Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

One of the first classics I ever read was Oliver Twist. At school we had these children’s versions of classics, which is a great way of introducing children to these wonderful books in my opinion, and soon after I read the ‘real’ Oliver Twist. I was a tomboy, got in a lot of trouble at school and with adults in general and even stole the occasional apple from the market. So after reading Oliver Twist, I decided that if I ever were to marry, I would marry the Artful Dodger. But I wasn’t the only Dickens-lover at home. My mother studied English and I found her thesis on Dickens’ characters once, and it’s wonderful. I think we can both agree that the characters make Dickens’ stories great. And Oliver Twist has a few of my favourites.

On a dark and stormy night, a boy is born in Mudfog workhouse, and he is named Oliver Twist. His mother Agnes died in childbirth and Oliver is looked after through the ‘Poor Law’. When he turns nine, he is sent to the main workhouse to work. After losing when all the boys draw lots, Oliver gets up in the workhouse, asking for more food. Oliver is then sold to Mr. Sowerberry, an undertake, as an apprentice of sorts. But this doesn’t last long either: as Mr. Sowerberry’s other apprentice Noah insults Oliver’s mother, Oliver attacks him, gets locked up and eventually runs away to London. In London he meets the Artful Dodger, a young pickpocket. Oliver’s innocence makes him follow Dodger after just a few words and he takes him to the place where Fagin lives, the man who ‘employs’ a fair number of street thieves. In Fagin’s den, Oliver meets a young and sweet girl by the name of Nancy and her terrifying and abusive lover called Bill Sikes, who all the boys fear. Oliver still has no idea what the boys get up to and when he goes out with them and they steal, Oliver runs away and is blamed for the theft.  He is eventually cleared in court, but falls ill from shock.

The gentleman who was robbed is Mr. Brownlow and he takes Oliver home with him, where his ward Rose looks after the boy. Fagin is scared however that Oliver will talk, so they abduct him and take him back to their den of thieves. Another part of the story, a parallel line in the novel if you like, is about a man we get to know as Mr. Monks. He talks with Fagin about Oliver and he wants Fagin to make the boy into a thief. Eventually, we find that he simply wants Oliver dead. Even Fagin wonders why a gentleman would take an interest in a simple workhouse boy, but Mr. Monks is willing to pay a lot for it. Nancy regrets having taken part in Oliver’s abduction and lets Rose know where he is, paying for her betrayal with her own life at the hand of Sikes. In the end, Oliver is saved, Mr. Monks is captured and revealed for who he truly is, as is Oliver, and we get our happy ending.

The reason I mentioned my mother was twofold: her thesis on Dickens’ characters and because she taught me a lot about the life of Dickens. She once mentioned that Dickens appeared to be almost afraid of women, like we were some mysterious creatures that could never really be understood. It is interesting to me then, the role that women play in this novel especially. Women are often only side-characters in Dickens’ books, as women often were in life at that time. But in Oliver Twist the women save the day. These two heroines are Nancy and Rose. They come from very different backgrounds, but both are often overlooked or not being taken seriously, because they are women. Rose has never given up looking for her sister Agnes, even though people kept telling her to give up. She is also the one who trusts in Nancy when she risks her life to tell her where Oliver is. Nancy is a thief and it is often said that she is a prostitute, though this is never mentioned in the novel, only assumed. She is still very young, but as determined as Rose is. When she changes her mind about Oliver, she risks everything to make things right. Her concerns for a young boy are more important to her than her loyalty to Fagin and Sikes, and this costs her her life. These two women together change the plot of the story completely, because if they wouldn’t have spoken, Oliver would just have disappeared into the underworld of London and Mr. Monks would have gotten his way and no one would have known who Oliver really was! I’d say that both girls are only seventeen or eighteen years old, but they are still my role models to this day.

