Objectively the worst book I have read, not just since I started thinking critically about books or reviewing, but ever.
(view spoiler)[Dinner With a Vampire combines all the worst traits of paranormal romance – a bratty and self-absorbed female narrator, an unlikable physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive love interest, vampires who are ‘perfect’ with no faults or weaknesses, the human character being somehow more ‘special’ than other humans, barely fleshed out side characters, telepathic connections, forbidden love etc. etc., you name it. Just a few of these would be bad enough on their own even if written competently, but instead we have them mushed together nonsensically into a big mess where the basic principles of writing such as ‘plot’, ‘continuity’, ‘character development’ and ‘worldbuilding’ have been completly abandoned.
It’s a genuinely terrible book, and one I wouldn’t recommend to anybody (and would advise people who have ever been raped or in an abusive relationship to steer well clear of) but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to actively hate or abandon it. It’s so bad that I had to keep going, just to see how much worse it could get (the answer: lots) but too bad for me to hate it. Rather than resent having to read such poor writing, I can’t help but feel rather sorry for the teenage author (I know I certainly wouldn’t like my unpolished teenage writings published). This is, essentially, a first draft of a book that should never have got past the publisher’s slush pile and as such it feels very harsh to judge it even by the most basic standards of what I expect in a published work.
The reason why it did get past, of course, is obvious: ’17-year old Abigail from Brixham, Devon is already an online sensation, whose writing has attracted over 16 million views on Wattpad. None of her fans have yet to discover the breathtaking end to the novel and there is a huge anticipation to read the finale.’ There, right on the back of the advance aeview copy is the only reason this is being published: to cash in on a huge ready-built online audience by forcing them to buy a copy if they want to read the ending. Shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you. This is, presumably, also why the book doesn’t read like it’s had a proofreader, much less a competent editor – it has to be rushed off the press before the fickle online audience move on and abandon it - and as a result continuity and worldbuilding issues abound.
As an ARC I’m meant to ignore basic spelling mistakes and typos that won’t get past publication (‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’ was one particularly frustrating example but there were many more) what I can’t forgive the editor though is allowing some of the dreadful, confused, and often contradictory writing to slip through. In only the third chapter we have this gem ‘The sun was beginning to rise, and I glanced at my watch’ followed in the very next paragraph by ‘it … was approaching sunrise’ - yeah, we already got that thanks. Basic, basic mistakes. Later being able to feed without killing forms a major part of Violet’s decision to turn into a vampire, except…well she should already know that because it's obvious right from the begining. Elsewhere we have bizarre phrasing – ‘her skin draped in her coat’ does not sound like a description of a living person, much less an appealing description of one. Has she been flayed? No. Then surely what’s meant is that the coat was draped over her skin. And that’s far from an isolated incident, there are innumerable sentences and phrases that just sound wrong. The sort of basic ‘wait a sec…did you really mean to say this?’ stuff that should be so so easy to pick up on and correct but have just been left to lie because, y’know, 16 million readers already hooked, right? No need to bother spending time to make it a quality product! Again, shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you.
Not, however, that this book could ever have been made into a truly good book. The phrases could have been tightened, the basic mistakes corrected, but this was always going to be a horrible book due to the poor plot and dreadful characters. Credit where credit is due, I suppose, the author tries to steer clear of the ‘vampires are sexy but not remotely scary’ trope that’s slipped into vampire fiction recently. These vampires murder and rape without the slightest compunction, instead they’ve been thoroughly ‘defanged’ by forcing them to act like the stupidest, most immature, and most petty sort of teenagers imaginable. When you have a man supposedly in his hundred’s threatening his older sister that he’ll tell daddy when she lost her virginity well…it’s hardly dark and sinister and it’s certainly not ‘charismatic and sexy’.
And the author tries to have it both ways. Kaspar is dark and sinister, but he’s also a gentle little puppy waiting for the right woman to turn him into a noble prince. Those other vampires may be cruel and vicious, but he’s just misguided! And what better way to emphasise it than by using rape as cheap drama. Now Kaspar may have threatened to rape Violet, he may have sexually harassed her several times, but when another vampire violently assaults her he’ll come rushing to her rescue. What a hero! Oh wait, no. he still kidnapped, assaulted, harassed, and threatened to rape her. In fact, even after they have (surprisingly explicit) consensual sex, his pillow talk consists of telling her how he plans to rape the daughters of his enemies. No matter what ‘nasty’ vampires in this book you're meant to compare him with, Kaspar will still never be ‘charismatic, sexy‘ or even likable. I can fall for ‘evil is sexy’ in my fiction, what I can’t fall for is a character written to sound exactly like the sort of bloke who would rape you and then feel sorry for himself when you didn’t like it. That sort of petty evil is sadly all too common in the real word, it doesn’t need romanticising in fiction.
And then the whole ‘rape as a tool to push two characters together romantically’… oooh boy do I hate that trope. I don’t object to rape in fiction; it’s a real thing, it happens, frequently, and it needs to be discussed openly and not made taboo. The test though is in how an author deals with the after affects. What rape in fiction should never be is simply an easy excuse to scare a female romantic lead away from all men but the ‘hero’. And guess how it’s handled here? Yep, exactly that way. Before the rape; she hates Kaspar and sees through all his shit. After the rape; he rescued her and now they’re best friends and she totally wants in his pants. It’s handled so badly and so insensitively (despite a few ‘I felt dirty, I shouldn’t be acting this way’ protests from Violet that never ring quite true with everything else shown on the page) that only a few pages, and a few days, after almost dying from the attack she doesn’t mind at all when Kaspar sneaks into her room while she’s asleep, covers her mouth to stop her screaming, and then practically demands she consents to having him suck her blood. Better still as soon as he leaves his best friend comes in (the other side of the love triangle) and forces a kiss on her which she’s totally ok with. It’s just…it boggles the mind really.
