Books Read in 2015 – 15. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

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Genre: Australian Fiction, Classics, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1901miles-franklin-my-brilliant-career

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About ten years. A relative was selling off some books and she thought I would like it so I bought it but then forgot about it. 

Synopsis: Sybylla Melvyn is headstrong and stubborn. She feels that she doesn’t belong in her community, knowing as she does about music and literature. She hates the monotony of the life in the farming community. She much prefers life at her grandmother’s where she stays for a while. It is here that she meets Harold Beecham who is quickly beguiled by her. Sybylla is not so sure that marriage is what she wants. 

Like many coming of age novels, this may have been more enjoyable to me at a younger age. I did find Sybylla a hard heroine to like. Despite what anyone said to her, she was determined to believe that she was ugly and unloveable and that started to grate after a while. Her behaviour was often odd and I couldn’t really figure her out.

When she meets Harold Beecham, it is immediately obvious that there will be some romance between the two. However, as the blurb on the back declares that Sybylla does not accept his proposal, any tension there might have been was destroyed. Strangely, I found myself wanting Sybylla to accept. Harold was lovely and would have supported her dreams of being a writer. While it is suggested that she refused in order to keep her independence, it seemed to me that she actually refused because of her own perceived unworthiness. Also, the blurb also mentioned that in the film, Harold was played by Sam Neill , one of my early crushes. I know this influenced me, after all, who could say no to Sam Neill?

What I did enjoy were the descriptions of the hardness of life in 1880s Australia. Sybil’s sojourn at her grandmothers is interrupted by the news that due to her father’s drinking, she has to go to work for a man that has loaned him money. When she gets there, she is faced with the horrors of life in poverty. The family are happy but filthy. They cannot afford to eat very much or very well. The children lead Sybylla such a merry dance and the circumstances are so horrible that she becomes ill and has to return to her parents’ home.

Still, it is a testament to Sybylla’s strength of character that she does not accept Harold’s proposal even though it would take her from the monotony of life on the farm. At the end of the novel, she is no further towards her ‘brilliant career’ as a writer and there seems little likelihood that she will escape from her life on the farm. It is a sad ending which did leave me feeling pity for Sybylla.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 59. The Leavenworth Case – Anne Katherine Green

Genre: Detective Fiction, Classics, 

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 2.5/5

Published: 1878

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Horatio Leavenworth is found dead at his writing desk in his library which is locked. He has been shot in the back of the head so suicide is quickly ruled out and a stranger could not have got into the house and no one suspicious was spotted. Eyes turn to the various members of his family and staff. 

I love a locked room mystery and as this was an early example, I expected that I would enjoy it. And in fact, it is not the mystery elements of the novel that caused me to feel irritated with it.

The story started well, with the appearance of Leavenworth’s personal secretary in the office of Everett Raymond, saying that his boss has been shot. Raymond rushes to the spot and along with superb detective Mt Gryce, they conclude that Leavenworth knew his killer as he did not even turn his head when he heard footsteps behind him. Clues point clearly towards one of Leavenworth’s nieces as she refuses to explain how she came into possession of the key to the library. Bryce, however, is unconvinced and sets about trying to out the actual murderer.

There is nothing really wrong with the ideas behind the story. Red herrings abound and even at the end, when Raymond thinks that the mystery has been solved, Gryce proves that he is the superior detective by tricking the real killer out into the open. However, from a modern perspective, schooled as I am in reading and watching detective fiction, it was hard to be surprised. I guess it’s unfair to judge a book in such a way. It is clear why this might have been so influential on writers such as Agatha Christie but it is difficult to read outside of your own time and this seemed a little clunky to me.

Even so, that is not what drove my rating down. That was due to the narrative voice of Mr Raymond which was given to exclamation and went running off up blind alleys. Of course, this was his role, to lead the reader in the wrong direction but because he was so excitable, I never really had any faith in him and assumed that his answer was the wrong one. This is another hangover from reading other detective fiction. No one is to be trusted to tell you the truth or get things right.

Really, I wish I had read this earlier in my reading career as I’m sure I would have liked it more. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the very books, it likely influenced.

Books Read in 2014 54. The Werewolf in Paris – Guy Endore

Genre: Horror, Historical FictionWerewolf of Paris

Narrative Style: First and third person

Rating 3/5

Published: 1933

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: An American student in Paris finds an old manuscript which details the story of Bertrand Caillet who is cursed with violent passions that make him change into a wolf. The story is set at the time of the Prussian-Franco war and the Paris Commune and Bertrand’s violence is intermingled with the violence of the time.

Although I love horror – both novels and films – the werewolf is a neglected area for me. I have never read any werewolf fiction and have seen few of the many films out there. As there were claims that this novel was of a similar standing to Dracula, this seemed a good place to start.

The story begins with an American student out late at night in Paris. He buys a mysterious manuscript from some trash-pickers and becomes fascinated with the story within. While he has issue with some of the supernatural elements, he decides to share the story along with some of the history of the times.

