And with the final book in the First Law trilogy (there are follow up books set in the same world but this book completes the original trilogy)3 Stars
And with the final book in the First Law trilogy (there are follow up books set in the same world but this book completes the original trilogy), I remain more unconvinced than ever by Joe Abercrombie’s reputation as a master of fantasy. Sure, he subverts the cliche heroic fantasy tropes and stock characters to turn them on their head – but barely anyone writes that sort of heroic fantasy anymore anyway. And he still falls into that worst of fantasy author habits: writing way more than he he needs to, needlessly spinning a simple story into a whole trilogy. None of his books need to be as large as they are. The ending, while I admit it could have been a genuinely great end to standalone or a first novel in a series, feels anticlimactic after three books and roughly 1,700 pages. Especially when so little of relevance really happened in either book one or two. The whole series would have been massively improved by hacking out all the filler, maybe reducing the number of POV characters, and condensing it all into two books instead (one would probably be pushing it).
While Last Argument of Kings is probably the best book in the trilogy – the most action, the most plot, the most character revelations, it’s just a really really unsatisfying conclusion to the series. Now that’s part of the point, I’ll admit. It's a subversion of traditional ‘happily ever after, tied up neatly in a bow, no more problems ever’ fantasy. But for me it wasn’t the satisfying sort of unsatisfying where such an ending is pulled off well - the sort that just seems right and gets you really thinking. It was the ‘huh…I really read three bricks just for this?’. And, to be honest, it didn’t seem all that much of a subversion either, I’d flagged up that a certain character was a bit of a shit back in book one, had it all but confirmed in book two, and once I’d decided that he was clearly a shit of the first order, it was really easy to see where the plot would end up – with him being a shit. I only misjudged a little in how much of a nasty shit he would be.
My main problem with this series though is the length. It’s far far longer than it needs to be and by the end, instead of feeling a deep connection to the characters, I was completely and utterly bored by them. The interest I had in book one had been eroded by overexposure, repetitive phrases and lack of development (Jezal is really the only one who gets any). Glokta, who had been the best part of The Blade Itself had overrated his welcome to become a tiresome narrator repeating the same tired complaints about stairs and constantly ‘tonguing his gums’. And Logen, well I don’t think the reveal that people really hate a man that goes on indiscriminate murder sprees really counts as character development. Like, no shit, of course his own people hate him. They should hate him. By the very end I had stopped caring what happened to any of the characters.
There’s a lot more I could complain about – that Ferro never did anything more than be a walking plot device, that the central ‘breaking the First Law’ plot was way less interesting than any of the subplots, the way the world building was drip-fed in a way that made it hard to care about the big mythology that underpinned the whole story…but I’m just going to leave it at that. And also mention there was plenty I enjoyed too – mainly the parts set in the North.
I think Abercrombie had some great ideas, that the story could have been done really well. But having it drawn it out into such a massive trilogy just didn’t work for me (though I accept it seems to have worked for plenty of others). It was simply way more pages than either the story of the characters warranted.
I’m not actually giving up on Abercrombie yet though, my housemate lent me her copy of one of his standalones at the start of term and, despite my disappointment in the trilogy, I am going to read it. I’m honestly really interested to see if I prefer his stories when he restricts himself to using just one book to tell them. Also from the blurb the main character is female, and considering how one dimensional I found his female characters here when compared to the men, I’m really interested to see how he manages....more
Before They are Hanged was, for me, a big improvement on the first book. After the first book ambled along following various characters and pro 4 Stars
Before They are Hanged was, for me, a big improvement on the first book. After the first book ambled along following various characters and promising an overarching plot if only they could all just get together in the same room, Before They are Hanged, while still primarily character-driven, has a sense of direction to it, a much stronger narrative, and real stakes to be won or lost. The players are all moving towards something now, and it makes for a much more satisfying read.
True, some of the plot lines seem like shaggy dog stories and most won’t get resolved until book three, but I can see, roughly, where the story is going now, what the main themes and points of it are. It’s no longer just a disparate bunch of people scattered across the world all doing their own thing. Abercrombie is still reluctant to reveal too much of the main plot, but we finally get some more of the mythology of the world, an explanation of who certain characters are and why they are important. I do still feel that more could have been done to make me care about certain things – Khalul is evil because he is and because he broke ‘the second law’, but there’s no sense urgency to defeat him and it’s hard to care about the atrocities we’re informed he’s committing. Overall, though, I felt much more drawn into the world and characters this time around.
Part of that is probably because the action has all but moved away from Adua, the rather generic-european-fantasy city of the first book. Glokta has been ‘promoted’ to head inquisitor of one of the union’s colonial cities in the south – a city of massive inequality and racial tensions, schemers and traitors, about to come under siege from the Gurkish armies, and he’s been tasked with the impossible mission of protecting it. Major West is leading armies in the north against an invasion by King Bethod, having to contend with army incompetence, poor supplies, in-fighting, oh and the enemy forces as well. And most of the other characters are off on a quest through the ‘old empire’, exploring ancient ruins, developing their characters, and learning lots of world building and mythology.
Aaaad it’s probably obvious which plot line I found least interesting. Although I like most of the characters – well, Logen and Ferro – Bayaz’s quest to the edge of the world was the hardest plot line to become emotionally invested in. As I said before, it’s hard to care for the ultimate aim of defeating Khalul with the information we've been given, especially when Bayaz himself is shady as fuck. And the fight scenes here seem a bit artificially thrown in, as if put there purely because trudging through the desert makes for dull reading. I also found Jezal’s sudden change of attitude from the whiny brat he was in the first book a little too sudden and too soon. I am interested, however, in both Logen and Ferro and in what’s going on with apprentice magi, Malacus Quai. Will be interested to see where all those characters end up in book three.
All in all a better book than The Blade Itself. I still don’t feel that Abercrombie is the best fantasy writer ever, but I am looking forward to book three. Though I do wonder, after two books of very slow plot development, how he can pull the conclusion off in just one book without it feeling rushed....more
This is one of the first books I read all by myself. My year one teacher, Mrs. Heath, kept a personal stash of decent children’s books in a cup 4 Stars
This is one of the first books I read all by myself. My year one teacher, Mrs. Heath, kept a personal stash of decent children’s books in a cupboard and after taking a week or so to ascertain that I was reading beyond the required level of ‘Biff, Chip and Kipper' she let me and a couple of others plunder from this cupboard as much as we liked during school hours – with the one stipulation that we couldn’t take the books home, so these books were read in short snatches during 'quiet reading time' and wet-play when it was too rainy to take breaks outside. So rereading this at almost 25 the first thing that strikes me is how much shorter it seems to be than when I was 5. It is still, however, a very fun little story about animals that it’s hard not to love. Seriously, who doesn’t love dodos?
‘Oh, Beatrice!’ cried Bertie. ‘You are the most beautiful dodo in the whole wide world.’
The whole wide world was, for the dodos (though they did not know this), a smallish island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There were no dodos anywhere else on earth.
The date (though they did not know this) was AD 1650, and before very long (and, luckily, they did not know this either) there would be no dodos anywhere at all on earth. The dodo would be extinct.
Or that’s what everybody has always thought.
So opens a very funny, charming little story about the extinction of an entire species.
Beatrice and Bertie, a young dodo couple are among the first to witness the arrival of the first ship carrying ‘sea-monkeys’ to their previously uncharted and uninhabited island. With no natural predators, the dodo are a naturally trusting (and comically stupid) bird, so it is to everyone’s horror when the sea-monkeys start massacring them for food.
Even when the sea-monkeys depart, leaving behind Sir Frances Drake, a friendly green parrot, the danger is not over yet. For the island has become infested with vicious rats from the ship and Bertie and Beatrice must be constantly vigilant to protect their newly laid egg. And when the rats begin to overun the island, Bertie, Beatrice and a small group of friends and relatives, led by Sir Frances Drake, put to sea in an abandoned boat to found a new dodo paradise elsewhere.
Of course it’s not exactly an accurate portrayal of how the dodos were wiped out – it took longer than the book implies, humans rarely ate dodo, and, as well as rats, deforestation and the introduction of domestic dogs, cats and pigs (now believed the most important factor) meant sudden competition for limited food. But it’s a nicely compressed kiddies version of the basic idea – and it is certainly the interpretation of the extinction that most people are familiar with (or at least that I was as a child interested in natural history in the 90s).