I could go on about the bad things in this book forever but what, I think, they mostly stem from is being originally published serially online. Even if I didn’t know the origin of this book I’m fairly sure I could guess it just from reading. It doesn’t read like a book, it reads like someone’s simply hit the print button on an online fiction and then bound the pages together. Instead of natural, flowing, plot and character development this book is just a string of things happening for no particular rhyme or reason. No time for proper world building or character development, got to keep the audience coming back, can’t let up the pace! This might be tolerable when reading one chapter a month, maybe even one a week, but read it all in one go, as one reads a novel, and you realise that the tone and characterisation are just all over the place and that actually, no, it’s not ok for these things to be happening so soon after each other.
Then there’s the bits that seem obviously inspired by feedback comments from fans ‘oh you’re so Kaspery! – It’s a word I made up’, ‘I can’t die! I’ve never been to Disneyland!’ ‘It’s pronounced Sage-en, not Sagean’ (this last one is particularly dumb because the character had only ever heard the word so, not knowing how it's spelt, would have no reason to be pronouncing it with an ‘a’ in the first place).
Add to this the fact that the plot doesn’t even make sense – the easiest and least dangerous thing to do would just be to give Violet back to her family, bind her to an agreement of secrecy and let her go on her way. That and there is no way Violet could possibly ‘know’ the big secret she guesses blindly, and even less way that the vampires shouldn't already have considered it - but guess what? Her wild guess is totally correct and the vampires are stunned! Then there’s the sudden shift in genre near the end of the book as well; it’s all ‘clichéd vampire romance’ yawn yawn yawn. But then WHAM! ‘Actually there are several alternate universes and Violet is the heroine who has to save them all!’. Except instead of ‘wham’ it’s more of an ‘oh shit, I forgot to do my worldbuilding earlier or set up this plot thread properly but this is totally what this book is actually about’.
And then Violet... Why should I care for this character? I can feel sorry for her situation, but the character herself is not written to be sympathetic in any way. She’s lost her brother and that’s meant to be a big plot point explaining how she ended up where she did; except he barely gets referenced three times and it’s always ‘it was really sad when he died, it affected me a lot’ without ever actually seeing it affect her. Her ex-boyfriend cheated on her but that again gets about three references. Her little sister has cancer, but she’s too busy drooling over Kaspar to think of her family more than about twice and then acts like a total bitch to them at the end. She slut shames all of the previous girls Kaspar has ever slept with, deciding they must be ‘whores‘ (as far as I can tell none of them are sex workers and Charity, the girl particularly demonised by Violet, Kaspar and the autor, actually did fancy and want a relationship with Kaspar, it was him using her purely for sex). She pretty much slut shames her best friend (never mentioned again) in the first chapter, does the same to Kaspar’s sister, and even thinks of Kaspar’s exes ‘whores’ as she is shagging him. Why should I like her? She’s a judgemental bitch and her Stockholm syndrome isn’t written in anything like a believable enough way to prevent her from just looking like a complete idiot. (hide spoiler)]
In short: this book simply too bad for me to hate it. It's so clearly not of publishable quality that I just feel kind of sorry for it for not being given the constructive criticism and redrafting it so desperately needed before being sent out into the world.
Terrible writing, terrible editing, and a terrible plot. 0 stars.
Thank you to Waterstones for sending me an Advance Review Copy....more
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earl 3 stars
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earlier this year and a big part of that enjoyment was the writing style which was verbose and beautiful but also unashamedly honest and dirty and not at all ‘flowery' or 'delicate’, thick with references and heavy with unusual and striking descriptions that transformed the everyday and even the crude into the magical. Nights at the Circus is like that, but more so. More so to the point of absolute suspension-of-disbelief-shattering distraction, in fact.
Maybe it’s just that what works for me in a short story just seems too much when sustained over the course of a whole novel, but I found this book very hard to get into. As much as I wanted to like and get a grip on the characters and the story everything simply felt overpowered by the descriptions and writing style. Even when stuff was going on – and a lot of stuff did happen in this book – it felt like I was reading something that was all style over substance.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or that the writing didn’t contain some absolutely beautiful descriptions, but I didn’t enjoy the book anywhere near as much as I’d hoped.
Nights at the Circus tells the story of Fevvers, a tall, brash, cockney woman with the wings of a swan sprouting from her back, through her meeting with Jack Walser, a restless, blandly handsome and blandly personalityless American journalist. Fevver’s is the toast of the town when Walser first meets her for an interview; an internationally famous aerialiste in the travelling circus, painted by famous artists, admired by the Prince of Wales, and subject to excited speculation as to whether she really was hatched from an egg or is simply a fabulous conwoman. Walser starts the novel determined to prove that it’s the latter, finds himself falling for her (no spoiler, it’s in the blurb!), and up and joins the circus himself to pursue the story and uncover the mystery behind Fevvers’ wings – or so he tells himself.
