King Solomon’s Mines

By H. Rider Haggard

Rating: 3 stars

The hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain is engaged by Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain Good to travel into unknown parts of Africa in search of the legendary mines of King Solomon – not for the wealth, but to try and find Sir Henry’s missing brother, who was last heard of going in search of them himself. The intrepid trio, together with their native manservant Umbopa must face many dangers before and after they find their destination.

I first encountered Allan Quatermain not through the works of H. Rider Haggard, but those of Alan Moore, via The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I would probably not given this volume a second glance if I hadn’t recognised the protagonist from Moore’s story.

I’m glad that I did though, as it’s a fair rip roaring adventure. As with so much other literature of the period, especially that set in the Empire, it does need some cognitive filtering though. You’ve got to remember when and by whom it was written: it is very much a book of its time, and its treatment of non-white characters reflects that. In saying that, it’s not as bad as some in that regard, but the almost unconscious assumption that white men are the superior race feels difficult to a 21st century reader.

And I must confess that I laughed out loud when they pulled the convenient eclipse stunt, although to be fair, it wasn’t the worn, laughable trope that it is now when the book was written.

So a fun adventure, but one that needs to be read as a period piece and has all the difficult racial problems of its era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140350142
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1885

Dandelion Wine

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this beautiful fictionalised memoir of life growing up in small-town midwestern America. I started it in fits and starts, but once I settled down and spent a whole afternoon on it, Bradbury’s writing worked its usual magic on me and I was drawn in to his descriptions of a world very different in space and time from my own. Our guides to Green Town, Illinois, are Douglas and Tom Spaulding, and this story is told mostly through their eyes during the summer of 1928.

Summer means that school’s out so the kids get to play, and they play as we children of the late 20th or early 21st centuries can hardly imagine. Climbing trees, kicking cans, busting each other’s noses in the presence of adults, all while glorying in being alive and young. Early on in the book, Doug Spaulding really realises that he’s alive, and later that one day he will die. He buys a pencil and tablet to write down all the best things about life: the rites, the ceremonies, and the revelations. It’s little touches like this that really make Bradbury as a writer, in my eyes.

We meet such characters as the boys’ grandfather, who makes wine from the dandelions that grow in their garden; Leo Auffmann, who makes a Happiness Machine; the newsman William Forrester and his tragic love affair and on it goes. Each character is drawn with Bradbury’s usual assurance and comes alive on the page.

Bradbury’s writing is as seductive as ever, drawing me in with its poetic grace. He made me laugh and he made me cry, especially the latter. This book is all about nostalgia, it’s about treasured memories and the formation of such memories. About bottling these up with the home made dandelion wine. About old people remembering their youth and having no regrets as they move on into the undiscovered country, about young people creating the memories that they will tell to their children, about love and loss. The loss of a dear friend who moves away or a treasured elderly relative who’s ready to die. In sum, it’s about life, and a life well lived, and a window into a life that was.

I don’t know what I would have made of it, but I wish I had read this book when I was young. It’s possible that I would have scoffed at it, but it might also be possible that I would have fallen in love as only a young person can fall in love with a book. Either way, I’ll just have to make up for it now. This book will definitely be re-read, I hope, again and again.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007284740
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 1957

Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Rating: 2 stars

It’s not often that I can’t finish a book that I’ve started, but I gave up on this about two books into the first part (only about 70 pages in). The chapters are short and I thought I could read it in small doses, but every time I picked it up, I just put it back down again, feeling that I’d rather read something else. After several months of that, I’m officially giving up.

The problem is the style of the humour. It’s relentless poking fun at poor Don Quixote and mocking someone who, today, would be regarded as probably mentally ill and requiring care. That and the cringe comedy (which I really don’t like), not to mention the burning of books, has completely put me off.

I did get as far as the tilting at windmills. I don’t know why this has become such a part of modern culture, as it’s quite a minor episode in the book, but then culture does often pick up on quite random things, I suppose.

