Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

fa039-classics2014Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly from the start will know that The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the few books I had ever DNF’d (did not finish). Not this time. I was determined to get through it, and I was actually pleasantly surprised when I did!

The last time I tried reading it, I was clearly not in the right frame of mind. I got about two chapters in and gave up. Knowing that this had been an issue for me in the past, I chose to download a free e-book version for my kindle rather than tie up a library copy, potentially for weeks as I tried to plough through it.

I love The Importance of Being Earnest (a stage play also by Oscar Wilde). So why did I have so much trouble with The Picture of Dorian Gray? Here’s why I think I gave up last time.

The first two chapters have an excessive amount of description, but almost no plot development. The dialogue tries to be witty, but what might have worked as a scene in a stage play didn’t come across that way when printed in black and white. We hear an excessive amount about why Basil Hallward (the artist) is infatuated with Gray, and how wonderful the portrait is, but it is not until we stop hearing about Gray from his friends and actually meet him that the story begins to get interesting.

When the picture is finished, Gray is overwhelmed, and wishes or prays that he could remain always as young and attractive as he is portrayed. For some reason which is never entirely explained, the wish is granted, and from this point on, the portrait ages, while Dorian Gray outwardly remains a boyish 20-year-old.

The young Dorian Gray is heavily influenced by Lord Henry Wooten, who lives entirely for pleasure. After a brief love affair with a teenaged actress ends tragically, Gray first notices that his portrait has altered. He now faces a choice: to atone for his sins, or give in to a life of pleasure, knowing that any physical manifestations of his crimes will be borne by the painting, while he retains the outward appearance of innocence.

At this point the story finally becomes interesting: we follow Gray’s internal struggles as he wavers between Lord Henry’s influence and Basil’s concerns for Dorian’s soul, and his (Basil’s) confusion at not being allowed to see the portrait he painted.

The second half of the novel is a fast-paced, fascinating read, well worth the effort of struggling through the slow beginning. I thought the novel was going to deal more with the supernatural (my only previous experience of Dorian Gray being the character’s appearance in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) but instead the drama is almost entirely psychological. I enjoyed it anyway and would recommend it to fans of late 19th century literature.

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Book Review: The Lord of the Rings

Things have been fairly quiet around here lately. I’ve been here – reading and commenting on other people’s blogs, but I haven’t had a lot to say for myself. I’ve still been busy reading though. Since mid-June I’ve been working on the Lord of the Rings read-along run by Robert Bruce at 101 Books.

If you don’t have a basic idea of the story, where on earth have you been? I thought everyone in the English-speaking world must have seen Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy by now! What’s that? You haven’t seen it? You’re missing out. Seriously, go and borrow it from a friend, because I guarantee you’ll know someone who has the DVD’s. In the meantime, here’s a summary:

Bilbo Baggins is preparing to celebrate his 111th birthday. Among the invited guests is Gandalf, a wizard who was responsible for sending Bilbo on a fantastic journey with a group of 13 dwarves, a journey from which he returned with a life-time supply of treasure and a magic ring that he found on his journey. (The full story of that journey is told in “The Hobbit”.) Gandalf has always had some concern about the origins and power of Bilbo’s ring, and when Bilbo decides to go traveling once again, Gandalf insists that the ring should be left behind with his nephew Frodo. After some research, Gandalf discovers that the ring is actually a dark object that was thought to be lost hundreds of years ago, but now the original owner (Sauron) has become aware that the ring still exists and has a pretty good idea where to find it. Frodo is forced to flee from his home, pursued by the servants of Sauron, but although there are a few holdouts where elves and elders still live protected deep in ancient woodlands, the wider world will not be safe unless Frodo and his friends can find a way to destroy the ring.

The Lord of the Rings is not actually a trilogy, but a single novel published in three volumes.

  • Books 1 & 2 – The Fellowship of the Ring, covers a period of about 17 years from Frodo’s inheriting the ring through the first 6 months of his journey across Middle-Earth.
  • Books 3 & 4 – The Two Towers, picks up exactly where the first volume leaves off, and covers an action-packed 2-3 weeks in the middle of the war.
  • Books 5 & 6 – The Return of the King, covers the conclusion of the war and the aftermath for the main characters.

This is high fantasy at it’s best, there are wizards, elves, dwarves, men, and a variety of other creatures, magical and non-magical. There are clearly defined good-guys and bad-guys, but also a few characters who allowed themselves to be corrupted by evil. We see individual characters dealing with their own stories, played out against the vast troop movements of a world-wide war.

The plot is fantastic, with twists and turns in all the right places, but to be totally honest, Tolkien’s writing style is quite out-dated (deliberately so) which makes The Lord of the Rings quite a difficult read at times. Still, there is a reason that this is a classic, and definitely worth the effort if you haven’t already read it.