Another thing that Dickens does very well is his social critique through stories and, again, characters. He describes the horrific effects of the new ‘Poor Laws’ on an innocent child. Oliver’s innocence is at times unrealistically exaggerated, but to make a point I think! The industrialism in 19th century England brought great poverty with it and Dickens doesn’t shy away from describing its effects, mostly on children. They appear to be either thieves or whores, living in filth and at the mercy of men like Sikes and Fagin. The gentlemen, the men on the board of the workhouse and people like Mr. Sowerberry, are hypocrites, reflecting the harshness and greediness of the times. Oliver is the exception and so are the Brownlows, but Dickens does make you think: what happens to all those other children living in poverty, who don’t have a benefactor somewhere out there? What happens to the other Nancys? It’s a sad image, but Victorian London unfortunately was.

Now, to be honest, Dickens’ plots aren’t always the greatest. This has a lot to do with him publishing his books often in monthly instalments, and I sometimes feel that Dickens doesn’t quite yet how he will end the book when he’s halfway through the story. Oliver Twist isn’t like that, or so I think, but the plot does unfold rather quickly and conveniently, which makes it less believable. But one doesn’t read Dickens for the plot, but for his way with words! Though first published in 1837, Dickens is easy to read and a master of language. His prose is often smooth, while his critique on society is razor-sharp. But there’s also humour, in the form of comical characters, but also the dark kind, the satire, which attacks society in a fashion that is both hilarious and spot-on. At times you even feel like Dickens is directly speaking to you, pointing out your flaws with beautiful words and phrases. However, I often read that people find Oliver Twist amusing and the characters funny, but I want to point out that they are not. Oliver Twist is a bitter satire, from the pen of a man bitter about the effects of ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ from 1834 on all people and deeply disappointed in society to let it come this far.

This was probably the hardest review for me to write, not because I didn’t know what else to say about this glorious piece of fiction and critique, but because my other versions were simply far too long. The things I could say on each character individually, I could write a whole review on Fagin alone! I could write more about the social developments in Victorian England and its obsession with death that came with it. I could write a long and angry essay on why Dickens isn’t appreciated as the rebel and fighter-for-justice-with-prose that he is. But I won’t, and for these things I would refer you to my mother, who taught me all I know on the subject. I would simply say: read the book; feel uncomfortable at its descriptions of pain and poverty and marvel at Dickens’ storytelling: a true classic, in every sense of the word.

Golden Watch Award: For all the gentlemen, hypocrites and pickpockets, roaming the streets together

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London, 1837-1839)

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Thura Nightingale 

My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One morning my mother came downstairs, pushed this book into my hands and said: “Here read this, you’ll enjoy it.” This happens quite a lot between me and my mom and I am sure my fellow book lovers will recognize this occurrence with the book-loving people in their life. There are few things better than a loved one walking up to you with a book and saying ‘here read this, you’ll love it’ or you walking up to a loved one with a book yourself. It was an interesting way to get my hands on this particular book because it is about the bond between a mother and a daughter.

The story is about Lucy Barton. This book tells about her time spent in the hospital when she got an appendectomy. Due to complications, Lucy is forced to spend six weeks in the hospital. During her hospitalization, her estranged mother visits her and stays at her bedside for about a week. At that time, she had not seen or spoken to her mother for years. During their time together, mother and daughter don’t talk a lot with each other but mainly sit together in silence. Lucy observes her mother and sees all the ways she cares for Lucy. This is most clear when Lucy is taken for an X-ray somewhere in the hospital while her mother is gone. Lucy is worried about that, but when she comes out of the X-ray room her mother sits outside waiting for her. Lucy realises she must have looked for Lucy all over. The things they do talk about are people from Lucy’s youth and her growing up. This helps us, readers, to piece together parts of Lucy’s youth. But we get to know more about Lucy’s past through Lucy’s memories stirred by her mother’s visit. This book weaves together those stories of Lucy’s past, with anecdotes of her life now with her husband and two young daughters, her time in hospital and also about her future and how she becomes a writer. The talks between her mother and her in the hospital form the basis of Lucy’s first book.

