Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

Book 61 of 90

If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Literary Fiction Book Tag – Christmas Edition

Dickens at Christmas…

A few months ago I did this tag concentrating mainly on Scottish fiction as my examples. Since now ‘tis the season to be jolly, and nothing could be jollier than Dickens at Christmastime, I thought I’d resurrect it and see how wonderfully the Great Man shines in all aspects of the art of literary fiction. Join me for a bit of…

1. How do you define literary fiction?

Last time I said “I’m looking for great writing – and by that I don’t mean creative writing, I mean writing that uses a vocabulary that stimulates the brain without baffling, that reads effortlessly and that creates wonderful images of places or people, or both, with beautiful descriptive prose. I want emotional truth – the characters might be realistic or exaggerated and even caricatured but they must fundamentally act in ways people would act. If it’s historical fiction, it must be true to the time in which it’s set. If it’s genre fiction, it must transcend the genre but must never forget its roots in its desire to be literary. If it’s contemporary fiction, it must say something intelligent and preferably profound about society, culture and/or the human condition.” Dickens meets all these criteria, and I suspect is the man who has been most influential in forming my opinion of what literary fiction should be.

2. Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.

Little Dorrit – of course Dickens is famous for his dazzling array of unique characters, but the character I’m choosing is less well known than some of the others: Flora Finching. She was the hero Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear.

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances.

Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law

3. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

Bleak House – Dickens here shifts between a first person narrator, the young heroine Esther Summerson, and a third-person omniscient narrator, and also between present and past tenses. This may not seem like such a major thing now, when so many authors try to use present tense and shift between narrators, but it was innovative and experimental at the time and gives the book an essentially modern feel. Plus, Dickens being Dickens, he’s great at it, using present tense effectively and appropriately, which sadly is rarely the case with lesser beings…

Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand tonight or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”

Mr Tulkinghorn’s Roman

4. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

Martin Chuzzlewit – In the middle of this one, Dickens suddenly transports Martin and his faithful servant Mark Tapley to America, and has them have a complete story there before returning them to the main story back in England. Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. While I’m not convinced it was a great decision, it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some wonderful descriptive writing. Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and brutally funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British…

It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.

The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home.
By Phiz.

5. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

A Tale of Two Cities – every novel Dickens wrote explores social themes, but he never conveys his anger more effectively than in this book about the Terror following the French Revolution. We talk endlessly now of the dangers of the rise of populism in response to the inequality in our societies and then we smugly wrap ourselves back up in our warm and comfortable cloak of social privilege, and dismiss as ignorant anyone who disagrees with our world view. Dickens was warning his contemporaries of this way back then, showing how the Revolution arose out of the failure of the rich and powerful elite to respond to the growing discontent of the disadvantaged and ignored in society, and showing further and with immense power how once violence is unleashed in a society it feeds on itself, growing until it becomes a monster – the mob…

“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”
With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
***
“To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

6. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

Great Expectations – I was trying to stick to books I’ve reviewed on the blog, but really I think that perhaps his best exploration of that nebulous thing we call the “human condition” appears in my least favourite of his novels. Miss Havisham blighted by disappointment and betrayal; simple Joe Gargery’s generosity and fidelity; Estella’s nature deliberately warped from childhood so she can act as an instrument of Miss Havisham’s revenge: all of these are brilliant examples of how circumstance and nature collide to make us what we are. But Pip himself stands out – following him from an early age into manhood allows us to see how his character is formed by experience, shaped by the material expectations he’s told he has and by the social and emotional expectations of his family and friends. Ultimately, with two possible endings, there’s ambiguity around whether Pip’s original nature is stunted for ever, or is simply dormant, ready to put forth fresh shoots if the sun shines on him.

“But you said to me,” returned Estella, very earnestly, “‘God bless you, God forgive you!’ And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now—now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.”
“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

Pip and Estella

7. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

A Christmas Carol – Dickens brilliantly uses the format of a ghost story to explore the true meaning of Christmas as a time for family and joy, of course, but also for reflection on greed, generosity and the inequality that existed in extremes in his society and sadly still pervades our own. A chilling tale, warning his readers not to look away, not to become so concerned with their own narrow concerns that they cease to notice the plight of those less fortunate, not to impoverish their souls in pursuit of material wealth. The wonderfully redemptive ending is pure Dickens as he shows how material and spiritual generosity enrich the giver as much as the recipient. Dickens suggests we can begin to enjoy our rewards here on earth, and lessen the harsh judgement that may otherwise await us in the hereafter.

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

The Ghost of Jacob Marley

8. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

The joy of Dickens, and a lesson I wish many contemporary writers would learn, is that he saw no reason to limit himself to a single style or single subject, even within a single book. Each contains elements of social themes, human condition, romance, crime and horror – each is a microcosm of all that it is to be and to experience in this ugly, complicated, glorious world, and each shows the intelligence, insight and profound empathy that make him the greatest writer the world has ever known.

…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

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HAVE THE DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!

TBR Thursday 220…

Episode 220

I’m back! As soon as the aliens caught sight of the assembled forces of Tommy, Tuppence and Porpy they fled back to their own sector of the galaxy, squealing! The Kpop stars have promised to stop dancing, and the sun has calmed down to a temperate glow. The world is safe! Well… for the moment anyway. The remarkable thing is that, despite everything, my TBR has gone up, by 2 to 215! My postman is clearly intrepid… 

Here are a few more I’ll be unpacking soon…

History

Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Courtesy of Allen Lane via NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Penn’s earlier book on Henry VII, Winter King, so grabbed this at the first opportunity. My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses really comes more from popular culture than actual histories, not least the notoriously inaccurate (but utterly compelling) Shakespeare plays. So I’m looking forward to learning about the facts behind the legends…

The Blurb says: It is 1461 and England is crippled by civil war. One freezing morning, a teenage boy wins a battle in the Welsh marches, and claims the crown. He is Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York…

Thomas Penn’s brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers – Edward, George and Richard – who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward’s ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.

The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.

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Dickens at Christmas

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics and another for my Classics Club list. It has long been my tradition to read a Dickens over Christmas and, in fact, as soon as I am appointed Queen of the World by popular acclaim it will be the law that everyone must. This year’s choice is a re-read, but it’s years since I read it so my memory of it is vague. Almost as good as reading it for the first time! And I’m looking forward to reading the intro and notes in my OWC copy – I haven’t read any of the novels in their editions before…

The Blurb says: Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution. Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets. And, as London erupts into riot, Barnaby Rudge himself struggles to escape the curse of his own past. With its dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, its strange secrets and ghostly doublings, Barnaby Rudge is a powerful, disturbing blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama.

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Vintage Crime

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve enjoyed the other novels from George Bellairs which the BL has previously issued, so I’m looking forward to meeting up with Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Jim Teasdale has been drowned in the Dumb River, near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) waterway, has been discovered before the killer intended — disturbed by a torrential flood.

With critical urgency it’s up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to trace the mystery of the unassuming victim’s murder to its source, leaving waves of scandal and sensation in his wake as the hidden, salacious dealings of Jim Teasdale begin to surface.

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Fiction

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Despite my life-long love affair with Conan Doyle there’s loads of his stuff I’ve never read, including this. Mystery, colonialism and shipwrecked Buddhist monks – what more could you possibly ask? Mind you, the spiritualism aspect is a bit of a worry – Conan Doyle did get a bit obsessed with it sometimes…

The Blurb says: What dark deed from the past haunts Major Heatherstone? Why does he live like a hermit at Cloomber Hall, forbidding his children to venture beyond the estate grounds? Why is he plagued by the sound of a tolling bell, and why does his paranoia rise to frantic levels each year on the fifth of October? With the sudden appearance of three shipwrecked Buddhist monks, the answers to these questions follow close behind.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic thriller unfolds in his native Scotland, in a remote coastal village surrounded by dreary moors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes combines his skill at weaving tales of mystery with his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. First published in 1889, the novel offers a cautionary view of British colonialism in the form of a captivating story of murder and revenge.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

I’ll be catching up with all your posts and comments over the next couple of days.
I’ve missed you!

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Shades of the prison-house…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Clennam returns from abroad following the death of his father, he is convinced that his father had done something in his past of which he was ashamed and wished his wife to make amends. However, Mrs Clennam is a cold, hard woman who had been long estranged from her husband, and she refuses to discuss the matter with Arthur. While in his mother’s house, Arthur meets the young woman he will come to call Little Dorrit, a seamstress in whom his mother shows a strange interest, and convinces himself that somehow she is part of this mysterious family history. 800-and-odd pages later, all will be revealed!

It’s always difficult summarising a Dickens novel, partly because they’re so filled with subplots that are often at least as important as the main one, and partly because the plot is often simply a vehicle for whatever aspect of society Dickens wishes to discuss. In this one, he has several targets: the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, the nepotism within the ruling classes and the resulting paralysis of Government, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, he produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror.

Little Dorrit and Maggy

Some aspects of this one worked better for me than others. I found his satirisation of the Circumlocution Office – the government department that specialises in How Not to Get Things Done – a little heavy-handed and repetitive, and to be honest, I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. This was at a time when Britain was the powerhouse of the world, so I’m guessing the industrial giants and imperial magnates of the time must have been able to Get Things Done despite government bureaucracy. The nepotism aspects and class-ridden society rang much truer, especially the idea that relatively useless people get powerful jobs merely by being the sons of powerful men. (Not much changes, except that today the same could be said about daughters…)

The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker’s. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.

The Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in which Dickens’ own father spent some time, is brilliantly portrayed, showing the ludicrousness of a system that imprisons people and refuses to release them until they can pay their debts, while also refusing to allow them to work to earn money. Mr Dorrit, the father of Little Dorrit and known also as the Father of the Marshalsea as its longest resident, is one of Dickens’ more unforgettable characters. A weak and pompous man, it’s easy to despise him, but Dickens lets us see beneath his carefully nurtured public persona to the deeply ashamed and vulnerable man beneath.

Mr Dorrit entertains guests in the Marshalsea

As is often the case with Dickens, the two major characters are among my least favourite. Arthur is another weak man and rather bland, though morally righteous, naturally. Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!

Fortunately the supporting cast is far more interesting. There’s Rigaud, the Frenchman who murdered his wife and is now mysteriously up to no good. John Baptist Cavalletto, the Italian, gives Dickens the opportunity to be scathingly and humorously perceptive about the way Brits react to immigrants within their communities.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

We have foppish younger sons and their scheming mothers, girls on the hunt for rich husbands, girls who are trapped into marriages by fortune-hunting seducers, and girls who resent their position in life to a degree that makes them turn on those who mean to be kind. Mrs Clennam is cold and vengeful, in the mould of a Miss Havisham, though not perhaps so memorable. But her servants are wonderful creations – the cruel Flintwinch and his downtrodden, bullied wife, who is so badly treated she finds it hard to know what is real and what is a dream.

Book 41 of 90

My favourite character of all, though, is Flora Finching. She was Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear. Dickens hints that Flora is well aware of her own silliness, that it’s an act, and he shows her to be kind and loyal to those she loves, or has once loved. Personally, if I had to choose between them, I’d rather spend my life with frivolous Flora than with droopy Little Dorrit! She speaks in a kind of stream of consciousness that is chock full of good-natured if unintentional humour…

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.

“Then it’s all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!”

Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law

The actual plot is a bit convoluted and the explanation is all done in a rush at the end, so that I had to read it twice before I fully got it, and even then it all seemed unlikely even by Dickens’ standards. But all the other stuff more than makes up for this weakness and, while this won’t challenge Bleak House for the top spot, it’s undoubtedly one of his greats.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 188…

Episode 188

I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, but fortunately I appear to be in a book-acquiring slump too, so the TBR has increased by just one to 226.

Maybe these will help pull me out of the doldrums…

Quotes

A gift from my brother. A little bit of Dickens sounds like a wonderful way to brighten every day of the year, doesn’t it? 

The Blurb says: A charming memento of the Victorian era’s literary colossus, The Daily Charles Dickens is a literary almanac for the ages. Tenderly and irreverently anthologized by Dickens scholar James R. Kincaid, this collection mines the British author’s beloved novels and Christmas stories as well as his lesser-known sketches and letters for “an around-the-calendar set of jolts, soothings, blandishments, and soarings.”

A bedside companion to dip into year round, this book introduces each month with a longer seasonal quote, while concise bits of wisdom and whimsy mark each day. Hopping gleefully from Esther Summerson’s abandonment by her mother in Bleak House to a meditation on the difficult posture of letter-writing in The Pickwick Papers, this anthology displays the wide range of Dickens’s stylistic virtuosity—his humour and his deep tragic sense, his ear for repetition, and his genius at all sorts of voices.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Scribner. I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Barbash’s writing in his short story collection, Stay Up With Me, although, as with a lot of modern short stories, I found some of them rather too fragmentary for my taste. I’ve been waiting patiently for a long time for his next production and am delighted that he’s chosen the novel form this time. Sounds good…

The Blurb says: An evocative and wildly absorbing novel about the Winters, a family living in New York City’s famed Dakota apartment building in the year leading up to John Lennon’s assassination.

It’s the fall of 1979 in New York City when twenty-three-year-old Anton Winter, back from the Peace Corps and on the mend from a nasty bout of malaria, returns to his childhood home in the Dakota. Anton’s father, the famous late-night host Buddy Winter, is there to greet him, himself recovering from a breakdown. Before long, Anton is swept up in an effort to reignite Buddy’s stalled career, a mission that takes him from the gritty streets of New York, to the slopes of the Lake Placid Olympics, to the Hollywood Hills, to the blue waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and brings him into close quarters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Ted and Joan Kennedy, and a seagoing John Lennon.

But the more Anton finds himself enmeshed in his father’s professional and spiritual reinvention, the more he questions his own path, and fissures in the Winter family begin to threaten their close bond. By turns hilarious and poignant, The Dakota Winters is a family saga, a page-turning social novel, and a tale of a critical moment in the history of New York City and the country at large.

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Classic Thriller

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One for my Classics Club list. I don’t know anything about this other than the blurb and the fact that it’s considered a classic of espionage fiction. It sounds good, though, and I’ll know a lot more once I read the OWC introduction… and the book, of course!

The Blurb says: One of the first great spy novels, The Riddle of the Sands is set during the long suspicious years leading up to the First World War. Bored with his life in London, a young man accepts an invitation to join a friend on a sailing holiday in the North Sea. A vivid exploration of the mysteries of seamanship, the story builds in excitement as these two young adventurers discover a German plot to invade England.

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Thriller

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I didn’t realise when I requested this one that it’s not actually a new novel from May – it’s a re-publication from way back in his first incarnation as a novelist, long before he rose to the bestseller lists. I’ve always wanted to see how he started out, but the early books have been out of print since before I became a fan – he had a pause in novel writing when he spent several years writing and producing dramas for Scottish television. So I’m intrigued, but have lowered my expectations a little to allow for the fact that he was still learning his craft…

The Blurb says: There are two men on their way to Brussels from the UK: Neil Bannerman, an iconoclastic journalist for Scotland’s Daily Standard whose irate editor wants him out of the way, and Kale–a professional assassin.

Expecting to find only a difficult, dreary political investigation in Belgium, Bannerman has barely settled in when tragedy strikes. His host, a fellow journalist, along with a British Cabinet minister, are discovered dead in the minister’s elegant Brussels townhouse. It appears that they have shot each other. But the dead journalist’s young autistic daughter, Tania, was hidden in a closet during the killings, and when she draws a chilling picture of a third party–a man with no face–Bannerman suddenly finds himself a reluctant participant in a desperate murder investigation.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Dickens at Christmas! A Christmas Carol: An Audible Original Drama

The Spirits of Christmas

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s been my habit for many years to revisit Dickens’ best known Christmas story over the festive season each year. Sometimes this will be for a re-read but in recent years I’ve been enjoying some of the many adaptations of it in film or on audio. This year I went for Audible’s full cast dramatisation, having enjoyed several of their other productions. I knew going in that it had some great competition to beat – Patrick Stewart’s abridged narration has been my go-to for years, and Tom Baker’s unabridged version is up there at the same standard. But this one has Derek Jacobi as Dickens/the narrator, and anyone who’s read my reviews will know I am a huge fan of his audio narrations.

This follows the pattern Audible have been using for their Original Drama series of being part narration, part dramatisation. I love this approach. The dramatised elements make it a livelier listen which holds my attention better than even excellent straight narrations sometimes do, while the narrated bits allow for the depth and background that sometimes gets lost when a book is reduced to only dialogue in a full-scale dramatisation. It allows the listener to hear the author’s voice come through in the writing which, especially when the author is as brilliant as Dickens, is an essential.

Derek Jacobi

Jacobi is undoubtedly the star of this production, having by far the biggest role as narrator of the linking pieces between the relatively sparse dialogue. He is excellent, of course, but not having the chance to create any of the wonderfully larger-than-life characters meant I felt his talents were a tiny bit wasted. Personally I’d have preferred him to be performing Scrooge, especially since I felt Kenneth Cranham’s performance in the role was a little too understated for my taste. However that’s purely a subjective opinion – I love the big, booming, overblown performances of Stewart and Baker, but Cranham’s quieter interpretation may work better for many people. The division between narrator and main character in this dramatisation leaves Cranham with a far smaller role than either Stewart or Baker, since they have the fun of creating their own dramatic interpretation of the non-dialogue parts too.

Kenneth Cranham

All the other performances are good, with no weak links in the chain. The standouts for me are Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit and Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost of Christmas Present. Glover’s Cratchit is less down-trodden than he is sometimes portrayed, somehow – I can’t quite put my finger on why, exactly, since as far as my not always reliable memory could confirm there were no changes to the words Dickens gives him. But Glover’s performance conveyed him to me as a strong, good-humoured man, limited by his poverty, but not broken by his miserly, bullying boss or the circumstances of his life. I enjoyed him very much.

