Review: Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Rating – 5*

Trying to compose a review for this book has been difficult because it is so momentous, and so fantastic, I’m struggling to find words. Finishing this book felt like an achievement, there’s not many books I can honestly say that about (Bleak House, Anna Karenina and The Count of Monte Cristo are the only others which come to mind, all of which are nearly twice the length of this).

I have to admit, I was a little scared going in to this book. It’s not that it was the longest book I’ve read – it was 520ish pages. It wasn’t even that it was translated. I think, for me, this book just has such a place on the literary cannon that I felt scared that I wasn’t going to like it.

The first time I heard of this book I was about 14 or 15, I was watching a TV show on the BBC called My Life In Books and Sue Perkins mentioned Crime and Punishment as one of her favourites. Now I love that woman and I knew, from that day, I was going to read that book. I tried, when I was younger, but I didn’t have the patience for it. I thought it was pretentious and hard work, so I threw it aside. Until this month where I picked it up and could scarcely put it down.

Crime and Punishment is simply the best character study I’ve read. Raskolnikov, our main character, is a young man, formerly a law student who was unable to continue studying due to the poverty he finds himself in. In order to remove himself from that poverty, he commits a crime and this book follows the fall out of that. As a reader you follow him in to the darkest pits of despair, the punishment is the mental torture that he finds himself going through after committing the crime. Raskonikov is on the brink of insanity for a large portion of this book, and as a reader that’s a very intense place to be. However, even though what he does is heinous, as a reader I still felt compelled to have empathy for him, he was not inherently a bad man he just made a bad choice and in spite of it all I was rooting for him.

This book is about so much more than Raskolnikov, his sister is one of my new favourite supporting characters in a book. Dunya seems on the surface to be meek and mild, but she’s pretty amazing in her own right and I’d have loved more from her perspective if I’m honest. Aside from his sister there are numerous interesting characters, who there is such depth to that they just jump from a page. The names do get a bit complicated – some go by 3 or 4 different names, but I soon found myself adapting and recognising each by their personality more than anything else.

There is a lot of navel gazing in this book, a lot of it is philosophical thoughts or long monologues but I found myself actually enjoying that. Some probably would say it’s a bit pretentious, 14/15 year old me certainly did! But I loved it, and honestly it’s one of the most readable classics I’ve read in a long time – I found myself constantly wanting to read “just one more chapter” – but I paced myself a bit so I could properly process what I was reading and enjoy it to it’s maximum.

I think a lot of my enjoyment has to be due to the translation because this flowed so, so well for me. I am intending to read War and Peace over the next couple of months, and this book has me so excited for that because it’s done by the same translators and I really love what they’ve done with Dostoyevsky, I can’t wait to see how they handle Tolstoy. Based on my enjoyment of this I may have to go back and re-read Anna Karenina.

Naturally, this was a 5* read. And it has actually changed my perspectives on some of the other books I’ve read this month! I honestly think this is going to be one of those books which stays with me for a long time; I know I’ll be thinking of it quite a lot over the coming weeks!

Also, just a side note, if anyone is interested in the TV show with Sue Perkins that I mentioned above, it is still available (at time of writing) on BBC iPlayer. So if you are able to get BBC iPlayer, it can be accessed here and she begins talking about Crime and Punishment at around 6:55.

Review: My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

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Rating – 5*

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you will know of my unyielding love of Daphne du Maurier. She’s probably my favourite author of all time. This is one of the few of her books that I have read more than once, though my first – and only previous read – was at least 6 years ago! As a result, rereading this was like reading a whole new book and I absolutely loved it.

Our narrator, Philip, was orphaned at a young age and grew up with his Uncle Ambrose running a family farm on the Cornish coast. Due to his ailing health as he ages, Ambrose spends Winter abroad and it is one Winter, in Florence, that he meets Rachel. From there, we end up back in Cornwall and we go down a path of suspicion, intrigue, and quite honestly some madness.

I don’t want to give too much away, because the beauty of du Maurier’s work is the mystery and the intrigue that’s there, it’s that what keeps you turning the pages. Come the end, you still don’t really know what happened and it is up to you as a reader to decide what the truth is. Daphne du Maurier masters the unreliable, and at times dislikeable, narrator in this book. Philip is misogynistic, he is rash and harsh at times but throughout it all I did feel empathy for him and I did connect with him.