But what the book is, is a story that, despite not being historically accurate, does have a lot of educational value as an introduction to the concept of human-aided extinction and the environmental impact of invasive species, while also being a very funny book with loveable characters an exciting and fantastical plot and a silly but happy ending.
As one of Dick King-Smith’s less known books, I’m not sure if this story is even still in print but I do highly recommend it as a book for young children. At 79 pages it’s not intimidatingly long, and split into 12 chapters and a postscript it’s easy to digest in small chunks. The language is simple and easy for an early reader without the content of the story being patronising or babyish, it invites questions and discussion about natural history and extinction, and its got funny parts that both parents and kids can appreciate (I know I didn’t pick up on the Hamlet reference when I read it as a kid). Easily a four star read for me....more
Another fun little novel from my childhood by Dick King-Smith. A bit of a departure from his normal ‘farmyard fantasy’ (Dick King-Smith is a pr 4 Stars
Another fun little novel from my childhood by Dick King-Smith. A bit of a departure from his normal ‘farmyard fantasy’ (Dick King-Smith is a prolific author of books featuring talking pigs, mice, and various other animals), Tumbleweed is a fantasy-comedy featuring a very clumsy, nervous, knight who meets a friendly witch, befriends a lion and a unicorn, and goes off in search of damsel to rescue from a dragon.
As a kid I loved stories of knights and castles, so when, aged about 8 or 9, I picked this up for weekly ‘read aloud’ sessions with one of my primary school’s teaching assistants, I absolutely adored it – despite it being a very short and easy read. So my four stars rather than three is completely driven by nostalgia. It’s probably one of those children’s books that’s best read when you either are a child or have children to read it to/with. But it is fun – and I did love Jones, the Welsh Dragon – I hadn’t picked up originally that he used actual Welsh speaking patterns so that got a little laugh out of me, I could definitely hear the accent when I read it this time. It also has some fun jokes and really cute cartoonish black and white illustrations that I don’t remember from reading as a child, but really loved this time around.
If you’re reading with kids and like to discuss themes and messages with them then it’s got a couple of those too; ‘what is courage?’/'can you be brave and afraid?’, as well as judging people on appearances, what makes a good friend, and the morality of taking credit for other people’s actions.
Not as totally awesome as I remember, but still a cute and funny story aimed pretty squarely at younger readers....more
I hesitate to call this book the best in the series only because Rivers of London holds a very special place in my heart that is absolutely 4.75 Stars
I hesitate to call this book the best in the series only because Rivers of London holds a very special place in my heart that is absolutely impossible to replace. It was an impulse buy and the first book I read after seeking help to manage my depression – and as such marked the first time I had managed to truly and unreservedly enjoy anything for months, possibly years. But, if I try to remove that from the equation, Broken Homes is definitely the best written and best plotted of the Peter Grant books so far and, without a doubt, has the most exciting climax.
A brief explanation for the uninitiated – Peter Grant is a London Police officer. He is also an apprentice magician. In that order. One of the best and most unique elements of this urban fantasy series is that – though there might be magicians, river goddesses, dryads and fairies – it’s actually very ‘realistic’ in tone. Peter and his partner, Lesley, do real policework, not the ‘maverick cop’ or ‘lose cannon’ stuff you see in most crime novels and TV, but real PC plod stuff, slowly putting together a case and working with, rather than against, their superior officers. It's a really refreshing approach - though often the rest of the police would really rather not have anything to do with the ‘weird shit’ Peter’s department specialises in.
So when said ‘weird shit’ starts happening, mutilated bodies turning up in the woods, a man cooked from the inside out, a very suspicious suicide, and a stolen book of magical spells, Peter is the one who has to piece it all together while the local police work on their separate murder enquiries. And all clues seem to lead to a council tower-block in South London, and Peter’s nemesis, the Faceless Man.
It’s a bit slow to get started at first, with Peter being given case after seemingly unconnected case and the links between them forming quite slowly. For the first few chapters, I actually quite enjoyed that, it’s part of the ‘realism’ of the series and I really like the way Peter describes crime scenes and police procedure. Around the point where there was an interlude for Peter and Lesley to police a magical festival I got a little irritated though. It seemed a bit plonked down and nothing to do with anything, the net result of it only being a couple of slightly tiresome ‘why aren’t you fucking Beverly?’ conversations later in the book (Peter’s narration is really best when it’s not talking about women he fancies). But after that brief interlude things really started to come together again and the last half of the book is absolutely brilliant.
I just love this series (with the exception of the second book). The characters are great – more so now that Lesley has moved from ‘romantic interest’ to ‘close friend’ – the magic system is unique, and it’s just full of oddball but wonderful ideas. The narration, a first person account from Peter, is really well done, and London is portrayed as the diverse city it really is rather than peopled (and policed) by exclusively straight white dudes. The series keeps adding to the rich world-building with each book and there’s lots of new stuff to learn here without it ever really feeling particularly info-dumpy.
This book also turns the Faceless Man into a real threat for me. Maybe he already was, but he was introduced in Moon Over Soho and I found that book so crushingly disappointing (lots of too-stupid-to-live moments and sex scenes that jarred with the tone) that I’m not sure I really took in much about him until this book. But, despite Peter’s boss Nightingale insisting that he’s ‘no Moriarty’, this book showed him to be a calculating and very credible threat that I look forward to seeing more of (though I have to say that Moriarty is a shitty villain who was defeated in his first story by being pushed off a cliff, most master criminals in most books are better villains than Moriarty). Also, this book finally let Nightingale show off just how badass he is is and it was AWESOME. Finally a full on wizard's duel!
A really really great book with an absolutely brilliant ending. A couple of pacing issues in the first half are really all that’s holding me back from awarding five stars – but I am sorely tempted.
Very very much look forward to the next book in the series and I’m going to continue buying these in hardback the moment they’re released....more
Objectively the worst book I have read, not just since I started thinking critically about books or reviewing, but ever.
(view spoiler)[Dinner With a Vampire combines all the worst traits of paranormal romance – a bratty and self-absorbed female narrator, an unlikable physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive love interest, vampires who are ‘perfect’ with no faults or weaknesses, the human character being somehow more ‘special’ than other humans, barely fleshed out side characters, telepathic connections, forbidden love etc. etc., you name it. Just a few of these would be bad enough on their own even if written competently, but instead we have them mushed together nonsensically into a big mess where the basic principles of writing such as ‘plot’, ‘continuity’, ‘character development’ and ‘worldbuilding’ have been completly abandoned.
It’s a genuinely terrible book, and one I wouldn’t recommend to anybody (and would advise people who have ever been raped or in an abusive relationship to steer well clear of) but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to actively hate or abandon it. It’s so bad that I had to keep going, just to see how much worse it could get (the answer: lots) but too bad for me to hate it. Rather than resent having to read such poor writing, I can’t help but feel rather sorry for the teenage author (I know I certainly wouldn’t like my unpolished teenage writings published). This is, essentially, a first draft of a book that should never have got past the publisher’s slush pile and as such it feels very harsh to judge it even by the most basic standards of what I expect in a published work.
The reason why it did get past, of course, is obvious: ’17-year old Abigail from Brixham, Devon is already an online sensation, whose writing has attracted over 16 million views on Wattpad. None of her fans have yet to discover the breathtaking end to the novel and there is a huge anticipation to read the finale.’ There, right on the back of the advance aeview copy is the only reason this is being published: to cash in on a huge ready-built online audience by forcing them to buy a copy if they want to read the ending. Shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you. This is, presumably, also why the book doesn’t read like it’s had a proofreader, much less a competent editor – it has to be rushed off the press before the fickle online audience move on and abandon it - and as a result continuity and worldbuilding issues abound.
As an ARC I’m meant to ignore basic spelling mistakes and typos that won’t get past publication (‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’ was one particularly frustrating example but there were many more) what I can’t forgive the editor though is allowing some of the dreadful, confused, and often contradictory writing to slip through. In only the third chapter we have this gem ‘The sun was beginning to rise, and I glanced at my watch’ followed in the very next paragraph by ‘it … was approaching sunrise’ - yeah, we already got that thanks. Basic, basic mistakes. Later being able to feed without killing forms a major part of Violet’s decision to turn into a vampire, except…well she should already know that because it's obvious right from the begining. Elsewhere we have bizarre phrasing – ‘her skin draped in her coat’ does not sound like a description of a living person, much less an appealing description of one. Has she been flayed? No. Then surely what’s meant is that the coat was draped over her skin. And that’s far from an isolated incident, there are innumerable sentences and phrases that just sound wrong. The sort of basic ‘wait a sec…did you really mean to say this?’ stuff that should be so so easy to pick up on and correct but have just been left to lie because, y’know, 16 million readers already hooked, right? No need to bother spending time to make it a quality product! Again, shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you.
