Books Read in 2015: 53. Persuasion – Jane Austen

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Genre: Romance, Classics

Narrative Style: third personimages

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1818

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: I’m not really sure where this copy of Persuasion came from – my husband wasn’t sure either – but it was definitely with us when we moved to this house 8 years ago and quite possibly has lived with us for a lot longer.

Synopsis: Eight years before the start of the story, Anne Elliot allowed herself to be persuaded against marrying Captain Wentworth. Anne completely regrets this decision. She is 27 and still unmarried when Wentworth reappears in her life. Her family are on the brink of financial ruin and Wentworth is in a much better position than before. Will they be reunited in their love or will persuasion again work against them?

I may have mentioned before that I don’t often read the classics. And one of the reasons is that it always feels a little like a school assignment. I’m reading this because it has been deemed a classic rather than I have chosen this because it sounds good. This was no different. It wasn’t particularly a chore – indeed Austen’s prose is pleasurable enough to read – but it didn’t really grab me.

The other thing against it is the fact that it is a romance. This is not my favourite genre. And while there is some interest to be had from the ironic social observations and the well drawn characters, in the end it was just another love story. The only thing that saved this from a lower rating is the fact that it is so well written.

Austen is very good at satirising vanity. The satire was particularly sharp when it came to the vanity of Anne’s father and her sister, Elizabeth. Their vanity was out of keeping with their financial standing and Austen never missed an opportunity to point out their ridiculousness. There was also amusement to be had from the description of the third Elliot sister, Mary who is ridiculously self serving. Their is no doubting that Austen is a master of her craft, this is just not really the sort of book I enjoy.

Books Read in 2015 – 44. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from various points of viewUnknown

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1977

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Bob Arctor is an undercover agent trying to find the source of a batch of Substance D, an extremely addictive narcotic. He has to report back on his friends and housemates who are also being watched by the powers that be. As a part of being undercover, he too has to take the drug. As it takes hold of him, he becomes more and more divorced from himself and more and more dependant on the drug. 

It is hard to know how to put this novel into words. At its centre is Arctor’s swirl downwards into addiction. His paranoia and inability to recognise himself increase with his addiction and it is hard for the reader to tell what is real and what is not.

At the start, we are informed that Arctor has a scramble suit that he wears so his superiors cannot recognise him and with that is the name ‘Fred’ which he uses when he reports back on the household that he lives in. It is during one of these reports, he learns that Bob Arctor is under suspicion and another layer of surveillance is added when his superiors start to watch the house as well.

It all starts to get a bit messy inside of Arctor’s head. Watching the videos, he has to report on himself and his housemates. He watches in a safe house, in his scramble suit, with other scrambled individuals, watching other houses. It could easily be one of his housemates in the suit and he would never know. As he watches and continues to take the drug, he starts to not recognise himself on the TV and begins to refer to Arctor in the third person. He gets more and more paranoid and his superiors think that he may be losing it. He is put through a series of absurd tests by men in lab coats that talk in riddles. Eventually, they decide he needs to go into rehab because the drugs have finally broken him.

The novel is a difficult read. Dick says that the instances of drug taking, psychosis and withdrawal were all true and it certainly is unflinching in its description of the horrors of drugs. Dick also says that he does not consider it to be novel with a moral and if he means in terms of his attitude towards the addicts in the novel, that is probably true. There is no judgement. These people just are who they are, having come to a point in their lives where they can do no other than take drugs.

However, I do think that there a sense of morality with regard to the way that addicts are treated and the way the powers that be try to solve the ‘problem’ of addiction. This is shown in a couple of ways. First of all, once Arctor is no longer useful as an informant (and they admit that they used him to get to Barris, one of his housemates) they quickly remove him, not forgetting to charge him for becoming an addict while undercover. He is removed to a facility to withdraw but it is clear he will never be the same again.

Dick suggests that the facility – which is in need of addicts to get funding – may actually be the source of Substance D that Arctor was supposed to investigate. They create the addicts by growing and selling the drug which then secures their future as a clinic. This is suggested by two colleagues who have tried to control Arctor’s descent into addiction so that when he withdrew, he might be able to investigate. Unfortunately, he is too destroyed to do so.

At the end, I was relieved to have finished reading because the narrative was making my head hurt a little. There is a small ray of hope at the end, when Bruce (who it may be assumed is Arctor) sees the Substance D plant growing and picks one for his friends. But whether this will lead to anything other than more addiction, it is difficult to say.

Books Read in 2015 40. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Genre: Romance, Classics

Narrative Style: Third Person, Mostly chronological

Rating: 4/5 

Published: 1933

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Set in the 1920s, Tender is the Night, is a doomed romance. When Rosemary Hoyt first meets Dick Diver, he is married to Nicole and their world seems perfect. However, Dick is not merely husband to Nicole but doctor too and the strain of such a relationship starts to take its toll on both of them. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: So long that I have lost track of where it came from. 

