(This post is rather lengthy, I know — I’ve just wanted to write about this book for so long!)
There was one book I forgot to list down among my top picks for 2008, one of the buzzer beaters, which I finished on the 28th of December: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Dodie Smith’s more famous work is the children’s story The 101 Dalmatians, but before that, she wrote a novel entitled I Capture the Castle in 1948.

I only learned about I Capture the Castle because J.K. Rowling named it as one of her favorite books — I love the books she recommends; my cousin and I discovered the Cirque du Freak series also because JKR raved about them.

I found a fairly new copy at Book Sale (the best! I swear!) last year, but it took a few more months before I finally found an opportunity to read it without interruptions — on my holiday trip after Christmas, where I indulged in a lot of fresh air and four days of reading bliss.

Meet the Mortmains

I Capture the Castle is the journal of 17-year old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling English castle in the countryside in the 1930s.

The Mortmains are dirt-poor but such characters! Cassandra’s father (she calls him Mortmain) is something of a one-hit wonder writer. His first book, “Jacob Wrestling” was a big hit in the past decade, prompting him to move his family to the countryside for inspiration, although it never came — he has a ten-year old case of writer’s block. The Mortmains have a 40-year lease on the castle, but over the years, they have had to sell off all the good furniture just so they can buy food.

Cassandra’s mother has passed away early on, so her father remarries the young Topaz, who is well-meaning but flighty. She is a model who poses nude for artists, and habitually “communes with nature” (er, frolics in the meadow) in nothing but hipboots.

Cassandra’s elder sister, Rose, is the family beauty (golden haired and rosy-cheeked) who despairs of being poor and wants to hook a rich husband (her main fantasy is to live in a Jane Austen novel). Their younger brother, Thomas, is often away at school on a scholarship courtesy of the local vicar, and although he doesn’t appear often, he is quite endearing as well.

The family also includes Stephen Colly, the son of one of their old servants, who continues to help out around the house even though they have nothing to pay him and he ends up getting a job outside to contribute towards the family budget. Stephen also happens to be in love with Cassandra, but unfortunately, Cassandra loves him like a brother.

Finally, there is the snowy-white bull terrier Heloise, who rounds out the family picture.

Things change for the family one fateful night, in a rather comical episode. Rose is overcome with despair about being poor, and attempts to do a Faust by hauling herself up on a pulley to wish upon the gargoyle mounted high on their kitchen fireplace. That same night, they meet the Cottons — the rich family who are now the landlords to the castle, including their two bachelor sons, Neil and Simon.

I will have to stop there before I reveal any more of the story, but more amusing episodes follow, and even as I’m writing this, I can’t help but laugh at the memory — the bathtub confrontation, the fur incident, the two wireless radios, the lockup in the tower… Equally plentiful are the sigh-inducing moments that make the book a throwback to 19th century English novels like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.

Cassandra and Rose also remind me of the March girls in Little Women, especially when they had to dress up for dinner at the Cottons’. Rose reminds me of Meg and Jo, when they had to go to a party and had to make do with shabby gowns. The sisters also keep an old dress form in their room, christened as “Miss Blossom,” whom they pour their hearts out to whenever they’re troubled.

A heroine like no other

I Capture the Castle is one of this century’s most beloved novels, and now I know why — Cassandra Mortmain can charm the socks off a stone monument!

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

This is how the novel begins, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story. It’s Cassandra’s voice that is the cornerstone of this book, and it reveals a guileless, intelligent, and feisty teenage girl, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about.

She says the most original things, and outside of EM Forster’s A Room with a View, I don’t think I’ve ever read so many lines that spoke to me all in one book! Most of the lines that struck a chord with me in this book were Cassandra’s random thoughts — some plain amusing, some thought-provoking, and others just overflowing with emotion. Her uncanny wit and sharp perception make the book such a delightful read.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:

On life:

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

“Time takes the ugliness and horror out of death and turns it into beauty.”

“I wonder if there isn’t a catch about having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things?”

“I should rather like to tear these last pages out of the book. Shall I? No-a journal ought not to cheat.”

On contemplation:

“Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.”

“I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.”

“I was wandering around as usual, in my unpleasantly populated sub-conscious…”

“I have noticed that when things happen in one’s imaginings, they never happen in one’s life.”

On family:

“The family, that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor in our innermost hearts never quite wish to.”

On writing:

“I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.”

“Only half a page left now. Shall I fill it with ‘I love you, I love you’– like father’s page of cats on the mat? No. Even a broken heart doesn’t warrant a waste of good paper.”

I hope these beautiful lines tempt you to read the book, because I don’t know anyone else who has read it, and I’d love to talk about the book with someone :)

There is a 2003 movie on the book, but I’m afraid to watch it because it might ruin the book for me. If anyone has watched it, please let me know how you found it, especially if you’ve read the book too.

My copy: trade paperback, bought at Book Sale for P170 (yes, I shelled out P170 at Book Sale for this — so much worth it!)

My rating: 5/5 stars

Clue: 15 Whodunits to Solve in 15 Minutes by Vicki Cameron

I found this on the sale rack at National back in January, and it was screaming to be mine for only P95. Based on the popular game, Clue, this book is an anthology of short mysteries surrounding the death of Mr. Boddy (always the victim, of course) played out in different scenarios.

It’s great to see the game in action throughout the book, with all the characters brought to life. Mrs. White is the long-suffering matron housekeeper, Mrs. Peacock is the wealthy lady who’s inherited her numerous dead husbands’ estates; Ms. Scarlett is Mrs. Peacock’s flighty but foxy daughter; Rev. Green is the holier-than-thou crook who clearly doesn’t practice what he preaches; Professor Plum is the deadbeat intellectual who’s been laid off from his job at the museum; and Col. Mustard is the retired military man whose medals were never received out of any true valor.

