Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Horace Walpole – The Castle Of Otranto

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

The Castle Of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is considered to be the first Gothic novel. It was Walpole who coined the name in fact and he set a number of Gothic story elements that have since then been copied extensively: romance, gloomy locations and atmosphere, tragedy and supernatural occurrences. Walpole also lets the story take place in mediaeval times so it has some minor historical elements as well.

The novel is not long. The edition I had was only 80 pages, so one could call it a novella, were it not for the somewhat small letters and the lack of paragraphs and a lack of punctuation, especially in dialogues. It is all crammed together, no matter who’s talking, which makes it troublesome to follow who’s speaking. I should call it a kind of laziness on the side of the editor. Can it be that hard to add some hard enters? If done so it would not have surprised me the number of pages would have doubled.

Either way, it was fortunate that the prose of Walpole is overall very accessible and easily readable. He manages to keep a good pace in his plot with plenty of twists and drama. As a Gothic tale it is a strange story at times, although one could compare it these days to typical soap elements. The difference of course is that it is written in the 18th century and certain plot elements were more common while they are categorized more typically these days. Such is what one can expect if one takes up old novels.

While the story does manage to entertain the plot is not very coherent. I had some trouble keeping the whole picture, although the lack of punctuation and paragraphs could have influenced my view. It is mainly a weird story that does leave an impression because of the twists and the heavy drama. So as the first Gothic novel it is an interesting read, but not that good. What of course doesn’t help is that nowadays we are quite familiar with his at the time original plot elements which would now be seen as somewhat cliché.

Five old novels

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

I am always interested in browsing through a catalog of a certain publisher, if they happen to have an interesting collection, to find some interesting new books. In this case I was checking the Oxford University Press for some interesting titles. I picked up another historical work by Alexandre Dumas, La Reine Margot (1845), describing events in France in the late sixteenth century. Then I noticed they had a remarkable selection of Gothic novels. I am not a particular fan of the genre, although I have read a few, just because they can be quite peculiar and at times I like to have a different take on what I usually read. As I was looking for the best price I came to an omnibus edition of four Gothic novels (of that same title in case you want to check it out yourself) for which I would have paid two or three times as much for each book separately, so the choice was easy. The included novels are The Castle Of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole, Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis, and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley. The last one is the most famous but the description of the other three titles attracted me most.

Alexandre Dumas – The Vicomte De Bragelonne

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Too large to be printed as a whole, Ten Years Later, the third installment of Alexandre Dumas‘s novels about the three (or rather four) musketeers, is usually split into three books. The first book is called The Vicomte De Bragelonne (1847). Like the others books it was originally published as a weekly series and tells Dumas’ interpretation of historical events in the seventeenth century. The interpretation is mainly used to provide a setting for the adventures of his main characters. Dumas doesn’t have to invent the plot, he just needs to spicy it up and invent ways to let his characters play an important role on the background of these events. The edition that I read (Oxford University Press) has extensive notes and commentary which provide some better insight in the how and what of characters and situations, as Dumas does not bother much to give much background information. The story must have a sufficient pace and his readers probably didn’t care that much about knowing more. Else they could’ve just looked it up themselves.

There are certain differences between this book and the previous ones. Perhaps this is also because the story is three times as long and what Dumas usually crams in three times less the size he now can spend more time on other things. First of all is a greater focus on the character of D’Artagnan. In general he also used D’Artagnan as the central character in the previous books but this time I had the feeling Dumas created a greater depth and personalization. This greater focus subsequently had the effect that there was less time to spend on the other characters. Even so, characterization is one of Dumas’ strong points, so that is well done either way. The main difference is that they don’t manage to carry the story as well as we are used to. This means less variation in the color of the story, while this enhances the coherency instead. The previous books often changed tone and mood. Because of this I had to say that there werd better and lesser written parts. Now it is more consistent which leads to a more stable reading feeling. There is less a feeling that there are weaker parts.

Still, this doesn’t mean that the story itself is as strong. Unlike the previous books, Dumas sticks closer to historical events. There is less original plot concerning the non-historical characters. The middle part of the book has most of it and it is this section which was also the strongest. When the story is of his own invention, and thus usually more adventurous, he manages to exploit his characters better than when it is more restricted.

As the book follows historical events more closely there is less freedom of action and this is one of the reasons why this book has never been adapted, as it is harder to comprise events which so much background and complexity into a movie without explaining what is going on. Of course one can simplify things, but not everything works as well in a movie as it does on the screen, where it can seem duller.

