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Archive for July, 2010

Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Jane Austen
Penguin Classics, 323pp

I first read Sense and Sensibility during my A-Levels, in 1996, when for those examinations we studied Pride and Prejudice. Enjoying Austen’s most famous novel, I decided to purchase another: my English teacher, I believe, recommended Sense and Sensibility, and soon I finished it. I had seen the Ang Lee film, starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant, a year before and had fun connecting the novel to the adaptation.

About three years ago I began to read another Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, but got only a few pages in before other duties took me away from it. So, it’s really been about fourteen years since I last engaged with Austen’s world: during this time her work seems to have blossomed in popularity, and people who would normally avoid the classics have been reading her: I even saw her novels for sale in Tesco, which speaks volumes about her current esteem.

About two weeks ago I purchased the complete Jane Austen, as part of a 3 for 2 deal in my local Waterstones, little realising that I would be within in the week buying the Sony E-Reader. I began Sense and Sensibility in this 1,300 page volume, but remembering I had my old Penguin Classics edition in my book cupboard, I read the next half in this edition, and finally finished the last hundred pages on the E-Reader. A peculiar manner in which to plough through one book, but it did highlight something interesting: it’s easy to read novels in a light device – the large complete volume gave me wrist ache, the small volume didn’t but the E-Reader edition was better still. I could change the print size to fit my mood. What I miss with the .epub edition, however, is the informative and brilliant introduction Ros Ballaster provides to my Penguin edition. (However, I can buy it online at Penguin’s website for £4.99 – which as the novel is available for free on Project Gutenberg means £4.99 for the introduction: you decide whether it’s worth paying.)

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel, but as Ros Ballaster explains in her introduction, it was not the first she had written, but indeed may be the second or third. Its publication date of 1811 hides the fact that this manuscript was probably written in the 1790s, as evidenced by its language and form, all of which were a little outdated by the 1810s. Much of what constitutes Sense and Sensibility can be detected in Austen’s juvenilia, and there is much to suggest that the novel began life as an epistolary novel, a common form in the late 1790s and receding as the novel evolved in the first part of the nineteenth century.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are single ladies in search of a husband. They believe they have met them in the forms of the dashing Willoughby, who saves Marianne when she is injured on the Downs, and Edward Ferrars, who forms an attachment to Elinor. Both men, however, are become engaged to other women, and the downfall of the Dashwood family seems certain. Recent adaptations of Austen have highlighted the frothy romantic quality of her work – and they are now sold as prototype romantic comedies. Now it is true that these qualities are present in Austen’s work, and in this novel, but they are not the centre of these works. Sense and Sensibility is a much bleaker work than that – though Austen’s razor sharp wit cuts through much of the dark heart. Love in this world does not run smoothly, and though it does end happily – as we know it must – the path to that happiness brings Marianne close to death.

Sense and Sensibility is a well written, deeply emotional novel. It has quiet power. It is, however, not as powerful as the novel that would follow it: Pride and Prejudice.

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Lewis Carroll
Puffin Classics, 176pp

When I bought my E-Reader, I received as free download from Sony, this book and many others, and I thought, considering how much I know and don’t know about this classic, it was about time I read it. Here is an instance of where the .epub edition works against the print edition (at least in the edition I possess). Lewis Carroll, when this famous book first appeared, illustrated much of it, and set the text on the page very deliberately; the ebook edition does not contain either these illustrations for this formatting. I daresay on a larger e-reader, these problems are extinct, but on a basic level reader, and the type most will first buy, one does not get a true sense of the majesty of this true classic.

The history of how this children’s story came into being is well known: on a rowing trip, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told his three companions, among them his favoured Alice Liddell, of a fictional Alice and her adventures in Wonderland. The real Alice urged Dodgson to write his fantastical tales down, which he did, and for which he provided some wonderful illustrations, and a children’s classic was born, when he published it under his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll.

The story itself is equally well known. I have seen it filmed straight and as parody, and it has been referenced in countless productions and other works, including many times in Doctor Who. It has become so well known that I thought I must have read it, despite knowing that I never had (and I think Carroll would approve of that). Take, for instance, that I thought Tweedledum and Tweedledee were part of this book: well, they’re not, they’re in the sequel. There were also episodes that I’ve not seen in some versions, that are in others, that make one wonder how much of it is new invention, and how much is Carroll. And that Llandudno, which is very near where I live, has its own connections to Lewis Carroll and the Alice tale, and indeed has a monument to it, it seems I have always known this book without ever truly knowing it.

