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The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Erik, the Phantom of the Paris Opera House, is one of the great icons of horror literature. This tormented and disfigured creature has made his home in the labyrinthine cellars of this opulent building where he can indulge in his great passion for music, which is a substitute for the love and emotion denied him because of his ghastly appearance. It is in the Opera House that he encounters Christine Daae whom he trains in secret to become a great singer. Erik’s passionate obsession with a beautiful woman beyond his reach is doomed and leads to the dramatic tragic finale.”

REVIEW: I should probably start by stating that I had VERY high expectations of this book. Although I’m one of those people who hates seeing a movie or play before reading the book on which it is based, I must admit that I did do this with POTO, namely because I fell in love with Lloyd Webber’s musical when I was eleven or twelve and had very little interest in reading classic literature. However, I recently decided that, as I love the musical so much, I ought to read the book upon which it is based and, I must confess, I was disappointed. In all fairness, as mentioned, my expectations for this novel were very high – yet, I found it somewhat unenjoyable. I could not summon up any feelings of affection for Christine (who in the novel acts like a weak, foolish child) or even for Raoul, her saviour, who seems inconsistent in his feelings and not particularly admirable either. Even the Phantom, Erik, whom I feel immense sympathy for in the show, is difficult to pity due to his delighting in violence, murder and torture. He is a much harsher villain than I had expected and I found his death at the end of the novel to be a fitting punishment for his actions, rather than feeling sorry for him.

I do suspect that my views on the novel are prejudiced by my love of the musical. If you have not seen the show, then perhaps you might find this book hugely enjoyable; if you have, I would caution you before reading it that compared to the musical it can be seen as somewhat disappointing.

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Shakespeare’s Mistress by Karen Harper

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “When Queen Elizabeth’s men come looking for William Shakespeare – a rumoured Catholic in a time of Catholic-Protestant intrigue and insurrection – they first question a beautiful, dark-haired woman who seems to know the playwright exceedingly well. Too well. She is Anne Whateley, born in Temple Grafton, a small town just up the river from Stratford-upon-Avon. And as parish records show – were anyone to look for them – Anne Whateley was wed to one William Shakespeare in a small country church just days before he married Anne Hathaway, the woman the world regards as his lawful wife…”

REVIEW: As mentioned before, I do enjoy a good historical novel, particularly those set in the Tudor era. I was looking forward to reading a fictional take on Shakespeare – I have only ever read biographies of him before, and was intrigued to see how Harper would portray him. The Shakespeare of this novel is misguided, ambitious, tempestuous and sometimes selfish; but he is also loving, considerate and regarded as a genius by many of the other characters in the novel, including his mistress, Anne Whateley. I had no idea about the records that show a betrothal to Anne Whateley just days before Shakespeare promised himself to the pregnant Anne Hathaway, and I liked the way Harper linked two of the Shakespeare mysteries by making Anne not only the mysterious Mistress Whateley, but also the ‘Dark Lady’ of some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. Anne is bold and likeable, though we know little about her so much of her life story is undoubted artistic licence. However, we soon grow to care about Anne and Will, particularly in regards to the outcome of their often stormy relationship, and about many of the other characters too, such as Jennet and Father Berowne. My main problem with the novel was that I would have liked to hear more about the plays themselves. Although several of the plays were mentioned, few of them were described in any detail, while some were not mentioned at all. It would have been interesting to read a book that dealt more with how Shakespeare’s life and his political/religious views affected his plays. I would have also liked to hear more about Anne’s life after Shakespeare’s death, as I felt that the ending was rather abrupt. However, I did enjoy reading the book and fans of Shakespeare, like myself, are likely to find it very enjoyable.

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Black Roses by Jane Thynne

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “1933. War is in the air. And in Berlin one woman is torn between love, loyalty and duty.

Warning bells ring across Europe as Hitler comes to power. Clara Vine is young and ambitious, and determined to succeed as an actress. A chance meeting at a party in London leads her to Berlin, to the famous Ufa studios and, unwittingly, into an uneasy circle of Nazi wives, among them Magda Goebbels. Then Clara meets Leo Quinn who is undercover, working for British intelligence. Leo sees in Clara the perfect recruit to spy on her acquaintances, using her acting skills to win their confidence. But when Magda Goebbels reveals to Clara a dramatic secret and entrusts her with an extraordinary mission, Clara feels threatened, compromised and desperately caught between duty and love.”

