Header Image

Header Image

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Great Stink - Clare Clark

After reading the back of Clare Clark’s ‘The Great Stink’ I was expecting to read an entertaining but reasonably cozy historical murder mystery. Take a gander and see if you think that idea was justified:

“Through the city sewers walks surveyor and ex-soldier William May, just back from the horrifying brutality of the Crimean front and hiding from his own demons in the darkness beneath the capital’s street. But when May stumbles across a body in the tunnels, his discovery draws him into a maelstrom of underworld corruption that drags both himself and those closest to him further into depths from which there may be no possibility of light – or return…”

From this description William sounds like your typical damaged yet resilient murder mystery hero. He may be disturbed by war but essentially he’s a solid, together man, perfectly suited to be a citizen investigator who won’t throw up when discovering a body. The plot might veer into darkness and there might be a little violence but all that will be presented in a civilized way, following a familiar pattern of discovery, clues, solution. It was actually this blurb that kept me from picking up the book for almost a year, because I was never in the mood for this kind of formula.

The description of this book, while accurate in places, gives an entirely misleading impression of the ‘The Great Stink’. The ‘demon’ William faces is actually a strong desire to self harm, which he experiences regularly, eventually hiding in the tunnels to hack into his arms and release the black cravings that overcome him. He is constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown, on several occasions descending into fevered ravings. This hero’s troubles are in a completely different league to the quite genteel addictions of other investigative heroes and detectives in historical fiction. The first three quarters of the book have little to do with a body in the tunnels. Instead Clare Clark examines her hero’s psychological make up, driving him to destroy his life through a combination of uncompromising morals and an fractured state of mind. The author’s choice to use her book to explore self harm in Victorian England makes for a compelling historical, full of sedition and shame that pelts along. I was easily hooked on William May’s struggle to actually desire life, instead of blankness.

If that all sounds a bit bleak to you, there’s also a subplot involving the best dog in the world. Long Arm Tom is a tosher, a man who searches the sewers for rats to sell for dog baiting. He lives alone, believing that he doesn’t need anyone until one day he finds an ugly dog abandoned in the streets. He and the dog, Lady, bond instantly, he trains her to be a champion ratter but as the sewers become harder to access he decides to sell her for a large sum to support himself in his old age. Tom is cheated out of this sum and misses his dog so he becomes obsessed with regaining her from the swindling gentleman, the Captain. It might sound a bit sentimental, sort of like Lassie come home set in Victorian London, but Tom is a sharply written character, created out of a bare bones personality. The love he feels for Lady beats down his usual life saving practicality. Perhaps you’ll find this condescendingly unrealistic but I think it humanizes poverty by showing an incredibly poor character who feels the importance of love in the face of large sums of money.

‘The Great Stink’ is not just a murder mystery, in fact the mystery part is quite weak and is more of a plot device for furthering William’s descent. It’s a thorough look at the effects of war on the main character, with a massive amount of anti-saccharine redemption running through both plot lines.

That's the first one down. My remaining two books are suppousedly 'Great Expectations' and Wives and Daughters' but I'm feeling tempted to swap one out for 'The Observations', which has been sitting glaring at me for a long time.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist - the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England by Daniel Pool

I have been meaning to read What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew for the past 15 years, but it took becoming a part of the this challenge to finally get it on the top of my reading list.

This non-fiction book is about the interesting rituals of daily life from the very rich to the very poor in 19th century England. It helps to explain many of the rituals in 19th century literature that one might not understand otherwise, such as illnesses that no longer exist or have different names, marriage and courtship rituals, how to address your “betters,” life on the farm, hunting, etc. The last 1/3 of the book includes a handy glossary of terms.

The book also used examples from literature such as Austen and Dickens from the title as well as Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, the Brontes, and Thackery to illustrate terms and rituals and answer questions one might have when reading those novels. For example, well off individuals in Oliver Twist upon leaving London make a point of “sending the plate, which had so excited Fagin’s cupidity, to the banker’s.” People in the 19th century didn’t have stocks and bonds to invest in, but did invest in plate or silverware. This could be a large part of their wealth and had to be guarded.

