The Phantom of the Opera

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Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston Leroux
Published: 1909
Challenges: Reading the Twentieth Century and TBR Pile 2015
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
Underneath the Paris Opera house lives a ghost, a phantom, an angel of music. He haunts those who work at the opera and although many believe the ghost is nothing but a superstition, there are those who truly fear his presence. One of those people is singer Christine Daie. Christine is an orphan and on his death bed her father promised her he would send her a The Angel of Music and this is exactly who Christine meets. Only it isn’t an angel, it’s Erik, the phantom who lives in the depths of the opera. He falls hopelessly in love with Christine and longs for her to feel the same, hoping that when she sees his true face she won’t recoil in horror. Erik’s fascination with Christine could lead to horrific outcomes for Christine and all those she cares for.

My Thoughts
I love the musical The Phantom of the Opera, it is one of my mum’s favourites and I have lovely memories of watching the DVD and seeing the stage production in the West End. I end up in tears every time and my resounding feeling at the end is always ‘but he just wanted to be loved.’ The novel has been on my shelf for years and I have never quite managed to pick it up, which is why I put it on my TBR Pile for this year…and if I’m honest I was a little disappointed.

I found the novel really hard to get in to and I just didn’t feel much interest in the characters, despite knowing the narrative and caring about the musical version. There were points where I genuinely thought I would give up as I was losing interest. The only thing that saved the novel for me was that just over halfway through it actually became much darker and thus much more interesting. After Erik has kidnapped Christine from the stage, right in front of the eyes of the opera audience, we follow Roaul, her love interest, on his quest to find her. Roaul is helped by someone who knows Erik from his past and is aware of the depraved and warped way his mind works and is therefore looking for a trap around every corner. The description of Erik’s torture chamber and ‘house’ by the lake deep underground is terrifying and truly encompasses many gothic features, however despite how fascinating this part was, it still wasn’t enough to make me rave about this book. I think the biggest issue for me is that I know and love the musical so much that this was always going to be a tough benchmark for the book to live up to. Unlike the musical, I didn’t feel any real empathy for Erik, rather I just wrote him off as a horrid character.

I’m glad I have read it, but I don’t think The Phantom of the Opera will be making a permanent home on my bookshelf.

Challenges
The Phantom of the Opera Is the third book ticked off my TBR Pile 2015 which means I am on track in terms of reading the twelve books in twelve years.
It also counts as my book for 1909 in my Reading the Twentieth Century challenge.

The Great Gatsby

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Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published: 1926
Reread
Challenges: The Classics Club, Reading the Twentieth Century
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
On the banks of the river in Long Island is a magnificent, opulent house. Every weekend it is thrown open to the most lavish parties, with never ending streams of liquor, the most talked about guests and fantastic music that takes everyone to the small hours of the morning. Few people are officially invited to these nights of decadence and even fewer people have met their enigmatic host, Mr Gatsby. Some say he is related to the German royal family, others say he is a spy; the sad truth is very few of his guests can actually be bothered to find out, something which is clearly evident at the end of the novel. One of the few who does make an effort is next door neighbour, Nick Carraway, our narrator and it is through him that we discover Gatsby’s background, rise to fortune and the love that has been the driving force behind his life.

My Thoughts
This is probably the third time I have read The Great Gatsby and I find that each reread I have discovered something new and something else that I enjoy about it. From the recent Baz Luhrman adaptation I think people have a certain image of this book and it is so much more than just these spectacular parties you see in the film trailer.

The term ‘The American Dream’ has come up quite a lot recently in my teaching life and I am planning to teach The Great Gatsby so I had this particular theme in mind throughout. The idea of ‘The American Dream’ is that everyone in America has the opportunity and ability to achieve their dreams, whether this is owning a plot of land (I’m thinking Of Mice and Men) or making a pile of money, America is the land of opportunity. But as with many works of literature the reader is left wondering if ‘The American Dream’ is actually achievable or is it just some myth sold to those planning a new life in this country? This is certainly the case for Gatsby, who has all the money he could possibly ever need and yet he is still searching for and desperate for the love of a woman (Daisy) who rejected him when he was poor. In turn, Daisy is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a man who can’t seem to stay faithful, so it seems her American Dream has also fallen short of the mark.

I remember the first time I reread The Great Gatsby I felt a little underwhelmed, however this time I thoroughly enjoyed it. I find the character of Gatsby so fascinating, especially in his attempts to reinvent himself and his quest for money. I also found myself feeling sorry for him at the end of the novel as he truly epitomises the idea that money cannot buy you happiness and can certainly not bring you true and loyal friends. I’m not going to ruin the twist in the novel, but it is a fantastic one and I think Fitzgerald has been very clever when weaving hints at what is to come throughout the novel.

I feel quite scathingly towards some of the characters in this novel and Fitzgerald sums it up perfectly when he writes ‘They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ . Saying that I would LOVE to have attended one of Gatsby’s parties and the ‘romantic possibilities’ they held.

