Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Wolf Hall

Teaser Tuesday is a wonderful meme hosted by MizB over at Should Be Reading.  All you need to do is open your current read at a random page and share two teaser sentences.  Be careful to avoid spoilers.

Mine this week comes from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  You could get more than one week of Teaser Tuesdays from this one, as it is 650 pages long.  Very exciting story though, set in the court of Henry VIII.

Try always, the cardinal says, to learn what people wear under their clothes, for it is not just their skin.  Turn the king inside out, and you will find his scaly ancestors: his warm, solid, serpentine flesh.  p.99

Saturday, August 21, 2010

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

It is not often that I arrive at the end of a lengthy novel from the Victorian era regretting that I have come to its conclusion all too soon.  North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is such a book. 

First published in 1855, North and South encompasses many themes and introduces the reader to a host of truly memorable characters.  As so often seems to be the case with me, I suspect some of my enjoyment of the story came from knowing so little about it and having few expectations.  In keeping with this I will not give too much of the story away here. 

The North and South of the title refers to the north and south of England where culture, lifestyle, occupations and expectations were very different during the nineteenth century and I suspect, remain somewhat  different to this day. Our heroine Margaret Hale and her family are forced to move from the relatively genteel setting of a village in the south of England to a smog filled city in the industrialised north.

There is of course a "will they or won't they" love story at the heart of this novel.  I was struck while reading North and South that it  reads a bit like a Charles Dickens version of Pride and Prejudice.  I know you might think me mad for making such a comparison, but to my mind Gaskell out does both Austen and Dickens with North and South because while there are swoons a plenty and romantic intrigue, this is at its core a novel that makes a strong social statement about class struggle.  For mine, it really has all one could wish for.

Margaret Hale as a character is direct, adaptable, compassionate and not prone to over analyzing her feelings and motives, which I think certainly helps keeps the pace of the novel swift.  We come to know Margaret very much through her actions and conversations.   Margaret who grew up in a quiet country village and spent some years living with her wealthy cousin in London is flung into a world of dirt and hardship.  She is forced to grow up very quickly.  Part of the real enjoyment of the novel comes from following her bumpy journey to understanding and independence.

And then there are the suitors.  Firstly we have Mr Lennox who is a young barrister and whose brother, a captain in the military, is married to Margaret's cousin Edith who she grew up with like a sister.  The other leading man is Mr Thornton.  Mr Thornton is a wealthy factory owner in Milton (the town the Hales move to in the north).  Initially Margaret finds Mr Thornton brutish and coarse (aren't they the best kind of leading men!) and doesn't want to have anything whatsoever to do with him.  For his part Mr Thornton, while arrested by Miss Hale's striking appearance, believes her to be unendurably uppity:

'A more proud, disagreeable girl I never saw.  Even her great beauty is blotted out of one's memory by her scornful ways.'    (p.80)

There are a multitude of well drawn characters in this novel.  Gaskell's writing does remind me of Dickens in terms of the characters.  The story is bursting with a wide variety of characters, that deliberately encompass a full sweep of society.  Gaskell's expert use of dialogue brings this large host of characters to life.

The story is interesting.  The theme of industrial unrest and the differences and conflicts between business owners and workers eerily resonates with our modern world some 150 since this book was written.   I also loved how the relationship between parents and adult children is highlighted and explored.  Nearly all of the characters can be clustered into family groupings where the relationship between parents and their children form a central part of the fabric of the story.  Very memorable to this end is Mrs Thornton, our hero's stern faced and indomitable mother, whose opinion of Miss Margaret Hale, and anyone haling from the south, is far from welcoming. 

North and South is the first of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels I have read, and I look forward to reading more of her work.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters who are at times proud, warm, dramatic, funny but most of all very human.  All in all a very engaging and enjoyable story.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

I happened upon a second hand copy of The Works of Oscar Wilde earlier this year.  I have been dipping into it from time to time.  This afternoon I read his final written work, the poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and was really moved and impressed by it so thought I would share a bit with you.  And no, I have not blogged about poetry before but this lengthy poem is accessible, very dramatic and so atmospheric that I feel compelled to start.

Wilde, an Irish playwright, poet and novelist spent two years in three English prisons, the last being Reading Gaol, serving hard labour for "gross indecency."   

I remember reading his only novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" when I was a teenager and really being captivated by it.  Wilde's sharp observational writing and flamboyantly chaotic life have ensured that he continues to loom large as one of literature's most memorable characters. 

And you know I didn't think I would want to read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it being an enormously long poem after all.  But from the first verse I was caught up in the rhythm of it and couldn't stop reading.  It is a ballad that depicts, or almost chants really, about the dark, soul destroying existence of  life behind bars at the end of the 19th century.

We were as men who through a fen

Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.         

The poem explores what it was like for the prisoners in the lead up to a hanging.  It is really very moving.  And I guess the whole thing has extra poignancy because Wilde has not made this up, this reflects his lived experience as a prisoner.  When the poem was first published in 1898, it was not attributed to Wilde but written under the name C.3.3.,  standing for "cell block C, landing 3, cell 3." 

So with curious eyes and sick surmise

We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.             

