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The Book Gnome, a site for book reviews and reading ideas for those who love the classics

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson - Oct 17

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a gothic novella by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. While first published in 1886, it is still a compelling read and relevant to today.

On their weekly walk, London lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson, listens as his friend Enfield tells the tale of a sinister figure, Mr. Hyde, who tramples a young girl, disappears into a door on the street, and reemerges to pay off her relatives with a check signed by the respectable gentleman, Dr Jekyll.

Puzzled, Utterson visits Dr Jekyll then their mutual friend Dr. Lanyon who having fallen out with Dr Jekyll over his research, cannot enlighten him. Utterson investigates uncovering inexplicable links between the respectable Dr Jekyll and the invidious Mr Hyde, revealing a complex tale of subterfuge and extreme wickedness.

Stevenson's gothic adventure reflects the anxieties of the Victorian era, a time of unprecedented technical logical progress and social change, in essence, the same concerns of the 21st century.

Crime and Punishment By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment is the second of the Russian author Dostoyevsky's novels, written after 10 years of exile in Siberia. It explores crime and punishment, and the impact of social isolation.

Raskolnikov is a poor ex-student living in a tiny apartment in a run-dwon building in the city of St Petersburg. Sickly and wearing threadbare clothing, he visits a pawnborker, Alyona Ivanovna, to get money for a watch and to refine his plan to kill her for her money.

Afterwards, he meets a man named Marmeladov, who tells him how his wife and daughter were forced into prostitution to survive.

After he carries out his plan, Raskolnikov argues that he has removed an unpleasant person whose money he can now use for good. Despite working to supress his feelings of guilt, they surfaces in his dreams where the pawnbroker taunts him.

It is not hard to see why this book is an important part of the literary cannon with its skilful story telling, and insightful handling of complex themes. It remains an outstanding read.

War and Peace By Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's powerful novel does not have a hero or herione but a cast of many characters that it follows in the shadow of the the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia.

The novel starts in St. Petersburg in 1805 at a society hostess's party where many of the characters are introduced including Pierre Bezukhov, the likeable illegitimate son of a rich count, and Andrew Bolkonski, the ambitious son of a retired military commander. We also meet the sneaky and shallow Kuragin family, including the wily father Vasili, the fortune-hunter son Anatole, and the ravishing daughter Helene. We are introduced to the Rostovs, a noble Moscow family, including the lively daughter Natasha, the quiet cousin Sonya, and the impetuous son Nicholas, who has just joined the army led by the old General Kutuzov.

The novel intertwines the lives of private and public individuals as balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals. It explores love, marriage, disappointment, fears, in fact, all the emotions people experience as they negotiate the events of their lives in detail.

A Passage to India By E. M. Forster

A Passage to India is based on Forster's experiences in India. It is set in the 1920s, the time of the British Raj and the independence movement. It won the 1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and Time magazine included the novel in its "All Time 100 Novels" list.

Adela Quested and her elderly companion Mrs Moore feel trapped in the Indian town of Chandrapore. To escape, they seek the help of the cultured. muslim Dr Aziz together with whom they visit and explore the Marabar caves.

When Adela thinks she finds herself alone with Dr. Aziz in one of the caves, and panics and flees. Despite the fact that Adela is wrong, Dr. Aziz ends up charged and tried for assaulting her. The incident stirs up tensions between the Indians and the ruling British.

The novel is a brilliant study of a society ruled by an imperial power. Through the four main characters, it explore contemporary political and cultural issues from race to identity.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck - Sep 17

Cannery Row, a novel written by John Steinbeck, is a street in Monterey, California, lined with sardine canneries. Set during the Great Depression, the novel features Lee Chong (the local grocer), Doc (a marine biologist) and Mack (the leader of a group of layabouts).

Mack and his friends decide to throw a party for Doc, who has done so much for so many people never asking for anything in return. Mack engages the local community in organising the thank you party for Doc.

Unfortunately, the party goes horribly wrong, with Doc's home and lab being ruined, angering Doc. In an attempt to repair their relationship with Doc, Mack and his friends, decide to throw Doc another party, but a successful one this time.

The novel explores in detail the lives of the people living on Cannery Row with compassion and insight. It is a wonderful study of human emotion and Steinbeck's personal knowledge of both the location and the impact of poverty on it, results in a revealing study of the human condition.

The Terrifying Tales by Edgar Allan Poe - Aug 17

Edgar Allan Poe was an important and influential American writer. He was the first author to try to make a professional living as a writer, and failed miserably, leading to a life of perpetual financial hardship. He wrote poetry, short stories, and literary criticism.

