Montreal, Quebec, Canada | Member Since 2015
In this great classic of English literature, our boy Pip tells the tale of how he came to have "Great Expectations" from what appears to be a series of most unlikely circumstances. One late afternoon on Christmas eve, as he is visiting the graves of his mother, father and five little brothers, a dangerous escaped convict appears on the scene and bullies our boy into promising he'll come back the next morning to bring 'wittles'—or food to eat—and a file so he can free himself of his leg irons, on the threat that if Pip doesn't do as he's told, an associate, much crueller than he will stalk him down and get at his heart and liver. Scared out of his wits, Pip complies by stealing food from his sister "Mrs Joe"'s pantry. The convict is satisfied with the offerings and lets him go, though Pip is weighed down by a heavy conscience. Not very long after in chapter seven, Pip is summoned to Miss Havisham's, a rich and eccentric old recluse, to play with her niece Estella who is close to Pip's age, a haughty girl, though very pretty. The old lady encourages her charge to become a heartbreaker and even as the girl mocks Pip, calling him "a common, labouring boy" and making fun of his lack of refinement and general appearance "He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy! And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!" the old woman prods Pip repeatedly to find out what he thinks of Estella. Pip can't help himself from falling hopelessly in love with her and from that moment on, becomes more disdainful than ever of his unrefined background and of Joe in particular, a blacksmith to whom Pip is fated to be indentured as an apprentice.
By chapter eighteen, Pip is in the fourth year of his apprenticeship to Joe when they are both approached at the local pub by Mr Jaggers, a lawyer who tells Joe he has an offer to make which will greatly benefit the boy, and asks the blacksmith if he is willing to release Pip of his indenture for "the communication I have got to make is, that he has Great Expectations. I am instructed to communicate to him, that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman,—in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations." The only condition being that he must always keep his name, Pip, and that his benefactor's name is to remain a secret until that person chooses to reveal it. Once he has been properly outfitted with new clothes, Pip then moves to London and is taught how to behave like a gentleman. Throughout, even as Pip gains a whole new circle of friends and acquaintances, misbehaves and accumulates enormous debt which even his steady large income can't cover, Estella is never far from our boy's mind. He assumes his benefactor to be Miss Havisham and that she has in mind to mould him into an acceptable husband for the love of his life. But as we are only at chapter 34 at that point (out of 59) and that Dickens wouldn't be Dickens if his stories were anything less than epic sagas, and that his fiction, in imitation of life thrives on many twists of fate, it's fair to assume that things are unlikely to turn out as Pip's—or the reader’s—imagination would have it.
I can't help myself from making a bad play on the title, so I'll go ahead and say that I had Great Expectations about this novel, and that as these things go, I was not wholly satisfied on that count. Although Pip goes through inevitable transformations as he grows up, for the better part of the novel he is a proud boy who thinks himself better than most, and certainly than the people he has been brought up with. One of his greatest offences to my mind is the shame and abhorrence in which he holds Joe once he has come in contact with Miss Havisham and Estella. Joe is one of my favourite characters in the story; he's a good man of great simplicity with a big heart, and is probably one of Pip's most dedicated friends, yet Pip feels ashamed of him and neglects him completely over the years even though he knows better. I thought his supposed great love for Estella was puerile, acceptable when he is a child and is more or less manipulated into it, but the fact that he then uses his unrequited love for her as a reason to remake himself in an image he thinks she will approve of, when he knows her own character is wanting, was truly sad and pathetic to me. Because most of Dickens' novels were first published in serialized form (probably one chapter at a time) the author had good reason to keep the story going for as long as was decently possible. Even though I kept this firmly in mind, there were many times while I listened to this audiobook version (very well narrated by Simon Vance) that I grew impatient with the lengths and detours through which Dickens takes us. But there were also moments when I was completely taken with Dickens' great skill as a storyteller and his fine observation of human nature, which are always accompanied by a fine and subtle irony and humour.
John is an Englishman who has spent years travelling to France to learn of its history and language, going back to England to teach about his favourite subject at university for his day job. One day while on vacation, he chances to meet a man who looks exactly like him, a Frenchman called Jean. The likeness is uncanny and the other man offers him to share some drinks. After a night of heavy drinking in a hotel room exchanging confidences, John wakes up the next day dressed in the Frenchman's clothes with the man's suitcase there instead of his own, and not a single of his own belongings or identity papers left behind to prove he is anyone else than the Comte Jean de Gué. It becomes amply clear when this man's driver arrives and tells him he's probably had too much to drink after John tries to tell him what has happened, that he won't convince anyone that he is not in fact the Comte. His French is perfect, and for some reason, seeing himself in a mirror wearing the other man's clothes, he discovers the illusion is faultless; he stands a little bit more erect and even finds himself smiling and talking like his doppelgänger, so he decides there is no choice but to go along and play the role he's been stuck with, and lets the driver bring him to Jean de Gué's château to meet the other man's family. Jean had told him he yearned to have a simpler life, with less commitments and fewer belongings, while John felt he'd failed at his own life, and now is a chance to try something else altogether.
