Three Fantastic Novels

Whilst I have not written comprehensive reviews for the following books, I felt that they were all deserving of attention here on the blog.  I read all three at different times, but each has had an impact upon my reading life, and I find their stories incredibly memorable.

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster 9780141199825*****
‘Lucy has her rigid, middle-class life mapped out for her until she visits Florence with her uptight cousin Charlotte, and finds her neatly ordered existence thrown off balance. Her eyes are opened by the unconventional characters she meets at the Pension Bertolini: flamboyant romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the Cockney Signora, curious Mr Emerson and, most of all, his passionate son George. Lucy finds herself torn between the intensity of life in Italy and the repressed morals of Edwardian England, personified in her terminally dull fiance Cecil Vyse. Will she ever learn to follow her own heart?’

A Room with a View was one of just two outstanding Forster books which I hadn’t yet read. I had been meaning to read it for years before finally picking it up, and am kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. The entirety is beautifully written, and the characters almost achingly realistic. There are some rather comic episodes and asides, which balanced the more serious elements of the novel nicely. A Room with a View is transportive; Florence is beautifully evoked from the beginning. Whilst I found the ending a touch predictable, it was so deftly handled that it didn’t matter so much. A Room with a View is still a fantastic novel, which I absolutely loved.


Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte *****
9781784872397‘When Agnes’s father loses the family savings, young Agnes determines to make her own living – as a governess. Working for the Bloomfields, her enthusiasm is soon dampened by isolation and the cruelty of the children in her charge. Agnes hopes for better in her second job, but when the scheming elder daughter Rosalie makes designs on Agnes’s new friend, the kind curate Mr Weston, she feels herself silenced and sidelined. Becoming a governess is one thing, becoming invisible is quite another.’

I was prompted to reread Anne Bronte’s wonderful Agnes Grey after watching the BBC adaptation of the Brontes’ lives, To Walk Invisible. Agnes Grey is beautifully written throughout, and Anne was undoubtedly a very gifted writer. This is a wonderful tome to be reunited with, with its memorable storyline and cast of characters. Bronte’s turns of phrase are just lovely, and Agnes’ first person perspective is so engaging. A refreshing, thoughtful, and intelligent read in many respects, and a fantastic novel to boot.


Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky ***** 9780099488781
‘In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the existing two sections of her planned novel sequence, Suite Francaise, would be rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Francaise falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Francaise is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.’

I reread Suite Francaise, one of my absolute favourite books, whilst in France over Easter. It is even more beautiful than I remember it being. All of Nemirovsky’s novels are sweeping masterpieces, but she perhaps reached the pinnacle here. I can think of very few novels which even touch this one in their brilliance and evocation. Nemirovsky’s descriptions are, of course, sublime, and the novel is – like all of her work – peopled with a complex cast of realistic characters. An incredibly insightful and important work about the Second World War by one of my favourite authors.


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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of my underrated books wishlist is here!  It’s rather a nice mixture of fiction, and works in translation.  Have you read any of these?

1. Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Akinari Ueda 9780231139137
‘First published in 1776, the nine gothic tales in this collection are Japan’s finest and most celebrated examples of the literature of the occult. They subtly merge the world of reason with the realm of the uncanny and exemplify the period’s fascination with the strange and the grotesque. They were also the inspiration for Mizoguchi Kenji’s brilliant 1953 film Ugetsu.  The title Ugetsu monogatari (literally “rain-moon tales”) alludes to the belief that mysterious beings appear on cloudy, rainy nights and in mornings with a lingering moon. In “Shiramine,” the vengeful ghost of the former emperor Sutoku reassumes the role of king; in “The Chrysanthemum Vow,” a faithful revenant fulfills a promise; “The Kibitsu Cauldron” tells a tale of spirit possession; and in “The Carp of My Dreams,” a man straddles the boundaries between human and animal and between the waking world and the world of dreams. The remaining stories feature demons, fiends, goblins, strange dreams, and other manifestations beyond all logic and common sense.  The eerie beauty of this masterpiece owes to Akinari’s masterful combination of words and phrases from Japanese classics with creatures from Chinese and Japanese fiction and lore. Along with The Tale of Genji and The Tales of the Heike, Tales of Moonlight and Rain has become a timeless work of great significance. This new translation, by a noted translator and scholar, skillfully maintains the allure and complexity of Akinari’s original prose.’


