“Dracula”: Book Review

I first read Dracula when I was studying towards my A-Levels; I wrote a paper comparing certain aspects of Robert Browning’s poems, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. During this time, I did enjoy reading the prolific gothic novel, yet, as I was studying it, I felt as though I might not have appreciated it as much as I could have done. So, I decided that it was time for a reread.

A Bit of Context

Dracula by Bram Stoker.jpg

TitleDracula.
Author: Bram Stoker.
Publication: 1897, ‎Archibald Constable and Company.
My Edition: 2008, Oneworld Classics.
Length: 354 pages.
Genre: Classic, Horror.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker was an Irish writer born in the mid-nineteenth century. His life was not particularly noteworthy until he moved to London to take over the management of Henry Irving’s theatre. This brought him into the midst of a growing literary society, home to writers such as Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Stoker’s first novel, The Snake’s Pass, was published in 1890, yet this, along with his earlier works, which consisted of short stories and children’s fiction, was very unsuccessful. His next novel was Dracula, yet this, too, was unpopular when it was first published. Then, towards the end of Stoker’s lifetime, the novel resurfaced in the literary world and, finally, Stoker was awarded the success that he deserved.

Since then, Dracula has never once been out of print, and is responsible for countless adaptations. It is one of the forefathers of the gothic genre and, as well as providing significant insights into contemporary attitudes towards sex, religion and globalisation, it makes a fantastic story.

Plot Overview

Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that, rather than consisting of one, long narrative, it is told through various letters and diary entries. This also means that the narrator of the story is constantly changing, which helps to break up this rather long novel. The story follows the experiences of seven primary characters: Jonathan Harker, John Seward, Professor Van Helsing, Quincey Morris, Lord Godalming, Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra.

It begins with Jonathan Harker, a legal clerk who has been sent to visit a foreign Count who is planning on moving to England. This Count, Dracula, is a very mysterious man, but Harker does not suspect him of anything sinister until he realises that Dracula has locked him inside of the castle – he is a prisoner. The Count, meanwhile, is crawling up and down the building wearing Harker’s clothes and pretending to be him as he sends letters and makes himself known in town.

There is a poison in my blood, in my soul, which may destroy me; which must destroy me, unless some relief comes to us  –  Dracula.

From this point onwards, the story follows the mysterious story of Count Dracula. He moves to England, as he planned, and, once there, he produces pure chaos. Wolves escape from zoos and mysterious bite marks begin to appear on sleeping women. I don’t want to give too much more away here, because, if you haven’t already read Dracula, I strongly recommend that you do read it, even if you do not ordinarily like the classics. It has become a strong influence for many modern books, from vampire-based books such as Twilight to the Harry Potter series. What I will say, though, is that the band of characters who I mentioned earlier form a sort of defence team who work together as they attempt to vanquish the vampire.

*** THE NEXT SECTION OF THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW, THEN I SUGGEST THAT YOU SKIP TO THE “MY CONCLUSION” SECTION OF THIS POST! ***

Going Deeper into the Novel…

In this section of my reviews, I like to choose a couple of themes from the book that I can discuss a little more thoroughly. This time, I would like to talk about women, and I would like to talk about life.

Women

There are two female characters in Dracula: Mina and Lucy. They are friends, but are very different kinds of women. Mina is obedient and loyal, always thinking of ways in which she can aid her husband. Lucy, meanwhile, is much more flirtatious; she receives three marriage proposals in one day, suggesting that she has led each man on, two of them under false pretences. She holds this power over her suitors, which reflects contemporary fears regarding ‘the new woman’, a powerful, independent woman who was not reliant on men.

Dracula - Annotations.jpgThese allusions to ‘the new woman’ are emphasised when Lucy is given vampiric powers. With these powers, she attacks young children, which demonstrates a clear rejection of her maternal instincts and the only role that was traditionally considered suitable for women – childcare.

Interestingly, though, it is not only Lucy who demonstrates these characteristics. From early on in Dracula, it is revealed that Mina is a very intelligent woman. She knows the train tables off by heart and even knows shorthand. This is not a threat to masculinity until later on, when Professor Van Helsing suggests that she has a “man-brain”. Both Lucy and Mina thus reflect the growing contemporary fear of female power. Whether women reject their maternal instincts and abuse men, or whether they find a way to outwit men, this is a new kind of woman.

Life

Dracula poses many questions about life, death and life after death. After all, we meet Renfield, one of the patients in Doctor Seward’s asylum, who is desperate to “consume” life. He begins by luring a large number of flies into his room, and then feeds them to his collection of spiders. He uses the spiders to tempt birds inside, and then he eats the birds (only because Seward refused him a cat).

It’s a brutal process that is repeated many times throughout the course of the novel. Yet it represents more than mere brutality; it represents the vampire race, and the idea of attacking people for their souls, blood or, in Renfield’s terms, “life”.

I don’t care for the pale people, I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers had all seemed to have run out. I didn’t think of it at the time, but when she went away I began to think, and it made me mad to know that He had been taking the life out of her  –  Dracula.

In contextual terms, this idea of stealing life relates both to science and religion. This is due to the links to euthanasia, which are emphasised when Mina asks the men if they will – if it comes to it – kill her. Science was progressing quite quickly during this period, and euthanasia had begun to be discussed more openly. It was a moral dilemma, and is one that is debated throughout Dracula. It must be said, though, that although Mina pleads for this action to be carried out, Stoker does seem to present euthanasia as a negative thing. After all, the Count causes his victims to want to be bitten, and perhaps to want to die, too. This may suggest that those seeking euthanasia can be easily manipulated. You see, we would not call Dracula’s actions euthanasia; we would call them murder.