The story begins with the story of the rape of Bertrand’s mother by a monk who is a member of the cursed Pitamont clan. He is further cursed by the fact that he is born on Christmas Eve (a particularly unlucky event apparently). The signs of his strangeness quickly fall into place especially if you have any knowledge of werewolf lore. Bertrand has violent dreams where he is a wolf but which he believes are just dreams. His uncle – the author of the manuscript – quickly ascertains that this is not the case. To begin with, he locks Bertrand up and feeds him raw meat. And for a while it seems that he may be cured. However, it is not long before this is not enough.

Endore allows the reader to feel sympathy for Bertrand’s plight and he is never merely a monster. He wishes wholeheartedly not to be a werewolf. As the novel is set at a particularly violent moment in French history, this also allows Endore to compare Bertrand’s violence with that of supposedly normal humans. What is their excuse for the excesses of their behaviour?

However, I did feel that all the historical detail slowed the pace of the book, particularly towards the end of the novel. To be fair, I had very little knowledge of this era of history but I’m not sure it was necessary to have so much written that did not directly relate to the werewolf story. Ultimately, the point that much worse violence is committed during war could have been made with a lot less words being written.

In the end, I did enjoy this and it is a sub-genre I will probably investigate a bit more closely. Like Dracula, it was deeper than mere scares and used the theme of violence to make a greater point about society which, in my mind, is exactly what good horror should do.

Books Read in 2014 – 49. For the Term of his Natural Life – Marcus Clarke

Genre: Australian Fiction, Prison, Classicsfor the term of his natural life

Narative style: Varies – some third person, some first person extracts from diaries and letters

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1874

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: After discovering the truth of his parentage and promising his mother he will never reveal said truth, Richard Devine leaves home knowing he will never return. He comes across a crime already committed and is taken for the murderer. Unable to save himself, he is shipped off to Australia with the other characters that are to play out his fate with him.

The main reason I picked this up is that I can remember watching it in the eighties when it was televised. I could remember that I enjoyed it but not the details of the story so my expectations were high. I was not disappointed.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t find it easy to read classics as I tend towards modern fiction. Howver, while the language and sentence structure definitely dated the novel, the themes definitely still resonated and the plot was extremely pacy (my usual complaint about classic novels is the lack of action compared to the number of words expended.). This is a long book – 620 pages – but it never once dragged and I was never tempted to abandon it.

Richard Devine – or Rufus Dawes as he becomes – is the noble prisoner and is easy to empathise with. He becomes symbolic of the way that men are destroyed by a barbaric system carried out by bullying men. There is a clear moral here about a system that treats men like animals and then is surprised when animals is what they become. Interestingly, Clarke also hints that too liberal a system would not work either. He offers no solutions to how punishment should be meted out but simply shows that too lax or too strict does not work. I think that this is what makes it palatable – whilst Clarke has a clear point to make, he never moralises but leaves it to the reader to make up their own minds.

There is something a little soap opera-ish about some of the subplots especially as the twists and turns often are based on mistaken identity, loss of memory and coincidence. In the hands of a lesser writer this might have been hard to take but Clarke masterfully switches between the subplots and allows all his characters to become real to the readers – they are never mere devices.

If I have any complaint, it would be the length of time it took to read it. I did sometimes think, I’m sure this could all be set down with less words – Clarke goes into detail about everything including the geography of the prison islands. Howver, it would be hard to know what you could take out as every detail proves crucial in the end – even the geography which figures in the various escapes made by the convicts.

The ending of the novel is devestating and if I’d remembered it from the TV programme, I may not have managed to finish it. However, it is a fitting ending and anything else would have given a romance to the tale and made the reader forget the horror and pain of Rufus Dawes’ life.

 

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 24. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Genre: Gothic, Suspenseeclecticchallenge2014_300

Narrative style:  First person narration, told from a point in the future. 

Rating: 3/5

Format: Hardback

Published: 1938

Synopsis: An unnamed narrator relates her dream of Manderley and describes how she and her husband Max de Winter can never return to Mandeley. She then relates her story, beginning with her first meeting with her future husband and then their subsequent marriage and return to Manderley where she is haunted by the presence of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca.

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014: Gothic genre.

Sometimes it is good to have no knowledge of a book. I was keen to rebecca11read this as I am a big fan of the film version which is tense and suspenseful. But I felt the knowledge of the film hampered me when I was reading this and made me impatient.

The nameless narrator – called only Mrs de Winter or the second Mrs de Winter – was an odd character who I could feel very little sympathy for. It was not apparent why Max de Winter might have found her attractive. She was insipid, childish and often lost inside her own head, unable to control her jealous imaginings. I know that some of my impatience with her was to do with my knowledge of the narrative and I felt she should have spotted more signs of future events. When she eventually discovers the truth about Rebecca’s demise, all she can think is that Max had never loved Rebecca and she immediately forgives him.

