Review: The Dumb House – John Burnside

thedumbhouseThe Dumb House has made quite an impact on the bookish community in the last month or so and having heard nothing but good things I had to join on the bandwagon. This is a new edition of John Burnside’s first novel, published in a beautiful Vintage redspine edition in a collection of Scottish Modern Classics. After reading this I will be getting my hands on more of both John Burnside and the series of Scottish Classics because this book is just incredible.

The novel follows the story of Luke, possibly the most unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered, as he lives through a fairy tale his mother told him as a child. The in fairy tale his mother told him, Akbar the Great filled a palace with newborn children, who were cared for only by mutes; done order to to learn whether language was innate or learned. Of course the children never learned to speak, but Luke’s obsession with this idea leads him to carry out his own experiment, creating his own dumb house.

The only way to describe this is Criminal Minds, in literary form. It is both wonderful and disturbing in equal amounts. It is disjointed but makes perfect sense. It is by no means an easy read, this should have trigger warnings on it for everything (rape, child cruelty, animal cruelty, violence, murder etc.) and is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. It is however absolutely fascinating and I think it is a book I will continually think about. It is all shades of disturbing but damn, it just had this quality that numbed it somewhat – as a reader I felt distanced and very much like a fly on the wall; unable to do anything but not taking my eyes off what is unfolding in front of me.

Overall, I had to think for the best part of a day on what to give this book in terms of rating. Some of it is just so wrong and made my skin crawl but, on the other hand it was a book I could scarcely put down, it was a book that held my attention and will have me thinking for a long time. It was beautifully written and that can’t be ignored. I eventually settled on a 5/5 because the content, while difficult to read, is honestly no worse than what I would watch on something like Criminal Minds. It just feels a lot more personal and difficult to accept when written down. This is honestly one of the best books I’ve read this year, not sure I can say it is the best but definitely up there, it is one that will keep me thinking and stay with me so that itself is something. I wouldn’t say this is a book for everyone, it’s really not, but if you like slightly twisted things or maybe can stomach something like Criminal Minds, I think this book is worth a shot.

Review: The Parasites – Daphne du Maurier

the-parasitesThe Parasites is one of du Maurier’s lesser known works. It is significantly different to her other works that I have read, it’s much more realistic and there isn’t as much of the gothic influence in it – at least not obviously. Once again, I have to say I’m glad that I am being a completist with du Maurier’s work because I think this would have been a book I ordinarily overlooked.

It follows the story of three siblings, well, sort of. Maria and Niall are step siblings and Celia, their half sister. They’re a product of famous singer and an even more famous dancer. It’s mostly a story told in retrospect, as in the first chapter Maria’s husband calls the siblings parasites and from there we delve in to their mutual past as they try to understand why they are parasites. While this isn’t so heavy on plot, it is one of the best character studies I have read in a long time. The three siblings are so symbiotic it’s both interesting and disturbing.

This is a very ambiguous book, with absolutely detestable characters but I found myself loving it because of the way it was written. The novel itself is told from the mutual ‘we’ perspective, never quite certain which one of them is narrating because they’re all so intertwined. As with all of her other books, this is written flawlessly and the past and present are seamlessly flipped between. I don’t often like a book with characters I hate but, this was du Maurier and it was done so well and so intentionally that I rather liked this change from the norm.

Overall I think this is a solid 4/5, it is by no means perfect and I didn’t much care for the ending but I really liked this interlude in my reading of her works because it is so very different to all the others in her bibliography that I have read. Once I got in to it I read it quite quickly, as I usually do with a du Maurier. I really can’t get enough of this woman’s writing and to think I’m almost at the half way stage of her bibliography is heartbreaking – the next du Maurier can’t come soon enough!

Review: Flush – Virginia Woolf

flushFlush is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. Yes, it is a book which tells the story of a dog, through the dogs eyes but it is actually wonderful however absurd that sounds! This book was picked up purely on the basis that it was written by Virginia Woolf and was published by Persephone, both of whom I love.

It’s a short book at just over 100 pages but every word is wonderful. It was written in the come down from her writing The Waves (a book which I am yet to read) when she was relatively drained. It was something she wrote for fun and you really get that humour come across in her writing in this instance.