It’s a bizarre, weird, and frequently quite funny picaresque novel in three parts that are split up very distinctly by location, theme, and even narrative style. The first part ‘London’ tells the story of Fevver’s early life before joining the circus and is done almost exclusively through dialogue. It’s Walser’s first interview with her and so there are frequent breaks for description and reactions set in the present, but the majority of it is backstory told in Fevver’s own words with occasional interruptions by her audience. And this is where I first found Carter’s style started to grate. Possibly I simply don’t know enough truly charismatic people, but Carter’s very beautiful and distinctive writing style just sounds all wrong when coming directly from the mouth of a character rather than the narrator. I kept going ‘really? that was the most natural way you could think of to get that message across’. I gave benefit of the doubt, allowing for the fact that Fevvers is a very charismatic character and that she had rehearsed all this for her interview, but in the next two sections when other characters all started talking in this very verbose, unnatural, reference heavy way my suspension of belief just snapped. What works in narration doesn’t always work for dialogue and when, with a very few exceptions, all characters, regardless of background or education, tend to speak the same I tend to get super tired of it super fast.
Never the less, I enjoyed the story of Fevver’s early life. It was probably the part that most resembled what I liked about The Bloody Chamber, a decadent gothic tale of whorehouses, freak-shows, and female solidarity. The second section, Petersburg, however, is where the story really came together for me. The narrative balance shifts back more in favour of the omniscient third person narrator and the story shifts almost to a series of vignettes about the various colourful characters that inhabit the circus – Colnel Kearney and his fortune-telling pig, Buffo the clown, Mignon the Ape Man’s wife, the apes, the strongman, little Ivan, the silent tiger tamer, the other aerialistes – all leading up to the culmination of an uforgettably eventful final performance before the circus moves on. This was the part of the book I really enjoyed. It was funny in places, poignant in others and only the characters all speaking the same way really marred my enjoyment. Fevver’s story took a bit of a backseat until toward the end, but I actually prefered it that way, and Walser, though still pretty bland, started to come into his own a bit as he witnessed and interacted with the unusual life and inhabitants of the circus.
Part three, Siberia, however, is where it all went off track and started to unravel for me though. In fact, had I not been on a train, my copy of the book would probably have hit a wall when the narration suddenly shifted into first-person, and then hit the wall again when it shifted back. Almost all the chapters dealing with Fevvers in this third section now flow back and forth between an omniscient third person and Fevver’s point of view with very little rhyme or reason and no clues as to when the changes are going to happen. One moment you’re reading third person description and then BAM! Next sentence you’re suddenly in Fevver’s head going ‘wait, what…that doesn’t make sense, how did I get here?’. The dull love story also comes more to the forefront in this section and, to be honest, I don’t care enough about either character to really give a crap about it. I'm with Fevver's foster mother, Lizzie, in the 'why bother with him?' camp.
So ultimately a 3 star read for me. I wanted to like it more. It’s a very clever book with lots of great ideas and feminist and social themes running through it – all of which are more interesting than the basic framework of the boy chases girl story. There’s a lot of stuff to pick out and enjoy and yes, it is beautifully and vividly written – but almost tortuously so. For every descriptive gem there’s a nice idea somewhere else belaboured to the point of irritation and the characters, even Fevver’s who is meant to be‘larger than life’, don’t have enough of an independent voice for me to particularly care about them or their fate. In the end, much as I wanted to feel strongly about the characters get into the story for its own sake, I had to battle against the way it was written to do so.
I still love Angela Carter’s writing, and I still love The Bloody Chamber, and I am glad I read this. But ultimately I think the style displayed here is much better suited to short stories than it is novels....more
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘th 3 Stars
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘the TV adaptation is better than the book, and the story is better than the writing’.
North and South is a story I’ve been in love with since I watched the BBC adaptation with Richard Armitage in 2004. It’s basically Pride and Prejudice in an industrial Victorian city, with class issues and commentary mainly replacing the originals gender issues. Mr Darcy is mill owner and self-made-man, Mr. Thornton, while Elizabeth Bennet is the socially conscious and initially insufferably snobby, Margret Hale. Instead of Pemberly and the Bennet sister’s there’s a backdrop of industrial revolution, class tension, and trade union strikes and a supporting cast ranging from servents and mill hands to lawyers and Oxford academics.
Gaskell, though, is no Austen and I found her writing very hard to get into at first. Less wit and charm and more turgid preaching and moralising. Neither of which I am particularly patient with. It improved towards the middle, where the older characters start suddenly dropping like flies, but the first half was a real slog. Gaskell does that Victorian omniscient narrator thing where, instead of enhancing the understanding of the side characters by popping into their thoughts, it ends up dully explaining everything and robbing the book of any tension. All tell and no show, especially at the beginning when we’re meant to be forming our first impressions of the characters. No disagreement between Margaret and Mr. Thornton (or anybody else for that matter) is allowed without instantly flitting into Thornton’s thoughts to let us know that it’s just a misunderstanding, that he didn’t explain himself properly, and that he finds Margaret beautiful. Kinda robs the romantic tension somewhat. Which is probably why I prefer the TV version so hard, Richard Armitage can convey Thornton’s feeling more effectively in a single look than Gaskell can in a whole chapter.
And then there’s also the preachiness. The only character more insufferable for it than Margaret (who spends a good quarter of the book angsting over telling a lie - to save somebody’s life but it was a lie so must be bad) is Bessy, the terminally ill mill worker who spends every waking moment talking about how glorious heaven will be when she gets there. It’s genuinely cringe inducing and after about two pages I was wishing she would just pass away and put me out of my misery.
But three stars because I do like the story itself, the social commentary is interesting (if a little moralising in places), and once I got into the book (about the halfway point) the writing seemed to improve so by the end I was enjoying the novel more than I was frustrated with it. I also really like the side characters of Higgins, the trade unionist and Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Thornton’s imposing mother who doesn’t put up with any of Margaret’s fancy southern shit. The romance, I thought, was unconvincing but, I think, even Gaskell found that the secondary point after exploring the social tensions between the working class and the ‘masters’, the industrial north and the rural south. So after a tricky and deeply frustrating start, I did end up enjoying (if not always agreeing with) this book.