REVIEW:

It was interesting to see a book set in Nazi Germany written from the point of view of the Nazi elite, rather from the horrifically persecuted victims of Hitler’s regime. Prior to this novel I had read many other novels set in the period, but most of these centered on Jewish victims or innocent citizens unwilling to play their part in the terrible world of Hitler’s creation.  This novel did incorporate these characters, of course – no novel on Nazi Germany can ignore the  heartbreaking persecution inflicted on Jews and their sympathizers during the period. However, Thynne has chosen to look much more closely at not only the women of the Nazi elite, including Magda Goebbels, Leni Reifenstahl and Emmy Goering, but also the involvement of the British spy network in helping many Jews to escape to Palestine and attempting to discover exactly what was going on behind the Nazi facade of joyous national socialism. Thynne truly captures the atmosphere of Berlin at the time, a world hovering on the brink of destruction, and gives the reader a distinct impression of the threat and danger posed by the Nazi regime. Her handling of Magda Goebbels – notoriously known for killing her six children before both she and her husband committed suicide – is also very intriguing. Thynne presents Magda as a character of many contradictory layers; a devoted Nazi with great admiration for Hitler, but also the lover of a Jew; an abused wife who continues to support her husband in his political career with the utmost devotion. I had not previously known about Magda’s attachment to the Jew Victor Arlosoroff in her youth, nor that they had communicated later on in life while she was married to Goebbels – a risky move indeed, and one that I felt was well portrayed in the novel, if not fully explained. The main character, Clara, who befriends Magda and gains her trust, is clever and likeable, and her unwilling romance with Nazi Klaus Muller makes her seem both brave and sympathetic to the reader. The later romance with Leo Quinn, although annoyingly slow to develop, gives a heartwarming and more uplifting touch to a story that is unsurprisingly full of doom and gloom. The ending, however, was one I found disappointing. The threads of several characters’ stories, such as journalist Mary Harker and Erich, the son of Clara’s murdered friend Helga, were left hanging loose and unexplored. I also feel that the book ended rather abruptly, and could easily have been extended to incorporate later years of Hitler’s regime, even the beginning of the war itself. Clara and Leo’s romance is presumed to have continued, but we know nothing of whether their careers as spies for the British regime continued. Overall, I found the book to be likeable, and enjoyed reading it – however, I would personally be unlikely to read it a second time. All the same, this is an interesting portrayal of the Nazi elite, as well as of the German film industry. 

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My Top Ten Classic Novels for Teenage Girls

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I used to mentor teenage girls.  I spent a lot of time with them, and sometimes part of that mentoring was teaching them interviewing skills.  During many of those practices, the girls would be asked, “What’s your favorite book?”

Some would answer, “A Tale of Two Cities, by Mark Twain.  The movie was really good.”

More likely they’d say, “Twilight.”

Yes, this is what I was dealing with, and sometimes I found it hard to keep my mouth shut at these asinine answers, especially given my propensity towards reading the classics.  However, I did manage not to laugh.  But today, I’d like to give a response.  Here’s what they should’ve been reading instead.  These are my top ten classic book picks for teenage girls.

my top ten photo

1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde knows beauty and its pitfalls more than any other author. …

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Truth – A short story written by me

I’m going to post this in instalments – I hope that you like it!

Germany, 1940

 “Lead me to the truth and I/Will follow you with my whole life” – White Blank Page, Mumford and Sons.

 “Burning books is easy. But you can’t burn the truth”

It’s the first thing the girl has said to him in…what, three, four days? Perhaps longer.

One man’s truth is another man’s lie”

That man could be wrong”

And he could be right” a moment’s pause, “You’re a child. You don’t understand”

If you say so”

She will stop speaking to him again now. She does this – airs her views – and, when his inevitable disagreement comes, she shuts down, freezes him out. Thing is, he always knew he’d lose his daughter one day – to short skirts and make up and a dashing young boy with golden hair. Not to the red, white and black band he wears on his arm. What man dreams of losing his daughter to a scrap of cloth?

Gritte…”

She ignores him, this small stranger of not-quite-sixteen. The flames dance in her eyes as each page curls and blackens, making her seem to drift farther and farther away. Ideas burn, too – they start off as sparks and ignite as flames – and it’s his job to stamp the sparks out before they explode into a roaring blaze. Turn them to ash, to dust, to air. (these could be single sentences to create a cold effect)

You should be standing with the rest of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, Gritte”

She looks at him with empty eyes. Her cheeks are streaked with ash; blobs of it cling to her eyelashes like dozens of tiny black insects. When she looks at him, he thinks of her mother – his Isla – with her dark curls and her smile and that scarlet dress with the little white flowers she wore the night they met. He wishes that their daughter looked more like her mother and less like a sandy-haired street urchin.

Heil Hitler!”

The Kommandant speaks; the people follow, arms raised, voices ringing, fever pitch. Gritte slips away on bare feet, toes singed pink from the too-close sparks, arms stiff by her sides.

The smoke moves slowly and languidly down the street, soft as a Lady’s breath. Gritte tips her head back as far as it will go to watch the ghosts of the books dance among the clouds, wondering if they can see it up in Heaven. Because she still believes in Heaven, even after all that has happened, all that has gone wrong. Everyone needs to have faith in something, after all – even her.