Wilde was the celebrated and then notorious "bad boy" of his day.  After being released from prison he went to France, never to return to the UK.  He died in Paris at age 46 in abject poverty. It is a very sad story and one that has always intrigued me.

You can read The Ballad of Reading Gaol online if you are interested.

The portrait of Wilde included in this post was sourced from Wikipedia

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
It is Friday and it is time for the Book Blogger Hop.  For all of the details please pop over to Crazy For Books where Jennifer hosts the Book Blogger Hop.   The question for this week's hop is: How many books do you have on your to be read shelf?  Well, currently I have six.  But I am expecting another to arrive from the Book Depository next week, that will definitely shoot up the waiting list and be read next I think.

All the best for the weekend and happy reading!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Monsoon by Di Morrissey

Teaser Tuesday is a wonderful meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  All you have to do is open your current read at a random page and give two teaser sentences.  Be sure not to give any spoilers and include the name and author of the book so others know what you are reading.

My teaser this week comes from Monsoon, a book largely set in Vietnam, by popular Australian novelist Di Morrissey. This is the first of her books I have read.  It is a light read and I am enjoying it so far.

     Hung gave a slight smile. "No one uses the grotto; it was once a place for..." he struggled for the right word and finally Sandy attempted to help.
    "Smugglers? Pirates? Shipwrecks? Bandits?"  p.60

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

It is a few years since I have read an Agatha Christie mystery and so it came as a very pleasant reminder when I picked up A Caribbean Mystery just how delightful these stories can be.

In a Caribbean Mystery Miss Marple is wintering in the West Indies to benefit her health.  Her nephew Raymond sent her on this holiday after she contracted pneumonia during the previous winter in St Mary Mead.  At the Golden Palm Hotel, Miss Marple is of course soon ensconced in trying to unravel a complicated murder, which inevitably becomes three murders.

My favourite aspect of this Christie novel is the central role idle gossip plays in this resort town.  It is deliciously evoked all the way through.  And while I know gossip usually forms the cornerstone of the Miss Marple mysteries (what else has the poor old dear got to work with) in this novel it really does take centre stage and is done with fun and mischievous flair.

"It seems," said Miss Prescott,  "though of course I don't want to talk any scandal and I really know nothing about it- "
''Oh, I quite understand," said Miss Marple.  p. 52

There are the usual suspects so to speak on this Caribbean holiday experience in the early 1960s.  The couple who own the Hotel are much liked, but also much gossiped over.  There is the young American couple and the young English couple who share an interest in insects and birdlife and who appear to holiday regularly as a quartet, and it is whispered that on first appearances it is difficult to discern who is indeed partnered with whom.  There is the crotchety old millionaire businessman who never has a pleasant word to say to anyone especially his long suffering secretary ( a serious young widow) and his masseuse (a good looking jack the lad type).  There is the English vicar and his sister, the gorgeous South American senora and poor old Major Polgrave who doesn't last much beyond the first couple of pages as his gossiping to Miss Marple no less, about an old murder, is overhead and he is found dead the very next day.

I think perhaps I have read maybe 10 Christie novels over the years, including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Between Poirot and Miss Marple, I have always preferred the Poirot mysteries because more seemed to happen.  A Caribbean Mystery has gone some way to remedying this as I just loved it for what it is: a well plotted, well written, cute and cosy murder mystery.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Teaser Tuesday: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Teaser Tuesday is a fun meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. All you have to do is open your current read to a random page and provide two teaser sentences from that page. Be sure not to give away any spoilers and include the name of the book and author so others know what you are reading.

This week my teaser is from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:

Oh dear! how she could have loved him if he had but been different, with a difference which she felt, on reflection, to be one that went low -deep down.  Then she took it into her head that, after all, his lightness might be but assumed, to cover a bitterness of disappointment which would have been stamped on her own heart if she had loved and been rejected.  p.30


Monday, August 2, 2010

The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian (audiobook)

The Eiger Sanction was first published in 1972 by US author Rodney Whitaker who wrote under the pseudonym Trevanian.  It is an action packed spy thriller romp told very much in spoofish tongue in cheek style.  In its day it was a world wide best seller, and as a self confessed fan of the spy novel genre, I was curious to check it out. 

Our hero is Dr Jonathan Hemlock who is an art professor, art collector and mountaineer.  He lives in an old renovated church and has an extensive art collection. To keep himself in the style to which he has become accustomed he carriers out assassinations, also referred to as "sanctions" for the a US intelligence agency.

His final sanction, for he has decided to leave this particular line of work on its completion, takes him to the treacherous Eiger mountain in the Swiss Alps.  A complication in this particular sanction is that Jonathan does not know ahead of time which of his three fellow climbers is the sanction target.  The action sequences on the treacherous face of the Eiger are very well written and as I was listening I found myself totally absorbed.

The Eiger Sanction is a cleverly written spoof of the spy novel.  I found myself smiling or laughing out loud at times as I listened.   However it does strike me as a bit dated.   Unfortunately there is the occasional reference or joke that is frankly not acceptable anymore and I found myself wincing at times also.  It is a shame, and it got me thinking about the difference between novels that are timeless and able to be fully enjoyed by generations of readers, and those which may be well plotted and well written,  as The Eiger Sanction surely is, but seem a bit crass and dated when read, or listened to, in the light of our present day.