The themes in this book are family, love, poverty, abuse and forgiveness. Lucy grew up in poverty. They lived in an uncle’s garage until he died and they moved into his house. Her father was traumatized by the Vietnam war which had its effect on the family. Both Lucy and her mother are too afraid to address these topics and even their new-found closeness cannot break the silence. Only later, after her stay in the hospital, Lucy wonders whether there was abuse in their family because of the conversations she has with another writer while writing her first book. Often Lucy wants to ask her mother questions to clarify her own memories to know what exactly happened. There is a lot Lucy seems to have forgotten. However, she never dares to, as if she is afraid to chase her mother away and to break the fragile bond they have now. The relationship between Lucy and her mother and the rest of her family is strained. There has been no contact since the moment Lucy left her childhood town for New York. This strained relationship also has its effect on the relation Lucy has with her daughters and husband. In all the little anecdotes she tells about them her love is obvious, but also a kind of powerlessness to understand and connect with them shines through the same as with Lucy’s family growing up. Weaving all these different storylines and anecdotes together works very well to create a picture of Lucy and her life.

What I really liked about this book is the way Elizabeth Strout has set up the narrative and story. The story is not told with a linear timeline, but pieces of the past, present and future are interwoven. For example, in one chapter you read a hint about something that might have happened, which is confirmed in a later chapter when Lucy talks about her book. In this way, we get to puzzle together Lucy’s story ourselves as readers without being sure about everything. This makes Lucy a very interesting character because every reader will have their own opinion on her. It also makes Lucy feel like a realistic woman. I liked Lucy but thought she was a bit too passive. This is all written in a very careful writing style where no word is too much. The whole book is less than 200 pages, but there are a lot of elements in this story. Consequently, I found myself reading the book very slowly, reading a few pages once every few days, so I could take in the whole story and not miss anything. I needed time to reflect and think about what happened. And still, I missed a lot. This is definitely the kind of book you can read again and again to see if you can understand Lucy better.

It could also be that the melancholic atmosphere of the book made me read slowly. There is a very sad, bittersweet feel to this book and I didn’t want that feeling to become too big by reading too much. However, this book is also strangely optimistic. I call it strangely optimistic because despite that generally this book put me in a sad mood, it was a happy kind of sad. As if, although Lucy and her family’s lives are by no means a happy one, it is somehow alright because of that time she spends with her mother in the hospital. As if her mother’s stay at her bedside showed Lucy the kind of love from her mother, she has been looking for her whole her life. For example, her mother could never tell her she loved her. Even in the hospital, she can’t. But in the hospital, Lucy gets to see the different ways her mother shows love. It seems that moment freed her to make new decisions in her life and to finally become a writer. Or maybe it was the ending that made this book the happy kind of sad. The book ends with a short chapter which is Lucy’s love letter to her childhood home: she describes the sunset on the farmlands around her childhood home. In this way, she makes peace with her past.

In short, this is a very nice book about a woman ruminating about her past and what it all means to her in her life now. It also asks the question of how to find a way to overcome that past to continue living in your own way. Also, the question of the role of family in one’s life plays a big part in this book. This is the kind of book that stays with you long after it’s finished. Especially if you love stories about family and all the different ways they function or don’t function. To speak in Tolstoy’s words: “All happy families are the same, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This book shows how an unhappy family can come to terms with a part of this unhappiness.

Family award for showing us the complex mix of love, happiness, sadness and forgiveness between people when there’s blood involved.

 

Elizabeth Strouth, My name is Lucy Barton (New York, 2016)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

For a much longer time than I expected, vampire romance novels were everywhere. I have enjoyed and subsequently tired of the genre like the rest of us, but was called back to it by the splendid cinematography of Sky series A Discovery of Witches. After watching the series I decided to read the book, half expecting to hate it. Instead, it turned out to be exactly the thing to get me out of a reading slump, along with The Raven Boys. It’s a story not only about vampires, but witches and daemons as well. To my delight, much of the story revolves around history. Finally, a book that makes good use of the fact that half its characters are centuries old. Why even bother writing a vampire romance of you’re not going to put knights and castles in it?

The world of A Discovery of Witches is exactly like the real world, except for the fact that witches, vampires and daemons, collectively called ‘creatures’, exist in it. They keep their existence a secret and pass for ordinary humans. Vampires are dangerous predators and are immortal, witches can possess all kinds of magic and daemons are volatile creatures who walk the line between genius and madness.

