Talking Classics…

The Classics Club Meme – May 2018

The Classics Club has reintroduced its monthly meme feature, and the question for this month is:

What is your favourite classic book? Why?

In truth, I’ve answered this question so often in various tags and memes, I can’t think of much new to say about my favourite book, which is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. So here’s a link to my previous post explaining why I love it.

Instead, I thought I’d adapt the question to looking at which of the books that I’ve read from my Classics Club list is my favourite so far. There are plenty of contenders even though I’m not a third of the way through yet. My list is split into five sections:

The American Section is not going well in truth, with some seriously disappointing reads so far. However, I enjoyed my re-read of To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’m giving the prize for this section to:

Passing by Nella Larsen, a book that is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. It tells the story of two women who meet up by accident after many years apart, and renew their childhood friendship. But their lives are wildly different now and soon each becomes a danger to the other’s security. It takes place in Harlem in the 1920s, and is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time.

The English Section is faring much better, with several five star reads so far. That’s partly because this section is packed with lots of re-reads so I knew in advance I already loved them. The prize goes to:

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. No introduction needed for this one, but I had forgotten just how good it is and how much it had to say about so many concerns of its time. Also, Derek Jacobi’s narration is wonderful – the power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points.

The Scottish Section has been a delight for me. I’m always ashamed at my lack of knowledge of the classics of my own country, so have been thrilled to enjoy nearly every one I’ve read so far. But the prize must go to:

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. This is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but it’s also much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Wonderfully written, with some beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Scottish Highlands.

The Crime Section has been great fun to date, with some hugely enjoyable reads and re-reads. I deliberately went for lighter choices on the whole, to provide some relief from the heavier books in the fiction sections. The prize goes to:

Cop Hater by Ed McBain – a re-read from long, long ago, this is the first book in the long-running 87th Precinct series. Set in the 1950s in a fictionalised New York, it’s part hardboiled, part modern police procedural with a touch of noir thrown in for good measure. Writing, setting, atmosphere and characterisation are all superb and, while some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all.

The Science Fiction Section has been a mixed bag, with a couple of great ones and a couple that feel too dated now. It has set me off reading all of HG Wells sci-fi classics though, so for that reason the winner has to be:

The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells – by far the grimmest of Wells’ classics, this has some horrific imagery and some scenes of real animal cruelty. But through the story he tells, Wells looks at some of the important themes of his time: the dangers of science without ethical controls, social structures and the new political theories, evolution past and future. Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery.

* * * * *

So those are the top contenders for favourite from my Classics Club list and, gosh, I’m finding it hard to pick just one to be the overall winner. But it must be done.

The winner is…

THE GOWK STORM

And I’m going to keep going on about it till everyone reads it, so you might as well just give in and get it over with… 😉

So… what do you think of my choices?

Passing by Nella Larsen

Colour me white…

😀 😀 😀 😀

passingWhen Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…

Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen

The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.

The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.

I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.

I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!

Book 2 of 90
Book 2 of 90

This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 98…

Episode 98…

The TBR continues to hover in roughly the same position – this week, up 1 to 178. But I’m sure it’s going to start dropping dramatically any time now… I feel it in my bones…

Here are a few that will be rising to the top of the pile soon…

The Classics Club Spin winner…

passingThe number that came up on Monday’s spin was 1, so here it is. Good choice – short! And comes highly recommended by both the lovely heavenali and my good blogbuddy Lady Fancifull

The Blurb says: Irene Redfield, the novel’s protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare’s dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.

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Fiction

himselfCourtesy of NetGalley. Picked entirely on the basis of the cover, the blurb and the publisher, this début novel is published by Canongate and sounds like it might be fun…

The Blurb says:  When Mahony returns to Mulderrig, a speck of a place on Ireland’s west coast, he brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the village’s lies. His arrival causes cheeks to flush and arms to fold in disapproval. No one in the village – living or dead – will tell what happened to the teenage mother who abandoned him as a baby, despite Mahony’s certainty that more than one of them has answers.

Between Mulderrig’s sly priest, its pitiless nurse and the caustic elderly actress throwing herself into her final village play, this beautiful and darkly comic debut novel creates an unforgettable world of mystery, bloody violence and buried secrets.

* * * * *

Crime

the-blood-cardCourtesy of NetGalley. The third book in Elly Griffiths’ new Stephens and Mephisto series. I loved books 1 and 2 so have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: Elizabeth II’s coronation is looming, but the murder of their wartime commander, Colonel Cartwright, spoils the happy mood for DI Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto. A playbill featuring another deceased comrade is found in Colonel Cartwright’s possession, and a playing card, the ace of hearts: the blood card. The wartime connection and the suggestion of magic are enough to put Stephens and Mephisto on the case.