Will probably be a while before I decide to read another Gaskell though, and if I do it’ll probably be a library jobby. The ideas and plot may be good, but I’m not sure her prose has aged particularly well.
Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too. 4 Stars
Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too. Although I really enjoyed most of it I did have to slog through it at points like no other book I can even remember. It was rewarding, definitely, but boy was it draining. There were several times I just had to put the book down for a couple of days and it took me faaar too long to finish (I was meant to be done by the end of September), but at no point did I want to abandon it. Now that I am done, rather than dwelling on the book itself, my presiding emotions are simply a sense of relief and vague pride in having finished. But I’ll try to get over that to write a review.
This wasn’t the Anna Karenina that either the blurb or pop-culture had really promised me. The famously doomed love affair is not the sole focus of the book – I’m not even sure it’s meant to be the main focus at all – but one of many themes and threads that run through the story. In fact Anna Karenina herself is neither the most compelling character nor the one who gets most page time. That last honour (though not, for me, the first) would probably belong to Levin, an introspective country gentleman, and his romance with Kitty Scherbatsky (two characters I’d never really heard of before starting the book) gets at least as much attention as the more passionate affair between Anna and Vronsky. As well as these simultaneous and contrasting love stories, however, there’s a lot of page time spent on stuff that doesn’t at first glance seem to add to the narrative – Russian politics, agricultural theory, the aftermath of emancipating the serfdom… It can probably be a bit much if you go in expecting only an epic love story. Personally I really enjoyed most of these chapters, particularly the ones on agricultural theory and Russian peasantry. It might just be the former history student in me but I found it absolutely fascinating to look at the types of thoughts and theories being written in late Tsarist Russia and find the little hints of things to come that Trotsky couldn’t possibly have known about when he wrote it. In fact I often found myself enjoying Levin’s chapters on interacting with the peasants and trying to find the most efficient way to run a farm (while not particularly enjoying Levin as a character) more than I liked a lot of the angsty relationship drama – at least early on. But equally a lot of people I know who don’t share my geeky interests found these chapters a real drag and I can totally understand why.
The main criticism I heard from friends before I started the book though was ‘none of the characters are likable’ and ‘it’s just horrible people doing horrible things to each other’. And that’s true, to a certain extent. There were characters I liked (Oblonsky is fantastic and I actually really liked his long-suffering wife, Dolly, as well) but everyone in the book is a far cry off perfect and although they do grow and change over the 900 odd pages it’s not necessarily in positive ways. I started off not thinking much of Vronsky for his behaviour towards Anna (seriously, stalking is not the way to win a girl!) but ended up totally wishing he would kick her jealous, clingy, batshit insane, bitchy arse to the curb and stop putting up with her shit. At the same time I could totally relate to why Anna was behaving the way she was, her frustration with her situation of being ostracised by society until she divorces her husband and marries Vronsky instead, while only wanting herself to be his mistress/lover and enjoy the sex and the romantic times and being the centre of his world without being expected to settle down and start popping out his children.
The characters weren’t necessarily likable, but they were certainly interesting and I have to say that Levin, who everyone else seems to love, was the only one who consistently pissed me off. He’s often thought to be a stand in for Tolstoy’s own views so I’m not sure what it says about my opinion of him that I found Levin to be a patronising, moralising twat of the ‘I can’t be a misogynist, I think women are paragons of perfection!’ school of misogyny. Even another character in the book (hurrah for Oblonsky!) had to eventually call him out for always assuming that women naturally wanted to be mothers and nothing else. The way Levin romanticised everything to the extent that reality always disappointed him wound me up, especially when it came to Kitty *gasp* actually existing as a person with opinions of her own that didn’t always gel with his vision of her as a subservient woman who should always agree with him. Every time another man even spoke to Kitty he seemed to instantly think the worst of her and get irrationally jealous. It was more unhealthy than Anna/Vronsky/Anna’s husband in places and I just wanted Kitty to get out of there fast because no one deserves end up with someone who has that little trust and respect in them. But since Levin and Kitty were the foil for Anna and Vronsky’s romance I never really expected that to happen. They’re meant to be the healthy happy and pure relationship to Anna’s hurtful, miserable and adulterous one.
On the whole though, irritation with Levin and reading fatigue at the sheer length of the book aside, I really enjoyed Anna Karenina. It was a slog, not going to lie about that, it took a lot of effort to get through, but I think in the end it was worthwhile. I enjoyed the odd chapters on politics and agriculture and, eventually, I found myself getting pretty into the love stories as well. I’m still a bit disappointed with the way the start of Anna and Vronsky’s affair and that how and why she caved into him wasn’t really shown – one chapter she was fancying him but loyal to her husband and the next they’d had sex. It was a rather beautiful scene actually and I really liked the way Vronsky compared the crime and aftermath of adultery with that of murder, but I don’t know, it seemed to miss a bit of build up somewhere. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending either. After the culmination of the book that everybody remembers (even if they haven’t read the book) we get several chapters of Levin being introspective and an obnoxiously heavy-handed moral and religious message. What I really could have done with instead was less Levin and more Vronsky and Karenin, both of whom were much more interesting characters. But the majority of the book I liked. Trotsky handled an insane number of characters (all with several different names depending on the social status of who they’re speaking with) magnificently and there was a lot of really beautiful, true to life, writing.
