Review: In A Glass Darkly – J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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Rating – 3*

Firstly I will apologise as reviewing a book read over a month ago is quite a task for someone with memory problems! This is probably going to be quite brief because of it, but I think the fact I can’t remember much of it says everything about the content – it wasn’t overly memorable.

I can’t lie, I picked this collection up purely for Carmilla (lesbian vampires people. Lesbian vampires.) as I thought for the price it was a better deal – and while the stories in this collection were interesting, I can’t say they were entirely my cup of tea. In a way, I wish I wasn’t such a bargain hunter and just read Carmilla as a standalone because it was by far the stand out of the collection.

I can understand why the stories in here were ground breaking – they predate the more well known classic ‘horror’ novels like Dracula by over 20 years, which is frankly quite impressive. And in a time before electricity I can imagine that all of the stories in this collection were pretty terrifying, now they were more humorous than scary.

What I did enjoy is that all the stories were connected in that they were all found in the papers of Dr Martin Hesselius – a character who was a sort of hybrid between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the 19th Century – a strong belief in the occult but also in possession of a very level head and medical expertise. I found the voice quite an easy one to follow, while there were the typical, over wordy elements of 19th century literature I was able to plod along quite happily and read each story in one sitting without feeling tired (which is often the case with Victorian novels!)

On the whole though, this was a 3* read. I loved the first story – Green Tea – about a reverend and a demon monkey, and I loved Carmilla. Those two aside it was all very meh and forgettable – to the point where a month on they’re the only two stories I can remember in the collection.

If you like Gothic literature, or have an interest in lesbian vampires or demon monkeys, I’d definitely give this collection of short stories/novellas a go!

Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

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Rating – 5*

Dracula has long been among books I class as my favourites. I first read it 10 years ago, when I was but a girl of 14 (reading that review back was horrifying, let me tell you) and I remember loving it. I’ve not read it since then, but it’s always been a book that has stuck with me, and when asked to name some of my favourite books I always say “Dracula” without hesitation. I read it because of all the Twilight hype, I hated that book so decided to read the ‘original’ vampire novel and I remember being swept away in the dark, mysterious lore that Stoker created – and the same happened all over again on this reread.

While I seem to have remembered a lot of the novel in the 10 year gap since my last reading, on reading it this time around I think a lot of it did go over my head. I did say in my review that I would have to read it back to fully appreciate it, it seems that 14 year old me actually knew I was in over my depth because I definitely enjoyed it more this time around.

One major change in my opinion in 10 years is the fact I absolutely loved the fact this novel was epistolary this time around. The fact it was told through letters and journal entries, it builds such a better picture and you see each character through different sets of eyes. The story has so many layers in being told this way, because there is overlapping between the characters narratives. I’ve never been one for an epistolary novel, but Dracula certainly nails it. The story really works told in the way it was, and I honestly don’t think that a traditional narrative would have given the story such a profound impact, or even the longevity.

I can say without any hesitation this is one of my favourite books, and I feel I can say it with more confidence as I have read it both as a teenager and an adult without any change in my feelings towards it. I can see it becoming a book I reread quite a lot in my future, as it is a perfect, Autumn read when enjoyed with a cozy blanket, pyjamas and a cup of coffee.

Review: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

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This is the only book I’ve read for the best part of two months. It’s been a journey, it’s been long and difficult but I am so, so glad to have finally read this gargantuan book. I stuck with the schedule in the Goodreads group that was on, which really did impact my enjoyment I feel. I think I could have enjoyed it more if I had read more when I had momentum rather than sticking to the 6ish chapters a day to get through it.

It’s not going to be a long review, or even much of an overview, because trying to pin my thoughts down is nearly impossible and something I don’t feel I can do after just one read. This is a book I know I will want to read again in the future – not immediately, but in a couple of years for sure. Only then do I think I’ll be able to give a more rounded view.

I’m not going to go in to depth because honestly, I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of the finer points. Two months is a long time to be stuck in the same book and reading about the same people, and I did feel completely entwined with their lives, but come the end of the book I was tired of the company. I fell in love and out of love with so many characters; those we see through to the end I have such conflicting feelings towards.

There are a lot of issues for me; mostly in how women are represented in the book. I know many people use the excuse of “well it was just the done thing in that time period” – yes, I know, but it still makes me angry because there are so many interesting women in this book who were just objects or tropes, while they did have character I felt the women a lot more stereotypical than the men which, for me, just lessened my enjoyment. That is especially true given the nature of Anna in Anna Karenina – because she’s a pretty great female character, and knowing Tolstoy could create her just makes me frustrated with the endings the women got in this.

As for the story, I loved the ‘peace’ sections of the book; I loved following the lives of so many varied people in a period of history I know so very little about. The lack of knowledge of the history is something I know I want to fill at least a little bit before I reread the novel if only so I can understand the ‘war’ segments of the book a little more fully. For me, they dragged and I lost interest and motivation, which in turn made the whole book a lot more of a chore than an enjoyment.

It’s not my favourite Russian classic I’ve read. I preferred both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment – both of which are long, but not quite this long. And if I am entirely honest, if I am going to dedicate 2 months of my life to a book and read over 1200 pages, I want it to blow me away much like The Count of Monte Cristo or Bleak House – and keep me engaged, make me want to keep going, which this just didn’t unfortunately.

Ultimately, I’m not going to be rushing back to it in the immediate future, but I am so proud of myself in actually finishing it. It’s one of those books I have wanted to read for an absolute age, and to say I’ve finally done it is just such an achievement. While I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I had hoped, I think the satisfaction in reading it far surmounts anything I’ve felt from reading a book in a long time. It’s also made pretty much every other book in existence much less daunting to approach!

Also, this was the last book in my 50 books of 2017 challenge on goodreads – so I don’t even care it took me 2 months!

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.