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Blogging Book Club: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte ***** (Classics Club #93)

Written between October 1845 and June 1846 and published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights became Emily Bronte’s only published novel.  I first read it some years ago and was swept away with the stunning Gothic setting and Bronte’s marvellously crafted characters.  When a re-read was proposed as part of the new Blogging Book Club which has been set up along with the lovely Girl With Her Head In a Book, I jumped at the chance.  I was also thrilled that I was able to tie the book in with my Classics Club list.

It goes without saying that Wuthering Heights is distinctive and has inspired many other works since its publication.  I will not recap the story in my own words for fear of giving too much away.  Instead, I have chosen to copy a blurb which I feel sets the tone perfectly and leaves much of the plot to the reader’s own discovery: “Lockwood, the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange on the bleak Yorkshire moors, is forced to seek shelter one night at Wuthering Heights, the home of his landlord. There he discovers the history of the tempestuous events that took place years before: of the intense passion between the foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw, and her betrayal of him. As Heathcliff’s bitterness and vengeance is visited upon the next generation, their innocent heirs must struggle to escape the legacy of the past.”

I adore Bronte’s writing; in fact, it is fair to say that I am a bit of a Bronte fangirl.  The storyline which has been woven into Wuthering Heights is clever and atmospheric.  I love the way in which elements come to the forefront and then dissipate slightly, and the technique which Bronte uses in order to tie everything together as she nears the end of her tale.  She has a deft touch when it comes to both scenes and characters, and they are, without exception, marvellously built throughout the novel.

Wuthering Heights conjures so many emotions in the mind, and is even chilling to the very bones in places.  It is an enduring classic which I am sure I will come back to many times in the future.

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Classics Club #99: ‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James

The penultimate book on my Classics Club list was one which I had read before but wanted to revisit – Daisy Miller by Henry James.  I first read the novella a couple of years ago on my Kindle, but thought that I would borrow a pretty edition from my local library this time around.

Daisy Miller – ‘a moral tale of youthful spirit’ – was first published in Cornhill Magazine between June and July 1878, and was made into a very slim book later the same year.  Until I began my re-read I remembered little of the story, but as soon as I had made my way through the first few pages, entire vivid scenes came to the forefront of my mind.  Its opening backdrop sets the tone: ‘At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel.  There are, indeed, many hotels; for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place’.

One of our protagonists, the eponymous Daisy Miller, is a young woman from New York, who is introduced into European society: ‘She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-coloured ribbon.  She was bare-headed; but she balanced in her hand a large parasol, with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty’.

Rather than following Daisy for its entirety, Daisy Miller is told with the perspective of a man in his late twenties named Winterbourne in mind.  James initially asserts that he is ‘an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked…  When certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’.  James’ characterisation, which continues in this manner, is sublime.

James is incredibly perceptive about the relationships which are built between his characters, particularly in the instance of Daisy and Winterbourne: ‘She gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking.  It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh.  They were wonderfully pretty eyes; and indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features – her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth.  He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations’.

Whilst Daisy Miller is an incredibly short book, and rather a quick read, it is rich and perfectly crafted.  I enjoyed it just as much the second time around as the first; the sign, for me, of a true classic.

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Classics Club #96: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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Flash Reviews (10th March 2014)

‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini ****
I absolutely adore Hosseini’s work, and have been very much looking forward to reading And the Mountains Echoed ever since I first heard of its publication.  I requested several review copies of it but nothing came to fruition, and I was finally rewarded on Christmas Day with the beautiful hardback edition which I could not wait to begin.

The novel begins in Afghanistan in 1952, and its premise has the power to both warm and break the hearts of its readers:

“To Abdullah, [his sister] Pari… is everything.  More like a parent than a brother, Abdullah will do anything for her, even trading his only pair of shoes for a feather for her treasured collection.”