The one passage that will probably stick with me the most, is the lingering death of one of the character’s relatives and the way everyone about him just wanted him to die and for it to all be over. After spending what seemed like forever in that situation myself over this summer sitting by the hospital bed of somebody I loved, it was the one section I could really truly relate to. But even that didn’t affect me as much as I felt it should (given how recently this was and how horrible I found it) and the reason I only give this four stars rather than four-and-a-half or higher is really because of that feeling; I simply never connected with the story on a particularly personal level. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t invested in it. I wanted to see what happened, but as an impartial observer and, ultimately, I didn’t really mind or care what the hell happened to all the characters....more
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least pol 5 Stars
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least polished of Austen’s novels – the pacing feels a bit off in the second half and the ending feels quite rushed – so I was originally going to give it either four or four and half stars to reflect that, but actually, flawed as it is, I can’t help absolutely adoring it.
The main attraction I think is that it’s a bit different from her later-written and better known books – more youthful and vibrant and funny. Austen is always funny, of course, but you really get the sense that she was having fun with this one. The heroine, Catherine Morland, is the youngest of Austen’s female leads, being an impressionable seventeen – and at that awkward teenage stage where you’re starting to be considered an adult, but nobody’s really quite explained the rules for you. She’s not got Elizabeth’s quick mind, Emma’s overwhelming self-confidence, or Elinor’s thoughtfulness. But neither is she a Marianne; wild impulsive and romantic, with no concern for how others view her. She wants to be clever, self-confident, and thoughtful, she desperately wants not to behave improperly and draw negative attention to herself, but she isn’t even sure what’s considered improper and what isn’t. She’s unguarded and open in her conversation, takes people at face value, and tends to fold to the opinions of people who she believes have more experience. In short she’s a slightly self-conscious and eager to please teenager.
Taken to Bath for the season by a family acquaintance, the first half of the book follows Catherine’s adventures (and misadventures) of her first experience with high society and the friends (and false-friends) that she meets there. Poor Catherine is immediately out of her depth, there’s balls and plays and more balls and more plays and shopping and boorish suitors, and lots of young pretty people in fancy clothing. All the normal rules of society seem so relaxed that it’s hard to fathom what is appropriate and what isn’t, especially when people keep telling Catherine different things and her guardian is more concerned with the price of muslin than in advising her through these new experiences. At first mortified that she doesn’t know anybody, Catherine soon falls into the company of the beautiful and flirtatious Isabella, with whom she indulges heavily in a shared love of sensationalist gothic novels, and Isabella’s unbearable brother John. She also meets Henry Tilney, the best love interest in Jane Austen. Henry has the distinct advantage of neither being a cousin, nor having known the heroine from the moment of her birth, but even ignoring that he’s clearly the best – he’s funny, sarcastic, flirty, and genuinely kind and considerate. Darcy might be the one everyone lusts for, but Henry’s the one I would like to date. He takes the piss out of himself and likes to banter! That is literally all I ask for in a bloke. And really, can you imagine putting up with someone as self-important and judgemental as Darcy? Yuck.
The second half of the book takes us away from the relaxed society of Bath and into the austere setting of Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s home (invited there by Henry’s younger sister). And here it turns into a parody of the gothic novels Catherine loves to read. In the setting of an old medieval abbey her imagination, encouraged it has to be said by Henry’s teasing, goes into overdrive and she starts seeing murder, madness, and evil in everything. What is the secret of Northanger Abbey? Is Henry’s mother really dead? Mad? Locked up? Murdered? And why do his children all feel so uncomfortable in General Tilney’s presence? Dun dun dun! It’s in equal parts funny and excruciatingly awkward watching Catherine investigate her suspicions only to find innocent explanations in everything. But there is a mystery there, if a more mundane one – and it arrives rather abruptly at almost the very end of the novel before getting almost as abruptly resolved.
The pacing is definitely a little off in this last half and if I was judging purely on quality I would deduct a star (maybe two) for it. But you can’t judge a book purely on the quality of the writing, books are emotional things and I’m irrationally in love with this one, flaws and all. I love the characters, I love the humour, I love the interludes by the narrator, and I love the easy-going, friendly romance between Catherine and Henry. No great smouldering love affair but two characters who first experience attraction over a shared joke – that’s a relationship I can get behind. Catherine is absolutely adorable, Henry is totally fanciable, and many of the sidecharacters are up there with the best of Austen – although General Tilney is rather weakly sketched, I love Isabella, and John the boorish boorfaced bore may well be a very simple stereotype but he’s no less fun to absolutely loathe because of that.
A lighter, fluffier read than most Austen, it’s very evidently written by a younger writer, but it definitely deserves more love than it seems to get. Only thing I don’t like is that the afterword in this edition takes things waaaaaay too seriously – it’s a total funsponge. The book itself though, is great....more
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen 4.5 Stars
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen binge (all her major novels, back to back, in order of publication) and thus was feeling a bit romanced-out by the time I got round to this one and didn’t really ‘click’ with it. I’ve always suspected that my ambivalence towards it back then was a little unfair and that a reread would improve my opinion, and I’m happy to say that I was right. It’s still not my favourite Austen but I did really really enjoy it and predict at least a couple more rereads in the future (which is a lot more than can be said about Mansfield Park).
