Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Memoirs of Cleopatra (Margaret George)

--The blurb--
"The story of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. This saga of ambition, power and passion is told in the first person, from the queen's earliest memories of her father's tenuous rule to her own reign over one of the most glittering kingdoms in the world."

--The review--
The story of Cleopatra is a tale that has held the general public for generations, not only through Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" but also through the medium of film in particular. Margaret George addresses what most would consider an insurmountable task in documenting a fictionalised (though heavily based on deep research) version of Cleopatra's entire life, from that as a child ruler to the moment of her death. The result is over a thousand pages long, and yet despite this it is not difficult to read. It is written in accessible language and yet pays suitable homage to the rollercoaster of facts and emotions.

The author has clearly undertaken considerable research in order to bring this magnum opus to completion, but it is not only George's manipulation of facts that make this novel a success: it is her ability to 'become' Cleopatra and express appropriate emotions so vividly, allowing the reader to vicariously experience the same. This, perhaps inevitably, means that the novel is (intentionally) biased, and I would be interested to see an effort from George on the life of Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), Cleopatra's rival, in order to consider a picture of this time of history in even greater depth.

The novel also does not fall into the perhaps obvious trap of being a narcissistic portrait of the Queen of the Nile. It is realistic, acknowledges flaws, and besides this, has the quality of making the reader feel equally deeply for Cleopatra's children and aides, who all have very real personalities that George has successfully fleshed out from the available facts. Plot and character are not the author's only talents: rather than riding the novel out on the magnificent story alone, George writes incredibly well, introducing vividness with all five senses and in every conceivable scenario, whether Cleopatra is giving birth, riding on a boat through foetid marshes or surrounded by the splendour of her palatial home. Despite the novel's length, the reader is able to simply float through the story and relish in the high-quality prose: it is in no way a chore.

Interestingly, despite these admirable and positive qualities in George's writing, her work is little-known in Britain, with readers turning instead to the works of Philippa Gregory and Robert Harris. While the great British public's devotion to these novelists is not without good reason, it seems a shame for George's work to be so underrated. However, since she will soon be releasing a novel based on the latter part of the life of Elizabeth I, Britain's fascination for all things Tudor could mean that this is George's big British break. Better late than never.

Other works by Margaret George
The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers (1986)
Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (1992)
Mary, Called Magdalene (2002)
Helen of Troy (2006)

A Winter's Tale (Trisha Ashley)

--The blurb--
"A charming romantic comedy about a hard-up single mum inheriting a stately home - and a host of headaches. The perfect novel for curling up with during the long winter nights. Sophy Winter is not your typical Lady of the Manor. When she unexpectedly inherits Winter's End - a crumbling mansion in the beautiful Lancashire countryside - it seems like all her prayers have been answered. She eagerly swaps life as an impoverished housekeeper in favour of her own team of staff. But Sophy quickly realises the challenge on her hands - the house is decrepit and its eccentric inhabitants are a nightmare. And once it is discovered that Winter's End played host to a young Shakespeare, the entire village of Sticklepond becomes curious about Sophy's plans, especially charming Jack Lewis. But is he really smitten by Sophy, or her newly-acquired cash? Meanwhile, Sophy's gorgeous head gardener Seth is the strong and silent type. But does his passion bloom for anything beyond the horticultural? As Sophy gets to grips with squabbling relatives, collapsing buildings and the ghostly presence of one of her ancestors, she wonders if Winter's End is not so much a gift from the gods as a mixed blessing. ..A charming romantic comedy for fans of Katie Fforde and Jill Mansell - guaranteed to thaw the coldest of hearts!"
blurb from

--The review--
Given to me as a Christmas gift due to the tenuous Shakespeare connection, I was concerned from the outset that I would not enjoy this piece of obvious 'chick lit' from this author who was unknown to me. However, the inaccuracy of my own prejudice soon combined curiously with the accuracy of a first impression. The main character, Sophy, was unconvincing: her first-person narrative was littered with ill-aimed humour about trying to keep off the extra pounds, which didn't seem to come very naturally in keeping with the rest of the writing, and the idea of the woman who apparently couldn't keep her brain out of her knickers (without even any well-written sex scenes to compensate) was not only irritating but a generally weak and lazy plot device. Ashley also allows the villain of the piece to escape far too easily with little comeuppance, which smacks of the author's impatience to finish the novel, which is never preferable to a desire to finish a piece of work well. However, this feeble characterisation (and the equally dubious characterisation of Seth) thankfully did not preclude engagement with other characters in the novel, such as Alys and Lucy. The novel would have been a far more valuable addition to the chick-lit canon without the frankly silly attempts at romance et al.

This all begs the question of what on earth kept me reading this book to the end. It is indeed comfort food for the brain, with some well-drawn characters and a suitably picturesque setting. However, where Ashley really comes into her own is where the plot is concerned: apart from the villain's escape from justice, the threads of the novel's plot generally tie together well, with thoughtful and yet still accessible links with Shakespeare and his work as a sort of bonus. The running of stately homes is well-researched without enough detail to bore the reader; the set-up, romance aside, nicely combines realism with escapism. It is also, perhaps needless to say, easy to read: vocabulary and syntax meant that I raced through it. Ashley also shows rare glimmers of excellence in her writing skills, such as using 'spectral coral' as a simile, which lit up the otherwise cosy writing.

While my virginal experience with Trisha Ashley's work would have been much improved with the absence of clumsy attempts to 'connect' with the author's alleged audience, this was not an entirely joyless experience - which, I suspect, was the main aim after all.