Overall, I thought the book was a very interesting read. It was light and entertaining and not a dry history. It only gave an overview of items and didn’t go into depth on different details. For depth, one would have to read elsewhere. I really enjoyed how it explained the details of many books I have read in the past. Many items I had previously learned in my British novel class in college or other books, but there was also a lot of new information for me. I checked the book out from the library, but would like to have a copy of my own to refer to during future readings of Victorian and Regency literature.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Virginia - by Ellen Glasgow

Virginia - by Ellen Glasgow

Ellen Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1873 and lived most of her life there. She won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1942 for her novel In This Our Life, although it is sometimes suggested that the Prize was more of a lifetime achievement award than specifically for In This Our Life. Bette Davis starred in the movie version of this novel and gave a wonderful performance.

Virginia begins in 1884 when Virginia, the title character, is 20 years old. The story is set in Dinwiddie, Virginia and chronicles Virginia's life through her marriage to Oliver, the births and illnesses of her children, into middle age. Virginia's life coincides with a time of great change, particularly in the lives of women, who move from being dependent females to emerging independence. Virginia is unable to change with the times.

This novel is part of Glasgow's social chronicle of life in the Commonwealth of Virginia, beginning before the Civil War and moving into the twentieth century, showing societal changes brought about by the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


"How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. If it was only the other way! If it was I who were to be always young, and the picture that were to grow old! For this - for this - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!"

I loved this book. It combines wonderful writing with a striking and engrossing plot and it has contemporary resonances that make it truly worthy of the overused label “classic”.

Dorian Gray sees his youthful beauty captured in a painting and wishes that he could stay like that for ever and the picture age instead.

Dorian’s wish is granted and the picture becomes twisted and ugly as a result of his selfish hedonism in his perpetual youth.

All of this happens after Dorian falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry advocates the pursuit of pleasure at any and all costs and the hazard of a virtuous and peaceful life. Dorian is suggestible and Lord Henry’s influence is profound.

Painter Basil Hallward expresses more conservative views but his words are not heeded, and Dorian takes steps to evade him because does not want Basil to see what is happening to his painting.

The story is both horrifying and hypnotic to watch. It was widely believed in the Victorian era that you could see a man's character on his face and, as Dorian becomes depraved, selfish, and cruel, this is etched upon his portrait until it becomes too much for him to bear.

The book is filled out with long conversations about conversations covering a multitude of themes. Sometimes they disturb the pace but the characters are psychologically true and that carries the day.

And best of all, the language used in this book is a joy. Wonderful, flowing, vivid descriptions of characters, places and actions verge on poetry. It may be a bit too flowery for some, but it is the kind of writing I love.

I am only sorry that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is Oscar Wilde’s only novel.

A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander

From Harper Collins:

London's social season is in full swing, and Victorian aristocracy is atwitter over a certain gentleman who claims to be the direct descendant of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Adding to their fascination with all things French, an audacious cat burglar is systematically stealing valuable items that once belonged to the ill–fated queen.But things take a dark turn. The owner of one of the pilfered treasures is found murdered after the theft is reported in the newspapers, and the mysterious thief develops a twisted obsession with Lady Emily Ashton. It takes all of Lady Emily's wit and perseverance to unmask her stalker and ferret out the murderer, while faced with a brewing scandal that threatens both her reputation and her romance with the dashing Colin Hargreaves.

My Thoughts:

This book was a fun and fabulous read. Emily is fortunately an "independent" woman who is ahead of her time. She furthers her intellectual pursuits, such as learning Greek, while trying to maintain balance with her position in society and its conventions. Victorian women were not supposed to be strong, intelligent women, who were interested in the goings on in the world. Gossip and fashion were a woman's domain. Emily is an independent thinker, and unfortunately this got her into trouble with society's matrons. Luckily for her, Emily was able to manage her troubles.

Tasha Alexander captures the conventions and formalities of Victorian society very well. Women were usually trapped with no real voice or opinion with respect to their futures, yet Emily is lucky enough to be able to try and control her fate by staving off another marriage, to a man she is in love with no less. The conversations between her and Colin Hargreaves are sweet, romantic and passionate. The conversations reminded me of a duel.

Keep in mind, Emily did all this while trying to solve a few mysteries along the way. The mysterious circumstances in the book were quite suspenseful. They seemed like multiple plot lines and yet connected. One mystery from many different angles.

Emily is a delightful a heroine who is quite capable of not only taking care of herself, but others who may find themselves in need of assistance as well. This book was truly a novel of suspense and kept me guessing until the very end, including the romantic aspects as well. I felt as though I was transported to Victorian times, and I look forward to reading the next in the series as well.

