The Big Read

No.48 – Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy Read 24/6/15

Affiliate Link: Far from the Madding Crowd – Wordsworth Classics

Not Far From the Maddening Crowd as I have been calling it for a long time whoops.

Anyway. Now I know Hardy has this miserable reputation so I wasn’t exactly skipping at the prospect of reading this novel but the ebook was free so I started it on a train journey. Let me tell you something it wasn’t so bad. Does it make you feel warm and fuzzy inside? No. Better than Dickens? Most definitely.

So Bathsheba (pronounce Bahth-she-bah I know what a name) Everdene (no relation to Katniss) is this independent, strong willed, very beautiful women and everybody falls in love with her. But proud Bathsheba won’t settle for just anybody and holds out for true love. Although, when she finds it, things don’t quite work out as planned.

The book is set in Victorian Wessex and focuses on the farming community of Weatherby a fictional village. Now I am from Wessex and I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable in areas of pastoral country scenes but I wouldn’t have had a clue what was happening a lot of the time if it wasn’t for the footnotes in my edition. Quite a lot of dialect is used and there are a lot of farming terms used which I had never heard before. Hardy uses these elements to create a really atmospheric story. He beautiful captures the simple nature of life in the countryside from the hedge rows to the farm houses.

His characters are…. frustrating. The only one I like is Gabriel Oak, the laid back farmer. Every one else is difficult to get on with. They all have there flaws. Bathsebha’s pride, Boldwood’s possessiveness, Sargent Troy’s arrogance, they make for exasperating reading. But Hardy shows us just enough of their good qualities to stop them being unbearable. As I was reading it part of me hoped they would get what they deserved. Sometimes I thought that was happiness, sometimes I thought is was punishment for their sins and in a way that’s what happens in the end.

The novel is quite slow in pace. This isn’t unpleasant, it feels like a gentle stroll along country roads. But then the ending was a huge shock. I really couldn’t believe it. Scandal! Drama! In this tiny fictional town! I read the last few chapters or so in a complete rush because I had to know what happened. Who would have expected that from a provincial story from the 1870s?

I think this is probably one of Hardy’s more accessible works. I know a little about a few others and think I shall struggle with those more. Still I really enjoyed it. It took me back to my part of the world in a way that was very different from Jane Austen. The people were so much more real for their struggles and as a result more alive. This was one of those classics where I am sure the literary worth was great but I didn’t noticed because I could only think about the story.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: ease you into slightly heavier classics.

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The Big Read

No. 79 – Bleak House, Charles Dickens Read 21/4/15

Affiliate Link:Bleak House (Penguin Classics)

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be done with Bleak House. It is my third Dickens from the list, leaving only A Tale of Two Cities, and it is my second book over 700 pages of the 15 I am trying to read this year. You might have noticed that at the rate I am going, I am never going to make it to 15 and I realise this. December is going to be really fun.

Anyway Bleak House. Rather than bore you with my thoughts on Dickens again I shall just leave links to my reviews of David Copperfield and Great Expectations here. However, Bleak House has opened my mind slightly to old Charlie. Whereas before the door was firmly shut it is now ajar. Bleak House is my favourite Dickens so far.

The novel is a satire of a Victorian court system called the Court of Chancery. I shall warn you now don’t bother trying to understand what this court does because it is impossible and always has been. Anyway, this court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been raging for years and years and nobody can make head nor tail of it but what does happen is that two young people become the ward of a Mr Jarndyce of Bleak House. Our Narrator, Ester Summerson, has also been in the care of Mr Jarndyce since her aunt died, although she didn’t know it, and has been invited by Mr Jarndyce to become the companion of his ward Ada. Ester’s narrative runs parallel to an unknown narrator who deals with all the usually Dickensian stuff.

The beginning few chapters of Bleak House had me going “Oh God not again”. I can perfectly illustrate my point with this quote,

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

This is one of 5 paragraphs in the first chapter that mention fog. If you make it through the fog you eventually get to Ester’s Narrative which is so much more enjoyable. After a while the Dickens narrator, as I like to think of it, settles down as well and we get into the stories of some other people. That is the other thing about Bleak House there are a lot of characters to keep track of lots of law workers, lots of poor people and they tend to bleed into one.