Diana Bishop is an American historian from Yale University, specialised in the role of alchemy in the development of experimental science in the early modern period. She is also a witch, although she wants nothing to do with that part of herself. While studying alchemical manuscripts in Oxford, Diana calls up a book only to discover it is brimming with magic. Reminding herself that she is only interested in the historical value of the volume, she sends it back to the stacks. If she thought that would be the end of it, she was badly mistaken: other witches, vampires and daemons in the Bodleian library have felt the magic too and soon, word spreads among the creatures that Diana Bishop, the American witch, has found the long-lost ‘Ashmole 782’, the mysterious book that every group of creatures wants for itself. But no-one else is able to call up the book: it is lost again.

One of the creatures who come flocking to Oxford after this news is Matthew Clairmont, an imposing, fifteen hundred year old vampire. He has been looking for the volume himself for several centuries, believing that it holds knowledge about the origin of creatures. After he ascertains that Diana is no longer in possession of Ashmole 782, he has no other choice than to keep watch nearby, hoping to persuade Diana to call back the manuscript with her magic. As a grudging friendship inevitably turns into romance, they make enemies of most other people in their world: for not giving them Ashmole 782, for their forbidden vampire-witch relationship and for reasons they don’t understand yet, but might have to do with Diana’s parents, who died when she was seven. Fleeing threats from witches and vampires, they travel first to Matthew’s family castle in France and then to the friendly haunted house of Diana’s aunts in upstate New York, all the while trying to make sense of the mysteries that suddenly fill their lives.

Deborah Harkness is a historian, like Diana, and between Diana and Matthew, who was born around 500 AD, half the dialogue is about historical facts and ancient books. It is gloriously geeky, full of references to crusades, early science, wars and poetry. I learned about a troubadour language that I didn’t know existed and was delighted alongside Diana every time she found a manuscript or first edition in Matthew’s tower library (a Gutenberg Bible and a first edition of The Origin of Species among them). Diana dives into history while Matthew has brought a lot of history with him to the present. Since one of those things is a chivalric order, I can’t wait for the fighting to break out in part two of the series and finally see those vampire knights in action.

A whole book is a lot to read about just two people and their blossoming feelings for each other, so luckily there are a host of other interesting characters. I liked Sarah and Emily, Diana’s temperamental aunt and her longtime partner, a lot. They are practical, kind and caring, and very attuned to each other. Their house is both bewitched and haunted by Diana’s ancestors, who provide sarcastic dialogue in the background. My other favourite is Sophie, a young daemon who seems ditzy but is in fact intuitive, sweet and determined. The vampires were harder to like, always brooding and secretive, but they made great antagonists like Domenico, a sneering Venetian vampire, and Gerbert, an ancient menace who is infamous for once having kept a witch captive to drink her blood and learn her magic.

The story is good, not great, but good. Deborah Harkness doesn’t hurry, recording every glance and thought and change in the air with meticulous dedication. I like slow storytelling, although I must confess that she sometimes went overboard, like when she took a whole paragraph to describe someone putting on their shoes. Also, the book didn’t really end – it just stopped when one part of the story was more or less done. It was neither an open ending nor a cliffhanger. I guess the All Souls trilogy is more a three-volume-book than a three-part-series, like The Lord of the Rings. This disappointed me a little, because I did just read 688 pages leading up to a conclusion that wasn’t there.

What I liked better than the story was the world building. Although the world is basically our own, Deborah Harkness built the reality of the creatures into it. All the main characters are creatures. Humans live in the background only and most of them have no idea that daemons, witches and vampires exist. Most stories give an explanation along the lines of ‘humans would be scared if they knew and kill them, therefore the mythological beings live in secret’ and leave it at that. Harkness, on the other hand, really expands on how creatures live, what their traditions and cultures are like, how they lived and organised themselves in different time periods and how they fit into modern society. The reality she creates seems plausible and that’s not easy in this genre.

When I imagine immortal creatures like vampires, I always wonder how they can have normal, equal relationships with ordinary-aged people, romantic or otherwise. If their mind ages, they are surely far too mature to be interested in the few decennia of wisdom a normal person has to offer. If, on the other hand, their mind stays frozen at the same level of maturity as their body, how can there be any character development? The vampires in A Discovery of Witches seem to feel as young as their bodies are, which makes me wonder if Matthew’s character will develop over the course of the trilogy. As he is quite controlling and possessive at the moment, I hope the author finds a way to change him believably so that he can be in a healthy relationship with the much younger Diana.

