Book reviews

The Classics Club is celebrating its tenth birthday and has provided the following ten questions for members to answer.

When did you join the Classics Club?

August 2018. I’m currently reading the 41st book of my first 51 book challenge and yes, I know the challenge is to read 50 books over five years but I miscounted. I’ve always preferred reading to math (since you’re reading this, I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt the same way).

What is the best classic book you’ve read for the club so far?

Villette. Charlotte Bronte’s story and writing were beautiful and the heroine, Lucy Snowe, was one of the most resilient characters I’ve ever met. The ending made me cry great big, gulping sobs.

I wish I’d read Villette years ago so I could have had the pleasure of re-reading it over the years.

What is the first classic you ever read?

If Little Golden Books count, my Grade One teacher gave me a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson although I didn’t love this book as much as Tommy Visits the Doctor (while not a classic I couldn’t resist including the book in my photo).

Little Women, which I read so many times the cover has fallen off, the Heidi series, Aesop’s Fables, The House at Pooh Corner, Pollyanna and What Katy Did would have come my way later, although I couldn’t say which came first. I think Anne of Green Gables, Black Beauty, the Billabong books and abridged versions of Pride and Prejudice and The Hound of the Baskervilles came my way later in childhood.

Which classic book inspired you the most?

Out of the forty or so books I’ve read in this challenge, this has to be Dubliners by James Joyce. Dubliners made me want to tell the story of the place where I grew up and the people who lived and visited. unfortunately, I don’t have the talent but the following excerpt from my review will give you an idea of ‘my’ Dubliners.

“stories about the old women who gathered weekly to cackle over afternoon tea at each other’s homes, farmers who worked hard, raised families and brought their daughters up to know they could do anything, eccentric fishermen, lonely local children who looked forward all year to the arrival of playmates in summer, a handful of mad artists, a school teacher who took drugs and fell into a chest freezer, one or two blow-ins who resented anyone whose family had been in the area for generations and in summer, hordes of moneyed, boarding school-educated squatters from the Western District who sun-bathed together, played golf with each other then drank all night at the golf club without ever noticing a local.”

What is the most challenging one you’ve ever read, or tried to read?

Out of everything I’ve read so far for this challenge, Pamela by Samuel Richardson has been the most irritating, slowest moving and dull, and not surprisingly, I didn’t finish the book.

I didn’t much like Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald because I felt as if the author wrote too freely of his wife’s personal affairs even though wanting to know more about the Fitzgerald’s private lives had been one of the reasons I initially added the book to my Classics Club list. However, I found the story to be tawdry and felt that the author had taken too much advantage of his wife’s history and mental health issues in writing about them.

Favourite movie adaptation of a classic? Least favorite?

Favourite: Vanity Fair with Reece Witherspoon as Becky Sharp.

Least favourite: None. All of the movie adaptations I’ve seen of books from my list have been good.

Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

Seriously? You have to ask? Aren’t we all Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice?

Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

Wuthering Heights. I read this as a teenager, hated the story and couldn’t understand what Cathy and Heathcliff saw in each other. When I re-read Wuthering Heights as an adult I realised the book was not a romance, but a story about the cycle of family violence.

Classic/s you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

Middlemarch. I’ve been putting this book off for years because it is so long!

Favorite memory with a classic and/or your favourite memory with The Classics Club?

Taking part in a review-along of L.P Hartley’s The Go-Between with other Classics Club members and WordPress bloggers. The experience of sharing ideas about a book I loved with other reviewers brought me more joy than I could have imagined.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

The Unseen Hand by Edward Marston was set in London in 1917 during World War One and published in 1919.

The story began with detectives from Scotland Yard investigating the mysterious death of a guest at the exclusive, women’s-only Lotus Hotel in London.

Harvey and Joe quickly realised the woman had been murdered but they struggled to learn who the dead woman actually was, as their investigation was hampered by deceptive hotel staff, the over-bearing hotel owner and her husband, and a rival hotel owner who would seemingly stop at nothing to steal business from the Lotus Hotel.

I thought the back stories of Harvey and Joe and the other characters in this story were much more interesting than the plot, mostly because of the time this book was written.

For example, Joe was engaged to Harvey’s daughter Alice. Alice was also a police office and was clever and exceptionally good at her work, but her career prospects were limited because she was female, while her fellow female police officers were regularly subjected to sexual harassment by their male colleagues.

Joe and Alice were saving up for a home for when they married but their incomes were very poor despite them being employed by the police force. Joe wanted to join a union to fight for better pay, but this wasn’t allowed. Joe and Harvey both struggled with their work loads, although I was amused by Harvey being annoyed at having to miss his regular sit-down breakfast on the day the murdered woman was found.