Challenges
Yay another book ticked off of my Classics Club list, this is the challenge I am most worried about -if I could honestly say I was worried about any of them – as I haven’t been as good with my classics reading.
The Great Gatsby counts towards my Reading the Twentieth Century challenge, filling a space in the 1920s.

A Different Class of Murder

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Title: A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan
Author: Laura Thompson
Published: 2014
Challenges: Reading England (second book for London so it doesn’t really count)
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
In November1974 in the basement of 46A Lower Belgrave Street, London a murder was committed. A young nanny was bludgeoned to death, followed by a vicious attack on the other woman who lived in the house, Lady Veronica Lucan. I’m not here to suggest that this is not an extraordinary and horrifying event, however what makes this particular murder so enduring in society’s mind is that the suspected murder is Lord Lucan. An aristocrat by birth and a ‘professional gambler’ by career (yeah not exactly a profession in my mind) Lucan had recently lost a bitter custody battle with his estranged wife, had a mountain of debts running up from his gambling habits and just vanished on the night of the murder. Laura Thompson’s book seeks to address the myth surrounding Lucan, his circle of friends and what really happened that November night. Thompson gives a detailed introduction to the Lucan family and his ancestors as well as an interesting discussion on ‘the Lucan circle’ and possible theories as to the true identity of the murder.

My Thoughts
At some point last year I remember catching the second part of a Channel Four (I think) drama based on Lord Lucan; I missed the first part but I was instantly intrigued. Having been born in 1987 I missed all the drama surrounding the initial case although I have vague recollections of hearing the name ‘Lord Lucan’ but no real understanding of what it meant/who he was. As soon as I saw the programme I knew I wanted to read a book about the case, however I was disappointed when I asked at Waterstones about books on the topic. So imagine my joy when I found out about A Different Class of Murder and when I snapped it up for 99p.

A Different Class of Murder is more than just an exploration of this case, it touches on the history of aristocratic murders and domestic murders and the social changes occurring in the 1960s/1970s. This build up was certainly very interesting however I felt it dragged slightly and I toyed with skipping sections -but I didn’t- and I was certainly pleased when the focus returned to the crime. In places it read like a crime novel or at least a deconstruction of one and I love a good crime novel. I loved the links and quotations from Agatha Christie, which I later found out were largely helped by Thompson’s biography on the crime writer (thank you to Fleur in her World for that snippet). Thompson offers many alternatives to the common belief that it was Lord Lucan who committed this vicious murder and attack on his wife, each of which is equally convincing and believable when you take into account the actual facts and not the opinions of the case. I can see the different sides of the argument, but I also can’t believe that more proof wasn’t required in order to name and essentially hound Lord Lucan.

The discussion on the build up and the murder itself was fascinating and Thompson certainly explores every avenue and possibility and helps to highlight the numerous flaws in the police’s case. It is amazing the number of problems that the police pretty much ignored and I cannot believe that they were able to name and charge Lord Lucan without giving him the option of a defence. The prejudice aimed at Lucan and his circle of friends, particularly from the press, is almost unbelievable at times and Thompson quite rightly states that this would not have been allowed if they were dealing with a working class murder. Perhaps the most memorable and poignant point Thompson makes is as follows:

‘Truth requires that the other side is also heard. Otherwise the solution, however much of truth it contains, can only ever exist in the realms of fiction.’

It is important to remember this when looking at the Lucan case, especially as the police only ever put emphasis on Veronica’s story and appeared to take this as gospel right from the start. I couldn’t say what happened on that November night and I certainly couldn’t explain why Lucan ran if he wasn’t a little bit guilty, but I can definitely understand the morbid fascination with this case. Murder is always an interesting subject and I think one that hasn’t ever been truly resolved is the most interesting of them all. I doubt we will ever discover what really happened that fatal night but Thompson’s book is a great discussion on the possible reasons and I can definitely recommend it.

The Camomile Lawn

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Title: The Camomile Lawn
Author: Mary Wesley
Published: 1984
Challenges: Reading the Twentieth Century, Reading England
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis

‘It is August of 1939 and five cousins have gathered at their aunt’s house in Cornwall for their annual summer holidays.’ Nineteen year old Oliver has just returned from fighting in The Spanish Civil War. He is desperately in love with the beautiful Calypso who claims she is incapable of love. Brother and sister, Walter and Polly have travelled with them for the annual ‘Terror Run’ and orphaned Sophy make up the group. By the end of the evening war has been declared and the lives of the five cousins are dramatically changed. The Camomile Lawn follows the five cousins – and some extended family and friends – throughout the war years and gives a glimpse into how they survived in such turbulent times. The novel takes the reader beyond the war years and into the cousins’ old age, exploring their loves and losses with the ever present backdrop of the camomile lawn and the hope, innocence and lost youth it represents.

My Thoughts

The Camomile Lawn was recommended to me by a work colleague months ago and I always remembered the title but never quite got round to searching out a copy. With my recent obsession with visiting my local library I decided I needed to order a copy in and finally tick this book off my list. I am so glad I did; I know I say this all the time, but I LOVED The Camomile Lawn . Within pages I was laughing out loud, mainly at the somewhat blasé comments of the cousins towards their Uncle Richard’s lost limb, an injury of the First World War. I quickly warmed to the characters and genuinely cared about their lives and wanted to find out what happened to them and how the war affected them. It was interesting to see how their lives intertwined and how their relationships with one another developed and disintegrated in the decades following.