Another adaptation issue is the lack of a main adversary. The previous two books had one or two strong opponents which struggle with the musketeers formed an underlying current alongside the historical events. In The Vicomte Of Bragelonne there is none such of great stature or cunning and even the historical opponents are not as cunning or vicious as before. They are in fact more grey in nature the way that Dumas portrays them.

The ending of the book is much more open as it is a single story cut in three. There is even something of a cliffhanger. Still, the moment picked is alright, probably to provide a sufficient strong open for the next installment, Louise De La Vallière.

This novel is certainly a great continuation of the musketeer saga. Again different with is strong points and weaker elements, but to me a better and more consistent read than the second book, Twenty Years After, while lacking the great moments that make the first book, The Three Musketeers, such a classic. Still I quite recommend it.

December activities

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

The past month I haven’t been posting much. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. For one part I’ve been occupied with some non-fiction and my policy is not to include non-fiction in my postings except for certain non-fiction that is worthwhile reviewing and also more accessible for readers of my site.

Besides the non-fiction I have also been reading some heavier stuff which simply doesn’t read as fast as other books I read. One is the already longly listed novel Eline Vere by Louis Couperus. Although I do enjoy it, I need to be in the mood for it. I hadn’t been into it for a while and some weeks ago I suddenly felt in the mood to pick it up so I’ve finally made some serious progress. I hope to continue it so I can finally review it and remove it from my list.

I also still have plenty of novels on my stash and I decided to pick up the third Musketeer-novel by Alexandre Dumas, titled The Vicomte Of Bragelonne (1850). It is actually the first part of greater work Ten Years Later, but as this work is 2000 pages (in small print), the work is usually cut into three parts. Of the five Musketeer-novels it is one of the two less known ones. The stories of the second novel, Twenty Years After, and the fifth, The Man In The Iron Mask, have been adapted (more or less) for TV and film. To discover what the other novels are about is a nice experience and hopefully I can determine why they have not been adapted.

Either way, I blog my reading activities for my own pleasure. I try to be sufficiently active, but slower periods can always happen. I’m actually pretty amazed I’ve been able to post fairly regularly for 1.5 years already.

A papal mystery

Monday, December 19th, 2011

My buying spree is a bit on a low at the moment. No real need either as my stash of books-to-read is still high. Nevertheless I still look around and as such I picked up a copy of The Scarlet City (1952) by Hella Haasse, one of the great contemporary female Dutch writers who died a few months ago. As such, many of her novels have been translated to English. Besides modern novels she also wrote historical ones. The Scarlet City is one of those, taking place in the papal society of 16th century Rome and the powerful families of those times, like the Borgias. I haven’t read any other of her works before. My taste in Dutch literature is limited, but the same is true for English literature. Eventually one or the other will cross my path. One must at least have tried, and perhaps when the books has been enjoyed, more could follow.

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Master Of Ballantrae

Monday, October 31st, 2011

One who will read The Master Of Ballantrae (1889) by Robert Louis Stevenson will first think it is a historical novel, like Kidnapped, set behind the Scottish Jacobite rebellion of 1745, but then it changes to a more adventurous theme, like Treasure Island, before switching to a more darker and psychological narrative which resembles The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, after which it keeps changing again. Even so, the tale forms a coherent whole, as it is presented as a composition of collected narratives. As such one could see it as a somewhat experimental novel. There certainly is more than meets the eye. Compared to the other novels the story is much darker and gloomier, more realistic and raw, while containing elements of the mysterious. The only conclusion I could make that this book must be categorized as a gothic novel with some unusual characteristics. In a way it also has some resemblances with the novel-length Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Master Of Ballantrae is certainly Stevenson’s most mature psychological novel. The characters have their virtues and vices and also weaknesses. It is a study of how social standing limits behavior and forces to make choices of which none are good. As such this can be a tough book to read. The reader will worry, the characters are not very likable and how can things ever be resolved in a good way? Stevenson twists and turns and comes with a surprising end after all which any prediction will fail to guess.

It is hard to give a good opinion about a novel that is written in such a fatalistic way, but it is written well and all the strange peculiarities and its composed structure make it an interesting read. I do not feel like I should not have read this novel. It was certainly a strange but entertaining experience. It may not be Stevenson’s best or a classic, but more a work of literature than before, showing that he can do more than just a historical or adventure novel. So I will recommend it.

