New Read: The Butterfly Summer

Last year, My mother passed on her copy of The Butterfly Summer by Harriet Evans to me, as she knows how much I love a book with an old mysterious house in it. In February, I finally picked it up as an escape during one of the many rainy days.

This tale sweeps the reader off to Cornwall, up a hidden over-grown creek towards a long-forgotten house: Keepsake. A place full of wonder, sadness and danger, which has been passed down through the female line of the Parr family; since it was bequeathed by Charles II to his abandoned lover. Now the elegant Elizabethan walls are crumbling and the exquisite garden, full of exotic butterflies, has grown wild, but locked within this place, waiting to break free, is a heart breaking story of love and betrayal. This is Nina Parr’s birthright – it holds the truth about her family and offers a chance to finally put things right.

The narration is split between two characters. In the present day, the reader follows Nina Parr – a young divorcee, from a dysfunctional family, stuck in an unfulfilling job – who lives in London and is set on unravelling this mystery after a chance encounter in The British Library. While the secrets of the past are slowly and unreliably revealed by Theodora (Teddy) Parr, through a letter written to her estranged son George. I’m not sure I always liked or agreed with either narrator, however I could totally sympathise with the difficult situations they were in. What was most interesting to see was how the legacy of Keepsake affected these two very different women’s lives.

I have never read anything by Harriet Evans before, however if you read my blog regularly than you will know how much I love a dual time period novel (some of my favourites being by Susanna Kearsley), so with the big mysterious house this book had double appeal for me. I think Evans dealt with both time periods well, although as usual I was most drawn to the past which in this case was set during the lead up to and during World War II. Both periods were realistically described with nice touches of detail like fashion, culture and food – my only niggle would be that I would prefer less sexual detail, but that is just my personal taste and is not a reflection on the writing skill.

Overall, I thought The Butterfly Summer was an interesting mystery full of secrets, betrayal and history. I would definitely be open to reading more by Harriet Evans. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Harriet Evans?

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The Classics Club: A Tale of Two Cities

a-tale-of-two-cities

During the Christmas holiday, with the end of my Classics Club challenge in sight, I finally picked up A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens which I have long wanted to read. Not even realising that as well as being a classic it is also a historical fiction; another of my favourite genres.

In this novel, Dickens takes us back to the late and turbulent 1700s. Paris at that time is brewing with the rumbles of revolution, as the peasants fear turns to anger against the nobility. Amid this, after eighteen years without trial or sentence, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released from the infamous Bastille and reunited with his daughter, Lucie. Only her sweet presence seems to bring the Doctor’s ravished body and mind any peace, so together they travel to London to try to start anew and find some happiness at last.

In London the beautiful and good natured Lucie attracts the suit of two similar looking but in character very different men. The first is Charles Darnay, a noble self-exiled French aristocrat. The second is Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer. Though the Manettes live happily for many years, they eventually find themselves pulled from their tranquil lives in London and find themselves drawn against their will back to the streets of Paris, which are now stained red with blood at the height of the Reign of Terror, where they will fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

I found that I flew through the first section of this book, where we meet poor Doctor Manette, the lovely Lucie and their devoted friend Jarvis Lorry. As well as the larger-than-life agitators Monsieur and Madam Defarge. I could feel the tension building and was fascinated by the secrets and intrigues of it all. In the second section, I found the pace slowed as we saw the relatively quiet life the Manettes had in London; surrounded by their friends and the formidable Miss Pross. Sadly for the characters but excitingly for the reader this peace is dramatically broken when they return to Paris. I am not morbid (honest!) however this third section was where the pace, tension and twists really came in this story. Once at this part I could barely put the book down!

This is now my eighth Charles Dickens’ novel I have read –   I really think Dickens can weave a wonderful story and this was no exception. In fact I was so swept away by this story, I can’t say I even noticed his usual rather over convoluted and highly detailed writing style. Instead that high detail brought to life vividly for me the rising anger; the sorrow and suffering; the blood-stained streets and the palpable fear in the air. Added to this there was a wonderful cast of memorable characters, though they were perhaps more toned down and serious than usual. If you’re not a fan of Dickens’ trademark colourful, over-the-top characters then I can see how you would enjoy this novel more than others, which is maybe why this is such a popular choice with readers.

Overall, A Tale of Two Cities was a moving and vividly detailed look at the bloody French Revolution.  I look forward to reading more by Charles Dickens; in particularly I still have Little Dorrit on my Classics Club list. Great read.

Have you read this? What Dickens’ novel do you think I should read next?

