Review: No Surrender- Constance Maud

13 - No Surrender

Rating – 3*

No Surrender is a very rare find – an out and out suffragette novel. It is billed on the Persephone catalogue as just that, which doesn’t seem something outstanding but really, there aren’t any suffragette novels so this one is something special.

This book is something remarkable. It is a multi-faceted look at the suffragette movement of the early 20th century; from the mill workers to the upper levels of society. It looks at how the movement impacted on them and why they were passionate about it. It wasn’t just about gaining a vote as many people think, it was so much more than that and sadly so much more still needs to be done.

The primary character is Jenny, a young mill worker who wants so much and not just for herself, very little of it is for herself, but it is for the people she loves. She wants her sister to have rights to her children, her mother to have right to finances, and she wants equal pay for equal work. When Jenny meets Mary, a young, upper class girl, their joint skill-set proves powerful. Their different perspectives represent the cross section of women who fought for this change to the lives of women and children.

There is no doubting it, this book is powerful. It really brings home how determined and passionate these women were. Some of the passages in this book, particularly when the girls are subject to force feeding, are hard reading. But however uncomfortable it was, I kept reading because the fictional women in this book give voice to the hundreds of nameless women who fought for the freedoms that we, as women, have today. Sadly, there is a lot that needs to still be done even 100+ years on for equality, in both Britain and across the rest of the world. But this book really brings it home how lucky women today are.

However, this book wasn’t without flaws and while it really made me think I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing. I found it clunky, I found it hard to get through, when I put the book down I had to force myself to pick it up again. I am so glad I read this and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a brutal, albeit fictional, account of the early Suffrage movement in the UK. But it has to be 3* as I didn’t enjoy the writing all that much.

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Review: Animal Farm – George Orwell

12 - Animal Farm

Rating – 4*

I finally got around to reading Animal Farm and my primary feeling is “why did it take me so long?”. Animal Farm is actually my sisters favourite book, she read it during her GCSEs. She told me, at the age of 14, that I had to read this book. She’s 20 in a couple of months and I have only just got around to this!

This book is so simple but it conveys such an important message, it’s brilliant. It is presented as a fairy story, though it is more of an elongated fable, it has the simple language of a children’s book but depth of meaning that I’ve not experienced before. Exploring communist Russia through the eyes of animals, well, it was genius. But the moral of this book still exists today, it’s just as relevant to read now as it was when it was first published in 1945.

All of the animals on this farm had human counterparts. The pigs were the government (in the metaphor of Russia they were Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky etc.), the horses were the hard-working members of society who believed in the government, the dogs were (essentially) the KGB. The revolution becomes much less idyllic with the pigs ruling the roost; changing laws put out at the start to suit their pleasure, by the end of the book “All animals are equal” becomes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think it is fair to say that this is the best novella I have ever read. At just 120 pages I was blown away. This covered so much ground and really made such a big societal event manageable. I can see why this book is on reading lists for pre-16 education. What Orwell achieved in this book is mindblowing. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a book I would definitely love to reread, so I gave it 4* but I’m still teetering on whether or not to bump it to 5*. I wish I had read this before I read 1984!

Review: Daniel Deronda – George Eliot

09 - Daniel Deronda

Rating – 5*

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. After I read Middlemarch last year, I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I was expecting, I was truly expecting to adore that book and instead it was just okay. But, I kept going with her work and every book I read by this woman just gets better and better. This one I could scarcely put down – I finished the 914 page beast in 5 days and that was me pacing myself!

Daniel Deronda tells a story in two parts, both the story of Daniel and of Gwendolen, and naturally they interweave beautifully. We start in what is almost the middle of the book, where we meet Gwendolen Harleth in a casino. Observing her winning streak at the roulette table is Daniel Deronda. And that is the last we see of him until Chapter 16 and Gwendolen’s story takes precedence. At first it seems like these two narratives are utterly unrelated. Yet each is enhanced by the other, and by the parallels it is possible to draw between them.