I often struggle with classics perhaps because I am more used to reading modern fiction. I felt that this took too long to get truly started. Perhaps if the narrator had been more interesting to me I would have found it easier to get to grips with.The pace did eventually pick up and the ending was suspenseful and packed with action. The ending was satisfying and I wished the rest of the book had been as tense.

The one success was the character of Mrs Danvers who is just as sinister in the novel as she was in the film. She was easy to picture in her black uniform, with her skull like appearance, ruling Manderley and yearning for the first Mrs de Winter. However, a lot of the other characters seemed more like types than real people.

Part of me wishes I could have removed the knowledge of the film from my mind and read this fresh. It’s hard to know how much more I might have liked it. I’m not sure that I could ever have taken to the second Mrs de Winter though.

Books Read in 2014 4 – Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Reading Challenges : TBR Challenge2014tbrbutton

Genre: Classics, Family Drama

Narrative Style: First person narrator – Mostly told in flashback, framed by the present day in the prologue and epilogue.

Synposis: Charles Ryder falls in love with the beautiful Sebastian Flyte in his first year at university. He then comes to be fascinated by both his house and his family, eventually becoming involved with his beautiful but distant sister, Julia. photo (21)

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1944

Length of time on TBR pile: I have only had a physical copy of this book on my shelf for two years but it has been on the list of things that I feel I should have read by now and which I keep in my head since I finished university. 

I was vaguely aware of the story of this novel. I was too young in the eighties to see the BBC production of it although I did have a very clear image of Sebastian and his teddy bear. I thought I might find it a bit irritating, for a couple of reasons. It was about posh people and that always rubs me up the wrong way and I have a history of not liking books that are considered classics. (Just ask my father in law who thinks I am insane because I don’t like Tess of the D’urbervilles or Middlemarch.) However, in this case I was pleased to be proved wrong.

The early chapters, documenting Charles’ life at university are the most vivid and, in my opinion, contain the best prose. Sebastian is a fabulous character and I was as fascinated as Charles. In fact, I found his absence in the later chapters a little depressing and I longed for whatever news could be found of him, even though it was clearly never going to be good news. It may also be that the university experience was something I could relate to whereas the later chapters were further outside of my realm of experience.

This is a beautifully written novel, with sumptuous description and vivid emotion. In fact, this is much more a novel of feelings than events. Charles is an outsider and Brideshead and even when he is about to marry Julia, remains so. In this, he is the perfect narrator, charting for the reader, the tragedies of the family without really becoming involved with them.

There is a longing for times past in this novel. Not just from Charles who longs for something that the family, with their faith and their societal position, represent for him but on the part of Waugh too. This novel was published in 1945 and it must have seemed as though the world had fallen apart in the aftermath of the war. The need for a calmer, simpler time must have felt immense. Even the structure points towards this, with the prologue and epilogue set in the present of 1945 but the rest of the novel in the Arcadian past of the 1920s and 30s.

I found the ending a little disappointing because I felt sorry for Charles and I didn’t want it to be over. But there really wasn’t any more story to be told.

Venus in Furs – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – Translated Literature – Eclectic Reader Challenge

I wanted to read something a bit different for translated literature for the Eclectic Reader Challenge and this had been on my to read list for a while. I’ve read De Sade before (although a long time ago) and I thought it would be interesting to read the author who had given his name to the opposite end of the spectrum to De Sade. I can’t help wondering how you would feel having such a thing named after you (in case you don’t know, the term masochism comes from Masoch’s name). Do you suppose he knew, did it happen in his lifetime? How would friends and family react to that?

The book itself was not really what I was expecting. It is not particularly explicit and the protagonist’s Severin’s beatings are not particularly graphic. That said, this was published in 1870 and was considered shocking at the time, particularly, I think due to the idea of female dominance and cruelty and Severin’s willingness to submit to it. venus

There are some parallel’s with Fifty Shades of Grey (although this is considerably better written). Severin is in love with his venus, Wanda and adores her so much that he is willing to submit to her every whim and become a slave. They sign a contract outlining the exact nature of their relationship. Interestingly, it is Wanda who seems to have the most misgivings – at least at the beginning. Severin is more than willing to be her slave.

Unfortunately for Severin, Wanda becomes infatuated with another stronger man (in a particular stroke of cruelty, she allows him to beat Severin, marking the very end of their relationship).  It seems that being allowed to be so cruel has killed any love she had at the beginning of the novel.  She finds that she wishes to submit to her new lover whom she loves with a greater passion.

Is this suggesting that this willingness to submit is a part of love, something that is present in all of us but which shouldn’t be acted on? Certainly, I like the way that roles seem more fluid in this book than in Fifty Shades of Grey and also unlike between Christian and Anastasia, it is Severin who wishes to submit who asks for Wanda to fulfil his dreams and Wanda, the dominant one, who has to be persuaded. This certainly made me less uncomfortable than the sexual politics in Fifty Shades.

This wasn’t a great read – it wasn’t terrible either – but in terms of historical interest and cultural significance, I’m glad to have read it at last.