Book Review: Great Expectations

BackToTheClassics2016So it’s back to ‘Back to the Classics’. I had no difficulty choosing what book I wanted to read for the ‘re-read a classic from school’ category. I could only think of one book that met the guidelines of the challenge, that I hadn’t re-read since school. I’m counting Great Expectations – even though it wasn’t a set text, it was the book I chose for a free choice assignment in year 12 literature.

I have always had trouble with Dickens… I’m not sure why. At this point I think it must be some sort of mental block, because once I got going on Great Expectations I finished it relatively quickly (I won’t mention the three weeks it took me to get through the first 200 pages, the last 200 only took me a couple of days). I remembered very little of the book from the first read (which was 15 years ago). I don’t remember either loving or hating it, but merely forcing myself to finish it because I had to. This time around it was much the same.

The Plot:

Philip Pirrip junior, known as Pip, spent his childhood as an orphan living with his shrewish sister and her dull, blacksmith husband, Joe. Living near a river where some prison hulks are moored, he has several uncomfortable encounters with escaped convicts. For a time before he is due to be apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Pip is employed to entertain Miss Havisham, a wealthy recluse who lives in the nearby village with her adopted daughter, Estella. One day Pip is visited by a London lawyer, who informs him that a mystery benefactor has named him heir to substantial property. Pip is whisked away to London to learn the ways of a gentleman in preparation to receive these great expectations…

That’s it, really. The rest of the story is taken up with Pip’s life in London, and the eventual discovery of his benefactor. While the story has all of Dicken’s usual biting social commentary, I wouldn’t say that it was particularly eventful or memorable. It is unlikely I’ll be reading this a third time – at least, not for another 15 years!

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Book Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

BackToTheClassics2016This will be a quick review, as befits a quick read. Was it an easy read? Well there I’m not so sure.

I read this book to fulfill the requirements of the ‘classic fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopia’ category of the ‘back to the classics’ challenge. It is most certainly ‘science fiction’, but in some ways I felt that the science was more evident than the fiction. Clearly the premise is unlikely: a young man – the narrator, Axel – accompanies his uncle on an expedition to follow the footsteps of an early alchemist who had claimed to have visited the centre of the earth. Most of the novel is taken up with these two arguing about the feasibility of the journey, each relying on various scientific principles to back up their opposing opinions. The remainder of the novel is dotted with Axel’s complex descriptions of the various geology, flora, fauna and atmospheric phenomena that they encounter.

I don’t think I’ll be reading this again. The pacing was probably fine for a story originally published in serial form, but didn’t translate well to a single novel. I can’t decide whether I was more annoyed by Axel’s whinging or his uncle’s pig-headed determination, but I certainly didn’t care enough about either of them to be moved by the perils they faced. If you want to read Jules Verne, I’d suggest Around the World in 80 Days.

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Book Review: The Pink Fairy Book

BackToTheClassics2016Published in 1897, The Pink Fairy Book was my choice for the Classic Short Story Collection in the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2016.

The Pink Fairy Book is the 5th in a series of twelve collections edited by Andrew Lang, and follows on from the Blue, Red, Green and Yellow Fairy Books. Each of the twelve books contains about 40 stories collected from various oral traditions around the world. The 41 stories in the Pink Fairy Book are primarily drawn from Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy, however there are also several stories from Japan, Africa, France, and Spain. (Previous volumes in the series have also included stories from – among others – the Middle East, China, and Russia.)

Most of the stories follow the classic fairy tale template of ‘young person goes out to seek their fortune, and through showing kindness to disguised fairies or enchanted animals enlists their aid against corrupt monarchs or wicked witches’. *Spoiler alert* the good characters end up living happily ever after, while the evil characters end up being suitably punished.

You won’t find any of your favourite Disney princesses in this one, (most of them can be found in the Blue and Red Fairy Books) but some of the stories here are very similar to those that appeared in the previous coloured fairy books – as Lang freely admits in his preface. The series as a whole is amazing, and beautifully illustrated, but, perhaps as a result of the repetitions, the Pink Fairy Book doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the previous volumes.


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Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

BackToTheClassics2016In 1931, Ngaio Marsh spent a rainy afternoon reading a detective story. She wondered to herself whether she could write a novel in the style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, and aimed to create a detective without the stereotypical eccentricities of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

She certainly proved her ability in the genre, as A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934 and spawned over 30 sequels.

Plot: Sir Hubert Handesley invites a group of bright young things to a weekend party at his country house. The main attraction is to be a ‘murder’, a game that is currently all the rage in fashionable society. One of the guests will be secretly handed a token denoting them the ‘murderer’ – they in turn will attempt to get one of the other guests alone and inform them they are the ‘victim’. The remaining guests then hold a ‘trial’ to see if they can unmask the villain.

Shortly before dinner on the second evening, the agreed upon signal that the murder has occurred is given, but when the guests assemble around what they assume is a fake corpse, the antique knife sticking out of his back turns out to be all too real. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn…

On the plus side, A Man Lay Dead was a short and entertaining read. It followed the formula of a typical 1930s whodunit, with a number of suspects who all had reason to want the victim dead.

