Saturday, June 30, 2012

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Another short Victorian, and hopefully a short review to accompany.  I bought this one several years ago in my quest to read everything by the Brontes, which was delayed after my extreme hatred of Wuthering Heights (I know, it's unfair to compare all three sisters as one entity, but I can't help it.  If it weren't for my love of Jane Eyre, I would have given up on the Brontes all together after reading WH).  This book languished on the shelves, though I did make a halfhearted attempt a couple of years ago when it was selected for my real-life Classics group.  I didn't finish it and the reaction among the group was just meh.  I decided to give it another go for the Victorian Celebration.

So, the setup:  young Agnes is growing up happy, though in somewhat difficult financial circumstances, with her sister, and parents.  Her father is a poor clergyman and her mother was from a wealthy family but abandoned them after she married downward for love.  Money is tight but they're happy, but an unwise investment with the family's savings turns out badly.  Agnes doesn't feel like she's contributing to the household so volunteers to take a position as a governess, basically the only job available to poor women of her social standing.

And what a crappy job it is!  Agnes is the governess of a rich but wretched family.  She has all the responsibility of educating the children, but no power to enforce any discipline.  The children are incredibly spoiled so she never makes any progress, and one of the kids is definitely a psychopath -- his parents think it's okay for him to torture little animals and are angry when Agnes tries to put a stop to it. Needless to say, this job doesn't work out and the reader is relieved when Agnes returns home to the rectory.

Her second job is only slightly better, the children are shallow and empty-headed and again, no discipline, yet the parents expect miracles.  The kids are older, only a little younger than Agnes herself. The oldest daughter is looking for a husband and is pretty heartless, toying with the affections of all the local men, though she pretends to treat Agnes as a friend.  Agnes is hopelessly lonely -- she'll never be on the same level as her employers; she's not the same social status of the servants, who don't trust her, so basically, she has no one to talk to, and she has almost no free time to make friends in the village anyway.

Basically, Agnes Grey is an autobiographical expose on the horrible life of the governess.  It's very short, but I ended up stopping halfway through and for more than a week I had no desire whatsoever to finish it, it was just so negative.  However, after I basically forced myself to pick it up again, I was able get through it pretty quickly.  The second half got better and there was an interesting plot development which actually made me wish the book had been longer.  It definitely felt like a first novel, or even a first draft -- I feel like if the story had been fleshed out more, it might have been as good as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or even Jane Eyre.  It's just too bad Anne Bronte died after writing only the two books.  I really would like to have seen what she'd come up with next.

So now I've read five of the seven complete novels by the Brontes, only Shirley and The Professor before I've completed them all.  Are they worth reading?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

This book kind of fell into my lap a couple of weeks ago at the library.  Although I was hoping to read a children's classic during the Victorian Celebration, this book was not on my original list -- I still have The Water Babies and At the Back of the North Wind waiting on the shelves.  However, I was shelving books at the library and I noticed this one, which had a really nice cover.  And since I had another copy at home, (though a different edition) I could kill two birds by reading a Victorian book and a book off my own shelves.

Anyhow.  This book is both a Victorian and a historical fiction.  Robert Louis Stevenson, a Victorian writer from Scotland, was writing about a character set in Scotland during the 1750s, after the Jacobite revolution.  The story begins with young David Balfour, the poor son of a teacher who is now an orphan after his father's death.  On the advice of the local minister, he travels on foot to meet his long-lost uncle, who was estranged from his father and is living like a miser in a great estate.  Instead of being pleased to see his long-lost nephew, curmudgeonly Ebenezer first tries to trick him into falling down a tower, then hustles him off onto a ship to be sold into slavery in the Colonies.  (I can't really count this as a spoiler, since the title of the book is, ahem, Kidnapped.)