The trouble with story collections

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

I don’t mind reading story collections, but they can be troublesome if I want to write a review about them. Do I give comments about each story or do I give a more general overview of the quality and themes of the stories? One does want to prevent repeating oneself and as I try not to spoil a short story can contain too little that I can’t say more than one or two general sentences about them. So I am always in doubt if I want to write a review or not. It’s easier when it’s a story collection from one author, because that gives you some space to tell more. When you have an anthology of many authors it is much harder. An example of this is a recent acquisition: Songs Of The Dying Earth (2009), a story collection in honor of Jack Vance. Over 20 stories and different authors with a somewhat unique difference. All of the stories take place in the same universe created by Jack Vance. In that way they are connected and also because the authors aim to present a story ‘like Jack Vance’ which provides some measure to which I can write a possible review. I am a big Jack Vance fan, so it doesn’t require special effort for me. At the moment I am still unsure if I will write a review for this book or not.

Next to this story collection I purchases two other novels. One is The Rose Of Dekama (1836) by Jacob van Lennep, a historical novel set in mediaevil Holland. Jacob van Lennep is called the Dutch Walter Scott as he wrote many romantic historical novels. Of course in that period this was a big genre. The Rose Of Dekama is actually one of the few novels by Van Lennep that have been translated into English.

Last up is an epic fantasy novel, King’s Dragon (1997) by Kate Elliott, the first book of the Crown Of Stars series. I have seen the series around for some years, but deemed it to be too mainstream to pick it up immediately. At the local second hand bookstore I found a good copy of the first novel for a good price so I decided to try it out. If it is good enough I will pick up the other novels. One can’t always read the best if one wants to keep reading, so I don’t mind doing a bit of mainstream (if the novel proves to as I expected) series once in a while if it is written well enough to entertain me.

The other city and bookish thoughts

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

The city I live in, The Hague, has a wide range of stores, but they are mostly of average size, which usually means it doesn’t take me much time to browse through them. On the other side the limit on my options usually make it easier to make a choice. With finding new books the situation is different. I like a large choice available, as the smaller the store, the more standard the collection of books will be. They mainly sell what’s most popular. For that reason I visit Rotterdam about once a month. Usually even less often than that as the book collection doesn’t change that fast anyways. Rotterdam is not far away, so that’s not really the issue.

This time it had been about 3 months since I visited last due to some vacations I spent abroad and because I still had a good stash of books. Still one shouldn’t have too large intervals as you could miss out on some opportunities. In the end I was somewhat relieved I didn’t find that many new books. Just three to be exact. In my terms that is a good amount.

First is the second volume of the Renshai Chronicles named Prince Of Demons (1996) by Mickey Zucker Reichert. Obviously another fantasy series. The reason I picked it up were twofold. First was that its price was cheap and second was that I’ve had the first volume for some time. Yes, I was in no hurry to complete the trilogy. I do try some things now and then if I’ve seen certain books in the stores often enough and I haven’t been put back that much. The first book was okay, but nothing peculiar. This book will not be on top of my to-read list, but it is always handy to have something extra for traveling or waste some time.

The next book I had actually read already some years ago. It’s Caesar (1998) by Colleen McCullough, the fifth volume of her historical Masters of Rome series. Only the first three books have been translated in Dutch. I got them from the library in my hometown (when I still went there). Several years later I bought them for a cheap price. They are massive books, but very well written with many details of the first century BC. Most remarkable about the books, and why I liked them so much, was that they didn’t take sides. McCullough tried to portray the characters as they were, although there was obviously some dramatization.

Anyways, I had never bothered about there being sequels until I bumped into some e-books of the author’s name. I did like them, although they didn’t feel as good as the first three. So I was in no rush to get them in paper, unless, as usual, I bumped into them and found the price to low to let be. Now it is so that I’m missing volume 4, so that’s sort of a pity. As I’ve read the novel already I don’t expect to read it again soon. Most probably when I get volume 4, but I’m not in a hurry.

The last book was on my Wanted Books list. It’s The First Collected Tales Of Bauchelain And Korbal Broach (2010) by Steven Erikson. It contains the novellas Blood Follows (2002), The Lees Of Laughter’s End (2007) and The Healthy Dead (2004). I’m a big fan of Steven Erikson and the world of the Malazan books so I’m happy he’s writing more about it.

The only thing I have to decide is if I write a review for the whole book or the three novellas. Technically a novella is long enough for a separate review. With the length of the total book as 380 pages and each novella being over 100 pages it’s just short of a short novel. I didn’t write separate reviews for the collected works of Elric by Michael Moorcock because it contained a lot of extra material next to the main novel and/or novella, which leaves a lack of reviewing the collection edition itself, which is also important. This is not the case for this collection as it contains no more than the three novellas. I’m already ahead in it, so I’ll have to decide soon.