Jamie Glover

Margolyes is an old hand at Dickens, not just appearing in many of the BBC serialisations over the decades, but also having performed in her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, for some years (a wonderful performance that’s also available on audio and which I highly recommend). So she ‘gets’ him, and is not afraid to exploit the huge emotional range he allows to those who perform his work. For me, a successful Dickens performance is when I can imagine it might be done as he himself would have delivered it at one of his famous readings, and Margolyes is one of those actors who always achieves this. She frightened me and moved me – when she talked of Ignorance and Want I believed utterly that she meant every terrible, warning word, sadly as relevant today as when Dickens wrote them.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”

Miriam Margolyes

If the adaptation by RD Carstairs is abridged at all, it must be very lightly. I noticed nothing missing and the running time is similar to an unabridged narration. It may be that there are minor changes to the order of some parts – there’s quite a lot of quick cutting between Jacobi’s narration and Scrooge’s inner thoughts as delivered by Cranham that worked very effectively to bring the two parts together. But there are certainly no significant changes to either tone or meaning and all the words, I think, are Dickens’ own.

So, in conclusion, a hugely enjoyable dramatisation which, while it might not quite have replaced Stewart or Baker as my favourite audio version, is certainly up there in contention with them. Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Merry Christmas, Everybody! 🎅

Dickens at Christmas! The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain

Lord! Keep my Memory Green!

There has been a distinct lack of festive spirit in the Dickens’ Christmas books so far, and only a couple left to go. So fingers crossed for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain
by Charles Dickens

Title Page
by John Tenniel

Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.

This is our protagonist – Mr Redlaw, a chemist and academic, who teaches in a great college. He dwells on sorrows from his past and has allowed these memories to stop him from finding enjoyment and pleasure in life, though he’s a good man, generous to those around him. He is haunted, however, by a mysterious spectre that appears to him when he is alone and brooding…

Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound. As he leaned his arm upon the elbow of his chair, ruminating before the fire, it leaned upon the chair-back, close above him, with its appalling copy of his face looking where his face looked, and bearing the expression his face bore.

Mr Redlaw and the Phantom
by John Leech

On this particular evening, just before Christmas, as Mr Redlaw remembers his youthful hopes and how they were dashed by the betrayal of a friend and the death of his beloved sister, the ghost tempts him…

….“If I could forget my sorrow and wrong, I would,” the Ghost repeated. “If I could forget my sorrow and my wrong, I would!”
….“Evil spirit of myself,” returned the haunted man, in a low, trembling tone, “my life is darkened by that incessant whisper.”
….“It is an echo,” said the Phantom.
….“If it be an echo of my thoughts—as now, indeed, I know it is,” rejoined the haunted man, “why should I, therefore, be tormented? It is not a selfish thought. I suffer it to range beyond myself. All men and women have their sorrows, – most of them their wrongs; ingratitude, and sordid jealousy, and interest, besetting all degrees of life. Who would not forget their sorrows and their wrongs?”

Frontispiece
by John Tenniel

And the Phantom grants his wish. The memories of all events from his past which have painful associations are stripped from his mind. But the ghost goes further…

“The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will. Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach. Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it. Go! Be its benefactor! Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.”

* * * * *

Mr Swidger and Milly
by Frank Stone

Well, this is much more like the thing! It starts with Mr Swidger, the old caretaker of the college, and his family hanging holly as they do every year at Christmas-time, and culminates with a grand feast on Christmas Day. It has a strong message most suitable for the Christmas season: that it is our sorrows in life which humanise us and make us able to empathise with the troubles of others. And it has an equally powerful social message – that children abandoned to a life of poverty without love or hope cannot grow up to be anything other than monstrous. The child in this is a fuller version of Ignorance in A Christmas Carol – a thing to be prevented, or feared.


The Tetterbys
by John Leech

We see the Swidgers as they are affected by the ghost’s bargain. As their memories of their shared hardships and sorrows fade, so do the bonds that hold them together, and these warm, loving people become hard and cruel. We see the Tetterbys, a family with many children and little money to feed them but with love a-plenty, turned resentful and bitter as their memories melt away of the things they have endured and overcome together. And we see Mr Redlaw learn that the only people not susceptible to the ghostly curse are those who have never known the softer emotions, for they are cursed already…

“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up. No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast. All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness. All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness. Woe to such a man! Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!”

Mr Redlaw and the Boy
by John Leech

And, lesson learned, we see the ghost take back his bargain, harmony and love restored, Mr Redlaw wiser, and more than one loving hand reached out to raise the child up from his hopelessness. Exactly what a Christmas story should be!

Then, as Christmas is a time in which, of all times in the year, the memory of every remediable sorrow, wrong, and trouble in the world around us, should be active with us, not less than our own experiences, for all good, he laid his hand upon the boy, and, silently calling Him to witness who laid His hand on children in old time, rebuking, in the majesty of His prophetic knowledge, those who kept them from Him, vowed to protect him, teach him, and reclaim him.

Dinner in the Great Hall
by Clarkson Stanfield

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Festive Joy Rating:     🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dickens at Christmas! The Battle of Life

How they did dance!

It’s been a roller-coaster ride so far with Dickens’ Christmas books – The Chimes, while good, was thoroughly depressing, and The Cricket on the Hearth, while delightfully uplifting, forgot to mention Christmas! So what’s in store for us, I wonder, in this week’s…

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The Battle of Life
by Charles Dickens

Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought. It was fought upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for the dew, felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day, and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour from harmless leaves and herbs, was stained anew that day by dying men, and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track.

Well, that’s a jolly start! Still, good to get the depressing bit out of the way early!

The Battle
by Richard Doyle

On the site of this ancient battle now stand pretty villages and prosperous farms, and over the centuries the old horrors have mostly been forgotten. Our story concerns two sisters, Grace and Marion, and when we first meet them, they are in their father’s orchard, dancing for the sheer joy of life and the entertainment of the apple-pickers…

They were very glad to please them, but they danced to please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you could no more help admiring, than they could help dancing. How they did dance!

Frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

This is Marion’s birthday and coincidentally also the birthday of Alfred, who has been the ward of their father but who today comes of age. He is to go off to study for three years, but it is understood by all that on his return, he and Marion will marry. But Grace, to whose care he entrusts Marion, is not to be forgotten…

“…when I come back and reclaim you, dearest, and the bright prospect of our married life lies stretched before us, it shall be one of our chief pleasures to consult how we can make Grace happy; how we can anticipate her wishes; how we can show our gratitude and love to her; how we can return her something of the debt she will have heaped upon us.”

But the course of true love never does run smooth – fortunately for us, since stories would be incredibly boring if it did. When Alfred returns three years later, it is to find the house in uproar and poor Grace having fainted away…

….‘What is it!’ cried Alfred, grasping his hair with his hands, and looking in an agony from face to face, as he bent upon his knee beside the insensible girl. ‘Will no one look at me? Will no one speak to me? Does no one know me? Is there no voice among you all, to tell me what it is!’
….There was a murmur among them. ‘She is gone.’
….‘Gone!’ he echoed.


Gone!
by Richard Doyle

* * * * *

I enjoyed several things about this, but it is a rather strange tale, not at all festive, and the central story left me totally unconvinced. The two sisters are the sort of drooping, too perfect girls in which Dickens specialises, and Alfred is the male equivalent. The mystery is, why has Marion gone? Has she run off with another man? Or is there some deeply moral and self-sacrificing reason behind her strange actions? Go on, guess!

Fortunately, there are several characters who are much more fun. Clemency Newcome, the maid, and her strange courtship by/of her husband-to-be provide most of the humour and the warmth that the central story lacks. The girls’ father, Doctor Jeddler, believes all human life is farce, though the events of the story will make him a wiser man (but less happy, which seems a pity). There are a couple of lawyers, Snitchey and Craggs, who are a good double-act and allow Dickens to make some pointed remarks about one of his favourite subjects, the law. Their wives, while only having small parts to play, add considerably to the entertainment value of the whole thing by their rivalry with each other. And the mysterious man who may or may not have seduced our sweet little Marion away from her loving family has enough moral ambiguity to make him a significantly more attractive hero than the good but insipid Alfred.

The Secret Interview
by Daniel Maclise

Why is it called The Battle of Life? Why all the battlefield and buried corpse references, some of which are quite revolting…?

On this ground where we now sit, where I saw my two girls dance this morning, where the fruit has just been gathered for our eating from these trees, the roots of which are struck in Men, not earth…

No idea! Possibly just so Dickens could make a point about war being a Bad Thing.

Yet not a hundred people in that battle knew for what they fought, or why; not a hundred of the inconsiderate rejoicers in the victory, why they rejoiced. Not half a hundred people were the better for the gain or loss. Not half-a-dozen men agree to this hour on the cause or merits; and nobody, in short, ever knew anything distinct about it, but the mourners of the slain.

But I really couldn’t see the relevance of this to the actual story. Oh well, not to worry – I enjoyed it anyway, and of course it has a happy ending! But I am hoping next week’s might have something to do with Christmas…

The Sisters
by Daniel Maclise

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 181…

Episode 181

A dramatic fall in the TBR since I last reported – down 4 to 224! This is rather astonishing since, for non-blog related reasons, my reading has been way down over the last couple of weeks – but clearly so has my book acquiring! As you might have noticed, I’ve also been pretty lax at posting, visiting, commenting and replying to comments – apologies, and I’m hoping to get back to my normal pattern soon.

Here are a few more that are due soonish, though I don’t seem to be sticking to my schedule very rigidly at the moment. What a rebel!

