Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

My only experience of pre-Victorian Gothic is Frankenstein. I really didn't know any others. So I had a little Google around and came across this site which contains lists of the Gothic novels read by the Romantics. If it's good enough for Mary Shelley, it's good enough for me, and I picked Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown.

It is apparently the first novel by an American born writer. Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1771. According to the short biography of him in the edition I read, he didn't have a very happy life. His father was imprisoned for debt and the young Brown spent a lot of time visiting him in jail. His family wanted him to study law, which he did unenthusiastically. Eventually he gave it up because he wanted to support himself as a full time novelist. He was unable to achieve this and died of tuberculosis aged 39, seemingly very unhappy with his the way his life had turned out.

The Wieland of the title is Theodore Wieland. The story is narrated by his sister, Clara. The Wielands are well-to-do and live in some comfort. Their father dies in mysterious circumstances - a flash of light and an explosion, apparently a case of spontaneous combustion. Wieland inherits the family home, marries the lovely Catherine and has a family of his own. Clara moves to a house close by on the property where  she lives with her servant. Catherine's brother Pleyel also lives close by and they are all very happy together.

Then strange disembodied voices begin to be heard, often giving warnings. At first Wieland and the others seem to find this puzzling rather than frightening. At the same time a new person joins their group, a man named Carwin. Clara is unsure of him, she 'was wholly uncertain whether he were an object to be dreaded or adored, and whether his powers had been exerted to evil or to good.' Carwin is not the social equal of the others, but he is intelligent and well-informed.

The voices become more threatening and malevolent. Clara hears threats to kill her coming from the closet in her bedroom and then later in a spot near her house she hears the same voice;

This voice was immediately recognised to be the same with one of those which I had heard in the closet; it was the voice of him who had proposed to shoot, rather than to strangle, his victim. My terror made me, at once mute and motionless. He continued, 'I leagued to murder you. I repent. Mark my bidding and  be safe. Avoid this spot, shun it as you value your life. Mark me further; profit by this warning, but divulge it not. If a syllable of what has passed escape you, your doom is sealed. Remember your father, and be faithful.'

Their lives begin to crumble as suspicion and mistrust spread. The horror culminates with the murder of Catherine and the children and the dreadful truth of their killer.

I found this story a bit disjointed. Some parts were very atmospheric, particularly those scenes which take place at Clara's home. It is only three quarters of a mile from the main house, but seemed very lonely when the mysterious voices were making themselves heard. But the whole thing didn't hang together very well. The father's death didn't seem to serve any purpose, and the unusual nature of it had nothing to do with what happened later in the story. A young woman named Louisa turns up, and we learn quite a bit about her backstory - but again, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the main story.

So on the whole, while I found it interesting, it wasn't as good as Frankenstein.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis

I have been a bit disappointed with the Narnia series. I was really looking forward to reading them to Billy but I have to say that they've been a bit hit and miss. By far my favourite so far has been The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and I can see why it's become the most famous.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins with Edmund and Lucy Pevensie going to stay with their cousin Eustace. Eustace is a horrible boy;

Eustace Clarence disliked his cousins the four Pevensies, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. But he was quite glad when he heard that Edmund and Lucy were coming to stay. For deep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying; and, though he was a puny little person who couldn't have stood up even to Lucy, let alone Edmund, in a fight, he knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors.

A picture of a ship in Eustace's house becomes a portal through to Narnia. The three children go through and find themselves on the ship, the Dawn Treader. There they meet their old friends Caspian, now King of Narnia, and Reepicheep the Mouse. Caspian and his crew are on a mission to discover the whereabouts of seven lost lords, friends of Caspian's father, who were banished by his wicked Uncle Miraz. Edmund, Lucy and Eustace join the mission, (Eustace very reluctantly) and all kinds of adventures befall them. Eustace has a particular adventure which quite changes his personality and makes him a much nicer person.