And of course, Mr. Boddy manages to get himself killed every single time, by one of the usual suspects, with the usual weapons (knife, candlestick, rope, revolver, leadpipe, wrench).

I liked the idea of the book, and the quirky characters, but it leaves a lot more to be desired as a mystery anthology.

First off, the characters just kill Mr. Boddy out of whim. I mean, of course I’m not expecting a long, drawn-out motive, but well, all fifteen stories have the characters killing Mr. Boddy because he knows something about the murderer that’s not supposed to be out in the open, or something to that effect. And then when people discover the body, they’re all like, “Oh, he’s dead,” like it was the most normal thing in the world, and say “Let’s go have coffee” or some other inane remark.

The stories aren’t well-developed, and you really don’t end up solving the whodunit (other than randomly guessing at who the murderer is).The evidence presented to lead up to actually solving the whodunit is severely lacking, and when you read the solution, the story draws on pulling out unknown information out of thin air, and there you have it, you have a murderer.

Sigh, good whodunits are really hard to find.

My copy: paperback, on my shelf

My rating: 2/5 stars

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

I finally finished the trilogy last night and I can’t get over the fact that it’s over, and I am posting a review in the attempt to get some closure (sniffle sniffle).Deathly Hallows spelled the end of an era for me and millions of Harry Potter fans, and I’ve long been in search of something else to sink my teeth into, but it’s often a disappointing experience (e.g. The Inheritance Trilogy [Eragon], the Charlie Bone series). The Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke was a great discovery, but it’s a different kind of fantasy, with a different feel to it, not to mention that we’re still waiting for the third installment and a final release date for the movie, for crying out loud. The Darren Shan Saga is great, too, it was even recommended by Rowling herself, but veers more towards blood and gore (not for the weak of heart and tummy!).

On a whim, I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand back in January using my 40% discount on Powercard Plus birthday blowout (thank you Powerbooks!), and then got The Golem’s Eye for a birthday present (thank you Andrea!)… And then I chanced upon a hardbound Ptolemy’s Gate at the Powerbooks VIP Sale (yahoo!)

I finally got to read the series recently, Amulet about two months ago, and then Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate in the last few days because I simply couldn’t stop reading, even though I was supposed to be reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for our discussion on Saturday (now I have to cram that).

Anyway, enough with the long intro and let’s get on with the good stuff (no spoilers, I promise).

The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a British fantasy series about an alternative London, a present-day London that is ruled by magicians, a blend of centuries-old magical tradition and modern technology. At the heart of the series is Nathaniel, a young magician; his wisecracking five thousand year old djinni Bartimaeus, and a renegade named Kitty Jones, and the forging of an extraordinary bond between these three characters.

Consistent with British magical lore (if you’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, you’ll enjoy the Bartimaeus trilogy because it’s about twenty times more exciting), the book touches on magical apprenticeship, summoning magical creatures, political wars won with magic, the importance of birth names, and a host of magical creatures – imps, foliots, djinn, afrits, marids, and golems). It’s a bit darker than Harry Potter, and politics is a major theme, and there are lots of entertaining historical references, but everything ties together well with the story.

The Amulet of Samarkand starts out with Nathaniel’s apprenticeship, extraordinary magical aptitude, and his need to prove himself. Together with Bartimaeus, Nathaniel sets out to foil a government conspiracy involving the Amulet of Samarkand, with a few setbacks engineered by Kitty Jones and her team of ruffians. It’s an excellent introduction to the series, with the narrative between the perspectives of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel.

The Golem’s Eye sees Nathaniel rising in the ranks of government while Kitty Jones continues to thwart him, as her renegade group, the Resistance, wreaks trouble in the city. The second book is more transitional – it happens two years after Amulet, introduces Kitty’s perspective and establishes her as one of the central characters in the story, reveals a larger conspiracy that is a prelude to book 3, and lays out Nathaniel’s transformation into a ruthless and ambitious politician, John Mandrake.

Ptolemy’s Gate, which is easily the best of the three books, happens another couple of years later. Nathaniel is now London’s most powerful magician, and Kitty has changed her identity and apprenticed herself to a magician in her quest to learn more about Bartimaeus. Here the sinister conspiracy reveals itself, and Kitty, Nathaniel, and Bartimaeus must all overcome their personal differences and work together to save London and set things right. The book reveals a large part of Bartimaeus’ story, gives the wake up call that Nathaniel needs to regain his old self, and explores the relationship between human and djinn, building up to a thrilling climax that effectively concludes the saga.

It’s a perfect blend of all the right elements – humor, history, politics, ambition, adventure, excitement, survival, and compassion, and a great story that is contained completely within the three books, with a sense of finality to it, even though you want it to go on and on. I kept rereading the last few chapters because I couldn’t believe it was over, something that I haven’t done with a book in a long time.

Ok, now someone else should go read it already so I can pour my heart out. Waah.

My copy: Book 1 paperback upgraded into a hardcover with dustjacket (mooched from the US); Book 2 paperback upgraded into a hardcover without a dustjacket (mooched) then into a hardcover with a dustjacket (mooched again); book 3 hardcover with dustjacket from Powerbooks VIP sale. All US edition (Hyperion/Miramax). Paperback copies of Books 1 & 2 will be passed on to a moocher in Japan (wired_lain!) and the naked hardcover to Flipper friend Cecille.

My rating: Book 1, 5/5 stars; Book 2, 4/5 stars; Book 3, 5/5 stars. Series, 5/5 stars