January: Crazy long reading list..

Am I crazy??


It’s just I seem to have set myself a rather stenuous reading challenge this month, as I desperately try to write an essay, plan my dissertation, read the remaining ‘gothic’ novels in my tbr pile from last semester, and prepare for the next. It’s no wonder I feel like screaming! My January reading list goes as follows…

  1. Caleb Williams, William Godwin
  2. The Italian, Ann Radcliffe
  3. The Romance of the Forest, Ann Radcliffe
  4. The Castle of Otranto, Horace Warpole
  5. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  6. We have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
  7. Desperate Romantics, Thomas Hardy
  8. The American, Henry James

To date I’ve polished off Caleb Williams, and am about a hundred pages into The Italian. These are all books I really want to read, it’s just finding the time when you work nine til five and and it’s so dark and cold that sometimes you just want to curl up in a ball and stare into space. Plus there’s the spector of my boyfriend, demanding my attention and trying get me hooked on his Xbox. Don’t worry, I haven’t succummed, and I hope to present eight beautifully written reviews by the beginning of February. If I have time, that is…

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Her Fearful Symmetry

I don’t read many new releases, so it always feels strange to have a large, shiny hardback in my hands, rather than an old, crabbed library paperback from 1852, which must be held gingerly because the glue has dried up and the binding falling apart.

After The Time Traveller’s Wife however, I am eager to read anything that Audrey Niffenegger has put out there, and I’ve used the excuse of a Christmas treat to shunt this up my ‘to read’ pile over a whole load of uni books. I finished the book over new year, and now settle down to write a rather belated review of Her Fearful symmetry

The novel centres primarily around two american twins, who find they’ve been left a lot of money and a flat in London by their mother’s twin, Elspeth, an aunt they never met. The condition is that they must both go and live in the flat, which neighbours Highgate Cemetery, for a year. Finding themselves in totally alien surroundings tests the twin’s already struggling relationship, and they slowly begin to drift apart. Valentina forms a strange relationship with Robert, who lives in the flat downstairs and was also Elspeth’s lover. Creepy. Julia, the dominant twin, is left to bond with upstairs neighbour Martin, who is trying to conquer his debilitating OCD so he can try to go to Amsterdam to find his wife. And oh yes…Elspeth’s ghost is trapped in her flat, growing more powerful and desperate to form a bond with the living.

There are plenty twists and turns in the final hundred pages that I won’t reveal, but up until then I found it quite a leisurely read. It is gothic and creepy, so fitted in well with my current interests, and I think my favourite character was definitely Highgate Cemetery. It kind of looms in the background of the novel, looking all Victorian and gloomy. It almost made me want to move to London, which given my hatred of the place, is impressive in itself.

While the novel is nothing if not impressively written and very accomplished, I felt it was a little contrived, and also a little too slow. I found myself getting very exasperated by Robert and Valentina’s behaviour, but maybe that’s just me. I often want to re-write the endings of books to suit myself.

I would read this book again just for the descriptions of the Cemetery and the creepy old flats. I would love to live somewhere like that. I’m not really sure, however, that this book quite lived up to my expectations after The Time Traveller’s Wife. Maybe I shouldn’t compare. Maybe I should just be happy that Her Fearful symmetry was still an interesting and lively read that I’m sure everyone who reads it will enjoy, and forget it’s flaws.

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I love you so…the best of 2010

The thing I hate most about new year is all the ‘best of…’ lists and TV programmes that engulf magazines, newspapers and TV schedules. I find it tedious and dull. This year has been worse than most, as it’s the end of a decade. So, in the name of hypocrisy, here’s my top ten of my reading year. Don’t bother to read it, it’s tedious. And dull.

10. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkein

Is it lame of me to start with a re-read? Surely not, when re-reading The Hobbit is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Always in the summer, for some reason. I think it is a summer book. I think I love it because, apart from it being an incredibly well written adventure with wizards and elves and dragons, it feels safe and cosy and warm, and reminds me of my childhood. I think we could all do with some of that from time to time.