What I was also aware of, but had never looked into, was how much Lewis Carroll invested his tale with other elements: there are mathematical problems and illustrations through metaphor of mathematical theories. There are linguistic jokes, and philosophical explorations. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice says. One of the power’s of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is simply how much Carroll puts into the story – and how much the child must miss, or if not miss, assimilate unconsciously.

The influence of this story cannot be underestimated. It became one of the models of fantasy literature, and the nonsense verse that some of the characters sprout helped fashion much children’s literature of the twentieth century. It is a charming book, but one that has nevertheless known in its fair share of controversy: most recently a school in China banned it because it elevated animals to human level. Somehow I think Carroll would have had fun arguing with that law.

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Doctor Who: Juggernauts (2005)
Scott Alan Woodard
Big Finish #65
Starring: Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford

It’s been a while since Big Finish did a Sixth Doctor and Mel adventure, nineteen stories back with Flip Flop. Mel, one of the least popular television companions, is proving more interesting in audio form than on the idiot box.

The Sixth Doctor and Mel are fleeing an exploding ship. Mel has to flee in an escape pod, but the Doctor tells her he will rescue her soon. Months pass, and Mel is working for a mining company, under Dr Vaso. He is designing a new robot that can work the mines. The Doctor, meanwhile, is captive. Soon his captors reveal themselves, they are Daleks, but they do not want to kill The Doctor. They need his help. Dr Vaso is Davros, and he is up to something… but what?

The last story in Big Finish’s monthly range ended on a cliff-hanger: The Eighth Doctor and companions newly arrived from the Divergent Universe meeting a bunch of Daleks. So to follow that story with a different Doctor and a different set of Daleks seems a little odd. In Juggernauts, however, it is not just The Daleks from the TV series that make an appearance: The Mechanoids are back: their first appearance since The Chase, way back in 1965. The Mechanoids entered into a battle with The Daleks in that story, and here the fight continues.

Juggernauts is a fun little romp of a story. It doesn’t do anything dramatically exciting, and moves forward Davros’s story only a little. Mel is perhaps the best served here, being allowed to reveal a romantic side towards fellow colonist Geoff. This romance highlights one significant problem the writers must have: we know, from the television show, that Mel isn’t with anybody named Geoff, so we know we cannot travel in the TARDIS: so his fate is sealed from the first moment Mel kisses him. The mention of Evelyn only solidifies this realisation, for with Evelyn we have a companion to whom anything can happen: and The Doctor’s mournful comment on her deepens the fear we have for the character’s health, following her last appearance in Arrangements for War (which also showed a romantic life for the character, and a romance we can invest in, because it can happen).

With an absence of Who on British screens again (at least until Christmas), it’s good to continue hearing these Big Finish adventures. Long may they run!

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La Maison du chat-qui-pelote (At the Sign of the Cat and Racket) (1829)
Honoré de Balzac
J.M. Dent & Co, 63pp
Translated by Clara Bell

The first novel in the Scènes de la vie Privée (Scenes of Private Life) of Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine was first entitled Gloire et Malheur (Glory and Misfortune) when it was published in 1829. Over the next thirteen years the story underwent a number of corrections and revisions, before finally appearing in 1842 under the title above.

The initial stories that constitute the Scènes de la vie Privée were the first conceived wholly for the cycle that would come to be known as La Comédie Humaine following the publication of two previous novels. The Scènes de la vie Privée as their name suggests, details the private lives of French society – in this case the marriage of the painter Théodore de Sommervieux to Augustine Guillaume, the daughter of a noted cloth merchant whose business, on the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, is known by sign of the Cat and Racket. Sommervieux makes a famous reproduction of the Cat and Racket, which is exhibited alongside portrait of Augustine. The courtship and eventual marriage had not been planned – her family intended for Augustine to marry the clerk of the shop, Joseph Lebas. Lebas, then, marries Augustine’s sister, Virginie.

Sommervieux’s fortunes rises, and the now famous portrait of Augustine ends up in the hands of the Duchesse de Carigliano, with whom Sommervieux is enamoured, and who in turn is enamoured with the painting. As her marriage begins to crumble, Augustine visits the Duchesse and sees the painting and is given it back, in the hope that when her husband sees it back in her possession, he will realise the power of his wife. When Sommervieux returns home, his wife, dressed again as she was for the portrait – and therefore again as she was when Sommervieux fell in love with her – Sommervieux does not react well. He realises his wife cannot see the painting for its worth, that she does not understand art, and can never truly understand him. Augustine marriage ends eight years later, with her death.