The Classics Club – 49/50

The Classics Club: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes

I have become quite a fan of short story collections and I hope to continue reading more in 2015. Starting as I mean to go on I picked up The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle the fifth and sadly the final collection.

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is a collection made up of another twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories Arthur Conan Doyle wrote and published in The Strand between 1921 and 1927, much later than previous stories. I think this is perhaps the less well known collection of stories although The Sussex Vampire is probably the most notable story just for its title.  I very much enjoyed The Sussex Vampire, The Creeping Man and Thor Bridge. That being said as usual there were no adventures in this collection I didn’t enjoy, they were all fascinating, the three I have named though particularly captured my imagination.

Like previous collections I have read I thought The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes had a good range of stories which were varied and well-balanced. There was again the wonderful chemistry between the two protagonists that I love to witness during the intricate mysteries. The difference with this collection was that two of the stories was told by Holmes himself not, as is usual, by Watson. While this made an interesting change I still find myself most drawn to Holmes’s companion Dr Watson. As much as I love the mind and foibles of Holmes it is his down-to-earth companion Watson that I find I really connect with.

This is certainly not my first foray into Sherlock Holmes. I have loved the Adventures, Memoirs, Return of Sherlock Holmes and His Last Bow short story collections. I again enjoyed the shorter length of the stories which means I could easily keep the thread of the mystery and fully enjoy all the twists and turns, without the worry of needing a break. Sadly though this is the last collection. I shouldn’t be despondent though because I do still have three novels to read.

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is another fascinating read with more interesting adventures for me to discover. I highly recommend to those interested in classic crime. This is my 30th read off my Classics Club list. Good read.

Have you read this collection? Do you have a favourite Sherlock Holmes story?

The Classics Club: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

My result for The Classics Club’s last wonderful Spin feature was The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. I was pleased with this result as have been keen to read more of Dickens’s work. Sadly when the Christmas holiday finally arrived my brain needed a rest and I couldn’t face the length of The Pickwick Papers. Instead I decided to go with A Christmas Carol a shorter and more seasonal work by Dickens.

A Christmas Carol joins the famous miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his clerk Bob Cratchit who are still working on Christmas Eve. Scrooge finally allows Cratchit to leave and agrees to him having Christmas day off as long as he starts early on Boxing day. With that Scrooge returns to his dingy rooms to spend Christmas alone. But Scrooge’s lonely revelry is broken when his dead business partner Jacob Marley comes to him to warn him that he is to be visited by three spirits. The first spirit is the ghost of Christmas past, next the ghost of Christmas present and finally the ghost of Christmas future. All show him scenes to reflect his life and the life to come if he doesn’t change his ways. The story of A Christmas Carol is probably known to most people whether you’ve read the book or not due to all the different film, TV and stage adaptations. I grew up watching The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) as a child. The fact I knew the story already didn’t take anything away from this wonderful tale though.

Ebenezer Scrooge the protagonist of A Christmas Carol is as well known if not more so than the story itself. The name Scrooge along with ‘bah-humbug’ has long been in our vocabulary for a miserable, ungenerous and Christmas spoiling individual. Ebenezer is a great character I can see why he has stayed in the imaginations of so many people. He starts off twisted, miserable and completely devoid of hope. You’d like to hate him but he is too pitiable for that for me. Then as the three spirits show him scenes from his past, present and those that could happen in the future. Ebenezer goes through an almost magical transformation as the layers of greed, age and bad experiences are peeled away from him. Revealing the nicer person he had the possibility to become as a child.

 A Christmas Carol is the first work by Dickens where I didn’t find his language convoluted or too highly detailed in fact I thought the language was just right. A Christmas Carol is only a novella unlike Dickens’s other much longer works but he still manages to pack a real good story into its pages. The plot was simpler and there were far less main characters than previous works I have read. I really enjoyed seeing Dickens focus in so intently on one character. I found it refreshing. Of course Ebenezer isn’t alone Dickens still fits some of his colourful characters into the story including: poor Bob Cratchit, his wife and children particularly Tiny Tim, miserly Jacob Marley, warm-hearted Mr and Mrs Fezziwig, Ebenezer’s long-lost lover and his kind and friendly nephew Fred.

A Christmas Carol is a slightly creepy but warm-hearted tale of redemption perfect for the Christmas holiday. I highly recommend reading this novella. This is my 19th read off my Classics Club list. I look forward to reading The Pickwick Papers soon.

Have you read A Christmas Carol?