Not, however, that this book could ever have been made into a truly good book. The phrases could have been tightened, the basic mistakes corrected, but this was always going to be a horrible book due to the poor plot and dreadful characters. Credit where credit is due, I suppose, the author tries to steer clear of the ‘vampires are sexy but not remotely scary’ trope that’s slipped into vampire fiction recently. These vampires murder and rape without the slightest compunction, instead they’ve been thoroughly ‘defanged’ by forcing them to act like the stupidest, most immature, and most petty sort of teenagers imaginable. When you have a man supposedly in his hundred’s threatening his older sister that he’ll tell daddy when she lost her virginity well…it’s hardly dark and sinister and it’s certainly not ‘charismatic and sexy’.
And the author tries to have it both ways. Kaspar is dark and sinister, but he’s also a gentle little puppy waiting for the right woman to turn him into a noble prince. Those other vampires may be cruel and vicious, but he’s just misguided! And what better way to emphasise it than by using rape as cheap drama. Now Kaspar may have threatened to rape Violet, he may have sexually harassed her several times, but when another vampire violently assaults her he’ll come rushing to her rescue. What a hero! Oh wait, no. he still kidnapped, assaulted, harassed, and threatened to rape her. In fact, even after they have (surprisingly explicit) consensual sex, his pillow talk consists of telling her how he plans to rape the daughters of his enemies. No matter what ‘nasty’ vampires in this book you're meant to compare him with, Kaspar will still never be ‘charismatic, sexy‘ or even likable. I can fall for ‘evil is sexy’ in my fiction, what I can’t fall for is a character written to sound exactly like the sort of bloke who would rape you and then feel sorry for himself when you didn’t like it. That sort of petty evil is sadly all too common in the real word, it doesn’t need romanticising in fiction.
And then the whole ‘rape as a tool to push two characters together romantically’… oooh boy do I hate that trope. I don’t object to rape in fiction; it’s a real thing, it happens, frequently, and it needs to be discussed openly and not made taboo. The test though is in how an author deals with the after affects. What rape in fiction should never be is simply an easy excuse to scare a female romantic lead away from all men but the ‘hero’. And guess how it’s handled here? Yep, exactly that way. Before the rape; she hates Kaspar and sees through all his shit. After the rape; he rescued her and now they’re best friends and she totally wants in his pants. It’s handled so badly and so insensitively (despite a few ‘I felt dirty, I shouldn’t be acting this way’ protests from Violet that never ring quite true with everything else shown on the page) that only a few pages, and a few days, after almost dying from the attack she doesn’t mind at all when Kaspar sneaks into her room while she’s asleep, covers her mouth to stop her screaming, and then practically demands she consents to having him suck her blood. Better still as soon as he leaves his best friend comes in (the other side of the love triangle) and forces a kiss on her which she’s totally ok with. It’s just…it boggles the mind really.
I could go on about the bad things in this book forever but what, I think, they mostly stem from is being originally published serially online. Even if I didn’t know the origin of this book I’m fairly sure I could guess it just from reading. It doesn’t read like a book, it reads like someone’s simply hit the print button on an online fiction and then bound the pages together. Instead of natural, flowing, plot and character development this book is just a string of things happening for no particular rhyme or reason. No time for proper world building or character development, got to keep the audience coming back, can’t let up the pace! This might be tolerable when reading one chapter a month, maybe even one a week, but read it all in one go, as one reads a novel, and you realise that the tone and characterisation are just all over the place and that actually, no, it’s not ok for these things to be happening so soon after each other.
Then there’s the bits that seem obviously inspired by feedback comments from fans ‘oh you’re so Kaspery! – It’s a word I made up’, ‘I can’t die! I’ve never been to Disneyland!’ ‘It’s pronounced Sage-en, not Sagean’ (this last one is particularly dumb because the character had only ever heard the word so, not knowing how it's spelt, would have no reason to be pronouncing it with an ‘a’ in the first place).
Add to this the fact that the plot doesn’t even make sense – the easiest and least dangerous thing to do would just be to give Violet back to her family, bind her to an agreement of secrecy and let her go on her way. That and there is no way Violet could possibly ‘know’ the big secret she guesses blindly, and even less way that the vampires shouldn't already have considered it - but guess what? Her wild guess is totally correct and the vampires are stunned! Then there’s the sudden shift in genre near the end of the book as well; it’s all ‘clichéd vampire romance’ yawn yawn yawn. But then WHAM! ‘Actually there are several alternate universes and Violet is the heroine who has to save them all!’. Except instead of ‘wham’ it’s more of an ‘oh shit, I forgot to do my worldbuilding earlier or set up this plot thread properly but this is totally what this book is actually about’.
And then Violet... Why should I care for this character? I can feel sorry for her situation, but the character herself is not written to be sympathetic in any way. She’s lost her brother and that’s meant to be a big plot point explaining how she ended up where she did; except he barely gets referenced three times and it’s always ‘it was really sad when he died, it affected me a lot’ without ever actually seeing it affect her. Her ex-boyfriend cheated on her but that again gets about three references. Her little sister has cancer, but she’s too busy drooling over Kaspar to think of her family more than about twice and then acts like a total bitch to them at the end. She slut shames all of the previous girls Kaspar has ever slept with, deciding they must be ‘whores‘ (as far as I can tell none of them are sex workers and Charity, the girl particularly demonised by Violet, Kaspar and the autor, actually did fancy and want a relationship with Kaspar, it was him using her purely for sex). She pretty much slut shames her best friend (never mentioned again) in the first chapter, does the same to Kaspar’s sister, and even thinks of Kaspar’s exes ‘whores’ as she is shagging him. Why should I like her? She’s a judgemental bitch and her Stockholm syndrome isn’t written in anything like a believable enough way to prevent her from just looking like a complete idiot. (hide spoiler)]
In short: this book simply too bad for me to hate it. It's so clearly not of publishable quality that I just feel kind of sorry for it for not being given the constructive criticism and redrafting it so desperately needed before being sent out into the world.
Terrible writing, terrible editing, and a terrible plot. 0 stars.
Thank you to Waterstones for sending me an Advance Review Copy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I think this is the point where me and Alex Rider have to part ways. I thought the potential was there in the last book, the seeds of some good2 Stars
I think this is the point where me and Alex Rider have to part ways. I thought the potential was there in the last book, the seeds of some good turn-you-brain-off fun were there and I gave it the benefit of a second chance for being the first book of a series with room to improve. But with this second book I’m now totally convinced: Alex Rider just isn’t my thing. Maybe when I was a pre-teen, perhaps, but, for me, this isn’t one of those children’s or young adult books that is written in a way adults can enjoy as well. And, as much as I loathe gendered reading and saying ‘this is for boys, this is for girls’, it’s especially not written in a way for adult females to enjoy. I’m not going to say it’s not a great children’s book though – because there’s a lot to love if you are the target audience and if the target audience love it and it gets kids reading than that’s the main thing and I won’t say a word against that. But it’s not for me in a pretty big way.
Putting aside the totally ridiculous, insane, plot for a moment – it could have worked for me under a better writer – the main problem is the narration. Omniscient third person with little informative asides about how the technology behind certain things work and how that applies to what Alex is doing/about to do. I suppose it’s necessary for the story he wants to tell, there are several scenes of the evil villains in their lairs, the MI6 back home that would be impossible to tell from a first person or third person-limited. What it does do though is create a distance between the reader and the main character – hell any of the characters. It’s all tell and no show ‘Alex felt this’, ‘Alex did this’ without ever really feeling that I know who Alex even is or anything about what actually makes him tick. My favourite example would have to be ‘‘The words were cold and absolute and Alex felt the fear that they triggered‘ – I mean…how hard would it have been to make that sentence avtually about Alex’s feelings? He sounds and acts like some creepy automaton at least half the time in this book. The only thing we’re ever shown is action and the characters only exist in the most sketched-out half-arsed way to deliver that action. I thought perhaps, in the last book, Howitzer needed a bit more time to get properly into his characters but after this book I just don’t think he cares.