My Conclusion

I could not be happier with my decision to reread Dracula. I enjoyed the novel the first time around when I had to read it, but, this time, I enjoyed it even more. The characters are so distinct that, what with their layered narratives, this novel feels much longer than it actually is. I also need to mention Stoker’s incredible descriptions. Dracula’s castle was made so real to me through his language; it was easy to see how a nineteenth-century reader would be afraid of the Count.

Dracula - Annotations2.jpgWhilst I personally did not feel this fear, the novel did evoke some strong emotions in me. I became excited as the tension grew, and disappointed whenever the group fighting Dracula met a pitfall. More than anything else, though, I was intrigued. Stoker’s world is so mesmerising – so distinct. Perhaps the two most interesting aspects of it are (a) the way that Mina is able to see into the mind of Dracula, which reminded me pointedly of the way, in the Harry Potter books, that Harry is able to look into the mind of Lord Voldemort, and (b) the vampire women, who are both sensual and destructive.

I could honestly continue to talk about Dracula for hours, but I have already written an essay about it, so I’ll hold off. Truly though, I can’t hide how special this book is, and how desperate I am to recommend it to anyone and everyone. If I had one critique, it would be that the book does seem a little slow at times, but I never really felt that this stopped me from enjoying the story. If anything, it made me love it all the more!


Thank you so much for reading this review! This book was a part of my July 2018 reading challenge; if you have been wondering why I haven’t written any reviews for the books in this challenge (before this), it is because I am seriously behind with my reading. It has taken me a long time to finish Dracula, not because of the novel, but because of how busy I have been recently. Nevertheless, I hope to fit in a few more books before the end of the month, so stay tuned for more reviews!

You can click here for an A-Z list of all my reviews (so far)!

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“Lie With Me”: Book Review

I’ve been listening to some quite intense audiobooks recently (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four being among them), so I decided to get a couple of light, modern reads that could help break up my venture into the world of Sherlock Holmes. One such book was Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, a contemporary thriller that really surprised me.

Lie With MePlot Overview

TitleLie With Me.
Author: Sabine Durrant.
Publication: 2016, Mulholland Books.
Length: 9 hours / 293 pages.
Genre: Contemporary Thriller.

If there is one thing that I know for sure about this book, it is that it is not at all what I expected. From the blurb, I believed that it was going to be a story about manipulation, and perhaps even abduction, but it’s not. It’s a story about Paul Morris, a failed writer with a lot of secrets.

Paul is a distinctly unpleasant narrator; whether he is seeking money or sex, he is constantly searching for ways to exploit those around him. He is selfish, and he doesn’t seem to care very much for the people around him. His world is changed, however, when he is reunited with an old friend from university, Andrew Hopkins. He becomes involved in Andrew’s social circle and, soon, he is travelling to Pyros with his new friends.

Yet this holiday is certainly not a happy one. The friends are haunted by mystery, and by death. Young girls are being raped and murdered, and Paul can’t seem to make sense of any of it. Then, finally, Paul realises what has been happening, but by then it is far too late. I won’t say any more, because there is a lot of mystery in this book, and there is a wonderful delight in unravelling the mystery as you read. Let me just say that the outcome is not at all what I expected; this book kept me guessing until the very end.

*** THE NEXT SECTION OF THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW, THEN I SUGGEST THAT YOU SKIP TO THE “MY CONCLUSION” SECTION OF THIS POST! ***

Going Deeper into the Novel…

In this section of my reviews, I like to choose a couple of themes from the book that I can discuss a little more thoroughly. This time, I would like to talk about Paul as a narrator, and about truth.

Paul the Narrator

From almost the very beginning of this book, I bore an intense dislike for Paul Morris. He is an extremely selfish man, especially when it comes to women. He undresses them with his eyes, constantly objectifying them. This makes for a very interesting style of narration, because, as readers, we are brought into the mind of such a despicable person. Yet Paul is a very three-dimensional character, and the more time that he spends with Alice, his girlfriend and Andrew’s friend, the more he seems to change. He begins to repent his actions and realise his mistakes, yet if there’s one thing that Paul comes to realise, it’s that you can’t change the past.

Truth

IMG-3409.jpgAs Andrew tells Paul just before the police come knocking, “all truth is subjective”. For a long time, I believed that Paul harboured a dual personality. There is a moment in the book where he finds blood on his hands, covering his skin and clothes. Then, he finds a dead dog, and he can’t seem to remember where the blood came from. I assumed that there was a part of Paul that was psychopathic and that his waking-self blocked out these memories of violence so as to protect himself. This was a really interesting train of thought because it allowed me to consider the subjectivity of narration. It would be easy for Paul to commit terrible crimes, but then not report them to his readers.

At the same time, this book asks us to consider the morality in bending the truth. By the end of the novel, we learn just how much truth has been bent, for although Paul may not be guilty of all the crimes that he is accused of, he is guilty of other crimes. He pays the price for his sexism, and for the death of Andrew’s sister. He is constantly lying and, as I mentioned earlier, he really does present himself as a terrible human being. He thus pays the price for his own villainy.

My Conclusion

I was honestly so surprised by this book and so, so impressed. Currently reading through the Sherlock Holmes stories and having read a few Agatha Christie novels in the past, I am usually pretty good at guessing where a story is going. This book really caught me out, though. I was absolutely certain of what the outcome was going to be, but I was wrong, and I absolutely loved it.