The Classics Club: Bleak House

Bleak House

After finishing The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald the last novel I read off my Classics Club list I found myself in the mood for Dickens. As if it was fate my result from  The Classics Club Spin was Bleak House by Charles Dickens! I started this book during the unpredictable weather of June and finished it in the glorious heat of July. I didn’t quite finish it in time to post about it for the 1st July deadline but I am still very proud to have finished this very long classic.

Bleak House is mysterious, harrowing, and thrilling in equal parts. This twisting tale is narrated by Esther a young orphan. Esther’s childhood isn’t a loving one on the death of her aunt Esther is sent to a boarding school where she starts to discover love. Finally as a young woman she is sent for by her mysterious benefactor Mr Jarndyce who wishes her to become a companion and house keeper. It is living at Bleak House with Mr Jarndyce, and his two other wards Ada and Richard that Esther finally finds real contentment. However there is a cloud looming over the inhabitants of Bleak House and that is the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. A law suit that has been raging for years of which Mr Jarndyce, Ada, and Richard are all embroiled in. Esther seems to be the only one with the heart to bring them all together away from the disturbing influence of that draining case. Yet Esther is to be faced with her own problems when the death of an unknown man ‘Nemo’ is to bring to light secrets from her own past. Bleak House is one of Dickens longest novels for good reason; there is just so much going on! I found the beginning of the novel was a little slower to get into what with the vast cast of characters I had to be introduced to. Once all the characters and threads were introduced though I couldn’t put this book down.

Bleak House similarly to my two previous Dickens reads Oliver Twist and Great Expectations is narrated by an orphan, but unlike the two previous this orphan is a female which I thought made a refreshing change. Esther is a wonderful character who I instantly liked. She is kind, loving, sensible, brave and almost completely self-less. However she isn’t perfect and she does recognise that which makes a more believable character. In Bleak House Esther is joined by a host of interesting and colourful characters. I wouldn’t expect any less from Dickens. We have the kind but rather eccentric Mr Jarndyce, the beautiful Ada, hopeless Richard, the childish Mr Skimpole, the boisterous Mr Boythorn, the calculating Mr Tulkinghorn, the distant Lady Dedlock, the brave Mr George, the devious Grandfather Smallweed, and many, many more than I could possibly name here! As I said above it did take sometime to be introduced to all these characters, and to get them all straight in my head. Once I had though they all added something to the mystery and enjoyment of this novel. Although as there were so many I’m not sure individuals were as memorable as those from my previous reads.

I still find that Dickens’s use of language is rather convoluted and highly detailed but the more of his work I read the easy I find it is to get into the flow of his style. Once I’m into the style I find I am free to just get lost in the story. And boy, can Dickens weave a great story. I said this about my previous Dickens read Great Expectations but this time I really mean it. Bleak House really is the most intricate and twisting tales I’ve read of his so far! There were a lot of characters and threads in this novel which made it at first a slow start but I think Dickens weaved them all together beautifully by the end of the novel. And even though I knew the basic premise of the story from a TV adaptation I had watched before I still found Dickens had some surprises up his sleeves for me. Hence why I tried to keep my summary of the story as vague as possible. I would hate to spoil the mystery for anyone who hasn’t read this yet.

 Bleak House was a mysterious and thrilling look into the light and dark aspects of Victorian London. I highly recommend reading this novel. This is now my 14th read off my Classics Club list. I now have a copy of The Pickwick Papers, and digital copies of A Christmas Carol and  A Tale of Two Cities to choose from for my next Dickens read.

Are you a fan of Charles Dickens? What Dickens’s novel do you think I should read next?

The Classics Club: Great Expectations

Great Expectations

After reading and enjoying Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens at the end of 2012 I have been even more keen to read more of Dickens work. Already having Great Expectations on my to-be-read pile pretty much made up my mind which of Dickens’s work would be my next read. As the cold weather seems to have descended on the UK again I thought Great Expectations would be a great read to snuggle up in a blanket with as the dark nights drew in.

Great Expectations follows the life of a young orphaned boy nicknamed Pip. When we join young Pip he is living with his strict sister and her big-hearted husband Joe Gargery. At which point Pip has little to no expectations other than to join Joe as an apprentice in his smithy. A series of strange events and encounters are to set Pip on a completely different road though. As a young man he is visited by a London lawyer who informs him that he has a secret benefactor who wishes to pay for Pip to become a gentleman. Pip moves to London with his great expectations looking to make a name for himself and finally claim the hand of the woman he loves. Great Expectations reminded me of a previous Dickens’s read Nicholas Nickleby because they both span a great deal of one individual’s life. There was plenty of time to really get to know Pip, his virtues as well as his faults and failings, and how he goes on to grow and change from a boy into a man.

