Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…

Mysteries

And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

My commonplace book: February 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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Every sound of the quiet evening came clearly to her ears with an unnatural distinctness; but now each one possessed a different and terrifying meaning. The muffled shouts and laughter of the few remaining bathers from the indoor swimming bath were the cries of fleeing, panic-stricken people. The whisper of the breeze through the pine needles was a frightened man whispering orders in the shadow of fog-shrouded whin bushes. A passing car was the drone of an enemy bomber and the faint lap of water against the sea-green tiles at the far side of the wide pool was the lap of waves against a pebble beach.

Death in Berlin by M. M. Kaye (1955)

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“The promise of the day!” said Visconti, dreamily and sadly. “Hath it never struck thee how that promise never is fulfilled? Day after day, since the world began, something in the mystery of the dawn is promised – something the sunset smiles to see unfulfilled – something men have ever been cheated of – something men will never know – the promise of the dawn!”

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen (1906)

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Louis X

Uncertain health, a clever but overbearing father whose authority had crushed him, an unfaithful wife who had scoffed at him, an empty treasury, impatient vassals always ready to rebel, a famine in the first winter of his reign, a storm which threatened the life of his second wife – beneath what disastrous conjunction of the planets, which the astrologers had not dared reveal to him, must he have been born, that he should meet with adversity in every decision, every enterprise, and end by being conquered, not even nobly in battle, but by the water and mud in which he had engulfed his army?

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon (1956)

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She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

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Flag of Iowa

After all no fledgling had it easy, farmer or crow. Hadn’t he known since he was a boy the way the fledglings had to fall out of the nest and walk about, cheeping and crying, until they grew out their feathers and learned to fly on their own? Their helpless parents flew above them, and maybe dropped them a bit of food, but flying or succumbing belonged to them alone.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley (2014) – review to follow

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“I must insist upon it,” she continued, “that you shall take me now as I really am — as your dearest friend, your sister, your mother, if you will. I know what I am. Were my husband not still living it would be the same. I should never under any circumstances marry again. I have passed the period of a woman’s life when as a woman she is loved; but I have not outlived the power of loving.”

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (1873)

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“There is no other way, Robert,” James said quietly, watching the emotions shift across his face. “If Balliol returns you lose everything. At least this way you have a chance to make sure you and your family are protected. Our best hope is that Edward will be able to keep Balliol from the throne. If he succeeds, God willing, you may one day still claim it.”

Renegade by Robyn Young (2012)

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St Patrick

And so it came to be that they carried me away into bondage, slung over the shoulder of the black-beard while the girl walked, roped behind. I cannot tell you of the voyage, nor of the faces of the many who were taken into captivity with us. I can only say that on that day “…the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers” in the land known as Eire.

The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton (1979) – review to follow

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Everybody was bowing, sliding on to one knee as Henry came into the chamber, leaning on his staff and smiling…Here comes the King, and with the coming of the King, all life must stop, the very air must thicken as if congealed in awe of this gross man who hobbled painfully on his tall staff, nodding and smiling, blinking every second.

Here Comes the King by Philip Lindsay (1933)

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In a country where so many desire status and wealth, petty annoyances can spark disproportionately violent behaviour. We become frustrated because we feel powerless, invisible, unheard. We crave celebrity, but that’s not easy to come by, so we settle for notoriety. Envy and bitterness drive a new breed of lawbreakers, replacing the old motives of poverty and the need for escape. But how do you solve crimes which no longer have traditional motives?

Ten-Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler (2006) – review to follow

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Favourite books this month: Phineas Redux and The Viper of Milan

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

“On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.”

The Road to Wigan Pier I am working very slowly through George Orwell’s books, having read Keep the Aspidistra Flying last year and Coming Up for Air the year before, as well as 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager (I should probably re-read those two one day). The Road to Wigan Pier is the first example of his non-fiction I have read.

Published in 1937, this book was commissioned by the publisher Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England, particularly in the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Orwell spent several months in 1936 living in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley while he researched the book…which turned out to be not quite what Gollancz had hoped for. When it was issued by the Left Book Club, Gollancz was concerned that members would be offended by some of the ideas expressed in the book and added a foreword in which he distanced himself from Orwell’s views.

The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two very different parts. The first half documents Orwell’s time spent in the north, staying with working class people and studying the way they lived. Orwell’s observations are honest, vivid and non-judgmental, and this is by far the most interesting section of the book. Although he was originally asked to write about the unemployed – which he does – he also writes about those who are employed but still living in poverty, and he devotes a lot of time to describing the working conditions of one sector of workers in particular: the miners. Orwell went down a coal mine himself as part of his research, in an attempt to understand what it was like, and the respect he gained for the miners is clear.