Poe's poem "The Raven" made him famous when it was published in 1845. Most famously, Poe transformed the genre of the horror story with his tales of psychological depth and insight not envisioned in the genre before. Stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart","The Cask of Amontillado","The Pit and the Pendulum","The Masque of the Red Death", and "The Fall of the House of Usher" demonstrate his talent at its height.

The brilliance and skill of Edgar Allen Poe are in evidence in this collection. The collection includes some of his most masterful writing such as The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, The Masque of the Red Death, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Purloined Letter. The melancholy and torment of the stories combined with mystery, terror, and humour show why he is one of the most respected of American authors.

Time Machine by H.G. Wells - Jul 17

A group of people is listening to the Time Traveller discuss the theory that time is the fourth dimension. The next week, they return, and the Time Traveller, looking tired and dishevelled, begins his tale.

The Time Traveller travels to the future where he encounters the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are small human-like creatures that live above ground, and are kind and gentle. The Morlocks are pale, ape-like creatures that live below ground, and come out at night to hunt.

When his time machine disappears, the Time Traveller ventures underground into the world of the Morlocks looking for it. Even though, he finds that they are scared of matches, he is still forced to flee. One night, he accidently sets fire to the giant wood and many Morlocks die and an Eloi friend die in the ensuing battle. He finds his time machine, and escapes to the future.

The Time Traveller makes several more stops before returning to the present time, where he tells his story. The next day, he leaves again, but never returns.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - Jun 17

In 1937, Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. Three years later, he completed For Whom the Bell Tolls, the story of Robert Jordan, fighting in Spain as a republican guerilla.

Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades, joins a small guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, led by Pablo. The republican leadership set him the task of blowing up a bridge but not all the guerillas agree with the plan including Pablo. As a result, Pablo treats Robert with hosility, and Robert suspects that Pablo will sabotage the operation. Their relationship is so fraught that Robert considers killing Pablo at one point. Also living with the guerillas, is Maria, a beautiful young girl whom they are sheltering. Robert and Maria quickly become lovers. They declare their love for each other and talk of a future together in Madrid.

For Whom the Bells Tolls is a story that weaves together loyalty and courage with conflict and suspicion. It also addresses the love and defeat, along with a deep commitment to ideals in the face of a harsh war. The story is moving, beautiful and brutal all at the same time.

1984 by George Orwell - May 17

The novel is a dystopian novel set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war.

Everyone is watched all the time by a ruling class determined to hold on to power. The Inner Party persecutes individualism and independent thinking as "thoughtcrime".

Society is ruled over by Big Brother, the Party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality. The Party "seeks power entirely for its own sake. It is not interested in the good of others; it is interested solely in power".

Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, is the novel's protagonist. He works for the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue). His job is to "correct" or destroy newspaper articles, so that the historical record always fits with the party line. Revisionism is covered up as corrections to misquotations. Smith secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.

As 1984 reflects on the implications of state control and the loss of personal rights for individuals and society, it remains just as relevant today as as it as was when it was first published.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - Apr 17

Controversial when first published, The Grapes of Wrath is considered one of the great American novels. Telling the story of the Joad family, it earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer prize in 1962.

Steinbeck writes with a deep sense of social injustice as he recounts the dreadful conditions experienced by immigrant farmhands. He details the social and economic horrors of farming in the American dust bowl, and which drive people to migrate from Oklahoma to the fruit fields of California in search of a better life.

The novel follows the Joad family, dispossessed farmers fleeing dust bowl conditions. At the same time as Tom Joad is paroled from prison, the family loses their farm to the bank. The Joads set out in search of work in California. Nothing goes right. The family is exploited and bullied, and begins to fall apart. Old Ma Joad takes the lead as Tom is linked to another killing and must go into hiding.

It is about false hopes, thwarted desires and powerlessness driven by social injustice told with superb skill.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Mar 17

Great Expectations follows the life of the orphan nicknamed Pip, set in Kent and London in the 19th century.

On Christmas Eve, the seven-year-old orphan Pip is in the churchyard visiting the graves of his parents and siblings, when he encounters the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch. He frightens Pip into stealing food and a file for him.

Pip lives with his severe sister who resents having inherited responsibility for him upon the death of her parents. By contrast, her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith by trade, treats Pip with kindness and fondness.

Pip's life changes when he meets Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham, a bitter wealthy spinster, arranges for Pip to visit her home, the dilapidated Satis House, where he falls for Estella on sight, and a tale of heartache begins.

Dickens is a skilful author who captures Pip's emotions effectively, taking the reader on a emotional journey with him. Published in 1861, the book is as powerful and relevant today as it was nearly 150 years ago.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy - Feb 17

When John Durbeyfield discovers he is descended from a wealthy family and has a relative living nearby, he sends his 16-year-old daughter Tess, who is a simple country girl, and their eldest child.

