Book Drum: My profile of The Far Pavilions

Earlier in the year I mentioned that I was taking part in a tournament hosted by the Book Drum website. The idea of Book Drum is to bring books to life with pictures, music, videos and maps. To enter the tournament, members were required to choose a favourite title from a list of approved books and submit a profile of that book.

The book I decided to profile was The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye, which I read and reviewed on my blog in February. It was an interesting and fun experience, although I did occasionally regret my choice of book as it has over 950 pages and the profile took forever to complete!

Each profile consists of six sections: Review, Summary, Setting, Author, Glossary – and Bookmarks, which form the largest part of the profile and expand on individual quotes, phrases and references from the book.

Although I didn’t win the tournament, Book Drum have gradually been publishing all of the completed profiles. My profile of The Far Pavilions was published last night and is being featured on the front page of the Book Drum site until Sunday.

Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

This is the story of two women, both prisoners in their own different ways and drawn together by a special bond – their ‘affinity’.

Margaret Prior is a single woman of twenty nine who, following the death of her father, begins visiting London’s Millbank Prison as a Lady Visitor. Lady Visitors were women who voluntarily visited prisoners with the aim of befriending them and giving them comfort during the time of their imprisonment. However, Margaret is in need of some friendship and comfort herself. From her very first visit, she finds herself strangely drawn to Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist imprisoned for assault after one of her spiritualism sessions goes badly wrong, leaving a woman dead and a girl traumatised.  Selina blames her ‘control spirit’, Peter Quick, for what happened, but is she telling the truth?

The book is told in the form of diary entries – Margaret’s longer sections being interspersed with Selina’s shorter ones. Margaret’s diary entries are very bleak and miserable, as she is trying to cope not only with the loss of her father, but also with her feelings for both Selina and her sister-in-law Helen, the expectations of her domineering mother, and the sense of being ‘left behind’ that she experiences when her younger sister gets married and leaves home. Although I found it difficult to like Margaret, I did have a lot of sympathy for her – she had been labelled a ‘spinster’ and was bound by the conventions of the time, preventing her from studying and leading the kind of life she wanted to lead.  I really wanted her to find happiness with Selina.

Selina’s sections of the story are very vague and confusing and I didn’t fully understand them until I went back and read them again after reaching the end of the book. Her entries chronicle the events leading up to the death of Mrs Brink at the seance, and allow us to watch the development of Selina’s spiritualist abilities and the first appearances of the spirit Peter Quick.  Throughout the story, the reader is made to wonder whether Selina really has the powers she claims to have or if Margaret is the victim of an elaborate hoax.

I enjoyed learning about life in a Victorian prison, as it’s not something I’ve read about in so much detail before. Waters does a wonderful job of conveying the oppressive atmosphere of Millbank, with its labyrinthine corridors and gloomy wards.

I haven’t read all of Sarah Waters’ books yet so I can’t really say where Affinity stands in comparison to her others, but I thought it was an excellent book – suspenseful, moving and with some passages that were genuinely spooky.

Recommended

Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

What would you do if you came face to face with yourself? That’s what happens to John, an Englishman on holiday in France, when he meets his exact double – a Frenchman called Jean de Gue.  John agrees to go for a drink with Jean but falls into a drunken stupor and wakes up in a hotel room to find that Jean has disappeared, taking John’s clothes and identity documents with him!

When Jean’s chauffeur arrives at the hotel, John is unable to convince him of what has happened – and ends up accompanying the chauffeur to Jean de Gue’s chateau, where the Frenchman’s unsuspecting family assume that he really is Jean de Gue.  Naturally, they expect him to continue running the family glass-making business and arranging shooting parties – things that John has absolutely no experience in.  Before long, it starts to become obvious that Jean is using John as a scapegoat; Jean’s family and business are both in a mess and he wants someone else to have to deal with them.

Throughout the book, I was forced to revise my opinions once or twice about what was really going on. If everything in the book is supposed to be taken literally, then we need to suspend belief at times: could two men really be so identical that even their mother, wife and daughter can’t tell the difference? There is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity – I won’t say any more about that here, but if you have read the book this theory may have occurred to you too.

