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Flash Reviews (2nd January 2014)

‘Winter’s Tales’ by Isak Dinesen

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) ***
I have been looking forward to reading this for ages, but thought that I would wait until December to begin it.  Winter’s Tales was first published in 1942, and the stories centre around Danish life – sailors, sailing, and in that respect, they do seem quite similar.  There were some tales which I did not really enjoy, but I liked ‘The Dreaming Child’ and ‘The Fish’.  They are nicely written on the whole, but sadly the Penguin edition which I read was peppered with far too many commas, which detracted from my enjoyment.  I have given it three stars, but I think I should have plumped for two and a half instead.

The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket ****
The Vile Village is the seventh book in the A Series of Unfortunate Events tales.  As one can surmise from the title, the Baudelaires go to live in a village which is governed by thousands of rules.  This village becomes their protector of sorts against evil Count Olaf, who is ever-present in this series.  As ever, it is very well written, and the wit within it matches the storyline well.  The plot is both interesting and enjoyable, and I am looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

‘Jacob’s Room’ by Virginia Woolf

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf ****
This was Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and ranks among my many favourites of her books so far.  I absolutely adore the way in which Jacob’s Room begins.  It is so incredibly vivid.  Throughout, her writing is so sensuous, and is appealing in so many ways.  Each chapter is like a vignette of sorts.  Each character is introduced merely because they encounter Jacob Flanders, the novel’s protagonist, in one way or another, be they family members, friends or acquaintances at college, or a woman passing by the window of the place where he lives.  This technique works marvellously.  It goes without saying that Jacob’s Room is beautifully written, and the prose throughout has to be savoured.  I truly do not feel that many authors could match up to Woolf’s perfect writing.  Whilst I did not adore this novel, I found it difficult to put down, and would recommend it to everyone.

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Flash Reviews (Boxing Day Edition)

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!  I hope your Christmas Day was a beautiful one.  (As with all of my Christmas posts, this was written a couple of weeks before the big day, so my excitement is building greatly at present.)  Below, I shall be writing about one of Philip Larkin’s novels, another of Carol Ann Duffy’s gorgeous poetry books, another in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, and a most interesting piece of non-fiction about women who lived in Paris between 1900 and 1940.

‘A Girl in Winter’ by Philip Larkin (Faber & Faber)

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin ****
My sister purchased this beautiful book for me for my birthday (I have a different cover to the one pictured, with a beautiful painting upon it), but I patiently waited until winter came around to read it.  I must confess that I have read very little of Larkin’s poetry, which is awful of me, particularly as he was born and grew up in the city in which I went to University.  I was most looking forward to reading his two novels, and was overjoyed when A Girl in Winter was given to me.

The novel begins in the most beautiful of ways.  Larkin is so in control of the language which he uses, and he weaves some truly stunning sentences.  In A Girl in Winter, he tells the story of Katherine, a young girl who comes from somewhere abroad to spend a holiday with the Fennel family in Oxfordshire.  Part of the novel deals with her teenage self, and another with her early adulthood, in which she is living in a dreary town and working as a librarian.  We never find out where it is that Katherine hails from, but I quite enjoyed the ambiguity.  As a character, she was fully formed and such information, whilst it would have been mildly interesting to know, may have been rather superfluous to the plot and her experiences.  In A Girl in Winter, Larkin has written a great novel, in which the character arcs work marvellously, and everything is so very believable.

One of the beautiful illustrations from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Wenceslas’

Wenceslas by Carol Ann Duffy *****
I purchased this gorgeous little book from Waterstone’s just after the New Year, but felt that it was too seasonal to read immediately.  It has languished on my to-read shelf ever since, and I am so pleased that I have been able to read it at last.  As with all of her Christmas books, it goes without saying that Wenceslas is absolutely beautiful.  Stuart Kolakovic’s illustrations are sublime, and I could look at them for hours.  The marriage of prose and picture is perfect.

In Wenceslas, Duffy treats us to a medieval feast.  She has written a reimagining of the Christmas carol, which ‘celebrates what is truly important at this special time of year; the simple acts of kindness that each of us can show another’.  Duffy has made me long to back to beautiful Prague, where Wenceslas, of course, is set.  The rhyme scheme is lovely, and like The Christmas Truce, this is a book which I shall enjoy each and every year.  It is a delight from start to finish.

The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket ***
April very kindly sent me the missing fifth book in the A Series of Unfortunate Events, so that I could slot it into my reading of Snicket’s books.  The Austere Academy, whilst interesting, is definitely my least favourite of the series so far, merely because it does not seem to be as original as those which precede it.  Whilst I liked the Quagmires, friends of the Baudelaire children, I felt as though the tale was a little too predictable, and I guessed a lot of it far before it happened, which was a real shame.

‘Women of the Left Bank’ by Shari Benstock

Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 by Shari Benstock ***
I spotted this book in a tiny little Cambridge bookshop whilst I was in the process of hunting for Viragos, and even though it was not part of the Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, I just had to read it.  Some of the authors which Benstock touches upon here rank amongst my favourites (the marvellous Colette and Anais Nin), one amongst my least favourites (Edith Wharton, with the exception of her marvellous novella, Ethan Frome), and a couple of them, I had not even heard of.  Within the book, Benstock covers many different elements: homosexuality, thoughts of feminist critics, why the authors chose to move to Paris in the first instance, the notion of art and artists, modernism, experimentalism, and so on.  The entirety is split into sections which seem to be made up of essay-length works, all of which consider one of the elements or authors in question.

The prose style in Women of the Left Bank tends to veer towards academic, and it is therefore not the easiest of non-fiction books to immerse yourself into.  Whilst it is very interesting, it does feel a little heavy going at times, possibly due to the plethora of quotes which have been placed at every possible juncture.  It is probably more enjoyable to dip in and out of, rather than to read it all in one go as I did.  Overall, it was a little too much of the ‘let’s all go and burn our bras’ strain of feminism for my liking, but it was most interesting nonetheless.

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Flash Reviews (17th December 2013)

No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read ***
I really enjoyed the first Thrush Green book I came across, and jumped at the chance of reading a lovely orange-spined Christmas story which forms part of another of Miss Read’s series, Fairacre.  It seems as though No Holly for Miss Quinn is relatively far on in the series, but each novel is self-contained, so it does not really seem to matter if they are read out of order.  This book tells the story of Miriam Quinn, a spinster of sorts, who moves into Holly Cottage with a lovely lady named Joan Benson, following the close deaths of Joan’s husband and mother-in-law.  Rather than be left to settle in, Miriam is soon swept away to Norfolk to care for her brother’s children whilst his wife is ordered to stay in hospital over Christmas.  The entire book is quaint and quite charming, as I expect the whole series to be.  I did not enjoy it as much as I did News from Thrush Green, but it was a nice little read nonetheless.

‘The Crowded Street’ by Winifred Holtby (Virago Modern Classics)

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby ****
I love Holtby’s writing and look forward to each of her novels.  The Crowded Street is the second book which she wrote, and it was first published in 1924.  The story itself begins in 1900, and is written beautifully.  The first chapter particularly is utterly sublime.  I love the descriptions which she crafts, and she clearly understands her characters so well.  I was rather fond throughout of the protagonist Muriel, particularly when she was young.    I very much enjoyed the way in which the plot is split into separate sections to denote time moving forward.  The entirety of The Crowded Street is so absorbing.

Holtby is definitely one of my favourite authors on the entire Virago list.  Her stories never fail to disappoint, and her characters – particularly the protagonists – are so memorable.  Whilst I did not quite adore this as I did The Land of Green Ginger, it is still a marvellous novel.

The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket ****
I have been warned against using Wikipedia countless times, and usually search out more reliable websites in my quest for information, but this time I failed miserably.  Before I ordered The Ersatz Elevator, hoping to continue with my reading of the Series of Unfortunate Events books in order, I quickly looked up the chronological order in which the books were published.  I knew that the next book which I needed was the fifth, and Wikipedia told me that The Ersatz Elevator was the fifth published.  Naturally, I ordered it. When it arrived however, I found that I had actually purchased the sixth book rather than the fifth.  Having put myself on a pre-Christmas book-buying ban, and being too impatient to wait until the new year to supplement my collection with the correct volume, I decided to begin regardless.  The books in the series are rather predictable in that you know something troublesome is always going to happen which puts the lives of the Baudelaire orphans in peril, but they will always overcome it in the most clever of ways.  The Ersatz Elevator is really very clever, and is certainly the most original plot in the series so far.

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Flash Reviews (24th July 2013)

The Cat by Colette
I adore cats, and I adore French literature, so when I spotted this wonderfully titled novella in Black Gull Books on a trip to Camden last week, I just had to have it.  There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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Brett Helquist is the marvellous illustrator of ‘ASOUE’

The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket
I am so enjoying reading my way through Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, which I for some reason missed when I was a child. The Miserable Mill is the fourth in the series (or ‘Book the Fourth’, as the title states), and it is one of the most fun to date.  The entire series is crammed to the very top with peril, adventure and the unexpected, and the most wonderful amalgamation of words, which my child self would have delighted over.  I love the Baudelaire children as a unit, and the way in which their particular skill sets allow them to be such a good team is really quite adorable.  The writing style of these tales too is wonderful, as is the way in which they appeal to both children and adults.  I shall move swiftly onto Book the Fifth as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Maria Edgeworth

The Bracelets by Maria Edgeworth
I have been wanting to read Edgeworth’s work for quite some time now, and jumped at the chance of downloading some of her books onto my Kindle.  In retrospect, I don’t think this is her best book to begin with, as it is certainly not making me want to carry on with her longer works.  The storyline here is rather odd, and it feels too old fashioned at times, even for a novella written in 1850.  I struggle to sum up what the story is about, as it merely felt like an entire heap of young girls proclaiming their undying love and then sudden hatred of each other, and all vying to get their hands on a bracelet made of plaited hair.  Eww.  Edgeworth’s writing is lovely – that I do not dispute – but I am loath to enjoy books with obvious morals tacked onto the end of them, and sadly, The Bracelets falls into that camp.