The war was in the background of the story as were other current affairs and examples of popular culture from the time, such as Harvey’s wife reading and enjoying John Buchan’s The 39 Steps before becoming alarmed by a scare-mongering novel called The Invasion of 1910 by William le Queux.

The character’s opinions and values were more closely aligned with present ideas than I had expected about issues such as the mental health of returned soldiers, women’s right to vote and work in careers which had prior to the war been held by men only. The author also clearly presented the idea that women who were raped or sexually attacked by a man rarely reported these incidents because the women were likely to lose both their case and their reputation in the process.

Unfortunately the actual writing wasn’t as good as it should have been. I’m not a very critical reader but noticed that the structure of the sentences seemed to be the wrong way around. For example, the first sentence of Chapter 2 reads, “As the police car sped through the streets in the gloom, the detectives sat in the rear seats.” I’m no editor, but surely this should have read, “The detectives sat in the rear seat of the police car as they sped through the London gloom.”

Despite the writing, I liked the characters and enjoyed the story nearly to the end, but the solution to the mystery let the rest of the story down terribly as it was both complicated and unlikely to the point of being ridiculous, which of course made guessing the answer to be impossible.

I was really looking forward to reading other books by Heather Rose after being transfixed by Bruny when I read it several years ago. The Museum of Modern Love was a very different story but I enjoyed it equally as much.

The story is set around a handful of characters who are connected to each other by having met in New York at the Museum of Modern Art while attending The Artist is Present, a performance piece by Marina Abramovic where the artist sat and looked into the eyes of museum visitors, some of whom had queued overnight for their turn to sit with the artist.

The main character was Arky Levin, a middle-aged composer whose main income was from creating music for films. Levin had recently taken on a job to score the soundtrack for a Japanese animation for adults, but had been unable to begin his work. He had recently moved into a new apartment alone after his wife Lydia had become comatose due to a medical condition. Lydia had taken out legal orders previously forbidding her emotionally selfish husband from visiting her if she ever became institutionalised, with her instructions to their daughter explaining that she wanted Levin to be free to continue composing.

Levin met Jane Miller while they were in the audience of Abramovic’s performance at MoMA. Jane was an art teacher and a recent widow who had visited New York specifically to attend the performance. Jane, Levin and a number of peripheral characters found themselves so drawn to the piece that they attended MoMA day after day to day, watching a succession of people sit with the artist and look into each her eyes.

I didn’t realise until about half way through reading this novel that Marina Abramovic is a real person. A quick check of the internet showed that she is a renowned performance artist and that the performance of The Artist is Present actually took place at MoMA during 2010. Many of Marina Abramovic’s other performance pieces were described in this story too and without exception they were gruelling, occasionally violent and in some cases chilling, such as when the artist laid naked on a table surrounded by 72 items and invited the audience to do what they wanted to her with the items. Abromovic was left with physical scars by the participating audience’s actions.

I have to be honest here and admit that I don’t actually rate performance art. I just don’t ‘get’ it. However, my dislike, or lack of understanding of performance art didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this story. All of the characters in this story were deeply moved by The Artist is Present and the other performances except for a single grumbling man who echoed my opinion about not seeing the point of the performance.

I do accept that one of the purposes of art is to create discussion and argument about what art is, what it might mean (if anything) and to affect people’s emotions and ideas and in fairness, performance art certainly achieves all of those aims.

The Museum of Modern Love was well-written and I found the subject matter to be enormously thought-provoking, confronting and intriguing. I didn’t feel terribly connected to Levin, Jane or the other characters but the setting was so powerful that I don’t think that this mattered a great deal.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Heather Rose thanked Marina Abramovic and various other ‘real’ people for allowing them to be represented in this story. For those who are interested a documentary film was also made about the piece.

My purchase of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (July).

My only grievance with The Museum of Modern Love was that although Heather Rose is an Australian author, the book was not set in Australia and did not reference Australia in any way. My original intention when I started this resolution was that the books I chose would be written by Australian authors. I had also intended that the books I chose for this challenge would also be set in Australia, although I don’t think that I stated this or really even thought about it. I haven’t decided if I will chose books set outside of Australia for my challenge in future.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson is written in letters and in diary entries. I very quickly became bored with this slowly-told story but accept that it was probably considered to be very entertaining by readers in 1740.

To sum up, pages 1 to 50:

Dear Mother and Father,

I am fifteen years-old, very pretty and everyone loves me.

My lady has died and I was to go to live with Lady Davers to be her maid except that Mr B, my master won’t let me go. Instead, Mr B keeps trying to kiss me but I won’t let him because I’m a good girl.

