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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

My first introduction to The Thirty-Nine Steps was through the 1935 Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It’s one of my Dad’s favourite films and I remember the excitement of Richard Hannay escaping north from London, evading capture at the Forth Bridge and trekking across the Scottish landscape to meet the man with the missing fingertip.

The book never interested me until I found the paperback when staying at my Grandparents’ house. I read the book through in just a few nights, gripped by the adventure playing out in my hands.

Reading the novel again, I’m taken back memories of family and the three generations of mine that have come to know the story so well. In fact, the copy I now own was bought by my brother. There cannot be a clearer definition of a timeless classic than a tale passed down, even indirectly, through family connections. No doubt in years to come, one of my children, perhaps even grandchildren, will take my battered copy from my shelf and continue the tradition.

First published as a serial in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first novel to feature the character of Richard Hannay, who would later star in four more stories by John Buchan. The story follows Hannay who, caught up as a bystander in a murder and spy plot, must evade capture by the authorities and criminal. Stretching from London to Scotland, the story is a breathless tale of a man on the run, with only his wits protecting him.

The strength of the novel is its relentless pacing. As Hannay goes on the run, he moves from one chase to another, barely finding time to recover. The further on he goes, the more he stretches his look and the greater the tension builds as time ticks away. There’s a real sense of relief when he has time to sleep rough, but also fear of those on his tail catching up in the meantime.

Although the plot is the driving success of the novel, as Robert McCrum points out “none of this would have amounted to a hill of beans without Buchan’s brisk characterisation, loving evocation of Scottish landscape and his switchblade prose. This is lethal, spare, clean and contemporary.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel in the purist sense of the term. It races and almost dares the reader to pause for breath, few will encounter the book and take more than a week to finish it. Despite being best-known for its plot, Buchan’s sense of character and landscape mustn’t be played down. In Richard Hannay, we have a likeable anti-hero, an ordinary man trying to do the right thing despite a country turning against him. His journey into Scotland takes in some of the finest examples of setting influencing and defining a novel in literature.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.

About the Author

John Buchan wrote 29 books in a career that also included war propaganda, serving as a Member of Parliament and becoming Governor General of Canada. Best known for his adventure stories starring Richard Hannay, Buchan also wrote short stories and several biographies.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alices Adventures in WonderlandIt seems strange that I have never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before, in fact I had always thought the title to be Alice in Wonderland as most films based on the novel are. The short book feels like a childhood memory, yet to my knowledge I have never read it before, or had it read to me.

Like many, it’s the 1951 Disney film that means the most to me in the canon of Alice adaptations. Reading the original story for the first time, it’s clear that the text serves as inspiration and a licence to create rather than truly adapt. Many elements considered ‘classic’ Alice such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee are don’t appear in the novel (these two are from the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

First told to three young girls, one called Alice, Lewis Carroll created the story that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1862. Over time, he wrote down the short 15,000-word tale and expanded it to almost twice the length. The book was published in 1865 with original illustrations by Punch cartoonist John Tenniel.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably the most famous example of nonsense literature. Its loose plot follows Alice as she enters the underground world of Wonderland and meets an array of unusual characters. Constantly changing size and stumbling into new situations, the story unfolds much like a hazy dream.

Each situation in the story introduces Alice to a mathematical or linguistic concept and it’s these that stand out more than the events, first as nonsense then quite plain and logical.

For example, there’s the semantic lesson:

“Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

and the mathematical revelation when Alice contests she can’t have more tea as she hasn’t had any to begin with:

“You mean you can’t take less: it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

Beyond the language, many of the characters in the novel have transcended the pages into popular culture. The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Queen of Hearts and White Rabbit are often referenced in films and literature today. I image most could conjure up the Queen’s off with their head catchphrase without ever reading the book.

Perhaps most interesting, I found in researching the book that it might not be quite as fantastical as we image. As Oliver Lansley reveals, Carroll suffered from a rare condition “that causes strange hallucinations and affects the size of visual objects, which can make the sufferer feel bigger or smaller than they are.”

Despite the fun of the wordplay and memorable characters, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland left me cold. Despite its brief word count, the novel took me weeks to read as I never felt excited to continue the story. Perhaps that’s because there is no story as such, more a series of scenes that, for the most part, can be read in any order or without reference to each other. There’s never a sense of the story building to anything, leaving it charming but flat.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the Guardian 100 Best Novels.

About the Author

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Dodgson in 1832 and is famous for writing both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. As well as a pioneering and influential writer of literary nonsense, Carroll was a respected mathematician.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyAlongside The Big Sleep and Wuthering Heights, I was introduced to The Great Gatsby in high school. I wrote an essay about the themes of illusion and reality in both Gatsby and a novel called The Last Resort, which I thoroughly detested. Part of that may have been the incredibly disparity in my instant affection for the former and tedious acceptance of the latter.