The further they sail from Narnia the stranger the landscapes and the people they encounter. I thought the most effective was the Dark Island, it was very atmospheric and in fact it frightened Billy a little bit;

How long the voyage into the darkness lasted, nobody knew. Except for the creak of the rowlocks and the splash of the oars there was nothing to show that they were moving at all. Edmund, peering from the bows, could see nothing except the reflection of the lantern in the water before him. It looked like a greasy sort of reflection, and the ripple made by the advancing prow appeared to be heavy, small and lifeless. As time went on everyone except the rowers began to shiver with cold.
Suddenly, from somewhere - no one's sense of direction was very clear by now - there came a cry, either of some inhuman voice or else a voice of one in such extremity of terror that he had almost lost his humanity.

Scary stuff!

I didn't enjoy this one as  much as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but it was still enjoyable. I think Billy liked it - it's a bit difficult to tell with Billy!

The Agatha Christie Blog Carnival for this month is live here. My review of The Murder at the Links is there.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot receives a letter from a man named Paul Renauld, telling him that his services are urgently
 required. However when Poirot, accompanied by Hastings arrives at Renauld's home in France, they find that he has been murdered.

I was struck that in the first part of the book Poirot really has very little to do. The case is already being handled by the magistrate, Monsieur Hautet, and the commissary Monsieur Bex. Both are glad to have Poirot there, and as they are competent and professional, he observes, only occasionally making his thoughts known. This satisfactory working arrangement is disturbed by the arrival from Paris of the star detective - Monsieur Giraud. Giraud is a young man whose ego even overshadows Poirot's. He is clearly threatened by Poirot's presence there and is rude and dismissive of him.

It is a complicated and puzzling case. The murdered man was a successful businessman, Canadian by birth,  with extensive interests in South America. He was married, with a grown up son Jack.  There was a suspicion that he was having an affair with Madame Daubreuil, who lived close by. Mme Daubreil has a beautiful daughter, Marthe, who Jack Renauld is in love with. His father had disapproved of this match. The finger of suspicion moves around and I have to admit that I got hopelessly confused.

Hastings gets himself into a spot of bother in this story. He has an eye for the ladies, and falls for a girl he meets on a train. I was slightly taken aback because she is only seventeen. I'm not quite sure how old Hastings is, but I'm sure that it's a good bit older than seventeen. However nobody else seems to raise an eyebrow about it so I assume things were different in the 1920s.

I didn't enjoy this one as much as the previous two. I felt that it jogged along quite steadily for half the book and then characters and information came flying at me until I didn't know where I was. Even after Poirot explained I didn't fully understand. I did have a cold while I was reading it, so I'll blame my slowness on that.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Gone With The Wind - Chapters 48 to 63

This last section opens with Scarlett and Rhett in New Orleans on their honeymoon. Scarlett is enjoying herself amongst all the carpet-baggers and scallawags, but old Atlanta will never forgive her. Melly will defend Scarlett to the last, and she is a formidable ally, but even so, when Scarlett holds a fancy ball none of the old guard attend. She has made herself a pariah.

Scarlett and Rhett have a baby girl, the beautiful Bonnie. She is adored by her father and is easily Scarlett's favourite child - not that that's saying much because she has very little time for Wade and Ella. Rhett realises that if Bonnie is to be accepted into society (and this is suddenly very important to him), he will have to make himself acceptable to the likes of the Merriweathers and the Elsings. So he sets out to woo them, which Scarlett finds incomprehensible.

Scarlett is very clear that she doesn't love Rhett, and it is clear to the reader that Rhett does love Scarlett. He doesn't tell her and Scarlett is not good at reading between the lines. After  Bonnie's birth she decides she doesn't want any more children and so tells him that she will no longer be sleeping with him. He doesn't seem to care too much.

Two tragedies dominate the last section of the book. The death of Bonnie in a riding accident and the death of Melly due to a miscarriage. Bonnie's death breaks Rhett, he is completely devastated. Scarlett blames him and really it is the final blow for their already shaky relationship. Melly's death is almost a bitterer blow for Scarlett. It's as if a light goes on in her brain and she suddenly sees the true worth of Melly. She understands how much she has relied on Melly, and also how much Ashley has relied on Melly. She realises that her love for Ashley was a fantasy, based on her romantic imaginings of who Ashley is. She also realises that she loves Rhett and rushes to tell him so. However it is too late, the love he had for her has gone. But in true Scarlett style she refuses to be defeated - she will find a way tomorrow.

