Tea and Books Reading Challenge 2013

Tea & Books challenge 2013

Birgit at The Book Garden is hosting the second edition of the TEA & BOOKS Reading Challenge! This challenge was inspired by C.S. Lewis’ famous words, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
In this challenge you will only get to read … books with more than 650 pages!

  • You may pick both fiction and non fiction books!
  • Contrary to last year short story collections, anthologies or collected works in one volume are now allowed!
  • Re-reads will now also be ok (though preferably you should read one of those unread tomes that have been collecting dust on your shelves)!
  • Last year you had to read 700+ pages but for 2013 it has reduced to 650+ pages.
  • And as a little incentive – books with more than 1,200 pages will count for two books (so theoretically you can read four such super-chunksters to reach the Sencha Connoisseur level)!
  • Last but not least – no large print editions of a book, please!
There are four levels and I’ll be aiming for the Berry Tea Devotee!
  • 2 Books – Chamomile Lover
  • 4 Books – Berry Tea Devotee
  • 6 Books – Earl Grey Aficionado
  • 8 or more Books – Sencha Connoisseur

I have several books to choose from – some that I listed last year and never got round to reading. I had no idea I had so many books of over 650 pages! Here they are in ascending page number order:

  1. Into Temptation by Penny Vincenzi (654 pages)
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (670 pages)
  3. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (704 pages)
  4. Dreams of Innocence by Lisa Appignanesi (712 pages)
  5. This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (750 pages)
  6. Helen of Troy by Margaret George (755 pages)
  7. Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser (758 pages)
  8. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (769 pages)
  9. No Name by Wilkie Collins (784 pages)
  10. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
  11. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
  12. The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley (834 pages)
  13. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (848 pages)
  14. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (894 pages)
  15. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (906 pages)
  16. Ulysses by James Joyce (944 pages)
  17. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1088 pages)

I’m just aiming to read four of them (last year I read just 3 books of over 700 pages each). I’d like to think I’ll read more than four of these books next year, but I’m being realistic – I do want to read other books and I can’t see myself reading more than one of them a month! I’m not deciding in which order I’ll be reading them – it has to be a spontaneous decision at the time.

This challenge will also contribute towards the Mount TBR Challenge, as I’ve owned these books for some time (years in some cases).

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

It’s hard to know just what to write about Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The General Introduction to the book advises that you enjoy the book before reading the Introduction (which I did), so I have tried not to reveal any spoilers in this post.

  • It’s Dickens’s last complete book, first published in 19 monthly instalments from May 1864 to November 1865. It’s meant to be read at a leisurely pace.
  • It’s a long multiplot novel, with a multitude of characters.
  • In it Dickens comments on the ills of contemporary society.
  • It concerns mysteries, lost identities, hidden wills, corruption and violence.
  • It’s varied in style, sometimes comic, other times serious, sometimes sombre and dark and at others ironic and flippant.
  • It’s written in both the past and present tense and from the characters’ differing perspectives.

Brief synopsis (from the back cover of the Wordsworth Classic edition)

The chief of its several plots centres on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. He is believed drowned under suspicious circumstances – a situation convenient to his wish for anonymity until he can evaluate Bella Wilfer whom he must marry to secure his inheritance. The story is filled with colourful characters and incidents – the faded aristocrats and parvenus gathered at the Veneering’s dinner table, Betty Higden and her terror of the workhouse and the greedy plottings of Silas Wegg.

My view

Although it nows reads like historical fiction, in the mid 1860s Our Mutual Friend was modern up-to-date fiction, beginning with the words:  ‘In these times of ours’, in case there was any doubt in the readers’ minds.

The opening chapter reveals a darkly atmospheric scene on the River Thames, a modern scene for its first readers,with a macabre story of a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, searching the Thames for human corpses:

Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered, and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it obviously were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. (pages 3-4)

In direct contrast in the next chapter Dickens moves to the nouveau-riche setting of the Veneerings house:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick-and-span new. (page 7)

Just like their name the Veneerings are all show, all surface, without any depth. They collect people as well as objects. Their standing in society is dependent on their wealth – just as Gaffer Hexham’s is at the other end of the financial strata. And there is a great emphasis on money, wealth and poverty in Our Mutual Friend.

There are some wonderful characters, such as the Boffins, Silas Wegg and Jenny Wren to name but a few. As John Harmon is presumed to have been drowned in  the Thames (the body found by Gaffer Hexham), it is his father’s faithful servants, Mr and Mrs Boffin who inherit the miserly and incredibly wealthy ‘dust’ contractor’s fortune. This pair are at first unchanged by their good fortune and take in Bella Wilfer, the socially ambitious young woman who would have married Harmon, had he lived. Through these characters Dickens shows the effect that greed in all its forms can have.

