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The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Once there were six sisters. The pretty one, the musical one, the clever one, the helpful one, the young one…And then there was the Wild one. Dortchen Wild has loved Wilhelm Grimm since she was a young girl. Under the forbidding shadow of her father and the tyranny of Napoleon’s Army, the pair meet secretly to piece together a magical fairy tale collection”

REVIEW: I thoroughly enjoyed reading this wonderful combination of historical fiction, romance and fairy tales. Although extremely slow to progress, Dortchen’s budding relationship with Wilhelm Grimm is well worth waiting for, and is instantly believable, growing from a childhood affection into a desperate need that neither of them are quite able to deal with. The story is set in the town of Cassel, one of the many states of the Holy Roman Empire that would today make up part of Germany, against the backdrop of the bitter and bloody Napoleonic wars. The historical context is consistently kept in mind and the twists and turns that come with Napoleon’s victories and defeats are well-explained in a way that even a reader with no prior knowledge of such events could understand and find interesting. Dortchen’s childhood years are told in an extremely sensitive way, a method that continues when Forsyth tells the story of Dortchen’s later years and the horrific sexual and physical abuse she suffers at the hands of her father. Although not hugely graphic, these scenes were undoubtedly distressing to read, but the way in which Forsyth illustrates the psychological impact of these events on Dortchen and her relationship with Wilhelm is brilliantly done and in no way detracts from the seriousness of the issue at hand. Forsyth’s use of fairy tales to reflect the problems Dortchen is experiencing at that point in the novel is also extremely well done, adding a beautiful, magical element to the story that brightens even the darkest parts – for example, Dortchen’s telling of the the story about the princess whose father forms an attachment to her comes at a time when she fears to tell Wilhelm of the abuse she suffers. It is difficult not to give anything away by continuing in my discussion of the novel, so I shall simply state that this is a marvellous book and I am greatly looking forward to reading some of Forsyth’s other works. 

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Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Meet Penelope O’Shaugnessy, Harvard freshman. Armed with her Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights poster and party conversation modelled on the repartee of Noel Coward, Penelope is ready to take her place on campus. But where are the kindred spirits who will share her passion for Morse code and Tetris? Her roommates are baffling: Emma is signing up for insanely difficult courses and obsessing about something called a ‘finals club’; and the rarely glimpsed Lan has painted her room black and shut the door. Gustav, a dashing, rumpled-linen-suit-wearing upperclassman of uncertain European origins has caught Penelope’s eye, but he never seems to be in the freshman dining hall, so it is unlikely she will ever find out if he matches up to her hero, Hercule Poirot”

REVIEW: Being in my first year of university, the idea of reading a book based upon a girl (who sounded like even more of an oddball than myself!) going through exactly the same experience in an American setting really appealed to me. Penelope as a character is highly unusual, but this makes her endearing to the reader and gives them a strong sense of protectiveness over her. Her difficulty in making friendships is brutally honest, not sugar-coated as it may be in other similar novels, as are her struggles with men. Penelope is not a typical character in that she is not universally admired, and neither does she find the perfect man – in fact, rather the opposite. Her relationships with Ted and Gustav are very different, but both present their own challenges and are two of the most ‘real’ relationships I have ever had the good fortune to read about in a novel of this kind. I grew to really hope for Penelope’s happiness by the end of the novel, and, although not perhaps happy, Penelope ends the novel in a much better position than she started it. Although the ending could be described as ambiguous, I found it to be a satisfying conclusion to a light-hearted, easy to read, honest work of fiction. My main issue with the book, however, was the speech. Conversation between the characters sometimes felt stilted, perhaps a little too precise for everyday colloquialism. This did not spoil the plotline of the book though, and I would recommend it particularly to university students. 

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Catherine Morland, an unremarkable tomboy as a child, is thrown amongst all the ‘difficulties and dangers of Bath’ at the ripe age of seventeen. Armed with an unworldly charm and a vivid imagination, she must overcome the caprices of elegant society, encountering along the way such characters as the vacuous Mrs Allen, coquettish Isabella and the brash bully John Thorpe. Catherine’s invitation to Northanger Abbey, in her eyes a haven of coffins, skeletons and other Gothic devices, does lead to an adventure, though one she didn’t expect, and her misjudgement of the ambitious, somewhat villainous General Tilney is not wholly unjustified. However, with the aid of ‘unromantic’ hero Henry Tilney, Catherine gradually progresses towards maturity and self-knowledge”

