The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

When Nicholas Nickleby's father dies, Nicholas is left to care for his mother and sister in drastically reduced circumstances. They lose their home and most of what it contained, and though their paternal uncle Ralph has the means to help, he does not have that inclination. In fact he sets himself against them and does all he can to ensure their lives are as difficult and unhappy as possible. 

Nicholas takes a job teaching in a boy's school run by the most obnoxious schoolmaster you'd ever want to meet. He and his family enjoy starving, beating and making the students miserable in as many ways as possible. Nicholas tries to help for a time, but when he can endure the injustices no longer, he leaves, unintentionally taking a student with him. Meanwhile, his sister, Kate, is forced into a thankless job and compromising situations by her cold-hearted Uncle, who begins to see his pretty neice as a possible advantage in his business interests.

Everyone is quite wretched for a time, but then, to the reader's reflief, Nicholas is hired by the Cheeryble brothers, who do much to help the family and bring justice to all the offenders. 

There is far more to the story than this brief description and there are many more characters fleshing out this lengthy novel, but I'll let you discover them for yourselves. Suffice it to say that it's Dickens, so there'll be some you love and some you hate and you'll probably be happy with the outcomes of all. 

The writing can get wordy and sometimes I wish he'd just get on with it, but then I come to lines like this and think again what a privilege it is to read his writing at all:

" The rules are a certain liberty adjoining the prison, and comprising some dozen streets in which debtors who can raise money to pay large fees, from which their creditors do NOT derive any benefit, are permitted to reside by the wise provision of the same enlightened laws which leave the debtor who can raise no money to starve in jail, without the food, clothing, lodging, or warmth, which are provided for felons convicted of the most atrocious crimes that can disgrace humanity. There are may pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humouous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

Dickens is disgusted by the injustice he sees in his society and he uses his novels to say so, clearly and with emphasis. I appreciate that aspect of his books, and the slightly more subtle way he skewers vanity and foolishness in his characters - 

"Mrs. Squeers adjusted the bonnet and veil, which nothing but supernatural interference and an utter suspension of nature's laws could have reduced to any shape or form." 

Well, maybe not so subtle, but perfectly worded, as are the following:

"...where sparking jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion."

"...addicted to every depravity for which society can find some genteel name."

Reading Dickens is always enjoyable. The writing, the plot, and the characters all make this one well worth your time.  

Friday Book Beginnings

Rose City Reader hosts Friday Book Beginnings each week. She asks that we "share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.” 

My book beginning:

One of the books I'm reading now is A House By The Shore by Alison Johnson. The first line doesn't tell you much so I'll include a bit more:

'"One stormy December evening when we were discussing alternative careers, Andrew decided it was time I wrote a book.
    "But how would I start?"
"I'll give you chapter headings," he volunteered, hopefully. "One: How I married Andrew and Had to Keep Him for the Rest of His Life. Two: Why We Came to Harris - why did we come to Harris?"
     "Not for the weather," I said, glumly..."'

The book chronicles the 12 years Alison Johnson and her husband spent on Harris, an island in the Outer Hebrides. They taught school there for a while then bought an abandoned manse, and after much hard work and endless difficulties, turned it into a successful inn. At only a few pages in I'm finding it fascinating, but for an ocean-obsessed island-addict that was pretty much inevitable.

Be sure to visit Rose City Reader to check out some of the other Book Beginnings posted there.

The Prince and the Pauper

 The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

Two boys, one a prince and one a pauper, discover they look alike, almost identical in fact, and so, wouldn't it be fun to change places for awhile? The prince exchanges his rich clothing for the rags of the pauper and heads out into the the streets of London; the pauper dresses himself in the prince's finery and heads into the palace. 

The prince is soon discovered by the pauper's abusive father who mistakes him for  his own son and treats him accordingly. He runs away, is caught again, then is rescued by a kind man who plays along with his claiming to be a prince but in truth thinks he's lost his mind. Again he falls into the hands of his father and his cohorts, is roughly handled, half-starved and tormented, not at all the fun adventure he'd expected when switching identities with the pauper. 