Dickens for Christmas

For years it’s been my personal tradition to read Dickens over Christmas, so I put five of them on my Classics Club list. This year, it’s the turn of Little Dorrit. This will be a re-read, but it’s many years since I read it…

The Blurb says: When Arthur Clennam returns to England after many years abroad, he takes a kindly interest in Amy Dorrit, his mother’s seamstress, and in the affairs of Amy’s father, William Dorrit, a man of shabby grandeur, long imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea prison. As Arthur soon discovers, the dark shadow of the prison stretches far beyond its walls to affect the lives of many, from the kindly Mr Panks, the reluctant rent-collector of Bleeding Heart Yard, and the tipsily garrulous Flora Finching, to Merdle, an unscrupulous financier, and the bureaucratic Barnacles in the Circumlocution Office. A masterly evocation of the state and psychology of imprisonment, Little Dorrit is one of the supreme works of Dickens’s maturity.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley. I’ve had this sitting on my TBR for ages, constantly shoved down the list by newer shinier books, poor thing. I’ve liked but not loved the other two John Bude books I’ve read – maybe this is the one that will finally wow me…

The Blurb says: Welworth Garden City in the 1940s is a forward-thinking town where free spirits find a home – vegetarians, socialists, and an array of exotic religious groups. Chief among these are the Children of Osiris, led by the eccentric High Prophet, Eustace K. Mildmann. The cult is a seething hotbed of petty resentment, jealousy and dark secrets – which eventually lead to murder. The stage is set for one of Inspector Meredith’s most bizarre and exacting cases.

This witty crime novel by a writer on top form is a neglected classic of British crime fiction.

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Classic Sci-Fi

Another one from my Classics Club list. It was reading this book that inspired Stanley Kubrick to invite Arthur C Clarke to collaborate with him on making a movie – and so the amazingly mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey was born. Looking at the blurb, it’s obvious that some of the themes of this book made their way into the film…

The Blurb says: The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city–intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began.

But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. As civilization approaches the crossroads, will the Overlords spell the end for humankind . . . or the beginning?

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Yuletide Fun

Courtesy of the British Library. A new Christmas-themed vintage crime anthology from the BL is becoming a bit of a Christmas tradition too, happily for me, since I love them!

The Blurb says: A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned amidst the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder. This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow, to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations. With neglected stories by John Bude and E. C. R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Dickens at Christmas! The Cricket on the Hearth

But where’s Christmas??

After last week’s surprisingly dark and unfestive The Chimes, I didn’t know what to expect from the next of Dickens’ Christmas books. But I was hoping for something a bit more cheerful for this week’s…

* * * * *

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens

The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. Mrs. Peerybingle may leave it on record to the end of time that she couldn’t say which of them began it; but I say the kettle did. I ought to know, I hope? The kettle began it, full five minutes by the little waxy-faced Dutch clock in the corner, before the Cricket uttered a chirp.

Title page
by Daniel Maclise

We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. It is a scene of saccharin-sweet domestic bliss…

It was pleasant to see Dot, with her little figure and her baby in her arms: a very doll of a baby: glancing with a coquettish thoughtfulness at the fire, and inclining her delicate little head just enough on one side to let it rest in an odd, half-natural, half-affected, wholly nestling and agreeable manner, on the great rugged figure of the Carrier. It was pleasant to see him, with his tender awkwardness, endeavouring to adapt his rude support to her slight need, and make his burly middle age a leaning-staff not inappropriate to her blooming youth.

Domestic Bliss
by John Leech

The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well.

“The first time I heard its cheerful little note, John, was on that night when you brought me home—when you brought me to my new home here; its little mistress. Nearly a year ago. You recollect, John?”

Oh, yes! John remembered. I should think so!

“Its chirp was such a welcome to me! It seemed so full of promise and encouragement. It seemed to say, you would be kind and gentle with me, and would not expect (I had a fear of that, John, then) to find an old head on the shoulders of your foolish little wife.”

Caleb and Blind Bertha
by John Leech

But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind.

It was a loud cry from the Carrier’s wife: a loud, sharp, sudden cry, that made the room ring like a glass vessel. She had risen from her seat, and stood like one transfixed by terror and surprise. The Stranger had advanced towards the fire to warm himself, and stood within a short stride of her chair. But quite still.

The stranger’s arrival disrupts the happy home and the lives not only of John and Dot but of several of their friends and neighbours. Will the Household Spirit in the form of the Cricket on the Hearth be able to restore harmony and joy to all?

* * * * *

First off, Christmas doesn’t feature at all in this one! Instead the day of celebration we’re heading towards is the first anniversary of the wedding of John and Dot, and the story focuses on marriages between older men and young girls. John loves Dot with all his heart and has done ever since she was a child. (I know, creepy, but it seems to have been relatively normal back in those times – look at Knightley and Emma.) The question that John belatedly is forced to consider is, can little Dot possibly love him in the same way, or has he been unintentionally cruel in persuading her to devote her youth to him? It has never before occurred to him that her heart may have prompted her towards a man nearer her own age. The stranger is the catalyst for this dark night of the soul for poor, kind, honest John, but to take the point further and show another side to it, Dickens includes another couple about to be wed where the age difference is even greater and the bride is being more or less forced into the marriage by her mother because the bridegroom is wealthy.

Boxer
by Edwin Landseer
(Rubbish illustration, Landseer! Boxer is a sweetie-pie,
not a reincarnation of the Hound of the Baskervilles!)

The story takes an age to start. It’s about three pages before that kettle mentioned in the first paragraph finally comes to the boil, and then we have to fight through pages of sugar-sweet descriptions of the happy little home before things take off. But once it gets going, it has all Dickens usual mix of humour and pathos, and some typically quirky and enjoyable Dickensian characters. John is lovely, and Dot grew on me after a shaky start. Mr Tackleton is the villain of the piece – the older man who is about to marry a young girl he knows doesn’t care for him in the least, he’s also the mean and nasty employer of the other two main characters, dear old Caleb the toymaker and his blind daughter Bertha. Plus there’s a lovely dog called Boxer who’s a great character in his own right, adding much fun to the proceedings!

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

It’s novella length, with plenty of room for jealousy, self-doubt, sorrow, generosity of spirit, joy and, of course, redemption. I enjoyed it very much and was left feeling pleasantly uplifted. So despite it not mentioning Christmas, I reckon it still counts as appropriately seasonal, being full of goodwill and joy to all men (and women) (and dogs).

Happy ending
by John Leech

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

Dickens at Christmas! The Chimes

The eye of a needle…

Every year in the run up to Christmas, I read, watch or listen to at least one version of A Christmas Carol – the book that exemplifies the spirit of Christmas. This year, thanks to the lovely people at Oxford World’s Classics, I have a gorgeous new edition of all five of Dickens’ Christmas books, so for a change I thought I’d read the other four for a little mini-series of…

* * * * *

The Chimes
by Charles Dickens

Old Toby “Trotty” Veck is in his usual place just outside the church-door one cold and windy winter day at the end of the year, waiting and hoping that someone will hire him to carry a letter or a parcel so that he can earn sixpence or a shilling.


Toby “Trotty” Veck
by John Leech

Of material wealth, Trotty has little – just enough to keep body and soul together, though not very securely. He has a daughter, Meg, whom he loves with all his warm heart. And the church bells are like old friends too…

For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character. They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.

But, even so, the hard life of the poor people of London makes Trotty wonder sometimes…

…whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.


The original frontispiece
by Daniel Maclise

On this day Meg arrives unexpectedly, bringing a rare hot meal for her father – a delicious dish of tripe! She also brings news. Her lover, Richard, has proposed that they should marry on New Year’s Day and they have come to get her father’s blessing. While Trotty is still digesting this news and his tripe, a local bigwig stops to hire him to carry a letter. This man lectures Meg and Richard on how reprehensible it is of them to marry and bring more poor children into the world who will inevitably turn out bad. Then the recipient of the letter, another well-fed rich man, upbraids Trotty for going into the New Year owing a little money, which he had spent on the luxury of food. By now Trotty is convinced the poor are born bad and don’t deserve to live.

But, that night, as he sits pondering over this thought, the church bells seem to be calling angrily to him, and he goes to the darkened church, where he finds the door open…

Illustration by
Clarkson Stanfield

… and climbs up to the top of the steeple.

He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells . . . He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. He saw them ugly, handsome, crippled, exquisitely formed. He saw them young, he saw them old, he saw them kind, he saw them cruel, he saw them merry, he saw them grim; he saw them dance, and heard them sing; he saw them tear their hair, and heard them howl.


Illustration by
Arthur Rackham

* * * * *

Well! This is Dickens in full social justice warrior mode, showing the dire poverty in which so many people lived contrasted with the smug and hypocritical rich, who lecture when a sixpence would work better, who wallow in their own well-fed self-satisfaction as they blame the poor for cluttering up their otherwise charming and tidy world. It has little of the humour of A Christmas Carol – it is dark to the point where it had me sobbing, with starvation and death, men jailed for the crime of trying to stay alive, women driven to prostitution, infanticide and suicide. And while there is a form of redemption at the end, it feels a fairly hollow one to me – the Chimes, by showing Toby how awful life without faith can be, restore his belief that the poor are not doomed from birth to be bad. There are lots of Biblical references and warnings to spouting “Christian” hypocrites who think that lectures on morality are enough to win them a place in heaven. But the underlying message seems confused – both that the rich should do more to alleviate poverty, but that the poor should fall back on faith when there’s no food to be had. I couldn’t help feeling it must have been a long time since Dickens went hungry. There’s also some foreshadowing of his message in the later A Tale of Two Cities – that if the rich don’t deal with the poor…

…afore the day comes when even his Bible changes in his altered mind, and the words seem to him to read, as they have sometimes read in my own eyes—in jail: “Whither thou goest, I can Not go; where thou lodgest, I do Not lodge; thy people are Not my people; Nor thy God my God!”