I’ll leave this on my shelf and maybe pick it up again in future, but it may end up being passed on, hopefully to a more appreciating reader.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853260360
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 1615

Very Good, Jeeves! (Jeeves, #4)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

This volume contains eleven short stories featuring the immortal Bertram Wooster and his inimitable gentleman’s personal gentleman. This collection has several classic stories, including Jeeves and the Impending Doom, Jeeves and the Song of Songs and Episode of the Dog McIntosh. There’s the ongoing feud with Tuppy Glossop over that rotter’s practical joke, leaving Bertie hanging high, but not dry, the continuing curse of the aunts (despite Bertie’s protestations, I’m not sure Dahlia is that much better than Agatha) and, of course, Jeeves, striding through it all, with a pithy quote and a brain freshly fed on fish to help solve the Young Master’s problems.

PG Wodehouse is a master at this. I’ve never read a Wodehouse that I haven’t enjoyed and they are a sheer joy to read. This volume is certainly no exception to that.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841591421
Publisher: Everyman's Library
Year of publication: 1930

The Pickwick Papers

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 4 stars

This book, Dickens’ first novel, was a bit of a slow burner for me. The early part is an episodic travelogue in which the eponymous Mr Pickwick and some of his friends go travelling around the south of England, and the humorous adventures that they have along the way. Later the style seems to change a bit and, following the intervention of Dodgson and Fogg for Mrs Bardell, the pace picks up and I found myself reading more avidly.

The characters are probably the best part of the book for me, especially the irrepressible Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s valet, who’s always ready with a quick wit (especially of the ‘as X said to Y’ variety). Mr Jingle is a great literary invention as well, in his gentle sort of villainy, while Pickwick’s followers are amusing but not really all that interesting.

I know I have a love-hate relationship with Dickens, but I do feel that this is one that I could reread, and maybe even grow to love.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140436112
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 1837

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: 5 stars

I love The Lord of the Rings. I first read it in my early teens and have re-read it every few years since then. I acknowledge and appreciate the various flaws and weaknesses that it has – being a foundational work of the genre, it’s had more than its share of critical attention – but I will always love it, despite those. Yes, it has effectively no women characters with agency; yes it’s a very conservative book; yes, it portrays entire races as evil and could be regarded as mildly racist, but I still love it.

I love the adventure, I love the world-building, I love the Hobbits and the great love between them (and choose to ignore the modern snark over the relationship between Frodo and Sam). These days, I even love the poetry and Tom Bombadil!

Each time I read the book, I find something new. The latest (2019) read made me aware of just how pastoral Tolkien’s world must have been. He lived in a time where it was perfectly normal to walk for miles a day, across fields and large grasslands because there were no roads. Or, at least, there was a strong collective memory of such a world that he was able to to use to create Middle-Earth. From the urban 21st century, where I would worry about climbing a Scottish hill if there isn’t a clear path, this seems more alien than Orcs, Rings and Nazgul! (Also, everyone in this world always seems to know where north is, and to give and receive cardinal directions without a compass.) The descriptions, especially early in the book, of the Shire, almost make me nostalgic for a world long-gone (almost!).

I’ve never worn the One, but The Lord of the Rings has me in its grasp as surely as the Ring had Gollum.

Book details

ISBN: 9780261102309
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Year of publication: 1955

Cocktail Time

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

The fifth Earl of Ickenham is easily bored. And he has taken it upon himself to spread sweetness and light amongst all those of his acquaintance, or as some of those acquaintances might put it: meddle and interfere in others’ business. This book starts with Lord Ickenham shooting a brazil nut at his half brother-in-law ‘Beefy’ Bastable with a catapult. From then, a long, improbably Wodehousian chain of events is set in motion with, as they say, hilarious consequences.

This book is what happens when an actually clever upper class person gets to be the hero of the story. You get all the wit and madness of a Jeeves book, but with someone who doesn’t have to be prodded along.

Freddie Ickenham is a likeable character, sharp, but not so sharp that he doesn’t let tenuous and improbable chains of events build up before they are neatly untangled and all set straight, with the usual Wodehousian flair.

This is the first of Wodehouse’s ‘Uncle Fred’ books that I’ve read, but on the strength of this one, I’ll certainly be searching out others. Marvellous stuff.