I have loved re-reading Gone With The Wind and thank you to Erin at The Heroine's Bookshelf for hosting the readalong. I am wondering however, after reading it again, is Melly the real heroine of the book? Perhaps not, but I think she's just as much a heroine as Scarlett.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon

I knew next to nothing about Emily Dickinson before reading this book. I knew that she was a nineteenth century American poet who didn't leave her house. I had a vague image of an ethereal, other-worldly figure dressed in white. Lyndall Gordon presents an Emily Dickinson who is confident (sometimes off-puttingly so), and ambitious. She was one of the first generation of American women to be college educated, and she left the family home to stay in halls at college. She did however suffer from periods of ill-health and Gordon suggests that this is reason for Emily's increasing seclusion as she moved into her twenties. Gordon believes that Emily may have suffered from epilepsy, a condition which was quite stigmatised in the nineteenth century.

The first half of this book is about Emily's life. She lived in Amherst with her sister Lavinia, and next door lived her brother Austin, his wife Sue and their children. Emily was very close to her sister-in-law, they were both intelligent, bookish women. Her brother Austin was a lawyer (as their father had been) and a leading citizen in Amherst. In 1883 he begins an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. This inevitably splits the family. Austin and Mabel regularly had their assignations at Emily and Lavinia's home, though it seems that Emily took Sue's side. Mabel becomes fascinated by the reclusive Emily. Emily is polite, but distant. By this time she is seeing very few people and Mabel never manages to meet her.

The second half of the book is concerned with Emily's legacy. After her death there is a tug of war between Austin, Mabel and Lavinia on one side, and Sue and her children on the other over who has the right to publish the poems. This fight destroys the family and Gordon suggests it leads to the death of two of the participants due to the stress of protracted court cases. Unbelievably the feud passed down to the next generation and was still going in the 1950s.

The feud affected the image of Emily Dickinson which is held by the public. Each side wanted to claim that they knew her best. The Dickinson's reticence as a family meant that they were keen to portray her without any of the spikiness and mischief with Gordon says she possessed. Sue Dickinson's reputation suffered in the aftermath. In order for Mabel to place herself in the centre of the Emily Dickinson legend she had to push Sue to one side.

I thought this was a fascinating book. I did wish I'd known a bit more about Emily Dickinson before I started reading it, it has made me want to find out more about her.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson

In her introduction to this book Nicholson writes, 'This is a biography of a summer, a particularly lovely summer, for some the most perfect of the twentieth century'. It was a very hot summer, far hotter than English summers usually are. Nicholson divides her chapters up into 'Early May', 'Late May', 'Early June' etc. and so the reader works their way through the whole season.

Each chapter has a main character, so for instance in Chapter 2, 'Early May', we read about Queen Mary preparing for the Coronation. She is a shy, reserved woman and is extremely anxious, not only about the ceremony itself, but her whole life as Queen and whether she'll be able to live up to the role. 'Late May' starts with Winston Churchill, then 36 and Home Secretary. Nicholson also explains what is going on in England, and where relevant, the world. So it's not a biography of the person, just what was happening to them during the summer of 1911, and how that fits into the bigger picture.

I was very pleased to see Leonard Woolf make an appearance ('Early July'). I have love Leonard ever since reading Victoria Glendinning's biography of him a couple of years ago. In 1911 Leonard was just back from spending several years in Ceylon working for the Colonial Civil Service. He has come back to find an England much changed. He is reacquainting himself with home and with his old friends such as Lytton Strachey.

Not all the characters are well known. Nicholson covers all sections of society and 'Late July' features Eric Horne, who had been a butler for forty years. Eric kept a diary and was not always complimentary about his employers;

Eric bridged the gap between the servants and the served. The evolving memoir, written in his idiosyncratic and uncorrected style, recorded what life was like not only in his pantry below stairs but in the drawing rooms and bedrooms above. It was incriminating and explosive stuff. Eric knew too much; in fact he knew the truth.