I found it fascinating to read Orwell’s descriptions of the houses he visited and stayed in: the layouts of the buildings, the furnishings and amenities (or lack of them) and the sleeping arrangements. The levels of squalor in which families with young children were living is shocking to read about. Here is one of the many examples Orwell gives of the notes he made while inspecting these houses:

1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft. by 10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal hole under stairs. Sink worn almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated at 4d. a day. Upstairs rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad — wall of back room cracked right through. Window frames coming to pieces and have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation ‘says they can’t do nowt’. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital — tuberculosis suspected. House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.

The Penguin Classics edition I read includes a selection of photographs so you can see what these homes looked like (although, curiously, most of them are pictures of buildings in Wales and London rather than the northern towns discussed in the text). Being from the north myself I feel I should point out here that, thankfully, things have changed drastically since the 1930s! The slums were cleared long ago and towns and cities have been regenerated; some areas are still suffering from the loss of heavy industry, and poverty still exists, of course, but not on the scale or of the type Orwell describes in this book.

The second half of the book takes the form of a long essay in which Orwell talks about his own upbringing as a member of what he calls ‘the lower-upper-middle class’ and how this affected the way he felt about the unemployed and working classes (he grew up, he says, being told that working class people smell). He goes on to explain how his attitudes began to change and to discuss his theories on socialism, the class system and left-wing politics. He also takes the opportunity to criticise the views of his fellow socialists, which is what sent Victor Gollancz into a panic. While I found this part of the book much less compelling than the first (I have to confess that I found my attention wandering a few times and had to force myself to concentrate), it was still interesting to read.

Because Orwell puts so much of himself into this book, it has given me a better appreciation of what he was trying to say about class and capitalism in novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m now looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London!

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Keep the Aspidistra Flying For a long time I only associated George Orwell with Animal Farm and 1984 and it never occurred to me to look into what else he may have written…until last year when I read Coming Up for Air and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I wanted to read more of his books, so a few weeks ago I picked up his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the story of Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet who gives up a secure job at an advertising agency to escape from what he calls “worship of the Money God”. Determined not to live a life ruled by money and capitalism, Gordon takes a poorly-paid job in a bookshop in the hope that this will free his soul and allow him to concentrate on his poetry. In reality, all that happens is that he finds himself living in a squalid lodging house with no money for food or cigarettes, unable to afford to go out with his friends or his girlfriend, and failing to make any progress with his masterpiece, London Pleasures.

Even as he begins to feel disillusioned and depressed, Gordon still insists that he is doing the right thing and refuses to even consider going back to his old, well-paid job. In the corner of his room he keeps an aspidistra, a house plant popular in the 1930s, which he views as a symbol of the middle-class respectability and conformity he is trying to avoid. Eventually, though, he receives some unexpected news that will force him to make an important decision about his future and to decide what is most important to him.

Gordon is the sort of character some readers will be able to identify with while others will find him completely infuriating! I did have some sympathy for him at first; I admired his principles and could understand his desire to escape from convention and the worship of money. But as the story progressed, I found him more and more frustrating (my sympathies quickly shifted to his long-suffering girlfriend, Rosemary). Far from freeing himself of money-dependency, he was more obsessed with it than anyone else in the novel, blaming every negative thing that happened in his life on his lack of money. The world is full of people doing jobs they would rather not be doing just so that they can make ends meet; I couldn’t feel sorry for someone who was choosing to impose poverty on himself while taking money from his hardworking sister, knowing that he would never pay it back.

I don’t know much about George Orwell as a person, but I guessed that parts of Gordon Comstock’s story were probably autobiographical and I confirmed this when I turned back to read the introduction after finishing the book. I also discovered that Orwell himself didn’t rate this novel very highly and I do certainly think it was the weakest of the four books of his that I’ve read so far – although I did still enjoy it. As well as telling Gordon’s personal story, Orwell also paints a vivid picture of life in 1930s London and I really liked this aspect of the book – and I loved the opening chapter in which Gordon describes the customers who come into the bookshop where he works.

I still have two of Orwell’s novels left to read as well as his non-fiction; I’m looking forward to reading more of his work, especially Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Coming Up for Air I think I need to start this post with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I’d read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I’m glad I’ve waited until now to read it because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.

Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George’s biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?

Based on the other two books I’ve read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell’s surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.

“I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me.”

My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever…that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.

“1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you’ve either had and don’t need to be told about, or haven’t had and won’t ever have the chance to learn.”

The novel doesn’t have a lot of plot, but that wasn’t a problem; I didn’t find it slow at all. There’s not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George’s head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George’s long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:

“The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler.”

George’s actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn’t actually dislike him. He’s so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don’t know much about Orwell’s own life, but I’m sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.

