New Read: Little Men

After quite a heavy first year (2018) into my new Classics Club list, with some long and/or difficult classics tackled, I thought I needed to go easier on myself this year by reading some more of the children’s classics I have on my list. And, first up, I decided to read Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, the 1869 sequel to Alcott’s utterly charming Little Women.

Set several, unspecified years after the original, Little Men begins with the arrival of ‘Nat’ Blake – an orphaned street musician discovered by Mr Laurence in a cellar – to Jo and her husband’s school, which they have set up at Plumfield after inheriting the estate off Jo’s Aunt March. As one would imagine of Jo, it is an unconventional school, where children have their own gardens and pets; are encouraged to start their own businesses and follow their passions; and pillow fights are permitted on Saturdays, subject to a time limit, of course.

Through Nat’s eyes we are introduced to the other boys at the school, which includes: Jo’s sweet, innocent nephew ‘Demi’ Brooke; the well-meaning but troublesome ‘Tommy’ Bangs; the over-indulged ‘Stuffy’ Cole; the mentally challenged Billy Ward; and Mr Bhaer’s strapping nephews, Emil and Franz Hoffman. Later they are joined by ‘Nan’ Harding, a wild tomboy, brought in as a companion for Demi’s twin sister Daisy and Nat’s troubled, free-spirited friend ‘Dan’ Kean, who struggles to settle in.

Each and every one of them is welcomed to Plumfield with warmth and affection, and is treated as an individual. However boys (and girls) have a habit of getting into scrapes, and so what follows is a charming series of troubles and adventures that the children get themselves into. I particularly enjoyed their berry picking trip, which ends with two children missing into the night; Daisy and Nan’s rather disastrous dinner party; the creation of their own natural history museum; and Dan’s terrible struggles and redemption. There is also the surprising and poignant death of a beloved character from Little Women.

If you weren’t a fan of the slow, steady pace or the moralistic tone of Little Women, then you won’t be a big fan of this either, as they are just replicated here. However if you loved the original and in particular loved the wilful tomboy Jo March in it, then you may still not love this because Jo has now grown-up into a sensible, caring mother of two small boys. There is no remnant of her former self really, except for the almost imperceptible twinkle in her eye when she deals with young Nan’s antics. This wasn’t really an issue for me though, as Jo wasn’t my favourite March sister, especially after she broke lovely Laurie’s heart.

So overall, I thought Little Men was a lovely, easy-going read, with a delightful collection of characters and adventures. Its only downfall – which is probably why it is unfairly overlooked – is that, well, it’s just not Little Women! I look forward to reading its sequel Jo’s Boys in the near future. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read Little Women or Jo’s Boys?

This is book 7/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

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Re-Read: Emma

Back in November, last year, I took part in The Classics Club’s 19th Spin event, which chose Emma by Jane Austen for me. Having loved all of Austen’s finished novels, I took the opportunity, when creating my new list for the club, to include them all for a re-read.

I was thrilled with my result, as Emma, the final novel published during Austen’s lifetime, was the second Austen novel I read, many years ago. Often said to be Austen’s most perfect read about a very imperfect – albeit lovable – heroine… The beautiful, rich and intelligent, Emma Woodhouse, who, having been cosseted by her affectionate father and faithful governess, Miss Taylor, believes it is her duty to help others arrange things just as she thinks they should be. Oh I understand Emma annoys some readers, however I can’t help but love her! While she is spoilt, she is naïve and so, makes some disastrous decisions, through it all her heart is in the right place.

The real trouble starts when – ignoring the advice of good family friend Mr Knightley – Emma sets out to play cupid for her new, favourite companion: the lovely, shy Harriet Smith. In addition, Emma makes a hasty, close intimacy with newcomer Frank Churchill, the estranged son of their convivial neighbour Mr Weston, whose arrival into small, quiet Highbury causes quite the stir. And these two decisions are to lead Emma into schemes and actions that are to fail miserably, and inadvertently hurt people she cares about. If only she could hear us saying stop! Or if only she would listen to the stalwart Mr Knightley!

However through all the trouble and strife, Emma is resilient, makes amends for the hurt she has caused and learns from it all too. In particular, she learns a lot about others and more importantly about herself. Actually if it hadn’t been for her foolish mistakes some important secrets may not have come to light and she may never have discovered a very important thing about herself: where her heart truly lay and always had! Naww, it all ends happily! However some readers do wonder if Emma has really learnt her lesson, I can’t answer that for definite, but I think she has and she now has someone beside her to help her stick to the path.