Nicholson also writes about the social unrest of the time. There was a strike by the dock workers which threatened to bring the country to its knees. Without the dock workers loading and unloading the ships, the trade on which the economy depended couldn't take place. The leader of the dock worker's union, Ben Tillett, wrote of London at the time;

the great markets of the city were idle; the rush and turmoil of the City's traffic congesting the principle ways dwindling to a little trickle as motor buses, motor cars and private vehicles of all kinds felt the pressure of a shortage of petrol and all the immense volume of trading traffic through the City streets from the docks to the warehouses and the great railway terminals ceased to move.

Of course one of the most poignant things about this book is that we know the dreadful catastrophe which is just around the corner. Everytime a new person entered the pages I couldn't help wondering what the war would bring to them, and if it's a young man, wondering if he'd still be alive by the end of 1918.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I enjoy reading about Bloomsbury, some of which covers this time period, but of course they moved in quite elevated circles. This book gave me an insight into broader society at the time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler

Transworld Book GroupThis is the third book I've been sent in the Transworld Book Challenge, and it is the second in the Bryant and May series. I have recently read the first, 'A Full Dark House' though I haven' reviewed it yet. I really enjoyed it and so was looking forward to reading this one.

Arthur Bryant and John May are senior detectives with the Peculiar Crimes Squad, which is a very small department within London's Metropolitan Police. The peculiar crime they are investigating in this story is the death of an elderly woman, Ruth Singh. Ruth has been found in her own home, sitting in a chair, dressed as if she's about to go out - yet it appears she has drowned. Not only that, but the water in her throat is river water.

Ruth Singh lived at 5 Balaklava Street in London, an area which had previously been very poor, but is in the process of becoming gentrified. People like Ruth, who have lived there for decades, live alongside the upwardly mobile who are hoping to make a quick buck as house prices rise. The history of the area proves important in the investigation. Christopher Fowler is very good at describing London and the fascinating palimpsest that makes it what it is. He doesn't describe a sanitised, tourist brochure version of the city, but a messy, vital, dirty, secret-riven place. Yet he still manages to make it magical and attractive.

Water is all around in the story. It is constantly raining and Balaklava Street is particularly prone to flooding. It is built over the River Fleet, one of the lost tributaries of the Thames. Kallie Owen, the young woman who buys Ruth Singh's house is haunted by the sound of rushing water in the basement and mysterious damp patches which bloom on the walls and then suddenly disappear. There is a sub-plot concerning Gareth Greenwood, an academic whose specialist subject is the lost rivers of London.

Bryant and May are wonderful characters. Both are elderly, well past retirement age. Bryant feels his age more than May, but is still the reckless one, making connections no-one else can see. May is more circumspect, often reining his partner in when he goes off on one of his wilder flights of fancy. Their friendship is close and genuine, built up over sixty years of working together. I loved this book and look forward to reading more in the series.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser

This is the second in the series of books about Harry Flashman, the villain from Tom Brown's Schooldays. As ever, Flashman is an amoral, bullying coward. He gets himself into some terrible fixes and by a combination of luck and cunning manages to get himself out of them again.

In this story Flashman foolishly manages to make an enemy of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck is at the beginning of his career, but is still a force to be reckoned with. Flashman is persuaded to go to Germany (he is offered money, which Flashman always finds very persuasive). Once there he finds himself a prisoner of Bismarck.

It turns out that Flashman bears a remarkable resemblance to Prince Carl Gustaf of Denmark. The Prince is set to marry Duchess Irma of the tiny province of Strackenz. It is vital for Bismarck's political ambitions that this marriage goes ahead. Unfortunately Prince Carl Gustaf is indisposed with a rather embarrassing illness. To avoid scandal Bismarck wants Flashman to stand in for the Prince and act his role until the Prince has recovered. Not even the Duchess (who has never met the Prince) will know of this scheme. If Flashman doesn't agree to go through with this he will be killed.