The titular character, much like in Rebecca, remains a bit of an enigma. Even at the end you never know her true motives, what she’s done, what she is intending to do. She is described as petite and delicate, but she can command a room better than any of the men in this book! At times I loved her, at times I loathed her, and by the end of the book I still don’t know which of those feelings is overriding.

I never thought I’d say this, but I may have enjoyed this more than Rebecca. Throughout the entirety of the novel there is tension and suspense which I have loved in all of du Maurier’s work. The ambiguity is also there, which is something I felt was mastered in this book compared to Rebecca – which while good did have undertones which if you look hard enough point you in the right direction. As a reader I was constantly swaying between theories, I didn’t know which characters to believe, which to doubt and that was happening throughout the book on the basis of individual sentences and intonations.

Honestly, this book is a masterpiece from my point of view. I’m maybe a bit bias in that du Maurier can rarely do wrong in my eyes, but this book had me on tenterhooks and I read it in 2 sittings. I could have read it in one, had I not needed to sleep. I adored this – and it has me so excited to finish reading du Maurier’s bibliography.

Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

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Rating – 4*

Wives and Daughters is the first Gaskell book I’ve read and certainly won’t be my last as I really enjoyed this book. I won’t lie, I purchased this book solely for the cover – I think it’s absolutely beautiful and honestly one of the prettiest of the Penguin English Library editions. The fact I enjoyed the content was just an added bonus!

After reading a lot of non fiction,  I decided it was time to get back in to fiction. I have a list of 12 classics I want to read before the year is out and so far I’ve read two – this was the third from that list. After reading non-fiction I wanted something which, while a classic, was a more easy read and I’m really glad I picked this up because, honestly, it’s a really good place to start with classics in my opinion.

The story follows Molly, who we are introduced to as she is a young girl and we then see grow into a woman. Molly has been raised by her widowed father, and I think this was actually quite a nice thing to be seen in fiction from this era for it isn’t very often you get a single father narrative in a book (least of all in a classic!) Molly is quite a sheltered young woman, having grown up relatively isolated and her naivety comes through, but it’s not all that frustrating for me, it was actually quite endearing.

A lot happens in this book, and I don’t want to give it all away. But Molly’s world does get turned upside down when her father takes a new wife, she finds herself with a ‘wicked step-mother’ – though not all that wicked, she is quite shallow and conniving. There is love for Molly too, this is after all a classic and what classic doesn’t have love in store for the protagonist? Again, I didn’t find the romance in this book too shabby – it was for me quite believable (even though much of the book was cliched).

I found there were so many references to fairy tales. For a start, this book does open up with this passage:

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.”

That frankly oozes fairy tale. Then there is the widowed father, naive young girl, step-mother, step-sister, and ultimately a romance for the protagonist. As I said, overall I found this a very charming, endearing, and very spring-like read and the fairy tale quality of it just added to that enjoyment.

However, this book is unfinished. Elizabeth Gaskell sadly died before she could finish it; though there are several sources which do outline what her original ending intended and as a reader it was pretty apparent what the story was building up to. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to finish it in her own words, rather the ending had to come from several sources and be more word of mouth. I would have really enjoyed to have read the ending in her own words.

This was a lovely break from all the non-fiction I’ve been reading lately, and definitely got me back in to classics. I think I would have maybe enjoyed this more had I been younger when I read it – as I said I feel this would be a good place to start with classics if you’re unfamiliar with them.

Review: Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

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Rating – 4*

Today it is time for a wee break from the Wellcome Prize and on to a classic. Moll Flanders. Personally,  I couldn’t think of a better way to break up all the non-fiction than to take a romp in the 18th century with a woman who was once portrayed on screen by Alex Kingston. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book and have Alex Kingston at the forefront of their mind?! Anyway…

Moll Flanders is the story of Moll Flanders. Moll starts off a girl, a girl who wants to make her own fortune in the world. She comes from a working class origin, and dreads the thought of going in to service (which is apparently the only option for a girl of her origin). She wants to be a lady. She wants to find Mr Right, settle down, and have financial security. After all, life in the 18th century wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, especially as a woman. London itself was not exactly the nicest place to be either, and Moll tries to make the best of the bad situation she finds herself in.