The plot itself is magnificent, it weaves in and out, back and forth, and is so incredibly perfect. I could go on and on about it, it was great.  The thing which surprised me most was the thread of Judaism which I really wasn’t expecting, but it surprised me in the best possible way. Mirah is one of the most beautiful characters I have had the pleasure of reading, yes she was a little stereotypical but she was wonderful and I really, really adored her. Daniel, oh how I wish there were more of Daniel! Though he is the titular character, the main thread of this novel I felt was actually handed to Gwendolen – his story just wove in perfectly with hers. Him finding out his origins was a great plot point but the thing that was most interesting about him was his open-mindedness, his acceptance and kind heart; he too had faults but his good traits outweighed them. Gwendolen however did annoy me, she was selfish, rude, and downright abhorrent in fact; but I loved her. The growth of her through the novel was something special, her tenacity, her zest for life, and ultimately her journey in to an adulthood that noone deserves which she took for the better of her family is one filled with pain. She grows up quickly, learns quickly and as she becomes more downtrodden, her voice in the novel becomes quieter… it’s quite fantastic, actually.

Oh this novel was incredible. George Eliot is up there as one of my favourite authors, and because I loved this so much I really want to retry Middlemarch. Her writing is sheer magic, her command of imagery and characterisation is second to none, her ability to create the perfect atmosphere for village life astounds me. This woman is a deity.

Naturally this book got 5* from me and the title of best book in 2016 so far. The rest of the year has a LOT to live up to!

Review: Villette – Charlotte Bronte

07a - Villette

Rating – 3*

This book was great, but not perfect. Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel of Charlotte’s life, of her time working in Brussels, which may explain why it was so detailed. Compared to Jane Eyre this is darker, it’s a lot more grown up, the language is beautiful, but I hesitate to compare the two to the extent saying which was the better book. This book is a lot more mature, as I said, but if Jane Eyre is the story of true love, hope and positivity then this is the complete antithesis of that; it’s about a woman who has been disappointed, lost everything dear and has given up hoping and dreaming.

Villette follows the story of Lucy Snowe, an orphan with absolutely no family. It starts when she is around 14 and living with her godmother, Mrs Bretton. Eventually she ends up moving to Villette, a little village in France, wherein she ends up teaching English in a school. The majority of the book has very little to no clear plot, maybe it is because it was more autobiographical therefore that was the plot. It has to be said that it isn’t nearly as exciting or dramatic as I remember Jane Eyre being, but as can be expected from a Bronte, the prose and characters are exquisite.

Lucy Snowe is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve come across, especially compared to Jane. She holds information back from the reader, never quite telling you everything. She is difficult to like and relate to but, somehow, I did find myself liking her come the end. For the first part of the book, she is a secondary character in her own story. She narrates her experiences as a child in her godmother’s home and tells the stories of Polly and Graham when they were children. While she is telling the story, we learn very little about her and this is somewhat true of most of the book, and even though the tone of the novel is mostly hopeful, there is always an underlying feeling of sadness and loneliness in Lucy’s narrative. Ultimately, Lucy is a proud woman who desires to make her own way in the world and I respected that.

On the whole, and thinking about it over night, I really loved this book. The ending was a bit of a shocker but I understand why it was written in such an ambiguous way. Initially I gave this 3*, mulling it over I think maybe 4* – it’s definitely a 3.5* at the very least! I did enjoy this but, have to say it, Anne is still my favourite Bronte!

Review: Les Misérables – Victor Hugo

06 - Les Misérables

Rating – 4*

This book was a beast which took me the entirety of the month to get through but it was oh-so-worth it. I listened to this primarily as, once again, my physical and audio versions were different translations; the Penguin edition is Norman Denny and the Naxos audio translation is Isabel F. Hapgood. As a result, I generally stuck to the audio version because flip-flopping between the two translations was quite confusing! Also, it is worth saying that I went in to this book knowing practically nothing. I haven’t seen any adaptation of it as I always knew I wanted to read the book first. This book is incredible and trying to condense all my feeling in to a concise review has been a challenge!

