New Read: Jo’s Boys

After quite a heavy first year (2018) into my new Classics Club list, I decided to go easier on myself by reading some more of the children’s classics I have on my list. Earlier this year, I read the lovely Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, so it only followed that next I should read the 1886 sequel Jo’s Boys.

Beginning ten years after Little Men, Jo’s Boys revisits Plumfield, where Jo’s and her husband’s small, unconventional school has expanded, due to its success, out of their home into a purpose built college on the grounds. Sadly this does mean we lose the beautiful intimacy I loved so much and subsequently, we don’t get to know the new children half so well as the first cohort. However Jo’s original boys (and girls) are not gone and forgotten, as they keep coming ‘home’ on the holidays, special occasions and for surprise visits to let her know what they have been up to.

Through these wonderful reunions we are able to learn that Mr Bhaer’s strapping nephews, Franz is to be married and Emil is now a dashing sailor full of daring tales; the promising musician Nat is sponsored by Mr Laurence to travel to Europe; the wild Nan has grown into quite the lady and is studying to become a doctor, and has the troublesome Tommy as her adoring shadow; Jo’s sweet-natured nephew Demi is a budding journalist; and the rebellious Dan has been seeking adventure, riches and danger out West.

I really enjoyed these follow-up stories: seeing the boys (and girl) flown from the coup – trying to find their places in the world, making mistakes and learning valuable, often hard-won lessons. For such short reads, it is surprising how invested Alcott can make you! And as this is the last book, by the end, each of the ‘favourites’ is given a suitable ending: some happy, some satisfying, some with more promise to come and one a sad and regretful ending. The latter in particular did tug at my heartstrings, even though it was in character and fitting for him.

Finally, for you Jo March fans, there is progression, although not necessarily conclusion for her character too. She is happy in her marriage and her own two, very different boys, Rob and Teddy are growing fast. Reminiscent of Jo and her sister Amy, there is frightening incident between the two brothers, that ends up bringing them closer. Jo is also having huge success writing her adventure stories for children. However – reflective of Alcott’s own life – as well as the pleasure and income this brings, there is the pressure to write more, the weight of fame and the farcical moments of dodging trophy-seeking-fans who come to call!

So overall I thought Jo’s Boys was the nice, easy read I was looking for, and a sweet and fitting end to the series. Much like Little Men though, its only real downfall is that, well, it’s just not Little Women I’m afraid! Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read Little Women or Little Men?

This is also book 10/50 for my Classics Club II and 1/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2019 reading challenges.

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New Read: D-Day (A Very Brief History)

For the last two years, I had a bit of an US politics theme going on in my reading through Mark Black’s A Very Brief History series. However, in March last year, I read my last US instalment which was about Ronald Reagan. I really enjoyed reading the instalments with a common theme. So, this year, I decided to jump back into the series with a World War II theme in mind, starting with the D-Day instalment I had.

Before reading this, I already knew a fair bit about the D-Day landings of the Allied forces on the French Normandy coast, which was decisive in the liberation of France and in ending the war. In fact I didn’t really learn anything new from this book. However I did appreciate reading about a subject, I have learnt about in bits and pieces from various TV documentaries, in one short, concise format. Which helped me to better understand the basic facts and the sheer number of people, boats, weapons and logistics involved.

This clear, fast paced and concise history is broken down into bite-size chapters on: the background to D-Day; the planning of the invasion; the deception plans employed; the use of double agents, the Fortitude Operations (designed to throw the Nazis off where the real landings would be); the build-up to the assault, how D-Day went and the aftermath of it. This style made this a very easy read and would be even more helpful for a reader, who knew little to nothing to learn quickly the main events and essential facts; but if, like me, you have read or know a fair bit about World Ward II and D-Day then I doubt you will learn anything new from this.

Overall, even though I didn’t learn anything new, I thought D-Day: A Very Brief History was another quick and interesting read on a lazy Sunday morning. I will continue with my World War II theme with either the instalment on The Berlin War or Stalin, which are subjects I know less about so could potentially be even better for me. Okay read.