As usual, du Maurier’s writing is wonderfully atmospheric. She has a way of making you feel as though you’re actually there in the hotel room in Le Mans, the grounds of Jean de Gue’s estate in the French countryside and Bela’s antique shop in the town of Villars.

When John first arrives at the de Gue chateau, every member of the household is a stranger to him but we (and John) are given enough clues to gradually figure out who each person is and what their relationship is to Jean de Gue.  From the neglected pregnant wife and the hostile elder sister to the resentful younger brother and the religious ten-year-old daughter, every character is well-drawn and memorable.

Another thing I love about Daphne du Maurier’s writing is her ability to always keep the reader guessing right to the final page (and sometimes afterwards too).  This was a fascinating and unusual story, one of my favourite du Maurier books so far.

Highly recommended

Pages: 320/Publisher: Virago Press (Virago Modern Classics)/Year: 2004 (originally published 1957)/Source: Library book

After the Sunday Papers #4: Reading Challenge Update

I have now completed four reading challenges so, instead of posting individual wrap-ups for each challenge, I’ve decided to incorporate them all into this week’s After the Sunday Papers post.

Before I begin, I want to let you all know that I probably won’t have internet access this week as I’m going away tomorrow to spend five days in one of my favourite parts of England, the beautiful Lake District.

I won’t be able to comment or reply to comments, but I’ve scheduled one or two posts for while I’m away.  This is the first time I’ve tried the WordPress scheduling feature so I hope it works!

Now, on with the challenge updates.  For the full lists of books I’ve read for each of the challenges mentioned below, with links to my reviews, see my Completed Challenges page.

The first is the Typically British Challenge.  The idea was to read books written by British authors.  I signed up for the “Cream Crackered” level, which meant I needed to read 8 books.  The 8 British authors I chose were Anne Bronte, Horace Walpole, Richard Adams, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Anthony Trollope, Daphne du Maurier, Thomas Hardy and Georgette Heyer.

The second challenge I’ve completed is the Chunkster Challenge.  I knew this one wouldn’t be a problem for me as I read so many long books.  To complete the challenge I needed to read 6 or more chunksters of 450+ pages or 3 books with 750+ pages.  I ended up reading 4 with 450+ pages and 2 with 750+ pages, so I think I’ve now satisfied the requirements of the challenge!

For the 2010 Classics Challenge, I had to read 6 classic novels.  Before the challenge started, I made a list of the classics I wanted to read but I’ve actually only read one from the list and five others that I hadn’t been intending to read.  This is why I don’t like making lists for challenges – I know that I won’t be able to stick to them.

The fourth challenge I’ve completed is the 18th & 19th Century Women Writers Challenge.  I only needed to read two books for this, and the two that I read were The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and The Doctor’s Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

I am still working on the rest of the challenges I signed up for and am making good progress with most of them.

Have a great week, and I’ll be back on Friday.

Thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A few months ago I mentioned that I would like to revisit a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but for one reason or another I haven’t had time to do that until now. I thought this would be an appropriate time of year (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, of course) to look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I’m not a Shakespearean scholar and haven’t actually tried to write about one of his plays since I was at school, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis. As the title of this post suggests, I am just going to give some of my thoughts on rereading the play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is widely performed on stage, making it one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The play is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy.

There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding. In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new page boy and Oberon is jealous. He and his servant, the mischievous fairy Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her. The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!

In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” – and the central theme of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law. With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. Only when the balance is restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena can the story come to its conclusion.

If you’d like to read the play online you can do so here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few words from Puck…

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

*The picture at the top of this post shows “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849 (in the public domain)

Review: The Time of Terror by Seth Hunter

In The Time of Terror, Seth Hunter introduces us to a new naval hero in the style of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower.  Nathan Peake is a commander in the British Navy who spends his days chasing smugglers along the English coastline.  This is not really Nathan’s idea of fun and he longs to have some real adventures.  He gets his chance in the year 1793 when, with England and France at war, he is asked to run the blockade in the English Channel and deliver some important documents to the American minister in Paris.  Unknown to Nathan, however, his ship is carrying a cargo of counterfeit banknotes – putting his life in serious danger!