I really liked this book. Moll is probably one of my favourite characters in classic literature. She’s fun, she’s refreshing, she’s not a chaste, or girly, or swooning imitation of a woman from the Austen world of writing which drive me mad. She was ballsy, bawdy, and downright hilarious in parts. And reading this I could only picture Alex Kingston – and that made her even better in my opinion!

I found this really easy to read, and in places I was laughing out loud. It was genuinely good fun – which is something I rarely get to say about a classic. The plot was sparse, but I whacked the book up a star because Moll is amazing and I truly wish there were more women like Moll in classic fiction. She’s a gem, and I found myself rooting for her throughout even if she did make dubious decisions.

I’m looking forward to reading more Defoe. Not sure he’s top of my list to read, but one day I will read more!

Review: Romola – George Eliot

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Rating – 3*

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know I adore George Eliot. This book, however, was a bit of a miss for me unfortunately.

Romola takes place in late 15th century Italy; Florence mainly. While Romola is the titular character of this book, as I have come to expect with Eliot’s work this book is much more of an ensemble piece and there’s so much more to it. Tito is, for me, definitely the main character – and an interesting, deep character he is! This book is an exploration of his character, how he descends in to morally ambiguous behaviour; Tito is truly one of the most well explored ‘villains’ in literature. Even though he was the bad guy, following his journey through this book to see him get to that point was complex, and on the whole enjoyable. I’m glad I read this book if only to ‘meet’ Tito.

On the other side of the coin we have Romola. Romola herself was disappointing for me, compared to Tito – who was portrayed in Technicolor –  she was very grey-scale.  I found myself getting frustrated; with characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss I knew that she was capable of creating a female protagonist who fights against societal norms. I thought, at points, we would see Romola rebel, but we didn’t. Instead she submits to Tito, endures his abhorrent behaviour. She feels like a caricature of Victorian virtue – and that frustrated me to no end. She didn’t feel fully formed, she felt very halfhearted and where there was a deep study of Tito, I don’t feel as a reader I ever got any insight in to Romola.

The scope of this novel is amazing, and the research that she must have put in to it is incredible. Italy came alive, and when reading this I did feel like it was a sunny afternoon on the continent. I felt like I was in 15th century Italy. And while this had all of the key things I adore about Eliot’s work; beautiful prose, locations that come alive, (on the whole) interesting characters, I felt a lot of it was lost on me. While I admire the amount of research that went in to this book, it often lost me or frustrated me. I can understand why she is thought to have said this was her best book, her favourite book – because it is incredible – but to enjoy it fully I think you have to be a 15th century scholar.

George Eliot is still my favourite 19th century female author. The woman can do no wrong in my eyes. However, this is definitely not a place to start with Victorian literature, George Eliot, or classics in general. It’s definitely a book which required patience, and a dedication that only someone who loves either the Victorian novel generally, or George Eliot more specifically, can get a modicum of enjoyment out of. That and maybe 15th century scholars.

So, yes, I liked this book. Not my favourite Eliot by far, but one I may revisit in the future!

Review: Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

After Bleak House I decided I couldn’t wait any longer for another Dickens and this is the one which caught my eye. Dombey and Son was one of the first Penguin English Library editions I bought because look at it, it’s gorgeous and I’m a glutton for a pretty book. Sadly, after Bleak House, this fell a little flat for me.

It is over 1000 pages. This isn’t an issue normally, but the problem is that for me personally it could have been done in half that number. Initially I loved it, I got through the first couple of hundred pages in a few days and I was really enjoying it but then it just became more of a chore than anything. I kept going, because Dickens is like that and I was hoping so hard it would get better, but for me it didn’t. While the final chapter was somewhat redeeming, it wasn’t so mindblowing that it made this book better for me.

My main issue is that I didn’t feel much connection to the characters, which did make the story a little harder to invest myself in. Compared to Bleak House this just didn’t meet the mark on the plot or character front. Florence, while a wonderful protagonist, was too insipid and sickly sweet for my liking; Mr Dombey I just couldn’t get a handle on and struggled to understand. The background characters didn’t come to life quite like they have in a number of Dickens’ other books that I have read – even London wasn’t as vibrant in this book.