However, things don't work out as Uncle Ebenezer plans.  The ship is full of nasty characters, but after hitting a small boat, they pick up the only survivor, a Scotsman named Alan Breck.  David allies with Alan and they have lots more adventures together while trying to prove David's birthright, including shipwreck, mistaken identity, and hiding from redcoats.  There's lots of tramping about in the woods, hiding under heather, and avoiding shots from muskets and whatnot.  There's also plenty of Scottish history and vocabulary thrown in.  Stevenson incorporates a lot of actual Scottish history and names of real people, but since everything I know about Scottish history comes from watching Braveheart and reading the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (which lost me after about the third or fourth volume), I was kind of lost during parts of it.

Still, I mostly enjoyed this book.  My favorite parts were the interaction between David and his new best friend Alan, who's a character of questionable morals but evidently with a heart of gold.  Parts of this story were reminiscent of one of those road-trip stories with two strangers thrown together.

Other than my lack of understanding of Scottish history, my main quibble with the book the ending, which was incredibly abrupt.  I realize this story was serialized, but it just seemed to stop.  I suppose Stevenson wanted readers to keep reading the sequel, Catriona, which I'd never even heard of (it's known as David Balfour here in the U.S.).

So.  I can see why it isn't as popular as the iconic Treasure Island, but still, an entertaining (if somewhat frustrating) story, but a nice swashbucker and a fun, quick Victorian read.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Paris in July

Once again, Karen from Bookbath and Tamara from Thyme for Tea are hosting Paris in July!  This a really fun event.  The guidelines are easy -- no minimums, just blogging about pretty much anything French-inspired, including reading French books, watching French movies, eating French food [!!] or reminiscing about French travel experiences.  What's not to like?

It was so much fun reading books about France last year, and I loved discovering so many new books on the blogosphere.  Of course, I'll be participating again.  This year I'm going to try and coordinate my French reads with my remaining challenge books and with the Victorian celebration -- and of course, I'm always trying to read books off the TBR shelves!

Here are some possible titles from my own shelves:

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc
Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Plus, I'm definitely going to read another book by Emile Zola.
I still have several unread:

The Earth
The Ladies' Paradise
L'Assommoir (The Drinking Den)
The Masterpiece

And there are a few that I might check out from the library:

Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier
A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe
Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau
Bonjour, Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Ideally, I'd like to read at least four, but two or three would be great too -- if I complete one from each list, I'll be happy.

And I'd like to watch some French movies as well.  I have a long list I've never seen, including:

La Bete Humaine
The Class
I've Loved You So Long
Kings of Pastry
My Father's Glory
Paris, Je T'aime
Queen Margot
Queen to Play
A Town Called Panic

How about you, bloggers?  Anyone else signing up?  What are you reading?  And which of these books do you recommend?

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome

Before I started reading Victorians, I thought they were all so long, and so serious, and had so many words. . . . and a lot of them do.  But I was really surprised to people had a sense of humor back then. If you haven't read Jerome K. Jerome, he's hilarious -- his most famous work, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is one of my all time favorites.  If you haven't read it, it's the story of J., a slightly dimwitted Victorian man known as J.,  who takes a boat trip down the Thames, with two equally clueless friends and a hyperactive fox terrier, Montmorency.  (I've often compared it to Jeeves and Wooster -- if Bertie went on a trip and took a dog along instead of Jeeves.  Hilarity ensues). 

I'd never seen anything else written by JKJ, other than the sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, in which the friends reunite and take a bicycle trip through Germany, though I still haven't read it.  However, I was poking around Half-Price Books a couple of years ago and found a Nonsuch classics copy of Diary of a Pilgrimage, which I'd never heard of.  It was by Jerome K. Jerome and it was only $4, so I couldn't resist.  (It then sat on the shelf with all those other books I HAD to buy, then promptly forgot.)  The Victorian Celebration was the perfect time to re-visit Jerome.  

The setup is very similar to the other books -- basically, a travelogue is the excuse to make witty observations about life and travelers thrown in different situations, with some witty asides.  In this story, the narrator and his friend "B" take a trip to Oberammergau, Germany, to see the Passion Play, a traditional seven hour play about the life of Christ, which the locals have put on every ten years since 1634, during the height of the bubonic plague. 