I’m not surprised that she falls for him, though. I don’t even like Matthew that much but a man who can tell you about the great moments of literature, science and music first-hand is irresistible. The whole book is written with great love for history and that alone makes it worth reading. It’s not that fashionable to be interested in history where I’m from, but there’s so much beauty, wisdom and wonder in the past, so many triumphs and mistakes. If to read books is to lead many lives, as somebody said, than to read history books is tantamount to being immortal. If a fantasy book conveys a tiny bit of that magic, it’ll win me over. This one did.

Immortal Keanu Reeves Award for the mysterious people in our world with personal libraries and illustrious past lives.

Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches (London, 2011)

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Jo Robin

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

A few months ago, I reviewed Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys and ended my review with how many of the questions I had were still left unanswered. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the book and it was nothing like I had expected or feared. It should come as no surprise that as soon as I finished that review, I continued reading my way through the series. This review, however, will contain some spoilers, so if you have not read the series I would like to redirect you to my review of the first book, which contains no spoilers at all, and you can find it here. In The Dream Thieves our beloved dysfunctional gang is back, including a pet raven, more magic, a dead Irish mobster and a hundred identical white cars. Yeehaw!

Speaking freely now, the end of The Raven Boys was such a rollercoaster. We found out that Noah wasn’t just joking, he has actually been dead for seven years, and the boys’ Latin professor killed him, when they were in school together. Noah was actually sacrificed on the lay line, in order to try and wake the ley lines up. Also, Adam has moved out! This is great news, but the even better news is that Ronan beats Adam’s father to a pulp before he does so. Cabeswater is the magical forest that seems to just have appeared on the ley line, and where the trees speak Latin. The gang eventually find their creepy Latin teacher in the forest trying to perform another ritual, when he pulls a gun on Gansey. Adam intervenes by offering himself up to Cabeswater, to be ‘its hands and eyes’, which wakens the ley lines and gets the creepy Latin teacher trampled. The book ends with Ronan casually mentioning that he pulled Chainsaw, his pet raven, from his dreams.

The sequel mostly revolves around Ronan, but Ronan isn’t anything without his little gang, so fret not. We learn that Ronan has inherited his knack of taking objects from his dreams from his father: a bit of a cliché Irish bastard, but Ronan seems to have loved him. A lot of Ronan’s issues do stem from seeing his father getting murdered. In this book Ronan tries to learn to control his gift, by showing it to his friends, but also through some lessons. A new character starts to play an important role in this novel, by the name of Kavinsky. Interestingly enough, he has the same talent that Ronan has, he is the roughly the same age, but they are nothing alike. Kavinsky throws loud parties, risks everything that can be risked, appears to have no fear and owns a hundred identical cars, pulled from his dreams. Ronan, on the other hand, has a pet raven he loves very much. However, Kavinsky does manage to teach Ronan a few things about himself and on how to control his gift. But that’s not the only challenge Ronan faces in The Dream Thieves: there is also the issue of his father’s will stating that his children can’t return to their childhood home, ‘the Barns’, even though their mother is still there. But, it should come as no surprise that Ronan challenges the will and goes anyways.

Another new character appears in town: The Gray Man. He is indeed a hitman, as the name might make you think, and he is looking for something called a ‘Greywaren’. He believes this to be an object that enables one to pull objects from dreams, though the reader knows it is not an object. The Gray Man is in fact the man that killed Niall Lynch, Ronan’s father, years ago, but he was hired to do so, as he is now. His employer remains a bit of a mystery, but his search doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when he gets to Ronan’s brother Declan. Also, pulling things from dreams takes energy from the ley line and with both Kavinsky and Ronan at it, draining the ley line has all kinds of effects on the small town of Henrietta. This is yet another challenge Ronan has to face, but when his beloved little brother Matthew gets taken, he really is out for blood.

