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The Blue Lotus by Herge

The Blue Lotus by Herge

The Blue LotusTintin has long played a part in my life, through the large comic-style albums I owned as a child, to the reissued collection I’m halfway through today. In between there’s been the old cartoon series of films and the 2011 motion capture experiment from Steven Spielberg.

What grounds my love of Tintin is my own adventure creating a comic in primary school. Called The Giggle, I wrote and drew about half an issue each week with two friends. After collecting a series of A4 sheets of paper, my dad would photocopy them at work and we’d staple then distribute them around school. We didn’t produce many, but they were a labour of love.

On leaving the school, and so my tenure as the comic’s sole editor, one of my teachers bought me a copy of Explorers on the Moon as a thank you for giving him The Giggle each week. As soon as I read the story, my fascination with the little Belgian reporter began.

The Blue Lotus is the fifth title in the Adventures of Tintin series and follows on from the previous collection, Cigars of the Pharaoh. Many consider the story the best in the canon. Beginning in India, The Blue Lotus follows Tintin as he uncovers a mystery surrounding Shanghai and the opium trade. As the reporter digs deeper, he finds plans running far deeper than drug smuggling and stumbles across some old friends.

The beauty of The Blue Lotus is more than a collection of parts, it’s the wider success of the format itself. In taking an already well-worn character and placing him in a tightly plotted adventure with high stakes, sharp drawing, sparse dialogue and clever imagery, Herge created a masterpiece of any type of novel.

After writing my reviews, I like to read what others have written about the book and tend to reference one or two comments in my own article. With The Blue Lotus I’ve found it difficult to find good writers talking about the book, leading me to believe this is because it’s a comic or graphic novel. That’s a shame, as the story quality here is no weaker for it being drawn. The themes, plot and characters work just as well as a regular novel and it’s refreshing to read in another format. I hope that books like this begin to get serious recognition as new writers find voices in major literary publications.

I find it impossible to stay away from Tintin and, once I start, fruitless to try to put one of Herge’s stories down. The Blue Lotus is not my favourite Tintin collection, yet the story itself is one of the best. It deals with international themes of war, politics and crime before you realise what you’re reading. It’s not the first Tintin book you should read, but if you do it’s unlikely that it will be your last.

The Blue Lotus is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

About the Author

Herge was born in 1907 and is famous around the world for creating Tintin. First published in 1929, The Adventures of Tintin spans 24 titles and has sold over 200 million copies.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering HeightsEmily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a novel so well-known that its name is often enough to evoke a sense of gothic nostalgia in readers. It’s a book that carries a certain weight, a sense of heaviness and density even before it’s read for the first time.

So it was when I read the novel in school, I came to it prejudiced. We had posters on the classroom walls of film adaptations of famous books and the Wuthering Heights one seemed so miserable and bleak that the story itself would surely be quite dull.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. On reading the novel I soon skipped well ahead of the class and raced to the end. I have my copy today, it’s something like 15 years old and is filled with highlighter and pen, scribbles and underlines.

What those notes told me then and tell me now are what most people already know about Wuthering Heights. It’s a novel about love, class, abuse and obsession. Gothic and ghostly, it’s also grounded in the earthy landscapes of Yorkshire, Bronte’s home.

The story follows the life of Heathcliff, half through his childhood and half about his adult life. A low-born boy, he struggles to live with the lifestyle given to him by the man who found him and adopted him. Falling in love with his adoptive sister, a series of tragedies lead him to become a wild and heated man.

Key to the success of the novel is Heathcliff, one of the most famous and complicated anti-heroes in literature. Purposefully kept a mystery, we only know him by his actions, which are volatile. We know he loves as strong as he hates, and possesses both the ability to get what he wants and to let it slip away. More than most characters, he’s flawed, conflicted and yet remains a gothic hero.

His relationship with Cathy dominates years, decades and generations of two families. It’s his monstrous, yet somehow relatable, love for her that holds every sentence together. Thrown together, torn apart, despairing and hoping, the two seem to fight class, education and nature itself in their urge to be together.

In his excellent review, Robert McCrum says that “as a portrait of “star-cross’d lovers” it rivals Romeo and Juliet.” It’s hard to argue anything less, perhaps only that their destiny almost feels too chaotic and lifelike in its resolution, rather than Shakespeare’s tragic but tidy conclusion.