9. Onyx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

I do love Margaret Atwood as a writer, but for some reason I’d never wanted to read this. Like everyone, I’m sometimes guilty of judging a book by its cover, and this never seemed like the sort of thing I’d enjoy. Then, I was leant it by a friend, and I ended up not being able to put it down. Atwood takes the now familiar idea of a dystopian future and makes it interesting again. And desperately relevant, considering the current debates over global warming. As well as a surprisingly detailed future-world, Atwood has also created an interesting protagonist, with a readable back-story. I’m definitely hoping that Atwood’s most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, a kind of companion but not quite sequel to Onyx and Crake, will make it into my ‘Best of…2010’ list.

8. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

This is a thriller like I haven’t enjoyed in a long time. Imagine that Dracula was actually real, and he was a bit of a scholar with a penchant for librarians and historians. Imagine a group of those historians getting together to track Dracula through the very medium by which he entrapped them- history.  As a history geek I really loved the literary chase through archives in Istanbul, Oxford, Budapest and Bulgaria (and having just visited Budapest I was able to get extra excited at the lavish descriptions of that amazing city). Perhaps a little over-long at 600-odd pages, and perhaps the climax wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped, but I still very much enjoyed the ride.

7. The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle

I thought I’d left my Sherlock Holmes days far behind me, another relic of childhood, until I had to read this, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, for a uni class. Before I knew it I was deep in the grips of a dangerous obsession, skipping classes to hide out in the library and read every Holmes story I could get my hands on. For a month I read nothing but Sherlock Holmes, until it got to the point where I thought I’ve read all of them. Now I’m hoping that a few stories might have escaped my binge, because I can no longer escape the fact that I love Sherlock Holmes very much, and hope to spend some more time with him some day.

6. Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies Delight), Emile Zola

If you’re thinking of visiting Paris at all in 2010, can I recommend this to get you in the mood? Au Bonheur des Dames in question is a department store designed to excite the ladies of Paris and to encourage them to part with as much of their money as possible. The frantic pace of the novel reflects the frenetic life of the shop workers, who live in the store and only venture out on Sundays. I believe it is also meant to be a salutary tale about greed and commercialism, but don’t let that put you off, it’s actually really good fun.

5. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens

An odd one, this. I like to think I’ve read a respectable amount of Dickens for someone my age, yet I can’t help thinking I wasn’t ready for Our Mutual Friend, (In case you are interested, I’d previously read A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times and Great Expectations), and it came at me like a weighty 880 page smack in the face. For the first 600 pages, it was a struggle to force myself to read it. Something didn’t flow for me, and every page was an effort. Then, miraculously, at almost exactly page 600 I turned a corner and rolled downhill to the resolution, loving every minute. Thus, Our Mutual friend earned its place in this list, and the title of Most Extraordinary Book I Have Ever Read. I later read somewhere that Our Mutual Friend was Dickens’ final book, and he struggled with the writing process more than he was accustomed to. I felt cheered by this, and a certain connection to the great man, knowing that my lesser struggle reflected his own. I also feel that Our Mutual Friend was an appropriate final bow for Dickens, being an epic, sprawling love letter to his beloved city, cast with a range of characters to rival any he had written before. I know that this book deserves a re-read, and when I finally get around to that, I think I may fully be able to appreciate its greatness.

4. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

This is another novel that just blew me away with its sheer masterful power. Having been on my ‘to read’ list for an embarrassingly long length of time, I forced myself to read it. I’m pretty that anyone seriously interested in reading has, or intends to, read at least one Steinbeck novel. If you haven’t got around to it yet, make it your bookish new year’s resolution. I really felt like I learnt something reading this, and it kind of made me laugh in the face of the credit-crunch a bit, because I don’t think you know what recession is until you’re reduced to breast-feeding a starving old man in a flooded barn. Yes, I will warn you now, it is bleak.

3. Armadale, Wilkie Collins

My third ever Wilkie Collins novel. I loved it so, I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t even try to guess what would happen like I often do, I just let the story take me. Predictably my classmates (I read it for an English Lit seminar) hated it, begging the question I often sigh in my head in their general po-faced direction- ‘Why do you study English when you all hate everything ever written?’ Personally, I feel myself genetically incapable of not loving anything vaguely classed as Victorian Sensation Fiction. I’ve often wondered where my obsession with books came from, but I generally imagine a fairly genteel Victorian lady somewhere in the Sheffield area, devouring the latest copies of Household Words (seriously, why does no such magazine exist today?) and resenting the interruption when decorum forced her to take tea with the vicar. Anyway, I digress. This novel featured a very interesting protagonist in the shape of the wily Lydia Gwilt. I don’t want to give any of the plot away, so I’ll just command you to read it (and The Moonstone and The Woman in White too).