I would like to note, that this is the second book in the series. Events from the first book are described, but I liked this book so much that I will go back and read the first one too. Regardless of knowing the plot.

This was a very satisfying, enjoyable, fun, and easy read. I highly recommend it!
(Can you tell I really liked this book? ha-ha)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I finished reading Wuthering Heights last week for the second time. It had been a good ten years since I had read it for the first time, but it felt timely to read it again. It was referenced excessively in Stephenie Meyer's Eclipse and also in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schafter and Annie Barrows. I wanted to remind myself what all of the fuss was about.

I found myself discovering once again that Heathcliff is not the romantic hero that modern sensibilities portray him. He is actually an unlikeable man that has more in common with a villian than a hero. His only redeming quality is his excessive love for Catherine, but even that love seems to be too much.

Why is this book so beloved? I believe it is the characters. They are so vivid and well written. It is also the imaginative plot. That Heathcliff has the will to go through with his vengence even though it takes 20 years, is something that one can not put the book down for wanting to read.

I could write about this book forever . . . and I do write a long plot summary and more thoughts if yoiu are interested on my blog.

Laura's Reading List

I am very excited about this challenge. I went upstairs and rounded up some books that I have had on my "to read" pile for way too long. I'm going to aim for Buckingham Palace and plan to read the following:

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (I actually have already read this book for the second time last week - but I think it counts as it is January 2009!)
2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole (getting this from the library)
3. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
4. Framily Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
5. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
6. Victoria Victorious by Jean Plaidy


1. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
2. The Woman in White by Wilie Collins
3. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
4. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

This Victorian children's morality tale is one that I've not heard many other people mention and that is a shame. It is more sophisticated than many elementary school-aged books written now and yet still sweet. Tom, a little chimney-sweep who is smacked about by his master, is cleaning a chimney at a great house when he is mistakenly thought to be a thief. He is terrified and runs off, all the while trailed by the queen of the fairies. After encountering huge obstacles in his path and overcoming them, he faces more mistrust and so wanders off to bathe in the river. He falls in and is transformed into a water-baby. As a water-baby, he has many adventures and learns to be a better boy than he had ever been when on land. This story owes much both to Gulliver's Travels and to The Odyssey. There are many strange creatures who instruct Tom in what is right and good during his quest and he has a loyal girl waiting for him to come home to her during his strangest adventure. The language would probably be a bit tough for elementary school readers today, either because they didn't understand it or simply because it is quite ornate and descriptive, unlike today's books, but the creativity of the land in which the water-babies live and the creatures that populate it might help children overcome these difficulties. There were pockets of the story that were a bit tedious in their insistence on moral lessons being pointed out in case the reader missed the significance of Tom's experience but this is very much a hallmark of the literature of the time and didn't ultimately detract from the overall loveliness of the story.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Daniel Deronda"

First of all, thanks again to Alex for organizing this challenge.

My first book is "Daniel Deronda" by George Eliot. Once I finish it, I will have read all of her full length novels other than "Romola." I believe that George Eliot is a great writer and the first 150 pages of this book have done nothing to change that belief.

I should qualify what I am about to say by noting that I don't bring any educational or other credentials to the following. The first section of the book called "The spoiled child" read like a parody of Jane Austen's novels with all of the rituals of courtship. I found this to be especially true when an extremely eligible bachelor arrives on the scene and Eliot writes "Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach." That sound eerily like a reference to the opening sentences of "Pride and Prejudice."

More to the point of Eliot's ability as a writer is her description of Deronda as a young adolescent. For me one of the acid tests of a writer of fiction is his or her ability to create realistic characters who are different from themselves - in this case a female writer describing the feelings of a 13 year old boy. While there is no similarity between my own experiences (some 40 years ago) and those of Deronda all of his doubts and uncertainties were ones that I could personally identify with. I have no idea where this story is going, but I am really looking forward to the rest of it and glad that this challenge got me started reading it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Natalie's List

This is an incomplete list: I have listed authors I plan to read. I will think about which specific works I'd like to add to the list.

Of course, I am all about Buckingham Palace!

1. Conrad,
Heart of Darkness. This novella was first published in a journal in 1899 so it counts as Victorian. I am almost done with it right now. I know it's very controversial. Was Conrad a rascist? Was he trying to expose the evils of imperialism? Was he deeply ironic? I take the view that Conrad is ironic and that the "heart of darness" is that place within each of us that could easily become brutish and evil.