When I started to read this, I didn’t realise that it was considered semi-autobiographical. In fact, I knew nothing about Fitzgerald at all. The fact that this novel mirrors his own descent into alcoholism and his actual wife’s struggles with schizophrenia make the events in it even more poignant.

The sense of tragedy invades the pages of the novel from the very beginning when the reader does not know the reasons for it. For all Rosemary’s impression of the perfection of Dick and Nicole’s love, it seems there is something missing from the picture even though I couldn’t quite put me finger on what it was. Of course, Dick’s growing obsession with Rosemary shows that there must be something wrong with the relationship and there are hints at the strangeness of Nicole’s behaviour but nothing concrete.

All is revealed in the next part of the book when it is discovered that not only is Dick Nicole’s husband but her doctor also. Her madness and the reasons for it are revealed and also Dick’s part in bringing her back to health. When he meets her again, it seems inevitable they will fall in love and also inevitable that it will end badly. How could such a relationship possibly survive?

As the novel continues, the roles of Dick and Nicole slowly reverse themselves. As Dick begins to drink, he becomes the one who behaves erratically, the one who offends other people and by the end of the novel, he is unable to hold down a job or stay in one place. Nicole, when released from the need of being a patient, at last seems happy in her new marriage.

The novel is beautifully written and there is no doubt that Fitzgerald was one of the writers of his generation. He describes the French Riviera as one fascinated by something both monstrous and beautiful. The characters are products of this time and Fitzgerald is merciless in describing their flaws as well as their good points. Both Dick and Nicole are easy to empathise with as their decisions impact their lives and their marriage starts to crumble.

This was one of those novels where i wanted to go back to the beginning where things seemed happier and to have no knowledge of the tragedy that followed. I wanted to remember Dick as the successful young doctor, full of potential, rather than the drunken wreck he became. Dick is symbolic of wasted talent and has become so removed from his starting point that he is not even anchored to any one place anymore.

Books Read in 2015 34. The Well of Loneliness – Radcliffe Hall

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Genre: GLBT, Classics

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1928

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Stephen Gordon was born, her father had really wanted a boy and so stuck with the masculine name. It soon becomes apparent that Stephen is not the same as other girls. She wants to be a boy, hates dresses and refuses to ride side 8f3ce012b7cbcd5217e89aaff6520959saddle. Soon she develops her first crush on a housemaid. The novel follows her through her growing realisation that she is a lesbian and into her tragic attempts at  a relationship. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About twenty years. I certainly bought this while at university although I’m not sure exactly when. I was put off by the picture of two very severe looking woman on the front which seemed to suggest that the book might be quite dry and severe. 

It took me over a month to read this book. In fact, towards the end I really didn’t want to pick it up. It was only the thought that it was nearly over that spurred me on. There were a number of reasons why I found this hard going.

First of all, the writing is incredibly melodramatic. Stephen is a martyr to her desires and Hall frequently makes reference to the terrible lot of the invert. Of course, at the time this was written, that attitude made perfect sense but now it is a little bit hard to stomach.

This is particularly true at the end of the novel when Stephen heroically sacrifices her own feelings so that her lover, Mary, can be happy in the arms of a man who can give her ‘normal’ things like marriage and children. Once I realised that this would be the end, I felt incredibly annoyed that Hall refused the possibility of a happy ending for Stephen. I really didn’t want that to be the ending. Again, I think that it is an understandable impulse at the time that Hall was writing but it really did annoy me.

I found it hard to like Stephen and therefore to have sympathy for her. She seems determined that things will be as bad for her as possible. Some of the other characters in the novel are better drawn, I think, especially in the Paris section of the novel where Stephen is temporarily happy.

Hall has the annoying habit of bestowing the animals in the novel with human thoughts. Stephen is very close to her horse, Ratfery and although he obviously can’t communicate  with Stephen, Hall notes the thoughts that he has, suggesting complete understanding of Stephen’s moods. I found this intensely irritating.

Having said all that, it is easy to see why this is such an important book. It must have felt like a godsend to women reading it at the time of its publication. If it seems old fashioned in its ideas, that only shows how far we have come. The sections during the first world war and in Paris afterwards are very evocative of time and place and this was the part of the novel I enjoyed the most.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 28. The Secret History – Donna Tartt (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Thriller

Narrative Style: First person41K7TYBGF4L

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1992

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: A set of misfits at an exclusive college studying classics decide to try and emulate the morality of ancient times. This sees them start to view themselves as being outside current morality and they begin to follow their own rules.

There is no doubt that Donna Tartt can string a sentence together and the strength of her prose is the main reason that I rated this as I did. Richard’s narrative voice is quite powerful and I had a clear idea about the personality of each of the group as he saw them and also of his own feelings on the matter.

However, I did not find the story particularly compelling. It was hard to feel anything for such a bunch of odd, emotionally stilted individuals. When reading about the rich and the privileged I always feel a little like I am viewing some sort of alien species and there was definitely an element of that here. These weren’t people like any I knew. As such, I didn’t care about their petty jealousies or there murderous intentions.