Other works by Trisha Ashley
Good Husband Material (2000)
Every Woman For Herself (2002)
The Urge to Jump (2002)
Singled Out (2003)
The Generous Gardener (2004)
Sweet Nothings (2007)
Lord Rayven's Revenge (2008)
Sowing Secrets (2008)
Happy Endings (2008)

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Les choses (Georges Perec)

--The blurb--
"Jerome and Sylvie, the young, upwardly mobile couple in Things, lust for the good life. They wanted life's enjoyment, but all around them enjoyment was equated with ownership. Surrounded by Paris's tantalizingly exclusive boutiques, they exist in a paralyzing vacuum of frustration, caught between the fantasy of "the film they would have liked to live" and the reality of life's daily mundanities. In direct contrast to Jerome and Sylvie's cravings, the nameless student in A Man Asleep attempts to purify himself entirely of material desires and ambition. He longs "to want nothing. Just to wait, until there is nothing left to wait for. Just to wander, and to sleep. Yearning to exist on neutral ground as "a blessed parenthesis," he discovers that this wish is by its very nature a defeat."
blurb from Barnes & Noble

--The review--
I read this in the original French, but it is also available in translation in several languages, including English. "Things" is often sold in the same package as "A Man Asleep", although they are very different novels. The writing style is immediately arresting: the novel barely seems to be about anything, and yet as Perec's rich description flows, it somehow becomes about something, even though there is very little actually taking place. Consumerism and, as suggested by the title, 'things' and materialism all take centre stage along with Sylvie and Jerome's greed and melancholy perspective. It is reminiscent in some ways of the paradox presented by the main character of George Orwell's "Keep the Aspidistra Flying", who aspires after wealth but simultaneously revels in poverty.

Empathy with the characters doesn't seem to be one of Perec's main aims, in a detached Camus-esque fashion. Because the aim is made clear from the outset in the equally aloof style of writing, where things are the immediate focus rather than people, this doesn't prove a negative aspect of the novel. However, the languorous style doesn't mean that Perec is short of surprises: even a novel about nothing has an event to disrupt the tale's previous state of equilibrium, it seems, and yet it seems an appropriate end to the novel. While in many ways it is about 'nothing', it addresses contemporary problems (which, curiously, are still contemporary, despite this novel being written in the 1960s) in a captivating style, largely driven by the momentum of the lives of two ordinary, flawed people. A highly recommended work by an author who should be far better known outside France.

Other works by Georges Perec
Which Moped With Chrome-Plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? (1966)
A Man Asleep (1967)
A Void (1969)
The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex (1972)
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974)
W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975)
Life: A User's Manual (1978)
A Gallery Portrait (1979)
Ellis Island and the People of America (1980)
53 Days (1989)
The Winter Journey (1993)

*For the interest of my Anglophone readers, this is a list of works that have been translated only; there are other Perec works which are not available in English.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)

--The blurb--
"Great Expectations opens unforgettably in a twilit and overgrown churchyard on the eerie Kent marshes. There the orphan Pip is disturbed to meet an escaped convict, Magwitch, but gives him food, in an encounter that is to haunt both their lives. How Pip receives riches from a mysterious benefactor, snobbishly abandons his friends for London society and 'great expectations', and grows through misfortune and suffering to maturity is the theme of one of Dicken's best-loved novels. In Great Expectations Dickens blends gripping drama with penetrating satire to give a compelling story rich in comedy and pathos: he has also created two of his finest, most haunting characters in Pip and Miss Havisham."
blurb from

--The review--
As someone who studied English at university, I should have arguably read this before now. However, my first acquaintance with Dickens in Bleak House (which was part of my studies) was perhaps not the best start: it is long and intimidating, although there is a good story underneath, and so plucking up the inclination to go near another Dickens creation took some time. Reading Dickens can still be, I've found, like wading through treacle: it isn't concise and would probably be sent back by a modern-day editor with lots of red pen on it. However, occasionally through the treacle Dickens manages to cut like a knife with well-chosen words, a breathtaking passage of description, or with a touch of sardonic wit, so the prose is perhaps worth savouring for these hidden gems alone, although it can be hard work.

Dickens' mastery of imagery is as clear here as in his other works, and he illuminates a variety of different settings wonderfully, from the slush of central London to the misty marshes. Equally, the characters were easy to visualise, and the unusual ones, such as Miss Havisham, are what make the book what it is. However, I found it difficult to empathise with any of the characters, or form any real connection with or feeling for them (even along negative lines), which is rarely a good sign. My motivation to continue reading was more out of the effort already expended rather than out of any genuine desire to discover the characters' fates. Perhaps more crucially, unlike other Dickens novels such as Bleak House or A Christmas Carol, where the story makes it worth wading through the prose's treacle, the storyline of Great Expectations seemed to me to be implausible in an otherwise plausible context, and too much effort was made to link the story to the title, to the point of seeming unnatural.

Unusually, I found the contextual information provided with my edition of the novel to be most illuminating: reading the alternative ending proved fascinating, for instance. It is also worth bearing in mind that Dickens wrote originally in serials for newspaper audiences, so the style required for this purpose may not carry over so well to a full-length novel, in much the same way as Jeremy Clarkson's columns are funny in the Times every Sunday, but more wearying when they appear as aggregated collections in his books. In this format, then, the story would perhaps be more enjoyable, although the plot is complicated in places, particularly concerning the connections between some of the characters, so a serialised format may make these more difficult to follow, rather than less.

Dickens' mastery of description only compounded my disappointment with Great Expectations: it almost seemed a shame to only enjoy it for this, without any enthusiasm for the plot or its characters. While enjoyability is subjective, I would perhaps steer interested readers in the direction of Oliver Twist, for example, for a more vibrant cast of characters and overall more satisfying read.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Coming soon this December...

Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
Les choses (Georges Perec)
The Memoirs of Cleopatra (Margaret George)
A Winter's Tale (Trisha Ashley)