On the negative side…

  • Alleyn’s investigations are methodical, but he really doesn’t find any useful clues
  • Some of the forensic details are laughable (for example, rather than asking all the suspects to give their fingerprints for comparison, the police choose to assume that fingerprints found in bathrooms belong to the occupants of the adjoining rooms – even though it is stated quite clearly that the bathrooms are being shared by multiple guests)
  • A good half of the narrative is taken up with a sub-plot which basically goes nowhere – while it exonerates a couple of the suspects it provides no insight into who the actual murderer might be.

These aren’t really fatal flaws, and I’m not saying don’t read it. I’m just saying the ending of A Man Lay Dead probably won’t come as a surprise. Since I read this in an anthology edition with the next two books in the series, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder, I’ll be rolling on and reading those two next. Hopefully I’ll find them a little harder to crack.

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Book Review: The Mirage

BackToTheClassics2016Originally written in Arabic by Egypian author Naguib Mafouz, The Mirage was my selection for the ‘Classic in Translation’ category of the 2016 Back to the Classics challenge.

Plot: Kamil Ru’ba is a shy young man who has always found it difficult to relate to anyone outside of his immediate family. After his mother’s death, he takes up a pen to write his own life story, in an attempt to help him make sense of it for himself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first picked up this novel, as I’ve not really been exposed to much middle eastern literature beyond a few Arabic fairy tales. Now that I’m finished it I’m sure there were probably things I missed – cultural references and so on – in spite of the brief glossary of terms at the end. I’m much more familiar with the history of Egypt in the time of the pharaohs than modern Egypt.

I was surprised that the novel was first published in 1948, particularly when you take into account the frequent, sometimes graphic sexual references. I find it hard to imagine such things being welcomed by English-speaking publishing houses of the time. Nevertheless, I found the story engaging and read the second half of the novel (240 pages worth) in a single sitting.

I’m having a hard time thinking of any other books to compare The Mirage to. I found that the narrator spent as much time examining his thoughts and feelings as his actions, far more eloquently than his low level of education would suggest. This did make it hard for me to lose myself in the narrative at first, but eventually I was able to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the ending.

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It’s January 3rd

I’ve already finished two books this year. (Reading of course, not writing!) I think aiming for a third by the end of today is too much to ask…unless I find a really short one.

I’ve been meaning to work on a couple of short stories over the past few weeks. I’ve had very good intentions, but of course the silly season sometimes gets in the way, and a 2016 deadline feels like ages away when the calendar still says 2015.

All of a sudden it’s 2016, and the end of the month seems frighteningly close when all I have one half-outline and one half-draft, that I’m intending to enter into two different competitions. The half-drafted piece is due on January 31st – and thanks to our lovely postal service’s recent changes, that means it needs to be in the post by about the 25th (even with a priority label on it!)

The piece which is currently only a half-outline is due on February 1st, but thankfully only requires electronic submission, so I will have that last week of January to focus on it entirely.

What am I doing here? I have short stories to write!

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More on expanding my horizons

This is a follow-up to this post from December last year.

Last year I was concerned that my reading wasn’t diverse enough, and I published a map of the world showing the countries from which I had read something. I have included novels, short story collections, autobiographies and memoirs written by authors who were born/raised in these countries (even if they later moved elsewhere). I have not included books I’ve started but not finished, or single short stories. (Although I have read a lot of Russian and middle eastern fairy tales recently.)

This year, I have added books from China, Nigeria, and Japan to my map. Not a great start considering the high hopes I had twelve months ago, but I’m not giving up. My 2016 reading wish-list includes authors from:

  • Afghanistan
  • Czech Republic
  • Egypt
  • Mexico
  • New Zealand
  • Russia
  • South Korea
  • Spain

I’d better get back to reading!



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Back To The Classics (Again)

BackToTheClassics2016Once again, Karen at Books and Chocolate is running the ‘Back to the Classics’ challenge. This year (2015) I crashed and burned in this challenge, and only finished one book. This was mostly due to poor book choices, and the fact that most of them were on my kindle (which I broke). I tried to pick it up on the kindle app on my tablet, but I’d lost my place, and couldn’t be bothered finding it again…that particular book is not on my list this year!

So which books are on my list this year? I present the list below. I’m so excited about some of them that I’m sort of disappointed I can’t start reading until January 1st!

1.  A 19th Century Classic – Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina (1878)

2.  A 20th Century Classic – Franz Kafka – The Trial (1925)

3.  A classic by a woman author – Louisa May Alcott – An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)

4.  A classic in translationNaguib Mahfouz – The Mirage (1948)

5.  A classic by a non-white author – Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

6.  An adventure classic – Rudyard Kipling – Kim (1901)

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classicJules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

8.  A classic detective novel Ngaio Marsh – A Man Lay Dead (1934)

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title – E. M. Forster – A Passage to India (1924)

10. A classic which has been banned or censored – Aldous Huxley – Brave New World (1932)

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college) Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1861)

12. A volume of classic short stories Andrew Lang (Editor) – The Pink Fairy Book (1897)

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Book Review: The Martian

Can I just say…wow.

I read Andy Weir’s The Martian in one sitting. It was that engaging, I just couldn’t put it down. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past few months, and haven’t seen the trailer for the new movie adaption of this book starring Matt Damon, the story is pretty simple:

Mark Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, doing experiments on the surface of Mars, when the astronauts are ordered to evacuate due to dangerous winds approaching their base. As the crew race to their shuttle, Mark is hit by a flying piece of unsecured equipment. The bio-monitor in his space-suit shows no life signs, and the rest of the crew make the difficult choice to leave the body behind and save themselves. Hours later, Mark wakes up alone on an inhospitable planet, facing the prospect of surviving for four years with only the supplies that have been abandoned with him, until the next scheduled mission to Mars arrives.

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of science in this, and sometimes the explanations of the things that Mark does to survive were a bit technical. On the other hand, the story was so compelling that I kept on reading, because I was so invested in finding out how he could possibly survive.

This is realistic science fiction. There are no aliens, no time machines… we are a long, long way from Doctor Who here. That said, it was fascinating and I’d definitely recommend it – just make sure you clear the rest of your day before you start (and don’t be surprised if you close the book and find it’s morning already like I did!)

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The many faces of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – a comparison

Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-known and best-loved English novels of all time. More than 200 years after it was first published, it is still eminently readable, even for modern audiences. (My sister did say that she  thought the sisters were nuts for sitting around waiting around for a man to propose…)

Pride and Prejudice is so popular (and also so far past the expiration of its copyright) that many modern authors have put their own stamp on this classic romance. For many years I resented this – Pride and Prejudice has been one of my favourite stories since I was about 12 years old, and the story is so special to me that I take a very dim view of people messing with it.

Even now I am very picky about reading adaptions and retellings. Here’s my thoughts on the ones I have read. Note: The following refers only to novels based on Pride and Prejudice, and does not include any film or television adaptions (although the BBC miniseries from the mid-nineties is, I believe, the best and most faithful to the original novel).

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The original and the best. As Mary Poppins would say, it’s ‘practically perfect in every way.’ If you don’t know the story…where have you been? Go read it, right now, then come back and read the rest of this post (you can download the e-book for free, or if your local library doesn’t have it, you need to find a new library to go to!) There are spoilers in the following mini-reviews, so don’t read any further if you haven’t read this one!!!

Darcy’s Passions: Pride and Prejudice through his eyes by Regina Jeffers

I was skeptical when I first saw this on the shelf at my local library, but I decided to give it a go. I’m really glad I did. A large proportion of the novel is devoted to scenes from the original, written from Darcy’s point of view, but it also explores his relationships with Bingley and Georgiana, and continues on from the wedding to the family’s first New Year’s Eve celebrations at Pemberley. It really tugs on the feels, and I was a little disappointed when it ended.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

There was a lot of hype about this one when it first came out, but personally, it’s one of the books in this post I liked least. It’s set in the same time period as Pride and Prejudice, but focuses on the lives of the servants at Longbourn. The events upstairs only appear when they affect the servants. (For example, at one point Sarah – the housemaid – consults Mr Collins for spiritual advice during his stay.) Like Darcy’s Passions, the story continues into the first few months of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage.

While the depiction of regency life, particularly life below stairs, is (to the best of my knowledge) fantastically accurate, I felt like some of the plot lines stripped the story of its innocence. Elizabeth Bennet was also depicted as a little more selfish and thoughtless in her treatment of servants than in the original.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P D James

Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy are living happily ever after on their estate at Pemberley – until Lydia Wickham decides that she wants to attend an upcoming ball on the estate and insists that her husband should bring her to visit. I had to like this one, because it’s written by one of my favourite mystery writers.

You can read my full review here

Being Elizabeth Bennet by Emma Campbell Webster

A choose your own adventure story, where your goal is to marry both for love and money. Based on Pride and Prejudice, it also includes elements from Jane Austen’s other novels, and her real life. I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I read this the first time. I wasn’t in the mood for the complicated scoring system (your character gains and loses skills and abilities in a similar way to Dungeons and Dragons – a notebook and pen need to be your constant companions while you’re reading this). I was also horrified by the liberties taken with the storyline.

A little older and wiser now, I recently read this again. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but I did find a contradiction: In order to ‘win’ you need to be thoroughly familiar with the Jane Austen canon and the society in which the books were set, and yet the text is often over-simplified (in my opinion) perhaps to avoid alienating readers who don’t know the books as well. All of the major plot points are there, but very little of the detail. On the plus side, it can be read in an afternoon, and the multiple potential endings mean that you could have a different experience each time you read it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I was excited to read this, because I loved Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters (by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters). As I mentioned before, I am quite nit-picky about adaptions of Pride and Prejudice, and sadly, in this one there were nits to be picked. Some of my favourite pieces of dialogue were cut or altered – either to accommodate the ‘unmentionables’ or to make their meaning clearer for modern audiences. The depiction of Elizabeth and her sisters as ass-kicking warriors was a step towards female emancipation that I think Austen would probably have approved of, but the dirty jokes? Seriously? I think perhaps that was a step too far.

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