Though the Passion Play is the purpose of the journey, it's mostly just an excuse for Jerome to make funny comments about travel and tourism, and life in general.  For example, after he's invited on the trip, the narrator considers the invitation:

I pondered for a moment, looked at my diary, and saw that Aunt Emma was coming to spend Saturday to Wednesday next with us, calculated that if I went I should miss her, and might not see her again for years, and decided that I would go.

Jerome also pokes fun at tourists, packing, railway journeys and saving seats, maps that are out of date, and things of that nature.  I was delighted to discover that Jerome's journey from London to Bavaria was nearly identical to the route that I took many years ago with my sister -- we were poor students and took the Trans-Alpino from London to Berlin, an overnight journey of 22 hours which I will never forget.  We took a night train from London to Dover, changed to a ferry, and then we went to Ostend, Belgium -- just like Jerome.  In the middle of the night we switched to a train which took us to Cologne (Jerome talks about the famous cathedral towers, which we sadly missed).  Jerome's journey was about 100 years before mine, so the trains were slower and his trip lasted several days; he and B. stop several times to do sightseeing and stay overnight in inns, unlike my sister and me.  Still, it was fun to read about someone in a book take nearly the same route as us.

This book is short, less than 200 pages, and my edition was a cute little paperback, only about five by seven inches; plus it had illustrations so it's a very quick read.  It's broken up into short chapters so it's easy to pick up and read a bit when you have time.  It's a really nice antidote to some of the heavier (and longer) Victorian on my to-read list.  If you're looking for a short Victorian, it's just the thing.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Victorian Celebration Giveaway Winner

Well, there were so many great responses, I was overwhelmed!  I had such a hard time narrowing down my favorites, so I decided to make it a tie!  And the lucky winners are. . . .

Kerry M. from

AND . . . . 

Susanna from SusieBookworm

Kerry wins a copy of The Warden, because she wants to read the underappreciated Anthony Trollope (who referred to Dickens as "Mr. Popular Sentiment");   Susanna wins a copy of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, because it's her dream to have a bookstore/herbal tea room named "Three Women and a Book, to Say Nothing of the Cat."

Congratulations to both of them!  I'll be contacting you both shortly via email or your blogs.   Please respond within 48 hours.

Thanks again to everyone who entered.  And stay tuned because I'm planning another giveaway in July.  It's a related giveaway but the prizes will be different.  I'll say no more!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

So, I finally finished the SECOND of the two big fat books I was reading simultaneously (note to self: this is a bad idea).  Cutting for Stone is one of those books that's been floating around the book discussion group circuit and seems to be mostly beloved.  I never made time to read it, but I had a copy that I bought for a mere $1 at the library sale a couple of years ago, so I used my powers as book club coordinator to put it on the reading list.

I knew nothing about this book, other than it was more than 500 pages long and had something to do with a doctor and Ethiopia.  I knew nothing about Ethiopia either, other than once having eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago called Mama Desta's Red Sea, where the food was extremely spicy, and there was no silverware -- you eat with little pieces of bread called injera.  (That's in the book too -- the bread, not the restaurant)

An Ethiopian meal served on a bed of injera.

But I digress.  This is a big book, full of stuff.  Without spoilers, here's the setup:  In 1954, at an Ethiopian hospital, a beautiful Indian nun (who is also a nurse) Sister Mary Joseph Praise, goes into premature labor, shocking the entire staff with the fact that she's pregnant.  She gives birth to twins, Marion and Shiva, who both grow up to be doctors.  The story is told from the point of view of the elder twin, Marion, who tells the story of his birth and conception, and his coming of age.  The story covers Ethiopian history, political uprisings, loves, and loss.

