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.

A Change in Reading Habits or How I learned to Love my Kindle

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I have been ambivalent – to say the least – about the rise in reading on kindles and the like. And I still prefer reading an actual paper book. Especially a second hand book where you can romantically imagine all the other eyes that have feasted on the very same words. There is no better place, in my mind, than a second hand bookshop. And there is nothing romantic about the kindle.

I’ve had my kindle for about eight months now and it has taken that long to get used to. One of the first things I did was buy a cover for it so that it was a little bit more like holding a book in my hands. Even so, it is different looking at a screen for a length of time rather than a page. Not particularly better or worse, just different.

The kindle has changed my reading habits for the better. Because so many books are so cheap, I have experimented much more and as a result, I have read a lot of new authors – Josh Lanyon, Michael Faber, Charles Todd, Brandon Shire, for example – which I might not have discovered in a book shop.

Also I have read more classics than I would normally. I always say I’m not really a classics fan – and I think the majority of my reading will always be contemporary fiction – but as they are often free, I’m much more willing to take a chance and have read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread so far this year, all of which were very enjoyable.

(Actually, the kindle can’t take all the credit. I’ve started to use the recommendations on Goodreades when I’m choosing the next book I read on the kindle and this has proved very useful.)

There are still things that I find annoying about the kindle. This nonsense about the percentage that you have read. To me, that is meaningless. I like to know how many pages I have left to read but being up to 79% through a book, that could mean anything depending how long the book actually is. Of course, you can make some judgements by how quickly the percentage changes but it is not the same as moving physically through a book or as being able to work it out with page numbers.

Also, if you want to check something back in the book, that is more difficult as you have to turn past every page you have read so I don’t bother which sometimes leaves me a little confused.

Minor quibbles though. In fact, I’d definitely miss the kindle if I didn’t have it now and it is my constant companion on the journey to and from work on the tram. It might never replace reading actual books – for me anyway – but it is an alternative that I have definitely come to terms with.

The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle – Eclectic Reader Challenge – Action Adventure

Since I discovered that classics are free on the kindle, I have been reading more of them. I’m not sure I would have ever got round to buying this – there would always have been something more pressing to spend my money on- but when I was looking for my next kindle buy, it jumped out at me. I’ve read quite a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories and I was curious to know whether Conan Doyle could do anything else.

When I started to read this, I had just finished the Eclectic Reader Challenge and I didn’t really know if I was going to do it twice as someone suggested. However, I realised that it would fit with the category Action Adventure so this is now the second blog I have written in my second round of reviews.

I really enjoyed this book. Certainly, Conan Doyle proves here that he is capable of writing in more than one style as this is really nothing like the Sherlock stories. The main character Edward Malone is a news reporter who, at the start of the story, proposes marriage only to be turned down by the object of his affections and told that she could only love a man who has had a great adventure. So, obediently, Malone finds himself an adventure to go on – off to the amazing lost world of the dinosaurs. (Interestingly, by the time he returns, she has married some one else – a clerk, no less. At the end of the novel, Malone is planning another adventure – presumably so he doesn’t get hurt again by one of those fickle women.)

The characters are all very well-drawn. Professor Challenger is superbly arrogant and annoying in his condescension. His intellectual rival, who is initially sceptical of the dinosaurs, Professor Summerlee is equally argumentative and arrogant and the pair have some superb arguments. The descriptions also give a wonderful sense of place and the platea

u is made to feel creepy and otherworldly before any of the dinosaurs are even s

ighted. In fact, it is a good third into the book before they even arrive at the plateau. Not that this was a problem for me – the events beforehand were all important  – but I could imagine it trying the patience of someone more used to modern literature.

lost worldIt has to be mentioned that some of the attitudes in this book are a little hard to stomach now. For example, it is taken as a given that the white men are superior, being further along the scale of evolution than any of the native characters. The one black character is loyal to the point of stupidity and talked about as if he were a pet rather than a human being. There is also a sense of imperialism, with the discussion of what to call the lakes and forests they discover as well as the assumption that the land was now theirs. This book is a hundred years old and in these attitudes it really shows. However, the sense of adventure and the action in this book are just as appealing as they ever were.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – LGBT – The City and The Pillar by Gore Vidal

photo-1This book has been on my to read list for a long time, I’ve been meaning to read it for far too long. I’m not sure why it kept getting passed over, I always knew that I would enjoy it. So, I decided to read it as part of the Eclectic Reading Challenge to ensure that this was the year I actually read it.

Straightaway I was drawn in. The opening description of Jim, clearly devastated, in a bar getting drunker, detached from all around him was masterful and intriguing. I wanted to know what had brought him to such a low point. Although it was immediately clear that it related to his school friend, Bob, I had no idea exactly how devastating the ending was going to be.

I can see how this novel would have been so shocking at the time. While it is not explicit, it is unflinching in its description of the life of a gay man in the 1940s. It tells of Hollywood affairs, of the secrecy and sham marriages, of the underground bars, a complete other world. From a modern perspective, it’s effect was twofold. In some ways, it seems like this story should be centuries old, such a lot of things have changed. At the same time, some things haven’t. The question of whether or not a celebrity should come out or not would not be such a loaded one if we truly had left all those old opinions behind.

In the preface to this novel, Gore says that he felt that he was at a crossroads just before he decided to published this book. He’d already published two novels and had a certain amount of acclaim. He knew that once he published The City and the Pillar, this would change. In one direction, a glorious future, Gore describes it as the ‘holy Delphi’. Instead he chose to publish and ‘end up accursed in Thebes’. One can only imagine the level of bravery and honesty that this must have taken.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I was genuinely upset at the end, not only because the ending was so awful but because it was finished and I was not still reading it. An absolute classic.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Historical Mystery – The Moonstone

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Read as a part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge

As I have mentioned in this blog before, I enjoy a mystery and while it pleases me when I work out the answer before the end and I can give myself an intellectual pat on the back, it pleases  me more to be ultimately puzzled. I am happy to admit that The Moonstone kept me puzzled for the most part. By the time that the thief is revealed, I had worked it out but Collins had given me all of the clues by this point so it really wasn’t a great feat. Up until that point, I had been fumbling in the dark in the same way that the characters were.

I particularly liked the structure of this book and the way each character adds their own details to the story as well as their own personal view of events. Each character was memorable from Betteredge, with his Robinson Crusoe obsession, to Ezra Jennings with his hidden past; all were interesting, all were distinctive. As the story unfolds, the reader occupies a similar position to Sergeant Cuff, fooled by events as they stand, unable to see the whole picture until much later on. This is a masterful novel that keeps the reader’s interest at all times.

The Moonstone and the trouble it causes in respectable England seem to me to represent the punishment for colonial crimes that the theft of The Moonstone represents. That the precious stone is restored to its proper place is a satisfying ending even though the lengths the Indians go to get the diamond may be unethical. Their sacrifice for the diamond is greater than anything that the other characters go through in the course of the novel.

This theme of past crimes catching up is present throughout the novel – in the form of Ezra Jennings and his mysterious past, Rosanna Spearman and may be the ultimate reason for Franklin Blake to ask for all to give their version of events – so that his past cannot catch up with him and to ensure his good name in the future.

I expected this novel to be good as it had been recommended to me many times but I did not expect it to be so clever, so enjoyable and so satisfying a read. A must read for all fans of detective fiction.

DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished).

There are a few of candidates here. Books that I have made it known that I don’t like despite not having finished them. It doesn’t happen often because I am quite careful to choose things I am fairly sure I will like.

The first is On The Road by Jack Kerouac which I would probably never have picked of my own accord but it was for a class on my MA. Obviously for the purpose of the course I claimed to have finished it and I started to believe myself. It was only recently I remembered that I hadn’t actually finished it.

What was it about this book that meant I didn’t finish it? I found the tone irritating and the style worse. It gained the rare honour of having been thrown across my living room the most times due to the dubious attitude towards women shown. Ultimately I didn’t feel compelled to find out what happened. I just didn’t care.

Similarly, I read (or started to read) Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea when it was on the GCSE syllabus as I realised that I might have to teach it. (How to put teenagers off reading in one easy lesson.) Part of the problem was I already knew how it ended and when I got bogged down in the narrative, it just didn’t seem worth it. I quickly realised there was no way I could possibly teach this book as I could barely summon up the enthusiasm to pick it up, never mind try to get the point across to others. Thankfully, I have never worked in a school where they have taught it. Maybe it’s not just me!

Finally, in a doomed attempt at reading more classics (something I keep trying despite the evidence that I will probably never enjoy them), I decided to try The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I picked it because the subject matter sounded interesting. However, I soon found myself ignoring the book in favour of something with less dense prose and it was abandoned on my bedside table for a while before eventually winging its way back onto the downstairs bookshelves. Probably I should give it to charity as I will never pick it up again.