TBR Challenge – The Virgin’s Lover – Philippa Gregory

Genre: Chick Lit, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person

Rating: 1/5

Published: 2005

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mary Tudor has died and Elizabeth’s position as the new queen of England is precarious. With threats from the French and the Catholic church, she feels there are few people she can trust. When she starts a secret relationship with the already married Robert Dudley, she makes her position even more dangerous as few approve of the match. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: Five years – I inherited this when my mam died. We’d enjoyed reading and recommending Gregory’s other novels so I avoided reading this one when I couldn’t discuss it with her. 

I was expecting to enjoy this. I’ve read Gregory before and thought that her novels were intriguing and gave a convincing impression of what life at court was like. Not so with this book.

It wasn’t just the setting that was unconvincing. The characters were flat and impossible to like. Gregory seemed enamoured of Robert Dudley and often mentioned his dark good looks and the ridiculous effect he had on Elizabeth. His ambition and his handsomeness were the only features of his personality so it was hard to see exactly why the queen might love him so much. Elizabeth was frequently reduced to jelly, little more than a quivering mass, by her lust for Dudley. I understand the impulse to make Elizabeth more human but, in this novel, she lost all power and became the the Tudor idea of womanhood, unable to function without her male advisors.

The beginning of the novel plays out like an Elizabethan sex romp. It is like a cross between a Carry On film and a bad porn movie. Not that it is explicit, it’s more that the scenarios feel like something from porn. Elizabeth dresses as a servant so that Dudley can take her in the stables. Out hunting, Dudley drags her from her horse to do it in the leaves. It was all quivering loins and heaving bosoms. It was so unsubtle that it was laughable and it really detracted from the political elements of the story.

It was also hard to have sympathy with Amy, Dudley’s wife. She is portrayed as pathetically in love with Dudley who is somehow so charismatic as to have both these women absolutely besotted with him. She spends most of the novel in a puddle of tears, refusing to grant him a divorce, mooning around like a lovesick schoolgirl. Again, she was little more than a plot device.

Finally, Gregory is taken with the idea the Amy was murdered by Cecil – with the Queen’s approval because she is so incapable of resisting Dudley’s charms and it is the only way to not marry him – as part of a plot to bring Dudley down. Although there were many rumours at the time about Dudley’s involvement, most historians do not think this was the case. And Gregory’s tale does nothing to convince the reader that this might be a possible version of events.

 

TBR Challenge – The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Style: A series of interlinked short stories that show the human journey from arriving on Mars through settling there to leaving again. 

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1950

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Through a series of interlinked stories, Bradbury explores the human relationship with Mars. Beginning with invasions – and Martian attempts to thwart them – Bradbury’s stories look at colonialism, human nature, loneliness and war.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Time on shelf: This has been on my kindle for about two years. The last Bradbury short story collection I read was a bit hit and miss so I avoided this one for a bit.

This was, for the most part, very enjoyable. I’m not a massive fan of short story collections as I usually find some don’t quite hit the mark but the narrative links running through the stories helped the whole thing to hang together.

It is always a bit weird reading science fiction from a long time ago. (So long ago, in fact, that the stories are set in the early 2000s. It is weird to think that Bradbury’s distant future has already faded into the past.) Even when Bradbury was imagining amazing future technology, he was hampered by the knowledge of his age and things sometimes felt a little quaint.

However, the main point of Bradbury’s fiction is not to write a perfect version of future technology but to look at the way human nature will be shaped by technological developments.  So he looks at the way that humans would behave when they arrive on Mars – how they immediately turn it into another version of earth, trying to remove all Martian traces and not caring how much they ruin the planet (And the Moon Still Be as Bright). He looks at relationships between Martians and humans – although most of the Martians have been killed off by chicken pox. In the story The Fire Balloons, priests are sent on a missionary mission to Mars and Bradbury discusses the idea of what sin might mean on a foreign planet.

Some of my favourite stories were early in the collection and revolved around failed expeditions. In The Earth Men, the newly arrived spacemen are taken for mad men and placed in an insane asylum. Due to the Martians telepathy they can see others’ hallucinations and so all assume that the Earth men are merely mad. Telepathy also figures in The Third Expedition. When the crew arrives, everything resembles their hometowns along with long dead relatives and they come to believe that Mars is really heaven. However, nothing is what it seems as the Martians have used telepathy to lure them into a false sense of security.

The final two stories are both poignant. There Will Come Soft Rains shows the way an automated house will continue running even after nuclear war has destroyed civilisation. Finally, a family escapes the war on Earth back up to Mars. Hoping to repopulate the planet now that Earth is ruined, a number of people have hidden rockets until they could use them to escape. They burn all documents they have brought with them and relate to their identity on Earth including a map of Earth. In the end, having promised his sons the possibility of seeing Martians, he shows them their reflections in a river.

As with the best science fiction, the themes are still relevant to our modern society especially as the race to get to Mars is underway. The technology may seem a little hokey but the ideas are still important.

 

 

TBR Challenge 2019 – Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh

 

Genre: Classics, satire

Narrative style: third person narrative

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1928

Format: paperback

Synopsis: When Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour, his life spirals downwards. He begins his new life at a boys school and ends it in jail. Non of it is Paul’s fault. Events happen to him as he wanders through his life. Paul is an innocent abroad and Waugh uses his journey as an opportunity to satirise the 1920s society. 

Reading challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: I inherited this book in 2014 when my husband’s aunt died. 

This was an entertaining read. It was quite different from the only other Waugh I have read – Brideshead Revisited – but was very amusing nonetheless. Paul Pennyfeather is a useful character, wandering oblivious through Waugh’s satirical landscape. He has little will of his own, making nothing happen and, it seems, never truly understanding what is happening to him.

The novel is littered with eccentric characters such as Prendy an ex-vicar plagued by religious doubts or Captain Grimes who is always in the soup. Paul’s first port of call after being sent down from Oxford (after accidentally wandering into the drunken exploits of the Bollinger Club) is a Welsh public school. Here he meets Prendy and Grimes as well as Solomon Philbrick who has told at least three different stories of how he came to be at the school and is one the run from the police.

When Paul falls in love with the mother of one of his charges, his life really starts to take off. Margot Beste-Chestwynde agrees to marry him and immediately sends him off to deliver some women to South America. Paul, of course, has no idea that Margot’s money comes from prostitution and is incredibly surprised when he is arrested on the morning of his wedding for human trafficking.

The novel is very amusing and cleverly mocking of the mores of the time without ever explicitly saying anything. Paul eventually ends up exactly where he started, back at Oxford where nobody recognises him and his life returns to some sort of normality. There is no sense of character development or lessons learned – this is not a bildungsroman. In fact, there is little emotional interest for the reader. Waugh’s satire is clever and funny but I couldn’t help wishing for more emotional depth.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Genre: Spirituality, Magic Realism, Brazilian Literature

Narrative Style: detached third person similar to a fable.

Rating: 2/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1988

Synopsis: Santiago is a shepherd and seems quite happy tending his sheep and waiting to see the girl of his dreams. However, a recurring dream of treasure sets him on an adventure that will take him far from home. Along the way, he learns lessons about human nature and spirituality.

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – new to me author from another country.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I knew that it was pretty popular and that it was sometimes described as magic realism, a genre I am fond of so I thought I’d give it a go. I haven’t read any Brazilian literature before so I was curious to see what it was like.

It wasn’t long before I realised it wasn’t really going to be for me. The novel is written in the style of a fable or parable and the characters are archetypes – e.g. the simple shepherd, the king, the alchemist of the title. Right from the start it was clear that the moral was going to be a little heavy handed. I lost time of the number of times the boy was told to listen to his heart and that if you want something strongly enough the world will give it to you as long as you never doubted your purpose. It was all a bit new agey for me. I’m too cynical to really be able to believe that this is the way of the world.

Also, it seems a bit of a dubious moral philosophy. If everyone was off following their heart’s desires, the world would be a very different place. After all, not many people have the heart’s desire to work in McDonalds or be a refuse collector. Even deciding to do something that is more like a vocation may be a pragmatic decision rather than a following of your ultimate desire.

The boy finds his treasure. I must admit that I hoped that it would turn out to be other than simply monetary. I understand that his search is what is really important – he learns valuable lessons along the way. Because he follows his ‘personal legend’, he is duly rewarded by God but I couldn’t help but feel that this reward being gold somehow undermined the message that following one’s dream is spiritual and about oneness with the world.

Having looked at reviews of this novel, I can see that many people feel it has changed their lives. If I’d realised that before I started to read it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it. I’m not really in the market for a life-changing experience. It’s not something I look to reading to give me.

Full House Reading Challenge – 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Genre: Epistolary, Non-fiction

Narrative Style: Exchange of letters between Hanff and Frank Doel of Marks & Co.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1976

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Helene Hanff is an American with an interest in classical literature and old books. Marks & co are the British bookshop that she writes to to try and get her hands on some of these books. What develops is a funny and touching relationship between Helene and Frank mainly but also others who work in the shop and Frank’s wife. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Set in a bookshop 

I was quite excited by the thought of reading this as I loved the film. Really, I should know better. This is already the second post I’ve started off in this fashion this year. It is truly amazing that they managed to get such a rewarding film from such a slim volume.

Not that this was terrible. It certainly wasn’t. It was interesting to watch the relationship between Helene and Frank develop. The contrast between her open and easy going personality and Frank’s careful British reserve was amusing. Watching Frank slowly let his guard down was one of the more interesting aspects of the book.

But I have to admit, Helene got on my nerves. And nothing really happens. Books are ordered and received. Gifts are sent both ways. I suppose if you were reading this blind, then you might have the wonder of whether Helene was going to get to visit London but having seen the film, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

The main thing I thought when reading this book was how old fashioned it seemed and also how difficult it would be for this  to happen these days. Not only because we don’t really communicate be letter anymore but because these friendly, small businesses with time to treat their customers so well also seem like a thing of the past. I must admit that it gave me a strong sense of nostalgia for when we used to write letters to each other and we didn’t know every aspect of each others lives  through social media.

 

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Genre : War

Narrative Style: First Person, Non-chronological

Published: 1956

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis:  Fowler is a cynical journalist following the battles of the French against the Vietminh. Pyle is the naïve American who has idealistic ideas about how to end the war. When Pyle is murdered, everyone is suspect, including Fowler. As Fowler recounts his story of meeting Pyle, it transpires his own motives are less than pure.

Reading Challenges: The Full House Reading Challenge – Less than 250 pages.

I can’t say that I fully understood the political situation in this novel. I haven’t very much knowledge of the Vietnam War but Greene paints his picture in a very human way, looking at individual motivation and personality so it is relatively easy to follow.

As with other Greene novels I have read, motivation is nothing if not complicated. Fowler is attempting to keep himself on the side lines. But he finds it harder and harder to remain uninvolved. His relationship with Pyle is complicated by the fact that Pyle’s first act is to steal Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful mistress.

The story unfolds in flashbacks after Pyle’s death and the reader slowly realises that while it is true that Fowler did not kill Pyle, he is also not completely innocent. Fowler cannot let Phuong go. Pyle has to be removed from the picture. The novel shows how complicated personal and political motivation can be.

The one thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the way Phuong is passed between the men. I’m not accusing Greene of sexism or anything. I’m sure it is an apt description of the way Vietnamese women were treated by Western men.  But nonetheless, it made the novel a little less enjoyable for me.

All in all, an interesting novel that made me think about war, about the personal and the political and about relationships in general. Definitely worth a read.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller

Genre: Romance

Narrative Style: A mix of first person, third person, and letters.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1992

Synopsis: A writer is presented with the diaries of Francesca Johnson by her children. They detail the brief affair that she had with Robert Kincaid who came to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County. It shows the sacrifice she made by staying with her family. The writer promises to tell the story. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Made into a movie.

I read this because I really enjoyed the film. Romance is not really my thing but I remembered crying at the film so I thought that maybe the book would be as emotional. Instead, I found it sentimental and slightly irritating.

At the beginning, there is a preface explaining how the writer came by this story when Francesca’s children brought her journals to him. This makes it feel like you are reading a true story and I admit, this made me like the story more. It also explained some of the worst excesses of the text – Kincaid’s pseudo hippy talk, for example – as he was working from real people. However, about halfway through, I decided to investigate whether it was true or not and it isn’t. I admit, my impressions of Waller as a writer went down from this point.

Looking at the Goodreads reviews of this book shows that it completely splits opinion. There were a whole raft of one star and five star reviews. I don’t really understand this book inspiring either extreme love or extreme hatred (and some of the one star reviews are pretty angry). It left me feeling empty. I felt little sympathy for either party.

Of course, in the film you have Clint Eastwood (who easily embodies this sort of masculinity) and Meryl Streep, both capable of making an okay story into something special through their performances. Things that had niggled only a little after the movie became downright irritating after the book. Why was it that Francesca had to sacrifice her happiness and stay with her family and  then spent all her time holding onto the few things that reminded her of Robert. The whole ‘last cowboy’ and Kincaid as the end of an evolutionary line of masculinity was irritating as well. Presumably this is the type of man Waller would have liked to be: no ties or responsibility but with the secret of a lost love in his past to explain his solitariness.

At the end of the day, the best thing I can say about this book is that it didn’t take long to read.