After reading it off and on for a couple of weeks (alternating with other books) I finally finished it.  After thinking about it for a while, I realized the best way to describe this book is messy.  It's a big, sprawling novel, and it covers more than 30 years of Marion's life, not including the back story of his parents and other characters.  It's kind of all over the place, jumping around and breaking up the narrative.  It takes 200 pages for these kids to be born, because the author kept digressing into the various character's histories, including the history of someone who doesn't even get a proper name until the end of the book.  I found this really erratic and frankly, quite annoying at times.

I'd also describe this book as messy because there is an awful lot of medical stuff, and to be frank, it's not for the squeamish.  There are a lot of bodily fluids and functions described, and unless you have a strong stomach, you might not to read parts of it while eating (I spend almost every lunch hour reading when I'm at work).  The author of the book, Abraham Verghese, is both a doctor and a writer.  This is his first novel, but he's been a doctor for years, and is currently a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, so he obviously knows his stuff.  I did find the medical stuff very interesting, but it's not for everyone.

I also really enjoyed learning about Ethiopia and about Marion's life as a medical student, but overall, I thought the novel was just too much -- there's a LOT of melodrama and unbelievable coincidences, several of which I just couldn't get over.  It was an interesting read, but I really felt like it could have used some editing.  I also found a lot of the characters to be quite undeveloped -- he'd spend pages and pages on a character, then they'd be relegated to the background.  Plus I think he spent more time creating a character's history, not so much the actual characters themselves.  Does that make sense?  It's like he spent more time describing them, instead of showing us more through their dialogue and actions.

I also realized after reading it that both Cutting for Stone and my previous read, Of Human Bondagewere coming-of-age stories about orphaned boys who become doctors.  (And both were long).  But that's where the comparison ended.  Compared to Of Human Bondage, this book was really lacking in character development, and the writing wasn't nearly as good.  Overall, Cutting for Stone was an interesting book, but I wouldn't say I'm raving about it.  I'm glad I read it and I'm sure we'll have a good discussion, but I can't say it will be considered a classic someday.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Victorian Celebration Giveaway

Oh, how I love my Victorians.  My love affair with them probably started years ago, when I first read Jane Eyre in college.   I really hit my stride with the Victorians a few years ago when I became with pretty much obsessed with Dickens.  Which led to Gaskell.  And Trollope, and Thackeray, and Wilde, and Hardy. . . . I recently checked my Goodreads list, and I've read about 50 Victorians since I started my quest to read more classics in 2005.

So it's time for me to share the love!  In honor of Allie's Victorian Celebration (and my birthday), I've decided to host a giveaway.  One winner will receive his or her choice of any Victorian novel I've ever reviewed on this blog -- whether I liked it or not!   I've gone back and counted, and since I started blogging in 2009 I've reviewed 21 Victorian novels, plus one play.  For the purposes of this giveaway, I'm only counting works published in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901.

So here's a recap, year by year, of all my Victorian novel reviews since I started this blog, with links:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
A House to Let by Charles Dickens
The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Charlotte Bronte

Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith
Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Lots of great choices, so enter now!  Here's how the giveaway is going to work:

1.  To enter, simply leave a comment with your choice of any of the above Victorian novels, and tell me why you want to read it.  Have you read another work by the same author?  Was my review so intriguing that you're now dying to read that book?   Do you just like the pretty cover?  Normally I choose the winner at random, but this time around, I'm simply going to pick the comment that I like the best, so be creative!

2.  The drawing will close on 5 p.m. Sunday, June 17, Central Standard Time (U.S).

3.  I'll be shipping the book via The Book Depository, so if you live outside the U.S. or Britain, check here to see if they ship to your country. (I reserve the right to send via another online retailer if the winner lives in the U.S.)

4.  You must leave some kind of contact in your comment, if it doesn't automatically link to your blog. 

5.  I will announce the winner  by 11:59 p.m. Sunday, June 17, the same day as the drawing ends.  I'll post it on the blog the same day.  I'll also contact the winner, either via his or her blog, or by the email address provided.