I was rather disappointed to find out the Bleak House, wasn’t really bleak at all. In fact it is a comfortable, warm environment filled with love and affection. I know. What the hell Dickens? Don’t mislead me like that. The bleak side of Bleak House comes from the Court and the lawyers who uphold it. There is some very good social commentary made about the poor of London and how the Court cripples people but also about the power of the rich. Surprisingly, I found it still relevant today.

If you can wrap your head around all that there is an excellent mystery that runs through both narratives. I mean it’s no Gone Girl but it was enough to keep me turning the pages, if very very slowly. What I did like about this book was the way the characters weave through both narratives and Dickens throws in a few surprises along the way. You have your suspicions as a reader, some of mine turned out to be true, others I missed completely. It was by far the most enjoyable Dickens I have read and I am going into A Tale of Two Cities with a little less dread for having read Bleak House.

Rating: 4/5 (generous maybe more like 3.75)

Would recommend to: start with this one if you are new to Dickens.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_of_Chancery

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The Big Read

No 17. – Great Expectations, Charles Dickens Read 5/1/15

Affiliate Links:Great Expectations (Wordsworth Classics)

*Contains Spoilers*

Dickens. I am sure you are well aware by now that I really struggle with Dickens. Great Expectations was no different I started it in June of the previous year and was finally done with it this January. If you don’t know the plot of Great Expectations a young country boy Pip, is coerced by and escaped convict to help him remove his chains by stealing a file. This event shapes his life forever.

The story is also haunted by Miss Havisham a jilted bride who 20 years on still has the wedding breakfast laid out on the table and still wears her wedding gown. At a young age Pip is taken to Miss Havisham’s house to play cards with her young ward Estella. Pip falls in love with the cold but beautiful Estella and spends a good part of his life pining after her. When Pip is made a gentleman by a wealthy patron he assumes that it is Miss Havisham who intends to raise him from his poverty to marry Estella. But things don’t quite turn out that way.

It is pretty standard Dickens stuff. Poverty, dingy places, lawyers and clerks a few crazy people. I didn’t like Pip, I didn’t like Estella I hated Miss Havisham and always have done*. The only person I liked in the whole story was Joe. Joe is Pip’s brother-in-law who cares for him in his early days when he lives with his awful sister, Joe’s wife. WHY IS PIP SO MEAN TO JOE. It makes me so mad that as Pip becomes a gentleman he becomes ashamed of Joe don’t you remember all the kind things he did for you?

The story gets really slow in the middle so no surprises there. There is a bit where Pip is living it up in London being an ungrateful little toe-rag that seemed to go on for ages and I couldn’t wait for it to end. But after that all the things happen. Crickey it’s like Dickens saves it all up for the last few chapters. Now I have to talk about the ending because I think I misinterpreted it so ***SPOILER WARNING****

*Spoilers*

*Spoilers*

*Spoilers*

Right okay I might need you all to help me out here. So Magwitch dies, Pip is bailed out by Joe and he finally realises that Joe is awesome and goes to Egypt with Herbert to earn the money to repay Joe. Got all that thank God Pip realised he was being an idiot. It is just the last sentence when he sees Estella again “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”. I took this to mean that Pip was very much of the mindset ‘I can leave her here, never see her again and be happy’ because there won’t be another parting. But according to Wikipedia it means they get married??? I don’t like this ending at all. I liked the idea that both Pip and Estella have grown from their misfortune and they leave the past behind them and continue in the world as better people. Not that they see each other again after 11 years and go back to a place emotionally where they were both terrible people. Why do that? I don’t get it. Anyway, in my head they never see each other again and leave Satins House with peace and forgiveness knowing that having known the other person was important and made them better people.

Rating: 3/5

Would recommend to: read for bragging rights/ literary study but not pleasure.

*I had to study a poem at GCSE English called Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy. I had a big fight with my teacher about it because she reckoned Miss Havisham was tragic and I thought she needed a slap.

