Reading Challenge Week 13: Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë


[Note: From now on I’m dumping the ‘things I liked’ and ‘things I didn’t like’ structure of these reviews as I found it restrictive as well as a little too basic. There are also some large spoilers for Wuthering Heights in this review.]

This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 13… Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Wuthering Heights. It’s a novel that’s populated with some of the nastiest characters I’ve encountered in literature, with there only being a couple who are remotely likeable. Because of this there’s hardly anybody to root for. But these unlikable characters are also what make the novel so brilliant. The central love affair between Heathcliff and Elizabeth isn’t romantic like the one between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre – written by Emily Brontë’s sister – it’s selfish and destructive. It’s a relationship that’s filled with hate as well as love, having a poisonous influence on everybody who comes into contact with it.

While Mr Lockwood and Nelly are ‘technically’ the story’s protagonists, they are little more than observers. Given their positions in relation to Wuthering Heights, outsider and servant, there is no room for them to have any influence on the story. And that’s why they make perfect narrators. To have Heathcliff or Catherine as the narrator would take some of the mystery out of the novel and add too much explanation to their actions. Heathcliff in particular is the novel’s most fascinating character; he’s riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. His race is ambiguous, being described as dark-skinned early on and pale much later. His attitude towards Catherine is both loving and abusive. He acts both gentlemanly and animalistic. And we never do learn how he earns his large fortune or where he came from in the first place. Heathcliff is impossible to work out as a character – and that’s what makes him so great.

The novel belongs to Heathcliff – he is the sun that all the other characters orbit. It is telling that the novel begins just before his arrival at Wuthering Heights and concludes shortly after his death. However I would also argue that many of the characters that ‘orbit’ Heathcliff are much less interesting than him. Hindley just seems to wander through chapters, mad, drunk and threatening to kill children and Isabella never really becomes that compelling of a character. But Catherine is perhaps the worst. While Heathcliff’s complexities make his unlikableness tolerable, Catherine is just plain unlikeable. Her self-centredness becomes absolutely unbearable throughout the novel, making her eventual death more of a blessing than a tragedy. The way Brontë frames her illness, as well as how Nelly acts, suggests that it is something we should care about; but Catherine makes this impossible. As a result I felt conflicted about actually wanting to continue with the story. While some characters interested me deeply, others made me want to put the book down and go read something else.

If the novel had ended with Catherine’s death, I would’ve been disappointed. In many ways it is the second generation of characters that make the novel a classic for me. Like Catherine and Isabella, these characters are caught in the orbit of Heathcliff’s world and need to escape, even if they aren’t aware of it, to survive. Before knowing Wuthering Heights even exists, Cathy is drawn to where it resides. Heathcliff has an almost invisible influence, even pulling Isabella’s son back to him. The consequence of Cathy and Linton not escaping from Heathcliff’s world is having to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Heathcliff attempts to form his son into the same abusive person he is, demonstrating to his son how he should act towards Cathy through his own violence to her. Linton’s illness is the only thing that stops Heathcliff’s plan from come to fruition. Cathy is able to differentiate herself from her mother, acting with kindness instead of cruelty and helping Hareton with his literacy instead of teasing him about it. By their intended marriage they stop history from repeating itself.

I’m very split on Wuthering Heights. It’s a well-written and thematically rich novel, but was not a pleasant reading experience at all. There’s a lot that I dislike about this novel and a lot that I admire. It’s something that, on one hand, I’d love to read again to try and get everything out of it, but, on the other hand, would be happy never to touch again. At least I can now understand why it’s a classic.



Pica Pica


She sits among the leaves, surveying the land below her. The creature’s head jitters about, finding it impossible to focus on one spot for too long. Her feathers are predominately black and white; the former ruling her back, the latter her stomach. I have somewhere to be but decide that somewhere can perhaps wait a little while. I take off my satchel and settle down on one of benches. This magpie has my attention.

Although I refer to her as a she, I have no idea what gender she really is. I’m a shameless amateur when it comes to birds. To call her ‘it’ would make more sense, but it would also make her seem less alive. She lets out a rattling cry. Given that her Latin name is Pica Pica, you’d expect it to be a sweet and gentle sound. Her Czech name instead is a much more accurate representation of her call; Straka.

To me, magpies are synonymous with childhood. The amount I saw on my way to school would foretell what sort of day I’d have. As the old rhyme goes; ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’. Back then they could tell the future – now they are simply links to the past. As I outgrew Santa Claus, I outgrew the magpie. I stopped looking at them with wonder and began to see them as simply part of the scenery. Decorations; like baubles on a Christmas tree.

She swoops down, flaunting her impressive wings. The feathers on them spread out like a spilled deck of cards. Landing, she begins to hop around – as if playing hot potato with her own body. It’s almost as if she’s trying to imitate the giants around her, curious as to how they work. If only she knew how to hold a mobile phone – she’d fit in perfectly.