6.  The winner must contact me within 48 hours, or I'll choose another winner.

7.  I'll choose a very nice paperback edition for the winner (probably Penguin or Oxford World's Classics).

So -- please leave your giveaway entries in the comments below.  I can't wait to see what everyone chooses!  Happy reading!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

"Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment." 

Of Human Bondage is one of the very first classics I ever read for pleasure, and I still love it.  I first read it when I was eighteen, a freshman in college.  It was forced upon me by a boy in my dorm, who lived down the hall and on whom I had an enormous crush.  He insisted I take it home over Christmas break and read it.  How could I refuse?  Well, I did end up loving the book, though things never worked out between the two of us.

Years later, I've read lots more classics for pleasure, including several by Maugham, but I never picked it up again -- I had so many other books I wanted to read!  It's actually been so long since I read it that I could barely remember the story any more.  I didn't even remember how it ended!   Finally, I decided it was time for a reread.  Last fall we nominated books for 2012 our classics group at the library, and I put this on my list -- I wanted so much to discuss it with other people!  Well, wouldn't you know it, things came up and I had to miss the discussion, but I couldn't resist reading the book again anyway (I also added it to my Classics Club and Chunkster Challenge lists).  And I am pleased to report that I still loved this book the second time around, maybe even more so than the first time.

For those who aren't familiar with the book, it's a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, loosely based on the life of the author W. Somerset Maugham.  (It's a long book, so I'll try to give the setup without too many spoilers). The main character is Philip Carey, a young man growing up with a clubfoot in the late Victorian period.  He's orphaned as a small boy and sent to live with his uncle, a strict vicar in a small town in Kent.  His aunt is kind but doesn't know much about raising children.  Philip is a bright boy but mostly bullied by his schoolmates because of his disability, and his teachers seem pretty heartless.

However, Philip is a bright boy, and when he's older, he goes off to boarding school, and his teachers expect great things of him.  His uncle expects him to go off to Oxford and then take orders, but Philip has doubts about religion.  Instead, he goes to Germany for a year to study before returning to England.  Philip has a small inheritance, and tries various professions. He spends two years as an art student in Paris before he realizes he'll never be anything but a mediocre artist, so he finally decides to follow in his late father's footsteps and become a doctor.

One fateful night in a cafe, Philip meets a waitress named Mildred, and it's the beginning of an obsessive relationship.  Mildred is really toxic, one of the most obnoxious characters I've ever met in literature.  The book deals with their relationship and Philip's personal growth along the way.   Will Philip marry this horrible woman?  Will she put him in the poorhouse with her greed?   "He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her.  He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other."

Bette Davis as Mildred and Leslie Howard as Philip in the 1934 film adaptation
This book is more than 600 pages, but I breezed through it in about five days.  I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen, though I did have to grit my teeth and power through a few times -- Mildred is so awful, I really wanted to reach into the book and throttle her!  And Philip deserved a few good smacks upside the head a couple of times too.  But I really did love this book.  Philip's personal journey is really interesting and I got really caught up with it emotionally, I was really on the edge of my seat.  And I found the writing to be just wonderful and insightful.  Apparently Maugham considered himself among the best of the second-rate writers, but I disagree.  I kept finding passages throughout the book that I loved, and kept marking them with sticky notes (since I hate writing in my books).

I also loved reading about Philip's year in Germany, and his attempts to be an artist.  A couple of times Philip mentions a stockbroker fellow who chucked it all to be an artist in the South Seas, which is obviously Paul Gauguin -- who shows up in his 1919 novel, The Moon and Sixpence -- another Maugham novel which I read years ago and have essentially forgotten.  I'll have to reread that one again as well.

Has anyone else read this book?  Did you love it as much as me?  Any more Maugham you can recommend?  And have any of you reread a favorite classic after a long period?  Did you still love it or was it just not the same?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Seriously, George R. R. Martin????  I mean, seriously?????

That is what I want to say to the author.  After more than 1000 pages, if you count the appendix, I am getting kind of disgusted with this series.  I've been reading this book off and on more more than a month, and the payoff was basically zilch.  I love the world of Westeros and all the characters, but really, this was extremely time-consuming, confusing, and with very little payoff.