All in all, I think Emma is an utterly charming, witty and slightly farcical classic, about the coming-of-age pains of a young woman in Regency England. It just makes me smile and it made for a wonderfully comforting re-read – getting re-acquainted with its colourful collection of characters was like meeting up with old friends. I can’t wait to re-read more! Great read.

Have you read this? Or any of Austen’s other novels?

This is book 6/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

The Classics Club: List Adjustments 2019

At the beginning of the month, I reflected back on the first year reading from my second list for The Classics Club. From the start I have left my list open to alteration, so I could add or remove books to reflect my mood and reading experiences. After reflecting on my first, slightly disappointing, year of reading, here are the alterations I have made to my list:

ABC – Additions
ABC – Removals
ABC – Read

  1. Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott
  2. Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
  3. Emma by Jane Austen [re-read] ***
  4. Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen
  5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen [re-read]
  6. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen [re-read]
  7. Persuasion by Jane Austen [re-read]
  8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen [re-read]
  9. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen [re-read]
  10. The Marvelous Land of Oz by Frank L Baum
  11. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë ***
  13. The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
  14. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  15. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan **
  16. A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  17. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  18. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  20. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  21. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  22. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  23. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens [re-read]
  24. The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
  25. The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas
  26. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  27. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  28. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  29. Romola by George Eliot
  30. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  31. This Side of Paradise by F Scott Fitzgerald *
  32. A Passage to India by E M Forster
  33. A Room with a View by E M Forster
  34. Howards End by E M Forster
  35. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  36. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  37. King Solomon’s Mine by H. Ryder Haggard
  38. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy [re-read]
  39. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  40. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  41. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  42. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  43. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  44. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  45. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  46. The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit *
  47. Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia by Emilio Salgari **
  48. The Black Corsair by Emilio Salgari
  49. The Queen of the Caribbean by Emilio Salgari
  50. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  51. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott [Re-Read]
  52. Heidi by Johann Spyri
  53. The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
  54. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  55. The Time Machine by H G Wells
  56. War of the Worlds by H G Wells
  57. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  58. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

That leaves me with a list of 52 books. All the additions are from Lost Worlds: The Ultimate Anthology: 24 Classic Tales edited by Nico Lorenzutti, which I am excited to dive into after getting my hands on a copy of it at the end of last year. While most of my removals are books I don’t own copies of and so would rather prioritise the books I do already own. Except Les Misérables that has been removed after I watched the recent BBC adaptation, because I now know the story is too long and too miserable for me to manage!

What do you think of my changes? Have you read any of the books on my list? Are there any you think I should prioritise?

New Read: The Pilgrim’s Progress

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. Back in October we read and met to discuss The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Next up was the classic, Christian allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which I put onto my new Classics Club list as soon as I found out we would be tackling it.

Part 1, published in 1678, follows Christian, an everyman, who leaves behind his home, wife and children in the City of Destruction to make the perilous journey to the Celestial City. Along the way he faces many trials, tribulations, monsters and spiritual terrors, as he travels through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle and the Delectable Mountains. His pilgrimage is hindered by characters such as Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, Talkative and Ignorance, but he is also supported by Evangelist and his travelling companions, Hopeful then Faithful.

All of which is surreally presented as a dream sequence narrated by Bunyan as an omniscient narrator: giving him the power to observe all, but powerless to help. There is no arguing with the content, characters and wisdom in this enormously influential classic – which has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print – but I did struggle with the style and flow. I found it a bit jerky and I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to fully understand what was being said.

However I found Part 2, published in 1684, a much easier and quicker read. In this second part, Bunyan follows the subsequent pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, Christiana, their sons and their maidenly neighbour, Mercy. They journey to all the stopping points Christian visited, but they take a longer time as the sons marry, have children and their party grows. They are also guided by the brave hero, Greatheart, who along the way slays four giants and a monster named Legion, that have been terrorising pilgrims.

This second part grabbed me instantly and flowed much better, especially as it has a more natural time frame for the journey – akin to a Christian’s life span. I was fascinated to see Bunyan express some very ‘modern’ thoughts and ideas through out this second pilgrimage too. First in his choice of a female pilgrim, but also in his portrayal and discussion of the important role women have in bringing people to and nurturing faith. I enjoyed it so much, that I actually finished this part in less than half the time the first part had taken me.