Have you read this? Have you read any other books about WWII and the D-Day landings? 

New Read: The Time Machine

Back in April, I took part in The Classics Club’s 20th Spin event, which chose the classic, science fiction novella, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I was really pleased with my result, because I have long wanted to read this but just didn’t seem to be getting round to it – in fact, it is left over from my first list – so this finally gave me the push I needed. However I wasn’t able to make the  31st May deadline though, as I had Howards End by E. M. Forster to finish first.

Published in 1895, the story that launched H.G. Wells’ as the father of science fiction, begins with a group of free-thinking, Victorian men in-the-midst of a luxurious after-dinner discussion by the fire side. In which their host, who comes to be known as the Time Traveller, raises the argument of time travel and a machine he has been working on. A week later a similar group meet for dinner, but their host, the Time Traveller, is conspicuous by his absence – he was seen entering his laboratory by his servants – then when he reappears he his dishevelled, half-starved and with bare, bloodied feet.

The reader and the guests are kept on tender-hooks as the Time Traveller takes some time to recover, and much speculation circulates the group as they impatiently wait for their host to return and explain. When he does he announces, “I’ve had a most amazing time….” and so begins the Time Traveller’s astonishing account of his journey 800,000 years into the future. Where he discovers two bizarre races: first the ethereal, childlike Eloi and then the creeping, subterranean Morlocks.

I just loved the atmosphere that Wells was able to create with the well-used technique of friends gathering around a fire and to hear a story told – reminiscent of many classic horror stories – which created a clever juxtaposition; as this is not your usual scary story, with its ghosts, ghouls and monsters. Instead this is an new breed of unsettling story, that travels not back but forward in time, to gives us an alarming vision of the future. Where the Earth is slowly dying, our civilisation has long gone, and the symbiotic relationship between Eloi and Morlock taps into some of our worst fears.

My only niggle would be the Time Traveller himself – Instead of the brave explorer I was sort of expecting, I got a pretty foolhardy adventurer. He lolloped about the landscape, like some giant, English dandy on holiday, with little concern for his safety or for the safety of the Eloi; who so innocently and unquestionably befriended him. In hindsight though, was this perhaps an intentional portrayal and damning commentary from Wells on the Western explorers of his time, as they explored deeper into Africa and South America with little concern for the indigenous people?

Niggle aside though, I thought The Time Machine was a truly imaginative and ahead of its time tale of the future, and with the Time Traveller’s gung-ho attitude, the adventure skipped along at a quick, exciting pace too. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read anything else by Wells?

New Read: Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist

Near the end of May, I was in the mood for an easy, comforting read, so I reached for Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist by M. C. Beaton, the sixth book in Beaton’s long-running, cosy-crime series. While each book is a self-contained mystery, there is the continuing character arc for Agatha running through them all, therefore I recommend checking out the first book, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, if you’re unfamiliar with the series.

Our smart dressing, retired-PR executive Agatha Raisin, having been spurned at the alter, leaves the sleepy Cotswold village of Carsely in hot pursuit of her fleeing fiancé James Lacey to Northern Cyprus, where they had planned to honeymoon. Instead of the passionate reunion in the sun she had hoped for though, Agatha ends up playing a pathetic game of cat and mouse with the irritated James. Until they are both awkwardly thrown together by the murder of obnoxious British tourist, Rose Wilcox in a disco. Can they put aside their troubles to solve this mystery, especially as Agatha’s life seems to be in danger?

Our poor Agatha is at her most cringeworthy in this book, as she pathetically chases after James. I’ve never particularly liked him because he was always distant but now he is down-right cold and quite callous. I really felt for the heartsore Agatha, especially as she is far away from the support of her good friends and is instead surrounded by an odious group of British tourists – Anyone of which could be the murderer, who is trying to bump her off next. So I was thankful for the return of the dapper Sir Charles Fraith (from the Walkers of Dembley mystery), as a much needed friendly face, ally and a second love interest for Agatha.