The book’s strongest points are probably Durrant’s descriptive style of writing, which is absolutely superb, and, of course, its mystery. Paul quickly became the protagonist that I unashamedly loved to hate. The other characters were somewhat two-dimensional in comparison to Paul, but this is not at all a criticism. In fact, it emphasises Paul’s selfishness, and how he simply doesn’t want to understand the people around him unless they can aid him in some way.

Lie With Me is a contemporary thriller/mystery that provides a fantastic insight into the human mind. It contains a few sexual scenes, which came as a bit of a surprise, but they were necessary to demonstrate Paul’s selfish character. It may also seem a little slow at times, although this is quickly redeemed by the overarching drama, as well as by Durrant’s impeccable descriptions. This is therefore a book that I simply have to recommend. If you’re looking for a really good mystery, then this is the book for you.


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“The Sign of Four”: Book Review

As I mentioned in my review of A Study in Scarlet, the first full-length novel in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, I recently treated myself to Audible’s definitive collection. This is an audiobook bundle of the Sherlock Holmes stories, read by the wonderful Stephen Fry. One of these stories is The Sign of Four.

2A Bit of Context

Title: The Sign of Four.
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle.
Publication: 1889, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.
My Edition: 2017, Audible Studios.
Length: 3 hours, 15 minutes.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of fifty-six short stories featuring the infamous Sherlock Holmes, but only wrote four full-length novels. The Sign of Four is the second of these novels, and is generally considered to be the least popular of the four (it scored the lowest rating on Goodreads, at any rate).

Like A Study in Scarlet, this novel considers both the typical Englishman (like Holmes and Watson) and foreign cultures. In this case, the novel takes us to Asia, making specific reference to the mysterious Andaman Islands. This is because, like many of the books that I discuss on this blog, The Sign of Four was written during the Victorian Period. During this time, the invention of steam power made travel much easier, which, in turn, encouraged an increase in global trade. English men and women were now coming into contact with foreign cultures and their products, which instigated a certain curiosity regarding some of these new countries.

Plot Overview

Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four are quite circular novels; they begin with Holmes and Watson in a state of normality, and, after a thrilling adventure, the duo return to Baker Street. In a way, this structure makes the stories more lovable, because, no matter what they experience on their journeys, they can always return home.

This particular adventure lends itself to the fantasy genre; there is a damsel in distress, some dangerous treasure, and some very mysterious villains. Holmes and Watson are approached by a Mary Morstan who presents a very mysterious case involving her missing father and some pearls being sent to her anonymously. The duo accompanies her to meet the sender of an anonymous letter and, from there, they begin to uncover the mystery.

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot here, simply because this is a story that I thoroughly recommend, and one of the great charms of these stories is uncovering the mystery alongside Holmes and Watson. What I will say, though, is that it involves a wooden leg, a trapdoor, some poison, and one broken promise.

Going Deeper into the Novel…

In this section of my reviews, I like to choose a couple of themes from the book that I can discuss a little more thoroughly. The obvious choice here is race, as, set partly in Asia, The Sign of Four has a lot to say about race. Yet I want to talk about two different themes that really stood out to me: gender and genre.

Gender

There is one particular line in The Sign of Four that I had to note down:

Women are never to be entirely trusted, – not the best of them.

4.jpgThis is something that Holmes says privately to Watson, and obviously stood out as a red flag to me. Even Watson himself notes that this is an “atrocious sentence”. It suggests that Holmes is a misogynist, even though he does seem to show respect to their female client, Mary Morstan.

Yet later on in the story, Holmes announces that he is going to cook for Watson and their friendly police officer, calling himself a “housekeeper”. He surely is not entirely sexist if he is willing to take on the tasks that, during this period, were associated with women. After all, he could have quite easily called Mrs Hudson to help him with the preparations, but he does not.

More than anything else, this demonstrates how Holmes frequently fails to judge social situations in the right way. At times, he can be very courteous and polite, offering to cook for Watson and the police officer, yet when he is concentrating on a case, he seems to forget this side of himself. He can, at times, be a little disconnected from his emotions. This doesn’t make him a misogynist, but it does make him seem rather rude.

Genre

At the very beginning of the novel, Holmes scolds Watson for “romanticising” A Study in Scarlet. His companion replies that it was a romantic tale, or at least contained some elements of romance, but Holmes seems certain that Watson should have only reported what, in his opinion, was important: the cold, hard facts.

This is more evidence of Holmes’ emotional detachment as he fails to register the fact that a case can be both factual and romantic at the same time. I don’t want to give too much away about the romantic elements of The Sign of Four, as most of it centres around a lovely surprise that comes at the novel’s end. Yet it is very romantic, and Watson engages in this romance, just as he did by “romanticising” A Study in Scarlet.

In contextual terms, these differing opinions of Holmes and Watson could demonstrate how Conan Doyle himself is debating which genre he wishes to be filed under. It may demonstrate how he is experimenting with genre boundaries as he fuses Holmes’ logical characteristics with the more romantic parts of Watson.

My Conclusion

The Sign of FourI thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Sign of Four. I actually enjoyed it far more than I did listening to A Study in Scarlet, although this may simply because, in the first book, I was still becoming accustomed to Conan Doyle’s style of writing. The first story introduces us to a few central characters, but then The Sign of Four expands on this, introducing Toby the dog and Mary Morstan (who I sense may be a recurring character). It builds on ideas and relationships that had already been established, which seems to make the story much more lovable.

I also found the mystery in this book easier to follow; in A Study in Scarlet, there is a long pause between part one and part two which acts as a long flashback. This book is much more linear, and although we are treated to a flashback, this comes right at the end of the novel (in its longest chapter). This prevents the mystery from being broken up and makes the case itself far easier to follow.