So, overall, I was left feeling a little confused about how I felt about this book, with the big difference I experienced between Part 1 and 2. It was not till after my church’s book club eventually met, last week, to discuss this, that I saw in hindsight how much more I enjoyed this than I initially thought. We discussed our struggles with Part 1; our preferment for Part 2 and our universal love of Bunyan’s emblematic characters – many of which are characters you can find in life today. And the general consensus was that the content was great, even if the style and language was problematic.

All in all then, I found The Pilgrim’s Progress to be a clever allegorical look at the journey Christians must take through life. I can’t say it was an easy read – in fact it was in parts hard work – however it was a rewarding read, and this is a book I feel with benefit from re-reading. Good read.

Have you read this? Can you recommend any other classic Christian books?

This is book 5/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: The Enchanted Castle

Back in June, I found myself craving a lighter classic to continue my Classics Club challenge. So I reached for The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit, a lesser known example of Nesbit’s many classic children’s novels, that was first published in 1907. I adore her best known work, The Railway Children and I also really enjoyed Five Children and It and the other books in her magical Psammead series, which meant I had high expectations for this.

Similar to the Psammead series, The Enchanted Castle starts with a group of Edwardian children being, rather improbably, left to their own devices. In this case the children are siblings Jerry, Jimmy, and Cathy, who find themselves stuck at school over the summer holidays, with only the French governess and the maid, after a measles outbreak at home. Determined not to let this ruin their summer, Jerry sweet-talks the adults into allowing them to set off alone, with a picnic, for a jolly good adventure. Where upon they stumble across a mysterious castle with a beautiful princess asleep in the garden.

Once they awake the princess, she takes them on a tour of the castle and tells them it is full of magic, and they almost believe her, but Jimmy, and myself, immediately think something seems fishy. It is only when the magic ring she is showing them really turns her invisible and she gets stuck that way, that she panics and admits she is really the housekeeper’s niece, Mabel, and was just playing! What follows is a rather hodge-podge mix of adventures as the children try to get Mabel out of trouble and along the way discover the many other magical powers the ring possesses.

The fantastical scrapes and delights the children get themselves into due to careless wishes, is all very reminiscent of those in Five Children and It. But for me it just wasn’t half as much fun with them just wishing while wearing the ring, then it was having to go visit the wonderfully cantankerous sand-fairy, ‘It’! Some great fun was still had though, as they caught thieves whilst invisible; frolicked with statues by night and brought inanimate objects to life. However, due to the nature of the ring randomly granting wishes, the story hopped around a fair bit and so didn’t seem to flow as well as previous Nesbit stories I have enjoyed.

As for the children, there was the charming Gerald (Jerry), the no-flies-on-me Jimmy and the girls – I say the girls because sadly Cathy and Mabel were too similar and often blended into one for me. A bit of a let down when I think of the believable and endearing characters of Roberta, Phyllis and Peter in The Railway Children. On the other hand, I had a similar complaint about the children being rather one-dimensional in Five Children and It too, but then that book had the larger-than-life ‘It’ to save the day! All in all, Jerry, Jimmy and the girls were a sweet, but forgettable group of children to read about.

Overall, The Enchanted Castle was the lighter classic I was hoping for, with its blend of magic, adventure and old-fashioned ideals. Unfortunately, this is just not Nesbit’s best work I have read. I still look forward to reading more by Nesbit – Maybe I should try some of her books for adults next? Okay read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Nesbit? Could you recommend one of her adult novels?

This is book 4/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia

After I enjoyed the swashbuckling classic, Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem by Italian author Emilio Salgari, last year, I was thrilled to be offered the chance to read another, Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia, by its translator Nico Lorenzutti. First published in 1896 this edition was translated by Lorenzutti in 2007.

Some years after the last adventure and the destruction of their home, Sandokan, the feared ‘Tiger of Malaysia’; his faithful friend Yanez and his loyal band of rebel pirates are back with a vengeance. On one such raid, Yanez spares the life of a young Indian man, Kammamuri, who is attempting to rescues his poor master, Tremal-Naik, who has been wrongfully sentenced to life in a notorious British penal colony. Kammamuri enlists the help of Sandokan and Yanez, but in order to succeed they must lead their men against the forces of James Brooke, ‘The Exterminator’, the dreaded White Rajah of Sarawak.