More than anything, this is a novel about passion. It’s safe to say that without the excitement I felt reading Wuthering Heights fifteen years ago and the unexpected thrill of destroying my prejudice, I doubt I’d have the same passion for books as I do today.

Wuthering Heights is one of The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.

About the Author

Emily Bronte was born in 1818 and published only one novel in her lifetime, Wuthering Heights. She died aged just 30, a year after the book’s publication, with no knowledge of the legacy she created.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

Bonjour TristesseAs with The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum, Bonjour Tristesse and Francoise Sagan were unknown to me before I began my reading challenge. Similarly to Heinrich Boll’s novel, discovering another non-English novel has been a delight and feels well overdue.

Since writing out my list of books I’d like to read, the title of this novel has stuck in my mind, despite never seeing it before. The superficial link in my limited memory is to La Tristesse Durera, a track by the Manic Street Preachers that takes its own title from the reported last words of Vincent van Gogh, “the sadness will last forever.”

With the title lodged rather firmly in my head, I happened upon an old copy of the novel at Tynemouth Book Fair (well worth a visit) and bought it for a few pounds, knowing nothing about it. The cover features a young girl that’s more than reminiscent of the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. On further reading, the edition I found is from 1974 and was translated by Irene Ash.

Written when Sagan was just a teenager, Bonjour Tristesse would remain popular throughout and beyond Sagan’s life, with all future works inevitably compared to her first novel. The book was filmed in 1958 and released to a middling response at the time, but has since grown in stature.

The plot of Bonjour Tristesse is little more than a short story. It follows the thoughts and manipulations of a girl, Cecile, spending the summer with her father and two women competing for his affections. Fearing the end of her easy life when one woman stakes her claim on her father, Cecile plans to end the relationship.

The great success of the novel is not the slight plot, but the atmosphere Sagan builds within the mind of Cecile. Her desperation to cling on to what was already a quite soulless lifestyle and the lengths she will go to make for a strange mix of understanding and pity. It’s easy to connect with Cecile, even when her actions go beyond our own experience, simply because they are such human actions.

Reading the novel, a nagging familiarity played in my mind and it was only in researching this review that I understood what it was. As Richard William’s writes in The Guardian, Sagan’s “acceptance of melancholy [is] more reminiscent of F Scott Fitzgerald than of her French literary heroes.” It is, as is The Great Gatsby, a short and sad tale.

Easily readable in a single sitting, Bonjour Tristesse is an enjoyable piece of mood literature. Its depiction of the depressing lengths some will go to to protect even a sad life is perfectly written and captures brilliantly the energy and misery of youth.

Bonjour Tristesse is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

About the Author

Francoise Sagan was born in France in 1935 and published her first and most famous novel Bonjour Tristesse at age 18. Sagan died in 2004, aged 69, after writing 20 novels and several plays.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen

The idea of reading Jane Austen tends to split readers into those who will read her over and over, and those, like me, who’ve never been interested. Since finishing the novel, I can redefine those two groups as those who will read her over and over and those who really should.

One of the reasons I’m reading through many novels that I’ve never approached before is to create a library for my daughters to grow up with. Today, they’re two and half, and five months old so it will be a while before they open up Emma. I’m already looking forward to our first conversation about Austen and her characters, though it’s more than a decade away. I hope this review still makes sense and still lives somewhere by then.

Emma, the only novel of Austen’s to take its main character as a title, was published in 1815. It follows the romantic life of Emma Woodhouse, a headstrong, smart and wealthy woman who enjoys meddling in the love lives of others but knows very little about herself.

The story of Emma is good and reasonably complicated for something of a farce, but it’s the character that makes the novel so special. Emma portrays herself as a love expert, whilst knowing nothing about her own feelings. She lies to herself more than others and we follow her as she begins to notice and understand her own affections. She’s a fully-drawn character, conflicted and at times harsh, but all the more human for it.

Austen’s eye for social manners, chivalry and class make her something of a chronicler of regency life. Yet, she’s much more than a historian, creating some of the most detailed and realistic characters of her time. Emma should be read by anyone experiencing first or early love as a guide to how we can simultaneously know so much and so little about ourselves. For that matter, Emma seems to know more about our hearts that we ever do, no matter how old or experienced we may think we are.