Well, that’s two of the Sherlock Holmes novels completed, which leaves two more to go! I honestly cannot wait to start The Hound of the Baskervilles; these stories are truly works of art and should be experienced by everyone.

Thank you so much for reading! You can click here to check out an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)!

“The Bottle Imp”: Short Story Review

I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp” right after I finished rereading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is a short story included in my copy of this infamous gothic novella, and is one that most certainly deserves a review.

CoverA Bit of Context

Title: “The Bottle Imp”
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson.
Publication: 1891, New York Herald.
My Edition: 2012, Penguin.
Length: 31 pages.

“The Bottle Imp” was published in 1891, a few years after Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Centred around the islands of Hawaii, the story was inevitably inspired by Stevenson’s five-month visit to the islands.

It offers an original perspective on a story that has been retold many times: the selling of one’s soul to the devil. Other stories that have addressed this concept include Thomas Nashe’s Pierce Penniless, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even some of the tales by the Grimm brothers.

*** The next two sections of this review may contain some spoilers. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, then I suggest that you skip to the “My Conclusion” section of this post! ***

Plot Overview

The story of “The Bottle Imp” follows the journey of Keawe, a young Hawaiian sailor. He is walking through a rich neighbourhood, admiring the houses around him, when an elderly man comes out to talk to him. He tells Keawe that he can have a house like his if he buys a particular bottle from him.

This is the bottle imp, and it is offered to Keawe for fifty dollars. Keawe cannot understand why this man would wish to rid himself of the imp when it can grant him anything that he desires. Yet the man tells him that whoever dies with the imp still in their possession will be sent straight to hell. He cannot simply give it away, either; anyone wishing to get rid of the imp must sell it for a smaller amount than that which they paid for it. It sounds complicated, but the imp’s rules become much more straightforward when reading the story.

IMG-3387.jpgSo, Keawe buys the imp and uses it to build a grand mansion for himself. Once this is built, he decides not to be greedy and so sells the imp to his friend who, in turn, uses the power of the imp before selling it on once more. Now free of the imp but living a life of luxury, Keawe feels very fortunate. Then, one day, he meets the beautiful Kokua, and after a shockingly short conversation, Keawe asks Kokua to marry him.

Everything seems to have worked out perfectly for Keawe. He returns home from his meeting with Kokua feeling desperately happy, but then, relaxing at home, he discovers something terrible. Keawe’s skin has become strange and unfamiliar. There is only one explanation for this change, and this is that he has leprosy.

Now infected with the disease, Keawe realises that he cannot marry Kokua. He struggles with this realisation for a while, before he comes up with a solution: he needs to retrieve the bottle imp and wish away his illness. He does just this and manages to cure himself, but there’s a problem: Keawe now owns the bottle imp again, and it has been sold many, many times since he first owned it, and he purchased it for a single penny. This means that he cannot sell it on again, because there is no lower price. Keawe is the last owner and, as a result, he will spend an eternity in hell.

The rest of the story is one of pure sacrifice. Keawe and Kokua fight over who should suffer the price of the imp and desperately seek a solution. It’s a wonderful tale, and has an extremely satisfying ending.

Going Deeper into the Story…

For a short story, there’s a lot going on in “The Bottle Imp”. It’s full of action, but nevertheless considers some important contemporary issues, including cultural differences and a structural use of oppositions.

Cultural Differences

The Victorian Period was a time of exploration. With the invention of steam power, ships were able to take people further and further abroad at a much faster speed. The world had suddenly become much larger as new regions were being mapped out and made known to the British public. A rise in industrial trade also meant that different cultures were constantly coming into contact with one another. Yet with new discoveries and cultural relationships, there also came new fears.

IMG-3391.jpgYou may have heard me mention the phrase, “the foreign other” before. If you’re not familiar with this term, it basically refers to a person from a foreign culture who, because of their background, is feared. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Count Dracula, the Transylvanian aristocrat who decides to move to England. Dracula demonises the Count because he comes from a place that the British public are not familiar with.

Well, “The Bottle Imp” seems to invert these fears. By giving a voice to a Hawaiian sailor, Stevenson normalises cultural differences, allowing his readers to understand foreign practices. It therefore seems that, unlike Dracula, “The Bottle Imp” glorifies the relationships Britain had begun to forge with foreign countries.

Yet there is another side to this way of looking at the story; when Keawe uses the imp to build his house, it is filled with many material items that are unfamiliar to him, but would have already been known to Stevenson’s readers. In some respects, this may suggest that Stevenson is likening the demonic bottle imp to global trade; like the imp, it may, at first seem wonderful, but there is always a price to pay.

As for the knick-knacks, they were extraordinary fine; chiming clocks and musical boxes, little men with nodding heads, books filled with pictures, weapons of price from all quarters of the world, and the most elegant puzzles to entertain the leisure of a solitary man.

Oppositions

In many gothic stories (such as Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), there is a certain amount of duality or doubling. In Frankenstein, this takes the form of the relationship between the monster and his creature. In “The Bottle Imp”, however, it is demonstrated through oppositions. There are constant dualities in this story, such as good and evil, love and war, and greed and restraint.

This was the wooing of Keawe; things had gone quickly; but so an arrow goes, and the ball of a rifle swifter still, and yet both may strike the target.

For me, this really represents the nature of the bottle imp, because although it can grant its owner anything they wish, children’s stories have taught us that wishes always have a price. It all comes down to that ultimate, repeated question: is it worth it? Are your deepest desires worth selling your soul? Is an eternity spent in hell worth it, if you can have one perfect life?

