Tag Archives: Science Fiction

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #3

3.5 stars3.5/5

“Curiouser and curiouser”, said Alice famously, after descending the rabbit hole to Wonderland and drinking a mysterious draught from a flask. Unlike Alice, whose body becomes etiolated, in The House on the Strand it is our protagonist’s mind that is altered when he drinks a drug concocted by his professor-friend Magnus Lane, and ‘curious’ would be my take on this unusual novel.

Virago Press, 2003 paperback edition, 353 pages - personal library

Dick Young is temporarily staying in the house of his friend, a biophysicist in Kilmarth, Cornwall. He agrees to play guinea-pig in an experiment, testing a drug which appears to have the effect of transporting him back in time to the 14th century. Although Dick’s mind is transported his body remains in the present and as a result he traipses around the countryside oblivious to the existing surroundings until he inadvertently bumps into an obstruction. On each trip, he finds himself witnessing the lives of the people he finds there, in particular a woman named Lady Isolda Carminowe and a steward named Roger who he finds he is compelled to follow. Unfortunately for Dick, his wife Vita and her two sons come to join him in Cornwall from America, which he finds frustrating because it interrupts his visits to the past which he finds he is more and more addicted to. Vita becomes increasingly worried by Dick’s strange behaviour as he is drawn further into his medieval world.

I found The House on the Strand frustratingly slow-going for the first half of the book and I didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up much in the first few chapters. Firstly I was a bit unsure about the pseudo-scientific explanations that Marcus gives for why the drug takes Dick back in time (although in hindsight, this may have been deliberate on the part of du Maurier). Secondly, I couldn’t get to grips with the medieval characters for some reason – compared to the people in the modern day they just didn’t seem as real or as interesting. Again, perhaps this was for a good reason!

I did say on the phone to Savidge Reads today that I found it sad that Dick seemed to be missing out on enjoying the present because of his obsession with the characters from the past and that maybe du Maurier was making a point about this. Since reading Picardie’s Daphne, and a range of du Maurier’s writing I’ve started to see more recurring themes in her novels. At times I felt that Dick’s escapism was akin to du Maurier’s own sense of affinity with other worlds, but I also thought that at times she projected a part of herself onto Vita, the wife left bemused by her distracted husband. This goes to something else which I found interesting about The House on the Strand, which is that it is written from the perspective of a man, but this was initially quite ambiguous and I didn’t attribute the gender of the narrator as male until I had read a few pages in. Daphne du Maurier is said to have been a tomboy when she was younger and after her death it was revealed that she most likely had lesbian relationships (although she never openly admitted this) so perhaps it is not surprising then that she plays with gender and questions of sexuality. There are also strong hints at a homosexual undertone in  The House on the Strand – I’ll need to re-configure my Gaydar if Professor Lane is not supposed to be secretly in interested in Dick (no pun intended), and although it is not suggested that Dick is interested in the Professor sexually, he does feel very connected to him. To add to the mystery, although Dick seems to have next to no interest in sleeping with his wife, he does seem quite spellbound by Isolda! What a mixed-up character.

So, hopefully you can tell by now that I became more and more intrigued by The House on the Strand as it developed. I can’t say that I ever really got into the parts of the book that were set in the 1300s, but I really did enjoy the contemporary parts of the novel. It probably helped that I really curled up with the book properly today and became absorbed in it. It also helped that around page two-hundred, du Maurier starts to work her dark magic and embellishes the story with some nasty little twists and turns. Looking back, I’m not quite sure if I think The House on the Strand is a too flawed to be an example of Daphne du Maurier’s genius or whether some of the flaws that I perceived were actually intended (such as the spurious scientific ideas!). I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt, as even though I struggled at times with this book, yet again I’m impressed with her ability to experiment with such varied concepts in her writing and I know that I’ll be thinking about the story of The House on the Strand for years to come.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage, Justin CroninWoman with Sainsbury’s carrier bag on the tube: “I’m baking lemon drizzle cake tonight… it’s the first time I’ve done it.”

Friend: “What you’ve never made lemon drizzle before?!”

Me (silently seething): “SHUT UP!!”

