Tag Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

vile bodies

Vile Bodies was the second read for my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh and again it was an absoute hoot. I know I have mentioned this several times but it was the film by Stephen Fry that made me want to read the books (and others by Waugh). Vile Bodies was originally named Bright Young Things but that phrase became much too passé and so it was renamed, although this was used by Fry in his film adaptation. It is slightly catchier after all:

 

“Ooooh what’s that shiny thing, it’s hurting my eyes.”
“Sorry, that’d be me, I’m a bright young thing. Avert your eyes lest they be burned from their sockets.”

Set in the 1920s, the book follows the progress of young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes who has the bad luck of having the manuscript of his first novel confiscated by customs on his return to Britain from France. With this disappears any hope of an advance for writing the book without which he will not be able to marry his sweetheart, Nancy Blount, as she simply could not marry a man who is poor. What follows is a series of parties and events – Adam is on the fringes of a group of young people trying to find their place in a post-Great War world, a group named by the papers as ‘Bright Young Things’. They live in a whirlwind of parties, sashaying to and fro following whatever took their fancy and not taking much heed at all of what was going on around them.

Just like in Scoop, journalists are never far from the action. It shows the beginning of the tabloids, snapping pictures at parties and writing gossip articles. There are a few very funny scenes in which Adam is writing a gossip artice and making up celebrities and inventing fashions and watching as the world talks about them as if they were real. Adam does tire of the parties, as does Nina who describes them as ‘a bore’, listing all of the various events:

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths,…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

I loved the character of Agatha Runcible as she really does sum up what the Bright Young Things were all about, and she definitely gets some of the best scenes in the book. She is always at the centre of the fun and her speech reflects her different view of the world – when she is stripped at customs it is “too shaming”, drinks are “better-making” and she merrily goes along with everything in the pursuit of fun. There is a vulnerable side to her, dealt with rather comically, that reveals how much Waugh is ridiculing the way of life of some young people at this time. Even when spending some time in hospital, Agatha is surrounded by friends from her ‘set’ who laugh, listen to music and drink cocktails with the nurses. She sums up the experience of living in the public eye:

“D’you know, all that time I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate-crashers and Archie Schwert and people like that, all shouting to us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving – and then I used to crash and wake up.”

The relationship between Adam and Nina is touching – and they clearly do care for each other quite a bit despite the game they try to play of pretending otherwise when their financial situation isn’t working out. There are many telephone conversations written down between them and I wonder if this is some commentary by Waugh on documenting something that would have otherwise been lost. Nina and Adam are so very modern and although they do send the occasional letter and telegram, they communicate mostly by telephone.

The narrative is peppered with comical dialogue, ridiculous names, farcical misunderstandings and misadventures. Everything is so over-the-top and melodramatic, and the dialogue in this book is what really stood out for me. There are moments which make it stand out from me – I loved the description of how ‘The topic of the Younger Generation spread through the company like a yawn’ – how it is something involuntary and that they feel compelled to discuss it, although much like the young ones themselves, there is an apathy about everything that they don’t have the energy to overcome.

The film poster for Bright Young Things

The film poster for Bright Young Things

Finally, a note on reading this after having watched the film Bright Young Things as usually I read the book beforehand. This was a strange experience as the film was very true to the book, dialogue and all so I felt like I knew exactly what was happening and already had a clear vision of the characters in my head. That said, I really did enjoy reading the book and the extra detail it provided – I think the book and film are quite complementary!

Have you read Vile Bodies, or even watched the film Bright Young Things? How would you compare them?

Heavenali has also written a review of Vile Bodies this month which you can read here.

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Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet LetterI picked this book up as part of Penguin’s half price sale last December. To be honest, I knew very little about it other than what I’d learnt from watching the teenage film Easy A, that an adulterous woman living in a Puritan community is forced to wear a large, scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothes so that everyone can identify her as a sinner. I was intrigued by the story and how this woman would deal with her situation and whether or not the townspeople would forgive her, so I decided to give it a go.