With all of this emotional turmoil for Agatha and with the mystery taking place miles away from the usual, charming setting of Carsely, this was a little less comforting read for me. Agatha’s amateur investigation is as eccentric and bumbling as ever, but there is a more darker sense of urgency with the attempts on Agatha’s life and the lack of support and protection from James. In fact, James is almost as much use as a chocolate tea-cup! Fortunately, we have the well-meaning, if not always useful, support of Sir Charles and his rakish, bill-dodging antics to make us smile.

While perhaps not quite as comforting as previous instalments in the series, Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist is another quick, easy and fun cosy-crime. At first I thought this was a re-read, however the further I got into the twists and turns, I had no idea what was coming. So either my memory is worse than I thought or I never actually read/finished this. Next up is Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read any other cosy-crime recently?

New Read: Jane Austen at Home

Being a big fan of the wonderfully eccentric and colourful historian, Lucy Worsley, I was thrilled to snap up a bargain copy of her 2017 biography, Jane Austen at Home from Amazon for my kindle; especially as I had already enjoyed the accompanying TV series on the BBC. I started reading it back in January and enjoyed dipping in and out of it over the following months.

Seeing as homes or acquiring a home is so very central to many of Austen’s novels, in this biography, Worsley takes the reader on an in-depth journey through the homes Jane herself lived in. From her childhood at the Steventon Rectory; to her skittish homes in Bath and Southampton; to more settled years in Chawton Cottage; and finally to where she spent her last few weeks in Winchester. As well as the many great houses and country estates of friends and relations she went to visit. Taking us into the very rooms from which this beloved novelist quietly changed the literary world.

Marking the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, this new, refreshing look into the story of Jane’s life focuses on how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces, not just the people, that mattered to her. Sadly it wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but instead a life that was often a painful struggle: as an unmarried woman in Georgian England, Jane was beholden to her male relations to provide for her a home, and it was horrible to learn that wealthier Austen relations were not necessarily as generous as they could or should have been.

It is famously said that Jane lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Worsley cleverly peels back the rosy-coloured image of Jane – constructed later by the Austen family for their slightly problematic famous relation – to reveal a passionate woman who remained fiercely independent, earnt her own money, and who had a sparkling wit and sharp tongue. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end perhaps refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.

All in all I thought Jane Austen at Home was a fascinating look into one of my favourite author’s life, through the places and spaces that mattered to her; and all done in Worsley’s marvellously enthusiastic style. I read some of this alongside my comforting re-read of Emma and on finishing this all I want to do is re-read all of Austen’s wonderful novels! Great read.

Have you read this? Have you read any other Jane Austen biographies?

New Read: By Sword and Storm

Back in 2016, I read Turn of the Tide and A House Divided from Margaret Skea’s wonderful historical series about Adam Munro and his family during the reign of James VI of Scotland in the early 16th century. With a bloody clans feud, betrayal, loss and a witch trial, I was hooked and both books made it onto my 2016 list of top ten books of the year. So I’m sure you can imagine it was a hard wait for the 2018 release of the eagerly-anticipated third volume, By Sword and Storm.

At the beginning of this book, we re-join Adam and Kate Munro, and their children Robbie, Maggie and Ellie, now they have all fled Scotland and taken refuge in France. Kate and the girls are settled with Madame Picarde at her  farmstead in Cayeux. While Adam and Robbie are both serving in the Scots Gardes to the French king, Henry IV. The year is 1598 – The French Wars of Religion are drawing to an end and Henry introduces the Edict of Nantes, which establishes religious freedom in all but Paris.

For the exiles, the edict and Kate’s unexpected pregnancy symbolise a new start, free from their past troubles and persecution, despite their lingering home-sickness for Scotland and their friends: the Montgomeries. After suffering so much hardship, I truly wanted to see the Munros find some peace; but of course if they did, that early on the book anyway, there wouldn’t be a book! Instead, when Adam bravely foils an attempt on the French king’s life, the whole family are called from the quiet of Cayeux to Henry’s glittering court in bustling Paris.