There are few things worse than getting to a gripping point in a book and then somebody else’s conversation invades your thoughts, totally breaking the spell. I suppose that’s what I should expect reading on public transport. I devoured the final few chapters of The Passage at home on the sofa, giving it the attention it deserved – and this book deserves, no demands attention. At nearly 800 large pages it is not a novel to be picked up lightly (excuse the pun). It’s sheer size and epic scope as well as the fact that it is a bit of a page-turner means that it can take over your life for a good few days or weeks depending on how fast you read. I was absorbed to the point that I found it quite frustrating having to put it down to do something else (like go to work).

The Passage is quite a difficult book to sum up without giving away the storyline too much. After all, if you are going to bother reading a massive book then, I imagine that you would like some of it to be a surprise. To be on the safe side I’ll quote the blurb:

“Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she’s the most important person in the whole world.

She is.

Anthony Carter doesn’t think he could ever be in a worse place than death row.

He’s wrong.

FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming.

It is.

THE PASSAGE.”

I will say that it is a book about vampires, although more of the 28 Days Later variety than RPatz in Twilight. It did make me think of how I felt watching the films 28 Days Later and I Am Legend because of the way that the monsters in the book were terrifying, insensible and lacking any obvious humanity, and also because it felt quite cinematic. It doesn’t surprise me that the film rights have been sold to Ridley Scott because I can imagine it translating well to the big-screen.

However, by drawing comparisons to these films I am in danger of selling The Passage short as being unoriginal. If anything it has a very different style to any book I’ve read in a similar genre. The first half of the book sets the scene of the story in-depth, exploring the lives of key characters – Amy, Anthony Carter and agent Wolgast. Cronin creates incredibly well-developed personalities, each with their own quite tragic back story. He takes his time progressing the story, however the writing never feels slow, rather you feel fully immersed in the plot.

There is a quite sharp change in the story about halfway through the book, which I have to admit threw me. Initially I thought it felt a bit disconnected, however once I became used to this (trying not to give anything away!), I soon became absorbed again. I think this break in style is a bit of a gamble, but one that pays off – mainly because Cronin’s storytelling is so strong.

Cronin is a talented novelist. The Passage is really well written. It is a brutal book. It combines vicious bloodthirsty monsters with characters that you really don’t want to be killed off because Cronin makes you like them. He describes people and landscapes with a great deal of skill and moments of everyday beauty and  are offset against which are set against the underlying sense of horror. By the time you finish reading The Passage you really feel as if you have been on an epic journey with the characters. An impressive achievement and a totally absorbing read.

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Thanks to Simon (Savidge Reads) for my now well-thumbed copy. You can read his thoughts here.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin was a recent choice for one of my book groups. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t been reading it for discussion, I might well have given up on it after the first couple of chapters. I really struggled with this novel, but before I explain why, let me tell you a bit about the story.

The Dispossessed is a science fiction book set on twin planets Anarres and Urras. It explores two different societies. Urras is a Capitalist society, recognisable as similar to western societies like America or here in the UK, in terms of human values and motivation, while Anarres is described as ‘anarchic’ society, where the proletariat rule. It is a sort of utopian Communist society. The community on Anarres was formed when a group of people migrated to it from Urras, following the teachings of a female thinker Odo. The story follows our protagonist – Shevek, a physicist who is well- known on both planets. He leaves his home planet of Anarres and goes to live on Urras, where his work is highly respected and through his eyes, the customs, advantages and problems of both societies are revealed to the reader.

The opening passage below, gives a good flavour of the style of the book and the idea of the divide between the two societies.

“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”

The book starts with Shevek’s arrival on Urras and flips backwards and forwards between his present and descriptions of his former life on Anarres. I felt that this was an effective way of conveying the set-up of the new world through his eyes, while slowly revealing details of his background. Le Guin sort of drip-feeds information through about life on Anarres which at the outset seems quite idyllic, however as the story continues, glimpses of life causes the reader to wonder if it is everything that it is cut out to be. Having alternate chapters on the different planets also helps to encourage comparison of them. However while the non-linear construction of the story is clever it also made the book somewhat difficult to get to grips with, particularly in the first 100 or so pages where I hadn’t quite visualised the features of each society and was struggling to follow the train of events.