The book begins with an introduction entitled ‘The Custom-House’. I struggled with it a little to be honest, I found the writing style quite dense and I hadn’t quite worked out what its relevance was to the story of the scarlet letter. It feels like a tableau of its own and I felt it to be superfluous as it was only towards the end of the introduction that I actually started to get into the book. This is when the narrator comes across a manuscript written 100 years before by a customs officer about a woman called Hester Prynne and a scarlet piece of fabric in the shape of a capital letter A. Although I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the introduction, it does serve a purpose, showing just how far removed the narrator is from Hester’s tale, and by implication, how far again the reader is removed as Hester was alive in the seventeenth century and her story is not her own but filtered through two different male writers.

I definitely enjoyed the second half of this novel more than the first. I think it doesn’t help that the story begins with Hester emerging from the prison and being vilified by the townspeople. I think I would have liked a little more preamble about Hester’s life before her ‘sin’. I wanted to know her motives, and her attraction to the man who fathered her child, Pearl, but it does give the reader a sense of how much Hester is defined by her ignominy and the scarlet letter as she is afforded no history prior to this.

There were some interesting scenes in the book, it’s split into chapters that describe different scenes and I did enjoy the structure of the book – I think probably because they were manageable chunks as Hawthorne’s writing style can be a bit heavy at times and I found I couldn’t read it for long periods of time. There are a couple of things that I won’t say as I don’t want to give away the story (even if it was written in 1850!) but I did enjoy the brooding presence of Roger Chillingworth and his machinations, and the scene where Pearl’s father becomes giddy after planning to run away with Hester and finds himself wandering through the town with thoughts of mischief, as if some tap has been turned on and he has been hiding all of his malicious thoughts away.

I did get a little tired of the imagery and symbolism in The Scarlet Letter – Hawthorne is constantly going on about how the scarlet letter burns into Hester’s bosom, and how Pearl is the physical embodiment of the letter – the sin brought to life in a wild and disobedient child. There were moments when the writing was passionate though it can be over-descriptive at times. Despite this I enjoyed The Scarlet Letter for its story and the character and resove of Hester Prynne.

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Book Review: The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

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The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins is a book that definitely takes its reader by surprise. I didn’t know much about it I’ll admit, other than mention of it years ago in English classes in school. I can see why this would work excellently as a literature class text – so much so that I almost think the best way to discuss this book is thematically; innocence, humanity, good and evil. Whichever way you talk about it there is much to discuss.

The story of The Cone-Gatherers begins as two brothers are working on Lady Runcie’s estate during the Second World War, collecting cones to counteract seed shortages arising from the War. Calum and Neil feel unwelcome on the estate, watched over by the groundskeeper, Duror, who seems to develop an unhealthy obsession with them, seeing Calum as some malignant presence due to his disability.

The War is always lingering in the background of everyone’s thoughts – Neil feeling guilty that he is not fighting; Lady Runcie’s brother away fighting in the War; Duror resenting that he was turned down for service; and the conscientious objectors working in the town who are shunned by the locals.

I loved Roderick, the little boy on the estate. He is so innocent and often contradicts his mother when he senses that she is being unjust or inconsistent. His mother describes him as ‘too quixotic for words’ when he suggests that the Calum and Neil are more important than dogs and should be allowed to ride back to the estate in the family car. Lady Runcie Campbell has been taught throughout her life to maintain ‘the correct degree of condescension’ and I think this is why she finds Roderick’s sense of justice so unsettling as it is improper to feel pity for people that she considers to be of a lower social status than she.

Roderick also understands that Duror is unfairly prejudiced against the cone gatherers and remarks upon it but Duror belittles the child’s perceptiveness and ‘smiled at the rawness of the boy who still saw evil as dwelling only in certain men and women, and not as a presence like air, infecting everyone’. The notion of good and evil is present throughout the novel and I feel like my review of the book just can’t do all of the themes justice. The ending of the book is like a blow to the chest, the action rising into a crescendo that leaves you certain that things could never end well and leaves you wondering what this means for humanity.

