Monday, May 28, 2007

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë

ISBN # 9780140620115

Publisher: Penguin Classics

First Published: 1847

447 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

Orphaned Jane Eyre grows up in the home of her heartless aunt, where she endures loneliness and cruelty, and at a charity school with a harsh regime. This troubled childhood strengthens Jane's natural independence and spirit - which prove necessary when she finds a position as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer,
Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice. Should she stay with him and live with the consequences, or follow her convictions, even if it means leaving the man she loves? A novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre (1847) dazzled and shocked readers with its passionate depiction of a woman's search for equality and freedom.

I must have been one of the very few people on the planet who knew absolutely nothing about this novel before coming to it; indeed, other than the eponymous heroine, none of the character names or places were even known to me, not to mention any of the plot developments. How I escaped any foreknowledge of even the basics, I do not know, but it meant that, in coming to this novel fresh, I could enjoy each twist and turn as it arrived, without thinking ahead to what conclusion might be arrived at eventually.

Between the covers, I found 447 pages of some of the most beautiful writing I have ever experienced: The descriptions of the various locales were such that I could almost feel the wind blowing over the moor and the dank, oppressiveness of Lowood School; the characters, far from being the usual beauteous creatures depicted in many a novel, both classic and contemporary, were plain and homely-looking, and were physically appealing to very few others (throughout the proceedings, the appearance of Miss Eyre is commented upon as being far from pleasing), which made a refreshing change; the plot developments were perfectly timed, so that every drop could be wrung out, without turning sour, before moving on to the next; and some scenes actually had me weeping, whether in sorrow or joy, at the situation of the characters.

I cannot believe I left it so long to experience this novel (and experience it I did!), and it has whet my appetite for further acquaintance with the works of Charlotte Bronte, as well as those of her sisters.

Broken Skin by Stuart MacBride

Title: Broken Skin
Author: Stuart MacBride

ISBN # 9780007193172

Publisher: Harper Collins

First Published: 2007

439 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 9/10

A new Logan McRae thriller from the bestselling author of 'Cold Granite' and 'Dying Light', set in gritty
Aberdeen. In the pale grey light of a chilly February, Aberdeen is not at its best! There's a rapist prowling the city's cold granite streets, leaving a string of tortured women behind. But while DS Logan McRae's girlfriend is out acting as bait, he's dealing with the blood-drenched body of an unidentified male, dumped outside Accident and Emergency. When a stash of explicit films turn up, all featuring the victim, it looks as if someone in the local bondage community has developed a taste for violent death, and Logan gets dragged into the twilight world of pornographers, sex-shops and S&M. To make matters worse, when they finally arrest the Granite City Rapist, Grampian Police are forced by the courts to let him go: Aberdeen Football Club's star striker has an alibi for every attack. Could they really have got it so badly wrong? Logan thinks so, but the trick will be getting anyone to listen before the real rapist strikes again. Especially as his girlfriend, PC Jackie 'Ball Breaker' Watson, is convinced the footballer is guilty and she's hell-bent on a conviction at any cost...

Another splendid offering from Scotland's hottest new crime fiction writer. This is MacBride's third novel set in Aberdeen and is, in his own words, "packed with porn, bondage and filth," and he's right - it is!* But it's all completely necessary to a humdinger of a plot with strikingly real characterisation, excellently clever plot-working and stunningly taut writing. His research is as impeccable as ever and what is offered up is a stunningly visceral roller-coaster ride into the dark and nasty underbelly of crime and fetish sex.**

MacBride is certainly a force to be reckoned with and this has me gagging (no pun intended) for his next novel. He just keeps getting better and better. This is the closest I've come to awarding 10/10 for any book this year!

* He told me this while signing my copy and doodling a little naked man beside his name. Incidentally, Mr. MacBride was very friendly and lovely to talk too. I hope to meet him again in the future.

** Just for the record, I do not believe there’s anything wrong in consenting adults engaging in mutually pleasurable bondage or indeed any sexual activities – I merely mean that this novel features the extreme end of fetish activity and crimes pertaining to that.

No Humans Involved by Kelley Armstrong

Title: No Humans Involved
Author: Kelley Armstrong

ISBN # 9781841493954

Publisher: Orbit

First Published: 2007

342 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 9/10

No Humans Involved stars necromancer Jaime Vegas. She's on a television shoot in
Brentwood, Los Angeles when weird things start to happen. Invisible hands brush her arms, she sees movements out of the corner of her eye, and unintelligible fragments of words are whispered in her ear. Jaime's used to seeing the dead and hearing them clearly. But now, for the first time in her life, she knows what humans mean when they say they're being haunted. Jaime is determined to get to the bottom of this, but she doesn't realize how low her investigation will take her or what human-based horror she will uncover. As she delves through the dark underside of Los Angeles she'll need as much Otherworld help as she can get to survive unscathed. But Jeremy, the alpha-werewolf is there by her side to offer his protection. And maybe more than that!