Flush was a dog that lived a very varied life, it gave an insight in to Elizabeth Barrett’s life also. From the fields he roamed as a puppy to his life in a London townhouse and then moving to Italy and the freedom he gained, Flush lived a very good life. This is a parody of sorts as the Victorians did love writing a good biography of an esteemed gentleman and from Flushes point of view, he is an esteemed gentleman. Some of the feelings he had were just so human and, really, believable. A particular chapter that really resonated with me is when Miss Barrett meets Mr Browning and Flushes jealousy!

This book is by no means the masterpiece that Orlando is but it is, however, a really charming book. This book is a very accessible book to read if you’ve not read any Woolf or even if you have but didn’t particularly have that resonance with her writing. It’s a solid 4/5 read and, honestly, one I think I would reread because it was just so lovely!

Review: To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

tothelighthouseI picked this up as a holiday read – it was honestly the perfect thing to read, kicking back in the sun!

Virginia Woolf is an artist and words her medium. She is a genius and I cannot fully express my love for her. The few hours that I spend reading this book, so totally and utterly engrossed in this were some of the best of my holiday.

I really find it hard to let go of a novel by Woolf, it is always one that leaves me hanging; wanting to go back to the start. This will be one I revisit in the sunshine; be it this year or next either way I will read this again, more than once.

It was by no means an easy read. It required concentration and my full attention for 4 or 5 hours to read and fully appreciate but it was totally worth it. She forms sentences so beautifully and intricately that it was impossible to read this with any kind of distraction.

This book is split in to three parts. In the first, we meet the Ramsey family – very little happens, we just follow these characters, spending time in each of their heads and jumping around. It’s just wonderful. Over the course of the novel we follow the plot through several perspectives – men, women and children.

I really don’t feel I can do this book justice. I’m not an academic, at least not in English Literature. But I know a good book when I read one, I can appreciate the artistry and the genius behind it. Virginia Woolf is wonderful and this book is a 5/5 for me.

Review: Saplings – Noel Streatfeild

saplingsThough I own a few Persephone books, this is the first I read and it was not in any way a disappointment. When I picked this up in a shop I had a feeling it was going to be one of those books that I just cuddled up and read – I wasn’t wrong!

It’s the story of the second world war as seen through the eyes of a group of children, the Wiltshire siblings, who have had a very upper-middle class background. The tone of the book at the start is no indication of how the story progresses as, ultimately, this book is heartbreaking! By the end of this book, most of the characters are detestable but you understand why they’re that way. Laurel wants to be loved, Tony is grieving, Kim wants attention and little Tuesday is just so damaged by what the war has done to her family that she’s hardly functioning. Seeing how a war has shaped these children and altered their family dynamic is really sad and, honestly, it isn’t something that I’ve seen explored in literature before.

It’s really hard to describe this book because, it isn’t really plot heavy, it is definitely a character study of events that pretty much everyone is familiar with, just told through new eyes. I think the nature of observing WWII through the eyes of children was something new and, actually, a very novel way to look at war. I’ve read very little fiction set around wars, especially WWI and WWII but it’s just not something that interests me (and I know that probably sounds a little bad, but it’s just not my thing). However, I think this was a really good look at it.

Once I started this book I couldn’t put it down. I had to, but I didn’t want to, and I read it in 3 sittings. I just love Noel Streatfeild’s writing, it’s fluid, it’s simple but it is absolutely wonderful. There were a lot of parallels in style with that of Ballet Shoes but it was definitely a lot more grown up and far less sunshine and rainbows! I think it could have been explored a bit more, some bits were surplus but on the whole it was wonderful. It was a cozy read in spite of the background and the story material. I’d happily recommend this to anyone who likes her children’s writing, enjoys WWII novels or just loves books about family dynamics. 4/5!

Review: Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier

frenchmanscreekSo this month saw me pick up another du Maurier novel. I’ve had a couple of months off from reading du Maurier but I felt the urge to be back in Cornwall and she is, obviously, the Queen of Cornish Literature. And also, this book contains pirates. That did pretty much sell it to me.

The story follows Dona, a London socialite who is fed up of her lifestyle in the City and moves down to Cornwall – away from her husband – to start afresh. Soon after her arrival in this sleepy Cornish coastal village, she learns that it is plagued by pirates – one Frenchman in particular. Naturally, this appeals at first to her sense of adventure. Their paths do of course cross and what goes on from there you can only imagine.

This was a slow start. I honestly thought I was going to have to admit defeat and call it a day with this very early on because I just wasn’t feeling it. I only persevered because, well, it’s du Maurier and I will always try with her novels because even if the plot lacks, the prose is beautiful and sometimes that makes up for it. For me, this picked up at around the 50 page mark, though it wasn’t un-put-down-able it was perfectly readable and I did enjoy it for the most part from there on out. I snuggled up and read the majority of what was remaining in only a couple of sittings.

