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Deception and delusion…reading My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

My Cousin RachelSince beginning In my good books… Daphne du Maurier has been something of a discovery for me. I’d never read anything by du Maurier until a couple of years ago. Since then I have read Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and now My Cousin Rachel. Du Maurier is certainly a master of the mystery genre and crafts suspense, fear and foreboding with an expert hand. When I chose to read My Cousin Rachel I anticipated a well-plotted narrative, with thrilling characters and chilling intrigue…I was not disappointed.

My Cousin Rachel is perhaps not as fearsome as Jamaica Inn and maybe not as chilling as Rebecca, but it does have something special. The story is certainly a mysterious one and the eponymous Rachel presents an interesting heroine-villain. Du Maurier’s story is very much a psychological mystery. It deftly explores the themes of suspicion and fear and the ways in which these emotions drive and inhibit people.

As a reader we are always kept wondering…something du Maurier is adept at. We never quite know if her characters are suffering from My cousin racheldelusion and paranoia or whether their sinister suspicions will come to be founded. The book was published in 1951, although the story’s setting is a period one, taking place in the 19th century and (as in Jamaica Inn) the period and the rugged rural isolation of its Cornish setting provides My Cousin Rachel with a sort of eerie isolation. Du Maurier’s choice of this isolated setting perfectly complements the feelings of jealousy and resentment that her characters start to feel. Any intruders into the remote landscape are to be examined and their motives evaluated. This makes for a real psychological experiment and encourages you, the reader, to evaluate the characters motives and actions with a suspicion you may have otherwise disregarded.

my cousin rachelMy Cousin Rachel is also the first novel I have read by du Maurier which is narrated from a male perspective. Something of an Othello, her narrative voice is that of Philip Ashley, a young and somewhat naive young man who suddenly finds himself with far more power and responsibility than his life has prepared him for. Du Maurier also makes clever use of first-person narration, only allowing her readers to glimpse the world through Philip’s eyes. We are blinded by his jealousy and fears, and, as such, must judge the events transpiring with the eyes of a discerning detective – trying to piece together the truth from the somewhat distorted vision we are presented with.

Where Rachel herself is concerned she is always something of an enigma. We never quite get close enough to see her as she really is. The my cousin rachelreader’s vision is always distorted either by Philip’s emotions, Rachel’s conflicting actions, others’ opinions of her or, indeed, her very nature which seems to be to deflect and evade. Even at the novel’s conclusion the true character of Rachel hangs over the narrative like a giant pulsing question mark, what do we actually know about the enigmatic cousin Rachel?

I enjoyed reading My Cousin Rachel, its strong elements of intrigue and mystery certainly keep your interest peaked. As is usual with du Maurier, the writing style is simple and effective and the first-person narration is delivered with skill and careful manipulation.

My cousin rachelI know I will return to Daphne du Maurier as she has yet to disappoint me. I wholeheartedly recommend My Cousin Rachel, especially to those who have enjoyed du Maurier’s other books. A perfect mid-point between Rebecca and Jamaica InnMy Cousin Rachel strikes that ideal balance of an engaging plot, believable characters and plausible, evenly-spread mystery.

challenge 12I read My Cousin Rachel as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge‘ in the category of ‘Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction‘. This is my final book which completes my entry into the Classics Challenge – just by the skin of my teeth, I’ve made the deadline. I have thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge and feel it has really helped me to see my way through the year’s reading. There have been real highs and lows to my reading this year, from the highs of Love in a Cold Climate and my joyful re-reading of Pride and Prejudice  to a new-found favourite in North and South…I have also plummeted to the depths of despair in this year’s reading and teetered on the brink of defeat with If on a Winter’s Night a TravellerI have suffered indifference where The Great Gatsby is concerned and finally have rounded off my year with an enjoyable mystery. My year certainly proves to me that no writer or book can be all things to all men and that, as a reader, it is important to keep as open a mind as possible and take some risks, even though it is inevitable that not all will pay off.

I’m going to take a break from reading challenges now and read some of those books that have been piling up as I’ve striven to meet the requirements of the Classics Challenge. My first step into the uncategorized will be a book that has inhabited my bookshelf, unread, for far too long…Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.

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Filed under 20th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Daphne Du Maurier, Fiction, Novel

A mad hatter’s tea party of Dons and Dukes…reading Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.

I have been intending to read Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate for some time, way back last November I read The Pursuit of Love  – the first of Mitford’s three ‘companion novels’ – Love in a Cold Climate is the second of the three. The three novels are by no means sequels and are not written chronologically. In fact, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate run almost concurrently. Although the narrator is the same, Love in a Cold Climate tells a different story to The Pursuit of Love. Fanny Logan remains our constant, our narrator. In The Pursuit of Love Fanny tells the story of her cousin, Linda, and her quest to find love; whereas in Love in a Cold Climate Fanny tells the story of her friend Polly and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore.

