Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book

By Washington Irving

Rating: 2 stars

This is an odd little book. It starts off with an essay describing why Christmas was better in the Old Days and then proceeds to a travelogue in which the narrator runs into an old friend while travelling the country at Christmas and is invited to the family homestead where he encounters all sorts of quaint old traditions in the old school.

I don’t really grok this book. I’m not sure if it’s parodying the sort of nostalgia which Britain has been famed for these last centuries or whether it’s actually indulging in such nostalgia. The one thing that I did admire about the book is the illustrations. Apparently Randolph Caldecott was a well-regarded artist in his day, and the illustrations are lush, from the full-page ones to the smaller ones that adorn almost every page, they’re very definitely beautiful.

I mostly picked the book up because the edition that I found was very old, and I love old books. This particular one was from 1903 and has a handwritten inscription from 1905 on the inside and another one below that to the original writer’s granddaughter, and I loved that. The book itself failed to grab me though. If nothing else, at least it’s short.

Book details

ISBN: 9781603550789
Publisher: Juniper Grove
Year of publication: 1820

The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Doctor Dolittle, #1)

By Hugh Lofting

Rating: 3 stars

I can’t remember what format I first encountered Doctor Doolittle in, whether it was a film or possibly a cartoon featuring the good doctor. Whatever it was, I’m fairly sure it didn’t have the racism of the original book. It’s a shame as otherwise it’s a fun little kids’ book. The titular Doctor learns the language of animals, and goes off to Africa to cure a plague amongst the monkeys. But the subplot about the Africans he encounters (especially the very sad one about their prince) are cringeworthy to a modern audience, and the language used mean that I’d be very hesitant about giving this as a present to my young niece, as I’d originally intended.

Apart from that, it’s quite a charming story, with a very kind-hearted protagonist who saves animals and fights pirates. Ultimately, as an adult, I’m able to put it in context and do the whole product-of-its-time thing, but I definitely wouldn’t want to give it to a child without having A Talk with them first.

Book details

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 1920

Big Money

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

To try and explain the plot of this book would make it sound complicated and unfunny, neither of which is really true, but I couldn’t do it justice. Let’s just say that it has one or more of the following elements: the peerage, the suburbs, fiancés, love at first sight, formidable aunts, an old copper mine and a dyspeptic millionaire.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s got a different tone to the Jeeves books, but it really came together for me. The protagonists, Lord “Biscuit” Biskerton and John Beresford “Berry” Conway are very likeable and even (gasp) competent, if in that slightly potty upper-class way that Wodehouse could capture so well. There are fiancés by the handful (and Wodehouse’s fiancés usually are a handful), misunderstandings, plots, crosses, double crosses, and much fun to be had by all.

Wodehouse’s batting average is still incredibly high with me and whilst I may just be easily pleased, it’s funny, light of touch and marvellously easy to read. Both a great entry point to the world of Wodehouse and a fine addition to the collection of an existing fan.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099514220
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1931

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 5 stars

What I loved about this book is its sense of wonder. David Bowman is an explorer and Clarke has a wonderful way of reminding the reader about all the completely amazing things that could almost be taken for granted by long time readers of SF. Whether it’s the speeds at which interplanetary spacecraft travel, the magnificence of the solar system or passage of time, he reminds us that human frames of reference are almost meaningless.

This is Clarke at his most dramatic, from the first encounter with the monolith 3 million BC to the emergence of the Star Child and the sense that everything’s changed. Brilliant.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857236644
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1968

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (Jeeves, #11)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

I was slightly disappointed by the last Jeeves book, Ring for Jeeves, and I’m glad to say that with this one, Wodehouse is back on form. Although it’s still post-war and there are rumblings of social change, this time they’re just on the edge of the story and sort of fit better into Uncle Tom’s mouth (the long-suffering husband of the marvellous Aunt Dahlia).

This time round, ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright finds himself unable to beat Bertie to a pulp, as he’s drawn him in the annual Drones darts tournament, for which Bertie is a shoe-in. As usual, there are fiancées involved, while someone’s trying to poach the wonder-chef Anatole from Aunt Dahlia and there’s trouble in the household as Bertie grows a moustache, much to Jeeves’ disapproval.

This is an incredibly fun story that had me laughing out loud quite frequently. If you’re a fan, you’ll lap this one up, if not, you’ll enjoy it, although I’d probably start with one of the earlier ones as there are references to earlier escapades that Bertie found himself in.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513933
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1954

The Moonstone

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 4 stars

The Moonstone of the title is a magnificent, sacred Indian diamond, stolen by a soldier in the British Raj and later given to his niece as a birthday present, whereupon it immediately goes missing. Just under half the book tells the story leading up to the disappearance, and the rest tackles the consequences and efforts to recover it.

Stylistically, it’s similar to Collins’ other famous work, The Woman in White with a number of different first person narratives telling the story through time. My favourite narrator was the first, the inestimable Gabriel Betteredge, old servant of the family and devotee of Robinson Crusoe. He’s got a charming narrative voice and his frequent ramblings and asides are great fun to read.

Gabriel’s polar opposite is Miss Clack, a creation, in my opinion, to rival The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, and yet also hilarious (in short doses). She’s a mockery of the kind of holier-than-thou “Christian” who Collins probably did encounter more frequently than he would like liked. She starts of as a harmless old biddie but as her narrative goes on, I found her creepier and creepier, possibly because I found her complete lack of empathy and deep selfishness, disguised as piety, all too believable.