Soon John finds himself enmeshed in a complicated web of lies and intrigues, with a grand house full of women and various strangers, most of whom seem angry at him. And then there is a great big beastly woman upstairs he is astounded to find looks like himself but in drag with a huge amount of flesh added on; Jean's mother, which he can't help but call 'maman' and feel real affection for. Nobody takes him seriously when he tells them outright he is not Jean, but an Englishman called John, and that the real Jean has made off with his clothes and his car; they all dismiss his story as yet another one of Jean's pranks, or a consequence of too much drink. Instead a man angrily demands how the trip to Paris went and whether he's gotten the papers signed. John slowly untangles the mystery, starting with figuring out who the various individuals are, what Jean was meant to do in Paris, why everyone is angry with him, and then, taking a liking to the man's various family members and employees despite their faults of character, trying to improve everyone's life and atone for Jean's shortcomings, bumbling along all the while.
There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy this novel as fully as I did. After all, how is it possible that the man's own family, even his own mother and daughter, not recognize that something isn't quite right here? Can John's accent be truly so faultless? Can't they 'see' these are two completely different personalities? But this character-driven story about identity and how one man views another through the eyes of others, and then tries to improve him according to his own set of very different principles, proved to be a fascinating journey. Highly recommended.
When Margaret Prior accepts to become a 'Lady Visitor' at Millbank Prison in London, she is far from suspecting what tangled skeins await her in the endless corridors of the dank and cold prison, with it's wing holding women prisoners who are there for crimes as diverse as attempted suicide, infanticide, arson, petty theft, and fraud. Recovering from an undefined nervous illness brought on by the grief following the death of her father, she believes this will be a worthwhile occupation to fill her time away from home and her overbearing mother, and will bring much-needed relief to the women prisoners who are living in deplorable conditions in the jail, where the emphasis, typical of the times, is on punishment. Her presence gives the prisoners a rare opportunity in the day to speak to someone, for they are expected to be silent at all times otherwise, and it gives them a small break in their continual chores, as well as a chance for some empathy from a stranger rather than the harsh treatment they can expect from the prison matrons who seem to delight in taunting them continually.
Margaret is only interested in listening to the women speak of their experiences and describe their crimes rather than giving pious sermons to the women, as other lady visitors tend to do, and she is taken by the matrons around the jail to see how it is run, which allows the reader to get a comprehensive view of how things stood for women prisoners in 1874. It is rather obvious that Waters did thorough research for the novel and the details are many and quite striking. She writes beautifully and sets the mood perfectly so that one is carried along fascinating scenery in expectation of events to come. To some readers these scenes might seem too prolonged, but I found the details fascinating and as I listened to the audio version beautifully narrated by Juanita McMahon, was all too happy to be carried along the story at a deliberately observant pace.
When Margaret first sees Selina Dawes alone in her cell with her pale face turned to the sun, her attention is arrested. Selina is holding a violet, which she can't possibly have obtained from within the prison, so that its very presence there seems almost miraculous. Selina herself has a delicate and mysterious beauty, and soon Margaret visits her regularly and learns she is a spirit medium who is continually in contact with ghosts. Selina claims the ghosts bring her gifts, such as that violet Margaret saw her with. Furthermore, she says they can spirit her out of the jail anytime they wish to, but that they have a purpose for having sent her there, and soon it emerges that the purpose is for Margaret and Selina to have come together, for they are each other's Affinity.
But this is no simple lesbian romance story. And if one is patient enough and can enjoy the journey, the novel becomes a suspenseful ride which is impossible to put down in the second half and promises a big reveal in the end.
A young apprentice clockmaker is morose and desperate as he sits in Glockenheim's White Horse tavern on the last day of his apprenticeship; he has not been able to deliver a clock figure as all apprentices over the ages have done before him and his reputation is about to be ruined and he shares his despair with the town's storyteller, young Fritz. Fritz assures him that his difficulties are nothing compared to the hardships of creating stories, as he is expected to tell the townfolk gathered there his latest story in a few minutes, and though he has a new tale to tell them, he hasn't managed to write an ending for it in the night, but must somehow invent it as he goes along. And so begins a fantastic dark tale featuring a prince and princess and a dark forest and a suspicious ghastly death which features a mysterious character... who very suddenly appears in the tavern as Fritz introduces him in his storytelling and offers the apprentice a Faustian pact which promises to solve all his problems and bring him great fame and wealth, but will also put the lives of two innocent children in mortal danger. A wonderful tale in the tradition of the best Germanic storytellers of old such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm, this is a tightly paced novella. Wonderfully narrated by Anton Lesser.