Daphne du Maurier is a literary genius. I say it every time. How she captures atmosphere and how she just makes me lose myself in a book is incredible. Those questions in which you’re asked “who would you have at a dinner table?” I would pick her in a heartbeat.

“And all this, she thought, is only momentary, is only a fragment in time that will never come again, for yesterday already belongs to the past and is ours no longer, and tomorrow is an unknown thing that may be hostile. This is our day, our moment, the sun belongs to us, and the wind, and the sea, and the men for’ard there singing on the deck. This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived, and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.”

Once again, it’s a 4/5 for du Maurier. This book, while a bit of a struggle for me to get on with, was wonderful.

Review: Orlando – Virginia Woolf

orlandoI loved Mrs Dalloway when I read it a few years ago, but I did say it was a book that I would have to reread to appreciate. Because of that I waited, 5 years, before picking up any more of Woolf’s work and… I’m so glad I waited.

Orlando is a book that requires patience. It’s a book that required me to slow down my reading to fully bask in the beauty that it is. I think having a few more years on me also helped comprehend and appreciate her grasp and use of language. She is a genius. I love her. This book has changed me, it has changed how I will read from now on. I just cannot verbalise how amazing it is.

I actually read this twice; the second time straight after the first because I didn’t feel like I took enough out of it the first time around. I read a different edition (I have a mass market paperback sized edition which isn’t nearly as pretty) and actually annotated it – this is a huge thing, I hate to write in a book but it was beautiful to do that. To just fully appreciate her writing and put my own thoughts in the margins, highlighting the bits that stood out to me. A second read made me notice how vividly she describes colours and textures; the first chapter/section has far too many references to the colour green but never once is it repetitive and God – this woman!

Reading this book once is not enough to take everything away from it; it’s just so complex. I know that I can’t write about it and do it justice. I will however, briefly gloss over the general gist; Orlando begins the novel as a man (He – for there could be no doubt of his sex) in Elizabethan England; by the end, Orlando is a married woman in the 1920s.

It is just sublime, there are no other words for it.  The experience I had reading this was transformative; it is already changing how I approach books and what I take away from them. I will reread it again in future and make further notes with a different colour, for sure as it is – undoubtedly – a book that with every reading I will take more away from. Read it. 5/5.

Review: Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier

JamaicaInnI didn’t think I had read this book before, but apparently I have! According to goodreads I read this in 2010 but I genuinely couldn’t remember it. The beginning was familiar, but aside from that it was like I was reading it for the first time! Does it count as a reread if you have forgotten the entire plot?

Firstly, I’m going to be vain and just say how beautiful the Virago Designer Classic is for this. A beautiful cover does make a book that bit more enjoyable, that is for certain.

The story is about Mary Yellan, who after her mother passes away goes to live – at her mothers request – with her aunt. But her mother had no idea of her sisters life and so, young Mary finds herself living with her aunt Patience and her husband, Joss, at Jamaica Inn.

As always, du Maurier’s writing is sublime. The atmosphere she created in this was just boggling. I cannot ever compliment her atmospherics enough – as anyone who reads these reviews will notice. Actually, going back and reading my review from 2010 I said that the atmosphere was good but didn’t quite match up to Rebecca. I lied, or was just young and an idiot, because the atmospherics in this book are just incomparable. Rebecca is great, it will be the bookish love of my life, but this book was just that little bit darker, that little bit ‘foggier’ with a little more mystery.

However, it isn’t a 5/5 from me. Even though I’d read this before, I couldn’t remember where it ended up and… while it was good the ending was a disappointment from all the building up that had been done prior to it. The plot was quite simplistic, the romance was rushed and somewhat out of character and… yes. Ultimately this is a 4/5 and that is primarily because of the writing, the plot itself is quite weak!

Review: I’ll Never Be Young Again – Daphne du Maurier

INBYAI love Daphne du Maurier. Anyone who has followed this blog or knows me in any way knows I love this woman. This book however is one of the weaker ones of hers that I have read. It’s by no means awful, it’s a really good book it’s just not up to the strength of her better known books or even her first novel which I reviewed recently.

The opening chapter is just wonderful; I thought I was in for a treat. We open with our narrator standing on a bridge, ready to jump. But it just didn’t really take flight for me. Richard, the narrator, is insufferable. While du Maurier captured the male voice almost perfectly, I found him intolerable to read through.