A lot of the narrative is centred on the war years and it was lovely to read about the freedom this brought some characters, such as Helena who found the opportunity to leave Richard in Cornwall and have a life in London, admittedly as the mistress of a Jewish composer who had fled to England with his wife shortly before the outbreak of war, leaving their son to the fates of a concentration camp. There are some sections set in the present day – well the 1980s – and these create a more mysterious element to the narrative as you wonder how each character came to this point in their life and who will turn up at the final event that draws them altogether: a funeral.

My favourite themes running through the novel centres on the sexual liberation/freedom that seems to arrive with the onset of war. This is not a new concept when reading war literature but I loved how the illicit – and often somewhat incestuous – were almost hinted at and not thrown in your face, as some more recent books/films tend to do. The casual way some of them are mentioned almost reflects the casual attitude some had towards sex and relationships during the war. I always feel I fall in to a trap when reading some war literature, especially novels that are written decades after the war, as I get this romanticised view of the war and the freedom and the excitement of the bombings and air raids that came with it. I am fully aware that this is a skewed view and not 100% reflective of reality, but some authors make it sound so glamorous and exciting. There are some strings to the plot that do explore the horrific side of the war, however these are quickly brushed over, perhaps mirroring the ‘carry on with little fuss’ style attitude that was arguably needed to have the strength to go on and keep some element of humour.

The Camomile Lawn is a fantastic read and I would certainly recommend it. In keeping with my reading habits of this year I have enjoyed this novel and the escapism from reality it brought me. It is a lovely novel and I am keen to discover more of Mary Wesley’s work in my local library.

Challenges
The Camomile Lawn counts towards my Reading the Twentieth Century challenge, ticking off another year in the 1980s and my Reading England challenge, introducing Cornwall to the mix.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

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Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Author: Winifred Watson
Published: 1938
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015, Reading England, Reading the Twentieth Century
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 l

Synopsis
Miss Pettigrew is on her last chance. She has no position, no income and her landlady is threatening to have her evicted, which for a lady in her 40s with no family is a terrifying prospect. She has two chances at a job; a maid or a governess. So when she knocks on the door of Miss LaFosse’s London flat the last thing she expects is to be swept into a world of glamour, parties and men. From the moment Miss Pettigrew meets Miss LaFosse she is saving her from various men and helping her to cover up their existence when the next one appears. Miss LaFosse is eternally grateful and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing as her new friend, introducing her to her glamorous friends and giving her the make over Miss Pettigrew always dreamed off. It is a tale that takes Miss Pettigrew to a world she never thought existed and certainly a world she never knew she could be a part of.

My Thoughts
It is very rare that I finish a book with a huge smile on my face, yes I enjoy a lot of what I read and a lot of it makes me smile, but Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day left me feeling uplifted and just generally happy. Miss Pettigrew’s journey from a quiet, unassuming and slightly scared woman to a confident woman who finally finds her calling in life was a lovely one. It truly showed how someone’s life could easily change in just one day and change for the better. Miss Pettigrew is a lovely character and although she is only 40 – which is hardly old – she seems much older and reminds me of a lovely old lady and an old lady you want to have around in a crisis. Within minutes of meeting Miss LaFosse she starts helping her out and makes her realise what, or who, she truly wants in life. It made me want a Miss Pettigrew of my own, as I know there are times when I desperately need someone else to steer me in the right direction and perhaps having someone impartial can be hugely beneficial. Perhaps one of my favourite chapters centred on a visit to a party and Miss Pettigrew, who has never really had a drink before, has a few too many strong drinks and tells one young man exactly what he needs to hear. I loved the description of Miss Pettigrew after a few drinks and the confidence she felt; ‘she felt grand. She felt brimming with authority and assurance. It was a marvellous sensation. She thought scornfully of her former timid self.’ . I loved how confident and bolshy the alcohol made Miss Pettigrew and how free she felt having drunk, although she did suffer from the sober guilt of ‘have I offended anyone’ which I also enjoyed.

For me the novel explored the idea that you should take advantage of all opportunities that come your way and that helping others will always lead to positive outcomes and I think this is what left me smiling at the end. Miss Pettigrew got exactly what she deserved, in a positive way and I was pleased for her character. To go from having no one and nothing to having everything is a lovely ending.

Challenges
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day falls into three of my challenges for the year, so I am very pleased; I like books that tick more than one box. This is the second book I have read from my TBR Pile 2015; I am happy with the progress I am making with this challenge especially as I have a bit of a head start with two books in one month. This novel also ticks off London in my Reading England 2015 challenge. I only set the challenge of reading 4-6 counties so I am hoping two counties in one month is a promising sign. Finally, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is another book towards my Reading the Twentieth Century, so all in all a good challenge book.