I pray for Mr B even though he hides in the closet to watch me undress.

Love, Pamela.

Pages 50 to 100:

Dear Diary,

I am writing to you instead of to Mother and Father because Mr B said he would send me home where I would be safe from him but instead he kidnapped me and had me taken to one of his distant estates to be looked after by Mrs Jewkes who is horrible and ugly.

Mr B is not here and I am still a good girl.

Love, Pamela.

Pages 100 to 200:

Dear Diary,

Mrs Jewkes hit me, AND she tricked me out of all of my money so that I can’t escape.

Mr Williams, the clergyman, is going to ask all the most important people in the district if they will intervene on my behalf.

Mr B continues to stay away, and I continue to be a good girl.

Love, Pamela.

At this point, I decided life was too short for me to continue reading Pamela. I skimmed to the end and was horrified (although not terribly surprised) to learn that Mr B had supposedly reformed and that he and Pamela had married.

The following is my idea of what probably happened next:

Dear Mother and Father,

Mr B seems to have lost interest in me.

We have a new maid. She is very young and pretty.

Love, Pamela (Mrs B)

Pamela was book thirty nine in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

I was keen to read The Beach Caves by Trevor Shearston when I learned that the story had been set around Batemans Bay on the south coast of NSW, where I lived for many years before moving to Melbourne.

While the Clyde River, the national parks and the beaches settings around the Bay rang true, I was disappointed that the town itself didn’t feature apart from a reference to a Post Office Box at a Licensed Post Office that I was very familiar with!

The Beach Caves told the story of a group of university students on an archaeological dig in 1970 led by a glamorous husband and wife-team, Aled Wray and Marilyn Herr, when one of their group mysteriously disappeared.

The main character was Annette, who was an honours student studying Aboriginal lifestyles prior to European settlement under Aled’s guidance. Also on the dig was Annette’s best friend Sue.

The first site the group camped at was up the Clyde River past Nelligan, where a group of huts had been found that were older than European settlement in Australia. If I had been on the dig, I would have visited the Steampacket Hotel at Nelligan, but the group didn’t, not once during their entire stay at this location.

When a new site was discovered in caves at a beach near Batemans Bay, the group relocated there.

Then, another site that eclipsed both of the other sites in importance was found and the group divided, with Marilyn and her team heading off to the new site and Aled, Annette and the remaining students staying at the beach caves with the friction between Aled and Marilyn filtering down to their students.

Brian, a young man whom Annette had been growing fond of chose to go with Marilyn’s group and Annette was disappointed. Soon after, she realised that Brian was infatuated with Marilyn and became jealous.

When Marilyn disappeared everyone was a suspect. Annette’s awareness of Brian’s crush left her in the difficult position of having to decide what to tell the police and what to keep to herself.

The story then skipped ahead thirty four years, to resolve the mystery and to show the impact of Annette’s decision when she spoke to the police.

I was surprised that the characters on the dig did not engage with local Aboriginal people to discuss their findings, particularly when it became obvious to them that there had been a continuity of use of the area right up until the time of the dig. Perhaps that was how things were done at the time, although it seemed like a massive oversight on the part of the team not to have gone straight to the source for information.

I enjoyed the setting of The Beach Caves and found the descriptions of the area to be realistic although as I have already mentioned I would have liked at least one visit into Batemans Bay itself. I particularly enjoyed reading about the discoveries the team made during the first half of the story, but lost some interest in the story after Marilyn’s disappearance.

I didn’t know what I was in for when I chose Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for my Classics Club list. I knew it was one of those books that everyone ‘should’ read and that it dealt with slavery in the United States of America prior to the Civil War, but I had some cosy idea that Uncle Tom from the book’s title lived an idyllic life in a lovely cabin of his own as children’s storyteller.

Not so.

Tom did live in a cabin with his wife and children, however the cabin, along with Tom, Tom’s wife and their children were all the property of a Kentucky farmer. Despite the farmer being a ‘good’ man, when he got into financial strife he sold Tom to a slave trader, separating him from his family and the only home he had ever known.

The slaver trader sold Tom to St Clare, a kindly man who after owning Tom two years began the process to free him, but before this happened St Clare died in an accident and Tom was sold again, this time to a sugar plantation owner known for working and beating his slaves to death.

The story of Eliza and her small son Harry, both slaves who were also owned by the same Kentucky farmer who owned Tom was told alongside Tom’s story. Harry was sold in the same transaction as Tom’s sale, but when Eliza learned the news she escaped from the farm with Harry, with the slave trader and a posse of slave catchers in pursuit. Eliza’s flight to Canada with Harry and her husband George, who was also an escaped slave was equally as harrowing as Tom’s story.