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Other Books 2013/14

Other Books – Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen Read 17/12/14

Affiliate Link: Northanger Abbey (Vintage Classics Austen Series)

Sometimes I think about the fact that by my age Jane Austen had already written Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I normally then have a bit of a crisis as to what am I doing with my life. Anyway, as previously established on Bernie and Books, I love Jane Austen and I have kind of started a new little challenge for myself to read all her published works. Next on the Jane Austen list and what with needing a bit of a break from the top 100 after On the Road, I started on Northanger Abbey. 

Whereas with every previous Austen I had read, I had never seen an adaptation of Northanger Abbey and it was a refreshing experience to go into the novel blind. Catherine Morland is one of 10 children of a clergyman. Her life is no where near as exciting as the heroines in her favourite Gothic Novels. When family friends invite Catherine to Bath the usual Jane Austen romantic conflict happens. The best bit is when Catherine’s friends from Bath invite her to stay at their home Northanger Abbey and its Gothic nature fires Catherine’s imagination resulting in ‘misunderstandings of the heart’.

One of my favourite things about Austen’s writing is the satire and let me tell you she is on point with Northanger Abbey. I think to understand a lot of it you have to be familiar with the conventions of Gothic Literature so perhaps read some of Catherine Morland’s favourite books before you start it. If you can’t be bothered with that, this book offers just as much enjoyment from the misunderstandings, romantic conflicts and comic characters as Emma, S&s or P&P. 

I really enjoyed the setting of Bath as it made a change from the grand country houses we normally see in Austen’s work. Admittedly the last portion of the book takes place in a grand country house but it was really interesting to see a different aspect of Austen’s world. I must admit I was bit confused when I started reading it because, as with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin I felt a bit like “this book needed a different title”.

I love the ending of this book so much. Normally with Austen there is a happily ever after so I don’t think I am giving too much away if I say that this book is very similar although not the same. Right at the end when you least expected I was completely in shock and then wetting myself laughing. There is the biggest curve ball and it works perfectly. Perhaps this book should have been called Incorrect Assumptions or something like that because that really is the predominant theme.

In terms of where it sits with the other Jane Austen I have read I would say I like it a lot more than Emma, a bit more than Pride and Prejudice but it sits in a comfortable second after Sense and Sensibility. 

Rating:4/5

Would recommend to: give it a go if you’re new to Jane Austen.    

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The Big Read

No. 1 – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien Read 22/7/14

Affiliate Link:The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 3 books, RRP £26.97 (The Fellowship of the Ring; The Two Towers; The Return of the King).

This is another book that is going to be very hard to review. All I can do is be honest, I don’t care if I have nothing new to add to the conversation on The Lord of the Rings or if my opinion isn’t cool enough or whatever. I can only say how I truly feel.

I grew up with the Peter Jackson film trilogy and although it never grabbed me as a child as Harry Potter did I have many fond memories involving, LOTR Top Trumps and actions figures. Now I was defiantly too young to love Lord of the Rings when it first came out and as with most things from my childhood I rediscovered them as a teenager with renewed vigour. And yet despite the fact aged 18 Lord of  the Rings overtook Harry Potter and even Star Wars as my favourite fantasy series I couldn’t bring myself to read the books.

This is because everyone, literally everyone I knew told me that they were impossibly hard to read and completely inaccessible. Even my English Literature teacher told me that they were so difficult she only succeeded in reading them on the third attempt. And this made me dread the experience. I knew I was going to have to tackle them at some point for my BBC challenge but I waited until the summer holidays when I had nothing to do but read, so I could focus all my energy on beating this insurmountable force.

I will tell you now, everything that everyone ever told me about The Lord of the Rings was a lie. I could hardly believe it! What was all this fuss about it being so challenging? Wuthering Heights is harder to read than The Lord of the Rings and I read that when I was 15! I was furious I had been denied the immeasurable pleasure of reading the greatest fantasy adventure ever written because of a load of rubbish about how hard it was.

In reality The Lord of the Rings is wonderful to read. The language is utterly absorbing and transports you to Middle Earth so completely you forget about the book and the words and you just live the story. It doesn’t have the detail of the films, nor the emotion but I don’t mind that. The beauty of The Lord of the Rings is in the complex structure of that universe and its peoples. There is less focus on characters and more on plot and it has the feeling of a Medieval epic, a Shakespeare play and The Canterbury Tales all rolled into one.