As John Mullen says in his insightful essay How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction, “the narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind.” Read with this insight in mind, Emma is an instruction manual for the love-lost.

Emma was the first Austen novel I’ve read and I’m certain it won’t be the last. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s never been interested in Jane Austen or period fiction. Now I just wish I was closer to the end of my list, so I could read her all over again.

Emma is one of the Guardian’s Best 100 Novels.

A Note on the Author

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and completed just six novels, but became one of the most famous writers of all time. Her best-known work is Pride and Prejudice, which has been adapted for film and TV many times over. Austen died in 1817, aged 41.

And Then There Were None
 by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None
 by Agatha Christie

The second Agatha Christie novel on my list of books I want to read, And Then There Were None joins The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as one of the most famous detective stories ever written. Adapted many times over the years, it’s her best-selling novel and her most recognised, yet doesn’t feature Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

My first memory of And The There Were None is a play and not the book, though I seem to have known about the story before taking my seat. This is many years ago and my memory clouds the two things together. We sat very high in the theatre, I think in the back row, and the stage and actors looked like miniatures before I got used to the height. It was the first play I saw, my parents took me, and I was amazed. I still remember being frightened by an unexpected gunshot midway through.

The clearest part of that memory are the ten figures on the stage, which would disappear one-by-one as characters were killed off. After the first departed, I looked and looked for signs of some stagehand sneaking on in all black to silently remove one. No matter how hard I tried to focus, the play would always pull me back in and I never saw the sleight of hand take place.

The novel itself, published in 1939, tells the story of a group of 10 strangers brought together and stranded in a grand house on an island. Whilst they await their host, a record plays accusing each of being responsible for a series of deaths, from careless driving to suffocation. Tensions rise and suspicion builds until, one by one, the visitors are murdered in a way that follows the pattern of a nursery rhyme hung around the island house.

Much like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I won’t talk about the plot in any detail as it’s the star of the show. Christie builds an intricate house of cards that’s just real enough to believe and just crazy enough to make you wonder if it could be done. As Laura Thompson describes it, And Then There Were None is “like a machine ticking remorselessly towards the endgame.” Everything is built with precision towards the stark and terrifying idea of systematic serial murder.

The real joy of And Then There Were None is in re-reading the novel to see if you can find any holes or loose threads in the story. Christie’s skill as a storyteller is so great that with each re-read you still get drawn to the characters and never quite catch sight of the stagehand.

And Then There Were None is one of the highest-selling books of all time.

A Note on the Author

Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and wrote over 60 detective novels, as well as 14 short story collections and the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap. She created legendary characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, as well as And Then There Were None, which has sold over 100 million copies to date. Christie died in 1976 at the age of 85.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by 
Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by 
Agatha Christie

As a Poirot and Agatha Christie fan, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first novel on my to-read list that I have read before. Probably more than twice. And seen the TV adaptation. Despite my familiarity with the story, and its famous twist, it was the most engrossing book I’ve read so far. The mystery works just as well if you know the secrets or don’t.

My first memories of Agatha Christie’s works begin with a bookcase that used to live in my house growing up and the full collection my dad owned. He still has them today, hardcover, red books with delicate ribbons to mark your page. They were the nicest books we owned so always took on a special reverence whenever I looked at them. I still think of her books that way, as something just that bit more wonderful than anything else.

Christie knows how to tell a story. Her books are more consumed than read, pages and chapters fly past before you realise how late it is. Alongside this, she plots a scientific murder case for Poirot to unravel. The result is a masterclass in detective fiction – enough adventure, mystery and surprise.

I won’t go into the plot in any detail, as it should be followed free of any conceptions or biases. Safe to say it’s a detective story unlike any other.

A word for Poirot himself, created in earlier books but perfected here. He is determined and just, annoying and pompous. A mischievous reference to Holmes and Watson both acknowledges Christie’s debt and highlights this fantastic addition to the genre. Like Sherlock Holmes, Poirot has stood the test of time – he is a character so well drawn that he will always be intriguing for writers and filmmakers to adapt.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a real mystery for the first-time reader, one of Christie’s best. For second and subsequent readings, the fun becomes following the clues and red herrings. The novel also serves as a good introduction to Poirot, with the narrator acting as a surrogate for the reader (in the same way Captain Hastings does in the earlier books).