Even when Alex is apparently reacting in a human way he comes off as a psychopath. The book pretty much opens with an anvilicious ‘selling drugs to secondary school pupils is bad’ lesson where Alex chases down a drug dealer (apparently his best friend who we’ve never heard of before and can’t imagine we’ll hear of ever again has been hooked and Alex is out for revenge), decides he’d rather take care of it himself than call the police, and recklessly endangers the lives of possibly hundreds of people as he causes thousands of pounds worth of property damage breaking almost every bone in the drug dealers body. Eugh… maybe I’d have found this a fun scene if I was a child though. And if he’s not being a psychopath he’s whining (sometimes he even does both at the same time). The book opens with him moping and upset because everyone thinks he’s a wuss for taking two weeks off for ‘flu’ during the last book and he’s sad because he can’t tell them that he was actually being a super spy. The teachers aren’t sympathetic and his friend’s think two weeks for illness is excessive. Except that that whole concept is ridiculous – teachers will be sympathetic to somebody taking two weeks from school right after their guardian has died (of course Alex himself got over it in approximately two seconds, but his teachers couldn't know that, a normal teenager probably would be having trouble for at least a fortnight). They might not understand why nobody contacted the school for support but they’re not going to be frowning and tutting and disapproving when he comes back – or at least none of the teachers I have ever had reacted that way to children whose parents had recently died and needed time off. Eugh…adult-me just can’t even deal with how stupid the set up and characterisation is even before we get to the evil villain stuff! Not a good sign.
Unfortunately there’s more stupid to go through before we get to the evil villain stuff too: a stay in the country with a posh family and Alex’s first ‘Rider Girl’. If I tell you that she’s introduced (in a bikini) with the following words it’ll probably tell you enough: ‘Her body was well shaped, closer to the woman she would become than the girl she had been. She was going to be beautiful. That much was certain. The trouble was, she already knew it’. Again the problem of third person omniscient narration – this would have sounded far less creeptastic written from Alex’s point of view (either first person or third person limited) where it would have been less about the transition from a child and just about finding a girl of his own age attractive. As it stands it sounds like an adult narrator trying not to sound too pervy and coming off even worse for it ‘oh she’s not beautiful now, she’s only a teenager, but when she grows up… ‘ Not creepy at all! And note how she’s obviously a ‘bad’ person. She knows she’s beautiful so she must be a bitch. Give me a fucking break. Of course she then proceeds to be a bitch, quelle suprise, but falls for Alex anyway. Yawn.
I was almost grateful when the real plot finally got going and Alex got whisked away for ridiculously unbelievable spy shenanigans. And when I say ridiculous I mean it. I’m not going to spoil the details of the big evil plot but it’s totally insane. Oh and the villain is an evil albino South African with an ugly South African henchwoman (described as a ‘muscle-bound freak of nature’ by Howitzer in the afterword) who wants to bring back apartheid. I’m honestly not sure whether to be glad some children will at least learn about apartheid for the first time and hopefully start asking questions, or to head-desk at the execution.
But onto the good. The action scenes are still fun, though they’ve lost a lot of their tension now that Alex is such a Mary Sue. In my review of the last book I said Howitzer did a good job of making you almost fear for Alex’s safety – but I didn’t feel that any more here, even when the situations were much more dangerous. If you just want a children’s action adventure book though it’s pretty solid. There’s snowboarding, chimney crawling, men with guns and all sorts.
Overall though, while I could see the appeal to the target audience, I simply didn’t like this book and couldn’t even enjoy it much when I ‘switched my brain off’. I am glad my library gave me the tenth anniversary edition with the afterword by Howitzer though. It was enlightening - apparently he's not too enamoured wih the plot of this book either. But again I’m not sure whether to be grateful or to head-desk that he is obviously aware of the potential for reading racism into his books (even though he doesn’t intend them to be racist), and that he realises how problematic his practice of giving disabilities to the villains is. I mean good, he is aware of and aknowledges the issues, but unless that awareness actually translates into trying to improve his handling of these elements in future books it means precisely jack.
The afterword also furnished me with a basic overview of the rest of the Alex Rider books, and a glimpse into some of his favourite James Bond villains – which leads me to quite confidently say that I don’t think either series will ever be for me....more
Now it’s probably worth mentioning before I go into a glowing review that 1) I am a massive dog person – to the extent I haven’t grown out of
Now it’s probably worth mentioning before I go into a glowing review that 1) I am a massive dog person – to the extent I haven’t grown out of pointing and going ‘pretty doggy!’ whenever I see one, and 2) I’m not approaching this book fresh but as a reread of one of my childhood favourites. And we should probably throw in a 3) there as well – my copy of the book is a wonderfully illustrated little 1963 hardback which my dad passed onto me, having bought it with his own tenth-birthday money after falling in love with the Disney film. It’s an absolutely beautiful object and everything about it only adds to the charm of the book. In fact I almost found it hard to read with both him and my sisters constantly peering over my shoulder or stealing the book whenever I set it down to look at the black and white pictures.
But onto the review…
Before Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Lyra Belaqua or any of those modern protagonists were about, before I was even introduced to Roald Dahl; The Hundred and One Dalmatians was a firm and familiar favourite. I’d seen the film (an incredibly poor quality pirated VHS tape my dad had got my big sister when they lived in Hong Kong) endless times, I’d had the book read to me by my parents (Dad was better with the voices), and, above all, I had listened to the audio-cassette, narrated by Joanna Lumley until it wore out (if anyone can track this down on MP3 I will love you forever). In fact I was so familiar with the story I’m not entirely sure that I had actually read it before this, I think as a child I might well have been too scared of damaging dad’s copy to risk it. Point is, this book is a very old and comforting friend – which is just what I needed last weekend.
It’s a warm, fluffy, little story full of rather old-fashioned British charm and a gentle but witty narration that should appeal to all ages. True, the gender roles are old fashioned – one of the nannies wearing trousers is regarded as shocking and Pongo’s rather ditsy wife is simply called ‘Missis Pongo’ (Perdita is a separate character) but it’s all so quaintly and humorously done that it simply brings a smile. Also I can’t condemn the book totally on those grounds because Cruella de Vil’s ‘I am the last of my family so I made my husband change his name to mine’ was a total revelation for me as a child and I can probably attribute this one line (despite it being said by the villain) to my strong opinions on taking a husbands name. Here it’d probably be interesting to compare and contrast the dynamics of Cruella de Vil’s marriage to that of Pongo and Missis who ‘had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage but was still called Missis by most people’ – but I’m not the person to do that, I love this book too much to go too deep into any analysis. Lets just say that whatever the intention (and I think Dodie Smith is actually gently mocking sexist attitudes ‘Pongo and the Spaniel laughed in a very masculine way’ rather than deliberately propagating them) little-me took away a very feminist message from Cruella de Vil. Only once, in fact did the book really disappoint on this sort of ‘value-slippage’ front – the depiction of a gang of ‘gipsies’ trying to steal valuable dogs. It’s an episode I don’t remember from my childhood and that I’m going to try to forget about again now, thankfully it only takes up a page or two and the rest of the book is lovely.
Pretty much everyone must know the basic storyline by now – Pongo and Missis’ fifteen puppies are stolen. While the humans are baffled the dog community of Great Britain gets to work, and though the Twilight Bark locate the puppies at Hell Hall – where Cruella de Vil plans to turn them into fur coats as soon as they get big enough. Pongo and Missis must adventure across England, braving bad weather, stone-throwing children, hunger, fire, and being captured by the police, to reach and rescue their puppies, assisted by a string of helpful canines who help them evade capture. A lot more happens than in either Disney version (though there are thankfully considerably less raccoons) and I was surprised by how many of the events on Pongo and Missis journey to the puppies I had forgotten.
My favourite bit, of course, is the idea of dogs having a human-like society and the cameos of all the different breeds of dogs and the different personalities and class backgrounds they’ve been given from the dedicated and hard-working Great Dane to the kindly old upper class Spaniel, the smart, military, sheepdog, the ‘feather brained as well as feather tailed‘ Irish Setter (my cousins used to own these and they really are feather brained), and most of all the Staffie terrier who gets no greater joy than cannonballing into people’s chests. As a dog person there is very very little about this book that I don’t love – and the gorgeous illustrations in this copy of all the different breeds involved in the Twilight Bark is just the icing on the cake.
