Books in February

Okay, so this month I’ll be doing things a little differently. Since I have absolutely no talent in summarising books I have thus far avoided it, but I don’t think that is the way to go in the end. So from now on, I will find a short summary to attach to the book (source will naturally be indicated), and then just go on as I have before.

Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South

A friend told me several years ago that I should watch the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, and back then I decided I would for once read the classic before seeing it. This promise got fulfilled during the first week of February, and boy, am I glad I did it!

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fuses individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale creates one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

(GoodReads)

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Gaskell’s language is very easy to fall into, and the story – originally published as a newspaper serial – rolls on very nicely. Gaskell is not as clever as Jane Austen, refined like her friend Charlotte Brontë, or teller of a complicated story like Charles Dickens, but her prose is a pleasure, and Mr Thornton has now risen to one of my favourite classic gentlemen. I’m looking forward to seeing the adaptation!

First published: 1854-1855

Pages: 403 (Wordsworth Editions 2002)

Julia Quinn: What Happens In London

It seems I cannot keep away from Julia Quinn’s books. This time I found myself reading What Happens in London, the second book in the Bevelstoke series (third one being the Quinn I read previously – I’m not very good at this, am I?).

When Olivia Bevelstoke is told that her new neighbor may have killed his fiancée, she doesn’t believe it for a second, but still, how can she help spying on him, just to be sure?  So she stakes out a spot near her bedroom window, cleverly concealed by curtains, watches, and waits… and discovers a most intriguing man, who is definitely up to something.

Sir Harry Valentine works for the boring branch of the War Office, translating documents vital to national security.  He’s not a spy, but he’s had all the training, and when a gorgeous blonde begins to watch him from her window, he is instantly suspicious.  But just when he decides that she’s nothing more than a nosy debutante, he discovers that she might be engaged to a foreign prince, who might be plotting against England. And when Harry is roped into spying on Olivia, he discovers that he might be falling for her himself…

(http://www.juliaquinn.com)

The book was merely entertaining. The characters were nothing special, the plot was nothing special, and the humour I’ve previously found redeeming in her work was largely missing. Once again, a rather serious subplot was dealt without much care and the author largely depending on the reader, leaving me to wonder whether the traumatized little brother was necessary at all. The “villain” could have been more consistent in character, and I actually found his bodyguard Vladimir more interesting. The language is, as usual, off, and I still have a hard time trusting Quinn’s background research. However, the book is good for a day’s entertainment, so in that capacity it is more or less worth picking up.

Published: 2009

Pages: 328 (Avon Books 2009)

Jane Austen: Persuasion

After Quinn I was in need of some good and reliable Austen. Persuasion is one of my favourites, perhaps because it is rather different from her other works:

Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?

(Goodreads)

This book is so subtle it is an absolute thrill to read. Little gestures, words, expressions mean so much, and feelings that once were return gradually. There is little else I can say about the book without spoiling the ending, but be prepared: this book includes the most beautiful letter I have ever read!

First published: 1818 (posthumous)

Pages: 230 (Penguin 1975)

Georgette Heyer: The Spanish Bride

Shot-proof, fever-proof and a veteran campaigner at the age of twenty-five, Brigade-Major Harry Smith is reputed to be the luckiest man in Lord Wellington’s army. But at the siege of Badajos, his friends foretell the ruin of his career. For when Harry meets the defenceless Juana, a fiery passion consumes him. Under the banner of honour and with the selfsame ardour he so frequently displays in battle, he dives headlong into marriage. In his beautiful child-bride, he finds a kindred spirit, and a temper to match. But for Juana, a long year of war must follow…

(back cover of the Arrow Books edition 2005)

The Spanish Bride was not exactly the romance I thought I was going to get, although the romance bits are just as sweet as Heyer always makes them. Most of the time, however, is devoted to the war. The army marches from city to city in Spain – I found that the book might do with a map – and waits for action. The battles are scarce, but they are not the interesting thing anyway. The characters have been real: in the foreword Heyer mentions several autobiographies she read while doing research, and the authors of those are met. I feel like I understand Lord Wellington’s character, and seeing as how scrupulous a researcher Heyer is, I am not doubting her vision.

The only thing I felt a little queasy about was the age difference between husband and wife. Harry is twenty-five when they marry, Juana only fourteen. To a modern reader this looks suspicious, but we must remember it was not exactly out of the ordinary in the day. Juana is also very mature, so one does not keep thinking of her age but instead her admirable spirit.

In short, as a history lesson this book is excellent, especially if you, like me, learn better from fiction than pure facts.

Published: William Heinemann 1940

Pages: 422 (Arrow Books 2005)

John le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A modern classic in which John le Carré expertly creates a total vision of a secret world, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy begins George Smiley’s chess match of wills and wits with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.