Although it’s not necessary to be an expert on French history to understand this story, you will get more out of it if you have some prior knowledge of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.  So if names such as Georges Danton and Robespierre mean nothing to you, it might be a good idea to do some research before beginning the book.

Readers who enjoy historical fiction novels that focus on real historical figures will be pleased to know that throughout the pages of The Time of Terror you’ll meet the author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the American agent (and Mary’s lover) Gilbert Imlay, the revolutionary writer Thomas Paine and many more – so many, in fact, that I began to feel Hunter was just trying to drop as many famous names as possible into the story, regardless of whether they were necessary.  The sheer amount of historical detail in this novel was slightly overwhelming, though usually interesting.  There were dinner parties with Camille Desmoulins and Lucile Duplessis, visits to the waxworks (including a brief appearance by the young Madame Tussaud) and vivid descriptions of the guillotine.  However, other parts of the story that interested me were barely touched on.  The romantic storyline, for example, is very weak, and I would also have liked to have seen more of Nathan’s American feminist mother who had the potential to be a fascinating character.

If you’re concerned that there’ll be a lot of unfamiliar nautical terms and difficult-to-understand naval battles you’ll be right to some extent, but the story can still be followed even if you find yourself confused or bored by the seafaring aspects.  The sea battle scenes, although very well written, actually contribute very little to the plot and the book would have worked better as a more conventional historical fiction novel in my opinion.  However, there was probably too much land-based action to satisfy fans of nautical fiction so I think the book suffered from not really knowing what it wanted to be or what kind of reader it was aimed at.

This book is the first in a trilogy.  In the second Nathan Peake book, The Tide of War, the action moves to the Caribbean and in the third, The Price of Glory, Nathan will meet Napoleon Bonaparte.  Although I did find this book entertaining and interesting, I’m undecided as to whether I want to invest the time in following Nathan’s story to its conclusion.

Genre: Historical Fiction/Year: 2010/Publisher: McBooks Press/Pages: 391/Source: Won copy from LibraryThing

After the Sunday Papers #3

* Last week many of you took part in Bloggiesta, which was hosted by Maw Books. Although I found the previous Bloggiesta in January very productive, I decided not to participate this time because I knew last weekend was going to be too busy for me to commit enough time to make it worthwhile. During the week though I’ve had a sort of personal mini-Bloggiesta of my own and made a few improvements to my blog. Here are some of the things I’ve done:

Created Read in 2009 and Read in 2010 pages.
Improved navigation of the A-Z Reviews Page.
Created a Short Story index page.
Updated my About page. This also satisfies the requirements of this week’s Blog Improvement Project task. The task asked us to think about blog branding and building a consistent identity across our blog title, subtitle and about pages.

There are still a few other things I need to do – including moving my completed challenges to another page to keep them separate from the ones I’m currently working on – but those can wait for a while until I have time.

* Did you know 14th-21st June was Independent Booksellers Week here in the UK? I didn’t hear about it until it was too late, as it ends tomorrow, but it made me think – there are no independent booksellers that I know of anywhere near where I live. There are some charity bookshops, second hand bookshops, and chain stores such as Waterstones and WH Smith, but I can’t think of a single independent bookshop. Isn’t that sad? I suppose it doesn’t help that so many people, including myself, are buying most of our books online these days. Are there any independent booksellers near you – and if there are, do you try to support them?

* You may have heard that the author Jose Saramago died on Friday at the age of 87. He became the first Portuguese-language winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. I haven’t read any of Saramago’s work but over the last few days have been hearing a lot about how good his books are. Have you read any of his books and would you recommend them?

* Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl has been voted the all-time favourite Puffin children’s book according to a poll on the Puffin Books website. The other six choices were The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Stig of the Dump by Clive King, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, and the Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Dog by Jeremy Strong. Have you read any of these? Which is your favourite? My vote went to Charlotte’s Web.

I’m going back to my books now. Enjoy your reading this week!