A lovely, lovely, children’s classic that was just the sort of warm fuzzy nostalgia I needed right. The intelligence and warmth of the narration also makes it a book that parents will probably enjoy reading to their child and can get some humour out of themselves.
A quick word of warning though – the sequel, The Starlight Barking, is very, veeeeeery different. It’s certainly an ‘interesting’ read, but The Hundred and One Dalmatians may well read better as a standalone and I wouldn’t recommend one just because you liked the other. ...more
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earl 3 stars
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earlier this year and a big part of that enjoyment was the writing style which was verbose and beautiful but also unashamedly honest and dirty and not at all ‘flowery' or 'delicate’, thick with references and heavy with unusual and striking descriptions that transformed the everyday and even the crude into the magical. Nights at the Circus is like that, but more so. More so to the point of absolute suspension-of-disbelief-shattering distraction, in fact.
Maybe it’s just that what works for me in a short story just seems too much when sustained over the course of a whole novel, but I found this book very hard to get into. As much as I wanted to like and get a grip on the characters and the story everything simply felt overpowered by the descriptions and writing style. Even when stuff was going on – and a lot of stuff did happen in this book – it felt like I was reading something that was all style over substance.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or that the writing didn’t contain some absolutely beautiful descriptions, but I didn’t enjoy the book anywhere near as much as I’d hoped.
Nights at the Circus tells the story of Fevvers, a tall, brash, cockney woman with the wings of a swan sprouting from her back, through her meeting with Jack Walser, a restless, blandly handsome and blandly personalityless American journalist. Fevver’s is the toast of the town when Walser first meets her for an interview; an internationally famous aerialiste in the travelling circus, painted by famous artists, admired by the Prince of Wales, and subject to excited speculation as to whether she really was hatched from an egg or is simply a fabulous conwoman. Walser starts the novel determined to prove that it’s the latter, finds himself falling for her (no spoiler, it’s in the blurb!), and up and joins the circus himself to pursue the story and uncover the mystery behind Fevvers’ wings – or so he tells himself.
It’s a bizarre, weird, and frequently quite funny picaresque novel in three parts that are split up very distinctly by location, theme, and even narrative style. The first part ‘London’ tells the story of Fevver’s early life before joining the circus and is done almost exclusively through dialogue. It’s Walser’s first interview with her and so there are frequent breaks for description and reactions set in the present, but the majority of it is backstory told in Fevver’s own words with occasional interruptions by her audience. And this is where I first found Carter’s style started to grate. Possibly I simply don’t know enough truly charismatic people, but Carter’s very beautiful and distinctive writing style just sounds all wrong when coming directly from the mouth of a character rather than the narrator. I kept going ‘really? that was the most natural way you could think of to get that message across’. I gave benefit of the doubt, allowing for the fact that Fevvers is a very charismatic character and that she had rehearsed all this for her interview, but in the next two sections when other characters all started talking in this very verbose, unnatural, reference heavy way my suspension of belief just snapped. What works in narration doesn’t always work for dialogue and when, with a very few exceptions, all characters, regardless of background or education, tend to speak the same I tend to get super tired of it super fast.
Never the less, I enjoyed the story of Fevver’s early life. It was probably the part that most resembled what I liked about The Bloody Chamber, a decadent gothic tale of whorehouses, freak-shows, and female solidarity. The second section, Petersburg, however, is where the story really came together for me. The narrative balance shifts back more in favour of the omniscient third person narrator and the story shifts almost to a series of vignettes about the various colourful characters that inhabit the circus – Colnel Kearney and his fortune-telling pig, Buffo the clown, Mignon the Ape Man’s wife, the apes, the strongman, little Ivan, the silent tiger tamer, the other aerialistes – all leading up to the culmination of an uforgettably eventful final performance before the circus moves on. This was the part of the book I really enjoyed. It was funny in places, poignant in others and only the characters all speaking the same way really marred my enjoyment. Fevver’s story took a bit of a backseat until toward the end, but I actually prefered it that way, and Walser, though still pretty bland, started to come into his own a bit as he witnessed and interacted with the unusual life and inhabitants of the circus.
Part three, Siberia, however, is where it all went off track and started to unravel for me though. In fact, had I not been on a train, my copy of the book would probably have hit a wall when the narration suddenly shifted into first-person, and then hit the wall again when it shifted back. Almost all the chapters dealing with Fevvers in this third section now flow back and forth between an omniscient third person and Fevver’s point of view with very little rhyme or reason and no clues as to when the changes are going to happen. One moment you’re reading third person description and then BAM! Next sentence you’re suddenly in Fevver’s head going ‘wait, what…that doesn’t make sense, how did I get here?’. The dull love story also comes more to the forefront in this section and, to be honest, I don’t care enough about either character to really give a crap about it. I'm with Fevver's foster mother, Lizzie, in the 'why bother with him?' camp.
So ultimately a 3 star read for me. I wanted to like it more. It’s a very clever book with lots of great ideas and feminist and social themes running through it – all of which are more interesting than the basic framework of the boy chases girl story. There’s a lot of stuff to pick out and enjoy and yes, it is beautifully and vividly written – but almost tortuously so. For every descriptive gem there’s a nice idea somewhere else belaboured to the point of irritation and the characters, even Fevver’s who is meant to be‘larger than life’, don’t have enough of an independent voice for me to particularly care about them or their fate. In the end, much as I wanted to feel strongly about the characters get into the story for its own sake, I had to battle against the way it was written to do so.
I still love Angela Carter’s writing, and I still love The Bloody Chamber, and I am glad I read this. But ultimately I think the style displayed here is much better suited to short stories than it is novels....more
For anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a formaFor anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a format that suits both the characters and the mysteries far better than the slightly drawn-out novels (with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is ace) and has the blessed relief of absolutely no obscenely long and involved story within a stories. It’s also, from memory, the most solid of the short story collections as a whole – Memoirs containing a couple of duds and later collections a little bit lackluster in comparison – even so, it’s a mixed bag. On second reading (or rather listening) there were stories I liked rather less than on my first read, but none that I actively disliked.
The Adventure of the Red Headed League, despite Doyle apparently regarding is as one of his best, is probably the one that comes closest. It’s one I never particularly took to on first reading either; the solution being to obvious, the ‘mystery’ too farfetched, and the apparently highly intelligent villain too completely unsubtle in his agenda. But then I do have to give Doyle some leeway for not living in an age where people were so exposed to these sort of scams on an everyday basis (what person using the internet hasn’t been told they could earn ‘$500 an hour’ by signing up to some obviously dodgy service?).
A Scandal in Bohemia is also one I don’t have that much time for. Maybe I should; it’s the one with ‘the woman’, Irene Adler in and she famously outwits him but… well he isn’t that hard to outwit here. His plan to get her to reveal where the photograph he’s been asked to retrieve is is brilliantly simple, but it’s also very obvious and kind of stupid. It’s pure dumb luck – and stupidity on Irene’s part – that the plan works in the first place, and her ‘outwitting’ him consists of realising what Holmes was doing (which wasn’t subtle) and making a contingency plan while Holmes sits about wasting time not acting on his information. Holmes isn’t meant to be sympathetic for most of this story, I realise, and it’s meant to show him underestimating female intelligence, so far so successful, no problems there – but it would have been nice to give him a decent female adversary rather than simply rely on him acting stupid for the plot to work. Even in a story about Holmes overcoming his sexism there’s a lot of pretty implicit sexism. Irene is ‘the woman’ because she’s different from ‘other’ women. Yawn, move on. At least there isn’t any sexual tension there.
It doesn’t help greatly that this story is followed by another story which concludes with the quote ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatcheth a delusion from a woman‘ and the decision not to tell a young woman the truth about the mystery she asked him to solve – thus letting her evil stepfather’s plan to pocket her inheritance succeed. But then Holmes is a flawed character who makes flawed decisions and I can’t get too angry with a writer for portraying a complex character rather than going for a boring one with a flawless moral compass. I might not like Holmes’ decision at the end but it’s a solid story and it’s not out of character.
In fact I enjoyed all the stories, just at different levels. None of the three mentioned above are ‘bad’, I just find them less compelling or slightly more problematic than others. Certainly none had me wanting to check how much longer I had to sit through until the end – which happened frequently during A Study in Scarlet. And there are some real highlights in this collection too, particularly ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band‘, neither of which I want to say much about for fear of spoilers, except that they both have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and impending danger and that the stakes feel high.