This brief outline of La Maison du chat-qui-pelote barely does the story justice. There is quiet power in Balzac’s prose. The unravelling of this marriage, and its portraiture under Balzac’s pen, takes on epic qualities. It becomes at once a meditation on the power and nature of art, and of marriage to men of genius. These themes, big themes in then contemporary French high society, would have resonated deeply. The characters of Sommervieux and Augustine are well drawn, and we feel sympathy for Augustine as we see fail to save her marriage, and her life. It is rare for such short works to contain such power, but in La Maison du chat-qui-pelote, Balzac certainly achieves it.

Note: I read this story on a Sony E-reader, the PRS-300, an entry level e-reader, and I have to say I am mightily impressed with this piece of kit. I had previously read the Balzac novels reviewed on this blog on the computer screen, and my slowness in moving through Balzac’s oeuvre was eyestrain. The e-reader does away with that problem. I read on it as if I were reading the pages of a book.

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Doctor Who The New Adventures #2- Timewyrm: Exodus (1991)
Terrence Dicks
Virgin Books, 240pp

The Doctor and Ace, following their adventure in Mesopotamia, have followed the path of the Timewyrm to 1950s United Kingdom. All is, however, rather different. It seems the Nazi’s won the Second World War, and that Britain is now a totalitarian state. Very soon The Doctor and Ace have become embroiled with a Nazi henchman, Hemmings, and witnessed a murder. The Doctor, through a sequence of events not worth explaining here, convinces the Nazi’s he is a senior member of the Party, from Germany, here to investigate resistance cells. They continue searching for the Timewyrm, and soon realise they must travel further back in time, to not only correct the course of time, but to capture the Timewyrm herself. Arriving in 1920s Berlin, they are just in time to save the life of one Adolf Hitler… but is Hitler more than just a person? And just who is the mysterious figure trying to kill him?

In what becomes an alternative historical adventure, Terrence Dicks has done a mighty fine job of convincing us of the authenticity of the world he creates. Nazi occupied Britain is well drawn, and well researched – Oswald Mosley etc make appearances – but it is when he travels back into Hitler’s past that the whole adventures becomes a little unstuck. The appearance by an old foe from Patrick Troughton’s days as The Doctor muddies the water – in an interesting manner, I admit, but the finale becomes too incredible and, like the previous novels, leaves a number of plot holes unexplored. It is, however, a more successful book than the previous, and the plot cracks along nicely.

The Doctor is particularly well drawn here, feisty and with a moral ambiguity that sits nicely. Ace gets more to do, but some of her women’s lib comments do become a little grating after a while – okay, we get it, the past was unenlightened. Yet they continue to ram it down our throats. There is also a somewhat clichéd cockney running around, just for good measure. Where he does well, and where I really thought he was going to fail, was in those moments when The Doctor met Hitler, and Goebbels, and Himmler and all the other Nazi goons. Yet they are mostly drawn well – Himmler came across with a certain amount of cliché – but it takes guts to include Adolf Hitler as a main character in your tale, and I’m glad that Virgin Books allowed it.

In Timewyrm: Exodus, then, the good points far outweigh the bad, and Dicks tells his tale with tongue firmly in cheek. A more solid adventure, and with the Timewyrm still at large at novels end, this adventure is only just beginning.

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David Copperfield (1849-1850)
Charles Dickens
Wordsworth Classics, 837pp

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

These words begin what is undoubtedly one of Charles Dickens’s best known and most beloved novels. David Copperfield, born in 1820, has loving parents who dote upon him. Tragedy strikes their lives early, with his father dying while Copperfield is still in infancy, and seven years later his mother remarries. Mr Murdstone, and his wicked sister, prove to be the downfall of Copperfield – he is sent away to boarding school, and then to the workhouse, and it seems that his life is to continue upon this downward spiral. He runs away, to his aunt, following the death of his mother and newborn son. At this new school he meets two of this novels most iconic characters: Wilkins Micawber and Uriah Heep.

David Copperfield, described as the most autobiographical of all Dickens’s works, is something of an anomaly. It is written entirely in the first person – a form he has used only once previously, in the first few chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop. I said in my review of that work, that he wrote in the first person well, but that his form is best suited to the third person omniscient. David Copperfield proves the exception to that rule. Apart from a few sequences, this novels works extraordinarily well in the first person: where it works less well is in the building up of tension. In previous works Dickens would simply shift the viewpoint to his nefarious characters and let us see their plotting against the hero. In this we are not allowed that luxury, and so instead we must learn of the crimes of others through our heroes actions. This breeds a stifling of the tension in the middle third of the book – for a hundred or so pages I felt David Copperfield wasn’t going anywhere, and I wondered how its reputation had been so earned. I considered that, because it is written in the first person, it appears the most modern of his works, and that also this closeness breeds an easy familiarity in the reader. Where David Copperfield really works, though, is in the union of the dispirate storylines: everything we have seen so far has been working towards this finale.