My Conclusion

When I reviewed Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I mentioned how slow the pace of Stevenson’s writing was, and suggested that the novel was only really made famous by its concluding chapters. I stand by this opinion but must admit that “The Bottle Imp” is written in a completely different style. In this story, Stevenson’s sentences are simplified, and are far less descriptive, making it extremely enjoyable.

IMG-3392.jpgI would honestly have to say that “The Bottle Imp” is the best short story that I have ever read, considering both its content, and the way in which it is written. It’s not at all like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in that, although it has gothic aspects to it, it’s a more light-hearted tale. It’s essentially a fantasy story set in the real world, although it lends itself more to fantasy perhaps because Stevenson’s audience would have found the Hawaiian islands at least semi-fictional.

It offers something for everyone, containing romance, magic, and a lot of mystery. Although its characters are few, they are well developed, and I found it easy to relate to Keawe. “The Bottle Imp” is a timeless tale that I can certainly recommend.


Thank you so much for reading this review. You can click here to check out an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)!

“Grace after Henry”: Book Review

Eithne Shortall’s Grace after Henry is the second ARC book that I have ever read, and is courtesy of the Readers First programme, where you can receive free books in exchange for some honest reviews. It is not a book that I would ordinarily read, but I can honestly say that this book surprised me: it is not as simple as it may at first appear.

cover-22.jpgPlot Overview

Title: Grace after Henry.
Author: Eithne Shortall.
Publication: 2018, Corvus.
Length: 417 pages.

Grace after Henry is essentially a romance; it is certainly not a book that I would ordinarily pick up off a shelf, but that does not necessarily mean that I did not enjoy it. Much of its plot is revealed by the book’s blurb, which leaves its readers with no doubt as to what this book is about:

Grace sees her boyfriend Henry everywhere. In the supermarket, on the street, at the graveyard. Only Henry is dead. He died two months earlier, leaving a huge hole in Grace’s life and in her heart. But then Henry turns up to fix the boiler one evening, and Grace can’t decide if she’s hallucinating or has suddenly developed psychic powers. Grace isn’t going mad – the man in front of her is not Henry at all, but someone else who looks uncannily like him. The hole in Grace’s heart grows ever larger. Grace becomes captivated by this stranger, Andy – to her, he is Henry, and yet he is not. Reminded of everything she once had, can Grace recreate that lost love with Andy, resurrecting Henry in the process, or does loving Andy mean letting go of Henry?

In the very first chapter of this novel, we witness the death of Henry Walsh. His partner, Grace, then takes control of the narrative and reveals to us her sorrow as she struggles through the bereavement process. She cannot imagine a life without Henry, such was the intensity of their relationship.

Yet, as the blurb reveals, Grace’s emotional upheaval does not end with the death of Henry. It is common, after a bereavement, to imagine seeing your loved one in the streets, shops, and everywhere you go. Andy Cunningham is not a mere hallucination, though. He is real flesh and blood and looks exactly like Henry.

*** If you want to avoid plot spoilers, I suggest skipping the rest of this section, as I give a lot of the story away! ***

Andy doesn’t just look like Henry; he seems to hold a part of him inside of himself. This is because, as Grace soon discovers, Andy is Henry’s biological twin, for Henry, although he never knew this, was adopted.

The rest of the story follows the complex relationships forged before and after Henry’s death, which are all bound by the controversy regarding Irish adoption and abortion laws. It may seem a little cliqued in parts, but this story is one of pure emotion. As readers, we come to really understand Grace, appreciating the confusion that is caused by Andy’s appearance. This is a story of love, heartbreak, and a sense of homelessness, themes which are tied together by Eithne Shortall’s powerful writing techniques.

Going Deeper into the Novel…

There’s a lot of emotion in Grace after Henry, yet most of this derives, not from the initial loss of Henry, but by the flashbacks methodically placed throughout the narrative, and by the issues surrounding pregnancy in Ireland.

The Flashbacks

The majority of Grace after Henry is written in a chronological style. One event follows another from the beginning of the book to its end. Yet separating this chronology, there are some rare glimpses into conversations had between Grace and Henry. At first, I believed these flashbacks to be future moments – perhaps in an afterlife – where the couple became reunited. As I read on, however, I realised that they were flashbacks.

Inside.jpgThese interjections into the main story provide important insights to both the relationship between Grace and Henry, and to the bereavement process. At first, Grace only remembers the positive things about Henry. She remembers the moment that he first told her he loved her, and how they used to cycle through the park together.

When she meets Andy, however, this harmony is disrupted. Grace now remembers the arguments they had, associating Henry with anger. Then she thinks of real moments that they shared, not unpleasant, but not idealised, either. She remembers the brutal moments they went through together, re-experiencing the intensity of it all.

Towards the end of the book, these flashbacks become less and less frequent as Grace appears to reach a state of peace. Although she will always miss being around Henry, she no longer craves him. For me, this really mirrors the journey of the narrative and helps to build a stronger impression of Grace, as well as her thoughts. When she first loses Henry, she remembers only the good, and then accepts the bad, and then, finally, seems able to move on. These flashbacks thus bring a kind of emotion to the narrative that complement the main, linear story of Grace after Henry.

Pregnancy in Ireland

There are certain Irish laws and practices that have always been a source of controversy. Grace after Henry does not exactly challenge these traditions, but it does examine them, indicating that they could be a source of serious injury amongst parents and children alike.

So, for those of you who don’t know, having an abortion was, in Ireland, illegal (at least when this book was written). Pregnant women who were unwilling to raise their children could therefore either travel to England for an abortion (a practice that was deeply frowned upon by a lot of people), or they could have their child in secret, where it could be adopted. Their reputation remained intact, and no laws were broken.