On the whole this was okay. Not the best Dickens book I have read, but by no means is it the worst (for it’ll be hard for any of Dickens’ books to be as ghastly as A Tale of Two Cities, and should one of his books surpass that feat it’ll be pretty awful indeed). I would say of his long books, this is my least favourite so far – Bleak House is by far a better place to go, or even The Old Curiosity Shop if you’re interested in picking up a monster of a book!

This time, however, I am not going to be put off from reading more. A Tale of Two Cities put me off Dickens for about 18 months and I’m not going to let this one get me down! If you have any recommendations of where to go next – I’m thinking Little Dorrit or David Copperfield maybe – let me know. I’d love to have input from people who have read more Dickens than me!

Review: Black Beauty – Anna Sewell

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Rating – 3*

Most people know the story of Black Beauty, or at least an overview of it. It’s the story of a horses life as told through his eyes. Interestingly, I always assumed this was a children’s classic, however it wasn’t intended as one. The primary purpose of this book was to induce kindness, sympathy, and understanding – particularly in the treatment of horses but I think it just applies to anything who doesn’t necessarily have a voice of its own. Not having a voice does not mean an animal does not have feeling, which I think is the take home message of this book.

It’s a very simple book, which is probably why it has ended up becoming a children’s classic. I think I would have enjoyed it much more had I actually got around to reading it when I was a child myself. The fact it’s narrated by a horse is quite a fun one and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I love a story told from an unconventional point of view, but whereas – for example – Flush by Virginia Woolf had an animal with a very mature voice, Black Beauty is told with a simple and more childlike quality. I feel that it could have had more expanding to make it a more ‘adult’ book. Instead, I found it was more a collection of moments in the life of the horse, which is perfectly fine, however it did become a little repetitive.

There were a vast array of characters, which was something which surprised me! The animals were much more well rounded than the humans, that’s for sure. Out of all the characters, the one who was most fleshed out for me was Ginger. The back story to Ginger really tugged at my heart strings!

It was a very enjoyable read though, and a nice one to read one evening as it’s quite short and easy to follow along with. I really wish I had read this when I was younger because I think I would have got so much more enjoyment out of it. I would recommend this if you haven’t read it, and maybe if you haven’t read many classics – or children’s classics at least – this would be a good one to pick up as it is quite easy to read.

Review: Bleak House – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 5*

I don’t even know where to start with this book. It was a beast but my goodness it was an incredible one. I had been putting it off for so long, especially after my last Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) really disappointed me, and a reading slump left me very intimidated as this book is over 1000 pages. But I don’t know what I was scared of. I read this in under a week, and also managed to watch the entirety of the 15 part BBC adaptation as I went along – which was also amazing!

Bleak House is alternatively narrated by the orphan Esther Summerson, and an unknown third person. Personally I preferred the tone of Esther’s narrative and found it much easier to read than those parts which focused more on the court case which is ultimately the crux of this book and the thread which tied all the characters together. However, for me it was Esther’s development through the book, and her personal growth, was actually the most interesting part of the story and I felt she tied the story together more than the court case ever did.

The plot is so complex and intricate, there are stories within stories which are all wrapped up beautifully by the end. The court case itself is pretty insane, and has been going on so long that at least one generation of the Jarndyce family has expired while waiting for a judgement, and not even the lawyers have any grasp on its intricacies. As for characters, not one felt surplus to requirements for me. Yes, there were a lot of characters but they all had their moments of importance and all had their imperfections and flaws which made them stand out – some more than others it has to be said! What I liked was the two different views you get of some of the characters from both streams of the narration, it’s quite a simple thing really but I found it really added to the depth of character for me.

To sum it up, I adored this book. And I when reading it I knew I had to watch the TV series. BBC adaptations never fail to take my breath away and this one was no exception. The cast is incredible, the way the story is put together on screen just made me appreciate the book all the more. Not only that, it was visually beautiful! I would seriously recommend reading and watching the series simultaneously as I for one feel it made my reading the book less daunting! Also, it’s very good to break up a burst of reading with a bit of period drama.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself rereading this book before the year is out. It’s amazing, it blew my mind quite frankly and I cannot wait to read more Dickens! Definitely don’t be put off by the size of this book, please, because it’s a masterpiece. Naturally, this is a 5* book. No doubts.