The pauper, who palace officials suspect has lost his mind, doesn't know how to behave, where to go or what to say and doesn't recognize any of the prince's closest advisors and attendants. No one questions him in spite of his strange behaviour because he is, after all, the prince and could order their heads removed at any time. He quickly adapts to living like a prince, enjoying the luxury, the obedience of others whenever he speaks, and the public adulation, even doing some good in the making of more merciful laws for the people. As the time for his coronation as king approaches, his mother recognizes and approaches her missing and much grieved son, but he casts her off. Then, haunted by the pain and sadness in her eyes, he is filled with grief and shame at what he has become. 

In the end the real prince, now the king, is restored to his exalted position, and the pauper is honored and rewarded for the good things he did while the throne was his. Relationships are restored, the good are happy and the bad are miserable -  the right and proper conclusion for any fairytale.     


 Nemesis by Agatha Christie

I'm just getting into the Miss Marple novels and am quite enjoying them. With wonderful writing and quirky characters they could, I'm sure, become addictive.

In this one Miss Marple is surprised to receive a letter asking her to meet with the solicitors of a recently deceased old acquaitance. At their office they explain that the deceased has left her a large sum of money, contingent on her accepting the challenge of solving a mystery. 

She's given no further information, but a couple of weeks later she receives an invitation to a home and garden tour, all expenses paid. Making the acquaintance of others on the tour raises a few questions, and when one of them is killed in a suspicious accident it leads to the discovery of a previous crime and the reason her friend wanted her to get involved.

I love the way this author puts together the pieces of the puzzles she creates. I'm not a fan of how she concludes the stories with a fairly long summary of what happened and how she detected each clue and what it meant - I'd rather those things be revealed as the story progresses - but I so enjoy her writing that I will keep reading them. This one is in an omnibus of 4 stories, of which this was the second I've read. I'm hoarding the other two for one of those inevitable times when I'll be discouraged with other books and will need to read something I know I can count on to be enjoyable. Agatha Christie always comes through.

Friday Book Beginnings

 Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays. If you want to participate, visit her site here to see how it's done. She asks that we "share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.” 

My current read is The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner. It begins like this...

" Once the whole of the island of Castellamare was plagued by a curse of weeping. It came from the cave by the sea, and because the islanders had built their houses from that rock, which had been the liquid fire of the volcano itself, very soon the weeping rang in all the walls of the buildings, it resounded along the streets, and even the arched entrance of the town wailed at night like an abandoned bride."

It sounds creepier than it is. This is the first line of the prologue and isn't the main story line, just a bit of background that comes up now and then. 

Be sure to visit Rose City Reader to check out some of the other Book Beginnings.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke's childhood was an experiment her scientist parents were conducting. She didn't know that till much later.

A sister she was close to disappeared when Rosemary was five years old and was never spoken of again; an older brother left home shortly thereafter and wasn't seen for ten long years. These losses left her mother deeply depressed, her father drinking too much, and Rosemary struggling with loneliness and guilt over her part in the disappearances, guilt that would affect every subsequent relationship in her life.

I've made it sound like a mystery, but it isn't really. It's about the confusing and complicated relationships of families, asking us to think about what and who a family is. The writing reveals emotional depths in its characters without sentimentality, a relief after some of the overly-dramatic Christmas reading I tried. This one feels authentic and the characters credible, drawing you so into the story that you forget you're reading a story and find yourself simply living in it. 

There's much more to it that than my brief summary tells you but I don't want to reveal anything that might take away from your reading experience. There's a twist early on that changes everthing and takes you on a journey you might not have been expecting. And there's a lot to think about on this journey, a lot to learn. It's not a story I particularly liked but it is important and memorable and I'm glad I read it and had to consider some of the questions it raises. 

This one is well worth reading.