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Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Alright, I have read 4 books so far. Only 2 more to go!! I think I am going to change from my original list. I am replacing North and South for Cranford. (Both Mrs. Gaskell) But on to The Hounds... The people living on the moor are terrified of a ghost hound that is being seen at night. It is running alongside a ghotly carriage. They both glow in the dark, and now people are dying...

Holmes will get to the bottom of it.

My Thoughts:
Another exciting Holmes mystery. I actually read it before I read Sherlock In Love because I wanted them to be chronological.

It was fun to revisit this story especially after having read The Moor last year.

I love the style of writing and the suspense. Conan Doyle exploits with the paranormal are legendary and I enjoy how they just get hinted at in this story.

The topography and the people of the moor area are fascinating. And a little creepy.
Definitely worth reading. Again!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sherlock In Love

I couldn't resist ordering this one through an ILL at the library after reading the Review here. I was not disappointed!

It felt so fresh and new, even though it was the same Sherlock and Dr. Watson we all know and love.

The story weaves through several of Conan Doyle's stories.

The mystery keeps you very drawn in. I was completely shocked at the ending. It was a sweet and satisfying shock.

The tender side of Holmes and Watson are not sticky sweet and are totally believable.

Two thumbs up!!

The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde

This book is so funny. I laugh out loud when I read it. And then want to follow whoever is in the room with me and read them selections that I am finding particularly amusing at the moment.
I believe my family dreads it when they see me reading it.

It is such a gem.

Two Ernest's. No wait, NO ERNEST'S! An ailing friend in the country. A troublesome brother in town.

A baby in a bag left at the railway station?
And when the baby is finally found, 30 odd years later it is the return of the bag that is most celebrated.
I love that part.

I can't really give you a review, just go and read it. It is short and sweet, just three acts, I think. You will not be dissapointed.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I don't have enough good to say about this book. It had me hooked from the beginning. It is the tale of a missing Indian diamond- the Moonstone. The tale is unfolded with a certain calm urgency, if that makes any sense.

It is set in England in the 1840's and was written by Wilkie Collins. He was a friend and sometimes rival of Charles Dickens. The original edition of the Moonstone was as a serial in Charles Dickens weekly magazine.

Several of the key players write a narrative of what they saw on the days preceding the disappearance, the actual incident and then the activities of the following year. This allows you to see totally different and sometimes contradictory sides of the story.
It is satirical, thoughtful, suspenseful, and romantic.

There are even some loose ends that are left dangling, just a little tease mind you, but enough that I will lay in bed many a night pondering them.

Two big thumbs up.

Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

Opening Drood by Dan Simmons is like stepping into a time machine. I could almost feel the cobblestones of London’s back alleys beneath my feet and smell the overpowering stench of raw sewage draining into the Thames.

In June of 1865, world-famous author Charles Dickens and his mistress were among the few survivors of a horrific train crash. Simmons manages to weave this real-life event into a compelling and terrifying tale of murder, jealousy, ancient Egyptian magic and mesmerism.

Drood is narrated by Dickens’ fellow author, friend and sometimes rival Wilkie Collins. A laudanum addict, Collins is an unreliable narrator at best. Three days after the accident at Staplehurst, Dickens relates the harrowing experience to Collins. At the center of his tale is a mysterious man named Drood; a disfigured, wraith-like creature who seemed to float back and forth amongst the dead and dying victims of the crash. Was he rendering assistance to these unfortunate souls or hastening their departure from this mortal coil?

Dickens becomes obsessed with finding Drood, and this search will lead him and Collins into a labyrinthine world hidden below London's poorest districts. The horrors that await them there will change both of the authors – and their friendship – forever. Collins begins to wonder if Dickens has simply gone mad from the trauma he endured at Staplehurst or if he has fallen under the mesmeric influence of Drood, a man rumored to have killed over 300 people.

Victorian London is masterfully depicted; the sights, sounds and even smells seem to come alive and add a rich sense of atmosphere to this dark story.

The first 100 pages of Drood were slow-going for me, but they established a framework that was essential and very rewarding later in the book. I never knew what to expect with this story, and the shocking ending left me re-evaluating virtually every conclusion I'd come to over the length of the book. While it's still very early in 2009, I can certainly see Drood as one of my favorite reads of the year.