I know I shall read it again and again throughout my life. In fact I intend to buy a beautiful edition to sit on my bookshelf so that I can just admire it that is how powerfully the experience of reading this book has remained with me. I am not embarrassed to love The Lord of the Rings and I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea and many people think it nerdy but I couldn’t care less.

Rating: 5/5

Would recommend to: read before you die even if you don’t think you’ll like it. It will enrich your life.

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The Big Read

No. 49 – Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian read 28/4/14

Affiliate Link:Goodnight Mister Tom

Now I have rather a personal connection with Michelle Magorian. Not only is she from my home town, she also attended the same drama school that I do and I knew none of this until I opened the front cover and read her biography. This book had sat on my shelf for years and I had never read it. I remember a TV film from my childhood and I knew there was a theme of child abuse *I’m going to put a trigger warning here* and so I had avoided it on the assumption it was going to be really depressing. But when I finally picked it up as part of my challenge I fell in love with it.

Obviously, there is a lot of the part of the world I grew up in the writing of the village Little Weirwold and so this story felt so much closer to home for me. Willie Beech is sent to live with the rather bitter old man Mr Tom as part of the evacuation process of London during the Second World War. Mr Tom doesn’t really want Willie there but he knows he must do his bit so he takes in this painfully timid little boy. Gradually they grow to rely on each other: they bring each other back to life and build a home together. But then Willie has to return to London.

Next thing you know you get your heart broken and you’re on the train back to university trying to stifle the sobs that refuse to go away. That is how painful this story is. The abuse that Willie receives at the hands of his mother is unimaginable, unfathomable. That poor,poor boy. I have never wanted a happy ending for a character more. It is too horrible because it is never certain.

I shan’t give away the ending because I urge you all to read this book right away. No matter how many books are in your TBR pile, no matter if you are half way through 10 unfinished books get a copy of this book and read it. It’s short and easy to read because it’s a children’s book but it will enrich your life so much.

Even away from the story Goodnight Mister Tom is beautifully written. Magorian creates a sanctuary in here writing of the countryside, which made me fall in love again with the place where I live. The character development in this book is spectacular as Willie and Mr Tom’s fondness for each other grows so does the reader’s; both seem distant and cold but the layers are peeled away to reveal people who have been broken by life’s cruel injustices. They both have a place in my heart and this book has a place in my Top 10 favourites.

Rating:5/5

Would recommend to: break your heart and warm your spirits.

 

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The Big Read

No. 47 – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens Read 30/4/14

Affiliate Link:A Christmas Carol (Puffin Classics)

If you want a really bizarre reading experience read A Christmas Carol in March. I don’t know why I read it in March it must have been the next one on the shelf or something, but yeah read it in no earlier than November 3oth.

I don’t know if there is a person in the English speaking world who doesn’t know the story of A Christmas Carol. There are a million different adaptations including a musical, which I was in once as the Ghost of Christmas Future aka Blind Old Hag. I thing the first version I saw was the Muppet’s but anyway I knew exactly what I was in for before reading the book.

Now for once I didn’t get stuck in the middle of Dickens! This may be because A Christmas Carol is only 104 pages long. But I like it short, somehow it makes Scrooge’s redemption more poignant because there isn’t an enormous section of waffle about the awful conditions of the poor. It feels like the length of the book reflects just how quickly you can become a bitter, twisted miser.

I also love the characters. Mr and Mrs Fezziwig make me feel all warm and happy inside and I don’t think there is a person alive who doesn’t feel so sorry for Tiny Tim. Although this book screams “MORAL” at you before smashing you in the face with a prize turkey it is done in such a way that I didn’t withdraw from the story to roll my eyes. In the end you feel sorry for Scrooge and are genuinely pleased he saw the error of his ways; he feels like a real person not just an instrument of the story.

It is a wonderful Christmas story, one that focuses on ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. Although that sounds horribly cringe-worthy it is a book about family and charity and it is a really nice reminder of what Christmas should be. There isn’t really much else to say about it other than don’t read it in March.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: make you feel Christmas-y

 

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