As most people talking/writing about Austen will tell you, Persuasion is the most ‘mature’ of Austen’s books, which, despite sounding totally pompous, I guess I have to agree with. It’s a more sedate novel than Austen’s earlier works; less full of sparkling wit but touching more overtly on social, gender, and class issues. It tells the story of Anne Elliot who, at 19, broke off an engagement to a handsome young Navy officer due to pressure from her friends and family about his lack of wealth and connections. Eight years later, age 27 and still unmarried, her own family has frittered away all its money when Captain Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, rich, well-regarded, and determined to marry and settle down with anyone but Anne Elliot.
The two are thrown frequently into each other’s company by mutual acquaintances (ignorant of their earlier engagement) and have to learn to deal with their lingering feelings, regrets, and resentments as well as their change in situations, ignorant comments from people who don’t know about their previous relationship, jealousies caused by various other suitors, and her horrible snobbish family. It’s a very one-sided romance for most of the book, however, which makes it hard for me as a reader to fall in love with Wentworth the same way I can for most of Austen’s other heroes. As the story is told almost purely from Anne’s perspective, Captain Wentworth appears to spend most of the early parts of the book ignoring her, getting in petty jabs when telling people about the qualities he wants in a wife (‘firmness of character‘ – just give that knife a bit more of a twist will you, Wentworth?), and paying more attention to almost every other female character. This is probably the reason I wasn’t such a big fan of Persuasion the first time round – I expected more romance and more interplay between the two characters – but that’s not really the focus here.
It’s Anne’s feelings, the heartbreak, the uncertainty, and the hope that form the emotional heart of the story, and I think they’re handled very well. I can only really say ‘think’ here because I have never been in love nor pined for an ex (I mean I have got back with one once, but that was a drunken mistake that shall never be repeated). But Anne’s jumble of thoughts and feelings at being suddenly thrust into the company of the man she loves, who she believes resents her, felt believable and genuine. She’s a quiet but complex character and rereading it, knowing not to expect the witty flirting of Pride and Prejudice, I was able to enjoy the book and feel for Anne’s situation a lot more than I did the first time round.
The other interesting thing about Persuasion is that it is much more critical of traditional class and gender roles than Austen's other works and reflects how these things were beginning to change in the early 19th century. Anne’s family may be titled while Wentworth’s aren’t, but her family spend away their wealth on frivolous, useless vanities and are almost bankrupt by the start of the book, forced to give up their few genuine duties as landlords by retreating to a cheaper environment and letting out the ancestral home to strangers. Meanwhile Wentworth and his brother in-law build significant wealth and respect by risking their lives in service for their country and return richer and on almost equal social footing with Anne’s father. The novel celebrates this social mobility achieved through military service (Austen’s brothers were both naval officers) while showing a more critical portrait of the aristocratic classes than in any of Austen’s previous books. While most of the titled characters, and Anne’s family especially, are so preoccupied with status that they are blind to the individual merits (or lack there of) of those they socialise with, Wentworth and his navy chums just hang out, have fun and act like real friends who actually care about each other – and it’s obvious which society Anne prefers. Then there’s Admiral and Mrs. Croft, possibly the only happy married couple in all of Austen’s novels, who do almost everything together, genuinely enjoy each others company, and serve a big ‘fuck you’ to everybody who tries to force women into traditional ‘delicate female – must be protected’ stereotypes – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Persuasion isn’t as overtly witty as some of Austen’s other books (though it definitely has its moments, Anne’s family are hilariously awful), the romance isn’t as up front as perhaps people expect from an Austen novel, but I really like it. It’s a quieter book with a nice feelgood story that also has a few things to say; both about romance, forgiveness, second chances, and about society in general. Not that that isn’t always there to varying degrees in all her works – I will scorn anyone who says Austen is nothing but ‘romance and finding a husband’ – but in Persuasion it’s just that bit more open. It also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes of all time:
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
You tell ‘em, Miss Austen!
Still not my favourite Austen, but probably the one I will revisit the most often. I think it’s one of those books that every reread provides something slightly different. I liked it the first time but felt slightly disappointed, this time I enjoyed it a lot and got more into the characters and the quiet unshowy romance, next time… who knows? Maybe I’ll finally start to fall in love with Captain Wentworth – the 1995 and 2007 film/TV adaptations are certainly pushing me that way already with their delicious depictions of him....more
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by DaphneCrossposted/tweaked from my blog.
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne du Maurier. They’re a bit of an odd bunch – a mix of the supernatural and the mundane. Some of them embrace the ‘unknown’ with psychics, pagan worship, and life after death, while others seem to be building you up towards that only to tear it away by having the explanation something completely grounded in reality. Whether you find this second-guessing rewarding or frustrating, though, is probably personal preference. One theme that runs through all the stories, however, is the idea of taking the protagonist away from their home and putting them into an unfamiliar environment, where the setting itself serves to increase the sense of suspense and the character’s own alienation. It’s a collection of stories about how people react and adjust when taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into creepy situations they have very little control over. And it has to be said, most characters don’t do so well…
The first story in the collection, Don’t Look Now tells the story of a married couple holidaying in Venice as they attempt to get over the death of their young daughter and repair their own relationship. It is by the most famous story in this collection, having been made into a classic horror film in 1973 with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Now I haven’t yet seen the film but my big sister has, and I still remember how freaked out by it she was when she came back from her friend’s sleepover and told me about it. With that in mind and my dad’s explanation of the storyline and constant ‘this reminds me of Don’t Look Now‘ and ‘watch out for little girls in raincoats!’ whenever we ended up wandering round Venetian backstreets and canals at night on family holidays (which happens surprisingly often actually), I had been building this expectation for years that the book must be something truly atmospheric and full of suspense. It wasn’t. I did my best to make it so – I read it while I was in Venice, in the evening, on a poorly lit bench in a small square off a load of little backalleys that I had to wander back through to get to my hostel – and it still didn’t evoke the slightest sense of unease. Maybe I did it wrong, maybe if I had read it at home with only my imagination and memories of Venice I’d have found it creepier. And there’s also the fact I had the plot spoilt for me by hearing about the film – which actually changes a few key details in ways that actually improve it. In the book the explantion for John’s obsession with the little girl in the raincoat is never really that satisfactory and the psychic old women just seem random, disconnected and kind of silly – the film’s decision to make the raincoat girl resemble the dead daughter would have done a lot to improve the sense of suspense and unease both about the supernatural elements and the character’s mental health and just well...make the whole story a bit less random. The ending though, the ending I actually liked in all it’s silly, unintentional hilarity. I’ve seen other reviews claim that du Maurier does a great job of building up suspense only to fail with sudden endings – it’s a criticism I actually agree with in many cases, but in this story I think there was the opposite problem. The ending, though silly, would have worked really well if the build up of suspense had been better done in the main body. As it was, the story just seemed to have too much of John and Laura going out for diner and days out and having rather dull marital disagreements and not enough taking advantage of the creepy setting to explore the grief of losing a child.