I imagined all of Ireland’s lineage written out in perfect sets of family trees – only when a magic marker was rubbed over the chart, all these secrets were exposed and unseen lines started to fly across the board making connections between relatives entirely unknown to each other.
–  Grace after Henry, Eithne Shortall.

Without giving too much away about the novel, the latter of these practices is explored in great depth as Eithne Shortall considers the pain it can provoke. This is mainly revealed by Andy, who fights against the secrecy of the tradition as he attempts to discover where he came from. Yet the adoptive parents’ points of view are also considered as they refuse to admit that they have become a part of the controversy. They claim that their adoption was different, because the brutality of other adoption schemes was “unthinkable”.

My Conclusion

When I first read this book’s blurb, I really did not think that it would be something that I would enjoy. Romances – even the classics – always seem too slow for me. I like things with a little more action (and a few more Gothic castles). Grace after Henry did manage to surprise me, though, because, although I cringe whenever I consider the implausibility of the story, the novel makes it more believable by admitting its strangeness. Grace is constantly telling herself how ridiculous it all is, and how impossible it is that Andy even exists. I think that this incredulity makes the book far more manageable, for although the story is extremely unlikely, the fact that it admits this, makes it easier to enjoy.

Cover 1.jpgIt’s an interesting book, both due to its links to Irish controversy and due to this unusual acceptance of its own implausibility. It’s biggest strength, though, is, in my opinion, how it deals with the bereavement process. The emotion in this book is almost tangible; it is slow, methodical and honest in how it deals with Grace’s emotions. Everything seems so honest that, when Andy arrives, it becomes difficult to realise just how unlikely the story really is. This emotion is enhanced by the other characters, as well as by the flashbacks Eithne Shortall uses to separate the main events in the novel.

It is heartwrenching, exciting, and – perhaps most surprisingly – thrilling. Grace’s character was so well developed that I soon found myself speeding through its coveted short chapters, desperate to know what happened next and, ultimately, what her decision was: does Andy’s appearance give her another chance of love, or does he remind her too much of Henry? The entire book leads up to this one question, and if you want to know the answer, you’ll just have to give this book a read!


Thank you so much for reading this review. This book was a part of my June 2018 reading challenge which means that I only have one more book to go! As it is the end of the month now, though, I think that I am going to have to accept that Dracula will not be finished in this month. Instead, I plan to make it a part of my July 2018 reading challenge.

Click here to check out an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)!

“A Christmas Carol”: Book Review

I have only really read one book by Charles Dickens before, this being the famous Great Expectations. Even this was a fair while ago, though, so I decided that this summer, even if it is a little out of season, I would finally get around to reading A Christmas Carol.

Cover.jpgA Bit of Context

Title: A Christmas Carol.
Author: Charles Dickens.
Publication: 1843, Chapman & Hall.
My Edition: 2003, Penguin.
Length: 
92 pages.
Genre(s): Classic, Christmas, Fantasy.

A Christmas Carol was written towards the middle of Dickens’ career. He had already published works such as Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers, but was yet to write the majority of his great works, which include Great ExpectationsDavid Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. The majority of these novels were published as serials, which meant that a chapter or two would be released in a weekly or monthly magazine. They were, in a sense, the Victorian Period’s Eastenders. Yet A Christmas Carol is a novella, and, as it is much shorter, it didn’t need to be broken down into this serialised form. It was therefore published in 1843 alongside some of Dickens’ other Christmas writings, such as The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton.

It reflects an interesting view of Christmas as, during this period, old traditions, such as the Christmas carol, were combined with new ones, such as the Christmas tree. In fact, many of our principles of modern-day Christmas derive from the Victorian Period, and these changes that were taking place are glorified in A Christmas Carol.

Plot Overview

The story of A Christmas Carol may be better known than any other classic novel, but, in case you’ve been living as a hermit for all of your life (which is by no means a bad thing), allow me to give you a brief overview of the main events taking place in this novella.

*** If you want to avoid plot spoilers, I suggest skipping this section entirely as I give pretty much everything away! ***

The story begins by following Ebenezer Scrooge as he busies himself in his counting house. He is portrayed as an exceptionally self-centred man, turning away charity workers and ignoring his nephew when he comes to wish him a merry Christmas. Scrooge also introduces us to that extraordinarily famous phrase, “Bah, humbug!”

We also learn that, quite a few years ago, Scrooge lost his business partner, Jacob Marley. We are reminded of this fact when, after returning home from work, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s ghost. Marley carries with him a large, heavy chain that is essentially made of his own selfishness. He warns Scrooge that, if he does not change his ways, he will have to spend his afterlife lugging around a chain that is just as heavy as Marley’s is.

The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.
–  A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens.

Yet Marley also tells Scrooge that it is not too late. Over the next few nights, he will have three visitors, one representing past Christmasses, one representing present Christmasses, and the last representing future Christmasses. So, Scrooge is visited by these three Spirits, and with each visit, he seems to learn a lesson that makes him into a slightly better (or at least more moral) person.

1.jpgTo begin with, he is shown the Christmasses he experienced growing up. He remembers his sister, and how kind she was, and then reflects on how rude he always is to her only child, his nephew. He is also shown a Christmas spent with a woman he once loved. He is too distracted by his pursuit of money to realise that he has lost her and then, all too soon, he is too late, and she is gone.

He is then shown present-day Christmasses. All around the country, even in the poorest places and on ships in the middle of the sea, people are celebrating. They are being kind, wishing each other happy Christmasses. The Spirit also takes him to the house of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Scrooge sees how little his family has. He feels sorry for Tiny Tim whom, the Spirit reveals, is sure to die if he does not recieve proper care and food.