I particularly like Dickens’s depiction of Wegg, who is employed by Mr Boffin to read to him what he calls the ‘Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ Wegg is a hard, rascally character, out for anything he can get. His wooden leg reflects his nature:

Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. … Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected — if his development received no untimely check — to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months. (page 43)

Wegg is one of the characters that Dickens also uses to inject some humour. He is obsessed with his lost leg and goes to Mr Venus’s shop to see if he can find it for him – Venus is an articulator of skeletons and a taxidermist, who has great skill in piecing things together. He boasts:

Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated, I’d name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest, as fast as I could pick ’em out, and I’d sort them all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you. (page 77)

Wegg is positive that he doesn’t want anyone’s bones:

… I tell you openly I should not like – under such circumstances, to be what I call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person. (page 77)

It’s not just social injustices, the class system, the importance of money, property, greed and materialism that Dickens highlights, but also family relationships – in particular that of fathers and daughters and the position of women. He also concentrates on instances of violence, through drownings and physical assaults.

There is so much in this novel, more that I can explore in this (long) post. I haven’t even touched on the majority of the major characters.

This Wentworth Classics edition includes the original illustrations by Marcus Stone. The one shown below is ‘The person of the house and the bad child‘ – this shows ‘Jenny Wren’, the dolls’ dressmaker, whose back is ‘so bad‘ and whose legs are ‘so queer‘, and her drunken father, who she calls her ‘bad child‘ and treats him as such.

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Ed edition (1 Jan 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853261947
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853261947
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating 3.5/5

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: a Book Review

Given a choice of reading one long book or several shorter books, in the past I’ve always gone for the long book, as I like to got lost in a book, but more recently I’ve preferred shorter books. So this is the reason that Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety has sat on my bookshelves unread for a few years. It took me over a month to read it and I did pause for a while to read other shorter books in between. And this book is certainly a book that takes you to another time and place.

It is a remarkable book about the French Revolution concentrating on three of the revolutionaries – Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, from their childhoods to their deaths. Along with these three main characters there is a whole host of characters and without the cast list at the beginning of the book I would have struggled to keep track of them. In fact, some of the lesser characters were just names to me and I never saw them clearly, but that didn’t surprise or deter me, given the enormity of the task of chronicling the events of the French Revolution.

But the main characters stand out and there are also vivid portraits of such people as Mirabeau (a renegade aristocrat), Lafayette (a general in the American Revolutionary War and a Commander of the French National Guard), Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I was also fascinated to read about Jean-Paul Marat  (he who was murdered in his bath), the Marquis de Sade and Pierre de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuse) – I didn’t know anything about de Sade’s and de Laclos’s involvement in the Revolution.

My European History at school stopped at 1789, so although I remembered listing the causes of the Revolution and the events that led up to it, my knowledge of the main event, as it were, is patchy and incomplete, mainly gathered from books such as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities and TV programmes over the years. I found the first part of A Place of Greater Safety covered much of the ground that I was familiar with, but seen through the eyes of the three main characters as they grew up.

Despite Mantel’s insight into the personal lives and characters of the three main protagonists I never really sympathised with any of them – after all they were responsible for the deaths of many people, including their own friends and played a major part in the Reign of Terror. But at times I was drawn into hoping that they would escape their fate – they were all guillotined. They were all lawyers who grew up in the provinces, knew each from their youth and moved to Paris.

Camille Desmoulins is perhaps the star of the book. It was he who instigated the storming of the Bastille. He was by all accounts a charismatic character, despite his stutter. He and Danton lived close to each other, and Danton, a large, loud and ugly man who had the power of captivating his audiences, had a liaison with Lucille, Camille’s wife. Robespierre was a much cooler character and his involvement in the Terror (in which many people lost their heads) was chilling. But even he came over under Mantel’s pen as almost a likeable human being, revealing his weaknesses as well as his power. As long as he could he shielded Danton and Camille as opposition to them grew.

Unlike Wolf Hall, this book isn’t written in the first person, but it moves between the first and third person points of view, giving an almost panoramic view of the characters and their attitudes to the Revolution. It really is written in a most diverse style, moving between locations, characters and even tense. There are also passages written as script-style dialogue, passages from recorded speeches and pamphlets, ‘woven’ into Mantel’s own dialogue. She writes in her Author’s Note that this is not an impartial account and she has tried to see the world as her characters saw it, so where she could she used their own words.