I found it to be reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a comparison which a google search reveals as unsurprisingly frequent. The themes of innocence and how the innocent are often made to pay for the mistakes and ignorance of others run through both, and I would claim that one novel is just as powerful as the other. A nice pair of books to read together, I think!

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Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

I first heard about this book in 2012 when there seemed to be a lot of hype about it, and I remember it being recommended to me by a friend. It was at one point a suggestion for the book club I am part of but was put aside in favour of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I had forgotten about it for a while and then I saw it sitting on the bookshelves of a friend who kindly let me borrow it.

The book is set in the 1920s, when Mabel and Jack have moved to Alaska to start a new life after their child is stillborn. They are struggling to cope with the wilderness; Jack spends his days trying to get the land ready for crops and Mabel is struggling to cope with the overwhelming sadness that her childlessness brings. One night after the snow has started to fall, it is as if some magical spell comes over them and they run around outside playing in the snow, and build a little child made of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone, as are the mittens and scarf they had used to decorate it, and they start to see glimpses of a little girl running around the wilderness and leaving footprints in the snow. This sparks an upturn in Mabel and Jack’s lives and they become friends with some fellow farmers, get help on the farm and Esther a close friend for Mabel, but one who is much more grounded and doesn’t at first believe Mabel when she talks of the snow child they have made.

The Snow Child was a bit of a slow starter for me. I wasn’t sure of the writing style and initially it struck me as a little unsophisticated, jumping straight into Mabel’s inner turmoil without much explanation or time for the reader to settle in. I put it aside for a week or so while I read The Sea Road and after going back to it I started to enjoy it a lot more. I think it helped that snow started to fall in Edinburgh that week so I was more than content to read a wintry tale.

The plot of The Snow Child takes its inspiration from a Russian fairytale about an elderly, childless couple who build a child in the snow, who brightens their lives for a little while but disappears when they do not offer a reward to a fox who has saved their little snow child from getting lost. Mabel becomes a little obsessed with this tale, and uses it as an interpretation of Faina’s odd behaviour, as she disappears in the spring and returns in the winter, and becomes feverish if she becomes too warm. I found Mabel a little frustrating at times, she was prone to dwell on the negative things in her life and is constantly questioning their decision to move to Alaska and I think doesn’t quite appreciate the amount of work that Jack will have to do to get their land to a state that they live off of. Her character does develop quite a lot through the novel, in part due to Faina’s influence on their lives, but I would argue more so as a result of her friendship with Esther, her neighbour. I loved Esther, in fact she may have been one of my favourite characters in the novel and her down to earth and practical manner was refreshing in comparison to Mabel.

There were some aspects to the book that I really loved. Faina’s life sounded magical, and I enjoyed the story of Faina and how she would roam about in the wilderness, living off of the land and being a bit of a free spirit. To be honest I think when I was a child I would have liked to do much the same thing! Although I think I was more of a summer baby… Jack and Mabel are always trying to tie her down though, saying she cannot live like a ‘woodland sprite’ all of her life and I think I resented the way they tried to tie her down just as she treats their attempts to comfort her with suspicion.

I found the story a little predictable at times, but the descriptions of the landscape could be very evocative and I did feel drawn into the story and setting, feeling the cold and the harsh reality of living somewhere like Alaska. Without giving too much away I would have preferred either this to be more of a fairytale as I felt this lay at times in a bit of an awkward middle-ground between fantasy and reality. I think I was just craving something more magical because it was snowy outside though so it could just be me!

It was an enjoyable and charming book and nice to curl up with on a cold night. There have been LOADS of reviews for this book – here are a few from some book blogs I like:

Lucybird’s Book Blog
Bibliomouse
Heavenali
Bundleofbooks

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Blog Review of 2012

A quick round-up of my first year in blogging.