Rating: 9/10.

Unfinished Review: Portrait of a Lady

Author: Henry James

Genre: Fiction, Classic, Victorian

Henry James' magnificent heroine, a "young woman affronting her destiny"

When Isabel Archer, a beautiful, spirited American, is brought to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Touchett, it is expected that she will soon marry. But Isabel, resolved to determine her own fate, does not hesitate to turn down two eligible suitors. She then finds herself irresistibly drawn to Gilbert Osmond, who, beneath his veneer of charm and cultivation, is cruelty itself. A story of intense poignancy, Isabel's tale of love and betrayal still resonates with modern audiences.

My Thoughts:

This is the third time I tried to read this book. I did get farther this time around...pg. 113 of 544 total. I just could not get into it. My mind was wandering as I read the pages. I understand the writing style was to have a long single paragraphs, sometimes almost one per page, but visually, I need to see shorter paragraphs or breaks in my reading.

The character development took too long for me. I also had to think constantly while I was reading, and re-reading lines to make sure I understood what was being written. In, short, It was too much work for my mind.

I read to escape daily life and for entertainment purposes. With this book, I felt like I had to work to finish one page, therefore I could not go on any further. I have a rule: If by 50 pages I am not interested in the book, I set it aside for something else. It may be a little more than 50 for some books, it depends, but generally it's about 50 pages.

This also occurred for me when I tried James' other masterpiece The Turn of the Screw. Again, couldn't finish it.

I'm sure James is a great author, unfortunately he is just not for me.
This book was originally part of my Victorian Challenge, so I will replace it with something else.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Daniel Deronda" - Further Thoughts

I want to post some further thoughts on “Daniel Deronda,” but in fairness want to note that some of what follows reveals some of the plot so the reader is warned!

At the end of his introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition, Graham Handley writes about Grandcourt’s final effort to humiliate Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn married Grandcourt for financial reasons, knowing full well that Grandcourt had fathered children by a Mrs. Dasher, who he had refused to marry. In his will, made after his marriage, Grandcourt declares that if Gwendolyn does not “provide” him with a male heir that the bulk of his estate goes to his son by Mrs. Dasher. Gwendolyn receives only the use of the undesirable house where the Dasher family is exiled and 2000 pounds per year. Gwendolyn’s family and other supporters are greatly disturbed by this poor treatment.

Gwendolyn herself knew of the provision for the Dashers, but was probably not aware of what was left to her. But to everyone’s surprise the only question for her is to accept anything at all from Grandcourt. This is not the first time Eliot’s work where a female character has to make a choice involving money and love. I am thinking particularly of situations in “Middlemarch” and “Felix Holt: The Radical.” In those cases if the character chooses love, she loses the money or at least a significant amount of money. Here Gwendolyn first chose money over love (or at least some future possibility of love), but in the end values her integrity more than money.

As anyone who reads nineteenth century literature knows, these were not easy decisions. Middle class women without independent means had few acceptable means of earning a living. The most traditional being the unenviable lot of a governess which is, in fact, the choice Gwendolyn spurns to marry Grandcourt in the first place. A consistent thread throughout Eliot’s writing is that women should listen to their conscience, not financial need, in making such decisions.

This is especially interesting to me since in the Clarendon edition of “Adam Bede,” Eliot is quoted to the effect that her primary audience is young men. That certainly was a major theme of “Adam Bede,” which was her first novel, but it also continues throughout her work. It is certainly fair to say that the experiences of the young men in “Daniel Deronda” are also intended to speak to that audience. Although I did not enjoy this novel any where near as much as her other work, Eliot still something important to say, both for her time and for ours.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Daniel Deronda

I finished "Daniel Deronda" last night, the first of the three novels that are my part of the Victorian challenge. When I posted last month after reading only a portion of the book I anticipated that I was going to greatly enjoy it. I don't typically take such a position after reading only part of a book, but having read all of George Eliot's novels (other than "Romola") and enjoyed them I thought this would be no exception - especially after liking the beginning.