When Vianne Rocher, the beautiful and unattached mother of little Anouk Rocher arrives on a changing wind just at the tail-end of a carnival in Lansquenet and decides to open a charming little chocolate and sweets shop right across from the church, she immediately splits the little town into two factions. She manages to both delight some of the locals and children with her sublime and delicious handmade confections and generous offers of free milk chocolate and enrages Père Reynaud and his virtuous followers who are set to deny themselves all guilty pleasures during the lent season, now just begun. Then, worse still, some gypsies arrive on their boats and while a group of upstanding citizens (once again headed by Reynaud and his minions) are prepared to repel the strangers from their safe harbour and deny them all service, Vianne further inflames those opposed to her strange free-spirited ways by inviting them into her shop and facilitating their stay.
At the heart of the novel is a conflict between the rigorous organized religious zealots and the accepting open-minded and perhaps witch-like roaming spirits like Vianne and her travelling friends; between scrupulous self-denial in the name of a higher moral calling versus indulgence in the good things as a way of celebrating life's and nature's bounties. But beyond all that, it's a wonderful story about people and how they interact with one another, and about how magic can be made with some quality cocoa beans and the right amount of cream and sugar. Delightful, and all the more so in this audio format as narrated by the wonderful Juliet Stevenson.
Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we've come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita's father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.
Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita's jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.
I haven't yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I've read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.
This book picks up 15 years after King Charles II has restored Robert Merivel to his former grand house, Bidnold, in Norfolk. Both the King and Merivel, as well as his faithful servant Will Gates, are aging; Merivel is now 56 and his daughter Margaret has grown into a graceful beauty whom he is very attached to. When their neighbours propose to take her away with them to Cornwall for a time, the notion of this separation depresses Merivel so much that the King suggests Merivel set out to Versailles for a change of air, and to seek the patronage of his cousin Louis XIV as one of his court doctors. But when Merivel arrives at the French palace, he is discouraged to find his letter from King Charles does not help to discern him from the masses of supplicants equally looking from favour from the the Sun King, and he is obliged to share a garret with a Dutch clockmaker and subside on a diet of peas and jam, with drinking water supplied from the public water fountains, and to add insult to injury, he also has to put up with ridicule from the courtiers who find his clothes and accessories aren't up to the latest standards of Versailles fads.
Things start looking up when he meets with a Swiss beauty called Louise de Flamanville who proposes to bring him to a couturier to outfit him with the necessary bows and ribbons. She happens to dabble in chemical experiments and quickly takes on Merivel as her lover, until her wrathful husband, a homosexual guardsman, eventually provokes him into a duel. Later on, Merivel is forced to make a choice which reminds him too much of the past in the form of a marriage of convenience which is to bring him great wealth and splendour, but that choice has led him down the wrong path once before, making him indebted forever, and he had promised himself not to repeat that mistake again.
Instead, he rescues a captive bear from certain death, which is later christened Clarendon by the King, and brings him back to Bidnold. Now Merivel hopes to make something of his life by starting work on a treatise inspired to him by Clarendon, and which seeks to prove that animals have souls, which of course, he eventually abandons. Clarendon himself comes to a bad end, first escaping his pen, then pursued by the angry countrymen who's animals the bear has eaten during his escape, he is eventually caught and put to death, then cut into pieces to be eaten in equal shares among the country folk.
Merivel's daughter Margaret almost dies from Typhoid fever, but is brought back home in time, and through his attentive care, he manages to rescue her, only to be discouraged by the the fact that King Charles has taken an interest in her during her recovery. Would the King actually betray him, his most valiant and loyal supporter, by ruining his daughter's reputation? When the King asks Margaret to join his household as lady in waiting to his favourite mistress, Merivel is in no position to refuse. Life is certainly never dull in Merivel's world, though it is fraught with many risks.
When we initially met Robert Merivel in Restoration, the first novel, it was clear he was a misguided man with a melancholy disposition, but also an essentially a good person with a good heart who seeks to enjoy life to the utmost, at the risk of making terrible blunders which were comical to the reader. By this second novel, he's become that much more reflective, and he has his notebooks from the past which his faithful Will has preserved for him to look back on and to measure his progress up against. He knows that both he and his King don't have much longer to live and that he is at the end of an era, so his overall tone can't help but be that much more melancholy as he reflects on mortality, yet he seems that much more human for it too.