Speaking of getting to grips with the story, I found that initially didn’t empathise very well with the characters as I was absorbing the unusual names of people and places. This started me musing on how, in the world in general, it is actually difficult to understand a different culture until you have learned to associate a name with a real person and identity. Until you have, it is quite natural to feel removed from a situation – for example, when we watch catastrophes happening in far-away places on the news. I hope that as the world becomes more mixed-up, culturally and better connected that these kind of barriers grow less distinct. Anyway, I digress…

Unfortunately, the things that I thought were strong points in The Dispossessed were a bit of a double-edged sword for me. The societies and images created were beautifully crafted, but sometimes I got lost in the detail. The social and political sentiments conveyed in the story were well-thought out and sharp, however perhaps at times I found that this aspect wasn’t balanced well enough with the adventure angle of the novel. Perhaps it also doesn’t help that this book was written in 1974 when the cold war still loomed and feminism was a much more recent topic – it may be that it would have had more impact on me had the issues been more current.

Overall I felt that The Dispossessed is a very accomplished piece of writing, but felt the story-telling aspect and the pure enjoyment of the narrative was somewhat lost in the need to have a political discussion. It is part of a series, so perhaps it would be easier to become involved in one of the other books having read this and therefore enjoy it more quickly. However, I would still say that other novels have explore sociopolitical themes more deftly (such as George Orwell’s 1984) and for me, The Dispossessed felt somewhat laboured. I found it a book full of interesting ideas and one that conjured up a totally convincing and vivid new world, but in my own opinion (and I do believe that this is a book that many others will love so it really is just my point of view), it loses points because I just didn’t find it an enjoyable read. I will say though that it was a very good book-group choice, because it gave us lots to discuss!

My Rating:

6 out of 10

Have you read any Ursula Le Guin books? Do you enjoy science fiction as a genre and if so what are your favourites?

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

I have to admit that when Jackie (Farm Lane Books Blog) chose Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) for our Riverside Readers book group, I was a little dubious (sorry Jackie!). Firstly, it involved a mouse called Algernon (“silly name for a mouse” I thought), and the copy that Jackie showed us had a rather spooky sci-fi looking cover with a maze on it. I can’t help it, I’m a book cover snob.

Little did I expect to completely fall in love with it…

Flowers for Algernon is the story of a 32 year old man – Charley Gordon, who is given an operation to correct his mental disability and allow him to learn. The experiment has been tested on a mouse called Algernon, who has become something of a super-mouse with an ability to figure out complex puzzles (hence the maze on the cover). At the start of the book Charley works as a cleaner in a bakery and has an IQ of 68. We read the book in the form of ‘progress reports’ which are written by Charley himself, so the reader is instantly given a special insight into his perspective on the situation. His initial reports are at first childlike, and confused, but develop as the experiment affects him. I won’t go into too much detail on the storyline, but I will say that the reader goes on a remarkable journey with Charley, exploring the relationships he has before and after the change, his disjointed family background and the experiences he has of the world as he develops. The actual timeframe that the book covers is very short (less than a year) but it feels like a lifetime in terms of the discoveries and changes that Charley undergoes.

I don’t know about you, but reading a synopsis of this book wouldn’t have made me want to read it, but I am so pleased that I did. The writing style was fluid and engaging (I was completely absorbed for 2 days), the characters incredibly realistic and the idea once I’d started reading was so compelling that I found myself believing that this was a real person and a real experiment. It’s also an incredibly moving book, and really makes you switch on to the ideas expressed in a skillful way (i.e. without being over dramatic or sickly-sweet). At times I loved Charley, and felt deep empathy and at others I was disappointed in him and upset, and I responded to him as a real human rather than a creation.

The book posed all sorts of questions for me like; Was he better off before or after? How does intelligence define personality? Was it worth it? Was it a moral experiment? As a book group choice it provided excellent fodder for discussion and I think that it would appeal to a wide spectrum of people, who might not think to pick it up. I would seriously urge you to get a copy!

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?
Have you read any books that surprised you?

Want another opinion? Read my other book group members thoughts. A link to Savidge Reads and Farm Lane Books Blog is here, and Kimbofo of Reading Matters has also written a review.

Interested in the Riverside Reader’s London-based group? Click here to find out more.