As with the previous Flashman novel I have read, there is loads of historical detail here which made me want to read further into the period. I know nothing about Otto von Bismarck, and I also want to find out  more about Lola Montez, a dancer who ended up being the virtual ruler of Bavaria.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang by Emma Thompson

This was Billy's choice for his bedtime book. He bought it at the school book fair a few months ago and it's a re-read for us. His Grandma took him to see the film at the cinema and he really enjoyed it.

The story is set during the Second World War. Rory Green has gone off to fight, leaving his wife Isabel to singlehandedly manage their farm, keep her job in the local shop and look after their three children, Norman, Megsie and Vincent. I know it's not Rory's fault - he had to go - but I just felt so sorry for Isabel. On top of this the children's cousins, Cyril and Celia are evacuated from London and come to stay with them. And on top of that the farm is struggling to pay its way and Isabel's wastrel brother-in-law is trying to wrest control of it from her. I don't think Billy was too concerned about poor Isabel, but I certainly was.

Fortunately for her help is at hand in the form of Nanny McPhee, who turns up uninvited one evening. Isabel is so beaten down and exhausted that she barely thinks twice about letting a complete stranger into her home to look after her children. Nanny McPhee is a magical being and soon sets about instilling some discipline into the unruly children. She can't stay for long, the rule is, 'When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go.'

There is a lot of slapstick in the story, which Billy enjoyed - the piglets escaping, a big fight between in the children in the muddy farmyard, Miss Topsey and Miss Turvey thinking up ever more ingenious ways to kill Phil. There is some more serious stuff as well. Cyril and Celia's parents are cold and aloof, and when Cyril has to face down his father it takes a lot of courage. There is also a point where Norman has to trust his instincts, despite all the evidence showing that he is wrong.

Emma Thompson has a lovely chatty writing style, sometimes talking directly to the reader - there's an ongoing joke about how she can't remember what chapter she's up to. The story is interspersed with the 'Diary' which is a diary from the making of the film. I didn't read these bits to Billy, but I think they'd be very interesting to an older child. There are also plenty of photos from the film.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I was really looking forward to reading this, and it didn't disappoint. The story takes place over a year, New Year's Eve 1937 to New Year's Eve 1938. The heroine, Katey Kontent, is a working class girl, come to Manhattan to work. She and her best friend, Eve, live in a women's boarding house. They have their whole lives ahead of them, they are enjoying their freedom. Eve is gregarious and flirtatious, Katey is more reserved and bookish. On New Year's Eve 1937 they meet a handsome young man named Tinker Gray. Their friendship with Tinker lead them into a new world, new friends, new jobs.

I love Katey. She is self-contained and doesn't push herself forward, but she is confident in her own way, and ambitious. She'll take a leap of faith if one is called for. She can be tough. When a younger woman at work is making overtures of friendship she is quite firmly rebuffed. She comes from the same background as Katey, and Katey is determinedly moving up and away from where she came from. She bears heartbreak stoically and never gives up.

I love the setting and time period. I always think of New York as a magical place and that is certainly how Towles presents it. Anything can happen and anyone can be anything they choose.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This is a story about the accuracy of our memories. Tony Webster is a middle aged man looking back over his life. It has been a fairly average life, he has had a reasonably successful career, he is amicably divorced, his relationship his daughter isn't perhaps as close as he would like, but they get along ok.

Then something unexpected happens in this ordinary life. He receives a bequest from the mother of a former girlfriend. It it this which prompts his reminiscences. The girlfriend was Veronica, who he met at university. He met her mother only once, when he spent an awkward weekend at their home. Tony and Veronica were together for about a year, they split, and Veronica started going out with Tony's friend Adrian. Adrian was an important figure in Tony's childhood and youth. Clever and self-confident, Adrian was hero-worshipped by Tony.

Tony believes that he has the events of that time accurately archived in his memory. But the bequest from Veronica's mother, who he barely knew, is a puzzle. As he investigates further he is forced to accept that his memories are not as accurate as he had thought.

This is a thought provoking book. It made me wonder about the accuracy of my memories, and whether events that appeared one way to me, might appear a completely different way to someone else. I have to admit that I was as puzzled as Tony, and by the end I was probably more puzzled than Tony. I didn't quite get it, and I think I'd like to read it again just to see if I could get it straight.