Not that Holmes always deals with high stake cases, one of the best things about the Holmes stories is the sheer variety. Mundane mysteries (The Blue Carbuncle) through to actual crime (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet) and up on to murder (The Boscombe Valley Mystery), he deals with them all with varying success. Often a story will start out as one thing and then morph seamlessly into something much more sinister. And despite his almost superhuman deductive reasoning Holmes can, and does, make mistakes and, refreshingly, the stories don’t always have a pleasant outcome. Sometimes, as in The Redheaded League or Scandal, the solution – or part of it – is not that hard for a modern audience used to detective fiction to reach, but it’s enjoyable to see how Holmes gets all the details sorted so quickly and explains it to Watson, and there are other stories where the revelation is genuinely surprising.
Reading this collection, unlike the earlier novels, it is not remotely hard to see why the public took to Holmes the way they did. Even for someone bought up on Agatha Christie murder mysteries (Poirot, not Marple) Holmes offered something genuinely new and refreshing when I first picked this book up – a complex, active lead, solid foundation of friendship between him and the narrator (why does Poirot stand Hastings? Why does Hastings stand Poirot? It’ the biggest bloody mystery of the whole series), and a variety in both plots and outcomes....more
This was my first time reading Wilkie Collins. It’s something I’ve intended to do for years and simply never got round to, so when one of my3.5 Stars
This was my first time reading Wilkie Collins. It’s something I’ve intended to do for years and simply never got round to, so when one of my groups suggested we do a group read of The Haunted Hotel I dusted my copy off and eagerly got down to it. Although not quite what I was expecting and far from perfect as either a ghost story or a murder mystery, I enjoyed the story so much that instead of picking up another book I went straight back to page 1 and got started on the other novellas in this collection. And while I would love to say they didn’t disappoint, the truth is that the last one did. However, each story had some strong things going for it, and each well worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of gothic literature.
The first story in this book, Miss or Mrs? is the most grounded and mundane. The atmosphere and threat come not from a sinister setting or some supernatural force, but a brutally human antagonist. Richard Turlington is your typical nasty, controlling, older man who plans to marry a girl in her teens and has an unpleasantly strong influence over her father to make it happen. To be honest there is nothing particularly interesting about him – he’s heavily hinted to be a very bad guy from the first chapter and then goes on to prove himself a very bad guy. Quelle surprise! What was interesting was the heroine – Natalie is fifteen years old and mixed race (mostly of white extraction but with visible signs of her ‘Negro blood and French blood‘). There are some unfortunate implications that it is this non-white blood that makes her sexually mature at such an early age but, for the most part, her appearance is described without unpleasant fetishisation, as both beautiful and desirable. Tall, dark, athletic, and a little bit booby, she’s about as far as I can imagine from the stereotypical Victorian ‘damsel in distress’. And she’s got a likable personality too, I wasn’t shouting at her not to be an idiot at any point – she doesn’t love Turlington, she has no intention of marrying him and defies his commands to stop seeing her friends, but at the same time she’s a fifteen year old nervous at the thought of escaping by eloping with the man she does love and abandoning her father and that conflict was well played out. She actually read like a (mature) teenager rather than either an adult or a child, as often happens. A modern audience does need to take in account the time period when considering the hero however, cause whatever way you look at it and however much he may love her, he’s still a man in his twenties getting it on with his fifteen year old cousin (strangely enough at fifteen I would have been less bothered by the age than the ‘cousin’ thing while now at 23 it’s the other way round).
Overall though it was an enjoyable story. The legal intricacies and hypocrisies of the law that Collins uses were an interesting way to go about trying to solve the conflict and the clandestine marriage, at least, was directly taken from an incident in Collins’ own life which always adds another layer of interest. The contrast and relationship between Natalie and her best friend, who married for a title and money and now regrets it, was a nice example of female friendship (even if their conversations, by necessity of length, all revolved around men) and the comic banter between Natalie’s father and her aunt constantly interrupting each other was well played and not too exaggerated. In the end, however, Miss or Mrs? turned out to be one of those awkward-length stories where an ending that would be absolutely fine in a shorter story just feels rushed and not-quite-right once you’ve spent this much time getting to know the characters. It’s a danger with the novella form, and one that’s hard to avoid, but I just felt a little…cheated I guess with how quickly everything resolved itself at the end.
The Haunted Hotel is, I believe, the best known of these three novellas – and not without reason. As I said before, it’s not at all what I was expecting going in and it’s not ‘perfect’ as either a ghost story, murder mystery, or relationship drama and occasionally the three threads don’t always mesh well together, but it’s a very enjoyable read and certainly not without merit. Here I confess I found the opposite problem to Miss or Mrs? and found the plot far more interesting than the characters. Agnes is alright I suppose, her refusal to blame the ‘other woman’ for her fiancée leaving her is definitely admirable – since the other woman didn’t know he was engaged I’d have had much less sympathy with Agnes if she had blamed her. And her conflicted feeling after he dies mysteriously shortly after his wedding are believable and well portrayed. But eeeeugh, Henry. I just can’t stand men who go by the theory ‘if I ask her enough she’ll say yes eventually’. No! If you keep pressuring a girl who’s not interested all you do is make her uncomfortable. In fairness this was actually well portrayed and other characters did tell him off for his timing, but he still gets the girl in the end. The one character I really liked though was the villainess of the piece – the strangely pale and beautiful Countess Narona who snatched Lord Montbarry away from Agnes by being way more interesting but a lot less nice. A victim of numerous scandals, you’re never sure quite how much she deserves and quite how much of it is malicious gossip that in turn drives her even further away from societal norms and into more scandal.
But onto the plot. I was very surprised to that almost the whole first half of the novel is set in England, rather than Venice and that the Hotel barely features until the latter chapters. The early stuff sets up the characters, the relationships, and the mystery – Lord Montbarry’s death in a Venetian palace while on his honeymoon – but the supernatural gothic stuff I was expecting doesn’t show up at all until the last half. Which results in a slightly disjointed story and me wondering quite why the supernatural stuff was included at all. Don’t get me wrong the idea of a dead man’s relatives staying in the room where he died and each experiencing supernatural visions, odours, or dreams that hint at his death being a concealed murder is a powerful idea. As a plot for a ghost story I like it, it just doesn’t quite work with there being such a very long and mundane set up to it. It feels a bit awkward and out of place, especially when all the clues needed are already there to work out what happened. I’ll give Collins a little credit here and say that the familiar murder-mystery trope used here probably wasn’t as overused in 1878 as it is now in 2012, and that Victorian audiences probably hadn’t been quite so exposed to it, but I still managed to solve the murder within a paragraph of the first real clue appearing – well before any ghostly activity at all.
I was a little disappointed too that not much had been done with Venice itself. It’s such a beautiful, unique, and almost intrinsically gothic city that I wanted to see it getting a bit more love – but the hotel might as well have been anywhere else in the world for all the use that was made of the setting of the city itself. We get lots on the Venetian architecture within the former palace, but very little of the rest of Venice, not even just to add to the already creepy atmosphere. Buuut, that’s just my love of Venice speaking I guess. It’s a compelling story, even if you do get to the conclusion before the characters. It also leaves you with plenty of interesting questions, particularly about the Countess, whilst wrapping the plot itself up quite nicely. Is the Baron really her brother as she claims? Or her lover as is strongly implied by everything else in the story? Personally I think definitely the second, but quite possibly both. Is her folly self-inflicted or spurred on by some supernatural force? Her premonition that Agnes would destroy her genuine? or merely self-fulfilling paranoia?
And now, The Guilty River, the weak link of the book. And it started so well too, a sympathetic protagonist, a sympathetic antagonist, a feisty love interest but then… Eugh, the protagonist lost my sympathy when he refused to condemn the antagonist’s threatening and scary behaviour towards the love interest. When the girl who you fancy’s father says ‘my lodger threatened to kill anyone who tries to take my girl away from him’ the appropriate response is not to think the father must have wound him up into saying something silly. When a girl makes it clear she finds a man’s advances uncomfortable and threatening you don’t feel sympathy for the guy and admire his patience and devotion against adversity. You just don’t. And I don’t care that he’s a pacifist and not the jealous type – you don’t need to be an overprotective jerk to realise that that behavior is totally out of line and not something to sympathise with. It shows a basic lack of respect for the girl that had me hoping that neither of them got her.