Very highly recommended, but must be read in sequence following Restoration.
This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the west) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the east) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other "outsiders" to take over power.
Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as "Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows," Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin's great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth, and seems just as taken with Thurstan, who finds his love for her has not abated over the years.
Further complicating matters, we learn early on that Thurstan's most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia's return on the scene, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naivety and youth show he has yet much to learn, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.
A jewel of a book which I can't wait to listen to again to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed the first time. I also loved Andrew Sachs' narration in this audio version.
The grandson of that famous other Freud, Sigmund, Lucian Freud became one of the most famous artists of the late 20th and early 21st century while fiercely resisting any sort of public exposure, including having his photos taken or giving interviews for most of his lifetime. Geordie Greig contrived after years of repeated efforts and conniving to secure a series of breakfast interviews with the notoriously monomaniacal artist, and also interviewed friends, former lovers and models after Freud had passed away in 2011; only at that point were they willing to break the vow of silence they had kept, which they weren't willing to breach before, even if Freud had acted in outrageous ways toward them, because somehow under the influence of the immense charm and influence he had exerted on them. Freud had not been above employing thugs to threaten journalists and reporters who had been working on biographies of him, so fear of his wrath was as effective a silencer as the rest.
His tremendous talent and the one passion which guided his whole life and to which all sacrifices were made was his art, which eventually evolved to his signature paintings of nude models, often of friends and his family, including his own children, or of people he met who were willing to pose for him over many months and for sessions lasting very long hours. As a person he seemed to have more disturbing faults than can be enumerated, and as a father probably sent all his children into lifelong therapy (my own conjecture only). His other singular passion was sex, which he reportedly indulged in as frequently as he could with little regard for convention, and consequently, of children, he had fourteen recognized daughters and sons, two from his first wife and 12 from various mistresses, but none of them ever had much contact with him; he gave everything he had to his art and then some, always seeking to perfect himself in that single sphere of life, which ended up paying him back handsomely in the literal sense of the word. Love him and his work or hate him, he was a fascinating character, very well read and full of culture and stories. This book, both gossipy and filled with interesting tidbits and background information about some of his most well-known paintings, is a real treasure-trove and also a great treat in the audio format as narrated by John Standing, an actor and an aristocrat who might very well have been among the kind of people Freud himself would have happily associated with in his long and fruitful lifetime.
I borrowed the print edition from the library to see what I may have missed, suspecting it was probably illustrated with many of the paintings mentioned in the text and featuring pictures as well, and that is indeed the case, so I'd say both audio and book are worth getting your hands on.
Fiona Maye is a British judge assigned to child welfare cases. One of her more recent cases has involved deciding against the parents of conjoined siamese twins who shared vital organs. One of the twins had chances of surviving if the twins were separated, while the other was sure to die. If they were not separated, both would have died. The parents wanted to let God and nature take their course. Fiona made the decision to let the stronger twin have a chance at life. Fiona's difficult professional life has had repercussions on her long-term marriage. Now nearing sixty, she no longer craves intimacy with her husband after all the accumulated stress. Her husband on the other hand decides what he needs is one last grand passion and wants to have his cake and eat it too, so tells Fiona he'd like to have an affair with a young woman, yet keep the marriage intact, which doesn't suit Fiona in the least.
Then another complicated case falls in her lap. A young Jehova's Witness, not yet eighteen years old, the age of medical consent in England, is urgently in need of blood transfusions. The hospital has made an appeal to the court, as without the transfusions, the leukemia he suffers from is bound to kill him in a painful way. Both the parents and Adam, the young man himself, are against the procedure on religious grounds, though the parents ultimately leave the choice in Adam's hands. For reasons she doesn't quite understand herself, Fiona feels compelled to make the trip to the hospital and meet Adam in person to see what should be done, and eventually persuades him to go through with the procedure. The consequences will have far-reaching consequences.
This was a very good book and ultimately seemed to me more about relationships and the impact individuals have upon each other than about medical and legal issues, which ultimately, was much more interesting to me. Excellent narration by Lindsay Duncan—I would gladly listen to more audiobooks read by her.
This isn't an actual review. More a comment to warn potential buyers that this audiobook is mislabelled as being "unabridged" and is actually cut approximately by half. The book is just over 300 pages and the corresponding audiobook should therefore be over 10 hours. I didn't notice the length when I purchased it, just got excited because I love Tim Pigott-Smith as a narrator, and he does indeed deliver a great performance here. But do yourself a favour and get your hands on the complete work because J. G. Farrell is a fabulous writer and the details in his novels are worth poring over.
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