If you're looking for cross-genre fiction that has a little bit of everything and really delivers with a lot of "POW!" you can't do much better than Kelley Armstrong.

Despite this being the 7th in the series, this feels as fresh and unexpected as the first - Armstrong is certainly at the very top of her game! This is excellent stuff - I literally couldn't put it down - the proof is that I finished it first thing the morning after starting it late at night (I had to get some sleep in between, after all!). Armstrong’s look at our fascination with “reality” and paranormal television shows gives an intriguing slant, with an excellently satirical portrayal of some of the stars of that genre, as well as showing how dangerous it can be to meddle with things beyond general understanding, and people’s feelings at a vulnerable time, as well as how it can be a comfort to those in need.

This entire series proves that you can have a supernatural/paranormal slant and still keep things within the realms of believability - it's so down to earth you practically get muddy fingers turning the pages. Jaime Vegas is such a great character and it's wonderful to see things from her point of view, especially with her developing relationship with Jeremy Danvers.

I know there's at least one planned with Savannah in the lead, which promises to be another foray into Otherworld gripping-ness! I am absolutely dying for the next instalment, and also to get the first in the new, non-Otherworld series, Exit Strategy. I can see I'm going to be continually waiting with bated breath for every new book by Kelley Armstrong for the foreseeable future!

Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Title: Wideacre
Author: Philippa Gregory

ISBN # 000767242X

Publisher: Harper Collins

First Published: 1987

622 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

Wideacre Hall, set in the heart of the English countryside, is the ancestral home that Beatrice Lacey loves. But as a woman of the 18th century, she has no right of inheritance. Corrupted by a world that mistreats women, she sets out to corrupt others.

What a rush! This one seems to have flown by all at once! I was gripped pretty much throughout, desperate to find out what would happen next and how it would end - whether or not those who deserved punishment would actually get their come-uppance (it really was a case of, "will they actually get away with it?" - it could have gone either way). It was certainly a very easy book to read - not taxing in the slightest, but one of those rip-roaring books that just keeps you coming back for more...

It's not high literature, but it's completely engrossing. Beatrice's depravity seems to know no bounds where getting what she wants is concerned, and there are some particularly perverse moments, but it's completely compelling - an absolute page-turner!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Title: The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath

ISBN # 05710181789

Publisher: Faber & Faber

First Published: 1963

258 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 2/10

A student from
Boston wins a guest editorship on a national magazine, and finds a new world at her feet. Her New York life is crowded with possibilities, so the choice of future is overwhelming. She is faced with the perennial problems of morality, behaviour and identity.

I found this very cold, clinical and emotionless and had great difficulty identifying with the narrator - I just didn't feel anything towards her at all. Nothing much seemed to happen and despite her month in New York, her life seemed very dull.

I got absolutely nothing out of this - it felt so disjointed and I felt it had very little flow. In a way, I'm glad she only wrote the one novel so, as I'm not into poetry, I won't feel obliged to try any more of her work. It felt like such a chore to read this and I kind of wished I'd put it down early on and given up on it – I would have done if it hadn’t been chosen for a reading circle and been so short.

Another great disappointment, which is shame really.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Audio Book)

Title: Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley

Narrator: Michael York

Publisher: Audible

First Published: 1932

Running time: 8hrs, 14min, 23sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 4/10

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress...

Although this is acknowledged the world over as a seminal work, I have to admit that I was singularly unimpressed by Brave New World. It may be that I expected too much from it, but I’m not alone in expecting great things from a book hailed as a modern classic.

By chapter four, I felt that if I heard the phrase "Ending is better than mending" one more time, I would very likely scream! I also found the jumping around highly annoying, going from one conversation between two women, to a lecture by a Controller, to another conversation between some young men, to the sleep conditioning being pumped into the children's sleeping quarters, to the inner thoughts of another young man, often mid-sentence, was very frustrating and I did not like it. The first half-dozen chapters seemed like a potted history of how that version of the world was run, which was kind of interesting and essential to the understanding of the rest of the story, but left me wishing it would just move onto the actual plot now. By that point I hadn't yet even begun to identify with any of the characters... strangely, I never did get that sense of connection.