The point of this book is, essentially, a coming of age novel. We follow Richard from this broken shell of a boy, who is melodramatic and has a lot of growing up to do, through an adventure that sees him become a man. Ultimately this was probably my problem as I, on the whole, cannot stand a coming of age story. There are few that I have enjoyed and it’s just a personal taste

As always though, du Maurier’s writing was exquisite. She has such a dreamlike quality to her writing and knows how to make an atmosphere work. She wrote quite powerfully through first person narration too, which is something that I often have difficulty getting in to. There are also some vivid descriptions of the mountains and fjords of Norway and the other places that the characters visit, particularly Paris with its cafés and boulevards – the only thing I can compare this level of description to is that of the short story Monte Vista in her collection The Birds – actually I felt there were a number of parallels between them but maybe that’s just me!

Anyway, this is by far not her strongest work that I have read but it is by no means awful. It isn’t a book I would suggest for a new reader of du Maurier to begin with but for someone who has read a few of her books and wants to explore her lesser known works, this is a good one. A solid 3/5!

Review: The Birds & Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

thebirdsThis is the second du Maurier I’ve read this week. As expected she didn’t disappoint. I love her novels, but I think her short stories are equally as compelling. Previously I’ve read The Rendezvous and Other Stories which, though the least known of her short story collections, I really enjoyed and actually gave 5/5 so I went in to this – her most well known collection – with high expectations.

I loved it. As I expected. I loved it. There were only 6 stories and, truthfully, they were probably more novellas than a short story. They were all well fleshed out, had the signature du Maurier feel to them, the characters were superb as I’ve come to expect and ultimately, it was a fantastic collection. I was going to just do an overview but, for the sake of completeness, I’ve decided to review each story independently.

The titular story features first and The Birds is a story about a man who is plagued by evil birds. In this copy it was around 40 pages and it revolves around this man’s attempt to save his family from these evil birds. Really, it’s quite bizarre but amid all of the screeching and aggressive window-pecking it feels really intense. It was quite psychological as well, actually. I enjoyed it, I’m probably now going to be paranoid when a bird looks at me but I really enjoyed it.

Monte Verià takes up practically a third of the book. The story itself is an odd one – there is a lot of depth and suspense there and it only really makes sense once it’s fully read. Many people have said that it was too long – I agree in some respects, it was quite long and maybe it could have done with a bit of editing but her writing is just so wonderfully readable that I couldn’t put this one down. The premise is again a little weird and our narrator for this is really not the main character but the eyes through which we see the story. Essentially our unnamed narrator tells the story of his friend Victor and his wife Anna. Victor and Anna go on holiday and climb a mountain and something peculiar happens while up the mountain… I really loved this one actually. The ending was a little “meh” but on the whole this was a really good story.

The Apple Tree was a peculiar one. It follows a man who has recently been widowed who is embracing the freedom that has come from it and he notices the apple trees in the garden; one reminding him of his wife and the other reminding him of the young farm girl he once kissed. I don’t really know what I was reading when I read this, it was completely bizarre and at points I did find it hard to follow. I don’t think this was du Maurier at her best; it was good and her writing was sublime as always but it wasn’t her best.

Next up was The Little Photographer and truthfully the only thing that kept me reading this was her writing. The plot was quite lacking and the protagonist was shallow and it just dragged. If it was anyone else I probably wouldn’t have even finished it but it was du Maurier and I felt obliged. There was a slight twist at the end that almost redeemed it but… It stell felt like it was lacking something.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger is one I feel could have actually been developed more. It was a little frustrating, the narrator wasn’t particularly likeable for me but I feel that the girl could definitely have had a novel to herself. I really loved the twist in this one but, as I said, it could have done with more.

Finally there was The Old Man which is the shortest story of the collection. This was a bit nondescript initially but the ending, oh the ending. It was something else. It really just proves how wonderful a writer du Maurier is, to have to think one thing and twist it completely with 3 sentences. It’s one I don’t want to speak much about as at only 10 pages there’s not much to tell but it did make me go back and read it again with the end in mind.

Ultimately this was a good collection, the writing here is just sublime and while the stories themselves were a bit hit and miss it’s hard to not like this! I prefer her novels, I actually find them more well paced but her short stories are just little flashes of genius and I’m looking forward to the other 3 collections I have yet to read! 4/5