If you've read the books, you'll know some of what I'm talking about, and you don't want any spoilers.  If you haven't read the series, you probably haven't read this far anyway.  So, there's no point in much of a synopsis.  Suffice to say there are more adventures of the various denizens of Westeros, from multiple viewpoints, but not all of the characters.  If you are looking for resolution and answers, there are few, and we must keep waiting.

First, I have to say that of the five books in this series, this one took by far the longest for me to read.  As I mentioned in previous posts, I was also caught up in books for three different book groups, plus I'd been listening to a monster work by Dickens on audio simultaneously, so shame on me.  But this book just did not grab me and obsess me like the others, not even A Feast for Crows which isn't as good as the first three.  It took me more than a month, compared to less than a week each for each of the other books, and compared to the rest, A Dance with Dragons is kind of a slogfest.  Here are some of my problems with the book.

1.  Too many characters.  That's right, from the woman who loves Dickens and can juggle multiple plot lines and characters, this book has too damn many.  After four volumes and more than 3600 pages of this series already, with hundreds of characters, you'd think that GRRM would have created enough, right???  Wrong; so very, very wrong.  Each book is told from multiple viewpoints, and having mastered the major players in earlier books, GRRM has decided it's important to elevate a whole bunch of minor characters to leading character status, so the people who engaged and involved you earlier have essentially disappeared.  Instead of chapters focusing on eight or nine revolving characters, like the earlier books, this one has chapters featuring about sixteen!!!  Some of them get a lot of time, some, just a little.  Martin throws the reader a bone now and then with a short little chapter to keep you from throwing the book across the room, but I got hundreds of pages about minor characters about whom I don't give a tiny little rat's behind.  Why is he wasting my time with these people???

2.  Too much back story.  Not only does he constantly give us new characters, new travels, new adventures, there's tons and tons of back story and history and legends that I can't keep straight.  Sorry, George, I don't want to read about the legend of this goddess or this saint or the mythology of this new land.  I can hardly keep all these other people straight, and you want me to learn more?  It really seems like he's a little ADD.  Is he bored with all the important characters?  If you want to start a new series, fine, but please don't leave me hanging with all my favorite people.  At least don't pretend you're continuing the first series.

3.  Too many crazy names.  My biggest complaint about high fantasy in general is all the world building and all the new vocabulary.  At least most of the people in the original books had relatively easy names, like Jon and Robb and Arya and Eddard and Catelyn.  I can even manage Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin, Tyrion, Sansa, and Petyr.  Even the most exotic names, like Daenerys, Khal Drogo, and Jaqen H'gahr, fine.  But now we've moved into a whole new realm of weirdness with the land of Mireen and some really funky names that just tire me out.  Reznak, Hizdahr, and God help me, Yurkhaz zo Yunzak.  Yezzan zo Qaggaz!!  Seriously????  Is George Martin just trying to use up those high-scoring tiles in a A Game of Thrones Scrabble?  (He also loves names with apostrophes, which always irritates me.)  This book clocks in at more than 1000 pages, but fifty pages at the end are an appendix with names, so you can try and keep the characters straight.  Riiiiiiight.  Honestly, I think GRRM should have spent more time working on the story, and less time making up names for people.

4.  No map of the lands beyond Westeros.  The front and back end papers have a lovely and detailed map of Westeros with Kings Landing, Winterfell, the Wall, and the lands in between.  But half the story in the last two books (and parts of the other three) have taken place in other places -- Braavos, Mireen, Pentos, and on various sea voyages.  Don't you think it would be helpful to give us a map?  Where are these places, and how far away are they from Westeros?  Martin gives us 50 pages of character names, but no map?  Why not??

Anyway.  This book was a lot of work, and in the end, just a disappointment.  I admit I did know there are at least two more books on the horizon to finish the series, but basically, this book is 1000 pages long, and not much happens.  How is that possible?  I got sucked into this series a year ago after watching the excellent HBO adaptation of the first novel, and I've been saving this book for about six months.