Uncle Tom was an extraordinary person, brave and honest and trusting. He put his faith in God and encouraged those around him to do the same.

The religious element of this story frustrated me in the same way it did when I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. Tom believed and was comforted by the idea of putting his trust in God knowing that eventually he would get his reward in Heaven, but I struggled with his living hell.

The white slave traders and owners were a mixed bunch, some were generous and kind to their slaves, others the complete opposite, some queried and argued the ethics of slavery but ultimately, all of these people were still slave owners. In contrast, the Quakers who helped Eliza, George and Harry, along with countless other escaped slaves to Canada while risking their own safety, were the people we should all aspire to be.

Eva St Clare, the young daughter of Tom’s ‘kind’ owner didn’t ‘see’ people’s colour and was enormously fond of Uncle Tom, but unfortunately her character reminded me of Charles Dickens’ Little Nell, in that both were sickeningly good and far too saintly to be true. Eva’s values might have been held up to readers as an ideal, but I suspect more of Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s first readers felt about slavery the same way Ophelia, St Clare’s sister did. Ophelia abhorred slavery but still couldn’t bear to be touched by a black person. In Ophelia’s favour was that she recognised and acknowledged her bias.

The black characters were stereotyped as being childlike and simple, the story was mawkishly sentimental and not a single page went by without a religious reference, but for all of that, I still cried several times while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Cleverly, the author didn’t shy away from shocking readers with unpleasant truths, but she told the story without dwelling on facts or providing details too unpleasant for her audience to face.

I couldn’t help but think how brave Harriet Beecher Stowe was to have written this novel when speaking out against slavery and showing it to be evil must have exposed her to the anger of slave owners and their supporters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was book thirty eight in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Signal Line by Brendan Colley won the Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards. 

The main character was Geo, who had just returned to Hobart to convince his brother Wes to sell their parent’s house so he could use his share of their inheritance to continue auditioning for his musical career in Europe. The night Geo arrived, Wes, a detective, collected Geo from the airport but before returning to their family home took a detour to the Royal Hobart Hospital to interview a group of Italians who had been sent after mysteriously arriving in Hobart after embarking on a train in Rome. Geo soon realised that Wes’ career was on thin ice as he interpreted the Italians’ story about a ghost train for Wes, the police and the hospital staff.

Go also quickly realised that Wes’ drinking and belligerent temper had caused his marriage to come to an end and that Wes had been living at their parent’s home, sleeping in his father’s reclining chair in the living room just as their father had used to do. Wes refused to sell the house, change anything or even clean up or throw away rubbish in their parent’s house, insisting instead that the house remain a shrine to their father.

Geo, however, had always aligned with their mother and had left Hobart vowing never to return after a terrible fight with his father after their mother’s death.

When Geo met Sten, a mysterious Swede who was chasing the ghost train, he invited Sten to stay with him and Wes (all of them sleeping on chairs and sofas in the living room with Wes).

When Geo and Sten randomly met a couple of idealistic young backpackers Geo invited them to stay at his parent’s house too. In return for their accommodation Sten and the backpackers offered to paint the house which Geo hoped would get them a better price if he could convince Wes to sell it, but more importantly, the others had the ability to defuse Wes’ anger, something Geo couldn’t do on his own.

Sten also introduced Geo and Wes to a Hobart book store owner who was documenting the ghost train’s appearance as well as other paranormal activity. As a group, they drank with Wes and smoked Sten’s marijuana before roaring around the suburbs Tasmania chasing the ghost train, communicating with spirits and taking other paranormal activity in their stride. The dope probably helped.

I believed in the characters and their causes from the beginning, along with the ghost train. I liked and wanted the best for Geo, whose relationship with his father had been completely different to the relationship which Wes had enjoyed. As I learned more about the historic circumstances that made Geo and Wes who they were today, I actually found it in myself to want the best for Wes, too.

Readers who know Hobart will love gallivanting around town with this oddball group in The Signal Line.

My purchase of The Signal Line continues my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (June).

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney tells the story of Alice and Eileen, thirty year-olds who had been friends since meeting at university.

Alice is an extremely successful novelist who struggles socially and suffers from mental health issues. Her only real friend is Eileen, but after moving to a remote Irish village their friendship is now conducted by email. When Alice went on a date with Felix, a dodgy local who she met on Tinder, she doubled her social circle.