And the antagonist – obviously I lost sympathy with him too for this behavior. Suddenly losing your hearing might excuse you from being incredibly depressed and a dick to people for a while but it does not excuse you from sexual harassment. And then the ‘its in the blood’ excuse. Oh of course, you’re a villain because your father abandoned a girl, your uncle cheated at dice and your grandfather was a murderer! Clearly the descent into villainy was almost predetermined! Yeah – not buying it.
Despite a wonderfully realised setting, some humourous fish-out-of-water moments with the protagonist trying to get to grips with Victorian high society, and an interesting storyline, the characters just bothered me too much to rate this one any higher than a 3 star. The only character I felt genuine concern for in this tale of murder and jealousy was the loyal, evil-detecting, dog.
Overall though I think there’s something to appreciate in each of the stories. Although it took me a while to get through the last story I am glad I read the whole book instead of just stopping after The Haunted Hotel. Wilkie Collins writing is much more accessible than I had expected and am now really looking forward to reading The Woman in White for another group next month....more
A short but absolutely excellent novel. H.G. Wells is one of the fathers of science fiction and The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those e 4.5 Stars
A short but absolutely excellent novel. H.G. Wells is one of the fathers of science fiction and The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of those early blends of science-fiction and horror that (like the best of both genres) also offers an uncomfortable insight into human nature. A bit like Frankenstien but better paces and without the tedious bits. I’m generally more of a horror person than a sci-fi one, so this was probably a good place for me to start with H.G. Wells too – it reads rather like a Robert Louis Stevenson.
Now, for a classic, I had heard relatively little about the plot of this book beyond ‘mad scientist performs horrible experiments, creates human-beast hybrids’ and I was surprised by just how genuinely well written and creepy this novel proved to be. Unlike my experiences with Jules Verne, H.G. Wells’ writing has actually aged pretty damn well. The story almost races along – most chapters are only four or five pages (which makes it very easy to read even when the bloody phone won’t stop ringing) – and the tension is admirably ramped up and up right until (and then past) breaking point.
After being shipwrecked and then rescued, the narrator, Edward Prendick, finds himself on a mysterious island where the disgraced Doctor Moreau and his alcoholic assistant, Montgomery, run a secretive research centre. It soon becomes apparent that Moreau is vivisecting and experimenting on animals and that the results of these experiments are the bestial creatures that inhabit the island. Creatures that can walk and speak but are neither quite human nor quite animal. To keep their instincts at bay the Doctor has issued his creations a set of commandments, the chief of which is that none of his creations ever eat ‘fish or flesh’, lest they develop a taste for it and turn against their masters. But with creatures created from leopards, wolves, hyena’s and puma’s, the introduction of rabbits onto the island to feed the scientists proves a really bad idea.
It’s not just a horror story, though. It touches on a whole host of very real issues, most obviously the morality of scientific research; animal testing, the eugenics movement and the extent to which certain types of experiments can ever be justified by mere curiosity. Doctor Moreau’s hubristic experiments are, obviously, impossible, but the questions they raise are very real. But it manages to raise them (and touch on religion as well) without being preachy about it or disrupting the flow of the story. It's perfectly possible, should you want to, to ignore the subtext and just enjoy the plot.
What I didn’t like about this book though, in common with lots form this era, was the treatment of race. The use of words such as ‘savages’, the way certain of the beast-men were at first assumed to be black or eastern, and that the Gorilla-man, upon his creation was deemed to be (albeit by a mad scientist) ‘a fair specimen of the negroid type’. 'Little things' like that. The overall story, however, I really enjoyed.
This was my first Wells and I enjoyed it enough that I will definitely be trying some more of his stuff now that I have a taste for his writing style. War of the Worlds is sitting on my bookshelf and I believe there might be a copy of The Invisible Man lying around the house too…...more
I really wanted to love this book; the title was intriguing, the cover was stylish, and the blurb sounded like it should be absolutely wonder3.5 stars
I really wanted to love this book; the title was intriguing, the cover was stylish, and the blurb sounded like it should be absolutely wonderful. But somehow, despite my interest in the themes explored, I just didn’t enjoy it all that much. It started off absolutely wonderfully, continued very well for a while but somewhere around the midway point when the lead character started to doubt himself and the advice of his obviously sinister doppelgänger I just stopped caring. I don’t doubt that it’s a very good book that totally deserves it’s place in Scottish canon, or that it’s one of those books that will stick around in my head for years to come, I will probably even reread it at some point because it’s the sort of book that demands a second look and a more measured thought – but I didn’t love it.
I suppose I’d better elaborate. The story is told through two equally unreliable narrators; ‘The Editor’ a modern (read early 19th century) man of science and religious cynic who introduces the context for the main bulk of the story; a manuscript written by the main character, Robert Wringhim, a religious fanatic from the 1600s. The first Editor’s Narrative takes up a little over a third of the book and was both incredibly funny – courtesy of the barbed and unabashedly biased judgements passed down by the editor on the religious ‘bigot or hypocrite’ of the previous age – and highly enjoyable. The Editor tells the story of a marriage torn apart by religious beliefs, and two sons separated in infancy to be raised one by the easy-going husband, the other by the wife and her radically Calvinist ‘religious advisor’ (strongly implied to be the father of the second child). It then skips forward about twenty years to the first meeting of these two brothers in Edinburgh and the sinister way the younger brother, Robert Wringhim insinuates and stalks his way into his brother’s life. This was probably my favourite section of the book, I’m a big fan of both dark humour and creepy gothic horror and this had both in spades. Robert certainly felt like a malignant unnatural and genuinely threatening power, even the editor’s cynicism couldn’t erase the hints at the supernatural as well, and I was made to genuinely fear for his brother’s plight.
What then followed was this story told from Robert Wringham’s own perspective. And boy…he’s a nasty little shit of a man. Raised from birth to think he’s ‘special’ and ‘better’ than the ‘sinners’, Robert prescribes to the belief of predestination – that only a few pre-chosen people will ever gain heaven while everybody else is doomed to spend eternity in hell and, crucially, that nothing a man does in his life will ever be able to change this ultimate fate. Instead of spreading love and tolerance Wringham and his adopted father and ‘fire and brimstone’ Christians and the worst sort of hypocrites who see themselves as superior to everybody else. In his youth this religious upbringing causes Robert a lot of angst, as he owns up to himself he sins daily and is a profligate liar and a manipulative little shit who attempts to ruin the lives of people he doesn’t like. Thus he is always in fear of divine recrimination until reaching the day when his father informs him that he is one of ‘the Elect’ and thus destined for heaven. On this same day Robert meets a mysterious doppelgänger who discusses religion with him, gradually tearing down what few merciful doctrines and moral qualms Robert has and convincing him that it is his duty as one of God’s chosen to cut down and destroy the sinners of the world. And so the petty shit becomes a would-be murderer, justifying his crimes with religious fanatacism.
So far, so good, and I had a lot of fun watching the story in Edinburgh and the destruction of his brother’s life play out from Robert’s perspective. The supernatural elements only hinted at in the editor’s narrative come out in full force in Robert’s as his mysterious companion changes faces at will and is strongly implied to be the Devil himself. It’s only after the conclusion of the Edinburgh story that I felt the narrative began to lose steam and go off the rails a bit. I don’t particularly want to say much more about the rest of the story because I do think it might go a bit too far into spoilers so I’ll just say that it wasn’t at all what I expected and I found it to be a bit of a directionless mess after a brilliant and darkly humourous first half. I don't know... I would just have really liked Wringhim to play a more active and concious part in certain events. The Editior’s narrative at the end detailing how he came across the Wringhim manuscript and the meta-level story within a story within a story also did very little for me.
As I said though, it’s a book that will definitely lurk in my memory and one that I will almost certainly return to later and with fresh eyes, and probably gain fresh understanding from it. Although I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the later half of the book I found the novel, in its entirety, an absolutely fascinating read and a chilling warning against putting religious dogma and doctrine above human compassion....more
Read a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall sRead a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall star rating: 3.5
A Study in Scarlet - 3 stars
There are some truly brilliant parts of this novel, the growing relationship between Holmes and Watson, the interactions between Holmes and the police, the deductive reasoning that sees Holmes pulling solutions almost from thin air, the mystery itself...Why then only three stars? Well... once the mystery is solved – at around the halfway point - all those good enjoyable things that one reads a Holmes story for disappear and the narrative shifts into a third person account of the murderer’s backstory explaining his motives and relationship with his victims.