…then the poor may rise up and deal with the rich.

A happy ending
by John Leech

Powerful stuff! I can see why it’s not as well loved as A Christmas Carol – it feels rushed and a little untidy, the message is not so clear and, despite the happy-ish ending, I certainly didn’t come away from it feeling as uplifted as I do when Tiny Tim asks God to bless us, everyone. In fact, I felt angry, depressed and as if I wanted to go and beat a few rich hypocrites over the head with a yule log – and I don’t mean the cake. So I think Dickens pretty much succeeded in his aim…

Festive Joy Rating:      🎅 🎅

Overall Story Rating:  😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 178…

Episode 178…

Another drop this week – the TBR is down 2 to 226! Unless the postman has arrived since I posted this, in which case it’s gone up 1 to 229…

Here’s a few more that should make my head spin…

Factual

Courtesy of the British Library. From the look of this book, it’s the kind of thing that would be great as a stocking filler or little extra gift for a book lover. Sounds like fun – part 1!

The Blurb says: Books: reading, collecting, and the physical housing of them has brought the book-lover joy and stress for centuries. Fascinated writers have tried to capture the particular relationships we form with our library, and the desperate troubles we will undergo to preserve it. With Alex Johnson as your guide, immerse yourself in this eclectic anthology and hear from an iconic Prime Minister musing over the best way to store your books and an illustrious US President explaining the best works to read outdoors. Enjoy serious speculations on the psychological implications of reading from a 19th century philosopher, and less serious ones concerning the predicament of dispensing with unwanted volumes or the danger of letting children (the enemies of books) near your collection. The many facets of book-mania are pondered and celebrated with both sincerity and irreverence in this lively selection of essays, poems, lectures, and commentaries ranging from the 16th to the 20th century.

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Also from the British Library, this delicious little companion to their Crime Classics series looks fiendishly entertaining! Sounds like fun – part 2!

The Blurb says: Polish off your magnifying glass and step into the shoes of your favourite detectives as you unlock tantalising clues and solve intricate puzzles. There are over 100 criminally teasing challenges to be scrutinised, including word searches, anagrams, snapshot covers, and crosswords a favourite puzzle of crime fictions golden age. Suitable for all ages and levels, this is the ultimate test for fans of the British Library Crime Classics series. For six years, the British Library have brought neglected crime fiction writers into the spotlight in a series of republished novels and anthologies. There are now more than 50 British Library Crime Classics titles to collect.

Fiction

For my largely neglected 5 x 5 Challenge. I was blown away by Beloved when I read it nearly three years ago, and yet I still haven’t read any of Toni Morrison’s other books. Time to change that…

The Blurb says: Song of Solomon is a work of outstanding beauty and power, whose story covers the years from the 1930’s to the 1960’s in America. At its centre is Macon Dead Jr, the son of a wealthy black property owner, who has been brought up to revere the white world. Macon learns about the tyranny of white society from his friend Guitar, though he is more concerned to escape the tyranny of his father. So while Guitar joins a terrorist group of poor blacks, Macon goes home to the South, lured by tales of buried family treasure. His journey leads to the discovery of something more valuable than gold, his past. Yet the truth about his origins and his true self is not fully revealed to Macon until he and Guitar meet once again in powerful, and deadly confrontation.

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Dickens for Christmas

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Every year, I revisit A Christmas Carol over the Christmas season, trying new audiobooks or TV/film adaptations. But it’s actually been a few years now since I read the paper copy. This hardback is a new edition for this year and, as with this entire series of hardbacks, is much more gorgeous in real life than the cover picture makes it look. My plan is to read one of the five Christmas stories each week in December…

The Blurb says: ‘What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?’

Ebenezer Scrooge is a bad-tempered skinflint who hates Christmas and all it stands for, but a ghostly visitor foretells three apparitions who will thaw Scrooge’s frozen heart. A Christmas Carol has gripped the public imagination since it was first published in 1843, and it is now as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe or plum pudding. This edition reprints the story alongside Dickens’s four other Christmas Books: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man. All five stories show Dickens at his unpredictable best, jumbling together comedy and melodrama, genial romance and urgent social satire, in pursuit of his aim ‘to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land’.

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Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. Last week I mentioned HarperCollins had sent me a selection of three new horror collections – this is the second. I’ve read some EF Benson before, but had no idea his brothers wrote ghost stories too…

The Blurb says: One of the most extraordinary, and prolific writing families of the last one hundred years must be the Bensons. All three brothers wrote ghost stories, and Fred Benson is acknowledged as one of the finest writers of supernatural fiction of this century, whose name is mentioned in the same breath as such other greats as M.R. James and H.R. Wakefield. However, for many years his success in the genre has overshadowed the work that Arthur and Hugh did in the field of the supernatural story; and their weird tales, long out of print and difficult to find, were known to only a few enthusiasts.

Now, for the first time, the best supernatural tales of A.C. and R.H. Benson have been gathered together into one volume. Hugh Lamb, whose ground-breaking anthologies of the 1970s were largely responsible for their re-discovery, has collected nineteen of the best stories by both writers, including A.C. Benson’s masterful tales ‘Basil Netherby’ and ‘The Uttermost Farthing’. Also included is a rare 1913 article, ‘Haunted Houses’, by R.H. Benson, reprinted here for the first time, and an Introduction which examines the lives and writings of these two complex and fascinating men.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

More of a ramble than a review…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies leaving him penniless, he, his mother and his sister, Kate, must throw themselves on the charity of their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Though rich, Ralph is a cold, unfeeling man who sees no reason why he should be responsible for the welfare of his feckless brother’s family. He seems to take delight in finding the worst position he can for young Nicholas, as assistant to Wackford Squeers, proprietor and headmaster of Dotheboys Hall school for boys. This post will take Nicholas far from his family to distant Yorkshire, leaving his sister to the doubtful protection of their uncle…

I have a tendency to decide each time I read a Dickens book that it’s one of his very best, leaving me to wonder which ones aren’t! But this really IS one of his best, showcasing everything that makes Dickens one of the few writers who can present a 900-page novel and leave the reader wishing it was a little longer.

As tends to be the case in his major books, there is a mix of underlying plot with a series of episodes that stand almost on their own. So we see Nicholas first in Dotheboys Hall, where unloving parents abandon their young sons, or often stepsons, to the negligent and cruel care of Squeers and his equally horrible wife. Dickens uses this to provide a pointed commentary on this kind of legalised child abandonment, and to show the physical and emotional damage it causes. But he leavens it with some humour, often rather cruel, especially when directed at Squeers’ son and daughter (who, one could argue, are as much victims of their parents’ over-indulgence as the pupils are of their neglect).

Then there’s the wonderful section when Nicholas falls in with the travelling company of actors under the headship of actor-manager and all-round ham, Vincent Crummles. Who could ever forget the Infant Phenomenon, she of uncertain age who has been playing child roles for longer than is perhaps chronologically plausible? Dickens is at his most humorous here, with his affectionately caricatured portraits of the various actors and a few side-swipes at the practice of plagiarism which he suggests was the norm at a time when “new” plays were required each week. I love how Crummles demands that each play is written to a formula, to include all the things his actors are noted for – there must be a sword fight, the Infant Phenomenon must get to dance, there must be a romance for Miss Snevellicci, etc.

The Infant Phenomenon…

Nicholas’ third section is back in London when he is employed by the charitable Cheeryble brothers, whose main motivation in life is to do good to others. Dickens manages to avoid mawkishness in this novel (something he doesn’t always achieve) and the Cheerybles are less caricatured than my memory from earlier reads, or perhaps TV adaptations, suggested. Although the ultimate in kindliness, the brothers also have cores of steel that prevent them being taken advantage of, and allow them to act decisively when they see wrong being done. Their characterisation is undoubtedly more nuanced than many of Dickens’ “good” characters, but he still manages to use them to show that good deeds done with truly charitable hearts are repaid ten-fold by the affection and loyalty of the recipients.

Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…

Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…

I love Kate, too. She’s so different from his usual drooping, dim-witted heroines! Society makes it tough for women to stand on their own two feet at that time, but one feels that if any woman could do it, Kate could. She stands up to her uncle, she supports her mother, and she provides a stabilising influence on the more volatile Nicholas. She has her own story too, running separately from Nicholas’. Her job in Mantolini’s milliner’s shop provides another arena for Dickens’ humour, this time at the expense of the ‘macaroni’, the foppishly fashionable man-about-town, and the silly women who fall for them. Mantolini himself (real name Alfred Muntle) is pure comedy joy. But Dickens has a point to make too about the intolerable working conditions for women, working 12 or 14 hours a day and never seeing sunshine, all for a pittance barely enough to keep body and soul together.

