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.


New Read: Guards! Guards!

If you are a regular reader, you will know that I have been working my way through Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld series: reading the books we already own or as we get our hands on them. Recently, my dad picked up a copy of Guards! Guards!, the eighth instalment in Pratchett’s fantastical Discworld series, but I had to wait patiently for him to slowly read it, before I could get my hands on it in mid-April.

In Guards! Guards!, we return to Pratchett’s magic, weird and fantastical Discworld, as the denizens of the ancient, sprawling, stinking twin-city of Ankh-Morpork are plagued by the reappearance of a fine specimen of the, long believed extinct, draco nobilis (“noble dragon” for those of us, who don’t understand italics). However not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling, indiscriminately people, buildings and anything else that gets in its path, it soon sets its sights on becoming king, hoarding the great city’s wealth in one giant pile and eating virgins…

To the unlikely rescue comes the drunken Captain Samuel Vimes, the new and overenthusiastic Constable Carrot, and the rest of the incompetent Night Watch. Who, along with the Unseen University’s orangutan librarian, the formidable Lady Sybil Ramkin and a small swamp dragon, risk everything –  including a good roasting – to try to stop this flying menace and restore order to the city, before it and them are burned to a crisp! What unfolds is a riotous adventure, with magic, a secret society, a dangerous theft, a couple of bar brawls, mysterious goings-on, incompetent policing and dragons… really, what is there not to love?!

This has got to be one of my new favourites from the series, although not quite great enough to topple the madcap, Macbeth parody, Wyrd Sisters from its top spot, but maybe equal to the wacky, Egyptian-inspired Pyramids. I have now read eleven of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, of which this is the eighth instalment published back in 1989. However this is a series I don’t feel you necessarily have to read in order, as the stories often follow various different groups of characters. In this case, this is the first book following Captain Vimes and the Night’s Watch, who I know are favourite characters for many. This is my first adventure with them and I look forward to more.

Overall, I thought Guards! Guards! was another excellent slice of fun and adventure, that shows how even the smallest, stupidest or commonest man or creature can make a difference, and it had me laughing-out-loud. The next instalment we currently own is Reaper Man. Great read.

Have you read this? What other Discworld novels have you read?

New Read: The Tudor Crown

I absolutely loved Joanna Hickson’s brilliant First of the Tudors, about the often neglected Jasper Tudor, but I was left wanting more! So I have been looking forward to this second historical fiction, The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, which continues the same story from the point-of-view of Jasper’s nephew, Henry Tudor.

In September 1471, we join the fourteen-year-old Henry Tudor, as he flees for his life across the channel to seek asylum in France, with his uncle Jasper Tudor and Lord Jasper’s young half-brother Davy, his mistress Jane Hywel and their youngest daughter Sian. Henry is the only son of Lancastrian heiress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, which – with the return of the Yorkist king, Edward IV to his throne after the dubious deaths of Henry VI and his son, Edward – puts Henry’s life in danger, because he is now one of only two remaining Lancastrian male heirs.

Blown seriously off course, in a perilous crossing, they eventually land safely in Brittany, where Henry is promised the protection of Duke Francis II. He then spends the next 14 years being raised in a style befitting a lord, but always as a relative prisoner. These years give us plenty of time to get to know Henry and see him grow into a strong, pragmatic man. Like Jasper in the previous novel, I had never read a novel solely about Henry – in Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen, Henry is portrayed as an old, fickle and penny-pinching king – so it was interesting to see him as a young man in exile.

Through all these years his young half-uncle Davy becomes his constant companion, when he is sadly separated from his uncle Jasper and his childhood governess, Jane is sent back to England with her daughter. Again Hickson has cleverly pieced together the little that is known about Henry’s exile and believably filled in the gaps. Even creating a love interest for Henry in the form of the mysterious Catherine de Belleville, based on the historic fact that once king, Henry granted a position and pension to an unknown Roland de Belleville (which caused suspicion he was his illegitimate son).

Meanwhile the real drama is unfolding back in England with the sudden death of Edward IV, Richard III usurping the throne and the princes in the Tower. All of which we learn about through the eyes and letters of Henry’s mother, Margaret. Hickson continues her more sympathetic portrayal of Margaret – very different to that in The Red Queen – even showing the love and care she had for her ‘nestlings’: young wards she took in and raised in her own household. While this was an interesting, new side of her for me to see, I am not sure I completely believed this softer Margaret could have survived, thrived and ultimately put her son on the throne in this turbulent time.

