Sonnet 18, Line 4
For the past week I’ve been on holiday on the Island of Evvia in Greece. I’ve met lots of lovely and interesting people, eaten delicious baklava, and topped up my tan, but most importantly… I’m now up to date with my ‘2013 100 Books’ challenge. When Goodreads asked me how many books I was aiming to read this year, back in January, I simply picked at random a nice, round-sounding number out of the air; a hundred seemed reasonably simple, yet seemingly impressive (yeah, I’m a showing-off type of reader. Deal with it.)
However, exams and revision got the better of me, and when I embarked on my holiday, I was about 6 books behind target… But no longer! So, without further ado, here are the eight novels I read over the past six days (Told you I was a show off 😉 )
- The Marlowe Papers (Ros Barber) – As a die-hard ‘Shakespeare was Shakespeare’ supporter, I have to admit the concept of this book made me sceptical. The idea is that Marlowe’s death was actually faked (he was also a spy, had friends in high places, etc.), meaning he was then forced into exile abroad, and so published his further work under a pseudonym… No prizes for guessing what name he chose! However, ignoring this ridiculous suggestion and focusing on the actual novel, this was brilliantly written. Poetical, yet plot-filled, philosophic, yet pacy, it was perfectly formulated in blank verse, the style used by Shakespeare in the vast majority of his work. The characterisation of Marlowe was subtly persuasive, and, I willing to concede that it did at least make me see the possibility of such an occurrence (although I still refuse to believe it!). I did feel somewhat less endeared to Marlowe by the end than I had at the beginning, but I guess that this showed the damaging and wearying effect of exile from the country and people you loved. Overall, definitely worth a read, whether it’s for the writing, the argument or the history.
- The Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys) – I’d heard so much positive feedback about this book from such a variety of people, that, looking back, it isn’t really surprising it was *whispers* a bit of a disappointment. A little like ‘The Great Gatsby’. Yes, it’s an original idea – it tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester – and many passages are beautifully evocative, especially of the sticky summer humidity of Jamaica, but it just wasn’t quite as amazing as I had been led to believe. My favourite bit was probably the end and the inter-references to ‘Jane Eyre’, which, coincidentally is exactly what my next book was full of…
- Lost in a Good Book (Jasper Fforde) – This was completely and utterly my sort of book; witty, crazy and unique, with plenty of clever references to other books, and cool inventions that just made my heart sing. This is actually the second one in Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series, a sequence of books about a literary detective, who has a pet dodo, a rogue time-traveller for a father, and several members of the villainous ‘Hades’ family after her. I’m reading the first one now (‘The Eyre Affair’), but you really didn’t need to in order to understand the plot. I seriously recommend this one; probably one of my favourite novels I’ve ever read. However, some advice for Fforde: if you’re going to create a crazy, fantasy world for your characters, don’t make a smarty-pants link to our world right at the end. It’s like you’re trying to give a massively patronising and over the top wink and a nudge to your readers, as in “See what I did there?” Yes I do, and it’s neither funny nor necessary. Saying all this, that was one paragraph out of about 400 pages of fast-paced, awesome hilarity.
- The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin) – The idea behind this thriller is both excellent and original; it tells of a Nazi-hunter’s discovery that Dr Mengele (the psychotically evil Nazi-doctor who experimented on Auschwitz inmates, and who was actually still alive and hiding in South America when this was written in 1976) is planning, through science, to re-kindle the Third Reich. I won’t give you any more information, because otherwise suspense is key to keeping up the pace and tension of the novel. A brilliant book for unwilling readers who prefer plot over description, and a quick and easy read for anyone. Definitely a page-turner. (And apparently there’s a 1978 film starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier which could be pretty interesting to see.)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde) – Obviously this is an incredibly inspired concept; a man sells his soul so that, whilst his own portrait ages, he remains youthful and beautiful. I’m really glad I read this, as it was quite different to how I imagined it – I assumed Gray had actually gone out and deliberately sold his soul to the devil, but it’s much more accidental than that. There are some really interesting ideas about beauty here and the characterisation of Dorian is endlessly fascinating, but there were pages and pages of description of different jewels and pieces of music and flowers and clothes that simply weren’t necessary. Perhaps they have some hidden meanings which would make studying the book great fun, but for pure reading pleasure, they were a little dreary. Still, one of those books you should read.
- Out of the Dust (Karen Hesse) – Another story told through poetry, this time free verse, rather than blank. Hesse tells the tale of Billie Jo, growing up in the Oklahoma dust bowl, in a beautifully haunting and evocative manner. It makes the whole period (which few learn about) easy to understand, as it is both informative redolent and, as a bonus, can be finished in about an hour. However, this means that the book’s one error is that the oppressing duration of the dust is not quite felt as clearly as in Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. However, still a superb and poignant book.
- The Ghost Road (Pat Barker) – Unfortunately, I brought the third in this series rather than the second, so obviously some bits didn’t make as much sense as they could have. It is the closing novel in Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ series, about the First World War; not only the fighting, but the psychological impact as well. The writing style is clear yet descriptive, and the characterisation is superb. I found it especially interesting to hear about the psychology, which is probably why Dr Rivers is one of my favourite characters, not just in the series but generally. That, and also Barker’s pitch-perfect portrayal of his likeable, very human, nature. Nevertheless, I felt that Barker let her characters down with an ending that left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Whilst it created a powerful sense of the futility and wastefulness of WW1, I felt the link to Rivers’ time in Africa was never as cohesive as I wanted it to be. It felt more like two different stories side by side at some points, and the ending which attempted to link them simply didn’t quite convince me.
- The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe) – This book has become more popular recently, having been seen in ‘Mad Men’, but it was actually written in 1958, about four girls living in New York in 1952; kind of a cross between ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Girls’. The novel is engaging from the start, but becomes less so as book goes on. Of the four girls, Barbara Lemont, the 21 year old divorcee mother, was my favourite, whilst Gregg, the aspiring actress who becomes obsessed with her lover, had, I felt, a ridiculously melodramatic story, and acted so foolishly I just couldn’t even feel sympathetic towards her. Once again there was a sadly unsatisfying conclusion; although April, the naïve beauty looking for true love, did have a happy ending (yay!), Caroline, probably the main heroine of the book, was left in limbo. The descriptions of the ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of women in New York are definitely the best part of the book. I’d probably class the novel as more intellectual than chick lit, but still quite a light read, and especially worth reading as an interesting portrait of an era from several women’s perspectives.
Wow! A mammoth post! Hopefully it’s given you a couple of suggestions for some summer (or even winter) reading – if you’ve read any of them, please let me know what you thought 🙂