2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

So, 2009 was the year I finally read War and Peace. It was..interesting. Interesting because I thought that I’d enjoy the ‘peace’ bits and want to skip the ‘war’, but often it was the other way around. Tolstoy was amazing at writing about war, where others would have made it dull and incomprehensible to someone like me, who has no concept of that kind of warfare, beyond watching a few episodes of Sharp, he actually brought it alive before my very eyes. This was actually like reading several books, sometimes I was engrossed and couldn’t put it down, then I’d have a bad couple of hundred pages, before being revived by an image of riding in a sledge through the Russian winter so beautiful and vivid that I could almost feel the frost on the tip of my nose and hear the bells jangling. Maybe what Tolstoy really needed was a good editor. Maybe what I really need to do is to re-read this is about ten years time.

And finally…drum roll please…

1. Sylvia’s Lovers, Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell may just be one of my favourite writers. Ever. Anyone who’s enjoyed Cranford on the BBC this Christmas, can I draw your attention to Sylvia’s Lovers? This is a historical novel, a rare change of tone for Gaskell, is crying out for Andrew Davies to work his magic on it…I’m actually thinking of starting a petition to send to the BBC. This desperately sad, dramatic windswept tale is set around Whitby, and tells the mournful story of Sylvia, who definitely falls into the literary heroine category of ‘too pretty for her own good.’ Sylvia is beloved by her dull cousin, but is much more interested in a dashing young whaler. However, the latter gets press-ganged into the navy, and the former learns that lying to get what you want will often backfire horribly. And no one really has a happily ever after. Despite that, it is an astonishingly good read, and maybe should be prescribed to anyone who thinks that Mrs Gaskell only wrote dull socially conscious books about Manchester slums. She actually had a fantastic imagination.

So…that’s it folks…that’s the 2009 top ten. Though I’m sure the perceptible amongst you will have tutted over the fact that there’s barely a new release amongst them. Certainly nothing released in 2009. I’ll cry off with the excuse that I’m studying 19th century literature, meaning I can only make brief forays into the 21st.  Don’t feel sorry for me though, I kind of like it that way.

Happy New Year…and good luck in all your reading-based resolutions!


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A Wedding in December

I was fifteen, and on holiday in Greece, when I first discovered Anita Shreve. Specifically Fortune’s Rocks. I loved it so…maybe I identified with the fifteen year old heroine (or wished I did, lacking a sophisticated older man to have a passionate affair with)…and being a voracious reader, I quickly devoured her other novels, and have continued to do so. For some reason, A Wedding in December has slipped through my fingers…possibly because I thought, for some reason I should read it in December. This was completely unnecessary; it’s not a christmas story at all. It is however, like all Anita Shreve, my idea of perfect holiday reading- engaging and easy to read yet definitely not chick-lit (shudder).

The general premise of the story… a group of forty-something school friends, some who haven’t seen each other for twenty-seven years, meet at a country inn to celebrate the wedding of two of their party. Bill and Bridget were childhood sweethearts who didn’t quite make it, and are finally getting their happy ending. Harrison, perfect midlife crisis material, still secretly carries a torch for Nora, who in turn still bears the scars of her teenage boyfriend’s tragic death and her abusive marriage to a famous poet, and there is Agnes, who worries about appearing a dried up spinster to her old friends when she has such a juicy secret life. Throw in the shadow of 9/11, a twenty-six year love affair with a married former teacher, and the fact that Bridget has terminal breast cancer. Hmm..guess this wasn’t really your typical cheerful Christmas read.

Like many of Anita Shreve’s books, this definitely falls into the category of absorbing yet forgettable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Shreve specialises in the dynamics of human relationships and troublesome secrets from the past, but some of her plots are definitely stronger than others. That said, I have yet to read one of her books that is anything but a superbly written enjoyable reading experience, and I don’t ever feel that familiar outrage of wasted time that a bad book inspires in me. Therefore I can happily recommend this to anyone with contemplating a lazy day after a busy Christmas.

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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Tonight I’m going to curl up in front of the fire, and usher in Christmas day by re-reading A Christmas Carol. It may be sentimental and twee, but to me it’s just quintessentially festive. There is no Christmas like a Victorian Christmas.