Since the first few pages, The Great Gatsby has captivated me like no other novel. It’s followed me through life, giving me a connection and new meaning at almost every turn. Reading it again, I’m back where I began, imagining myself as Gatsby, perhaps through some urge to be the protagonist of my own life, rather than a side character.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was not an instant success, only gaining its status after the author’s death. Following the larger-than-life Jay Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway describes one summer in 1922 where his and Gatsby’s lives intertwine with tragic consequences.

It almost seems foolish to attempt to review The Great Gatsby, as so much has been written about in the past 90 years. For me, the most enduring reason to praise the novel is the quality of Fitzgerald’s writing. In just over 50,000 words, he creates a great American mythology. Even in just a few hundred pages, no character is underwritten, no image is under-drawn and manage passages take on such lyrical beauty that they might have stretched for ages under the pen of a less-skilled craftsman.

A mysterious and often suspicious character, Gatsby’s story is revealed over the course of the novel through his conversations with Nick and long-lost love for Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan. We learn how Gatsby created his own personality, built a life and became rich, all to find a way back to his dream of meeting Daisy again. On the way to trying to recapture the past, he either becomes corrupted or takes on enough rumour that he might as well be.

Sarah Churchwell writes in her essay The Great Gatsby Delusion, “For Fitzgerald, Gatsby’s vast wealth is a sign of the failure of the American dream, not its success.” Its testament to Fitzgerald’s incredible ability that many miss this reading of the novel. With Gatsby, the story reads you as much as you read it. It can give you hope, but it can also teach you that the means you might need for the ends, make the ends impossible to capture. As Fitzgerald writes of Gatsby, “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

Nevertheless, The Great Gatsby has always given me hope. No matter its message, I have always read it to mean that our dreams are what make us great, not average. It reminds me to dream big, to dream romantic and most of all, just to dream.

The Great Gatsby is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels, one of The Guardian’s Best 100 Novels and one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

About the Author

F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely known for writing The Great Gatsby, often called the best American novel. He is also renowned for his other novels and short stories, chronicling the 1920s.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big SleepMuch like my introduction to Tintin, I was first passed a copy of The Big Sleep by a favourite teacher. This time is was well into Secondary School, either GCSE or A Level years and it was my English teacher, Mr Dawson. Beyond my family, he was most responsible for both my love of reading and long-standing dream of writing my own stories.

Following a class reading of The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which I’d read before and was something of a naïve expert on, he brought a copy in and offered it to me as a loan. For some reason, the book sat in my room until he gently reminded me that he’d need it back. Shocked at my forgetfulness, I raced through the pages in a few nights and returned it the same week.

The connection to Sherlock Holmes seemed at once clear and distant. The novel’s detective, Phillip Marlowe, is as determined, intelligent and single-minded as his predecessor. Yet, this was something new too. He was involved in his case like Holmes rarely seemed to be, messing around with victims and suspects. Where Holmes intervened to solve a crime, Marlowe almost seems to propel it forward and wasn’t too bothered with loose ends. Without Mr Dawson and that book loan, I might not have come to appreciate detective fiction’s diversity.

The Big Sleep, I soon learned many years ago, is the first novel to feature Phillip Marlowe. Published in 1939, it builds an a number of Chandler’s many short stories featured in Black Mask. The story follows the Private Detective as he investigates the blackmail of a wealthy family’s wild-child daughter. Before long, Marlowe uncovers much more than he’d being paid to find and the bodies start mounting up.

In truth, the plot of the novel is only marginally relevant. It’s purposefully loose and messy, something Chandler makes no apology for. The real genius is in the atmosphere of mystery, double-dealing and noir that the author builds with every turning page. Perhaps even more so, the flawless characterisation of the deeply flawed central character (even here I hesitate from labelling Marlow as our hero as he’s no such thing, although more riotous than he’d care to admit).

Genius is a strong word but highly used with Chandler, who has long since shaken off any reputation for writing ‘detective fiction’. In his review of the novel, Robert McCrum quotes another literary titan:

The Big Sleep transcends its genre, moving WH Auden to write that Chandler’s thrillers “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”.

Reading The Big Sleep is essential to understanding why we read anything. It’s a mix of pure entertainment, mystery and literary art. There’s a reason its been chosen in top 100 lists by Time, Le Monde and The Guardian. Consider this essay your personal English teacher, reaching out with an opportunity to change how you think about what novels can achieve.

The Big Sleep is one of Time’s Best 100 Novels, one of The Gurdian’s Best 100 Novels and one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century

About the Author

Raymond Chandler was born in 1888 and is best known for popularising ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction. His lead character Phillip Marlowe is considered the archetypal private detective. Chandler died in 1959.

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.

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.