Hosseini is a marvel.  I adored the different narrative perspectives which he made use of throughout, and the way in which he followed many of his characters – in such a way, in fact, that the first impression of many of them was not the one which would linger in the mind after the final page had been closed.  He has such skill with addressing prejudices and with changing perceptions, and the entirety of the novel’s plot was rendered so vividly in consequence.  So many layers have been placed upon one another to create the whole, and such a rich book has been created.  As one may expect from reading the blurb of And the Mountains Echoed, it is tinged with sadness from the start, but the beauty within its pages is prevalent too.  It is a novel which is well worth reading, particularly if you have a day to spare, for it is a very difficult book to put down.

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‘The Septembers of Shiraz’ by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ****

I so enjoyed my literary foray into Afghanistan in the aforementioned And the Mountains Echoed that I was longing to go back immediately.  I sadly did not have any books set in the general area on my to-read shelves, so I plumped instead for reading a novel which I first read some years ago, and which I did not really enjoy.  Rather than Afghanistan, The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Iran, but it provides a marvellous continuation from Hosseini’s work.

Upon re-reading this great novel, I struggle to see why I failed to like it the first time around.  The only thing which I can think of is that I read it during my A-Level examinations, and was therefore unable to fully immerse myself within it.  I am so, so glad that I thought to pick it back up.  The Septembers of Shiraz is set in Tehran in 1982, in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.  It takes as its focus the character of Isaac Amin, a Jewish man living in the city with his wife and daughter.  At the very start of the novel, he is arrested, under the incorrect assumption that he is a spy.

Sofer’s descriptions are lovely, and her use of colour particularly is glorious.  It enables her to strongly create the sense of place throughout.  Despite this book’s length, I found it a surprisingly quick read, and will certainly be picking up more of the author’s work in future.  The Septembers of Shiraz is a highly recommended historical novel about one of the most pivotal periods in Iranian history.

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‘The Midnight Palace’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon **
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s author note in The Midnight Palace states that the novel is the second in a series, but nowhere does it say what it is a sequel to, or which series it makes up.  (NB: I am still clueless about this).  Judging from its blurb, the story looked relatively well contained, and so I decided to go ahead and read it anyway.  The book is billed as a ghost story – to be more precise, as ‘a haunting story for the young, and the young at heart’ – and I suppose it is one of sorts, but as it is aimed within the young adult market, any suspense or creepiness which Zafon is quite capable of building up feels lost in the slightly cushioned choice of genre.

The Midnight Palace begins in 1916 and takes Calcutta as its setting.  The Midnight Palace of the book’s title is an abandoned mansion, where seven boys from an orphanage meet.  The sense of place is well drawn throughout, and the first few pages – and, indeed, the blurb – definitely hold intrigue:

“1916, Calcutta. A man pauses for breath outside the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station knowing he has only hours to live. Pursued by assassins, he must ensure the safety of two newborn twins, before disappearing into the night to meet his fate. 1932. Ben and his friends are due to leave the orphanage which has been their home for sixteen years. Tonight will be the final meeting of their secret club, in the old ruin they christened The Midnight Palace. Then Ben discovers he has a sister – and together they learn the tragic story of their past, as a shadowy figures lures them to a terrifying showdown in the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station.”

Sadly, I found that the intrigue which was well built up at first was not consistent in the novel, and I soon found myself drifting away from the story and unable to get really ‘into’ it, as I have been able to do with the rest of Zafon’s tales. The pace was well realised, and I enjoyed the plot, but the distancing – made particularly apparent by the choice of a third person narrator – really held me back with my reading of the book.

The mysteries throughout are introduced at intervals, so I occasionally found that my interest in the book was piqued, but the entirety did not hook me as I expected it to.  I had no problems with the execution of the book or its storyline, as such, but I found its characters so flat and distinctly lacking in substance.  Even though The Midnight Palace was quite a quick read, I personally found it quite a slog to get through.  Those who already enjoy his books for younger readers, however, are sure to very much enjoy it.

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‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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Colin, Mary and Dickon in the 1993 film version

There are many tales from my childhood which I absolutely adore (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Madeline, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.), but The Secret Garden is my absolute favourite.  I watched the VHS of the 1993 film so often when I was younger that I managed to wear it out.