Her neck aches when she looks back down, and she rubs it absentmindedly with grubby hands as she walks towards the allotments. The local Rabbi used to tend the allotments with such loving care; the child within Gritte still remembers the green flowering cabbages, pulling up carrots and potatoes from the ground, washing off the dirt then paddling in the puddle the water left behind. Now the ground is barren and dry, and the shed where he once stored his tools is broken down, storing the books that Gritte is too scared to keep in the same house as her father.

She pushes the door open too easily; the first thing she sees is a pair of eyes so dark that they are almost black. When she pulls down the square of linen covering the window, letting the cold daylight spill in, she discovers that the black eyes belong to a slender boy in a uniform that she does not recognise, with hair that badly needs washing or cutting or…something. The black eyes weep.

Please” he speaks in halting, broken German, words thrumming low in his throat, as out of place as the wrong note on a piano, “Bitte. Please. Bread?”

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The Boleyns: The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Family by David Loades

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The fall of Anne Boleyn and her brother George is the classic drama of the Tudor era. The Boleyns had long been an influential English family. Sir Edward Boleyn had been Lord Mayor of London. His grandson, Sir Thomas, had inherited wealth and position, and through the sexual adventures of his daughters, Mary and Anne, ascended to the peak of influence at court. The three Boleyn children formed a faction of their own, making many enemies: and when those enemies secured Henry VIII’s ear, they brought down the entire family in blood and disgrace. George, Lord Rochford, left no children. Mary left a son by her husband, William Carey – Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Anne left a daughter, Elizabeth I – so like her in many ways and a sexual politician without rival.”

REVIEW: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a concise, well-written and highly informative text detailing the lives of the Boleyn family – in the main, Thomas Boleyn, his children Anne, George and Mary, George’s wife Jane, Mary’s son Henry and Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. Loades deals with each of these individuals in a sensitive way, looking at a variety of interpretations from other historians and contemporaries to create a well-constructed picture of the members of this great family. I did find a few problems within the novel -for example, Loades’ assentation that Mary gave birth to her son Henry before her daughter, Catherine. I have never read of this anywhere before, not even in biographies specifically on Mary Boleyn, and am more than a little intrigued as to where Loades obtained this information. However, the book was extremely well-balanced in its views and interpretations, and Loades seeks to dispel many of the myths surrounding the Boleyn children – he stresses both the unlikelihood of George Boleyn being homosexual (backed up by the emergence of his bastard children during Elizabeth’s reign) and also seems convinced, as I am, of Anne and George’s innocence. Loades also looks closely at how Anne Boleyn’s early death and her genes may have influenced the life of her daughter, who grew up to be, arguably, England’s greatest monarch. Overall, although there were a few points that I hold disagreement with, I would highly recommend this book.

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Down and out in Paris and London by George Orwell

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “George Orwell’s vivid memoir of his time living among the desperately poor and destitute, Down and Out in Paris and London is a moving tour of the underworld of society from the author of 1984, published with an introduction by Dervla Murphy in Penguin Modern Classics. Written when Orwell was a struggling writer in his twenties, it documents his ‘first contact with poverty’. Here, he painstakingly documents a world of unrelenting drudgery and squalor – sleeping in bug-infested hostels and doss houses of last resort, working as a dishwasher in Paris’s vile ‘Hôtel X’, surviving on scraps and cigarette butts, living alongside tramps, a star-gazing pavement artist and a starving Russian ex-army captain. Exposing a shocking, previously-hidden world to his readers, Orwell gave a human face to the statistics of poverty for the first time – and in doing so, found his voice as a writer”

REVIEW: I did actually read this book over a week ago now, but haven’t had time to review it until now – which is a pity, because this book is completely and utterly fascinating. George Orwell’s true story of the time he spent in the beautiful capitals of Paris and London gives a whole new dimension to these historic cities – one of which is my home – and tells the reader what it was really like to live not only in poverty, which is dangerous anyway, but to live during a time when everyone was regarded with suspicion due to the spreading of communism in the Eastern Bloc. Orwell met several fascinating characters while writing this memoir, some of which were communists themselves, and many of different nationalities. This makes us feel as though we are getting a worldwide scope on current events of the time, looking at the ways different people with different backgrounds view the same situations. Not only is the book entertaining and enlightening, I also found it extremely inspiring. Considering his rather upper class upbringing, Orwell was no stranger to hard work and desperate poverty, often living on less than five sous a day while in Paris; and this seemed only to make him a stronger person and a better writer, as well as developing his political views to such an extent that he gave us classic literature like 1984 and Animal Farm. I really admire Orwell after reading this book, even more so than I did before, and am almost grateful for the hardship he experienced; because, in a sense, it gave him the ability to create literature that would last for decades after his death.