I didn't enjoy this one at all. In fact, the only reason I kept listening till the end was that Michael York is such an excellent reader! I just found the characters all to be vaguely ridiculous and the story itself rather preachy and very silly to the point of stupid. I didn't get anything at all from this supposedly "great" book except a profound sense of disappointment. About a third of it is taken up with Shakespeare quotes, seemingly in an attempt to justify the length of it by putting in something that really is wonderful and thus raise the tone of the novel. In my opinion it failed utterly to do so - the Shakespeare quotes were the only moments of quality in the entire thing. I really wish I hadn't bothered.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author: Maggie O’Farrell

ISBN # 9780755308446

Publisher: Headline Review

First Published: 2007

277 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

Set between the 1930s,and the present, Maggie O'Farrell's new novel is the story of Esme, a woman edited out of her family's history, and of the secrets that come to light when, sixty years later, she is released from care, and a young woman, Iris, discovers the great aunt she never knew she had. The mystery that unfolds is the heartbreaking tale of two sisters in colonial India and 1930s Edinburgh - of the loneliness that binds them together and the rivalries that drive them apart, and lead one of them to a shocking betrayal - but above all it is the story of Esme, a fiercely intelligent, unconventional young woman, and of the terrible price she is made to pay for her family's unhappiness.

To begin with I had a bit of a problem with the third person, present tense; especially when it's jumping from one character to the next, but I enjoyed the story readily identified with poor Esme - such a tragedy for a woman to be locked away for 60 years (especially as I suspect there was absolutely nothing wrong with her mind when she was put there...).

What interested me a great deal was the fact that the only character who “spoke” in the first person, present tense, was Kitty, who was suffering from such severe dementia that her internalised thoughts spilled out unchecked, often beginning mid-sentence and leaving other thoughts unfinished. It was a poignant reminder of how deeply the mind is affected by senility.

This was such an easy book to read and despite being able to see exactly where things were going, I still wanted to read on, as I wanted to hear it from the point of view of Esme, Kitty and Iris - three wonderfully strong characters. I'll certainly be reading more of Maggie's books in the future!

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (Audio Book)

Title: The Three Musketeers
Author: Alexandre Dumas

Narrator: Michael York

First Published: 1844

Running time: 6hrs, 15min, 58sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 9/10

D'Artagnan, arriving in
Paris from Gascony with no horse and few worldly goods wishes to join the King's Guards. He finds himself in the company of three musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, the most renowned fighters of their day. The adventures they share, fighting for the honour of the Queen against the machinations of 'Milady', are rich in drama, colour and romance, which is why The Three Musketeers has remained so popular since its first serialisation in 1844.

I absolutely adored this audio book version of the classic swashbuckler as, being read by Michael York, it was as though D’Artagnion himself were narrating the tale (Michael York, of course, played the young hero to great effect in the 1973 film). He managed to capture both the essence and the vocal expression of his fellow stars from the film in his reading – really, he was the perfect choice to read The Three Musketeers!

The story itself is well known, but Dumas’ writing is superb and really should be experienced first-had. His descriptive passages are judged to perfection – neither too lengthy nor involved, but never skimping or leaving the reader in any doubt as to what is before them.

This is not just a classic tale of good versus evil, but has deliberately blurred lines which are crossed by all the characters on multiple occasions, asking the discerning reader to consider the context and implications of the characters’ actions before judging their behaviour. It is also a romp the likes of which it would be hard to beat – the swordplay is always quick and the author never stints on the danger as the heroes are thrust headlong into action.

If you’ve never read this, whether or not you’ve seen a film version, pick it up, turn the pages, and become completely absorbed in this most passionate, adventurous tale – I promise you will not regret it!

Daughters of the Doge by Edward Charles

Title: Daughters of the Doge
Author: Edward Charles

ISBN # 9780230018129

Publisher: Macmillan New Writing

First Published: 2007

371 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 6/10

Richard Stocker, a young man from
Devon, accompanies his friend and mentor, Dr. Thomas Marwood, to Venice as personal secretary to the exiled Earl of Devon, Edward Courtenay. There, he is faced with many decisions that will affect the course of his life, challenge his beliefs and test his determination. Along the way, he finds himself entranced by three very beautiful, very different women, each of whom will turn his head and cause complications to his plans.

This novel had so much potential – an exquisite setting in one of the richest periods of history, a cast of artists and royalty, and a personable hero – but I didn’t feel it ever quite delivered on its promise.