It was great fun to be re-united with our righteously angry, princely pirate Sandokan and his friend, my personal favourite, Yanez, the charming Portuguese adventurer. However it was sad to learn that Marianna, ‘The Pearl of Labuan’, the woman Sandokan moved heaven and earth to possess, has tragically died in the few intervening years. But this does help to show a softer, more human side to Sandokan, especially when he discovers that Kammamuri has in his protection his master’s fiancée Ada Corishant; who is the very image of her beautiful cousin… Sandokan’s very own, dear Marianna!

Sadly Ada plays an equally small, passive role in the adventure, as Marianna did in the previous book. However Ada is by far a more interesting character: having been snatched from her father and fiancée in India by the terrible Thuggee cult. This shocking event and the violence she witnesses during her time with them have shockingly sent her quite mad, which is the main reason she plays such an understandably passive role. Seeing the sad state this beautiful, young woman has been brought to only resolves Sandokan and his pirates to see her fiancée, Tremal-Naik free and reunited with her.

While it was nice to have a more interesting female character and through her a more touching, realistic romance, what I really picked this book up for was adventure! And boy did Salgari deliver more of that! With battles at sea, deadly traps, shipwrecks, cannibals, jungle hideouts and a fetid convict ship, Salgari takes us on another fast paced, roller coaster ride. Also Lorenzutti’s translation is so smooth and seamless it means we never miss a beat or flow of the all the twists and turns.

Overall, I thought Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia was another rip-roaring adventure (with a touch of romance) that swept me back in time and across the seas. I look forward to reading more by this author. Good read.

Thank you to the translator for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any of Sandokan’s other adventures?

This is also book 3/50 off my Classics Club II list.

New Read: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Back in March, I took part in The Classics Club’s 17th Spin event, which chose The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë for me. I was thrilled with my result as I love Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and I enjoyed Jane Eyre and Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, so I was looking forward to finally reading something by the third Brontë sister.

Through the eyes of local farmer, Gilbert Markham we see the excitement, gossip and rumour that is generated in his small, rural community when a mysterious tenant unexpectantly moves into the dilapidated Elizabethan mansion, Wildfell Hall. The tenant is revealed to be the young widow ‘Mrs Graham’, with her small son, Arthur and faithful servant, Rachel. However their secluded life soon sees them the victims of slander, but refusing to believe anything scandalous about the lovely widow, Gilbert befriends her and finally she reveals the painful past that forced her to seek refuge in this isolated place.

Most of the novel is framed as a series of letters written by Gilbert to his friend and brother-in-law about the arrival of ‘Mrs Graham’; their growing friendship and the subsequent scandal. While in the middle, we switch to Helen’s (Mrs Graham) diary, which she entrusts to Gilbert to reveal the heart-breaking marital strife she suffered and her desperate attempts to save her son – topics that must have reverberated through Victorian society when this was published. I thought this style was really effective, because it meant I was able to intimately get to know the main protagonists, Gilbert and Helen.

And as I came to slowly know Gilbert and Helen better, I became very fond of them both. Gilbert is a practical, hardworking and honest young man – who, at first, is prone to idle flirtation and terrible tantrums, however as the story progresses he does grow and mature. While Helen, at first, comes across as aloof and cold, but it is revealed later that she is a good-hearted, pious and sophisticated woman – whose bad treatment has taught her to hide her true feelings and to hold herself back from people. I was rooting for both of them!

Now you may be wondering – considering I started this back in March – why it took me so long to read?! Well it certainly wasn’t down to the quality of the writing or story. In fact, I found Anne’s writing talent to be equal to her extremely talented sisters. Instead it took me so long because I simply found this was a story that I wanted to take my time with – Savouring the beautiful descriptions, each subtle new nuance; and each new character and plot revelation; especially in the first half of the novel, where we are as in-the-dark as poor Gilbert. Once the major revelations have been revealed, I found myself ripping through the last half to discover how it would end!

Overall, I thought The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was a beautifully written classic, with engaging characters, which cleverly explores the societal troubles, strifes and wrongs of the time. Sadly this is one of only two novels Anne wrote, so only Agnes Grey left to look forward to. Great read.

Have you read this? Or Anne’s other novel Agnes Grey?

This is book 2/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.