Scrooge is, at this point, feeling extremely remorseful, but the Spirits are not done with him. His final visitor shows him a glimpse of one possible future. He watches Bob Cratchit’s pain as he weeps over the body of Tiny Tim, and listens in as his business colleagues, as well as strangers, discuss the death of an unpleasant man. They sell his things, even stripping the shirt off of his dead corpse, not at all sad that he is dead. Scrooge cannot think who this man can possibly be, but then the Spirit takes him to a graveyard and points at a tomb that reads ‘Ebinizer Scrooge’.

So, Scrooge decides to change his ways. Back in the present day, he takes instant action. He sends the Cratchit family (ananoymously) the largest turkey there is and goes to visit his nephew, having dinner with his family. It is clear that Scrooge has learnt his lesson and, in a heartwarming ending, we realise that he has become a good man. He gives his money to charity, thinks of other people and, best of all, he finds happiness.

Going Deeper into the Novel…

A Christmas Carol is an interesting story, for although it is extremely uplifting, it is also, to some extents, a ghost story. As a result of this, there are some serious issues underpinning its festive narrative, including comments regarding the working classes and also questions regarding life after death.

The Working Classes

First published in the early Victorian period, A Christmas Carol was written during a time of extreme social turbulance. This was a period where the rich were only getting richer, and the poor were only getting hungrier. Dickens constantly draws attention to these differences, and demonises his protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, because he constantly fails to consider them. This is particularly important as the 1840s are often called the ‘hungry forties’. During this time, people often found themselves out of employment. A move towards capitalism also meant that it was now also possible for employers to exploit their workers (just as Scrooge exploits Bob Cratchit). There was no one (except for the ocassional writer, such as Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell) who were defending the poor, and many thousands died of disease and starvation.

Life after Death

As I mentioned before, A Christmas Carol is, to an extent, a ghost story. The story has become so ingrained in our culture that it is easy to forget just how supernatural it is, but remember, Marley is being punished in the afterlife for how he acted in life. To an extent, the story could therefore be seen as a Christian allegory. The chains binding Marley to the earth could be interpreted to be a version of the Christian Hell. The same fate awaits Scrooge, unless he can repent and do some good in the world.

I also found the Spirits themselves very interesting, particularly due to my interest in dualism (if you’ve been following me for any period of time, I’m sure that you will have heard me mention this before. Well, it’s always interested me and I am now basing my dissertation around this theological concept. It’s explained quite well in this fun video).

My thoughts in relation to A Christmas Carol concern the Spirit’s bodies. Basically, none of them seem very constant. Whether their bodies are fading in and out of view or shrinking and growing taller, they always seem to be changing. For me, this suggests that the body has very little value in the Spirit’s world. They are perhaps intangible beings, and their forms are there only so that they can converse with Scrooge. In the true afterlife, which is suggested to be entirely separate from the human world, they may not have bodies at all, which supports Plato’s original notion of dualism.

[T]he figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.
–  A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens.

My Conclusion

My first surprise when reading A Christmas Carol was how short it is! I am used to Dickens’ very elaborate style of writing, and can accept that his stories have a lot of length due to how they were originally published as serials. Yet I had never imagined that this novella was under one hundred pages; if I had known this, I would have read it much earlier! Moreover, the actual writing style of A Christmas Carol seems much more accessible than some of Dickens’ other works, perhaps purely because he has cut down on his descriptive language. I can therefore understand why it is as well known as it is; it really is a great story, not just in terms of the events, but in terms of the writing, too.

2.jpgI also found reading this story all the more interesting because of how many adaptations I have been exposed to over the years. I have certainly read a children’s version of the story, and have seen quite a few of the films (including the muppet version). It’s interesting to think about which parts of the story have been drawn attention to, and which parts have simply been forgotten. For example, I seem to remember one version of this story that exaggerated Scrooge’s romance revealed by the first Spirit. In the book, this is only a very brief feature, and is only really there to demonstrate how much Scrooge has lost in his pursuit of wealth. On the other hand, there were some parts of this story that were completely new to me, as they had been ignored in adaptations.

It was certainly an interesting read, and the simplistic style of writing meant that it didn’t take me too long to get through. At the beginning it did seem a little slow, and I did, at one point, feel as though I was reading a full-length Dickens novel. It quickly picked up in terms of pace, though, and there is some fantastic terror and gore that I had never really appreciated before. It’s exciting, quirky, and has such a strong moral message that never seems to undermine the actual story. So, I can see why it’s famous, and I can’t complain. I really enjoyed reading A Christmas Carol and can agree that it’s a must-read for pretty much everyone, regardless of how you normally feel about the classics.


Thank you so much for reading this review. This book was a part of my June 2018 reading challenge which means, for those of you keeping up with my progress, that I only have two more books to go!

You can click here to view an A-Z list of all of my reviews (so far)! On another note, if you’re interested in learning more about the infamous Charles Dickens, you can find my author spotlight on him here. Thanks for reading!

“A Study in Scarlet”: Book Review

If you have been following this blog for any substantial amount of time, you may know by now that I have a great respect for audiobooks. Although I love reading physical books, we do not always have time to sit down and read, which is where audiobooks come in. I have recently been listening to Stephen Fry’s rendition of A Study in Scarlett, which is a part of Audible’s definitive collection. I have thus been educated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous detective whilst walking around town and commuting to university.

2.pngA Bit of Context

TitleA Study in Scarlet.
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle.
Publication: 1887, Ward Lock & Co.
My Edition: 2017, Audible Studios.
Length: 5 hours.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of fifty-six short stories about the adventures of the famous Sherlock Holmes, as well as four full-length novels. A Study in Scarlet, which depicts John Watson’s first adventure with the detective, is the first of these novels.