Tess meets her relative Alec d'Urberville, and he finds her a job with his mother. Shortly after she begins work, he seduces and rapes her.

Tess returns to her family home, where living with her parents, she gives birth to a son called Sorrow, who dies in infancy. While working at a nearby diary, she meets Angel Clare, and falls in love.

She eventually marries Angel, not telling him about her past. After the wedding, the couple reveals their pasts to each other, and while Tess is able to forgive Angel, he cannot doing the same. He is unable to get over the fact that she had a child with another man.

Life treats Tess unfairly. She is raped by a relative, her son dies when very young, and the man she loves leaves her. The story is told with sensitivity enabling the reader to empathise with Tess.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - Jan 17

The book is so compelling and the writing so skilled that it is difficult to believe that Mary Shelley started writing it when she was only eighteen.

Frankenstein is the story of scientist Victor Frankenstein, determined to find the secret of life and after years of research, discovers it. He creates a being from stolen body parts and one night in the secrecy, brings it to life. He looks at what he has created and is horrified by the monster that he sees.

The naive monster escapes, and in his ignorance of the world, unleashes a campaign of wickedness including the murder of Frankenstein's youngest brother. Justine Moritz, a kind, gentle girl who had been adopted by the Frankenstein household is condemned, and executed for the murder.

Victor grows despondent, guilty with the knowledge that the monster he has created bears responsibility for the death of two innocent loved ones.

The story is both terrifying and profound raising questions still relevant today.

Dracula by Bram Stoker - Dec 16

Dracula is an 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish Bram Stoker in epistolary format. The story takes largely in England and Transylvania during the 1890s.

Jonathan Harker, an English solicitor, visits Count Dracula in Transylvania to help complete a real estate transaction. In the castle, he encounters three female vampires, and barely escapes with his life.

Dracula moves to England hidden in a coffin and begines to stalk Lucy Westenra, a friend of Jonathan Harker's fiancée.

Lucy begins to waste away, Abraham Van Helsing recognises the cause of her condition. Van Helsing prescribes numerous blood transfusions, and a necklace of withered Garlic Blossoms to be worn at all times but Lucy continues to become worse. The doctors find two small puncture marks on her neck, and eventually Lucy dies.

The celebrated vampire-hunter Professor Abraham van Helsing sets out to find and destroy Count Dracula, leading to a well-told, imaginative story. The novel continues to enchant readers, and with good reason.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë - Nov 16

The novel follows is eponymous heroine Jane Eyre and is narrated from her perspective. It begins with her difficult childhood living with her aunt and cousins, and follows her through boarding school to adulthood.

Orphan Jane is is emotionally and physically abused by her aunt and cousins before being sent to boarding school where despite her hopes, life is no better. Later, when she becomes governess at Thornfield, she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, a love which dominates both Jane and the novel.

The novel contains elements of social criticism and a strong sense of morality. It provokes the reader to rethink notions about religion, sexuality, class, and the value of women.

Charlotte Brontë draws heavily on her personal experience, family and friends for inspiration. Like Jane, she was a governor and set up a school. The book is enriched by knowing her history.

Visit KS Learning for articles and notes on Jane Eyre to further understand the book, either for personal interest or to assist with schoolwork like A level English Literature.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle - Oct 16

Bodies mount with no apparent link other than the word for revenge in German painted in blood near the bodies. The police are at a loss. Dr John Watson is at a loss. Sherlock Holmes is not fooled. Using evidence that no-one else notices, he solves the murders. The book derives its name from a speech that Holmes gives, in which he refers to the case as his 'study in scarlet', referring to the 'scaret thread of murder' running through the murders.

A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, was the first Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson story, and in contrast to subsequent success, there was very little interest in it when it first appeared. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on to be so successful that when Arthur Conan Doyle, killed off Holmes having tired of the character, the public outcry forced him to contrive a way to bring him back to life.

With the many, many TV shows and films, it is easy to overlook the books but they are a compelling read with engaging plots. Once started, 'A study in Scarlet' is hard to put down. It is an example of superb story telling, and will bring delight for many years to come.

'They had issues': Sally Wainwright and Tracy Chevalier discuss the Brontës

Sally Wainwright's new drama To Walk Invisible offers a radical new take on the Brontës. She talks to novelist Tracy Chevalier about the siblings' extraordinary lives.


The 10 Best Books of 2016

The year's best books, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. 1 December 2016.


Charlotte Brontë, the filthy bitch

Enough of the Brontë industry's veneration of coffins, bonnets and TB. It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend.

Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë to assist with A level English Literature revision, essays and coursework.


Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to assist with A level English Literature revision, essays and coursework.

Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote to help with A level English Literature revision.


Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams for A level English Literature.

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