Mantolini gets a little over-dramatic…

Through Kate, and later through Nicholas’ love interest, Dickens shows how women were so much at the mercy of men, to be treated kindly or cruelly at their whim, with very little recourse. Lord Frederick Verisopht, despite the typically silly name, is another complex character who grows and changes during the course of the book, first behaving as a predator towards Kate, driven on by the uniformly evil Sir Mulberry Hawk, but gradually realising the wrong that is being done to her. I have a very soft spot for Sir Frederick. (Sorry! I should have tried harder to resist that…)

Of course, there’s a whole batch of quirkier characters too. Vain and empty-headed Mrs Nickleby is a comic gem who had me laughing at her (affectionately, mostly) many times. Newman Noggs and John Browdie, though very different, are each the kind of loyal friend who pop up often in Dickens to help the young hero along the way. The story of the Kenwigs, Mr Lillyvick and Miss Petowker is a delightful little satire on class and cupidity. And the late-blossoming romance of dear little Miss La Creevy is guaranteed to melt the hardest heart.

The greatest writer the world has ever known…

For me, though, the most intriguing character in the book has to be Uncle Ralph, the villain of the piece. Again, he’s much more subtly drawn than Dickens’ villains sometimes are. We get a hint as to why he may have turned out as he did, and though we’re hoping throughout for him to get his comeuppance, when it comes it seems particularly harsh, leaving this reader at least feeling somewhat torn. He deserves to pay for his behaviour to the young Nicklebys and others, for sure, but the price is cruelly high. I always remember the old RSC adaptation (which I may re-watch and review separately) where the role was played superbly by John Woodvine, and I remember how he made me feel that Ralph demanded a little pity too… just a little, but perhaps enough to keep us all human.

More of a ramble than a review, but in summary – one of Dickens’ very best, and since he’s without question the greatest writer the world has ever known, then that’s pretty spectacular…

Book 20 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

“It’s a weakness in our family,” said Mrs Nickleby, “so, of course, I can’t be blamed for it. Your grandmama, Kate, was exactly the same – precisely. The least excitement, the slightest surprise – she fainted away directly. I have heard her say, often and often, that when she was a young lady, and before she was married, she was turning a corner into Oxford Street one day, when she ran against her own hairdresser, who, it seems, was escaping from a bear;– the mere suddenness of the encounter made her faint away directly. Wait, though,” added Mrs Nickleby, pausing to consider. “Let me be sure I’m right. Was it her hairdresser who had escaped from a bear, or was it a bear who had escaped from her hairdresser’s? I declare I can’t remember just now, but the hairdresser was a very handsome man, I know, and quite a gentleman in his manners; so that it has nothing to do with the point of the story.”

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By contrast, John Rylands’s library was a middlebrow mix of piety and practicality. The son of a draper from St Helen’s, Manchester’s first multi-millionaire lived from 1857 at Longford Hall, an Italianate mansion which he had built in the nearby village of Stretford. The house was unpretentious, and the library, of some 1,808 volumes, could hardly have been less like the library which Mrs Rylands later founded in her husband’s memory. Entirely devoid of antique or rare books, it included volumes of light reading (Dickens and Walter Scott) but also many religious books, as Rylands was a devout Congregationalist. [ . . .] Other books, like a Boy’s own Book of Boats (1868) seem somewhat more unexpected, while Scott’s Practical Cotton Spinner, and Manufacturer (Preston, 1840) and Etiquette for Gentlemen (1854) provoke interesting and perhaps rather moving reflections on the life story of a self-made man.

* * * * * * * * *

“Have I ever told you that I think you’re a stunningly attractive woman?”
She turned her knowing brown eyes on him.
“You have, actually. Many times.”
“I’d love to kiss you. Properly, I mean.”
It nearly always worked, It was a simple wish expressed – heartfelt, genuine – and one hard to be offended by. It was a compliment, of sorts, though risqué. Sometimes the women said, “Well, thank you, but no thanks.” Or else, “Not here, not now.” Sometimes they looked at him, smiled, said nothing, and moved away. But, mostly, they were intrigued, and soon, after a while, after some more conversation, they found a way and a location and a time where the kiss could take place.
“You’ve already kissed me,” Suki said, sardonically. “If I recall.”

* * * * * * * * *

(The crew have been stranded on an ice floe for weeks, food is running out and they are on strict, tiny rations, facing starvation. All they are allowed for breakfast is some powdered milk and a lump of sugar. They had hoped to go back to their original camp that day to get food supplies that had been left there…)

Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.

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From the Archives…

Once their tears had dried, or before, they began naming roads and bridges, tunnels, highways and buildings for him, creating a grief-stricken empire of asphalt, mortar, brick, and bronze so extensive that if you extinguished every light on earth except those illuminating something named for him, astronauts launched from the Kennedy Space Center would have seen a web of lights stretching across Europe and North America, and others scattered through Africa and Asia…

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

“I shall not withdraw,” he said slowly, with a dull, dogged evenness of tone. “I shall not withdraw in any circumstance. I have gone too far,” he went on, raising his hand to check Falmouth’s appeal. “I have got beyond fear, I have even got beyond resentment; it is now to me a question of justice. Am I right in introducing a law that will remove from this country colonies of dangerously intelligent criminals, who, whilst enjoying immunity from arrest, urge ignorant men forward to commit acts of violence and treason? If I am right, the Four Just Men are wrong. Or are they right: is this measure an unjust thing, an act of tyranny, a piece of barbarism dropped into the very centre of twentieth-century thought, an anachronism? If these men are right, then I am wrong. So it has come to this, that I have to satisfy my mind as to the standard of right and wrong that I must accept – and I accept my own.”

* * * * * * * * *

The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and they had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care…

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

* * * * * * * * *

Niamh saw the lights change to green and the Mercedes start to turn left across the flow of traffic. And then she was blinded. A searing, burning light that obliterated all else, just a fraction of a second before the shockwave from the blast knocked her off her feet. As she hit the ground, sight returned. She saw glass flying from the broken windows of the [Café] Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, tables and chairs spinning away across the square. As she rolled over, the Mercedes was still in the air. Later she would remember it as being ten feet or more off the ground. But in fact it was probably no more than eighteen or twenty inches. Flaming debris showered down across the Place de la République as the car slammed back on to the road, a ball of flame.

* * * * * * * * *

But the pupils – the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 143…

Episode 143…

I’ve been remarkably restrained in my book acquiring so far this month. Unfortunately after a manic burst of reading for a couple of weeks, I now seem to have slowed to a crawl again. So a moderate drop of just 1 in the TBR – to 217. And unless a miracle happens I’m going to fail to achieve my Goodreads challenge target of 125 – I’d need to finish 10 books before the end of the year. Not impossible… but not likely!

Oh, stop whining, Alice! The simple answer is to read more books…

Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. Princeton keep offering me books that fall well outside my normal reading range – sometimes they work for me, sometimes they don’t. Will this one? Hmm, we’ll see…

The Blurb says: Curves are seductive. These smooth, organic lines and surfaces–like those of the human body–appeal to us in an instinctive, visceral way that straight lines or the perfect shapes of classical geometry never could. In this large-format book, lavishly illustrated in color throughout, Allan McRobie takes the reader on an alluring exploration of the beautiful curves that shape our world–from our bodies to Salvador Dali’s paintings and the space-time fabric of the universe itself.

The book focuses on seven curves–the fold, cusp, swallowtail, and butterfly, plus the hyperbolic, elliptical, and parabolic “umbilics”–and describes the surprising origins of their taxonomy in the catastrophe theory of mathematician Rene Thom. (FF says: Good gracious!) In an accessible discussion illustrated with many photographs of the human nude (FF says: Eh??), McRobie introduces these curves and then describes their role in nature, science, engineering, architecture, art, and other areas. The reader learns how these curves play out in everything from the stability of oil rigs and the study of distant galaxies to rainbows, the patterns of light on pool floors, and even the shape of human genitals (FF faints). The book also discusses the role of these curves in the work of such artists as David Hockney, Henry Moore, and Anish Kapoor, with particular attention given to the delicate sculptures of Naum Gabo and the final paintings of Dali, who said that Thom’s theory “bewitched all of my atoms.”

A unique introduction to the language of beautiful curves, this book may change the way you see the world.

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Pastiche

Courtesy of the author. I was contacted by the publisher on behalf of the author of this one, on the grounds that since I love Holmes and Three Men in a Boat, I might also love this mash-up pastiche. I shuddered and got ready to haughtily refuse… but then I read the “look inside” sample on Amazon and found myself chuckling jollily. I suspect it’s going to be loads of fun…

The Blurb says: 221b Baker St., London, early 1890s. For three Victorian slackers—to say nothing of their dog—becoming Sherlock Holmes’s neighbors is very nearly the death of them. Jerome and his friends are planning a jaunt when Miss Briony Lodge calls at Baker Street. The beautiful young schoolmistress is in deadly danger. But what match are a bank clerk, a lawyer’s assistant, a dog and a novelist for an international gang of desperadoes? None whatsoever. It would take an intellect of Sherlock Holmes’s proportions to set things to rights. Or maybe, perhaps, an otter.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I usually love William Boyd (but sometimes don’t!), so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve been delaying it because I’m currently listening to another Boyd book on audio, Brazzaville Beach – loving it, but for some reason it’s taking me forever to get through…

The Blurb says: A philandering art dealer tries to give up casual love affairs – seeking only passionate kisses as a substitute. A man recounts his personal history through the things he has stolen from others throughout his life. A couple chart the journey of their five year relationship backwards, from awkward reunion to lovelorn first encounter. And, at the heart of the book, a 24-year old young woman, Bethany Mellmoth, embarks on a year-long journey of wishful and tentative self-discovery.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth depicts the random encounters that bring the past bubbling to the surface; the impulsive decisions that irrevocably shape a life; and the endless hesitations and loss-of-nerve that wickedly complicate it. These funny, surprising and moving stories are a resounding confirmation of Boyd’s powers as one of our most original and compelling storytellers.