REVIEW: I think part of the reason why I enjoyed this book so much was due to the great affinity I felt with the character of Catherine Morland. Much like Bronte’s Jane Eyre, she is never described as beautiful and rarely described as pretty, but she is full of a wit that makes her hugely entertaining. I related to her vivid imagination and the way it often leads her into trouble – as, I suspect, many readers will. As well as being widely considered a Gothic satire, Northanger Abbey is also a traditional Austen romance, with the typical unwanted suitor in the shape of bullish John Thorpe, the villain in the shape of General Tilney, and of course the hero – witty, well-read, handsome Henry Tilney. The character of Isabella also fulfills the role of the spiteful false friend, who is held up as a foil for Catherine, whose good nature and intelligence makes her instantly likeable. The book takes lots of interesting turns and is, as always with Austen, just as easy to read as a modern-day romance. The end is hugely fulfilling and made me smile for several minutes even once I had closed the book. I would recommend this as highly as any other of Austen’s works. 

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The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Depicting the gradual disintegration of the Compson family through four fractured narratives, The Sound and the Fury explores intense, passionate family relationships where there is no love, only self-centredness. At its heart this is a novel about lovelessness – “Only an idiot has no grief; only a fool would forget it. What else is there in this world sharp enough to stick to your guts?””

REVIEW: This book came to me highly recommended by a friend and, as I’ve always enjoyed books set in historic American South, I was looking forward to reading it. The book is divided into four sections, the first three being narrated by the males of the Compson family – Benjy, an adult male who is severely disabled and relies entirely on others, particularly on Caddy, the Compsons’ only daughter; Quentin, whose shame over Caddy’s promiscuity and efforts to protect his sister’s dignity lead to him becoming a highly sympathetic character; and Jason, whose cruelty towards Caddy’s daughter, Miss Quentin, is further explored in the final section of the novel, which lacks a narrator but focuses on Dilsey, the Compsons’ put-upon housekeeper. I won’t pretend that this book is easy to read – on the contrary, the strong emotions of the narratives and the often manic writing structure can often make it rather difficult, but it is definitely worth it. Benjy’s section in particular is hard to read, simply because it evokes such empathy for the situation of his character. The thing I most enjoyed about this novel, however, was exploring the character of Caddy. Each of the Compson men sees her in a different way – Benjy sees her as a mother, Quentin as a victim, Jason as a whore – all of which make her subordinate to them, but it is Caddy who shapes the boys’ lives and attitudes, and it is she who seems to posses the ultimate influence over the events that unfold within the Compson family. Overall, I would definitely recommend the book – it may be a struggle at first, but persevere, because it is most definitely worth it.

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Animal Farm by George Orwell

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Mr Jones of Manor Farm is so lazy and drunken that one day he forgets to feed his livestock. The ensuing rebellion under the leadership of the pigs Napoleon and Snowball leads to the animals taking over the farm and vowing to eliminate the terrible inequities of the farmyard –  the renamed Animal Farm is organised to benefit all who walk on four legs.”

REVIEW: I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, especially as it was handed down to me by my Dad  -who doesn’t read often, so I knew it had to be brilliant. I was right, and so was he. Orwell’s novel is a brilliant parallel of the takeover of Russia by Communism; if it wasn’t so sinister, the novel could almost be referred to as satirical. Stemming from the Bolshevik Revolution (the animals taking over the farm from Mr Jones) and illustrating frighteningly the stark horrors of living under an unequal Communist dictatorship (like the one led by Stalin), ‘Animal Farm’ is both hugely entertaining and hugely horrifying, with moments that reduced me to tears (BOXER!!!!). I don’t want to ruin this superb classic by saying too much, but I will say that the last line of this novel has to be one of my favourite of all time, second only to the last line of ‘The Great Gatsby’  – “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

 

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A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings by Charles Dickens

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RATING: 4/5

REVIEW: Seeing as there were so many snippets of Dickens’ wonderful festive writings in this book (which was, as you may have guessed, a much-appreciated Christmas present), I decided that for the purposes of this review I’d just focus on the one that many of us know and love: ‘A Christmas Carol’. This is, of course, the tale of the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose cold heart and cruel nature are amended through the visitations of four ghosts to him on Christmas Eve – that of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. As well as being a highly moral tale, this story is highly entertaining and I enjoyed going back to it after years of just watching the countless film adaptations every year! Dickens’ writing truly evokes the spirit of Christmas, in both good and bad circumstances, and this is a story to truly warm the heart and promote goodwill to all men! Go back to it this Christmas, or venture towards it for the first time if you like, and be truly amazed by how festive it makes you feel.