Everything in this book was incredible. The plot was enormous and spanned so many things, but more than anything this was a character study. This was definitely more character driven than plot driven and I loved that! The characters were so rounded and real, their struggles felt believable, I believed in this people and even the characters I hated were equally as fascinating. Jean Valjean, really being the main character, is the one I felt most invested in and his story, this book, really did wrench my heart at times. The first part of this book, with Fantine, had me in tears at more than one point! His struggles over the course of the novel, the two sides of him conflicting, is a really interesting read and one I am so, so glad I finally got around to.

In the end I rated this book 4 stars. I’ve read some long books in my time, most of them are incredible. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason. This book was one of them but… I wasn’t compelled to keep picking this up. If I didn’t pick it up for 2 or 3 days I didn’t feel I missed it. Don’t misunderstand me, when I was reading this book I didn’t want to put it down but I also didn’t have the desire to keep picking it up (as I did with The Count of Monte Cristo). A big book is a commitment and it has to have the momentum to keep you going and, this didn’t really. My main issues with this book were that I found myself lost at times as Hugo does like to go off on extreme tangents which last a considerable amount of time. It’s that reason why I found myself not really engaging 100% with it while I was reading it. Some of these tangents were really interesting, I really enjoyed some of them but I think I would, and could, have got just as much out of an abridged version and I really hate myself for thinking that! This book is as much about French history and philosophy as it is about Jean Valjean and some of that was very much appreciated!

If you love a big book, if you want to make a commitment for an indeterminate period of time, I do recommend this book. However, if you want a more fast paced French epic, definitely pick The Count of Monte Cristo up over this. Maybe this is one where familiarity would be a good thing and having seen the musical or the movie would have been of benefit, who knows? All I know is I enjoyed it and I am most certainly a convert to French classic literature!

Review: The Making of a Marchioness – Frances Hodgeson Burnett

02 - The Making of a MarchionessI like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s fiction – I loved The Secret Garden, I really liked A Little Princess – naturally I assumed that I would enjoy her writing for adults but this seriously lacked something for me.

I honestly found this very dull. Her writing really lends itself to children’s fiction but it didn’t give itself to a romance novel whatsoever. Emily, our protagonist, is just really like a wet weekend. I found her insipid and dreary, I found reading this book really hard work because she was just so… dull.

The first half of the book is Emily making her way in the world, her rags to riches story essentially. The second half, the plot goes “gothic” –  I use the term lightly as I like and enjoy gothic fiction, this really felt like parody gothic. It really was just absurd.  There were also quite racist undertones which, while may have been acceptable when this was written, still made me uncomfortable when reading.

I really don’t know how many times that as a reader I was reminded that Emily was not intelligent (but she wasn’t stupid!) or that she was childish. There were so many other instances of being told what a character was rather than shown it. I felt bombarded by being TOLD things about the characters which I really would prefer to have explored more passively. The result was that I found it very difficult to care about the characters at all.

I initially gave this book 3* but upon thinking about it and writing this review I’m going to give it 2*. It was passable, it was at least coherent, but I just didn’t enjoy it whatsoever unfortunately.

Review: The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot

01 - The Mill on the Floss

Rating – 4*

I loved this book. Trying to put it across in words is going to be difficult because there is just so many things I feel I want to say about this book.

The Mill on the Floss follows a little more than 10 years in the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver. We start when they are young, Tom 13 and Maggie about 9. So many things about the relationship between these siblings irritated me, mainly Tom’s faults it has to be said but Tom’s faults were redeemed by all things Maggie. Maggie is one of the best female protagonists in 19th Century literature – at least from what I have read. She is wild and free and, on the whole, is everything a good female protagonist should be.

This book is so many things but, ultimately, is about the bond between siblings. While I felt Tom had his faults, that is me as a 21st century reader. Tom is ultimately a good person who loves his sister but, as a product of a 19th century novel is often calling Maggie a “silly girl” and very often undervalues her. But Maggie is quite scandalous, really, and I imagine that when this was released there was quite a few raised eyebrows. George Eliot has shot up my list as one of my favourite authors because of this book, I can imagine her smirking behind her pen as she wrote some of this!

There is a bit of romance here, and I honestly haven’t rooted for a fictional couple as much as I did in this book for quite a long time. As it happens, it doesn’t go the way I wanted it to. Maggie emerges from it all a changed woman but nonetheless and incredible one who won’t let her opposition get her down.