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Bah Humbug!

I have a tradition of watching, reading or listening to A Christmas Carol over the festive season, and like to try out new versions if I can. This is one of Audible’s own full-cast original dramatisations (which regulars will know I’ve been loving this year) and stars the wondrous Derek Jacobi as Dickens (I’m assuming the narrator of the linking bits)…

The Blurb says: ‘If I had my way, every idiot who goes around with Merry Christmas on his lips, would be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. Merry Christmas? Bah humbug!’

Charles Dickens’ ghostly tale of sour and stingy miser Ebenezer Scrooge has captivated readers, listeners and audiences for over 150 years. This Christmas, Audible Studios brings this story to life in an audio drama featuring an all-star cast.

Starring: Sir Derek Jacobi as Dickens, Kenneth Cranham as Ebenezer Scrooge, Roger Allam as Jacob Marley, Brendan Coyle as The Ghost Of Christmas Past, Miriam Margolyes as The Ghost Of Christmas Present, Tim Mcinnerny as The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come, Jamie Glover as Bob Cratchit, Emily Bruni as Mrs. Cratchit, Jenna Coleman as Belle, Joshua James as Young Scrooge and Hugh Skinner as Fred.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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TBR Thursday 141…

Episode 141…

A massive drop in the TBR this week! Down 2 to 217! Well on the way to single figures, see? I may have to stock up on a few more books before I run out…

This might be the last TBR post before Christmas, since the annual FictionFan Awards will be kicking off soon, so here are a few that I’m determined to fit in before year end… somehow or other!

Dickens for Christmas

I’ve had a tradition for many years of reading Dickens over Christmas, which is why I included five of his novels on my Classics Club list. This will be a re-read of one that I love for all the weird and wonderful characters…

The Blurb says: When Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless after his father’s death, he appeals to his wealthy uncle to help him find work and to protect his mother and sister. But Ralph Nickleby proves both hard-hearted and unscrupulous, and Nicholas finds himself forced to make his own way in the world. His adventures gave Dickens the opportunity to portray an extraordinary gallery of rogues and eccentrics: Wackford Squeers, the tyrannical headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, a school for unwanted boys; the slow-witted orphan Smike, rescued by Nicholas; and the gloriously theatrical Mr and Mrs Crummles and their daughter, the ‘infant phenomenon’. Like many of Dickens’s novels, Nicholas Nickleby is characterised by his outrage at cruelty and social injustice, but it is also a flamboyantly exuberant work, revealing his comic genius at its most unerring.

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Crime

I have a lot of very talented blog buddies, which is great for me but a killer for my TBR! Angela Savage is one of them and I’ve been intending to read this, her debut novel from before I ‘met’ her, for ages. She’s written another two in the series and is currently working on a non-series novel, so I better get a move on!

The Blurb says: Thirty-something Australian Jayne Keeney works as a PI in Bangkok. Shaken by a serious incident, she heads north to visit her close friend Didier in Chiang Mai, though there’s no relief for her there.

Murder is in the air and the police, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ratratarn, have no interest in justice. But Jayne does. With some help from Arthur Conan Doyle, she digs deep – past the tacky glamour of the city’s clubs and bars, arrogant expats, corrupt officials, and a steamy affair – to find out just what happened behind the Night Bazaar.

Angela Savage has brought the streets of Thailand vividly to life. In Jayne Keeney she has created a gutsy heroine. This is an unforgettable debut novel and the start of an exciting new series.

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Factual

Courtesy of NetGalley. When The Graduate came out in 1967, I was too young to see it, but I did watch it several times in the following decades. It didn’t have quite the impact on me that this book claims it had on those who saw it when it came out, but nonetheless there are some scenes that are etched indelibly in my memory. And of course, there’s the music…

The Blurb says: When The Graduate premiered in December 1967, its filmmakers had only modest expectations attached to what seemed to be a small, sexy, art house comedy adapted from an obscure first novel by an eccentric twenty-four-year-old. There was little indication that this offbeat story–a young man just out of college has an affair with one of his parents’ friends–would turn out to be a monster hit, with an extended run in theaters and seven Academy Award nominations.

The film catapulted an unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, to stardom with a role that is now permanently engraved in our collective memories. And just as it turned the word plastics into shorthand for soulless work and a corporate, consumer culture, The Graduate sparked a national conversation about what came to be called “the generation gap.”

Now, in time for this iconic film’s fiftieth birthday, author Beverly Gray offers up a smart close reading of the film itself and vivid, never-before-revealed details from behind the scenes of the production–including all the drama and decision-making of the cast and crew. For movie buffs and pop culture fans, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson brings to light The Graduate’s huge influence on the future of filmmaking, and it explores how this unconventional movie rocked the late sixties world, both reflecting and changing the era’s views of sex, work, and marriage.

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Crime

I have a lot of very talented blog buddies, which is great for me but a killer for my TBR! No, you’re not suffering from déjà vu – this is another one! Caleigh O’Shea is the pen name of my blog buddy Debbie who blogs over at Musings by an ND Domer’s Mom, and this is her newly-released debut novel…

The Blurb says: Texas journalist Josh Griffin lives for scoops, but he’s never faced real danger to get one. Nor has he ever been emotionally drawn into his stories. Then he gets an anonymous tip that teenaged golf superstar Lexi Carlisle has been kidnapped, and Josh embarks on an investigation destined to change his life forever. Lexi Carlisle is the daughter of Josh’s college sweetheart; watching Amanda agonize over her missing daughter while refuting police insinuations that she had something to do with the crime is more than Josh can handle. And when he unravels the web of lies spun by Lexi’s crazed kidnapper — who has killed once and isn’t afraid to do so again — Josh realizes the story takes second place to the girl’s rescue.

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Christmas Crime on Audio

Narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, doesn’t this sound like perfect festive fun?

The Blurb says: A collection of four short stories from P. D. James, published together for the first time.

As the acknowledged “Queen of Crime”, P. D. James was frequently commissioned by newspapers and magazines to write special short stories for Christmas. Four of the very best of these have been rescued from the archives and are published together. P. D. James’ prose illuminates each of these perfectly formed stories, making them ideal listening for the darkest days of the year.

While she delights in the secrets that lurk beneath the surface at enforced family gatherings, her Christmas stories also provide enjoyable puzzles to keep the reader guessing. From the title story about a strained country-house Christmas party to another about an illicit affair that ends in murder and two cases for James’ poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, each treats the reader to James’ masterfully atmospheric storytelling, always with the lure of a mystery to be solved.

The four stories are: The Mistletoe Murder; A Very Commonplace Murder; The Boxdale Inheritance; The Twelve Clues of Christmas.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 105…

Episode 105…

My persistent attempt at exercising willpower is finally showing results, with another week where my TBR has remained stable – at 176! Happily, the review copy backlog has dropped 4 to 32, of which only 18 are overdue – the best it’s been for a long time. Feeling good about being able to get off the review copy treadmill in the new year, and having time to read some of the books I’ve been stockpiling for far too long.

Of course, I’m still looking forward to getting review copies of books from favourite authors and there’s a couple of those here, specially scheduled to ensure some great reading over the festive season. A bumper edition this week, since this will be the last TBR post till 2017…

Factual

how-shakespeare-put-politics-on-the-stageCourtesy of NetGalley. Shakespeare, politics, a bit of history and Yale University Press – how could it go wrong? Hmm… early reviews, including one from a reviewer I know and trust on this kind of book, suggest it could be way too academic and dry for my dilettante mind… but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: With an ageing, childless monarch, lingering divisions due to the Reformation, and the threat of foreign enemies, Shakespeare’s England was fraught with unparalleled anxiety and complicated problems. In this monumental work, Peter Lake reveals, more than any previous critic, the extent to which Shakespeare’s plays speak to the depth and sophistication of Elizabethan political culture and the Elizabethan imagination. Lake reveals the complex ways in which Shakespeare’s major plays engaged with the events of his day, particularly regarding the uncertain royal succession, theological and doctrinal debates, and virtue and virtù in politics. Through his plays, Lake demonstrates, Shakespeare was boldly in conversation with his audience about a range of contemporary issues. This remarkable literary and historical analysis pulls the curtain back on what Shakespeare was really telling his audience and what his plays tell us today about the times in which they were written.