I’ve praised Maggie Stiefvater’s writing style in my last review and I will try not to repeat myself. It’s as good as in the first book, maybe even better. In my first review I mostly went into her great gift for dialogue and that is still great and like you’re there with them. But this time I would like to praise her gift of creating space and ambience. Stiefvater isn’t one for describing places and scenery in great detail, but somehow she manages to create an entire world with just a few words. It’s like looking at one of those Tumblr moodboards. Just a few words, and I know what Henrietta looks like, what Monmouth Manufacturing looks like and what 300 Fox Way smells like. I can almost feel the texture of Blue’s hair, I can sense Ronan’s rage and I can hear Adam thinking. It is truly a remarkable thing that Stiefvater has accomplished here and many famous authors of great literature that have yet to master the skill of saying so little, while creating so much.

To be completely honest, this book didn’t have a great plot. If you didn’t like the first book, you really shouldn’t bother with the second one. The actual storyline, of finding a dead Welsh King and Gansey possibly dying, takes a step back in The Dream Thieves. But from the start, this series was all about the adventure of a raven king versus the madness of everyday (magical) life. And whichever way you look at it, this story starts and ends with the characters. The characters make the story. In my review of the first book I asked the question on why we should care about a dead Welsh king, but the answer is simple really: because Gansey wants to find him, because he needs to find him and because we want nothing but the best for Gansey! This sequel really explores the characters, especially Ronan and Adam, but all the others as well. I didn’t like Blue much at first, but she is starting to grow on me. It’s like getting to know a little sister and I feel so protective of her. The friendship between Blue and Noah: it’s absolutely wonderful and so pure. It’s the kind of love between friends that I never knew I needed. Gansey is still just Gansey, but there is a sense of loneliness to him that is even more pronounced in this novel. Like all the others, this is one of the elements that made the character even more three-dimensional in this sequel. Adam is my lone warrior, the magician, the broken boy that made my heart bleed a little. I cannot wait until he realises just how powerful he is. And I also loved the new characters! We don’t learn much about Kavinsky, but I was just fascinated by this train-wreck of a youngster, from beginning to end. There’s The Gray Man dating Blue’s mother, that was a twist, but I’ve never read about such a polite hitman before, so all is possible, right?

RONAN, I just can’t with this character. He is like my Irish farmer/hooligan good-heart-but-bad-manners baby and I want all the best for him in life. In the first book for the first few hundred pages he seemed like a bit of an arsehole to be honest, but I was already intrigued by then. The interesting thing in ‘The Dream Thieves’ are all the chapters from Ronan’s point of view, and you really get to know him. And he is just hurt. I loved how Ronan and Declan go to church every Sunday, because their younger brother Matthew demands it. I loved Ronan’s protectiveness of all he holds dear, while breaking every rule there is to break. I loved the fact, and this is the only real spoiler I’m giving for this book, that Ronan is gay. It was one of those fantastic moments where I didn’t see it coming, but it made perfect sense to me. He has none of the cliché traits that gay people often have in media, except that he, you know, loves a boy. I was utterly thrilled by every detail we got to know about Ronan Lynch:
”Ronan Lynch, keeper of secrets, fighter of men, devil of a boy, had told them all that he could take objects out of his dreams.”
His second secret is Adam Parrish, the one secret Ronan doesn’t even let himself think. Unless he thinks things like this:
‘’It was hard not to stare at the odd and elegant lines of his face.”
I cannot thank Maggie Stiefvater enough for creating this character.

All in all, this book wasn’t as good story-wise as the first book in the series. However, I loved this one ever better than the first one, and that is down to Maggie Stiefvater’s characters. I want more of them, all of them, and I want it now. That’s how real they are in my mind and that says a lot about an author’s abilities. I see them all so clearly before my eyes, the way they look, smell, hold themselves and with all their strengths and many, many flaws. I need them to be okay and I want all the best for them. We have now reached the point that I would adopt them all and I have four dysfunctional boys and one eccentric girl as my babies in my heart. So, furiously reading on it is, once again.

Lucid Award: for taking conscience dreaming to a whole new level

Maggie Stiefvater, The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2), (New York City, 2013)

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Thura Nightingale