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In Memoriam

On this day in 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand became the spark that finally ignited the powder keg of early 20th century European politics. In honour of the 100th anniversary of the onset of World War I, here’s a list of some of my favourite books and films set during that conflict.

Books

All Quiet on the Western Front

Follows the fortunes of a group of classmates who enlisted in the German army together at the insistence of their excessively patriotic teacher. For my full review, click here. This was also made into several feature films, but I am still yet to see any version in it’s entirety, so cannot list it as a favourite.

War Horse

I was surprised to learn that this was actually a children’s book. Think Black Beauty but, instead of pulling a hansom cab in London, he is pulling an artillery wagon in France. Of the movie and the stage show based on this book, I preferred the stage show – the puppets are amazing!

Rilla of Ingleside

The final novel in the Anne of Green Gables series follows the fortunes of her youngest daughter, Bertha Marilla Blythe, as Canada’s sons (including all three of Anne’s, and most of their friends) answer Britain’s call to defend Belgium and France from the German advance. The absolutely terrible telemovie Anne of Green Gables:The Continuing Story was in no way based on this book (and would have been much better if it had been).

Movies

Gallipoli

Follows a group of young Australians from their enlistment through to the Gallipoli campaign.

Beneath Hill 60

In 1916, a group of Australian miners are detailed to burrow under the German trenches and pack the tunnels with high explosives.

My Boy Jack

Rudyard Kipling pulled all the strings he could to have his 17-year-old son admitted to the army, in spite of his age and poor eyesight. Just days after his 18th birthday he leads a platoon ‘over the top’ ‘somewhere in France’ and tragically is never seen again. Stars Daniel Radcliffe at the height of his Harry Potter fame.

TV Series

Blackadder goes Forth

Probably the series of Blackadder I’ve watched the least, but in only six 30 minute episodes it deals with many aspects of the war, including: trench warfare, troop morale, trench art, court martials, military hospitals, espionage, and the fledgling Air Force (with the late Rik Mayall as flying ace ‘Lord Flashart’ Whoof!) In spite of the show’s reputation for bawdy humor, the series finale is touching, as Captain Blackadder is finally called upon to lead his men ‘over the top’.

What are your favourite representations of WW1? Books, movies, TV shows? It seems that in popular culture there are a lot more stories told of WW2 than of WW1. Why do you think that is (or do you disagree)?

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Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley

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I was initially afraid of reading P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. After all, it combines the talents of one of my favourite crime writers with characters from one of my favourite books of all time. There’s a lot of scope for disappointment there.

After a brief recap of the events of Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the Meryton gossips, and a whirlwind tour of the lives of the Bennett sisters in the following six years, we find Elizabeth Darcy making the final preparations for the annual ‘Lady Anne’s Ball’ in memory of Mr Darcy’s late mother. As the day progresses, Colonel Fitzwilliam requests an audience with Lizzy, and Jane Bingley and her husband arrive with a lawyer friend who has been frequently visiting them from London. After a quiet family dinner, Colonel Fitzwilliam goes out for a horse ride, and Georgiana is the first to go to bed, but the others are prevented from following her upstairs by the sound of a carriage speeding up the driveway. Inside it is Lydia Wickham, screaming that she is sure her husband has been murdered. Immediately a search is arranged, and a body is found in the woods, but it is not Wickham who is dead.

I found this to be a very light and entertaining read, in spite of the dark subject matter. I was pleased with the way that James kept to the spirit of the original, and she dealt with the characters in much the same way as Austen did. What was not quite so good was the plot. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve read far too many murder mysteries, but some of the clues might as well have had neon signs pointing to them, they were that obvious. Admittedly I didn’t put all the pieces together in exactly the right order, but I had enough of them in place that I wasn’t all that surprised by the solution.

I have read some very disappointing Austen fan-fiction pieces over the years, but this is one I would actually recommend. It is perhaps concerned more with legal procedures than the ‘manners’ and ‘money’ that fans of the original Austen novels would be used to, but nevertheless it has a lot of charm, and is worth a look.

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Book Review: Miss Buncle’s Book

fa039-classics2014Barbara Buncle, a spinster from the village of Silverstream, has run out of money. The income from her investments has almost dried up, and she simply must have something to live on. In spite of her belief that she has ‘no imagination’ she resolves to write a book, and is surprised to find that it is accepted by the first publisher she submits it to.

‘Disturber of the Peace’ by John Smith becomes an instant success…except in Silverstream, where the residents are disturbed by the close similarities between the residents of ‘Copperfield’ and themselves. Many are shocked to find their true natures drawn in black and white for all to see, and those who are most offended stir up the village to find the man who would dare to write such ‘filth’. On the other hand, there are some people who, far from being offended, actually start acting more like the ‘Copperfield’ versions of themselves.