The story in The Secret Garden is lovely.  On the surface of it, the plot seems rather simple – a young girl is sent to England after the death of her parents during a cholera epidemic, and is forced to stay in the middle of nowhere (rural Yorkshire, to be precise) with a mysterious uncle whom she does not know.  At first Mary Lennox, the young girl in question, is lonely, but her inherent stubbornness allows her to make the best of her situation.  Those who persevere with her – the kindly maid Martha, for example – alter her personality, and she begins to care about those around her in consequence.  Mary finds out about a secret walled garden which belonged to her aunt, and which has been shut up since her death.  She vows to resurrect it with the help of kindly Martha’s lovely brother, Dickon.

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‘The Secret Garden’ Penguin Threads edition

What complexities there are creep into the plot almost immediately.  Hodgson Burnett weaves ever such a lot of different details into the story – life in colonial India, disparities between different societies around the world, cholera, disability, death, suffering, the bleakness of surroundings, loneliness, the building of relationships and an appreciation of the natural world.  I absolutely adore all of the characters in their own ways.  Mary is headstrong – amusingly so at times – and her determination is often rather inspiring.  Mrs Medlock is nowhere near as awful as the film makes her out to be (Maggie Smith’s portrayal of her did used to frighten me a little, I admit), and she does have compassion for her charge.  Colin, despite his petulant nature and obsession with having a lump on his back like his father’s, is rather adorable.

I adore Hodgson Burnett’s writing style.  With it, she has crafted a beautiful and memorable tale which gets better with every read, and she has introduced me to some of the finest literary characters I could ever hope to meet.  The Secret Garden is an utterly enchanting novel, and the story and its characters will always have a place within my heart.  I love the way in which they grow and develop as the story progresses, and their interactions with one another have been portrayed so well.  A truly heartwarming tale, and a perfect summery read.

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‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley (July 2013)

The gorgeous Penguin Deluxe Edition

On the whole, I was very excited when asked if I wanted to read Frankenstein again, in order to try and support April’s A-Level reading.  Funnily enough, I first began the novel whilst I was studying for my own A-Levels, but it wasn’t part of my curriculum.  I enjoyed it so much the first time around that I read it again in 2011, and last week I jumped at the chance to become reacquainted with the novel.

To my delight, I found that I remembered an awful lot of the story, even with regard to the names and traits of the minor characters and the different narrative voices used throughout the novel.  In that respect, I believe that this is one of the most memorable books – and stories, for that matter – which I have ever read.

I find with each re-read that the different narrative voices which Shelley makes use of are engaging, and I love the way in which the first person perspective has been used throughout.  This adds to the story immensely, and means that we as readers can see the story from both sides – Frankenstein’s and his monster’s – as well as those affected by the trouble which is caused as a result of his creation.  It felt as though a lot of empathy and understanding had been built up on behalf of both parties.  Another element of the story, which is one of its definite strengths for me, is the way in which Shelley writes so believably from a male perspective.  She really does portray a wide and far-reaching understanding of the human psyche, and the wealth of emotions which she captures on the page are wonderfully realised.

Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’

I love epistolatory novels, and this is the first which I remember really enjoying.  Whilst the novel is not told entirely through the medium of letters, they do provide rather a comfortable backbone to the story, and they set the tone and scenes marvellously.  The turns of phrase which Shelley weaves in are lovely, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.

“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

Her descriptions too are written with such deftness.  These elements serve only to make a lot of other books, even those from the same period, seem rather bland in comparison.  I love old literature, and am far more at home with a Bronte or Wilde story in my hand than with anything remotely postmodern, so personally I found the story quite an easy one to get into.  The delicious language sets each and every scene perfectly, and I adore the nightmare-like feel which the passages have, particularly around the time at which the monster is created.  I also love the references to poetry throughout.  To conclude, Frankenstein is a marvellous novel, and its status as a literary classic is certainly well-deserved from this reviewer’s perspective.