However this does open up some exciting opportunities: Adam has his family back by his side; Robbie meets a young Huguenot woman; Maggie has the chance to study medicine and Kate becomes close to the king’s mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées. But as well as delights, Paris also holds danger, as religious tensions remain high. While they have dispensation from the king for their protestant faith, they must all tread carefully, be discreet and not let their sympathies give them away.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Hugh Montgomery, his wife Elizabeth, and his brothers John and Alexander must also tread a delicate path in their dealings with the spiteful William Cunninghame, his cousin Patrick and his cronies Hamilton and Fullerton. The king, James VI, has outlawed the carrying of weapons and duelling in Edinburgh to curb these long-standing family feuds, but they are still simmering away beneath the surface and James’ has little patience or mercy left. These are still troubled times for the Munros and Montgomeries alike…

Unlike the previous books though, this time the friends are separated and unable to support each other. Each time the narrative switched, I found myself emotionally torn, as I was rooting for them both. As well as the drama it created, having the families split also gives Skea a wonderful opportunity to show us a new setting and a different thread to history. As I knew little to nothing about Henry IV or the French Wars of Religion before reading this book, I was thrilled and again Skea did a beautiful job of bringing the history alive in a totally believable way.

All in all I thought By Sword and Storm was another wonderful, historical rollercoaster ride, that had me gripped from start to finish. When I started reading this I believed it was the third volume in a trilogy, but since finishing it I read that it is actually a saga – I am really hoping it is the latter as this had a tantalisingly open end and I just want more! Great read.

Have you read this? Have you read any other Scottish historical fiction?

New Read: Howards End

After watching the BBC’s delightful 2017 adaptation, starring the brilliant Hayley Atwell and Matthew MacFadyen, I was inspired to put E. M. Forster’s turn-of-the-century classic, Howards End onto my new list for The Classics Club. Then in March, I picked this up thinking it would be perfect for spring.

Howards End is considered by many to be Forster’s masterpiece, in which the author explores the slowly changing landscape, social conventions, codes of conduct and relationships in turn-of-the-century England. He does this with humour and pathos through the lives and interactions of three very different London families: the bohemian Schlegels; the rich, capitalist Wilcoxes and the impoverished Basts. The meeting of individuals with such polarised social status, world outlook and economic situation makes for some positive effects, comical blunders but also some disastrous consequences.

What, or should I saw who, really made this novel for me was the engaging Margaret Schlegel, an intelligent, idealistic and independent woman, with a love of the Arts, nature, travelling and social justice. Who, in a time when there were still many constrictions on women, is courageous enough to live the life and be who she wants to be, whilst also lovingly accepting others for who they are. Highlighted in her unwavering love for her rather irritating younger siblings: the flighty Helen and the pompously philosophical Tibby.

Similar it is with her love and compassion that Margaret draws many of the other main characters into the story and drives the plot along. First she befriends Ruth Wilcox, the matriarch of the Wilcox family, who is sick and alone, and in Margaret, Ruth believes she has met a kindred spirit. This later leads to the blossoming romance between Margaret and the widowed Henry Wilcox, who is a kind, practical and unsentimental businessman. Margaret also encourages and tries to help Leonard Bast, a poor Bank clerk with a passion for literature and music, after Helen accidentally takes his umbrella.

A lot of the story takes place in London, a little on the coast and in the country, however in the air always hangs Howards End… This house was the prized possession of Ruth Wilcox, which she wished to bequeath to Margaret, however even though her family don’t feel the same about the place, yet they can’t bare to part with it either. I could so easily picture the old, rambling house set in its semi-wild gardens, surrounded by fields out in the suburbs; that have yet to be swallowed up by London’s gradual expansion. For much of the book the house lies empty and it is Margaret who unintentionally brings life back to it. Forster creates a beautiful symmetry: beginning and ending the story with Howards End.

Oh I could go on, but I will stop. Overall I thought Howards End was a touching, humorous and masterful tale of family, society and change in the early 20th century, with vibrant characters and vivid descriptions of place. This did turn out to be a perfect read for Spring. Great read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by E. M. Forster?

This is book 8/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.