Magpies have long been known for their curiosity, stealing whatever shiny trinket crosses their path. The magpie in front of me clearly sees something worth investigating in us, just like I see something worth investigating in her. It’s a quality that links us. Apart from the yapping seagulls she seems to be the only animal present in this part of the city. She almost feels like one of us; even being granted a human name, ‘Mag’. But every relatable quality in her seems to be matched by one that distances her; a beak, a pair of wings, a life among the clouds. Though she sits close by, there is an immeasurable chasm between us; one that can never be crossed.

John Berger sums up my feelings towards magpies perfectly; speculating that the reason animals fascinate humans is because ‘they are both like and unlike’ us (1980, p.2). Though I can relate to her curiosity, I can only theorise what she sees with those blackcurrant eyes of hers. She possesses something – a certain wildness – that I lost long ago. She’s a reminder of how distant I’ve become from nature – of how much time I spend bunged up in four-walled rooms staring at screens. Looking at her almost makes me feel like a child again.

Contrary to popular belief, magpies aren’t just black and white. Depending on the lighting they can also be blue, purple, green and bronze. How can you know an animal when it’s able to hide its true colours from you so effortlessly? The magpie does this in more ways than one. As I watch her, the end of that childhood rhyme plays in my head; ‘Seven is a secret never to be told.’ It would be wrong to assume the magpie is as innocent as it appears to be.

In S. Stillman Berry’s article, Magpies versus Livestock, he records a series of curious encounters between a party of American black-billed magpies and a herd of sheep. Being recently sheared, the sheep were littered with shaving cuts – which the starved magpies took the opportunity to pick at. They would increase the size of the wounds, picking away at and eating the flesh of the sheep. Berry notes that ‘the kidneys are particularly favored tidbits, and the birds were quick to learn the location of these organs in the animal’s body’ (1922, p.15). I imagine the magpies flocking to their banquet – acting as a feathery blanket for the creature, tucking it in for that eternal slumber.

Events like this haven’t been recorded with European magpies,  but they still shine a new light on the prophetic bird I once greeted on my way to school each morning. Though our magpies aren’t as ambitious in killing as their American cousins, they have attained an infamous status through raiding the nests of songbirds. Thrushes, robins, chaffinches, blackbirds, skylarks… All have had their nests ransacked and their young taken by starving magpies. But to condemn them for this behaviour would be silly. The amount of songbirds they kill each year is generally insignificant; especially when compared to those killed by cats. While these felines murder songbirds for the fun of it, magpies do it to survive.

She takes flight and I feel inclined to follow. Walking along the pavement I look around for my pied friend and begin to fear that I’ve lost her. I eventually find her perched on a railing, looking towards me as if this is some sort of game. I approach her, scribbling in my notebook as I walk. I just want to capture that something about her – birdwatchers refer to it as the jizz – that look in her eye. I want to put her into words.

As I’ve grown so has my perception of the magpie. It’s no longer just the whimsical bird I knew as a child, but also a killer. While this might turn some people off, it makes the species even more captivating to me. I want to see all of this bird’s sides, I want to know each and every one of her secrets. I jot down some observations and, upon looking back up, realise that she’s gone.

I wander around a little longer, hoping that I’ll find her again; hoping that she’s simply waiting around the next corner. If she is, I don’t find the right corner. I look down at my notes and become amused by how illegible some of them are. Finding a way to put the magpie into words will always elude me – just like the creature itself.

Reading Challenge Week 12: Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris



This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 12… Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

Synopsis: Will Graham is pulled back into the world of the FBI some years after retiring when a ruthless serial killer rears his head. Will must hunt down ‘The Tooth Fairy’ before he strikes again and murders another family.

What I Liked: Given how much I’m in love with Hannibal the TV series, I’m surprised that it took me this long to read a Thomas Harris book. This is a solid crime novel with a great story. Harris does a great job of fleshing out the different characters; from the troubled Will Graham to the always-taunting Hannibal Lecter. Dolarhyde stands out as the most fascinating character, though. It’s really nice to see the story from the killer’s perspective as well for a change. There’s a strange lack of Lecter in this novel, but I don’t think he needed to be around anymore than he is. He remains a curious enigma in the background. The pacing is great and there’s a few nice twists that kept me on my feet. The novel definitely succeeds in telling a good story.

What I Didn’t Like: Harris’s language is a little too basic for my taste at times and the sentences he uses to start chapters are usually very awkward. I know this genre isn’t known for flowery language but a bit would be nice. In terms of plot (SPOILER) the only part I wasn’t sold on was the fake-out ending. Jack’s explanation for Dolarhyde’s return felt so far-fetched that I’m not sure if I’d have preferred them to just leave it out.

Conclusion: Of course this book is good. It’s thrilling, fast-paced and filled with characters that are hard to forget.


Reading Challenge Week 11: Big Machine (2009) by Victor LaValle


This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 11… Big Machine by Victor LaValle.

Synopsis: Ricky Rice, a former heroin addict, gets a chance to turn his life around when he receives a train ticket in the post. He’s invited to Vermont to become part of a group of paranormal investigators, searching newspapers for unusual activity. Trying to find evidence for what might be the voice of God.

What I Liked: There’s some really great stuff here. I was totally hooked for the first 100-150 pages as the mystery of the novel slowly unravelled. Ricky’s history, growing up in a religious cult, ended up being the strongest part of the novel and contained some of the best fiction I’ve read this year. Completely original and completely engrossing. I also love how, unlike most authors, LaValle keeps his chapters short and punchy.