The killing of Bunny is signposted straightaway and the reasons for it were quickly obvious. Bunny himself, was irritating even before he knew that the group had killed someone in a bacchanalian night of excess and I watched detached as they plotted to kill him. It was hard to feel any sort of suspense as I didn’t care whether they carried it out or not.

There is still a lot of the book to go at this stage and I do feel that it could have been shorter but Richard analyses every emotion and every action afterwards as the group fall apart in various different ways. The only one who seems to have any sort of control is Henry who was the main force behind killing Bunny. He is the one who tries to keep the others in control. It was clear that he was meant to be some sort of monster but he just seemed cold and empty and he made me feel sad rather than anything else. When, in the end, he shoots himself, I felt nothing, no shock or emotion at all. It just made me feel pleased that the story was nearly over.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 20. Brighton Rock – Graham Greene

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Genre: Classics, Crime

Narrative Style: Third person from various viewpoints

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1938Unknown-1

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Hale realises soon after he arrives in Brighton that his life is in danger. He is caught up in Brighton’s gang war. After he has killed Hale, Pinkie believes that he can escape earthly punishment but he didn’t expect the force for good that is Ida Arnold.

Reading challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on Shelf: About 15 years. My husband read it almost straightaway when we bought it but it has taken me this long. 

 

When the opening line is ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’, you know that you are onto a winner. This book hooks you in immediately and does not let go. There is not a moment wasted as the plot is intense and taut.

The character of Pinkie was fascinating. He was both vulnerable and dangerous. His own background makes his path into violence seem almost inevitable. He is not much more than a child, trying desperately to mimic the methods of the men he sees around him. He is clever but untamed and has no moral code to speak of. He is the very model of a psychopath but Greene makes it possible for the reader to feel for him and the situation he has got himself into.

On the side of good is Ida Arnold, the woman who was with Hale just before he died. She barely knew him but is determined to discover the truth of his death. She is full of life and laughter, a strong character who will not give up. Thankfully, she is not a saint but an ordinary woman who decides that she must not let this one go. She is motherly and tries to look after Rose (who Pinkie marries to keep her from testifying against him) even when Rose does not want her help.

The character of Rose was the one weak link in the novel. I couldn’t see why she might fall for Pinkie so heavily that she would marry him immediately. She was dangerously naive and I wasn’t really convinced by her. I don’t think she was as well drawn a character as the others. It was hard to feel any sort of empathy with her about her bullheaded belief that Pinkie loved her.

This is very much a novel about earthly retribution versus that of the Catholic church. One of the only things that Pinkie believes in is the fiery depths of hell. He appears to believe that nothing on earth can touch him. I must admit that I do not know a lot about Catholicism or even religion as I have no beliefs and I think some of the finer points of this novel passed me by because of it.

Overall, though this was a fine thriller which kept me interested throughout and although Pinkie’s downfall seems inevitable, the exact nature of it was still a surprise and the ending of the novel is quite devastating. A very enjoyable read and certainly encouragement to read more of Greene’s work.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 17. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

eclecticreader15 Genre: Horror, Classics, Vampires Narrative Style: First person. Introduced as if part of a doctor’s case-notes Rating 3/5carmilla-240 Published: 1871 Format: Kindle Reading challenges: Eclectic reader challenge 2015 – genre: A story written before I was born. Synopsis: Laura and her father live in a solitary castle in Austria. One night, they witness a terrible coach crash and are persuaded to look after the victims daughter as she is considered too ill to carry on. Strange night time occurrences and appearances begin to bother Laura although she doesn’t immediately associate them with their new guest.  This early vampire story – which pre-dates Dracula by some 26 years – seems quite old-fashioned now. It is a story that has seeped into popular culture. Unfortunately when you then read the original version, it is hard not to feel it is a little predictable. This only shows the extent of the influence of Le Fanu’s story. I particularly enjoyed the opening with its creepy descriptions of the surrounding area and the hints of empty villages and deserted castles. The scene was very effectively set for what was to come. When a friend of the family’s daughter dies in mysterious circumstances just as she was about to visit Laura and the equally mysterious Carmilla appears just days later, the reader knows that something is not quite right. Equally, I found the build up of tension between Laura and Carmilla convincing and interesting. Laura is both attracted and repulsed by her guest and cannot put her finger on why. Carmilla is prone to strange romantic longings with Laura as their focus. These episodes are unsettling to Laura and probably would have been to readers at the time. However, momentum does not quite hold up and the revealing of Carmilla’s vampire status is a bit of an anticlimax. The General – the friend whose daughter died – recounts his own experience with Carmilla in a nearby ruined village. When Carmilla appears, he attempts to attack her but she is too strong for him, thus proving that she is indeed a vampire. At just the right moment, a vampire expert and hunter appears who just happened to know where the hidden tomb of Carmilla is. This ending seems a little rushed and underdeveloped. It’s a shame because I had enjoyed it up until that point.