If you want a happy or uplifting book, this isn’t for you. While the ending was in part disappointing, I don’t think it would have been right if it had finished any other way.

Review: The Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann || Blogmas Day 21

the nutcrackerI bought this, and wanted to read it, because I saw the ballet. All I will say to compare the two is that this is essentially a Grimms Fairy Tale to a Disney movie. The performance is NOTHING like the source material. I don’t know what I was expecting, German children’s literature – especially classics – are notoriously dark and this was no exception of that rule.

The story itself follows seven year old Marie, who is given a pretty ugly, wooden Nutcracker from her godfather for Christmas. She has vivid dreams on that night about the Nutcracker and it follows that her godfather tells her the tale of the Nutcracker; how he was once a beautiful boy who was cursed to become ugly. Marie is determined to help her much-loved Nutcracker and wants to help him break the spell that made him ugly and we follow her adventure in to the doll kingdom! It really is the sweetest tale but is also quite brutal and gruesome in parts.

It really was a charming Christmas book. Having seen the ballet I feel I appreciated it more but that’s not to say you couldn’t get the same out of it if you haven’t seen the ballet, I think for me it just added a bit of meat to the bones! I loved this and will definitely reread it at Christmastime again.

Review: Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense – Lewis Carroll || Blogmas Day 12

jabberwockyToday I bring you a review, and it is of Jabberwocky and Other Nonsense, a collection of the poetry of Lewis Carroll. I’ve learnt one thing while writing this review and it is simply that reviewing a poetry collection is quite difficult. I’ll start by saying that I loved this book but I’ll follow that up with a disclaimer of I’m not good at reviewing poetry!

Firstly, I have to say the title of this book is somewhat deceiving – there isn’t all that much nonsense! A lot of the poetry is quite serious and melancholic and I actually really enjoyed it on the whole. It’s a nice blend of the nonsense and the serious poetry in this edition (Penguin Clothbound). Carroll was famous for making up words and what I really appreciated was the notes on the text which explain at least some of those words.

My favourite sections were those from Alice (both the first book and Through the Looking Glass) and the poetry that I was already familiar with. I remember loving Mouse Tails as a child because I adored the formatting! There are also a lot of riddles in this book which I had fun with and made me think. While a lot of this poetry is nonsense and a little childish I got just as much out of it as an adult – in fact I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I’m not a poetry expert by any stretch of the word. I just like reading it once in a while and this book was pretty good for me. It was fun and really quite charming to read. I think this is really a book that the whole family could enjoy as kids love rhyming poetry and nonsense! I have to give this a 4* review because I really enjoyed it, even if I have very little constructive to say about it.

Review: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus – L. Frank Baum || Blogmas Day 5

life and adventures of santa clausWhen I saw this book on the table dedicate to Christmas in my local Waterstones, I knew I had to buy it. I had never heard of it before but just the premise – Santa grew up in Oz. This was made to be my dream Christmas book and was an absolutely glorious start to the festive season for me.

I absolutely loved this. The premise is wonderful, a young baby is found by a nymph and she wished to raise him. As he grows he makes it his aim to make the poor children happy, then it spreads to all children. Each chapter in the middle towards the end follows the start of a new Chistmas tradition, firstly presents, the adoption of the name Santa Claus, chimneys, stockings, trees and ultimately, it addresses why Santa is old and grey.

This is a completely different approach to the story of Santa Claus and it was wonderful. The main message is that Claus loves children and wants to make all of them feel happiness. Even more than a century after it was published I think the core desires of children are the same and Baum himself said once “all children need love and deserve kindness”.  I have to say I would have loved this book where I between 8 and 10, when my belief in Santa wavered because it does explain why parents help Santa – it’s so he can deliver presents to more people!

I adored this and will be rereading it every Christmas. I will probably also read it to my cousins, or at least paraphrase it for them as they’re only 6 and 3! This book is a solid 5* for me, it had it’s flaws but ultimately I adored it; it definitely has me wanting to read more in the Penguin Christmas series!