For the most part, it reads like a novel marketed at the young adult market, but occasionally the language changes to something that is definitely more adult in nature, so that it hovers on the brink between then, neither one thing nor the other. The narrative is also constantly interrupted by the stating of specific dates throughout, which I thought hindered proceedings, rather than propelling the story forward in any way – it gave it quite a fragmented feel and I found myself only able to read it in shorter bursts, never once compelled to sit for any length of time and read a longer section in one go – there just wasn’t enough to keep me interested for longer than about twenty minutes at a time and my mind would wander.

The characters are largely two-dimensional – none of them feel particularly fleshed out, although there is a more attention given to Veronica Franco, the beguiling courtesan, and her scenes were some of the most beautiful and smoothly-written. This was partially due to the fact that those scenes were mostly within an art studio, and the only time Charles really wrote with any passion was while describing the activity within the studio and the history of different techniques – those passages were a dream to read. The narrator, Richard, was personable enough, but he seemed remarkably immature for a young man of twenty and much was made of his “coming of age”. There were constant references to his growing up (made by the man himself) which felt out of place in the text and did nothing to enhance the story. Yes, this was a coming of age, but the subtleties of his situation were more than enough to indicate this to any reader without him constantly reminding himself that he needed to mature.

The sub-story of a royal plot was, to me, the most exciting possibility, but this was largely side-lined and forgotten, much to my disappointment. Several characters were introduced specifically for the purposes of the plot against Queen Mary, but it was never fully explored and a great opportunity for added intrigue was missed. On top of this, everything falls into place far too neatly and felt very contrived towards the end.

Overall, I was disappointed and unimpressed – the author could have really pushed himself and written something that sparkled, but I feel he was trying too hard to play it safe and didn’t challenge himself. It’s a pleasant enough read, but nothing to write home about.

The Separation by Christopher Priest

Title: The Separation
Author: Christopher Priest

ISBN # 057507003X

Publisher: Gollancz Fiction

First Published: 2002

405 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 7/10

In 1936, twin brothers return to
Britain from the Berlin Olympic Games with bronze medals and a young Jewish woman, a refugee from the Nazis, concealed inside their van. This act of compassion sets in train a sequence of events which has the potential to change the course of history.

As in The Prestige, Priest uses confusion of events and individuals, as well as imperfect memories, to great effect, crafting a tale that changes in its very plot as the reader hears the point of view of different characters. This is helped a great deal by the use of identical twin brothers, both with the same initials, who cause some confusion with the people with whom they interact, as well as the use of doubles for political figures in dangerous situations.

At times, things are rather confusing, and on occasion, it’s only when there’s a mention of flying or ambulances that the reader can fathom which of the brothers is currently narrating, but this serves to heighten the tension in several situations where the outcome is never certain, and often, on seeing the same event from another’s perspective, the outcome shown the second time round conflicts with the original, giving a sense of “you had to be there.”

It’s packed with excellent characters who are fleshed out very nicely, as well as some unusual portrayal of historical figures and the roles they played during WWII as it might have been (it's a slightly altered, alternative history), but with a lot of jumping about and switching back and forth between different memory streams. I get the feeling that this would be better after a second reading, but even with the confusion on a first reading, it's rather enjoyable.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Audio Book)

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood

Narrator: Barbara Cunningham

First Published: 1985

Running time: 8hrs, 14min, 23sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 7/10

Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs...

I wonder why it is that Dystopian Future novels seem to focus mainly on sex and imposing rules upon people when it comes to personal relationships? As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, sex is seen here as something that should be under the strictest regulation, but in this novel, women are both exalted as bringers of life, and subjected to life as second-class citizens under the rule of “Commanders”. I’d heard a fair bit about The Handmaid’s Tale prior to listening to this audio recording of the novel – all of it good, but this didn’t quite live up to my expectations. There’s no doubt that it was well written and well-plotted, but much of it seemed highly implausible to me and the relationship between Offred and her Commander seemed trite, whereas the so-called love affair between Offred and Nick was decidedly passionless, even in comparison.

That said, the scenes in the Red Centre (where the Handmaids are “trained”) and those scenes where the women are involved in particicution (partaking in the persecution of another as a group, whether blaming a fellow woman for her “wanton ways” prior to the change in society, or beating a man to death for his crimes against women) were charged with a certain electricity that makes it all seem shockingly real.

It may not be the best book I have ever read, but it’s certainly one I’m glad to have experienced – “experienced” really is the right word for it, as it’s impossible not to be affected by this novel – and I look forward to reading more of Atwood’s work in the future.