This is a light-hearted and engaging read, which, I suppose due to the similar tone and use of language, reminded me of Enid Blyton for adults. It is “a book about a woman who wrote a book about a woman who wrote a book”… I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the ‘drawing-room farce’ genre, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels, Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs Abbots.

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Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Even if, like me, you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ll probably still know at least this much about George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (as I did before I started reading it).

  1. It has been made into one of the most popular TV series’ of the 21st century.
  2. More characters die in than in all of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games put together.

Story

The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros were once just that. Seven independent kingdoms. Over time the kingdoms became united under the Targaryen family, the last dragon lords. About 13 years before the beginning of A Game of Thrones, Aerys II was deposed in a bloody revolution led by the Baratheon, Stark, and Lannister families. Robert Baratheon (whose fiancee, Lyanna Stark’s death was the spark that led to the uprising) took the throne, and married Cersei Lannister, although he did not stop his womanising ways.

Eddard Stark, brother of Lyanna and Robert’s closest friend is Warden of the North. A Game of Thrones primarily focuses on his sudden elevation to ‘Hand of the King’ (the king’s highest advisor) and his family’s unwilling entry into the political intrigues surrounding the throne.

Jon Snow has no place at court. As a son born to Eddard out of wedlock, he is not welcome there, nor can he stay with his father’s wife at Winterfell. Instead he travels north to join ‘The Night’s Watch’ – the ‘black brothers’ who leave behind all their land, possessions and family alliances to defend a 700 foot high wall of ice against the wildlings and other foul things that dwell in the forests north of the Seven Kingdoms.

Meanwhile, exiled in the east, Viserys Targaryen still believes himself to be the rightful king, and sells his sister Daenerys to a powerful Dothraki Khal, expecting an army in return.

Impressions

I love high fantasy. So much so that I don’t know why it took me so long to pick this up. Perhaps fear that it wouldn’t live up to the hype? It did.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the main characters, but in the third person rather than first. Most chapters set within the Seven Kingdoms focus on members of the Stark family, but there are occasions where we instead visit ‘the imp’, Cersei Lannister’s dwarf brother Tyrion. I’m afraid if I admit he’s my favourite character so far, Mr Martin will find out and kill him off (as has happened to so many other characters already!) The chapters dealing with the experiences of the Targaryen family in exile are told from the perspective of young Daenerys, a much more likeable character than the vicious Viserys. The chapters are fairly short and there are cliff-hangers in all the right places, but as was previously advertised, there are many, many deaths (including a surprising number of main characters).

A Game of Thrones is a real chunker, and the 800 pages took me three weeks to get through, but what a ride! Even though I know there are several thousand pages left in the series, I am looking forward to them!! Now I’m afraid to start watching the TV series in case it doesn’t live up to the pure awesomeness of the book!!!

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:-(

Yesterday I committed an offense against everything I hold dear…I left a book on a bus.

It was a stupid mistake. Usually I would take a train to work, but they’re doing track works this week so bus was my only option. I was rattled by this, as I’m not a morning person and any disruption to my routine at that hour shakes me up. I settled down to read, but at some point I must have fallen asleep. Now I could have sworn I put my book back in my bag before this happened, but apparently I only dreamed it. I woke up just as the bus was pulling up to my station and had to get off in a hurry – so much so that I didn’t check my seat…

I then spent an hour standing in the rain, waiting for yet another train replacement bus to take me to my workplace, then walked the last 2 blocks to the office (an hour late!) I pulled open my bag to get out my diary, and my heart sank. The novel that should have been right at the top wasn’t there…

I’m crushed…not only is it not like me to lose things, but it was a book I’ve never read before, and I was really enjoying it! I’ve asked every lost property office at all the train stations I’ve been to today. No luck. It doesn’t look like my book is coming home.

I have only two last thoughts on the subject, then I’m going to try to get over it…

1. I really hope whoever finds my book either: gives it to lost property, keeps it and reads it or gives it to someone else to read (and doesn’t just throw it away!!!)

2. I’m soooo grateful it was a paperback I lost and not my Kindle!!!

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Book Review: The Time Machine

fa039-classics2014Once again I feel bad, having abandoned my poor little blog for almost three weeks. Even worse, I missed my first bloggiversary!! What can I say? We all get busy from time to time… Had I remembered it, I would have thanked all my followers for sticking with me – in spite of my sometimes patchy posting record – so I’ll take this opportunity of doing that now instead…THANK YOU!!

Fortunately I’ve still had plenty of time to read (a couple of 2-hour train rides a week for work will do that) and I’ve now made good on my promise to read H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, after I watched a movie adaptation first. I suspected at the time that this would be a mistake, and it turns out I was right.