Lots of fun, very easy to read and (for readers of my edition, at least), not as intimidating as it looks: the paper’s just very thick!

Book details

ISBN: 9781847490094
Publisher: Oneworld Classics
Year of publication: 1868

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen

Rating: 5 stars

I first encountered Pride and Prejudice back in the mid-90s when the BBC produced a mini-series dramatisation that I really enjoyed. I immediately looked up the big fat volume of Austen sitting in my parents’ bookcase, devoured P&P (closely followed by the other novels) and fell in love with Eliza Bennet. Austen herself described Elizabeth Bennet: “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”. I certainly can’t argue with that. I loved this book then, and I loved it again now, after my umpteenth reread of it since then.

Back then it was the sheer feistiness of Elizabeth and the overcoming of all the odds to beat pride and, indeed, prejudice and find love that moved me. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the marvellous writing but also the social mores of the day and if not sympathise with Lady Catherine’s view of the match between Eliza and Darcy, then at least understand it. In other contexts, such arguments as she makes to Elizabeth towards the end of the book are still made today.

Not only the protagonist, but all the cast of the book are lovingly drawn and so memorable. From the sublime – Jane and Bingley – to the ridiculous – Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins, every character springs to life in front of us.

Goodbye for now Lizzy, I’ll see you in a year or two.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140434262
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1813

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

By Truman Capote

Rating: 3 stars

Like many modern readers, I imagine, I came to this book through the rather wonderful Audrey Hepburn film of the same name. The story that formed the basis for the film is short (I’d call it a novella) and this volume also contains three of Capote’s short stories as well. Starting with the title story, the basic plot is similar to the film, although the narrator is unnamed here, and any love is one-sided. The character of Holly Golightly is fairly similar, although from memory (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it), in the film, the character is possibly softened a bit, and the ending of the book is different, but totally in keeping with the character as she’s presented here. The story left me with a mild feeling of melancholy and a sort of pity for Holly, who keeps chasing happiness but seems destined to never find it.

Of the other three stories, they all continue with the melancholic theme to varying extents. The first of them is possibly the one that leaves the protagonist the happiest, although that is very definitely just one interpretation of the story. The second sees an older man in a prison, who finds unwanted hope in new inmate. Lots of stuff about age, wisdom, suppressed sexuality and more in this one. The final story is the most openly melancholic, in that it’s very definitely a happy memory, but bitterweeet as well. The end of that period of happiness.

This is my first attempt at reading Capote and although I enjoyed the title story and appreciated the others, I don’t know if I’ll explicitly search out any more of his work. There seems to be a sort of, if not exactly bitterness, then resignation at the state of human affairs, and I tend to prefer more optimistic work.

Book details

Publisher: Penguin Books, UK
Year of publication: 1958

Carry On, Jeeves (Jeeves, #3)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

I am a huge fan of P. G. Wodehouse, having come to his oeuvre quite late, particularly the bumbling but ever-likeable Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s personal gentleman, the inimitable Jeeves. This volume is an entire collection of Jeeves and Wooster stories, including several that go on to be referenced elsewhere in the canon. For example, the infamous article for Milady’s Boudoir is first written here and we get to see how the gastronomic artist Anatole came to work for Aunt Dahlia (the only good egg in a handbag of aunts). This volume also has a rarity: a story narrated by Jeeves himself, not Bertie. This could have been a disaster, as so much of the fun of the stories comes from Jeeves’ cunning plan, but Jeeves’ horror of Bertie adopting a child and his elegant solution do work and don’t spoil the magic at all.

The stories aren’t exactly what you might call inventive or artistic: Bertie, or one of his pals, gets into a scrape (often with an aunt) and Jeeves gets him out again, often through an unnecessarily complex plan. But they are very good fun, and Wodehouse’s prose is a joy to read. Bertie’s narrative voice is clear and distinctive and the whole thing just comes together.

If you’ve got a horror of upper class Englishmen of a certain era, then avoid like the plague, but for the rest of us, if you see this (or, indeed, any Wodehouse novel) don’t hesitate to pick it up!

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513698
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 1925

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 stars

Hartright is a drawing master who gets engaged to tutor two young ladies in an out of the way part of the country. Before long he is wrapped up in the mystery of the titular woman in white and must find out the secret of Sir Percival Glyde, the financeé of one of his charges, before it’s too late.

I loved this book. It’s a fast-paced thriller (despite being over 600 pages long, it never feels like it dawdles) with some lovely characterisation. I’ve been told by someone in the know that Wilkie Collins was parodying some of the more overwrought gothic romances of his time. I didn’t pick up on that, but even without having the additional layers of knowledge, there’s a lot to enjoy about this book.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Glyde, and his friend Count Fosco, are the villains of the piece. But while Glyde is merely an upper class English thug that you can can’t throw a stone in Victorian literature without hitting, Fosco is something else entirely. He’s a marvellous creation who exudes charm and quirkiness, with a dedication to his pets, whilst having a very intelligent, ruthless core. He’s also believably flawed, and his interactions with Marian Halcombe are both delightful and flesh-crawling. That’s the mark of a good writer right there!

I think that the aforementioned Miss Halcombe is probably my second-favourite character, after Count Fosco. She’s intelligent, witty and not the kind of woman to go around swooning at a moment’s notice (not something you can say about her half-sister, Laura, who is to be married to Sir Percival).

So a rocking thriller with some great characters and a mystery that extends throughout the book. The structure, with multiple narrators also feels very modern and I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone who has a modicum of an attention span.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099511243
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1859

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