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Bite me!

I’ve read quite a few articles recently declaring 2009 to be ‘The Year of the Vampire’, and as I am studying gothic fiction it seems only polite to take an interest. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been immersing myself in all things Dracula, to the extent that a couple of days ago when I took myself off to bed with a bug that’s been doing the rounds, I was having feverish dreams I’d been bitten by a Vampire. Luckily, that was not the case, and I arise untainted to offer a review of the three books I’ve been devouring.

I started with the original vampire story, which happens to be yet another result of that famous ghost story competition that spawned ‘Frankenstein’ at Lake Geneva. Based on an outline by Byron, but actually written by John Polidori, I speak of ‘The Vampyre.’ This is in fact a very short, slight story. I was surprised, as I always thought it was more of a novel, but I wasn’t too disappointed; it diverted me from real work for half an hour in the library.

The story centres on Count Ruthven, a mysterious figure in London society, who attracts the notice of more than one virtuous maiden, and also of a young orphaned gentleman of independent means, Aubrey. Aubrey is fascinated by Ruthven, and attached himself to him while undertaking the obligatory European tour so beloved by gentlemen of the 1800s. Obviously things go awry for poor Aubrey. After discovering that his companion is nothing but a seducer and cad, he separates from him and takes himself off to Greece, where he falls in love with a beautiful maiden. On a wild and stormy night, so typically gothic (you wouldn’t believe how many storms I’ve experienced in my gothic reading over the last three months), Aubrey’s love falls victim to a vampire! This is the beginning of the end for Aubrey’s gentle, romantic mind. The latter part of the story sees him falling into a brain fever, coming out of his madness in time to hear of his sister’s coming nuptials to…yes! Count Ruthven! Whether or not he is the vampire in question, or is simply misunderstood, obviously affects the outcome of the story considerably. However, if you wish to know that, you’ll have to read it. I give nothing away!

So…a definite must-read for any vampire fans out there, or anyone who has read Dracula and enjoyed it. If you do enjoy scary stories and terrifying tales, I can very much recommend the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Vampyre, which has another thirteen short scary stories.

And now…on to the main event…the man himself- DRACULA!

(Do I need to do a plot summary? I kind of hope not. In fact, I’m kind of ashamed of you if you need one. Go to Amazon.)

This was a re-read for me, I first rendezvoused with the Count when I was seventeen and supposed to be studying for my A Levels. Obviously I thought it was amazing and couldn’t put it down. Since then, I feel I have grown and matured, and learnt more about literature and life in general…kind of. Ick.

So did my twenty-four year old self agree with my seventeen year old self (they so rarely agree)?

Yes and no.

Oh, it is so hard to review this book! This is probably one of the most overused and over analysed, texts in the English language. Every possible theory (Freudian, feminist, colonial…) has made it their vessel. Is Mina Harker a new woman? Is Lucy being punished for wanting to marry three men? Is Dracula gay? This is the reason I didn’t enjoy Dracula like I did the first time. I’m a post-grad English student, I’ve studied Dracula twice now, and everywhere I look in that book I see remnants of theories and ideas. I’ve almost been taught to laugh at it a bit, and it’s old-fashioned Victorian ideals. This makes me sad, when I think how innocently I loved this book just a few years ago, and now I regard it as if I see through it. Vampires? Ha! They’re just a literary device, don’t you know? Maybe we all just need to throw literary theory in the rubbish and lock all the doors, draw the curtains, light a flickering candle and stay up all night devouring Dracula from start to finish. Yes, that is what you must do! Forget everything you’ve ever heard about this book, or vampires in general, just sit down and read….

…and then when you’ve finished that, move straight onto The Historian. 

This is a thriller like I haven’t enjoyed in a long time. Imagine that Dracula was actually real, and he was a bit of a scholar with a penchant for librarians and historians. Imagine a group of those historians getting together to track Dracula through the very medium by which he entrapped them- history.  As a history geek I really loved the literary chase through archives in Istanbul, Oxford, Budapest and Bulgaria (and having just visited Budapest I was able to get extra excited at the lavish descriptions of that amazing city)

If I have to make any criticisms of this book, it’s only that maybe the climax and conclusion were not quite as exciting as I had hoped, especially after reading 600 odd pages. it did drag a little towards the end, and maybe there wasn’t quite enough action. There was never a moment when I actively feared for the character’s lives. So yes, those interested in looking deeper into the Dracula story should definitely read it, there was a lot of interesting background on Vlad, but don’t expect to be too scared.