What I Didn’t Like: But, but, but… The novel has one glaring issue; it tries to do too much. It tries to tackle too many topics and, as a result, many of them are underserved. Religious cults, drug addictions, neglecting parents, infertility, angels and demons, supernatural organisations, terrorism, prostitution… Too much. The main supernatural plot starts off well, but LaValle decides to introduce too many new elements too late in. When I was halfway through the novel I knew there was no way that he was going to be able wrap things up in a satisfying manner. Some parts just ended up being rushed and others not really explained at all. In addition to this, the first 100 pages or so are spent introducing a cast of characters and then all of a sudden they’re just dropped. It feels like a waste. I just get the sense that there’s more than one novel in here – two, maybe three. If LaValle had left out the supernatural stuff and focused on Ricky’s backstory – which takes up close to half of the novel anyway – he would’ve had a fantastic book. Sadly the whole thing is too messy to live up to its potential.

Conclusion: Big Machine is a novel worth reading, but its poor structure and lack of focus hold it back considerably.


Reading Challenge Week 10: Darwin, A Life in Poems (2009) by Ruth Padel


[Sorry this review is a little bit late, I was utterly swamped with work last week! My schedule has freed up a bit more now so I should be able to do posts more frequently for a little while.]

This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 10… Darwin, A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel.

Synopsis: Everybody knows Charles Darwin, but they’ve never seen the story of his life told quite like this before. Ruth Padel constructs an autobiography about Darwin’s life through a series of poems, pulling quotes from the famous man himself and those around him.

What I Liked: Poetry has always been a bit hit-and-miss for me and I’ve never found Darwin’s work that interesting to read… but this was great. I can’t help but wish all biographies were like this. Padel hops from event to event in Darwin’s life, retelling things with beautiful language and managing to blend in the actual writing of the people these poems are about. The relationship between Charles and his wife Emma is particularly wonderful – demonstrating the burden that comes with discovering the things that Darwin does. The book is just as much about Charles’ personal life – which I think I ended up finding most interesting – as his work. If you want to know more about him, I can’t think of a better way to do so.

What I Didn’t Like: Nothing truly bad but, as with most poetry, for every poem that I loved there were a few that I didn’t really care for. I would’ve also liked a few more poems about his later life – which the author pretty much skims over.

Conclusion: A beautiful and moving read. Padel uses poetry to illuminate Charles Darwin’s life in a way that I doubt any other form of art could.


Reading Challenge Week 9: Stranger on a Train (2002) by Jenny Diski


This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 9… Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski.

Synopsis: Jenny Diski – who hates talking to strangers – takes a trip around America on a series of trains. Though she plans on smoking and reading through the whole thing, she can’t help but get wrapped up in other people’s stories.

What I Liked: So much to love here that I don’t know where to begin. Diski’s complete honesty is refreshing – divulging very personal chunks of her past and revealing her honest opinions about the people she meets. While she has a tendency to go off on tangents, this is usually where the most beautiful sections of language come from. She offers fascinating glimpses into the lives of others – the sort of people you can’t make up. There isn’t really any sense of narrative in the book and that’s the beauty of it. It’s wandering and unfocused and feels very human. I’ve never had much interest in travel fiction before – and I guess this isn’t really travel fiction in the traditional sense – but found this book endless fascinating.

What I Didn’t Like: Not much. Given that this is a travel book I would’ve liked for Diski to have explored some locations during her journey, but understand that that isn’t really what Strangers is about.

Conclusion: Fantastic in every sense – Diski offers insight into her world in a way that many other authors would be afraid to.


Reading Challenge Week 8: Henry IV Part I (1600) by William Shakespeare


This year I’ve decided to challenge myself to read a new book every week – and write about it a little bit here. I hope to touch on a variety of books – old and new, long and short, fiction and non-fiction – and maybe discover some new favourites. Week 8… Henry IV Part I by William Shakespeare.

Synopsis: Rebellion brews in the court of Henry IV as a former ally, Hotspur, attempts to take the crown for himself. Henry also struggles to keep his son Hal in line who shows little interest in the duties of a prince.

What I Liked: Yep, more Shakespeare. (I really haven’t had time for much other reading at the moment!) I found this one particularly interesting due to how it went against the formula of most Shakespeare plays I’ve read… in the sense that hardly anyone dies at the end. In fact this play is pretty light-hearted overall, which is a nice change. In some ways this one feels like more of a modern-day blockbuster than a Shakespearean drama… if that makes sense. Falstaff and his group make for a fun comedic diversion from the betrayal plot and Hal and his father’s relationship really is fascinating.

What I Didn’t Like: But still… I don’t understand why this play is called Henry IV. Henry doesn’t feel like the protagonist in the slightest. I’m also not too sure about Hotspur as an antagonist… In some ways he feels like he’s there just to create conflict for the sake of creating conflict.

Conclusion: Being lighter in tone than many of Shakespeare’s other dramas, Henry IV Part I is a refreshing read.