Love, as ever, remains Mitford’s central theme…whether or not her characters find it is, indeed, another matter. In fact, Mitford’s novels are ostensibly about romantic love and the search for a spouse or lover, but it is her depiction of love in its other forms that is perhaps more insightful. Mitford has a real knack for capturing families, in particular the wealthy upper-class families that inhabit her stories. Even for someone far removed from such a society, the relationships Mitford draws are recognisable and parallels are easily drawn. Families, whatever their wealth or social status, are…families. There will always be disagreements, idiosyncracies, disappointments and love. It is these aspects of love that Mitford so lovingly portrays.

Love in a Cold Climate is a story about the difference between infatuation and love. Time, as ever, proves to be the test. The loves and longings we carry through adolescence are not the loves of the real world and Love in a Cold Climate shows this. It also shows that as we become older we learn to love in many different ways. Love, in Mitford’s novels, does not come in one simple form, but rather layers itself through the lives of her characters. Each of Mitford’s characters is touched by love, whether they are the object of it or not.

As with The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate holds many gems amongst its characters. The inimitable Uncle Matthew is still present, but I’ll spare you my ravings this time. Indeed, Love in a Cold Climate introduces us to other well-drawn, witty and comical characters. Cedric is a new addition, and an amusing one at that. His peculiar mix of pomposity and sincerity is initially confusing, but as you come to understand him better, and as he stands the test of loyalty and of time you come to appreciate Cedric. Reading Love in Cold Climate is certainly akin to  immersing oneself in a pool of gentrified eccentricity… a mad hatter’s tea party of Dons and Dukes… but to read it is also to bathe in the comforting world of family and its lifelong loves.

Nancy Mitford

I’ve enjoyed reading Love in a Cold Climate, although I would urge you to  read The Pursuit of Love first. The landscape of Love in a Cold Climate is much richer for having read The Pursuit of Love  and I think I would have found the novel far less enjoyable had I not done so. There is a final novel to complete the trio, The Blessing is Mitford’s end to the three ‘companion novels’ and I hold a secret (well, not-so-secret now) hope that it might tell the story of Fanny herself and that Mitford’s readers will be treated to the complete story of Fanny’s life and not just the tit-bits we scrabble to pick up through our reading of the first two novels. I intend to read it, although perhaps, not immediately. I’ll save it and indulge myself in the not too far distant future.

I’ve grown fond of Nancy Mitford and her characters. They allow a snapshot into another world, a world of aristocracy and wealth. It’s easy to imagine that Mitford’s readers could come to resent the characters they find on her pages, but no, there is something so endearing and loveable about the way Mitford depicts them that it’d be hard not to love them. In particular, Fanny, and  her cousins the Radletts, whose wacky way of life and quirky wit quickly cause you to develop a fond attachment to them. You don’t forget them in a hurry and returning to read about them again after months apart was very much like stepping into a room of extended family who you have not seen for a while…faults and foibles abound, but it is these very things which you soon come to love.

“You’ve no idea how long life goes on and how many, many changes it brings. Young people seem to imagine that it’s over in a flash, that they do this thing, or that thing, and then die, but I can assure you they are quite wrong.”

Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

I read Love in a Cold Climate as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ in the category of ‘Classic Romance’. I move on to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller  by Italo Calvino

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Filed under 20th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Fiction, Nancy Mitford, Novel

History and storytelling at their very best…reading Courtiers by Lucy Worsley.

Dear Lucy Worsley,

 I like your book.

from Me x

Well, I’m at the half-way-point of Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court and am I happy to report that I am thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve never read a book quite like Worsley’s before, indeed, I am rather at a loss to decide exactly what genre if falls into; basic logic confers that it is a factual and not fictional book, although it is not written in the style one might expect of a non-fiction book about the Georgian period. My local library catalogue categorises it as ‘history’ and concerned with ‘Kensington Palace’ and ‘Great Britain Kings and Rulers’, and, whilst these descriptions are indeed accurate – Courtiers is so much more than this. Worsley writes in the third person, yet she thoroughly succeeds in making her readers feel as though they are amidst her ‘characters’, you are very much present in the world her book inhabits. You watch the Women of the Bedchamber as they go about Queen Caroline’s toilette…you stand close-by as the quirky and downright odd characters arrive for balls at the royal palaces…and you observe the King as he makes his way to the chambers of his mistress. Make no mistake, Worsley is not just an excellent historian, she is a great storyteller.

Indeed, to me, the book seems to revive and revitalise the age-old art of historical storytelling. Worsley introduces her readers to the goings-on of the Georgian court through a variety of people who lived amongst it. No, not just the Kings, Queens and court nobles. Courtiers allows you to explore the Georgian courts through the eyes and ears of ordinary (and also extraordinary) people. Worsley takes her inspiration from William Kent’s painting on the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace in which Kent painted a great many servants and people from the royal household and court; this leaves us, today, with a very real snapshot of the faces and attire of the  people (from every class) who walked the floors of the palace during the Georgian era. Of course, many of their identities have since been lost or misconstrued, but Worsley’s skill as a historian ensures that her book is well researched and saturated with a plethora of information from a broad range of historical sources.