The events of this book are complicated, so the need to dramatize and the need to explain must be set against each other. …

I am very conscious that a novel is a co-operative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader. I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. …

I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true. (pages ix-x)

I think, for me, that Hilary Mantel succeeded with this book. I have struggled reading other books written in the present tense, but either I’m getting more used to it, or Hilary Mantel’s style has won me over. Either way, reading this book and Wolf Hall has been a pleasure – ‘real journeys’ into other times and places.

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; (Reissue) edition (4 Mar 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 000725055X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007250554
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating: 4/5

Today I’m eagerly waiting for the follow up to Wolf Hall to be delivered to my letter box: Bring Up the Bodies is published today and I’ve had an email saying it’s on its way to me.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a Book Review

I read The Woman in White (TWIW) by Wilkie Collins in January and have been wondering how to do justice to it in a post, because it’s a real chunkster of over 700 pages. (For a summary of the plot, with spoilers see the article on the book on Wikipedia.)

It’s one of the first if not the first ‘sensation novel‘. A ‘sensation novel‘ is one with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. Since reading TWIW I’ve read The Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett, which describes such novels as a ‘minor subgenre of British fiction that flourished in the 1860s only to die out a decade or two earlier.’ They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

These issues and more are present in TWIW. It has several first person narrators, who are each not in possession of the whole story. Their accounts from letters, diaries and formal statements are limited to what each one knew or had experienced, and are not always reliable. It begins with Walter Hartright’s meeting with the mysterious Woman in White, as he is on his way to take up the position of drawing master to Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge House, in Cumberland.

 There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London as I faced her.

Just who she is only becomes clear much later on the story. During their conversation she reveals that she knows Limmeridge House and its occupants. Walter helps her, but then is filled with guilt when he is told that she had escaped from an asylum.

Laura and Marian are half-sisters, living with their uncle, Frederick Fairlie, a weak, effeminate invalid. Walter is immediately struck by the beauty of Marian’s figure, but astonished when he saw her face:

The lady is ugly! …

The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.

Marian, clever and assertive is in complete contrast in both appearance and character to the lovely Laura. Walter falls in love with Laura, but she is pledged to marry Sir Percy Glyde, a marriage arranged by her dead father. Matters are complicated by the fact that Laura and the Woman in White look remarkably alike, which is central to the plot. Sir Percy attempts to gain total control of Laura’s money and property, aided by the villainous Count Fosco.

I found it a book of two halves – slow to get going, full of descriptive writing and I was beginning to wonder when something was actually going to happen. Then in the second half the pace increased, the action was fast and complicated, with plenty of tension and melodrama. I enjoyed it, although I do prefer The Moonstone.

I read this book as part of November’s Autumn Classics Challenge and The Book Garden’s Tea and Books Challenge (reading books of over 700 pages).

Tea and Books

Part of the pleasure of reading is choosing books to read. So when I read about The Tea and Books Challenge I went to my bookshelves to see what would fit this challenge.

Birgit at The Book Garden blog was inspired by C.S. Lewis’ famous words, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

She writes that ‘in this challenge you will only get to read … wait for it … books with more than 700 pages. I’m deadly serious. We all have a few of those tomes on our shelves and somehow the amount of pages often prevents us from finally picking them up. You may choose novels only, no short story collections or anthologies, and in case you’re trying a short cut by picking large print editions of a book, well I’m sorry, those do not qualify for this challenge! Let’s battle those tomes that have been collecting dust on our shelves, so no re-reads, please! 

Both physical and eBooks are allowed, though personally I feel that especially the Tea & Books Reading Challenge is more fun with real books.Reviews of the books read are not mandatory’.

I do like tea, but I like books more and at one time I thought the longer the book the better. These days I like to vary my reading but I still have quite an armful (or two) of big books to read.

There are 4 levels, reading either 2, 4, 6 or 8 or more books. Six books qualifies for the Earl Grey Aficionado level and at the moment I think these are the books I’ll be reading:

 From top to bottom they are

  • This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (750 pages)
  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (794 pages)
  • A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (872 pages)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (894 pages)
  • Helen of Troy by Margaret George (755 pages)
  • Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser (758 pages)

I do have more books that would qualify, so the following books are also possibilities which I could substitute or even add (some are on Kindle) and so I may ‘upgrade’ levels to the Sencha Connoisseur level (but I doubt this) :

  • Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (848 pages)
  • Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
  • Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
  • Dreams of Innocence by Lisa Appignanesi (712 pages)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (944 pages)
  • No Name by Wilkie Collins (784 pages)
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (720 pages)
I think I have quite a good mix of books – old and not so old, classics and biographical fiction, plus one biography. I’ve listed some of these books before as books I want to read, so it would be good to finally read them, but I have a feeling that some (Ulysses, for example, which I have started before) will still be unread by the end of next year.