As I said above the last Dickens’s novel I read was Oliver Twist which as many of you will know follows the trials and tribulations of the orphan Oliver. It was hard not to find myself comparing the two orphans against each other, even though I don’t believe it is necessarily a fair comparison. Oliver is a highly loving, patient, and well-mannered child but we only really see him during his younger years. Pip on the other hand is no angel but I do think Pip is honest about his own faults and on the whole his heart does seem to be in the right place. The real crucial difference though is that I got to see Pip grow. From a confused, self-conscience, and naive boy, to a proud, foolish but generous young man, to finally a loyal, loving, and sensible man. It is not an easy road but in the end I think Pip becomes a good man. I particularly loved watching his transformation.

I still find that Dickens’s use of language is rather convoluted and highly detailed but the more of his work I read the easy to get into the flow of his style is. Once I’m into the style I find I am free to just get lost in the story. And boy, can Dickens weave a wonderful story. This one in particularly is the most intricate and twisting tales I’ve read of his so far. Yet like previous novels what really makes Dickens novels for me is the vast array of colourful characters. I read recently the criticism that Dickens’s characters are rather one-dimensional and more caricatures rather than real people. I can see where they are coming from his characters are very over the top but that’s what make them so memorable for me. And in Great Expectations I wasn’t disappointed along the way we meet the simple but big-hearted Joe, the mysterious lawyer Jaggers, heart-broken Miss Havisham, ridiculous Mr Pumblechook, the cold and beautiful Estella, friendly Herbert Pocket, several scary convicts, and many, many more. I particular loved Joe, I would love my own Joe Gargery.

Great Expectations is a charming and exciting journey seen through the eyes of young orphan trying to find himself and make his way in Victorian England. I highly recommend reading this novel. This is now my 11th read off my Classics Club list. I now have copies of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Pickwick Papers to choose from for my next Dickens read.

Are you a fan of Charles Dickens? What Dickens’s novel do you think I should read next?

The Classics Club: Oliver Twist

With my recent blues I have not been in the mood for brand new reads, choosing to get lost in childhood favourite The Hobbit instead. Once I had finished that I decided to move onto Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens because I thought it would be a good go-between of the new and the familiar. I have never read the novel before but it is very hard not to know the story of the little orphan Oliver due to the musical, films, and television adaptations. This turned out to be a wonderful choice. I found a lot of comfort in discovering known to me characters in their original context.

Oliver Twist is a harrowing adventure that follows a young orphaned boy trying to survive in Victorian England. Oliver is born in the work house which in Victorian times then places a stain upon his character by others in the community. A stain Oliver finds very hard to escape from. While I have always felt sorry for Oliver from other sources I have seen the character in, I was not prepared for how much more the novel would make me feel. Any child in Oliver’s position would be heart-breaking to read about but Oliver is no ordinary child; he has such a pure and honest heart that many in the novel just don’t wish to acknowledge. I found it hard to put this novel down because I was so keen to see Oliver escape his situation, but as he seems to escape one bad situation he falls into other just as bad situations. Dickens highlights very successfully in this novel what a vicious cycle life could be like for a pauper child in this time period.

Before reading Oliver Twist I had only read one other novel by Dickens which was Nicholas Nickleby. This was some years ago now. I do remember enjoying the story and characters however I found the language hard to get into. With several more years of reading experience I was hoping I would have better luck with my second foray into Dickens work, and I was right. I still feel Dickens’s use of language is rather convoluted and highly detailed but it didn’t take me long to get into the flow of the style. Once I was into the style I found I was free to just get lost in the story. And boy, can Dickens weave a wonderful story.

What I was surprised about how much of an adventure Oliver Twist turned out to be. Before reading this I always imagined all the story took place in the back streets of London but there are in fact many locations and situations Oliver finds himself in. What I feel really makes the story though are all the interesting and colourful characters that Oliver meets during his journey. The pompous and silly Beagle Mr Bumble, slimy Noah Claypole, the slick Artful Dodger, the kind and patient Mr Brownlow, the angelic Rose, the fallen Nancy, the dark and brutal Sikes, and of course the one we all know; the sneaky, conniving and ruthless old Jew Fagin. And that is only mentioning about half of the characters! I think the variety of strong characters is maybe the secret as to why Dickens novels have been so well-loved and adapted over the years.

Oliver Twist is a wonderfully touching and insightful fictional look into a world gone by. I highly recommend reading this novel. This is now my 6th book towards The Classics Club. I am now really looking forward to cracking open my copy of Great Expectations.

Have you read this novel? Did you enjoy it?