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Crime

the-beautiful-deadCourtesy of NetGalley. I have no doubts about this one though! A new Belinda Bauer is always a major treat…

The Blurb says:  In her latest, The Beautiful Dead, Bauer turns the trope of the media-attention-hungry killer on its head, with a riveting narrative centered on a down-on-her-luck crime reporter and a serial killer desperate for the spotlight.

Crime reporter Eve Singer’s career is on the downward slope when a spate of bizarre murders—each carefully orchestrated and advertised like performance art—begin in her territory. Covering these very public crimes revives her byline, and when the killer contacts Eve to discuss her coverage of his crimes, she is suddenly on the inside of the biggest murder investigation of the decade. But as the killer becomes increasingly obsessed with her, Eve realizes there’s a thin line between inside information and becoming an accomplice to murder—possibly her own.

A seamlessly-plotted thriller that will keep readers breathless until the very end, The Beautiful Dead cements Belinda Bauer’s reputation as a master of heart-stopping suspense..

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Crime

cast-ironCourtesy of Quercus via MidasPR. The new Peter May has become part of my festive tradition in recent years. I’m going to whisper a little secret though – the Enzo Files series, of which this is #6, isn’t my favourite May series. In fact, I’ve only read a couple of them. The earlier ones were written several years ago, before the Lewis series, and I do think he’s been at his peak for the last few years, so will he be able to change my mind? Exciting… and even May’s less good books are still way ahead of most of the competition…

The Blurb says: West of France, 1989. A weeping killer deposits the unconscious body of nineteen year old Lucie Martin, her head wrapped in a blue plastic bag, into the water of a picturesque lake.

Lot-et-Garonne, 2003. Fourteen years later a summer heatwave parches the earth, killing trees and bushes and drying out streams. In the scorched mud and desiccated slime of the lake a fisherman finds a skeleton wearing a bag over its skull.

Paris, October 2011. In an elegant apartment in Paris, forensic expert Enzo Macleod pores over the scant evidence of this, the sixth cold case he has been challenged to solve. In taking on this old and seemingly impossible task he will put everything and everyone he holds dear in a peril he could never have imagined.

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Fiction

our-mutual-friendMy major festive reading tradition is to read Dickens (hence why there are five Dickens novels on my Classics Club list, including this one). For some incomprehensible reason, I’ve never read this one before – an omission I can’t wait to rectify…

The Blurb says: A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, Our Mutual Friend revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, Our Mutual Friend is one of Dickens’s most complex—and satisfying—novels.

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Horror

dark-talesCourtesy of NetGalley. Horror stories are an essential part of the Christmas season – the perfect antidote to all that excess goodwill floating around. Bah, humbug! And who better than Shirley Jackson to shiver the spine…

The Blurb says: There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the country manor, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

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Crime

maigret-and-the-tall-womanCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying reading some older crime fiction recently, so this should fit in nicely. I did read some Maigret in my youth, but that’s soooo long ago, he feels like a new-to-me author…

The Blurb says: A visit from a tall, thin woman he arrested many years ago—now married to a hapless burglar—leads Maigret on a tortuous investigation in which he struggles with a formidable suspect. The thirty-eighth book in the new Penguin Maigret series.

A face from Maigret’s past reappears to tell him about the misadventures of her husband, a safecracker nicknamed “Sad Freddie” who discovered a dead body while committing a burglary and fled the scene in a panic. In a race against the clock, Maigret must use his full arsenal of investigative methods to solve the crime.

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Fiction

el-doctorowCourtesy of NetGalley again! Some more short stories to fill in those short gaps that happen around this time of year, when there’s just not enough time to get properly stuck into a longer novel. And my first introduction to EL Doctorow…

The Blurb says: A superb collection of fifteen great stories by an American master, E. L. Doctorow—the author of Ragtime, The March, The Book of Daniel, and Billy Bathgate.

In A House on the Plains, a mother has a plan for financial independence, which may include murder. In Walter John Harmon, a man starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction. Jolene: A Life follows a teenager who escapes her home for Hollywood on a perilous quest for success. Heist, the account of an Episcopal priest coping with a crisis of faith, was expanded into the bestseller City of God. The Water Works, about the underbelly of 1870s New York, grew into a brilliant novel. Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate is a corollary to the renowned novel and includes Doctorow’s revisions.

These fifteen brilliant stories, written from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century, and selected, revised, and placed in order by the author himself shortly before he died in 2015, are a testament to the genius of E. L. Doctorow.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think?
Doesn’t this just look like a fab festive reading list?

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Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

martin chuzzlewitComin’ to America…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Old Martin Chuzzlewit’s greedy relations have always assumed that his grandson and namesake will inherit the bulk of his wealth. But when young Martin falls in love without his grandfather’s consent, the subsequent breach between them leaves the way open for all the rest to try to flatter, sneak or threaten their way into old Martin’s good graces. Meantime young Martin must make his own way in the world, a hard lesson for a young man who has never given much thought for anything beyond his own comfort. When old Martin makes it difficult for him to get on in England, young Martin decides to seek his fortune in the youthful United States of America…

Apparently on publication in serial form, this one didn’t take off as well as Dickens’ earlier novels, and I can see why. At first, as we meet all the horrible relatives, it’s quite hard to see who is to be the hero – they are all so unlikeable, including the two Martins. The major theme of the book is selfishness, perhaps more self-centredness, as each character is out for what he or she can get. The book is populated by grasping Scrooge-like businessmen, hypocritical flatterers and people whose pride gets in the way of their ability to make compromises. Tom Pinch, the put-upon assistant of one of the many Chuzzlewit relations, Mr Pecksniff, is the only main character who is purely good, and frankly he is such a doormat one wants to give him a good shake and shout “Man up, Tom, for goodness sake!” However, once Dickens has created all his characters, he then allows the circumstances in which they they find themselves to change them. And, as is always the case with Dickens, redemption is available for those characters willing to seek it.

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. I’m not convinced it was a great decision – the whole American bit feels tacked on and unnecessary, although it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some great descriptive writing. Martin, accompanied by his servant Mark Tapley, finds himself at the mercy of the unscrupulous hucksters who prey on the immigrant dream of finding a land of golden opportunity. Ending up instead in a disease-ridden swamp, Martin has a chance to discover the meaning of true friendship, while Mark has at last found a place where he can find some merit in being jolly in the face of adversity.

The inaptly named Eden, young Martin's American home. By Phiz.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home. By Phiz.

It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.

Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and very funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British – and furthermore I spent a miserable couple of weeks last year in the company of the much more vilely rude Mr Twain as he travelled Europe and Asia in The Innocents Abroad, so hey! I was kinda glad to see Dickens do it the other way round, and so much better! Joking(?) aside, Dickens was surprised by the reaction of the American public, feeling that his satirisation of their society wasn’t significantly different to the way he satirised people and institutions in England. True, I feel, but somehow it does read more offensively because of his position as an outsider to their society. I’m not sure he meant to convey the impression that America was inferior to England – given his lowly opinion of the people who abused their power in England, I doubt it. But it nevertheless comes across that way, particularly when he brilliantly (and repeatedly) mocks the never-ending boast of “freedom” coming from men who kept and cruelly abused slaves. Dickens subsequently made a kind of apology to America (more than Twain ever did to Europe, as far as I know) and requested that this apology be always printed at the end of the book.

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression...
Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression…

For me, the book is much better when it stays in England, and fortunately the American interlude is relatively short. Some of the great Dickens characters are to be found here. Mr Pecksniff, the arch-hypocrite and flatterer, is superb – not quite as overdrawn as Dickens’ characters can sometimes be, making Tom’s belief in him more credible. Sairey Gamp, midwife and layer-out of corpses, with her invisible friend Mrs Harris, her ubiquitous umbrella, and her liking for a little sip of alcohol – just to wet her lips occasionally – is monstrous and comical simultaneously, a combination only Dickens could pull off so well. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of the great evil characters, and the scenes relating to him in the second half of the book show Dickens at his dark and terrifying worst.

Did no men passing through the dim streets shrink without knowing why, when he came stealing up behind them? As he glided on, had no child in its sleep an indistinct perception of a guilty shadow falling on its bed, that troubled its innocent rest? Did no dog howl, and strive to break its rattling chain, that it might tear him; no burrowing rat, scenting the work he had in hand, essay to gnaw a passage after him, that it might hold a greedy revel at the feast of his providing? When he looked back, across his shoulder, was it to see if his quick footsteps still fell dry upon the dusty pavement, or were already moist and clogged with the red mire that stained the naked feet of Cain!

Of course, there is romance and one of Dickens’ never-ending parade of nauseatingly sweet young heroines – this time, Tom’s sister, Ruth. But I must say the love scenes in this one are done mainly for humour and that works so much better than some of the sickly sweet love affairs in later books (yes, I am thinking of David Copperfield and Drippy Dora).

Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff...
Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff…

Despite the rather slow start and the detour to America, for me this still ranks up there as a truly excellent novel. While it took me a bit of time to warm up to any of the characters, as they developed I became fully invested in wanting to see the goodies reach a happy ending and hoping the baddies would get their just desserts. The second half in particular, with its mixture of evil, justice and redemption reaches close to being some of Dickens’ best work. The sheer quality of Dickens’ writing always takes my breath away – it reads as if written so effortlessly and yet his descriptions of both place and people are unique, insightful and often unforgettable. A true master of his craft – I’m glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link