The second story, however, does suffer from the sudden ending negating the atmospheric tension of everything that came before, and in a pretty bad way. Not After Midnight tells the story of a ‘lonely teacher’ who goes on holiday to Crete to get some painting done and ends up involved with the mysterious American couple over in one of the other holiday homes. I’d actually take issue with the back cover (and Wikipedia’s) description of the main character as ‘lonely’ – he doesn’t seem lonely to me, he seems like someone who likes being alone to get on with his own thing and doesn’t actually want to be bothered – especially by constantly drunk, boorish Americans. Surely nobody who’s ever experienced being next to one of them on holiday can blame him for that? The loneliness is there, certainly, but it’s something that he develops afterwards and as a result of his holiday and that’s actually pretty important – he wasn’t particularly damaged before the events of the story. To miss that is almost to miss the point. But onto the story… I liked the build up of atmosphere and suspense here a whole lot better than I did in Don’t Look Now. Where it fell down though was the ending, which was frankly pretty rubbish. It felt way too sudden, rushed and dropped in there without any explanation purely for ‘shock factor’. I had to go back and spend a few minutes trying to piece how it all fitted together with the rest of the story – and not in the fun ‘oooooh, I get that now!’ way but the ‘that really should have been a little clearer, and I still don’t get why she said that if what was going on was actually this...’ way. Just a little longer drawing out the ending and making sure the pieces all fitted together a bit more neatly would really have improved this one, because the actual story, though hardly ‘serious literature’ wasn’t that bad.
A Border-Line Case was much more solidly written and probably, if I was being completely objective, the best of the bunch. I can’t rate it too highly though because it uses several tropes that I’m frankly a bit bored with. And, though I was surprised with the twist in the middle, I saw the end ‘twist’ coming a mile off. The heroine of this story is aspiring actress, Shelagh, travels to Ireland to visit Nick, an estranged old friend of her father's, because of an off-hand remark her dad made shortly before his death about wanting to make up. Of course Ireland and England don’t have the best of relations in the 1970s so Shelagh, a little out of her depth, uses her actress skills to disguise her identity. And…well…she must be a damned good actress because the lies she makes up are totally transparent bullshit to anyone simply reading them on the page. People buy (or pretend to buy) them though and she eventually gets ushered in to meet Nick on his mysterious island of mysteriousness where he is surrounded by young men and likes digging up iron age burial sites and not reporting them to trained archaeologists to make proper surveys of (yes, that is something that bugs me in real life, proper archeological surveys are important damnit!). We get some wonderfully 1970s PC ‘oh my god, he might be a homo‘ thoughts from Shelagh as she tries to puzzle out the reason for Nick’s reclusiveness which made me laugh a little. Which was good, as her other thoughts made me want to bash her head in for being a fucking idiot with no ‘creep creep, stay away from this person’ sense of self preservation. She’s only 19, I know, but really; everything about the situation says ‘run for the fucking hills’. A solidly written story, though. Definitely the most consistently well written of the first three stories, but I found neither main character relatable, likable, or particularly believable, enough for me to enjoy it very much. The ‘twist’, though possibly relatively shocking in the 70s, was pretty predictable and, by now, majorly overdone. I’ll give it the fact it has a good title than can be interpreted in a number of ways though – that was pretty clever.
And now my favourite, The Way of the Cross, and I’ll admit this is probably because I have a bit of a fascination with Jerusalem. This story has a far larger cast of characters - a whole tour group of pilgrims - all given about equal attention. The story kicks off with poor Rev. Edward Babcock, a relatively young, urban cleric away on his own holiday, having to step in, last-minute, to be a tour guide for a group of snobby village parishioners he doesn’t know. It takes a while to get into it and I have to admit to being frustrated by du Maurier’s use of the whole ‘young attractive women cannot resist dreadful, boorish, middle-aged men’ theme. It just drives me batty, these men (and I include Mr. De Winter from Rebecca here as well) are so absolutely dire. I don’t know why anyone, regardless of age, would ever fancy them ever. There were enough characters, however, that if one storyline bothered me it was quickly moved away from to feature somebody elses. The basic plot is quite a simple one – all the characters get separated from each other, overhear unpleasant truths and gossip about themselves, and have an absolutely horrible time – mostly in karmic and amusing ways. There’s a sense at the end though that maybe, just maybe, they learn something from their experience and emerge better people for having visited the Holy City. Given the limited page and large number of characters it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s not bad. I actually liked the ‘annoying’ know-it-all kid, who has a great time approaching Jerusalem’s depiction in the bible and the reality of the present city as an archeological problem, rather than desperately seeking spiritual guidance or forgiveness. Questioning whether an important historic site really is where, or as old as, the tourist board claims it is, is something me and my dad often do on holiday and I appreciated the fact that somebody was culturally aware and respectful of the other religions that also live and worship in Jerusalem . A fairly simple, quite formulaic little story, with rather two-dimensional characters. But the prose did by far the best job in this book of evoking a strong sense of location.