Unfortunately I have to say that on completion I did not enjoy this, the last of her novels and the only one set in the Victorian era. In reading the introduction (after reading the book) I noticed that of the main characters Gwendolyn is usually praised while Deronda, Mirah and Mordercai
typically produce a negative reaction. That is pretty much how I felt about it. Gwendolyn is the spoiled young girl, who marries out of financial need, thinking she can manage her husband, finds out otherwise and suffers greatly. Eliot gives a very complete picture of her suffering and her wishes and efforts to redeem her life.

The means of her redemption is the guidance of the title character Daniel Deronda. Deronda is certainly a good person, but I found it hard to understand how someone who is also so young can be such a fount of wisdom and guidance, not just for Gwendolyn, but for other characters. One of these is Mirah, a young Jewish woman who Deronda rescues and befriends. I found Mirah to be a little bit full of herself, but she pales in comparison to her brother Mordercai or Ezra.

Ezra's cause in life is the Jewish people or more specifically the creation of a Jewish state like today's Israel. That's a noble calling, but to me Mordercai was so full of himself that he was incredibly tedious. At the end of the book when Mordercai and Mirah are visited by their evil doing father, Mordercai tells his sister that "our lot is the lot of Israel." In all his reflection on his religion, he might have been well advised to consider the dangers of a messianic complex.

Unlike Eliot's other novels about England, this one takes place in the Victorian era - in the 1860's. There was also for me another significant difference - Eliot's other novels are stories of people and place - that is while the characters move around they are from one place and the story is about their lives in that place. "Daniel Deronda" on the other hand is more a story of people - they move around quite bit both in England and in Europe so they lack grounding or roots. To me it weakened the novel. There also seemed to me to be an excessive level of co-incidence in the novel - Deronda and Gwendolyn co-incidentally being in Genoa at the crucial moment, Deronda accidentally running into his grandfather's best friend in Germany - again too much for me.

Reading the introduction after reading the book showed me some things I might have missed so I plan to read some more criticism of the novel as well as about Eliot's other works. She is still one of my favorite writers and one novel I didn't care for isn't going to change that opinion. Now it is on to "Mary Barton," my first experience with Elizabeth Gaskell.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

When the Bishop of Barchester dies, the preferment goes not to his son, Archdeacon Grantly, but an outsider. Or rather, two outsiders, for the new Bishop Proudie’s wife does all she can to rule her husband and, through him, the diocese. The Low Church sensibilities of the Proudies and their evangelical chaplain, Mr Slope, do not sit well with the archdeacon, who with great celerity* moves to ensure that things change as little as possible. His first act is to try to get his father-in-law, Mr Harding, reinstated as warden of Hiram’s Hospital. Mrs Proudie has other ideas – she wants the bishop to give the post to Mr Quiverful. Mr Slope vacillates between the two options, leaning toward whichever will best ensure his worldly success – and as Mr Harding has a widowed daughter with twelve hundred a year, there’s a lot of success up for grabs.

Eleanor Bold and her income have also been noticed by Charlotte Stanhope, eldest daughter of a churchman summarily recalled from a long absence in Italy by the new bishop. Dr Stanhope has neglected his duties to the extent of letting his children think and act as freely as they please, with results that scandalise Barchester. Charlotte’s sister Madeline is a cripple whose still-living husband doesn’t stop her setting out to enthral everything in trousers, and their brother Bertie has failed to settle to any profession beyond that of spending his father’s money. Certain that Bertie will never prosper on his own, Charlotte decides that a rich marriage is just the thing, and sets out to make it happen. She never dreams that anyone so plainly enamoured of Madeline as is Mr Slope might have such schemes himself.

Archdeacon Grantly suspects just that, and furthermore interprets Eleanor’s common civility to Mr Slope as encouragement. Soon a wedding is viewed as only a matter of time, and not even securing a vacant living for Mr Arabin, a firm adherent to the archdeacon’s principles, can compensate for such a dire prospect. Mr Arabin, after meeting Eleanor, is no happier at the thought. And few people other than Mr Slope are pleased when the dean also dies, and the bishop’s chaplain is suggested as a replacement.

Barchester Towers is the second of the Barsetshire novels, and takes place five years after The Warden, the events of which are recapped at the start. Church squabbles might not sound the most interesting of subjects for a novel, and I’ll admit it had its tedious moments, as things ecclesiastical were recounted and philosophised upon. The greater part of the book more than compensated, and contained some hilarious moments. The image of Bertie Stanhope breezily attempting to free a furious Mrs Proudie’s skirts from the castors of the sofa he had just sent hurtling across the floor is one I will not soon forget. (Aside: I recall reading somewhere that a fellow club member once mentioned his dislike of one of Trollope’s characters, to which Trollope replied that he would go home and kill her off immediately. Was that Mrs Proudie?)

The characters can be hard to truly like, but they are a lot of fun to read about. The bishop is a henpecked doormat and his wife and chaplain odious, but it’s great entertainment to see said wife and chaplain vying for supremacy over each other (and the bishop). I always found myself hoping for the victory of whichever one was currently on the page and plotting. The Stanhopes are wonderfully eccentric in their disparate ways, and each manages to do something good by the end, but I was still glad to see the last of them. By comparison the forces upholding the status quo (the good guys, if you will) are less interesting than the disruptive elements they combat. The exception is my favourite of the lot, Miss Thorne, the local squire’s sister who thinks there is little worthwhile in the world that isn’t at least a few centuries old.

There is a love story worked in amongst the scheming, and while I was pleased to see a happy ending for Eleanor she’s not exactly my favourite heroine. A nice girl, a good daughter, a devoted mother and doubtless now a good wife, but there’s little more to her than that. And no, there is not a spoiler in this paragraph. Trollope has an odd habit of announcing certain plot developments far in advance which somehow failed to mar my enjoyment of the book. It takes good writing to pull that off.

Rating: A-

*Celerity: the current Word of the Week.

Also posted on my main blog

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I've been sitting and stewing about this review for several weeks now because I have had a hard time deciding how to review a book that has so many plot twists that it resembles nothign so much as a DNA double helix. Obviously plot summary of any length would ruin the reading experience for the three people in the world yet to read this fascinating story of two Victorian era women who prove that appearances and even perceptions can be completely deceiving. I'm sure some other reviewer before me has labelled this a tour de force and it really is so I'll just echo their rather trite sentiment. I was happily accepting of the story that our first narrator, Sue, an abandonned child whose mother was hanged for thieving and who was subsequently raised and protected from the more sordid aspects of her situation by a loose gang of petty criminals, tells us. But this is a Rashomon of novels and nothing is as it seems, with each narrator building on previous accounts, and in some cases completely and totally turning what the reader knows to be true on its head. This could have been disconcerting except that Waters handles it well and never makes the reader think that she has thrown a twist in out of the blue. We are as surprised as some of the characters as they find out the truth of their lives and who they are, different in so many ways from their original perceptions of themselves. I wouldn't call this a thriller but it is definitely suspenseful, if only because you can't wait to see what's around the next bend or laying in wait for you on the next page. This will keep you up at night, racing to finish and find out all of it, even if you are generally an early to bed person.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Companion by Ann Granger

The Companion
Ann Granger
320 pages
rating 4 stars

My Amazon Review:


“In the corners of the room the shadows cast velvety veils. It would not be too difficult to imagine someone stood there and watched. I thought of Madeleine Hexham.... I glanced around me. It was likely that I'd been given my predecessor's room and that it was here she had planned her flight into the arms of her mysterious lover.”

When Lizzie Martin arrives in London in 1864 to become a lady’s companion, her first impressions are disturbing. She’s barely out of the station when her cab encounters a wagon carrying the remains of a young woman recently dead.

At her new home, Lizzie learns that her predecessor, Madeleine Hexham, disappeared without a word of warning. Despite rumors of immoral behavior surrounding the girl’s departure, Lizzie is soon persuaded that there’s a deeper mystery here. Her suspicions are tragically confirmed when Inspector Benjamin Ross delivers shocking tidings.

Lizzie is determined to unravel the truth about the lost Miss Hexham. As, too, is Ben Ross: a man who cares about justice, whatever the class of victim. But they must tread carefully, as a cornered killer is the most dangerous of all...

My Review:
The companion was a well written, accurate and intriguing historical mystery. Set in Victorian England, the story is told through Lizzie Martin, a country doctor's daughter, left penniless by his death, and Benjamin Ross, a young Scotland yard detective who is tied to Lizzie through a past association. Lizzie must now be a Lady's companion, after living her entire life of more affluent means, and has problems with not speaking her mind, much to Lady Parry's dismay. Lizzie and Benjamin are both calm, thoughtful and resourceful characters. The mystery was a good one, and solved very much as a crime would have been solved in that time period.

The mystery surrounding the former companion points out the moral judgements and flaws of the times-that more condemnation is placed on the female victim than her cold hearted murderer, just because she was naive and trusting.

A good solid Victorian mystery-4 stars.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Great and Terrible Beauty--A review

All Gemma Doyle wants is to do is leave India and go to London.

After experiencing a horrible vision and the suicide of her mother, Gemma is finally back in England, attending Spence School for Young Ladies.

Spence is trying to produce ladies of good breeding--French lessons, waltzing, manners. But Gemma can't keep the memories of her vision or her mother out of her head.

She befriends Felicity, Ann and Pippa, and with the three girls she begins to understand the visions and the powers connected with it. But secrets are everywhere as Gemma begins to unfold the life of her mother and a secret history of Spence.

I really enjoyed this book. The style of writing, especially in the beginning, was a bit different, and I had to reread the first chapter in order to get a grasp on the writing style. However, once I got past that part I was hooked. I've placed the other two novels in the trilogy on hold at the library.

However, as much as I enjoyed the novels, they are missing a certain Victorian quality to them. The clothing and environment are Victorian, but the girls' attitudes and actions seem out of place. They are much more modern than Victorian.

But all in all, a quick and easy read. Would recommend for anyone who enjoys YA fiction.

The Clever Woman of the Family- by Charlotte Yonge

Originally published in 1865, this book has many of the elements of a classic Victorian novel. There's the long-suffering, nearly saintly invalid. There's a helpless widow, and there's a buffoonish curate. And most importantly, there's an independent-leaning woman whose spunk and desire for knowledge make her foolish. In Yonge's novel we enter the world of Rachel Curtis, the so-named "clever woman," who loves to read the latest tract on educational theory, and hopes some day to put them into practice for the benefit of local youth. But Rachel is also a provincial daughter, and there are few opportunities for an independent and knowledge-hungry woman in the provinces in 1865. Rachel disagrees strongly with women acting flighty and foolish for the benefit of suitors or the clergy. What Rachel values is substance, but she finds little of it in her provincial surroundings. Those around Rachel see her as arrogant and foolish. When Rachel is finally given the opportunity to put her theories into practice, the consequences are more devastating and far-reaching than anyone could have imagined. As I began this book I presumed it was a comedy of manners, but as I got deeper in, I discovered that the book is more than that. The themes are much darker, and consequences more surprising than that. Yonge has drawn some compelling characters in this novel, but there were parts of this story that fell flat. Rachel's mother is the fussiest of Victorian ladies, and we see just how limited that lives of Victorian women like Rachel were. Rachel's ultimate fate will likely not surprise most modern readers, but getting there takes twists and turns I certainly wasn't expecting.

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family (Penguin, orig. pub. 1865, 1986) ISBN: 014016149X

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - Kate Summerscale (Jackie's Review)

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is the true account of a Victorian murder mystery, committed in an English country house. This murder became the basis of many classic books written during this time period, including the first English detective novel, The Moonstone. It is meticulously researched, and full of interesting information, not just on the Road Hill House murder, but every day family life in the 1860s.

The facts are laid out in the same order Mr. Whicher discovered them, so as well as being extremely informative, this book also acts as a murder mystery. The great thing about this murder is that it took place within a locked building, so all the potential killers are immediately obvious, and it is just a case of unearthing all their secrets, and discovering which one committed the dreadful dead.

This book isn't a quick, easy read. It is dense with facts that need time to be savoured, but I found it so interesting that I was never tempted to skip a single word.

I love the fact that the book went on to explain what happened to all the characters up to their death. It also includes photographs of all the key characters, and maps of house and surrounding area.

The only drawback to the book was that it gave away key plot points to many of the books which were written during this time period, or based on the Road Hill murder. This was great for all those to which I already knew the plot (eg. many of Dicken's novels) but as I planned to read The Moonstone very soon, it was a little bit disappointing, (although I only have myself to blame, as I was aware that these would be within the book!).

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Victorian England, the development of the police detective, or who just loves a good whodunnit!

Originally reviewed here.

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