Am I being too nitpicky?  Am I asking too much of the author -- but seriously, if the book is so complicated that I have to consult an online wiki while I'm reading it, then something is wrong here.  I love the characters and the land of Westeros, but I'm getting fed up.  And now I'll probably have to wait five years to find out what happens next.  If anything.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Welcome to my first post of A Victorian Celebration, hosted by Allie of A Literary Odyssey!   I hope you'll visit her website to see all the Victorians people are reading this summer.  I have a lot of Victorians to read and review, so I'm very excited about it.  I'll be posting all summer long and I'll even be hosting a giveaway of my own, so stay tuned.

On to my book review!  I'm slowly working my way through the novels of Charles Dickens, and with Our Mutual Friend I have finished eleven of his fourteen major completed novels.   It's the last novel Dickens completed before his death, and I was worried it wouldn't hold up to some of my other favorites.  To my delight, OMF is now among my favorites.

Without too many details for fear of spoilers, here's the setup of the novel:

One evening, a man named Gaffer and his daughter Lizzie are out on a boat on the Thames River, when they find a dead body.  Gaffer makes his living basically scrounging whatever he can find floating in the river (frequently, it turns out, from drowning victims).  It turns out this particular dead man is John Harmon, the heir to an enormous fortune.  Harmon had just returned from abroad to claim his inheritance, which came with the strict stipulation that he marry a particular young lady chosen by his father, and whom he had never met.  Instead, the inheritance now goes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, faithful servants to the wealthy Mr. Harmon, who made his fortune from garbage heaps.

Now that the Boffins are newly wealthy, a host of people with questionable motives start to circle like vultures, trying to get a piece of their wealth, including Mr. Wegg, a poet who is paid to read to Mr. Boffin; Mr. Rokesmith, his new secretary; and Bella Wilfer, the young lady who was the bride-to-be, now not quite a widow.   It also explores the murder of Harmon and the intertwining fates of the Gaffer family, who become linked with the Boffins and the mysterious case.  This book also includes romance, humor, and satire.

Like Martin Chuzzlewit, much of the plot is based on people's greed, though it's a very different story.  Like Bleak House, it's a murder mystery.  Typically for Dickens, the characters are a mix of the grotesque, the comic, and the angelic ingenues -- this time, there are three young ladies eligible for the part of Dickens' heroine, though I found two of the three much less irritating than Dickens' typical saintly young ladies.  I did end up loving several of the characters, and couldn't wait to find out what happened to them next.  I was lucky enough to get the Naxos audiobook version of this from my library, and listened to quite a bit of it in the car on the way to and from work.  However, I got so caught up in the story I also had a print copy going as well, because some days I just couldn't wait to find out what happened next.

I really enjoyed this novel, though like Dickens' later works, it does have a lot of intertwining plots and characters to keep track of -- at one point I started a list, and I think I lost count at about 40 characters.  There were a few side plots I didn't care much about, but I do believe if I knew more about English politics and history I would have appreciated them more -- they were mostly political satire about the workings of Parliament.

Years ago, in college, I passed up a chance to take a course on Dickens in favor of Tolstoy, simply because of the reading load -- I think there were three or four novels for Dickens, and when I added up the pages it was more than 2000 pages for an eleven week class (we were on quarters).  In the Tolstoy class, it was about 1300 pages for War and Peace and that was pretty much it.   I'd never read any Dickens and was so overwhelmed I chickened out and registered for Tolstoy instead.  I liked War and Peace but I'll always regret not taking Dickens when I had the chance.  

Well, I'm making up for it now.  I loved Our Mutual Friend, and it's now one of my favorite Dickens novels.  I only need to read three more before I've finished them all -- The Pickwick Papers; The Old Curiosity Shop; and Barnaby Rudge.  Then I'm going to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood and I'll have completed them all!