2. Charles Dickens.

3. Mrs. Gaskell.

4. Willkie Collins

5. Edmund Gosse

6. George Eliot

7. Trollope

I'm going to read Madame Bovary for my Book Club in a couple of months but I don't know if we are limited to British authors (note to self: find out!). Possible reads: Distaeli, Braddon, Gissing, and poetry.

Jayme's List

Eeek! I love love love this time period.

(Seriously. I search "Queen Victoria" on etsy. I now own a fabulous pair of earrings and a darling clutch.)

So when I saw this book challenge I knew I had to participate.

I'm going to read:

1. Emma by Jane Austen
2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (I will get through it this time!)
3. Mesmerized by Candence Camp
4. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libby Bray
5. The Life and Times of Victoria by Dorothy Marshall
6. Vanity Fair by Thackery (I'm going to listen to this one on my iPod. That counts right?)

Wish me luck!

Book Review: Affinity

Pa used to say that any piece of history might be made into a tale: it was only a question of deciding where the tale began, and where it ended. That, he said, was all his skill. And perhaps, after all, the histories he dealt with were rather easy to sift like that, to divide up and classify - the great lives, the great works, each one of them neat and gleaming and complete, like metal letters in a box of type.

I read Sarah Water's Affinity in the Italian translation by Fabrizio Ascari. It's a compelling, mysterious love story between two women set in 1870s London. It's another of those books that leaves me in awe - one that I'm almost afraid to review, because there's no way I'm ging to make the book justice without giving too much away. I'll try anyway.

After her father's death, Margaret Prior has been suffering from a nervous breakdown that leaves her fragile and exhausted. In order to do something useful with herself, she decides to visit the women imprisoned at Millibank, who live and work in complete silence, to comfort them with her presence and moral example. There, she finds a person who makes her visits a passion: Selina Dowes, disgraced spiritualist, at Millibank for fraud and assault. Margaret is drawn to this young woman with apparent spiritual powers. and magic events start to take place: flowers appear and disappear, a locket vanishes, and Selina knows everything about her. As the story draws into a climax, you'll desperatesly want to believe in Selina's magic.

The title refers to the similarity between Selina and Margaret - both imprisoned, one in the physical constraints of the Millibank walls, the other in the spiritual ties of what her family expect of her. Selina's courage in defying the rules at Millibank is opposed to Margaret's inability to stand up for herself and let herself live.

Affinity deals with a desire to be connected and alive, to be part of a bigger whole. Highly recommended.

Favourite quote:
Now you know why you are drawn to me — why your flesh comes creeping to mine, and what it comes for. Let it creep.

Other blog reviews:
Cross-posted at my blog, Out of the Blue.

post signature

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cynthia's Book List

Wow, I am so excited! I have been looking and reading reviews trying to decide which books to read. After I thought I had my list complete I started reading some of the reviews here and now I am torn!!! I think I will make my list and alternates like I have seen some people do:

1. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
2. The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde
3. Sherlock in Love by Sena Jeter Naslund
4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
5. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
6. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Phantom Lover sounds really great also.

Now I am off to the library to order books.

Oh, and I better go and get a new dress to wear for my visit to Buckingham Palace!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sherlock In Love by Sena Jeter Naslund

While I didn't list this as one of my choices for the challenge, it is set, primarily, in Victorian England, so I thought I'd share with ya'll:)

My Amazon Review:

Sherlock In Love....,

January 5, 2009
Sherlock In Love is one of the best Sherlock Holmes homages~pastiches I've read. This intelligent, thought provoking, and moving story of an unknown love in Holmes' life takes place two years after his supposed death.

Watson, melancholy and lonely since Holmes' death, decides to start writing Sherlock's biography. Watson, through a series of anonymous threats, is let known in no uncertain terms he must not write the biography.

Through an investigation of the present events, and unpublished past cases, Watson is drawn into a shocking secret from Holmes' past, one that tears apart everything Watson thought he knew of his beloved friend as well as resurrecting a failed case with disturbing new clarity.

The author's suppositions are intriguing, emotionally written and humanizes the brilliant sleuth known for his dislike of women, making Watson and the reader wonder if Holmes' dislike stemmed from a much more painful source than once realized.

Be forewarned-Sherlockian "purists" who are devout in their belief that Holmes was non-romantic to the point of asexuality will not like this book. I'm a unapologetic romantic who likes her Holmes of the "Jeremy Brett" variety, so this story was right up my alley.