2. King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
‘Far from London’s crime and pollution, Hanmouth’s wealthier residents live in picturesque, heavily mortgaged cottages in the center of a town packed with artisanal cheese shops and antiques stores. They’re reminded of the town’s less desirable outskirts—with their grim, flimsy housing stock and chain stores—only when their neighbors have the presumption to claim also to live in Hanmouth.  When an eight-year-old girl from the outer area goes missing, England’s eyes suddenly turn toward the sleepy town with a curiosity as piercing and unblinking as the closed-circuit security cameras that line Hanmouth’s idyllic streets. But somehow these cameras have missed the abduction of the girl, whose name is China. Is her blank-eyed hairdresser mother hiding her as part of a moneymaking hoax? Has she been abducted by one of the lurking perverts the townspeople imagine the cameras are protecting them from? Perhaps more cameras are needed?  As it turns out, more than one resident of Hanmouth has a secret hidden behind closed doors. There’s Sam and Harry, the cheesemonger and aristocrat who lead the county’s gay orgies. The quiet husband of postcolonial theorist Miranda (everyone agrees she’s marvelous) keeps a male lover, while their daughter disembowels dolls she’s named Child Pornography and Slightly Jewish. Moral crusader John Calvin’s Neighborhood Watch has an unusual reason for holding its meetings in secret. And, of course, somewhere out there is the house where little China is hidden.  With the dark hilarity and unflinching honesty of a modern-day Middlemarch, King of the Badgers demolishes the already fragile privacy of Hanmouth’s inhabitants. These characters, exquisitely drawn and rawly human, proclaim Philip Hensher’s status as an extraordinary chronicler of the domestic, and one of the world’s most dazzling and ambitious novelists.’


97815901701373. The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout
The Ten Thousand Things is a novel of shimmering strangeness—the story of Felicia, who returns with her baby son from Holland to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, to the house and garden that were her birthplace, over which her powerful grandmother still presides. There Felicia finds herself wedded to an uncanny and dangerous world, full of mystery and violence, where objects tell tales, the dead come and go, and the past is as potent as the present. First published in Holland in 1955, Maria Dermoût’s novel was immediately recognized as a magical work, like nothing else Dutch—or European—literature had seen before. The Ten Thousand Things is an entranced vision of a far-off place that is as convincingly real and intimate as it is exotic, a book that is at once a lament and an ecstatic ode to nature and life.’


4. The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
‘Nothing exciting ever happens to Kirby or Bitsy Mellen–that is, until their mother inherits a motel in Florida from her great-granduncle Hiram, complete with a roster of eccentric guests. New this winter are the Browns, obsessed with their suntans; Miss DeGree, obsessed with her poodles; and two mysterious men, obsessed, like Kirby, with trying to find Uncle Hiram’s rumored secret treasure.’


5. The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman 9780701166144
‘Ekman’s central character is Skord, a magical being who is neither man nor animal. The novel begins in the Middle Ages when Skord finds himself in a forest with no memory, no past and no language. As he observes the behaviour of the human beings he meets in the forest, he begins to gradually to understand human civilisation and to learn their language. Although he can pose as one of them, however, he is also able to assume the form of animals and cause things to happen simply by willing them. Skord survives for five hundred years and lives many different lives but, despite his learning, he finds it difficult to resist the call of the forest and returns there periodically to rejoin the band of forest outlaws who live outside human society. He will live to see the nineteenth century and the age of steam, but, by then, he will have discovered that man’s supposed cultivation is in fact destructive and the most important thing in life is love – his love of a forest woman.’


6. Light by Torgny Lindgren
‘In medieval Sweden, a small community shares its meagre subsistence with its domestic livestock. When an imported rabbit introduces the plague the population is annihilated, all except a few villagers and the odd pig. By the author of Bathsheba and The Way of the Serpent.’


97814929805067. The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories by E.M. Forster
The Celestial Omnibus is a collection of short-stories Forster wrote during the prewar years, most of which were symbolic fantasies or fables.’