And now I’m going to leave vampires behind, because it’s mere days until Christmas, and I can’t possibly think of a more unseasonable subject than the Un-Dead.

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Lord of the Flies

Although reading is my obsessive love, sometimes we go through cool spells. I’d describe the latter months of this summer one such spell. I languidly re-read The Hobbit and the first two parts of The Lord of Rings, which is always a fun way to fill your dinner breaks. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to feel that fiery passion again, so with just over a week until I started uni (yes of course I’m an English Lit postgrad, oh the sad predictability of life) and encountered a demanding reading list, I cast around my library for something to inspire me. I  made an odd choice,  picked something that had been squatting on my shelf for over a year, an unwanted present, not really my kind of thing. I’d watched the film in school, and had no doubt of Golding’s literary merit. But that didn’t mean I wanted to read it. However, I have an instinctive dislike to books sitting unread on my shelves, and it was quite short, so I decided to give it a chance…

51EV1QS2PEL._SL500_AA240_Why is it that the books you think you’re going to hate, the ones you have no expectations for, are the ones that you can’t stop thinking about? And so begins my love letter to Lord of the Flies…

Erm..plot summary first. I’m awful at plot summaries. This is because of almost ten years of trying to squeeze myself into an academic English essay writing mould, repeating again and again, my head spinning from concentrating over my dismal essay attempts,

 ‘Don’t let it turn into a plot summary. Don’t just retell the story. Write something clever’

 The whole point of this blog, however is for me to be able to write about books how I want to, rather than in dry, nobody wants to read it, essay form. I’m breaking all the rules!

 So, Lord of the Flies. Without too many plot spoilers, the novel centres on a group of schoolboys who survive a plane crash on a deserted island. Without any adults, the boys are left to attempt to govern themselves, and it isn’t long before their attempts to build a civilised hierarchy, and keep a signal fire burning in the hope of a swift rescue, break down beneath the darker urges that might just be present in us all. This starts innocently enough, with the boys wanting to play at hunting wild pigs, and ends with conflict, fire and death.

I loved the language and style from the first, even though it took me a good fifty pages to get into the story. Obviously I was aware of the basic events, but I found the individual characters more interesting than I expected. I took an instinctive dislike to Ralph from the start, recognising a lot of boys I knew in his easy arrogance and natural expectation of leadership. It’s not that he was ever evil, he was too corruptible and easily led, like so many men who assume control and then find events spiraling out of control.

While it is Jack, and good old satanic symbol Roger with his double ended sharpened  stick, who send shivers down the spine, I still keep coming back to Ralph and thinking ‘couldn’t you have done a better job? Why were you so weak?’ I know this is unfair, and the whole thing is really an allegory, and Ralph’s weakness stands for the whole of mankind’s.  If society crumbled around our ears, the Piggy’s and the Simon’s would be first to go, and the ones that would survive would be the Sam and Eric’s, willing to adapt, however morally dubious, to save their necks. Maybe I recognised too much of myself in Sam and Eric, while wishing I was more like Piggy. It’s easy to say that no one knows how they would behave in such a situation, but I have a sneaking feeling that we all know too well, to our eternal shame.

So….definitely reccomend this. Especially to girls, like me, who think they can learn nothing from reading about a group of dirty schoolboys. You can, all kind of things in fact, about the fragility of our aura of respectability. When the world does go all ‘Day After Tomorrow’ on us, I already fully expected to be scavenging in bins and hunting cats, maybe even *gasp* burning books, within weeks. Now, after reading this, I’m guessing it would happen within days. But lets not forget what a beautifully packaged little allegory this is. I’m a sucker for beautifully flowing language, and if I’d known Golding was so fluent I’d have tried him sooner.

And yes, I do have to admit, the end did make me cry a bit.

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy”.

On a final note, I read most of this while in my admin slave capacity, and while I was waiting for the kettle to boil in the dingy office kitchen, one of the doctors I work for came in, saw what I was reading and said,

‘Oh, I’ve never been able to get on with any of that made up stuff.’

Really, the man is a medical genius, but I can’t help feeling sorry for someone whose heart has never been moved by some top quality fiction.

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