I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell’s books.

Remember These? Books beginning with ‘A’

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was planning a series of posts looking at some of the books I recorded in my old reading diary. The diary spanned my teenage years to my early twenties, so most of the books mentioned below will have been read during the 1990s and although I’ve included my original ratings, these do not necessarily reflect what I would feel about the books if I read them again today!

I gave the books ratings out of 5. The symbol * means I loved the book. X means I didn’t finish it.

Books beginning with ‘A’

Here are a selection of the books that appeared on the ‘A’ page of my notebook. Some of these are classics that many of you have probably read. Others are very obscure, so if you’ve read them I’d love to know what you thought of them!

Animal Farm by George Orwell (5/5*)

I obviously loved this when I first read it. I’ve reread it a couple of times since then and I still think it’s a great book.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (5/5)

One of those children’s classics that can also be enjoyed by adults. I haven’t read it for a long time; I wonder if I would feel any differently about it after reading Alice I Have Been earlier this year?

A Home For Jessie by Christine Pullein-Thompson (4/5)

My best friend and I bought this book and the next two in the Jessie series (Please Save Jessie and Come Home Jessie) from the school book fair when we were about 10 or 11 years old. The series follows the adventures of a boy called Matt and the black Labrador puppy that he rescues from being drowned. This was my favourite Jessie book and I loved it so much I re-read it many times, even after I was ‘too old’ for it (can you ever really be too old for a book?) and it made me cry every time.

All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato (3/5)

This was recommended to me by my mother because I had enjoyed The Thorn Birds and she said this was a similar book also set in Australia. I can’t remember much about this one, though.

Acorna: The Unicorn Girl by Anne McCaffrey and Margaret Ball (3/5)

I’ve never been a big reader of fantasy novels, but I must have enjoyed this enough to give it a 3/5 rating.

A Kind of Thief by Vivien Alcock (3/5)

I can’t remember reading this at all, and even the Goodreads description doesn’t bring back any memories for me: “When her father is suddenly arrested and put into prison, thirteen-year-old Elinor finds that she has to face many unpleasant truths about him and their way of life.”

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (3/5)

I really need to be in a Christmassy mood to appreciate this book. I’ve read it several times over the years and would probably have given it a different rating every time! I re-read it on Christmas Eve last year and really enjoyed it. The edition shown in the picture is the one that was given to me as a Christmas present when I was a child and is a beautiful hardback with colour illustrations.

A Proper Little Nooryeff by Jean Ure (2/5)

I forgot about this one when I did my post on children’s ballet books a few months ago. It was about a teenage boy who becomes a ballet dancer. Nooryeff, if you were wondering, is a mispronunciation of the name (Rudolf) Nureyev.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
(2/5)

I remember my English teacher at school telling us about this book but saying it was suitable for a ‘more mature reader’ so I didn’t actually read it until after I had left school. The chapters describing the fires of hell must have left a big impression on me because that’s all I can actually remember about the book. I’ve never wanted to read anything else by Joyce though, so I don’t think he’s an author for me.

Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard (2/5)

We read this at school in English Literature. It would have been very relevant in the 1990s, as it was set in Northern Ireland and told the story of Kevin, a Catholic boy, who falls in love with Sadie, a Protestant girl. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was actually the second in a series of books about Kevin and Sadie. I think maybe the fact that I was made to read it at school affected my enjoyment of it.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (2/5)

Like many children/young teenagers I used to read a lot of Judy Blume books. This was one of her most popular books, so I’m sure some of you will remember reading it too. I don’t seem to have enjoyed this one very much though.

A Likely Lad by Gillian Avery (1/5)

I can’t remember reading this but I only rated it 1/5. According to the product description on Amazon, ‘Pressured by his father to leave school for a career he doesn’t want, a nineteenth-century Manchester boy runs away and gains a new perspective on his future.’ This actually sounds like something I would probably enjoy more if I was reading it now!

An Air That Kills by Andrew Taylor (x); Act of Violence by Margaret Yorke (1/5); A Thin Dark Line byTami Hoag (3/5)

These three are crime novels which is why I’ve grouped them together, but I can remember absolutely nothing about them and even looking up the descriptions on Amazon doesn’t help bring them back to my mind. I must have thought the Tami Hoag one was okay. I did go through a phase of reading a lot of crime novels, but now I almost never read them (I think I’ve only read one in 2010).

A Touch of Practical Magic by Robert Gould (x)

I recognise the title and can even picture what the cover looked like, but I have no idea what it was about. It seems to be out of print and I can’t even find a synopsis online. I obviously didn’t like it enough to finish it anyway, so I won’t spend too much time worrying about it, but if anyone remembers this book please let me know!

Coming soon… Remember These? Books Beginning with ‘B’.