8. Famine by Liam O’Flaherty
‘Set in the period of the Great Famine of the 1840s, Famine is the story of three generations of the Kilmartin family. It is a masterly historical novel, rich in language, character, and plot–a panoramic story of passion, tragedy, and resilience.’


9. The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Westcott 9780940322561
‘This powerful short novel describes the events of a single afternoon. Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate and sometime novelist, is staying with a friend outside of Paris, when a well-heeled, itinerant Irish couple drops in—with Lucy, their trained hawk, a restless, sullen, disturbingly totemic presence. Lunch is prepared, drink flows. A masquerade, at once harrowing and farcical, begins. A work of classical elegance and concision, The Pilgrim Hawk stands with Faulkner’s The Bear as one of the finest American short novels: a beautifully crafted story that is also a poignant evocation of the implacable power of love. ‘


10. The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona Opie
‘First published in 1959, Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren is a pathbreaking work of scholarship that is also a splendid and enduring work of literature. Going outside the nursery, with its assortment of parent-approved entertainments, to observe and investigate the day-to-day creative intelligence and activities of children, the Opies bring to life the rites and rhymes, jokes and jeers, laws, games, and secret spells of what has been called “the greatest of savage tribes, and the only one which shows no signs of dying out.”‘


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Classics Club #91 : ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster ****

I love Forster’s novels, and could not resist adding one of his shorter works, The Machine Stops, to my Classics Club list.  I borrowed a Penguin Mini Modern Classics edition, which includes another short story entitled ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, from my local library.  The blurb says the following: ‘Forster is best known for his exquisite novels, but these two affecting short stories brilliantly combine the fantastical with the allegorical’.

E.M. Forster

‘The Machine Stops’ and ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ are incredibly different in terms of both their plots and themes; the title story takes place underground, where society has isolated itself, and the other deals with a young boy who ‘takes a trip his parents believe impossible’.  Whilst ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is an interesting tale, and one which is well worth reading, I have decided to focus solely upon ‘The Machine Stops’ for the purpose of my review.

‘The Machine Stops’ was first published in 1909, and was collected together with some of Forster’s other short works in 1928.  As is the case with his novels, Forster sets scenes masterfully.  ‘The Machine Stops’ begins in the following way: ‘Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape like the cell of a bee.  It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance.  There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh.  There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds.  An arm-chair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk – that is all the furniture.  And in the arm-chair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.  It is to her that the little room belongs’.

‘The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it…  One dies immediately in the outer air…  Few travelled in these days for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over.  Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself.  What was the good of going to Pekin when it was just like Shrewsbury?’, is our chilling introduction to the world.  Forster then goes on to set out mankind’s advances: ‘She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously’.  In this, and other elements which he introduces to the dystopian world of his creation – the citizens, for example, talk to one another through ‘The Machine’, a kind of video-conference tool in which they can see one another: it ‘only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes’ – it is possible to draw many parallels with George Orwell’s masterful, and, of course, much later work, 1984. 

I am not the biggest fan of dystopian stories in general, but I found this utterly fascinating.  Forster is an author whom I greatly admire, and the fact that he is able to turn his hand to such diverse plots, settings and storylines merely reinforces this further.  ‘The Machine Stops’ is clever, taut, and well written, and every single element of it has clearly been so well thought through.

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Five Great… Novels (E-F)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
“The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking? Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, ‘The Blue Flower’ is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.”

2. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
“James Frey wakes up on a plane, with no memory of the preceding two weeks. His face is cut and his body is covered with bruises. He has no wallet and no idea of his destination. He has abused alcohol and every drug he can lay his hands on for a decade – and he is aged only twenty-three. What happens next is one of the most powerful and extreme stories ever told. His family takes him to a rehabilitation centre. And James Frey starts his perilous journey back to the world of the drug and alcohol-free living. His lack of self-pity is unflinching and searing. A Million Little Pieces is a dazzling account of a life destroyed and a life reconstructed. It is also the introduction of a bold and talented literary voice.”