Although Alice and Felix agreed that their date had been unsuccessful they were intrigued by each other and Alice asked Felix, who didn’t read novels, worked in a warehouse and who wasn’t her type, to travel with her to Rome while she promoted her latest book. Somehow they became friends and eventually, lovers.

Meanwhile, Eileen had been working in Dublin for subsidence wages at a literary magazine, fighting with her sister who was about to get married and flirting with Simon, a lovely, lovely man whom she had known since childhood. It seemed clear to me that Eileen and Simon were in love with each other and had been for their whole lives, but despite their on and off sexual relationship they couldn’t seem to commit to each other, worrying that if their romantic relationship ended they might ruin their friendship.

The story alternated between what was going on in Alice and Eileen’s day to day lives and the emails they sent each other, where they discussed the meaning of life, philosophy, religion and the big issues around them, including climate change and the possibility of the world coming to an end, and towards the end of the novel, the changes to modern life as wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic which was newly upon them.

Eventually Eileen and Simon visited Alice at her new home where their conversations were finally held in person.

The story is beautifully written and as always, my only complaint is that Sally Rooney doesn’t use quotation marks for her character’s conversations.

As an older reader, I found the characters to be annoying in a Millennial-type of way, wishy-washy, banal and somewhat entitled, but to be fair, they were also brilliant, articulate, generous and loving. They were also enormously open about issues that a previous generation would have kept to themselves, for example, their mental health and their sexuality. A change for the better, I’m sure.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who will wonder if Sally Rooney used Alice’s experiences to make a point about readers thinking that they ‘know’ Rooney based on their knowledge of her books.

Fans of Normal People and Conversations with Friends and new Sally Rooney-readers will appreciate Beautiful World, Where Are You.

I would have been disposed to like D.E. Stevenson’s Bel Lamington even if I hadn’t already read and enjoyed several other romance novels by this author. Lamingtons! Delicious squares of cake dipped in chocolate icing then rolled in coconut. What’s not to like?

Bel Lamington follows the story of Bel, a young orphan living a lonely life in London during the 1950s. After Bel’s aunt died she was left with enough money to go to secretarial school, after which she landed herself a job as the private secretary at a shipping firm where she quickly made herself indispensable to Mr Brownlee.

Aside from her work, Bel had no social life or friends in London, so when a young artist climbed over the roof of her building into a garden Bel had created and asked to paint her, Bel agreed. When Bel visited the art gallery to see the finished painting she met an old school friend, Louise, who invited her to visit her and her father.

When Mr Brownlee went overseas to represent the firm’s interests, Bel became the victim of office politics and was dismissed from her job. Feeling anxious and distressed she joined Louise and her father on their holiday in Scotland, and found their friendship and support to be a welcome relief after the dirtiness and strife of London life.

Bel successfully rescued herself from difficult situations more than once, her friends were generous and kind and eventually, a lovely hero came to find Bel in Scotland.

I recognised several characters from other D.E. Stevenson novels I’ve read and suspect that if I read more, I’ll recognise characters from Bel Lamington in them.

The edition I read was large-print (yay!) and I read the story in one sitting. Bel Lamington was a lovely comfort read which I enjoyed very much, despite the unpleasantness of her office.

I saw all of the clues in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs but couldn’t put them together to work out who had murdered Amyas Crale nearly fifteen years before Hercule Poirot commenced his investigations into the case.

Crale’s long-suffering wife Caroline was convicted of the murder at the time and had died in jail. Caroline and Amyas’ daughter, Carla engaged Poirot to learn the truth, since she was convinced that her mother was innocent of the crime.

The ‘Five Little Pigs’ of the case were Amyas’ best friend who was a stockbroker, making him the little pig who went to market. The stockbroker’s brother was the little pig who stayed home, a beautiful young woman having an affair with Amyas was the little pig who ate roast beef, while Carla’s governess was the little pig who had none. Caroline’s younger sister was the little pig who cried ‘wee, wee, wee, all the way home.’

Hercule Poirot features heavily in this story. He interviewed the five suspects as well as the police who had managed the investigation at the time, then convinced those involved to write their recollections of the event for him to study. My only quibble with this story was understanding why each character, supposing one of them was the murderer, or was protecting someone else, or had something else they wanted to hide would take part in Poirot’s investigation? Surely anyone who had something to lose would quickly leave the country for an extended tour of Europe, or change their name and move to the most remote village they could find rather than risking Poirot learning the truth? However, vanity and the false idea that they are cleverer than Hercule Poirot often bring Agatha Christie’s murderers undone and this story was no different.

I read Five Little Pigs very quickly, sitting up late to finish because I just had to know which of the characters (if it wasn’t Caroline), had poisoned Amyas.

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