Finally if you are like me, and like to delve into pastiches simply for the fun and novelty of revisiting Holmes/Watson, then give this short story a go.

4 stars-Recommended!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Brittanie's List

I am going all the way with a visit to Buckingham Palace:

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens or Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

3. Silas Marner by George Elliot or Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

4. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

5. Heidi by Johanna Spyri

6. Dracula by Bram Stoker

My blog is www.abookloverforever.blogspot.com

A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee

A Phantom Lover
By Vernon Lee (nee Violet Paget, 1856-1935)

Published in 1890

Although this novella is not on my initial list of books I intend to read for this challenge, I have decided to put a review here after stumbling into it a couple of days ago. It is one of the best ghost stories I have ever read.

This novella has been compared to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, in that there is a question about whether the ghost of the story was merely a figment of the imagination of two of the characters.

A Phantom Lover is set in an English country house called Okehurst sometime before 1886, during six weeks of late summer into early fall. The narrator is a painter who has been invited to Okehurst to paint the portraits of William and Alice Oke.

William and Alice are distant cousins, both descended from Nicholas and Alice Oke who lived at Okehurst in the early 17th century. William is a very good looking young man, obviously very much in love with his wife, Alice. Alice is tall and very slender. She has a striking resemblance to the 17th century Alice, whose portrait hangs in Okehurst, and she cultivates this resemblance by dressing in clothes similar to the ones worn by the first Alice in her portrait. Alice alternates between being languorous and very distant on most occasions, and energetic, almost manic on other occasions, leaving the impression she is taking drugs of some kind.

The 17th century Alice had had an admirer, the poet Christopher Lovelock. The 19th century Alice is obsessed with the love between her ancestress and Lovelock, telling the narrator at one point:

"Such love as that," she said, looking into the far distance of the oak-dotted park-land, "is very rare, but it can exist. It becomes a person's whole existence, his whole soul; and it can survive the death, not merely of the beloved, but of the lover. It is unextinguishable, and goes on in the spiritual world until it meets a reincarnation of the beloved; and when this happens, it jets out and draws to it all that may remain of that lover's soul, and takes shape and surrounds the beloved one once more."

Alice believes herself to be the reincarnation of the 17th century Alice and thus believes herself to be the object of Christopher Lovelock's love which has survived through the centuries. Lovelock is the ghost of the story. William Oke, Alice's husband, is consumed by jealousy and descends into madness, believing he sees Lovelock's ghost with Alice.

Does Lovelock's ghost exist? Alice and William obviously believe it does. The narrator, however, does not.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ruth's Reading List: A Visit to Buckingham Palace

I love this time period and can't wait to read my way to Buckingham Palace.

Here's my list:
1. Drood by Dan Simmons
2. A Dangerous Affair by Caro Peacock
3. Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
4. The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
5. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
6. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Shadow in the North by Phillip Pullman
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander

Joy's Reading List: A Walk in the Park

To start with, I'm choosing Level 2, "A Walk in Hyde Park." Well, Hyde Park is lovely at all times of year, isn't it? But it's very possible that later on I might just pop into the British Museum for a tour (I especially love the Egyptian collections, don't you?), or even pay a visit to Buckingham Palace (never have received that invitation to tea, darn it!).

For now, I'm just planning to read books set during the Victorian Era, but my alternate list includes a few actually written during that period. And although I've only listed The Warden, I'd like to read the entire series of Trollope's Barsetshire novels, so we'll see what develops.


Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt [finished; review to come]
The Master, by Colm Toibin [finished; review to come]
Mistress of Mellyn, by Victoria Holt
Mortal Love, by Elizabeth Hand


The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
Affinity, by Sarah Waters
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton [See Review]
The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff
The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl
The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

I'll be putting my reviews on my blog (Joy's Blog), and updating my progress here. Now to get started on that first book!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Kathrin's drink at Whitechapel

So, finally, I've managed to get together a tentative list for my drink at Whitechapel. I might exchange my trip to the Victorian Era later on, but for now I'd like to stay on the safe side.

1) Elizabeth Gaskell: North And South (like so many others here, as I have seen)
2) Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights or Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
3) Oscar Wilde: A Woman Of No Importance

Marg's Reading List

Finally getting around to posting my reading list for this challenge.

I plan to read:

The Mysteries of Glass by Sue Gee
Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn
Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn

  © Blogger template 'Minimalist E' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP