Animal Farm by George Orwell review

George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm needs no introduction: its inclusion on various ‘Greatest Books of All Time’ lists and school curriculums means most people know of it. Manor Farm is run by the alcoholic Farmer Jones and has fallen into a state of disrepair. Encouraged and led by pigs Old Major, Snowball, and Napoleon, the animals stage a revolt and overthrow their incompetent farmer. Renamed ‘Animal Farm’, the property initially appears to flourish. However, Napoleon, power-hungry, wishes to run the farm a lot differently.

I was one such person to first read Animal Farm for schoolwork, though admittedly, at the time I knew very little about the Russian Revolution at the time. Looking back on the novella, (definitely) older, and (hopefully) wiser, it is interesting to see the parallels between the characters and key figures from this period. The dynamics between Old Major, Napoleon and Snowball are obviously meant to mirror Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky respectfully, but even secondary characters such as Boxer the horse and his idea of working harder to resolve problems on the farm, is modelled on Alexsei Stakhanov. It has been fun seeing how these historical figures have been reinterpreted by Orwell.

The narration as well is excellently done. It is quite detached, almost emotionless. This helps to create a distance between the characters and events and the reader. I read this in two different ways: the first one, that it reflects Orwell’s feelings of helplessness that he couldn’t discuss or critique certain aspects of the Soviet Union; he had been reduced to watching rather than being more involved, which is a similar position the reader finds themselves in. But also, having the narration quite simplistic means it is difficult to misinterpret Orwell’s intended meanings, specifically looking at how language is manipulated to suit a particular viewpoint or agenda. Napoleon in particular seems to do this – he twists words to suit himself, which stands in stark contrast to the narration which is much more honest.

There are some interesting parallels to be made between Animal Farm and the current political climate, making the novella all the more terrifying. Orwell’s writing is exceptional, from how he has taken famous figures, made them animals and fitted them into the plot through to the narration. Even the subtitle – mine is ‘A fairy story’ – seems deliberately and ironically chosen. A brilliant, horrifying, timely work from one of my favourite authors, and one that fully deserves its place on those Greatest Book lists.

Animal Farm is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott review

Having first read Little Women when I was around 12, I decided to reread the novel in preparation for the new film adaptation (which I saw last weekend and loved. A very clever adaptation which brings fresh ideas and perspectives to the story. If I could write a whole blog post on the movie alone, I would). Everyone knows the plot of Little Women which revolves around the four March sisters and the relationships they develop, with the Civil War serving as a backdrop.

Book One is probably the section most remember, and certainly the one I enjoyed the most. Here the sisterly dynamic is established and explored, the various tales of their adventures providing snapshots of their lives. Each character has her own personality, which not only makes them stand out as individuals but also makes it more interesting when they clash, as one can see both their reasonings.  It is obvious Alcott loved writing this book. Her love and enthusiasm seeps through, and as a reader I wanted to delve into their world. She captures this sense of family and belonging so well; it is hard not to get swept along.

Book Two is where issues begin to arise, which admittedly I didn’t notice when I was younger but are glaringly apparent now. The one in particular is the character of Professor Bhaer. He is much closer to a father figure than a lover to Jo, making their relationship awkward and uncomfortable to read about. He also comes across as quite sanctimonious and rude and it is hard to root for them to be together. Alcott had intended a very different ending for Jo – she was originally a spinster who writes children’s books – and it is evident that this romance was tacked on to either appease publishers or go against readers. Or perhaps both. It makes Bhaer an incredibly unsympathetic figure and the reader can’t help but wonder: why would Jo want to be with him? I felt similarly about Laurie and Amy; just how and why are they together? That’s not to say everything in Book Two didn’t work – I enjoyed reading about Meg’s marital problems as that subplot signifies a maturity in her character – but it is clear this isn’t the book Alcott wanted to write.

Little Women is quite literally a novel of two halves. The first section is a masterpiece in children’s literature; so cosy and joyous that you can’t stop yourself from smiling. There’s this longing to be that young again and playing/bickering with siblings. If the novel had stopped there, it would have been great. Alas, Book Two  feels like a disappointment in comparison, with these underdeveloped romances and sudden changes of character. Admittedly, I have never read any of the sequels so perhaps relationships develop more in them. Still, it is obvious how the novel has become a classic of children’s literature.

Little Women is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.  

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell review

Hi everyone! So today I’m reviewing Gone with the Wind and between the novel and the equally famous film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, I’m sure I don’t really need to summarise the plot. Scarlett O’Hara, her love for childhood friend Ashley Wilkes and her tempestuous relationship with Rhett Butler, all set during the American Civil War, are well-known. It is probably the longest book I have read so far (my movie tie-in edition is 1,011 pages) but definitely worth it.

Mitchell creates this wonderful, detailed world that you immediately get sucked into. Her descriptions of places such as Tara or Atlanta are incredibly vivid, mentioning the sights, sounds and smells, that it is easy to picture and get lost in them. It was also interesting seeing how the landscape reflected the characters’ (particularly Scarlett’s) attitudes, and how it changes along with them; sometimes even creating a sense of foreboding. Perhaps some people may find the long, detailed descriptions long and a bit unnecessary but I really enjoyed them and they helped me become immersed in the storyline.

But the main draw will always be Scarlett. She’s such a fascinating, well-developed character that you feel compelled to continue and find out what happens to her. In many ways, she’s quite a detestable person; vain, selfish, short-tempered with little regard for anything or anyone, besides money. Yet Mitchell has given her this incredible strength and determination to not just survive but to succeed, to build a better life for herself and her family that she’s strangely an admirable figure. I was also pleasantly surprised by the character of Melanie. In the film I always found her a little insipid, lacking personality. But in the novel, whilst she is far gentler and kinder than Scarlett, she is also portrayed as strong-willed, willing to stand up and fight if necessary. I found it more interesting comparing the two characters in the novel than the film, as I felt Melanie was given more depth and therefore, it made their ‘friendship’ seem much more likely. Other secondary characters, such Rhett and Ashley, also have more characterisation which made it easier to sympathise with them.

If there’s one thing that I can criticize in Gone with the Wind, it’s the O’Hara family history near the beginning. I can understand why Mitchell would include it – highlighting the importance of Tara and having Gerald’s actions as a comparison to Scarlett’s later – but I found it tedious. It felt a bit like an info-dump and it was a slog to read it (I did consider skipping it). The story seems to stop while Mitchell discusses Gerald’s life before he built Tara and you really wish you could go back to Scarlett’s narrative. In a similar vein to the descriptions I mentioned above, some readers may find the family background interesting but it didn’t work for me.

I adored Gone with the Wind, a lot more than I was anticipating. I had seen and enjoyed the film, but was always daunted by the sheer length of the novel. But like with Anna Karenina earlier this year, my fears were completely unfounded. Despite its’ size, I found the story went by really quickly. Mitchell’s writing is accessible so I found it easy to keep up and understand the many characters, plotlines and historical information. The pacing is a little off at times, especially when she dives into Gerald O’Hara’s life, but overall the storyline kept me engaged and I flew through this. Mitchell’s characters are the main positives for me as they are all well-developed with their strengths and weaknesses. It made me sad to have to put the book down, as I was fully invested in these people, especially Scarlett. So whilst I’ll admit Gone with the Wind is a bit of a commitment due to size, it is definitely worth it.

Gone with the Wind is published by Pan Macmillan and you can find more information here.

 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton review

When browsing my shelves for my next classic to mark off the old TBR pile, I stumbled across a copy of The Age of Innocence. I’m not going to lie I don’t remember when I got the book; my guess is probably half a decade ago. So why not read it now (finally)? The plot is quite simple; in 1870s New York Newland Archer is engaged to the beautiful May Welland. However things become complicated when he starts to fall for May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned to the United States after escaping her unhappy marriage.

The highlight of the novel for me was how New York society feels like a character in its own right. Wharton has clearly researched the style and manners of this period; and whilst I admit I know very little of Victorian New York society, it did feel realistic, although at some points quite heightened. At times it borders on comical, especially dealing with the hypocrisy within it, and some of Wharton’s wittiest lines appear when she is describing this world. The blurb on the back of my copy describes the novel as ‘subtly satirical’ which I disagree with; I found it quite blatant and enjoyed it nonetheless.

The narrative is completely told from Newland’s perspective, a decision which becomes clear as the novel progresses. We see everything and everyone through his eyes, and hear his comments on them. This includes his two lovers May and Ellen, and it is only when reaching the end of the novel does it become apparent Newland is an unreliable narrator. Not to give too much away, but he doesn’t see the two women for who they really are.

This is especially true for May; Newland seems to think her incredibly innocent to the point she doesn’t think for herself, and Countess Olenska is very much romanticised due to her perceived foreignness. It makes an interesting question for the reader; do I truly know these characters or has Newland’s bias influenced me? The contrast between the women is most obviously seen when Newland buys flowers for them; white lilies-of-the-valley for May and Ellen’s bright yellow roses.

Not a lot happens in The Age of Innocence; most of the drama and turmoil occurs below the surface, either in private rooms or, more often, in Newland’s head as he grapples with his love for Ellen. I did enjoy the slower pace Wharton used; though admittedly at the beginning I did find it a bit of a slog. I really wanted Wharton to move the plot along, however now with hindsight I realise how important it was to set up the society in which these characters live. It sets the stage (quite literally as it opens when they’re at the opera) for the rest of the novel.

I’m glad I finally did get round to The Age of Innocence, and am annoyed at myself for not doing so sooner. Wharton’s writing is beautiful and lyrical, and her portrayal of this upper-class world was really well done. The characters were also incredibly written, even the secondary characters seemed to come alive on the page. I would recommend the novel if you haven’t already read it.

The Age of Innocence is published by Wordsworth Classics and more information can be found here.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson review

Hi everyone! Surprisingly, when writing my recommendations for Scottish literature late last year, I completely neglected Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m an idiot, I know. So I thought I would rectify that by reviewing one of his most famous works (and my personal favourite): Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This novella is set in London and follows our protagonist John Utterson who becomes increasingly concerned about his friend Dr Henry Jekyll, and the mysterious influence the malevolent Hyde has on him.

Despite being a really slim volume – my copy is just slightly over 100 pages – Stevenson manages to cram a lot in. The main theme seems to revolve around the idea of the public vs the private selves; how we may wear a mask in public and secretly keep an aspect of ourselves out of sight. Which ultimately wins; our ‘higher’ selves or baser instincts? This is obviously notable in the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, but other characters represent this idea too. Utterson briefly mentions his own poor decisions though he never expands on them, leaving the reader in the dark to what secrets he may have.

Another character Sir Danvers Carew is seemingly the height of respectability; yet when the reader meets him he is in a part of London infamous for brothels and opium dens. Stevenson has taken his core idea and represented it through most of the characters in different ways; from the more science fiction/fantasy genre (Jekyll/Hyde) to maybe more realistic depictions of that theme (Utterson).

I also liked how Stevenson get up an aura of suspense throughout the story, impressive considering the twist at the end is so famous most people probably know it. There is an unpredictability to Hyde; a kind of animalistic nature that could do anything. You were never quite sure when Hyde would show up next and what he was going to do, especially nearing the end when his actions become very sinister.

The character of Hyde is so vaguely described that it allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. We are essentially told that he is short, young and looks evil or has this evil air about him; other than that there’s not much else. This lack of description makes him more frightening. Is he some sort of monster, a boogeyman? Or does he look more like someone you’d pass on the street? Stevenson lets you decide for yourself, and what a reader can come up with in their own mind is often scarier than anything the author could have written.

If you’ve never read Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I urge you to do so. It is very different from the many film adaptations (or certainly the ones I’ve seen) and especially the awful musical which is so unlike the novella it’s ridiculous. Whilst the twist isn’t going to suprise you in the same way as perhaps Victorian audiences, it is still a really fun and well-written ghost story, with themes that could still be applicable today.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is published by Wordsworth Press and you can find more information here.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte review

Hi everyone! As I had been feeling a little under the weather recently, I have mainly been reading some of my favourite books as pick-me-ups. One such novel is  Jane Eyre, which I have read and re-read so many times my copy is falling apart. I’m sure everyone knows the plot; following Jane from her horrible childhood with her aunt and cousins to working as a governess under the charismatic Mr Rochester.

One of the reasons this is a favourite of mine is due to the characterisation. Jane is incredibly strong and determined despite appearances. She has to make tough choices throughout yet she always remains true to herself. Her words and inner strength, especially the line ‘I care for myself’, have always been a bit of a comfort blanket and were very uplifting in moments of insecurity.

Meanwhile, Rochester is ambiguous in nature, veering between hero and villain throughout. At points you like then despise him almost instantly; but very much like Jane you are under his spell. Despite never quite knowing how to categorise him, he still entertains the reader. Some of my favourite moments are when Rochester and Jane are together, their dialogue becoming almost like a sparring match. It is an enjoyable read, and one I can’t but adore.

However, despite being one of my favourite books, I’ll admit Jane Eyre  does have some problems, particularly in the latter half. The ending wraps up a little too nicely and conveniently for me, and at some points I did cringe. This is especially true for the reveal about St John and his sisters. I also think the character of St John could have been developed more. Jane is supposed to be conflicted whether or not to marry St John; but I thought he was a bit flat and subsequently never saw any appeal in marrying him.

Jane Eyre holds up to numerous re-reads as I can well testify. The main appeal comes from Jane herself; her strength and determination I’ve always found inspiring. She is very much the heart and soul of the novel, and she lingers in the mind long after the novel closes. Whilst I do have problems with the second half and wish it was a little longer, my impression of the novel now is the same when I first read it over a decade ago; it thoroughly deserved to be ranked as a classic.

Jane Eyre is published by Penguin Classics and you can find more information here.

 

 

Washington Square by Henry James review

Hi everyone! I’ve been neglecting my classics recently despite one of my New Years’ resolutions being to read more of them. So I figured I’d pick up a small novel to ease myself back into them. Washington Square is about Catherine Sloper, a timid and plain young woman who lives with her brilliant but emotionally abusive father, Dr Austin Sloper. One day Catherine meets the dashing Morris Townsend and the pair quickly fall in love. However Dr Sloper is against the relationship, accusing Morris of being a fortune hunter and forces Catherine to choose between her father and her lover.

The ambiguity in Washington Square is what makes this rather overdone plot so interesting. Is Morris really mercenary or does he actually love her? Is Austin right or is his dislike of his daughter causing him to hate the relationship? James gives us some insights into these characters’ thoughts but never explicitly tells you, and as a reader you are left to draw your own conclusions. Also as a result of this ambiguity both the Doctor and Morris become the most interesting characters within the story, and they intrigue and infuriate long after the novel is finished.

That’s not to say Catherine isn’t a fascinating protagonist in her own right. Her journey feels like the heart of the novel, and James writes this incredibly well. I did find her passiveness annoying at times but I think that is deliberate as she needs to be passive for the story to work. The character of Catherine is also interesting as she reveals societal expectations placed on women during this period and the result when these are not fulfilled.

My biggest issue however was James’ writing style. At points it felt overwritten and I was frustrated when he kept inserting himself into the narrative. He would write these little asides which felt completely unnecessary and by the end I just wanted him to get on with it. He had these really interesting characters but the narration fell flat. The Doctor’s backstory at the beginning of the novel also felt pointless. As a result the story would drag and considering my edition is only 200 pages that is quite bizarre.

Overall Washington Square can be summed up as a great idea with fascinating characters but bad execution. It needs an edit to get rid of the filler and maybe more focus on the characters wouldn’t go amiss. It is an odd thing to say, considering this is a book blog, but on this occasion the film is better than the book. The film version called The Heiress is based on the play which was inspired by Washington Square, and successfully fillets out the main plot and removes the drudgery ( and no, I’m not just saying that because my favourite actor of all time Montgomery Clift is in it). One for diehards of James I reckon but not sure who else.

Washington Square is published by Penguin Classics and more information can be found here.

Alternatively, here is a copy of The Heiress.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Leo Tolstoy’s famous (and ridiculously long) novel Anna Karenina, which has been translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Set in 19th century Russia, the novel tracks the lives and loves of a whole cast of characters. At the centre of the story is the eponymous Anna, a married woman who begins an affair with the charismatic Count Vronsky. Their relationship ultimately becomes the catalyst for her downfall. There is also Constantine Levin, a landowner who is in love with Princess Kitty, who in turn has her eye on Vronsky.

This is a stunning, sweeping story of epic proportions. Tolstoy manages to cram so much plot and character development into the narrative that it seems impossible for me to write about them fully. So instead I have decided to focus on the characters of Anna and Levin in my review, as they are the two main players and I feel best exemplify Tolstoy’s writing prowess.

The characters are incredibly well-developed. Both Anna and Levin at first appear likeable, interesting people. You cannot help but sympathise with them at the beginning, especially Levin during his early scenes with Kitty. His love for her is evident, but so is her attraction to Vronsky and as a reader you cannot but help pity him and his inevitable heartache. Yet as the novel progresses, we begin to see their flaws. Anna and Levin seem to have the same insecurity, namely jealousy which threatens to destroy their respective relationships. In these moments I felt frustrated at them, and began to even dislike them. By the end I wasn’t sure how I felt about either, the complexities in their characters making them simultaneously admirable and flawed, but ultimately human.

The language as well is beautiful. With translated work I’m never sure how much credit goes to the author or translators, but regardless here it was stunning. The descriptions of the natural world in particular were very evocative, and I liked how the seasons were used as a device to reflect characters’ moods at various points. The scything scenes with Levin are perhaps my favourite passages. They showed how difficult the work could be but also how fulfilling. It felt almost calming reading about it, Tolstoy describing the surroundings and the men working in the fields. There was something languid that recalls sunny days in the countryside.

Tolstoy also discusses Russian society during this period. There is notably the hypocrisy of an elite group avoiding being seen with Anna, when they themselves had affairs with apparently no consequence. He also talks about the changes in farming, mainly due to technology. This is often debated between Levin and his fellow landowners. Yet these conversations are not dry and dull, but are rather fascinating and show a snippet of life from that period. It is interesting to reflect on the developments described in the novel, and our own technological advancements.

I could probably write a 10,000 review on Anna Karenina and still be unable to do it justice. Initially I was apprehensive about picking it up, mainly due to its size. However it is a classic for a reason. The characters are so well fleshed-out and believable that I didn’t want to leave them by the end. I became so invested in their journeys that I could’ve read more. The prose is amazing, and how Tolstoy weaves the story of a nation into a story of one group of people is incredible. There was never a dull moment and I highly recommend it.

Anna Karenina is published by Vintage and you can find more information here.