This novel, now over 90 years old, teaches us how to break the rules. Christie changed mystery writing forever with Roger Ackroyd. It’s no surprise that mystery writers agree, voting the book the best ever crime novel in 2013.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

A Note on the Author

Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and wrote over 60 detective novels, as well as 14 short story collections and the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap. She created legendary characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, as well as And Then There Were None, which has sold over 100 million copies to date. Christie died in 1976 at the age of 85.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

The best part of my project to read some of the best books ever written is finding completely new authors. I’d never heard of Heinrich Boll or this novel before adding it to my Library list. Reading a book with no expectations can have startling effects.

Like A Room of One’s Own, I read this novel in a few days. It’s gripping almost throughout, with only a slight middle-act sag. Much of this comes from the unusual structure that leads with the conclusion, leaving the rest of the novel to catch up to where we began. In another writers hands, this could have fallen flat, but Boll crafts incredible suspense and intrigue along the journey. His greatest achievement in Katharina Blum is taking the reader more than a mile in Katharina’s shoes.

The book is a reflection on the power of tabloid journalism and its power over what we believe. It follows a series of events in the life of an ordinary women taunted and hunted by the media. Short and sharp, its criticism of reported news (and the people who report it) has grown in power as the breadth of the media has expanded in recent years. I hope that this book is required reading on any journalism course it captures the power of the pen by unfolding a personal tragedy and reminds us that every tabloid story has a real human at its heart.

A quick and gripping read, this isn’t a challenge like many classics. You can read Katharina Blum in a single sitting if you wish. Its deep and dark and clever, but it never pretends it shouldn’t also entertain.

This is also a good book to read if you’re interested in modern journalism and the power of the press. If events like the Leveson Enquiry and the Snowdon Leaks have caught your eye, you’ll learn a lot from Katharina Blum. Bolls use of a reporting style, acting as sources to the reader, helps to retain trust and authority in the story. Using Katharina would have raised questions over reliability and have an omniscient narrator would have conflicted with the theme of the novel.

Opening with the conclusion and then leading back to it is a genius method of highlighting the theme of the novel the corrupting power of the tabloids. This isn’t a book about a single event, but the many small events that lead to it. A great example of a way a theme can appear in structure as well as text.

Despite its age, Katherina Blum has perhaps never seemed so apt as it does today. As Lisa Hill points out in her 2008 review of the novel, the free press can in some circumstances be just as dangerous for the individual as a censored one.

The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

A Note on the Author

Heinrich Boll was born in 1917 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. One of Germanys foremost post-war writers, Bolls most famous work remains Katherina Blum. Boll died in 1985 at the age of 67.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's OwnQuite by chance, I read A Room of One’s Own as the first in my journey to read some of the best books of all time. It’s one of those books most people (and writers in particular) have heard about and thought they should read, but often put off for another day. I finished the book in a few days – it’s slim, but it’s good reading.

Based on series of lectures by the author Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own is a piece of nonfiction with a narrator added for style. Although known as a standard-bearer for women’s writing, it is just as useful to any reader, writer or historian – male or female.

The book argues through essays that women are under-represented in writing as they lack the financial means and access to education enjoyed by men. Woolf asserts that a women with “a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.”

To give that some context, £500 a year in today’s money is around £26,000 or about the UK average salary. So, while it’s not a lot of money, it is more than many people take home. Thanks to Virginia Woolf (and others) we now accept that women and men can both produce excellent writing.

This is an excellent book if you’re a big fiction reader, but avoid nonfiction. Woolf uses narration and colourful anecdotes to make her points, making this a great introduction to nonfiction.

It’s also a great book to read if you cherish the great women writers, especially those writing before its publication in 1929. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the pressures, prejudice and pain they suffered to create their work.

As Rachel Cusk argued back in 2009, A Room of One’s Own is one of the few books that “shaped the discourse of 20th-century women’s writing.” If you’ve never paused to think about the huge success of many women writers today, A Room of One’s Own is also proof that such common rights did not come easily to all.

When we write, we must do so with the knowledge that what we do is important and people have battled for the simple privilege of putting pen to paper. As Stephen King says in On Writing “you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

A Room of One’s Own is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

A Note on the Author
Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 and is regarded as one of the most important feminists of her time. She is also known for her works of fiction, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Orlando. A Room of One’s Own was one of many non-fiction books published during her lifetime. After a long battle with mental illness and depression, Virginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941.