However, 'recent reading' now spans something like 18 months. This post has been kicking around for nearly that long. I kept adding books, but not finishing my mini-reviews. Some are still unfinished, but the growing list was becoming a bit much, so too bad. Here goes:
Alexandre Dumas: Ten Years Later: the third of the Three Musketeer books after Twenty Years After (it gets confusing, and gets worse yet). Ten Years Later is itself normally split into three separate novels in English, being The Vicomte de Bragelonne (which is also another name for the whole three-novel book; oh yes), Louise de la Valliere, and ending with The Man in the Iron Mask. To make it more confusing these 3 books were sometimes split differently and published as five books. If you're looking for an optimal translation (cf. my previous post), stitching old scanned versions together becomes an unholy mess.
There is fortunately an easier solution: don't bother. The swashbuckling adventure of The Three Musketeers peters out into court intrigues, half-hearted stabs at ever-more fantastical alternative histories which have nowhere to go, and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of nothing much happening, before a saddish (and unsatisfying) ending.
A note on The Man in the Iron Mask. Movies have been made of the book because the fundamental idea of some dude locked away with a terrible and dangerous secret is intriguing. In the book, it's a tangential disappointment which isn't central to the story and has no hope of going anywhere, because as the end of the story approaches, Dumas' wiggle room shrinks more and more, and in the end he has no choice but to snap back to the actual history of France at the time. Pfff.
George Eliot: Middlemarch: apparently one of the greatest English novels. I was underwhelmed, and took ages to finish the book. The subtitle is A Study of Provincial Life; on this score it succeeds, perhaps. The book is, in essence, a collection of portraits of people's ups and downs in a small town, with the main arch being a love story which boils down to Victorian repression and hand-wringing in the drawing room. If either of the two frustrated lovers had just come out and said "I dig you so!" in the first few chapters, the book would have been a lot shorter.
Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone: within a few chapters, Wilkie Collins was firmly my favourite Victorian author. The Moonstone is a whodunnit (by some accounts, the first), with some hilarious writing, the ending a little flat but worth it just to soak up the story and characters. Note to self: read Robinson Crusoe.
Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities: Best of times, worst of times and all that. The great Charles Dickens, but does anyone actually read his books? My bookshelves hold plenty of Dickens novels which I've never read. I decided to remedy that: albeit with an electronic version.
My verdict: I can see why he's seen as a great novelist. Some of the characterisations are just masterful. With characters like Sydney Carton, Dickens takes a long pointy finger, digs it deep into your chest and twists everything around. Elsewhere, I found myself chuckling out loud on the train with some of the scenes involving Jerry Cruncher and his night time endeavours.
Having said that: bleak, miserable, dark, sad, gloomy, bleak. Have I mentioned bleak? Very bleak. I'm compelled to read more of his novels, but about one a year is as much as I have strength for.
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: after A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was high time for some American levity. My recollection of Huckleberry Finn was bare feet and a Southern accent in some grainy TV show when I was a child.
That's sort of accurate but hardly portrays the actual books. The Tom Sawyer novel, the first, isn't great, funnyish in places. Tom Sawyer's sheer orthogonality to world he was growing up in made it worth the read. Huckeberry Finn, the second novel, is more of a travel story, if you will, with an escaped slave, and a little more adventure and political commentary of the time.
Which gets me to the hardest part of the novels: the racism. A few pages into Tom Sawyer, and I found myself reading something and thinking "woah, that's a bit heavy". This is Mark Twain, great American novelist? I started the books unaware that they were so controversial. Wikipedia put me right. You can't read novels from that far back without being exposed to the prejudices of the time, but there's prejudice, and there's prejudice. I know there are arguments about Twain using the racism to make the point, but that's not how I perceived it (contrasting to say, Herman Charles Bosman in South African literature). Twain's writing takes it all to a whole new level, I found it deeply uncomfortable.
Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer Abroad: a sequel to the above. Utter schlock. "Lions and tigers" in the Saharan desert. I saw mention that it was a parody. It is too rubbish to be even that. A waste of paper and ink, and my time.
Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name: three more Collins novels, in a row. The Woman in White is a mystery novel, a real page-turner, the battle of wits between Marian and Count Fosco the highlight of the book. Armadale is a sort of ... what? Thriller? Suspense? Family drama? Great read. Finally, No Name makes a social statement about illegitimacy. Some tragedy, some revenge, and some memorable characters.
I've now read Collins' 'four great' novels. Will my estimation of him drop if I move on to his others?
Charles Dickens: Bleak House: didn't take my own advice to wait a while before tackling Dickens again. Started Bleak House some time last year. The first chapter was an incredible polemic against the British legal establishment, the bile, the derision, the invective was second to none. Brilliant! What writing! Then Chapter 2 ... bam. To earth with a thud. Profoundly sad. Why did I start this book, why, why?
I progressed thereafter by a page or two a month for a few months, before picking it up again early this year, forcing myself to just crack on with it. Within a few chapters I was hooked, and I'd now have to rank Bleak House as one of my favourite novels. The prose, the characters, again, just masterful. A fair amount of tragedy, but not as depressing as A Tale Of Two Cities, and just a pleasure to read.
Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South: a romance, a likeable heroine, a "social novel". Deals with class and poverty and industrialisation in a way which is sympathetic, but open-minded and not at all preachy. You sort of know how it's going to end but it was still fun to see it all work out.
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre: three Bronte sisters, all demanding their due. Anne, tick: I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, not the cheeriest of novels ever. Wuthering Heights, not read but seen it on TV a few times so know how that's all going to pan out, I'll read the book eventually anyway, and that'll be Emily taken care of. But for now, Charlotte.
Given her sisters' output, was bracing myself for some heavy going, and went from chapter to chapter waiting for things to go south, but they never did. Not breezy by any stretch, nasty people, nice people, no more than 'mild peril'. A bit too much Jesus for my liking, but I quite enjoyed it. Unless Wuthering Heights in novel form ends up having something which Wuthering Heights in TV form doesn't, Charlotte wins.
I've missed a few books, but these are the 'old' ones. The others will come separately.