Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein whenever she was described … which made me giggle a little, which in turn took some of the creeping horror away from those scenes. That didn’t stop me from gasping at one of the truly over-the-top scenes in the middle of the book, which was as delicious as it was theatrical. (For those who’ve read it: the bit where the narrator and Danvers are looking out the window over the paving stones.)

fraublucher - Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Rebecca
Stay close to zee candles. Zee stairway can be … treacherous

Once I got into this book, I was turning pages pretty feverishly. But it took a while. The narrator is a wimp, and wimpiness doesn’t sit too well with modern readers, myself included. I had to keep reminding myself that novels aren’t (always) prescriptive, and protagonists are not and shouldn’t always be expected to be heroes. Protagonists should be allowed the full range of human experience, and cowardly, sniveling people have stories to tell too. We may not like being inside such a person’s head, but if the story is plausible and well-written, with interesting characters, it’s worth sitting with a problematic protagonist. It was for me.

Want to read other Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews, and/or participate in future ones? Visit our host, the Armchair Squid

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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