Cleveden Bookshelves

Way back in January last year, I took the decision to start this blog properly, and to try and read books I had been meaning to read for ages or new ones I’d just discovered. I started it off with my post New year, new booklist and I thought that on looking back over it that I would hardly have read any of them. I’m pleased to say that’s not quite the case: out of the 22 on my list, I’ve read 11 in full and dipped in and out of 2 of them.

I managed to read 46 books last year – I had set myself a target of 52 but didn’t quite manage it. The main reason for this is a few changes in my life recently. I moved closer to my work and now have a 20-minute commute compared to an hour and 20 minutes. I used to do a lot of reading on the bus and could easily meet my target of a book a week but now, although I have more time, I’ll admit that half of it is taken up by an extra hour in bed in the morning! Since the end of November, I had been reading one book. This book was called We Need to Talk About Kevin. I had been enjoying it but the problem is I kept getting distracted by shorter reads, opting for poetry, or short stories or little snippets from The Etymologicon. I’m hoping I’ll get it finished this year as my TBR list is growing continuously! I’d also like to add that this time last year I definitely didn’t know that TBR meant ‘to-be-read’. I’m aiming for 52 books again this year!

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Recent Reads

After neglecting to write notes on the following novels, and pondering how to write book reviews, I came up with this handy idea of doing a brief review of recent reads to catch up on books I’ve missed out of reviews recently. I would probably like to say more about them, and I know there were many interesting things about them but I just can’t remember where in the novels said things were. Here’s a round-up:

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I had been meaning to read this book for a long, long time. It’s bookish subject of a young woman brought up in a bookshop, persuaded to write the biography of mysterious writer Vida de Winter was immediately going to appeal to my interests. I hadn’t expected the novel to be so Gothic – and I LOVED it. The references to Jane Eyre, Lady Audley’s Secret, madwomen and ancestral homes and family secrets. It was an engrossing read and will appeal especially to fans of Gothic fiction.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Another that had been on my list for a while, in fact I think it’s one of the only books from my 2012 Reading List that I have read recently. I seem to have been neglecting that list… But I digress. I enjoyed this book and its take on how past events shape us and the distinction between documentation and what our memory tells us happened. Something I think I would like to re-read.

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

I’ll admit I was disappointed with this one – I usually love Auster’s playfulness with words, structure and character but in this novella it just all seemed a bit over-done, like an explorative exercise rather than a story. It intentionally plays with the reader’s perception but I think it was just a bit too post-modern for my tastes. I wasn’t in the mood for it, I think – might take a break from Auster for a while after this!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

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On Writing Book Reviews

I have been wondering recently about how other bloggers approach the writing of a book review. My strategy varies – sometimes I take notes while I’m reading (this is usually quite obvious in the style as these reviews feature lots of quotes), other times I just sit down and write the review, without having taken many notes. I have several reviews, half-written, awaiting quotes or references to events in the novel and a pile of books that I haven’t written reviews for yet. I’m not sure how best to approach this problem.

For recent reads, I’m planning to do a quick summing up of my thoughts on the books – I hate having un-reviewed books piling up and the longer they wait, the less likely I am to write them. I think I’m actually worse with novellas, they’re short so I always think ‘I’ll definitely remember where that sentence I really liked was’. This rarely happens. I think I need to be a note-taker, a page-referencer. I don’t generally write in the margins, and prefer to write notes on paper, although of late my 2 and a half hour round trip to work has resulted in many mini book reviews saved in Notes. This has been working well for me recently, as well as spending my lunch hour writing. It’s nice to know that I always have some dedicated time during the day to spend working on this blog. A bit of structure works for me, it seems.

If you are a blogger, how do you approach your reviews? Are there some books which you don’t write about, and just savour the book while you’re reading it? Or do you review everything, keeping meticulous notes, references to passages you like? I am intrigued, and would love to find out a little bit more about others’ approach to book blogging.

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