The most remarkable thing about these stories has to be how innovative they were. Although the beginnings of detective fiction can be traced back to the Old Testament, it only emerged as an official genre in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Then, in 1853, Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House, which featured Inspector Bucket, a detective who was charged with determining the events that preceded the brutal murder of Tulkinghorn. So, although the genre had been established earlier in the Victorian period, Conan Doyle nevertheless made it his own by the huge amount of focus he placed on Holmes and his admirable powers of deduction.

Plot Overview

I don’t want to give too much away here as, after all, one of the main attractions of a detective novel is its mystery. Nevertheless, I want to give you a brief overview of the book’s main action, focussing on its beginning, so as not to ruin the ending!

The story is told from the perspective of Doctor John Watson, who records the narrative’s main events in his diary. Having moved to London after sustaining a military injury, he finds a roommate in a mysterious detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes. He is then invited to accompany Holmes on a particularly intriguing case.

There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it  –  Arthur Conan Doyle.

A man, having sustained no bodily injuries, is lying spread out across the floor, clearly dead, and the police force are unable to determine how he got there. For the famous Sherlock Holmes, however, the answer is simple. He begins to unravel the mystery as the novel goes on, determining the murderer’s height by the length of his stride and his motive by a woman’s wedding ring that lies hidden underneath the corpse.

Just as Holmes is about to solve the mystery, however, Conan Doyle ends the first part of this book. We are left with a scene of immense tension as he proceeds with part two. At the start of this part, however, we are in Northern America, learning of two stranded travellers, John and Lucy Ferrier, who are slowly starving to death on the open plains. We are then told a tragic story of love, defiance and persecution, all centred around these new characters.

It is only towards the end of this second part that we learn the importance of this episode, and of how it relates to the murder investigation that Holmes has apparently solved. Then, after Conan Doyle has dragged out the drama for as long as he can, we finally learn both the reason for the murder, and how it was done. All I can say is that the revelation is satisfying, deeply shocking, and magnificently crafted.

Going Deeper into the Novel…

This is a book filled with questions, and although most of them may surround the murder investigation itself, there are some background themes that I want to focus on, these being industrialisation and religion.

Industrialisation

The Victorian Period was a time fraught with change. English society was still reeling from the American and French revolutions when they were met with one of their own: the Industrial Revolution. During this time, more than half of rural populations migrated to the city, where they hoped to find work. The city thus became more popular and, as a result, is considered far more frequently in literature.

I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained  –  Arthur Conan Doyle.

Initially, Conan Doyle presents the city as something distinctly negative. It is a “cesspool”, which perhaps relates to how crowded it has become. This idea is then reiterated as Watson has to search for his lodgings, suggesting that they are not only difficult to come across in the busy streets of London, but also that they are expensive, as he simultaneously searches for a roommate.

Yet, later on in the novel, the natural world (the only alternative to the city) is also presented as negative as John and Lucy Ferrier realise that an absence of life also means that there is an absence of sustenance. Nature is presented as merciless, vulture-like birds circling above the duo as they reflect on their difficult journey.

In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year serveed as a barrier against the advance of civilisation  –  Arthur Conan Doyle.

Whilst this negativity may be aimed more at America than the natural world as a whole, it reflects a societal mood; when people first began to move to the cities, they may have compared them to a “cesspool” because they were crowded and unfamiliar, but, once they became dependent on urban materialities, the countryside would have begun to seem rather isolated and barren. Changing presentations of the urban and rural spheres in the novel thus reflect changing views in contemporary England.

Religion

There’s a lot to be said about religion in this book. Yet this is particularly true during part two, when we are introduced to Mormonism. This is a branch of Christianity that developed in the 1830s after it was ‘restored’ by Joseph Smith. Smith is mentioned in A Study in Scarlet, whilst Brigham Young, the movement’s second president, is actually featured in the novel. The Mormons are, at first, presented as accommodating, helping John and Lucy Ferrier by providing them with shelter and riches.

The Mormon church, however, diverges from core Christian principles on quite a few accounts, and Victorian England was a Christian country. Mormonism is thus demonised through this book as Conan Doyle favours traditional religious values. This is particularly prevalent through John Ferrier’s refusal to share in the Mormon principle of polygamy (the idea that a man can have as many wives as he wishes). It is clear through the eventual outcome of the main narrative; the Mormons are, to both John Ferrier and Conan Doyle, of a false faith and, because of this, they must be killed.

My Conclusion

After all that I have heard and seen of this fantastic novel, I was certainly surprised by the reality. When I first began listening to the story, I found it remarkably difficult to follow. The characters seemed impersonal and distant and I kept forgetting the details of the original murder. Of course, this may have partially been due to the fact that I didn’t have a physical book in front of me, but things certainly became clearer as the story progressed. This may have been a purposeful decision; like the case, the book is, initially, hard to understand, but as it begins to be solved, the narrative becomes simpler.

4.jpgI believe that the turning point for me was the short interlude where we were introduced to John and Lucy Ferrier. The descriptions before this point were exceptional, but I didn’t care about the story up until this point. After it, however, I felt a strong emotional connection to the murder investigation and even felt myself sympathising with the murderer. It added a layer of depth to the story that I had not expected, as I then realised that the story isn’t really about Sherlock Holmes or John Watson; they are merely passive vehicles, effects reserved only for entertainment value. The story is actually about the murderer themselves, along with John and Lucy Ferrier, yet we only discover this towards the novel’s end. This makes it’s beginning difficult, but its ending overwhelmingly satisfying.