Review: Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

I decided it was about time I finally picked up Great Expectations, I had wanted to read some more Dickens for a while and this one was just staring at me. After A Tale of Two Cities being a huge disappointment, I had a little block in place when it came to which Dickens to read next. I’m glad it was this one.

Most people know the bare bones of Great Expectations, a young orphaned boy – Pip – dreams of stepping up in the world and becoming a gentleman. On the way to him discovering his “great expectations” he meets some very interesting characters, and one of the most iconic Dickensian characters of them all, Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham, having been left at the altar as a young woman now spends her days in her wedding dress with all the clocks in her house stopped at 8:40. I found myself drawn to her, and I do wish this book was about her not Pip because damn, Pip is boring.

The biggest issue I have with this book is Pip. He is self absorbed and, as the story is told from his perspective, it’s very hard to enjoy. It is told in three sections, and while the first story about his younger years is quite interesting – mainly due to the presence of Joe and Miss Havisham – the second part following his journey to his expectations in London was so dull! However, come part three, after finding out who his benefactor was and the fallout from there it does become more interesting and the pace picks up considerably. There was some intensity to some chapters which really made up for the drab chapters which came before it. I also like that Dickens does wrap everything up, it’s quite satisfying (if a little contrived)! On the whole, I liked the way this book went, even if I did find Pip insufferable.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed The Old Curiosity Shop, but it was still enjoyable. I will be giving it some time before picking up my next Dickens! I will, however, be watching both the TV Miniseries and the 2012 movie adaptation of Great Expectations as reading it, I could see how well it would translate on to the screen and I’m pretty excited about that!

Review: Adam Bede – George Eliot

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Rating – 5*

Adam Bede was Eliot’s first published novel and that youth in her writing is tangible throughout. But like most debut novels, what it lacked in literary rigour, it made up for with passion in the writing. This was, I felt, a novel which the author put her heart in to and I really, really enjoyed it. The more I read of Eliot, the more I love her work, and I found it very difficult to find fault with this because I just love every word.

It has echoes of Far From the Madding Crowd in the start – maybe because it’s a quiet farming community – and pre-dates it by 20 years. For me, I preferred Eliot’s take on the quiet farming town life to Hardy’s, Eliot was a lot more brutal in plot and her characters were far superior. While Adam is the titular character of this novel, Hetty Sorrel is definitely equally as much of a main character, and the side characters are equally as rich and full of life – something which I have found a theme across all of the work of Eliot’s I have read so far.

The plot is quite sparse in the first half, it is instead full of life and the hustle and bustle of everyday village life. We follow the hard-working Adam, and he’s quite a dull man, but is diligent and, unfortunately for him, madly in love with the narcissistic Hetty – who is aware of his feelings but does not reciprocate. Hetty has longings for the finer things in life and desires to get away from the village; this is a common theme among books of the era and I imagine it was a (sadly) common theme in reality. Hetty was definitely the shining show of this book, even though intensely dislikeable in terms of how she treats Adam, I empathised with her and felt her pains, especially in the second half. If it wasn’t for the first half, where as a reader you build a relationship with the people of this village, that intense building of character made the second half hit me, as a reader, so much harder. I don’t want to spoil it, so I urge you to be patient if you decide to try this and work your way through the slow burn of character building in the first 300 or so pages.

One thing I’m noticing about Eliot’s work is her focus on religion – in Daniel Deronda she focused heavily on Judaism. In this book, she focuses in on the Methodist faith with the character of Dinah, and in part Adam’s brother Seth. I find the insights in to religion in different periods of history really interesting, and while some people found this book a little preachy I actually found it really interesting.

While not as enormous as Daniel Derdonda, or indeed Middlemarch, this book is nonetheless incredible for very different reasons. I find it hard to do anything but give a George Eliot book 5* now, I really do. So naturally, this was a 5* read. After a really pretty bad beginning with Middlemarch (which I must reread this Summer, after reading nearly all the rest of her work this year!) George Eliot has fast become one of my favourite authors of all time – and I intend to finish her bibliography this Summer and do a bit of a spotlight on her.

I leave you with parting words: do not judge this book by its cover because – frankly – this edition is hideous; just do not let that detract from what is inside.

Purchase this book on The Book Depository