My first impression of The Time Machine was this: Unless you are a morning person, this is not a book you should start reading at 7:30 am. Wait until your brain is completely in gear and ready to process lots of scientific details and obsolete vocabulary. I was extremely grateful for my Kindle’s dictionary, as on the first page alone there were 4 or 5 words which I only vaguely understood, and more were sprinkled throughout the rest of the novel.

The narrative is told in first-person: one narrator introduces the Time Traveller, then hands over to him for the bulk of the story (most of which takes place in the distant future). We are then returned to the original narrator for the epilogue.

Only a few characters are named: there is ‘Filby’, a minor character who disappears entirely after the first chapter or two, the Time Traveller’s household staff, and ‘Weena’ a female of the surface-dwelling ‘Eloi’ (one of two distinct species of humans the Time Traveller encounters in the future – the other being the underground dwelling ‘Morlocks’). All other characters are merely referred to by their occupations: the Medical Professional, the Psychologist, the Editor, the Journalist etc.

Although I found it hard to immerse myself in the story, I was struck by the authenticity of it. The Time Traveller’s confusion in the future, unable to understand the language of the people and therefore constantly making false assumptions about the world in which he found himself struck a chord. None of this made it into the movie adaption I watched – I suppose Hollywood weren’t prepared to make a movie where the characters could interact only by pointing… As it turns out, many of the most memorable parts of the movie were Hollywood additions, not in the novel at all.

One more thing…I don’t wish to spoil the ending of either book or movie, but I will say that although they end up in more or less the same place, the routes they take to get there are vastly different.

So…who should read it? Fans of sci-fi for sure, if only so you can say you’ve read it (as it is a staple of the genre). Other than that, I’d say it’s short, so try it if you want to…but I don’t see myself re-reading it any time soon.

 

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Who decides?

Google “100 books to read before you die” and you’ll find over 200 million results. Why are lists of great novels such a big deal these days?? It seems like everyone is anxious to get in on the act. Amazon, Goodreads, the BBC, Penguin, Time Magazine (just to name a few).

My biggest questions about these lists are these…

  • Who is it that decides what books belong on these lists (and what criteria do they use)?
  • Have the compilers of these lists actually read all of the books they’re recommending?
  • If I disagree with a book that’s made one of these lists, does that say something about my taste, or the compiler’s?

I’ve read a lot of books…and a fair few of them have made one or more of these lists. Remember a while back when the BBC put out a list of 100 books and claimed most people will have only read 6 of them? I’ve read 41, and bits of several more. The ones I haven’t read generally fall into 2 categories:

  • Books I just haven’t got around to reading yet
  • Books that I’m just not interested in reading (usually because the subject matter doesn’t interest me, or I’ve heard that it contains graphic sex, horror or violence)

Here’s the point I had in my head when I started this rant post. Am I a bad person if I refuse to read a work of ‘great literature’ simply because it is not to my taste? Am I really missing out on one of life’s ‘must-have’ experiences, or am I better off deciding that ‘life’s too short’ and instead doing something I’ll actually enjoy? What do you think?

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Book Review: Villette

fa039-classics2014I had never heard of this book before I started this challenge. Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel by Charlotte Brontë, loosely based on her time in a pensionnat (boarding school) in Brussels, Belgium. Set in the fictional town of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, it is told in first-person narrative by the English protagonist, Lucy Snowe.

At first the narrative seems somewhat disjointed, as we are flung from a scene of domestic bliss through a series of barely touched on personal tragedies to Lucy’s decision to seek her fortune abroad. On board ship she meets Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, who is on her way to study at Madame Beck’s pensionnat in the Rue Fossette. Arriving in Villette alone and disoriented, Miss Snowe takes a wrong turning, and instead of finding the English-speaking hotel that had been recommended to her, she winds up on the doorstep of this same establishment. She is immediately hired, first as a nanny to the directress’ children, and later as the English teacher.

To be honest, I found Lucy Snowe to be a fairly annoying character. Although she writes with humor about her trials and tribulations, she bears them far too patiently. If I was placed in similar situations I’d kick up a fuss, but Lucy never does. Although well aware that her employer is spying on her, she never complains about her lack of privacy. Although she clearly has feelings for at least one male character throughout the story, she gracefully steps aside when she feels that other ladies of her acquaintance have a better claim on his affections. Only two characters ever really stir her up, and both are portrayed (at least at first) as genuinely odious people who would drive a saint to blasphemy.

That said, I still enjoyed reading Villette, although it was hard going until a few of the seemingly disconnected characters and events started to interlink. There were occasions when Lucy deliberately chose not to reveal details she’d learned about characters until later because ‘it did not suit her humor’. Personally I would have found it an easier read if it had.

Note: I was grateful that the library’s edition of Villette was annotated, as much of the dialogue in the book is in French, and although I was able to follow some of it, I would never have finished the book without the translations provided!

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