All in all, I thought The Tudor Crown was a fascinating glimpse into the lost history of Henry Tudor’s exile, but sadly I just didn’t love or believe in Henry and Margaret like I had Jasper and Jane in the previous book. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or read anything else about Henry Tudor?

Re-Read: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay

I rounded off a wonderful month of reading in March with Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, which completed my planned re-read of Collins’ highly successful, young adult dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games. That spawned an equally successful film franchise. After enjoying the films a lot, I was excited to remind myself of the extra details in the books. (Warning: this will contain spoilers for the previous two books).

Against even worse odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived a second Hunger Games, after being dramatically rescued from the arena by the rebels from the believed to be destroyed District 13. However she awakes from her drug induced sleep to be confronted with the devastating news that in retribution for her perceived rebellion, The Capital has utterly destroyed her home, District 12, killing almost all of its poor, innocent inhabitants. Also the rebels were unable to save Peeta and so he is now a prisoner of the ruthless President Snow, who can use him as a tool to hurt and threaten Katniss.

Feeling betrayed, guilt-ridden and bereft Katniss finds it hard to settle with the small group of District 12 survivors – which thankfully includes her mother, sister and best friend Gale – into the strict, unfamiliar life in District 13. Often shirking her responsibilities by hiding and losing herself in the sweet oblivion of sleep. The first time I read this I really struggled with Katniss’ apathy, lack of action and bitterness, however I sympathised much more this time. Reading these books closely together I have better followed Katniss’ character arc and perhaps love her even more. Although there were still moments I was hurt by her lack of patience for a certain character.

All in all though who could really blame her, being desperate to save Peeta, she made a secret pact with their mentor, Haymitch, only for him to help District 13 rescue her instead. There is also the fact a rebellion has been started in her name, which she neither wanted or was asked about, and now Peeta is being punished for it. However if she wants to make all this loss and suffering mean something, she will have put aside her anger and distrust to become the ‘Mockingjay’ and head a rebellion to topple the tyrant President Snow and destroy the Capitol’s stranglehold on the downtrodden districts.

What I did still struggle with on this second reading was the pace and flow of this final instalment. This is heightened by the fact book one and two just gripped and swept me away in the drama and tension of the arena. While this book with the loss of the arena feels a little slow, sluggish and clunky, as Collins tries to fit everything in and tie up all the loose ends. Except for a small section, where Katniss is finally released to fight alongside the rebels facing some nasty traps, akin to the arena scenes in the previous books.

Even with the pacing issues however The Hunger Games: Mockingjay is still a powerful, gritty, dystopian adventure, that has lost none of its edge or shock on re-reading it, and it is a fitting end to this brilliant trilogy. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you watched the films?

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.

New Read: Origin

Knowing how much I had loved Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Inferno, my dad bought me a paperback copy of Origin by Dan Brown for Christmas. So excited was I to find out what Robert Langdon would possibly get up to next, I bumped this straight to the top of my to-be-read pile.

This new, thrilling adventure starts as Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to attend the unveiling of a controversial scientific discovery. The evening’s host is one of Langdon’s former students, Edmond Kirsch, who is now a dazzling high-tech billionaire and futurist. But before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed, the meticulously orchestrated evening erupts into chaos. Reeling with shock and fearing imminent danger, Langdon flees with Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director, to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Gripped, I was borne along the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, as Langdon and Vidal follow a trail of modern art and enigmatic symbols, which will take them from the Guggenheim Museum, to Gaudí’s Casa Milà and Sagrada Família, and Barcelona’s Supercomputing Center. All the whilst trying to evade an eerily, all-knowing enemy, who seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace and who will stop at nothing to silence Kirsch’s discovery forever. Racing around fascinating locations is one of my favourite, quintessential elements of Langdon’s adventures, and this one was no exception, although the locations were of a more modern nature than I usually prefer.

Another quintessential element of these books is controversy! After uncovering all the clues, Langdon and Vidal are able to reveal Kirsch’s shocking discovery and the breath-taking truth that has long eluded us: Where did we come from? Where are we going? A truth that Brown builds us up, throughout the novel, to believe will shake the major religions to their core… However for me, who is happy to have science and God, it wasn’t really that Earth-shattering, although I did find it very interesting. There was also an absolutely spine-chilling twist at the end – Unfortunately I had already guessed at it about half way through, but had put it to the back of my mind!

So while Origin was another thrilling adventure, that gripped and fascinated me in parts, it is sadly not to become one of my favourites of the Langdon series. Although it was very good, escapist fun and I did enjoy it more than The Lost Symbol. Good read.

Have you read this? Or other books from the Langdon series?

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.