3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
“George Eliot’s most ambitious novel is a masterly evocation of diverse lives and changing fortunes in a provincial English community prior to the Reform Bill of 1832. Peopling its landscape are Dorothea Brooke, a young idealist whose search for intellectual fulfilment leads her into a disastrous marriage to the pedantic scholar Casaubon; the charming but tactless Dr Lydgate, whose marriage to the spendthrift beauty Rosamund and pioneering medical methods threaten to undermine his career; passionate, idealistic and penniless artist Will Ladislaw; and the religious hypocrite Bulstrode, hiding scandalous crimes from his past. As their stories interweave, George Eliot creates a richly nuanced and moving drama.”

4. The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
“”The Little Shadows” tells the story of three sisters making their way in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. Setting off to make their fortune as a singing act after the untimely death of their father, the girls, Aurora, Clover and Bella, are overseen by their fond but barely coping Mama. The girls begin with little besides youth and hope but evolve into artists as they navigate their way to adulthood among a cast of extraordinary characters – charming charlatans, unpredictable eccentrics, and some who seem ordinary but have magical gifts. Marina Endicott lures us onto the brightly lit stage and into the little shadows that lurk behind the curtain, and reveals how the art of vaudeville – In all its variety, madness, melodrama, hilarity and sorrow – echoes the art of life itself.”

5. Maurice by E.M. Forster
“Maurice Hall is a young man who grows up confident in his privileged status and well aware of his role in society. Modest and generally conformist, he nevertheless finds himself increasingly attracted to his own sex. Through Clive, whom he encounters at Cambridge, and through Alec, the gamekeeper on Clive’s country estate, Maurice gradually experiences a profound emotional and sexual awakening. A tale of passion, bravery and defiance, this intensely personal novel was completed in 1914 but remained unpublished until after Forster’s death in 1970. Compellingly honest and beautifully written, it offers a powerful condemnation of the repressive attitudes of British society, and is at once a moving love story and an intimate tale of one man’s erotic and political self-discovery.”

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Flash Reviews (9th August 2013)

The Dogs and The Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky
I love Nemirovsky’s novels. The way she writes is just sublime, and I am so glad that her translators respect this and reflect it in their work. Everything about this story is exquisite – the writing style, the descriptions, the characterisation, the dialogue, the way in which characters forge relationships with one another, the settings… I absolutely adored the author’s portrayal of the sharp divide between opulence and poverty, and how it has the power to affect an entire family. Ada, the protagonist, is just adorable, and it was a real pleasure to see her grow as the book progressed. The Dogs and The Wolves is certainly my favourite of Nemirovsky’s books to date.

Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale by Gwen Cooper
I can’t resist a good cat story, as April knew when she sent me this lovely book, and this one is particularly adorable. I loved Homer from the first page, particularly for the way in which he rallied against his disability and learnt to do things that cats able to see take for granted. Cooper’s writing is so nice. I don’t like using the word ‘nice’ at all and try to avoid it in my reviews, but it is wonderfully applicable here. Her prose is so gentle and patient, and she really gave an insight into adopting a pet with a disability.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
I spent the weekend just gone in France, and got through rather a lot of books. I did take some paperbacks with me – of which I read and very much enjoyed two and abandoned one – but I did a lot of my reading on my Kindle. I filled it with classics when I got it as a graduation present, and it’s nice to be making my way through them at my own pace. I have read a few of Forster’s books before, but this was the August choice for my Goodreads book group, and I thought I ought to join in. My review of it is rather a mixed one, despite the fact that I did enjoy it overall.

Let us begin with the positives first. I really like Forster’s writing style, and the sense of place was well crafted. The mixing of cultures and the sharp differences between them was well portrayed.

And now for the negatives. I know that this book was written around a century ago and it was something which was sadly rather common at the time, but I still struggle to see how any mother could leave her child for a year whilst she travelled around Italy. I found that a lot of characters were introduced at the beginning of the novel, and as such, it was a little difficult to keep track of them at first. I didn’t much like any of them either. The plot was interesting enough but it did feel a little thin on the ground at times, and the ending was incredibly odd and unexpected. All in all, it feels quite mediocre in comparison to Howards End and Maurice, and it is nowhere near as well developed as A Passage to India.