The last story, The Breakthrough, is probably an acquired taste. It’s pretty much an unpfront science-fiction/supernatural crossover. Our ‘hero’, Steven the computer guy, is moved to some arse-end-of-nowhere government research facility run by a nutter who the whole scientific community mocks and peopled by about two equally secretive underlings. The machines are all called Charon 1, 2 or 3 so if you know your Greek mythology it’s no surprise what the ‘secret’ aim of the research is. It’s…I dunno. It’s not bad but it isn’t an especially original idea and the execution feels incredibly dated… There’s state of the art giant talking computers, hypnotism, ‘idiots’ (not my wording!) possessing untapped potential abilities to move things around with their emotions, a dog obedience-trained to the point of brainwashing, twins that have a special bond that continues even after one dies… it’s as if du Maurier’s throwing in absolutely everything she can think of - and it’s only a forty page story! It’s just too much, too crowded, everything's competing for attention and it only really serves to undermine the actual themes and questions the plot is trying to raise. Maybe if I was more of sci-fi fan than a gothic/supernatural/suspense person, I would find this more to my taste but it just felt…inelegant I suppose. Unpolished. Not really thought through.
Overall an interesting collection. Although I didn’t rate all the stories too highly, I found something to enjoy about all of them and I don’t regret spending time reading this. Yeah, it’s not the best and not quite my thing but it was interesting at least. My main problem wasn’t that the stories weren’t good, but that I got very frustrated that a lot of it could just be so much better if only it had been more vigorously edited and reworked. Both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight had the potential to be a hell of a lot better than they actually were....more
Re-rated. Was too generous in my first review. With hindsight it's def a 1 star read and probably one of the worst books I've ever read.
I outlined myRe-rated. Was too generous in my first review. With hindsight it's def a 1 star read and probably one of the worst books I've ever read.
I outlined my initial thoughts to this book in my blog straight after I finished but I think it's time for a proper review now that I've put some distance between myself and the book.
Now let me start off by saying that I was not the target audience for this book, I could not be any less the target audience for this book if I suddenly sprouted chest hair and grew a penis. Despite this though I can see why other people liked, even loved, it - but it just wasn't for me. I read it because the concept sounded interesting and becaue my best friend picked it out for our book group read.
Other reviewers have summarised my thoughts far better than I ever could but it basically boils down to loving the concept but being hudely dissapointed with the execution. There were so many interesting questions and themes that could have been explored that were barely touched on only to get dismissed in favour of stressing once more how 'romantic'the whole messed-up sittuation was and how perfect Henry and Clare were for each other.
And maybe Henry and Claire were perfect for each other - they certainly had totally identical narrative voices and a similar self-absorbed nature that prevented them from caring about anyone else or feel anything remotely resembling guilt or shame when they did horrible things to those they purported to care about. Basically I'm saying the characterisation was poor and that neither were likable. Neither character ever seemed to develop past initial character drafting stage - appearance, backstory, favourite bands...Check. Personality? Not so much. Henry tells us how wonderful Clare's personality is, Clare tells us how wonderful Henry's is and neither ever shows any of their own.
In fact the whole book seems to rely on 'tell, don't show'. Henry and Clare love each other, lets not question why (she loves him because he pretty much groomed her to, he loves her because... she's fit, has red hair, and can keep up with him sexually better than any woman in the past? That's all I could come up with when I tried to stop and really think about it). We're told Henry and Gomez will become best friends in the future, then it is the future an they're best friends, but nothing in their actions show that they even like each other. We're told Henry was a horrible person before he met Clare but, despite the time travel thing being the perfect way to show it, we never see that. We're told that he changes because of Clare but his narrative voice and personality don't, they remain constant throughout. By the end of the book the only change we've seen him go though on the page is getting a haircut.
Although these are pretty big writing criticisms I think, to be honest, the book could have been improved hugely by a better and more ruthless editor. At 519 pages the book is simply too long for the story it's trying to tell. It could have been cut a good 200 pages and been vastly improved for it. The first half is just padded with needless scenes like Henry being awesome at pool or Henry impressing his awesomeness on a couple of easily impressed teenagers by listing off a reel of punk bands, that barely anything of interest actually happens. Niffenegger is obviously going for a book in two acts - first 'light fluffy' then 'bleak and miserable'. The problem was that by the time I reached the hard hitting stuff I was already bored with the characters that I couldn't care less about what horrible things started to happen to them in the second half. And boy did a lot of drama start happening, I won't spoil anything specific but instead of breaking down in tears I was rolling my eyes by the end of the book. By making the first half so long and full of inconsiquential nothingness any emotions that should have been triggered by the tragedies in the second half just didn't happen. Maybe if the characterisation had been beeter I would have cared.
2 stars 1 star. Poor characterisation, poor editing, and simply not my type of thing. I still say that the concept is brilliant though, it's just a shame it was used to tell such an insipid and irritating love story rather than being properly explored. Totally overated....more