Book details

ISBN: 035230197X
Publisher: Star
Year of publication: 1958


By Jane Austen

Rating: 4 stars

I read this book as a teenager, but couldn’t remember anything about it when I came to read it again for the first time in 15+ years. I did remember very much enjoying it, as a story of lovers finding each other following adversity. I’ve been meaning to re-read it for years, and finally got around to it now, although I did have to force myself to go slightly further down the shelf from Pride and Prejudice to get to this.

This time round, as well as still enjoying that aspect of the novel, I appreciated the satire on vanity and pretension as much as the romance, although it’s still a heart-warming love story as well. Eight years ago, Anne Elliot was persuaded by her family and close family friend to give up her engagement to the man she loved, because he wasn’t rich or well enough connected for them. Now he has come back into her life and throws it into turmoil again.

While Anne is no Elizabeth Bennett, she is a likeable protagonist, and contrasts very neatly with her vainglorious father and sister. Anne fits neatly into the mould of the good woman of the era, being quiet, modest and competent.

Although I still enjoyed Austen’s writing enormously, this book does seem to have an awful lot of very long run-on sentences, which sometimes meant that I lost track half way through, especially if a little tired.

Persuasion is a lovely little book, and probably my second-favourite Jane Austen novel, but it’s not going to be replacing Pride and Prejudice in my affections any time soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141028118
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Year of publication: 1818

Heart of Darkness & Other Stories

By Joseph Conrad

Rating: 3 stars

Heart of Darkness is the most famous of the three stories in this small volume, all concerned, in some way, with marine transport, whether that be on the sea or along a river.

The first story, Youth follows our narrator, Marlowe, on his first posting as second mate on a ship that’s bound for the far east, and the trials and travails of the attempt to get there. Heart of Darkness again seems Marlowe narrating his captaincy of a riverboat up the Congo river and his growing obsession with a man named Kurtz. The final story, The End of the Tether was, in my opinion, the best of the three, and the one that pulled this volume up from two to three stars. It’s the story of a life-long sea captain at the end of his days and what he does to provide for his only child.

The book doesn’t make easy reading for the modern reader, being full of colonial attitudes to all non-white races, and by ‘colonial’, I mean a sort of sneering superiority, where they’re deigned to be mentioned at all. Getting beyond that, they make for an interesting read describing the sort of world that the 18th and 19th centuries really were, and the sort of attitudes that built and maintained the British Empire.

The End of the Tether was the most personal and ‘human’ of the three, with Captain Whalley being a man that I became invested in, and whom I wanted to succeed, even though his doom was clear from relatively early on.

I don’t really have a huge amount to say about Heart of Darkness itself. It displayed probably the most crude attitudes towards non-white races, from the slaves manning the station that Marlowe starts his journey in to the ‘cannibal tribe’ that appear to worship Kurtz at the end of his journey. This made it difficult to empathise with the man and appreciate the writing.

So an interesting set of stories that are mildly interesting for their cultural history (for example the way that the phrase ‘heart of darkness’ has entered the lexicon) but they really need to be read in their historical context and putting aside all modern notions of equality — and then to be glad that such notions have been hard fought for and won.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262401
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 1902

Complete Ghost Stories

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 3 stars

Containing all of Dickens’ ghost stories, the stories in this volume are mostly fairly short, although there are two longer stories: the famous A Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. While the former of those two novellas is a joy to read, I found the latter curiously difficult. I’m not sure why, but it was a struggle to get through. I found it dense, the characters uninteresting and the language leaden.

As for the other stories, they were a bit of a mixed bag. There were some lovely ones in there, including The Signalman, A Child’s Dream of a Star and the humorous The Lawyer and the Ghost.

The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton feels a little like a trial run for A Christmas Carol, with a humbug-laden sexton being taught to be charitable by supernatural creatures. Some of the stories have lost their power over the years, some are just plain weird and I really didn’t get The Haunted House which spent a huge amount of time on set-up, and then concluded in a few paragraphs, having completely ignored the carefully constructed situation of the house and the friends who had gathered within it.

This volume is worth it for A Christmas Carol and A Child’s Dream of a Star alone, but I fear that Dickens was no M.R. James.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853267345
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Year of publication: 1989

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