It is now beyond a doubt that a mole, implanted decades ago by Moscow Centre, has burrowed his way into the highest echelons of British Intelligence. His treachery has already blown some of its most vital operations and its best networks. It is clear that the double agent is one of its own kind. But which one? George Smiley is assigned to identify him. And once identified, the traitor must be destroyed.

(Goodreads)

I actually picked this book up simply because the movie was coming out here, and I decided I wanted to read the story first. I don’t usually read crime fiction, but this one left a pleasant impression of the genre. Even though I’m not good with history past the 19th century and the details of the Cold War are hazy, it did not hinder the reading. More difficulty I found in adjusting to le Carré’s rather lengthy and complicated style, but as usual, once one gets used to the rhythm it gets easier, and once all the characters are familiar the story really picks up. I would advise little breaks during the reading, to allow the different stories of the past and their details to sink in – and sometimes, if concentration has faltered at some point, it is necessary to go back a paragraph or two.

I think it likely I will read the other two books in this Karla trilogy, but the need to do so is not very pressing. Nevertheless, Tinker Tailor is a compelling read – although not the extent where I would keep glancing around me on the street, trying to spot legmen watching me. (I did keep my eye on the car with Czech license plates, though.)

Published: Random House (US) / Hodder & Stoughton (UK) 1974

Pages: 422 (Sceptre 2011)

George Orwell: Animal Farm

Animal Farm is the most famous by far of all twentieth-century political allegories. Its account of a group of barnyard animals who revolt against their vicious human master, only to submit to a tyranny erected by their own kind, can fairly be said to have become a universal drama. Orwell is one of the very few modern satirists comparable to Jonathan Swift in power, artistry, and moral authority; in animal farm his spare prose and the logic of his dark comedy brilliantly highlight his stark message.

Taking as his starting point the betrayed promise of the Russian Revolution, Orwell lays out a vision that, in its bitter wisdom, gives us the clearest understanding we possess of the possible consequences of our social and political acts.

(Goodreads)

Animal Farm happened to be on the shelf when I visited one of my regular libraries, and since I’ve long intended to read it, this was a good opportunity. And I liked it. A lot. Even though the story is familiar – from general knowledge of either literature or history – it is an engaging story. The parallels to the Soviet Union are clear as day, in all their unpleasantness. This is a rather neat novella, with a very clear outline. Those who have experience in the field of political satire might find it too easy, but a dabbler like me will enjoy the clarity. There are also some elements that are developed further in 1984, published only four years later.

Published: Secker and Warburg 1945

Pages: 95 (Penguin 1989)

Patricia Briggs: Moon Called

Since werewolves are my favourite paranormal creatures, I wanted to give the Mercy Thompson series a go.

Werewolves can be dangerous if you get in their way, but they’ll leave you alone if you are careful. They are very good at hiding their natures from the human population, but I’m not human. I know them when I meet them, and they know me, too.

Mercy Thompson’s sexy next-door neighbor is a werewolf.

She’s tinkering with a VW bus at her mechanic shop that happens to belong to a vampire.

But then, Mercy Thompson is not exactly normal herself … and her connection to the world of things that go bump in the night is about to get her into a whole lot of trouble.

(Goodreads)

As an urban fantasy novel, I suppose this one is a good one. The problem is, I’m increasingly feeling like this is not my genre – the first person narrative, the American cities, the weapons, the TV-series-like quality are not for me. Not that I wasn’t entertained by this book, quite the opposite! Briggs’s heroine Mercy is an independent, non-conventional woman, and the werewolf system she introduces is logical and believable. There is a lot of action and not a dull moment. However, I did not like her relationships to males (maybe excepting Zee), and, as much as I regret to say it, I’m finding I can barely stand vampires any longer. Of course, this is not Briggs’s fault in the least.

So if you like werewolves, urban settings, and fast-paced action, read it. I might eventually continue this series (currently six books long), but only if I want something light and quick to read.

Published: January 2006

Pages: 288 (Ace Books mass market paperback 2006

So this is what February was like. I also bought a few books from the Arkadia International Bookshop:

  • Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Jane Austen: Lady Susan/the Watsons/Sanditon
  • John le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

My order of Anne Rice’s Wolf Gift got cancelled, and I now need to wait for it some more, but I’m hopefully getting my hands on it next month. I’ve also ordered some other books, but more about those when they arrive.

Newsflash! I’m participating the Lies of Locke Lamora read-along in March! If you have a blog, and wish to take part for whatever reason, this (among others) is where you can express your interest: http://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/announcing-the-lies-of-locke-lamora-read-along/

I don’t know how long into March participating is possible, but thought I would mention it. This also means I will be posting more often than usual this coming month – you’ll be seeing a lot of fangirl talk.

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