Edgar’s investigation into the death of Brighton fortune-teller Madame Zabini is put on hold. Max is busy rehearsing for a spectacular Coronation Day variety show – and his television debut – so it’s Edgar who is sent to New York, a land of plenty worlds away from still-rationed England.

* * * * *

Horror

a-night-in-the-lonesome-octoberCourtesy of NetGalley. A new edition of this is being released by Farrago just in time for the spooky season and, since regular commenter BigSister (who just happens to be my big sister) says she reads this every Hallowe’en, I couldn’t resist…

The Blurb says: An overdue reissue of the last great novel by a giant of fantasy – essential October reading.

All is not what it seems . . .

In the murky London gloom, a knife-wielding gentleman named Jack prowls the midnight streets with his faithful watchdog Snuff – gathering together the grisly ingredients they will need for an upcoming ancient and unearthly rite. For soon after the death of the moon, black magic will summon the Elder Gods back into the world. And all manner of Players, both human and undead, are preparing to participate. Some have come to open the gates. Some have come to slam them shut.

And now the dread night approaches – so let the Game begin.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.ok

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

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TBR Thursday 49…

The People’s Choice 6…

 

Dramatic news! The TBR has gone down!! By 2 – to 136…but it’s a start, right?

So…that means I can squeeze in one more book, but which one? So many choices around the blogosphere – so many great reviews! Which means it’s time for another People’s Choice Poll…

Last time it was all crime, so this time the shortlist is all fiction. So which one of these do you think most deserves a place on the TBR? The winner will be announced next Thursday…

With my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:

The Contenders…

 

the constant nymphThe BlurbTessa is the daughter of a brilliant bohemian composer, Albert Sanger, who with his “circus” of precocious children, slovenly mistress, and assortment of hangers-on, lives in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian Alps. The fourteen-year-old Tessa has fallen in love with Lewis Dodd, a gifted composer like her father. Confidently, she awaits maturity, for even his marriage to Tessa’s beautiful cousin Florence cannot shatter the loving bond between Lewis and his constant nymph.

heavenali says: “The Constant Nymph was Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, and probably her most successful and well known. I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.

See the full review at heavenali

*******

the beesThe BlurbBorn into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…

Claire says: “I know little about the bee world, but the environment the author creates is fascinating, intriguing and imaginative with references to monarchy, spiritual devotion, universal instinct and power. It also contains a subtle environmental reference, one that will be recognised by nature lovers everywhere, without compromising the essence of great storytelling.”

See the full review at Word by Word

*******

passingThe BlurbNella Larsen, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote two brilliant novels that interrogated issues of gender and race. In Passing, her second novel published in 1929, she examines the troubled friendship between two mixed-race women who can pass as white. One, Irene Redfield, marries a black man and lives in Harlem, while the other, Clare Kendry, marries a bigoted white man. Clare re-enters Irene’s life after an absence of many years, and stirs up painful questions about identity.

My Book Strings says: “Even without the “issue of race,” the toxic relationship between the two women would have made for a fascinating story. But, of course, race is at the very heart of it. It permeates every single aspect of life, and at times, I found it quite shocking to read about it…

See the full review at My Book Strings

*******

the willowsThe Blurb – Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River. Throughout the story Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—and imbues them with a powerful and ultimately threatening character. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.” American horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered this to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature.

The Bibliophile Chronicles says: “I absolutely love this book, I’ve read it before and it is no less creepy and wonderful the second time around. Personally I think that horror novels/films are most effective when you don’t actually see anything. That eerie sense of not knowing what is there seems to result in such a strong feeling of discomfort. That is very much at play in The Willows.

See the full review at The Bibliophile Chronicles

*******

the guernsey literary and potato peel societyThe BlurbIt is 1946, in the thick of World War II, when American writer Juliet Ashton becomes the sudden recipient of letters from the inhabitants of Guernsey, the small island in the English Channel that has fallen under Nazi control. The letter writers have formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a way to gather without attracting the attention of their occupiers. Out of these letters, Juliet comes to know the lives, loves, and hardships of a wonderfully eccentric and vivid cast of characters, and their charming philosophies and anecdotes help her resolve her own romantic conundrum.

Cleo says: The genius of this book is the perfect mix of horrific stories, those people who were deported, those who lived in fear along with the lack of food, but these are balanced out by some tender moments, with memories of bravery and humour and compassion, not least at the society’s meetings. There were some letters that took my breath away despite being familiar with the nature of the events that occurred.” (Cleo lives in the Channel Islands herself.)

See the full review at Cleopatra Loves Books

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NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

So…over to you! I love the sound of all of these so you can’t choose the wrong one! Choose just one or as many as you like – the book with most votes will be this week’s winner…

Hope you pick a good one! 😉