Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Read in 2010

Fingersmith

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had a plot twist so unexpected that my jaw literally dropped. Fingersmith had this effect! Lots of unusual events and characters from the fringes of Victorian society – all in all, very readable.

The Woman In Black

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

There is nothing like a ghost story on a winter’s evening. I have seen the stage adaptation of this book before, and it is brilliant, and pretty faithful to the original story: A young solicitor is sent from London to tend to the affairs of a recently deceased client in a remote part of the country. With a creaking old house separated from the rest of the village by marshland and rising tides, the main character starts work.

If I hadn’t known anything about Susan Hill, I would have assumed she was a victorian writer, a jumble of Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins perhaps. An old fashioned ghost story; with mysterious wasting women in graveyards, rocking chairs in nurseries, and drownings in the marshland. Hill captures atmosphere and builds tension perfectly.

The main difference between reading and watching The Woman in Black is the sound of the novel; during the play, the sounds were what made it terrifying. I was lucky to be able to remember them as I was reading; although I think that even without this background, I could create the sounds out of my imagination because the novel is so well written.

Neverwhere

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

“Mind the Gap” … Much bleaker than Stardust, this futuristic / apocalyptic / yet still somehow set in the past other world is inhabited by all the lost people who have fallen through gaps and ended up underneath London. Not in the real world, but not dead either, Neverwhere follows a band of misfits on a mission. I’d be just as excited about this book as I was about Stardust if I’d liked any of the characters, but the mythology and various creatures that turned up were just as intriguing.

Neil Gaiman has a very distinctive style which manages to make you feel nostalgic and like an intrepid explorer of the unknown, all at the same time.

Stardust

Stardust, Neil Gaiman

There is nothing I love more than the rare pleasure of finding a new author. Yes, I read a lot of books that I think are brilliant, but collecting authors is much trickier. Neil Gaiman, welcome to my collection! He reminds me of Ray Bradbury in his eloquence and his distant-but-not-so-far-away worlds. Stardust is set shortly before the Victorian era, in a little country town called Wall. But in addition to the ‘real world’ there is another realm of spirits and storms and witches and magic… not the scatterbrained kind, but an earthy, old worldly way: think folklore and mystics rather than fairies. In the town of Wall, Tristran Thorn promises to bring back a fallen star for his true love, and strays into this other world to get it.

I couldn’t read this quick enough, and I can’t stop smiling when I think about it. Immediately after finishing, I bought another of his books- Neverwhere– which, very unusually for me, I started straight away. A total convert!

A Surprising Find

The Shooting Party, Isabel Colegate

Lived and breathed this little gem of a book. Isabel Colegate takes twenty four hours in an edwardian country estate during a shooting party, taking perspective from many of the different people involved. This novel is great if you like a lot of characters to study: there is a lot of aristocracy mixed with their servants, lots of different generations and a mix of city and country people. She totally manages to capture a way of life that vanished so quickly from English memory – it all seems so long ago but it is only the twentieth century! It is only a short book but it is so worth a read: stylish, observant, witty, nostalgic….

The Greatest Literary Achievement of All Time

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Reading War and Peace was very challenging, but ultimately an enjoyable experience. As with Anna Karenina, the characters are excellently developed with darkness and light. Tolstoy is fantastic at characterisation: everyone ends up a long way from where they started, and he is one of the few writers who can authentically age his creations.

Not surprisingly I preferred the ‘peace’ parts (i.e. those set in the social circles of St. Petersburg or Moscow as opposed to the battlefield) but I did find the battles more interesting than I thought I would. I do struggle picturing battle scenes, for these I tried to imagine Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe style skirmishes, which was probably not amazingly accurate. Reading about Napoleon from a Russian perspective was illuminating, but I thought the ending of the book was disappointing because it got so bogged down in the philosophy of history (if there is such a thing!) and felt a little bit like it was the author’s attempt to show off how smart he undeniably was.

I would recommend reading War and Peace because ultimately it is not as difficult or as boring as it is made out to be: its just really really long. And the novel has to be so long to encapsulate what I think makes Tolstoy AMAZING: the story is all in the detail. So much of the book is reading about trivial, tiny, thoughts and feelings, but it is these small moments that make up life.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

This is original. I swung from not being into it at first to complete adoration at the end. This book had a large scope, and is about more than it appears to be:

escapology, WWII, superheroes, love, family ties, being jewish, bodies and their limitations, glamour, new york, homosexuality, publishing, historical times of excitement, fantasy history, comic books, children, grief, war stories, guilt, making money, european/american cultures, how to live your life.

Rebecca

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

‘If only there could be an invention’, I said impulsively, ‘that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.’

I loved this book for the following reasons:

  1. The opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”
  2. Upper class English eccentricity
  3. Manderley: the description of the house, the furniture, the gardens, the views
  4. The importance of a ghostly character
  5. The plot twists (I was a complete Rebecca virgin, I had no idea what was going to happen)
  6. You never find out the main character’s name
  7. The ball and the costumes
  8. The non-slushy love
  9. The sinister housekeeper and how much I disliked her
  10. The way the characters surprised you

Pure enjoyment on this one, reminded me a bit (although I’ve read them chronologically backwards) of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. This is fantastic, definitely a new favourite book.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

I was recommended this book after going to watch an australian animated film called Mary and Max, which features a character with asperger’s syndrome. Obviously this is a well known and well discussed book, but it has never previously appealed. An incredibly quick and easy read, this book is really really touching.

I have no experience with asperger’s so it was really interesting to find out more about it and how people think. The book also works the other way around in that because it is narrated in quite a naive way, the ‘ordinary’ grown-up behaviours come under scrutiny too.

Some twists, some parts tough to read, some parts incredibly sweet: but mainly I got really invested in Christopher’s happiness, and I wanted to know what happened to him as he grew up.

It was a Dark and Stormy Night…

Dracula, Bram Stoker

In the spirit of Halloween I decided to finally read this classic. I have tried to read it once before, years ago, but I only read about a quarter before giving up. I think you have to vanquish all your preconceptions of vampire myths in popular culture (all those years of watching Buffy for me!) because this is back to basics. I liked how the book is told; through diaries of and letters between the four/five main characters. It feels like an early documentary. And I liked reading the humble beginnings of familiar characters (e.g. Van Helsing).

All in all, a good read, and an interesting one, but you’ve got to be in the mood. I fancy a trip to Whitby soon to see Stoker’s inspiration.

Side note: iPlayer Mark Gatiss’ history of horror if you’ve not watched it yet, its awesome!