And what a finale! We have mysterious figures creeping along the muddy water of the Thames, a gale ripping in off the Atlantic, a shipwreck, an unmasking of a villain (who we always knew was a villain, but never-mind) and a heartfelt reunion. Men are made and villains fall. We even get a wonderful comeuppance for Uriah in a great prison sequence. The finale of David Copperfield reveals what Dickens does best. I don’t think any other British writer – either then or now – could get away with what he does in these pages.

David Copperfield is an achievement, there is no doubting that, but it is not one of my favourites. I can see myself returning to it, but not as quickly as I will with say Dombey and Son, or Nicholas Nickleby. Like that Nickleby, David Copperfield is full of eccentric and wonderfully drawn secondary characters: the aforementioned Micawber and Heep, but also Peggoty, the nurse who cares with great sympathy for Copperfield, and young Em’ly, whose peregrinations and beauty prove the downfall of Steerforth, whose seduction of her ruins her reputation and his, and whose actions bring about the final tragedy of this novel. Then there is Mr Barkis – “Barkis is willin’!” – whose interludes are always comic. And who can forget Traddles, the short life of Dora, or Miss Mowcher. These characters, more than Copperfield himself, are what make this novel, and it is because of them that the novel comes fully to life.

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Doctor Who The New Adventures #1- Timewyrm: Genesys (1991)
John Peel
Virgin Books, 230pp

When Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, it seemed the end for The Doctor. Virgin Books, whom had bought out Target Books (which had produced novelizations of the TV Series), were keen to continue the Doctor Who range, but with new tales. They approached the BBC who authorised these new adventures. For the first story they approached John Peel (not the radio host of the same name) who had written for Target, and together they worked out the beginning of a four part novel sequence featuring the Timewyrm. The instant success of these novels saw Virgin releasing a novel a month and a sideline in Past Doctor Adventures. Reading these novels now, with Doctor Who revived on television, it is difficult to assess how vital these books must have felt to deprived Doctor Who fans.

These books tell the continuing adventures of The Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, and Ace, played by Sophie Aldred. The two had proved popular with fans, even if the stories they starred in were not, and these writers of the novels were allowed freedoms not given on television: this allowed for a fleshing out of the characters, and a more adult tone. John Peel, in the debut novel, takes the second point as his starting point. Following a prologue in which the Timewyrm is unwittingly unleashed in Mesopotamia in 2100BC, Ace awakens on the TARDIS not knowing who she is or why she is naked. The lengthy descriptions of her finding her clothes and her body read like the drooling of a teenage boy (though it does allow the new reader a chance to become familiar with the environs and working of the TARDIS and The Doctor), but this is only the beginning: soon we have nubile teenagers, with exposed bodies, described in lascivious prose. These descriptions, as well as being somewhat stomach-churning in their detail and banality, veer towards the paedophiliac, these girls being only fourteen. This teenage attitude continues with the aggressive and bloodthirsty violence shown by Gilgamesh. Here we have heads and other bodies parts flying through the air, and a high slaughter rate.

The villain of the piece, the supposedly devilish Timewyrm, feels rather unthreatening. For the course of the novel she remains in one temple, able to control the minds of only a few people, and though she is building a device to take over the minds of the peoples of the world, she is far from completing it by the novels end. There is of course a twist at the end: it is only through The Doctor’s interfering that the Timewyrm is created; if he had left her alone Ishtar would not have become this more aggressive creature, and the whole of history and the life of the universe would not come under threat. Sadly John Peel’s story does not focus on this far-more interesting dilemma, but instead returns to the puerile teenage jokes.

It is also a novel full of many gaping plot holes: if the aliens hiding in the volcano have craft which can fly hundreds of miles, why do they need a boat? Why do they so readily help when moments before they were plotting destruction of their own? And these are just some of the plot holes I picked up in one chapter! Timewyrm: Gensys then (with that horrible and unnecessary misspelling of Genesis) is a deeply flawed and poor beginning for what is, I am told, a much more successful range of novels. Having read the first fifty pages of the next novel I can already see a marked improvement. Reading them I am not expecting great literature or depth of thought, but I am expecting a story well told, and though Gensys has flashes of thought and flashes of a well told story, it is overall a weak beginning.

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