Courtiers is a skillfully told and lovingly researched window into a world few got to glimpse; and it’s entertaining. A real treat. The author’s obvious enjoyment and delight in the world of her book is apparent on every page. How can you not become swept up when faced with Worsley’s ardent enthusiasm and obvious pleasure? Indeed, I chose to read Courtiers because of a general interest in the period, but now I fully intend to search out more of Worsley’s books – whatever their historical setting – purely because of her genuine talent for storytelling and her earnest passion for days gone by.

As for the second half of Courtiers, well, I hope I don’t read it too quickly. I suspect I shall miss it when I’ve finished.

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Lucy Worsley, Non-fiction

The more I read of literature, the more I am dissatisfied with it.

Long time, no blog. I know. Unfortunately I seem to be having something of an existential crisis at present. Not on behalf of my own life, thank goodness, but rather on behalf of my blog. ‘In my good books’ I named it, although I have to say I’m beginning to think that ‘In my boring books’ might have been more accurate. I set out to read books that others had hailed as ‘classics’ and have, for the most part, been a little disappointed and a lot uninspired. I love reading, I chose to study English at Uni because of this love. I had anticipated, therefore, that beginning this blog and undertaking to read more ‘classic’ books would be something of a treat, lately, at least, it hasn’t been. I seem to be reading less and less as time passes.

Since the low point of Madame Bovary, I seem to have got rather stuck in a rut. I have not found any new characters, especially heroines to aspire to or admire. I had assumed that there were a few more Elizabeth Bennets out there but am beginning to conceive that perhaps she is, after all, a flower amongst weeds in the garden of literary heroines. One thing that this blog is at least affirming to me is my love of my old favourites. I am gaining a greater insight into what exactly it is I love about the books I have cherished for so many years. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example. Previously I’d thought that it owed a great deal of its charm to the period in which it is set and the manners of the time, although having read Middlemarch I am not so sure. No, I think, where my love affair with Pride and Prejudice is concerned, it is not the period that makes it for me, or even, shock horror, Mr Darcy…it is Elizabeth. If there’s anything I love about that book it has to be her. Sure she has her faults…pride and prejudice are not the reserves of Mr Darcy, but her wit and vivacity (as Mr Collins puts it) are in my reading so far unparalleled.

Now, where the book I am currently dawdling through is concerned…where to begin. The Catcher in the Rye does not seem to be a bad book, although it is, for me, not the holy grail of literature. I haven’t finished it yet, so am aware that I am in no way fit to pass comment, but I have certainly developed a general air of apathy where reading this book is concerned. Thus far my reading of it has only commenced on trains, not a good sign. Instead, in the evening, I find myself drawn to the charms of sweeping….Minesweeping, that is; and can now boast the richest Sim I’ve ever played. Yes, it is that modern trapping, the computer game, that has robbed Salinger of my perusal. The Catcher in the Rye is by no means a doorstop of a book, in fact, compared to the likes of Middlemarch it is but a minnow in the pool. In fact, if I felt so inclined, I could probably sit down and read the whole thing in a couple of hours; and perhaps that is the way I’ll have to go. Maybe the quick short burst, like the ripping off of a plaster, will be my solution for The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe by the end of it I’ll even find I enjoy the sensation. But finishing it is not my main concern at present. It can be done, if I set my mind to it. No, what concerns me is my need to rip off the plaster and read in such a forced fashion. I’ve only encountered this sort of reading when studying academic texts and course books when revising. This is not the way I would choose to read for pleasure, as it confers little pleasure at all.

But how to solve the problem? The answer seems clear, read better books. But how to find them? I am, after all, currently reading my way through texts that have, for years, been ranked amongst the best. The pinnacle of literature. If they are not satisfying then where to turn next evades me. I’m not even so fussed when it comes to plot, all I want, as I’ve said from the start, is a heroine to be proud of. To be honest, even a hero would suffice. The perfect escapism, for me, is to wander into the life of a character I admire, to view the world as they do and to learn of worlds different to my own through their eyes; but where to find these characters? Again, I turn to the wisdom of Elizabeth Bennet, ‘The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense’. Perhaps I just need to be grateful that I have found books that I do love, and be content with the pleasure I have had in reading them.

What about  In my good books…? Well, I will trudge on, turning pages, scouring for that heroine to be proud of. After all, hope flames eternal…perhaps there is another Lizzie out there, skulking amongst the dross of boring characters, waiting to be discovered and truly loved. I just wish my course to find her would run a little  smoother.

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