It’s a jarring change and not really a very welcome one. After spending the first half of the book invested in the relationship between Holmes and Watson and being fascinated by the correct conclusions Holmes could leap to based on almost nothing, I didn’t particularly care to get invested in this second set of characters. The most explanation of motive I needed was a quick monologue from the murderer summarising the key points – not a multi-chapter epic of lost love. But a multi-chapter story-within-a-story was what I got, and it simply didn’t quite work. The third person narrative seemed awkward and ill-fitting with the rest of the book, which reads as a personal account told through the eyes of Dr Watson. If the Holmes canon is meant to be written by Dr Watson, then this section doesn’t quite fit – the information is a bit too detailed for someone who wasn’t there, even if they have received a second-hand account, and the tone is completely different from Watson’s bluff, amiable style of writing. I kept asking myself where this omnipotent narrator had come from and wondering when we could get back to Holmes and Watson.
It didn’t help that none of the characters in this story-within-the-story were very interesting. There was a typical older mentor figure, his adopted daughter Lucy, and a rough handsome young hunter, all felt rather sketched in and none of the other characters were fleshed out even enough to be worth mentioning. The father was fatherly; the daughter was one of those annoying perky orphan kids who say things like ‘Oh! but why didn’t you tell me we were going to die? We can join mother then’ but eventually grows up into the most beautiful woman ever whilst still preserving her childish innocence and ‘charm’ (I use that term loosely); and the hunter was rough, young and handsome and well…you can totally see where that story is going, right? Insta-love! That’s right! Don’t you just love that trope? It’s all very disappointing and predictable, especially as the reader already knows what has to happen and already knows that Doyle is a much, much, better writer than this who can actually write fully developed characters because we’ve just cut away from them to read this second-rate part.
I’ll be fair on Doyle though. This was his first Sherlock Holmes book and it didn’t actually receive any real attention until his short stories were already a hit and he had solidified his style and characters a bit more. When it’s good it’s very good, and he does learn from this mistake in future books. Dodgy flashbacks and inaccurate portrayals of Mormonism aside, it’s worth reading for Sherlock Holmes alone – the mystery is just icing on the cake. He’s a wonderfully real character, even as he manages almost inhuman feats of observation and deduction. He has his flaws – a rather superior attitude being the major one and very patchy knowledge on anything that doesn’t pertain to his own narrow interests in solving crime for another. He’s not ‘perfect’, he’s as occasionally frustrating and annoying as someone with superior skills really is but he is amazingly charismatic. (Watch as these traits change until he becomes a caricature of himself in future stories though).
Now that many of his methods have been adopted both by the police and fictional detectives, you might think he would have lost some of his unique appeal – but I don’t think he has. The style of detective fiction may have shifted to ‘show the reader all the clues and see if they can work it out’, but Sherlock’s cold, calculated analysis of clues the reader (and Watson) weren’t even aware of until he mentions them, are still a joy to wonderful to read.
So despite the low rating I really do think this is a worthwhile read. Just remember though; they do get better! (And then worse...)
The Sign of the Four - 3.5 stars
A much more satisfying read/listen than A Study in Scarlet and one that seems to have learnt from the truly dire mistake of that story. Whilst there is a flashback here to the antagonist’s past and the motivations for his actions, it’s a lot shorter told as a confession – with all the bias and slant to be expected in first person narration – and fits in almost seamlessly with the style of the rest of the story. Also in its favour is the fact that the backstory is a lot more interesting in its own right. But there’s a whole mystery to solve before we get to that part so I’ll backtrack towards the beginning.
The Sign of the Four opens with the introduction – and actually one of the few mentions – of Sherlock Holmes cocaine habit and exploration into his psychology. It’s one of the things I love about Holmes that I don’t get with my otherwise beloved Poirot – he’s not just a thinking-machine but a complex person. He’s a man of extremes and, if he was non-fictional and alive today would probably be diagnosed with a serious form of mood disorder; if there’s an interesting crime he’ll be in the middle of a rush of activity but as soon as it’s solved he can flip, in an instant to lethargy and (then legal) drug abuse. At the start of the story he’s been in this lethargic, melancholy state for several months. Holmes is too clinically detached a character for him to be very likable or relatable on a personal level – even as someone who suffers from depression myself – but it does make him a more interesting and human character to read about than the earlier version in A Study in Scarlet.
Following a pattern that becomes relatively common in the short stories Watson does his best to get Holmes out of this funk by prompting several small examples of Holmes’ deductive genius – that Watson had gone to a specific place earlier in the day, the family history of Watson’s pocket watch etc. etc. These mainly serve to either show or remind the reader of Holmes’ skill and competence before we get to the real mystery, and it works – though I have to say I do get a bit tired of the ‘this type of mud is only found in one place!’ solutions as they do seem a bit of a cheat and I don’t always agree with Holmes that his explanation is the only one, even if it is the most likely. However, it is only with the arrival of Mary Morstan and her strange story of her father, who disappeared several years ago, and the anonymous pearls she started receiving several years later, that Holmes snaps out of his lethargy and starts getting interested.
Here again, you can see Doyle developing a framework used in later stories – the odd but seemingly but non-criminal story, that leads to something much darker and nastier than it first appears once untangled. Not that a mysteriously disappearing dad isn’t pretty dang dark, but that it isn’t a straight up simple crime such as being called to a murder scene – detective work needs to be done to even discover the crime in the first place. It’s a more complex, and arguably more interesting, device than the relatively straight forward plot to A Study in Scarlet and has the benefit of a more emotional core in trying to find the truth for a living character than A Study in Scarlet’s quest to identify the murderer of a character only introduced as a corpse. Of course Holmes gets the basics in about five minutes flat but it takes a while longer for the full story to be revealed, by which time the character’s have themselves a real crime to deal with and we get to the meat of the story.
And the meat of the story…well it sounds almost Robert Louis Stevenson/’boys own adventure’ in places; wooden legs, stolen treasure, hidden murders, and exotic weapons. It’s got action and adventure tropes in spades – there’s even a chase sequence! But the mystery itself well… Holmes sums it up best himself when he says that normal everyday crimes that offer no distinctive clues are harder to solve than the big ones with lots of unusual elements are. And here there are so many clues; footprints, exotic weapons, poisoned darts, the motif of a man with a wooden leg. Holmes is hardly drawing his conclusions from small inconsequential elements – the basic story (ignoring specific backstory elements only the villain would know) is practically written over the crime scene for anyone with eyes and ears to draw conclusions from. But, of course, the police and Watson are both baffled,
The backstory, when we get to it, though, is fascinating – perhaps more so to me because it focusses on a period of colonial history that I’ve studied; the India Mutiny of 1857. Even if you know nothing about it though it’s a more wonderful and exciting backdrop than Mormon Utah, and there’s a lot more going on than a few blokes all fancying the same girl. There are some, unpleasant, elements of exoticism and Victorian racial theory however – one apparently universally bloodthirsty and violent tribe is described as ‘naturally hideous’ by an anthropology textbook and ‘monstrous’ in appearance by the narrator. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and remember the time period if you find yourself being too annoyed. But there’s also an, admittedly not entirely sympathetic, depiction of Sikhs as being worth a white man’s loyalty that redeems it slightly (many Sikhs fought alongside the British in putting down the mutiny and they were favoured by the Victorian colonial regime set up afterwards). It’s a dark and brutal chapter of colonial/Indian history though that works as a perfect backdrop to the crime and sets a much better and more atmospheric tone for the whole book than is ever achieved in A Study in Scarlet.
This book, as a whole, is simply more grown up in every way than its predecessor; the narrative issues have been ironed out, more humanity has been given to the characters, the tone is much more consistent, and there’s an emotional heart to the story. Now I don’t actually rate this emotional heart particularly highly or find it remotely necessary for this type of book – it consists of Watson rather fancying the female client and if there’s one thing Doyle isn’t good at, it’s romance – but it succeeds far better than the romantic insta-love storyline in A Study in Scarlet. This is a lot to do with the fact that we’re privy to Watson’s thoughts and understand his bias but mainly because Mary is a fundamentally more interesting, complex, and less annoying character than Lucy ever was. It may not be my favourite thread of the storyline but it doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
It’s not a ‘perfect’ Holmes story – but the elements of the character and storytelling technique are still being introduced and developed. However you can see here, far more than in the first Sherlock Holmes book, why the Holmes stories took off the way they did.
Random almost unrelated recommendation!The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman – a victorian-set mystery novel that also features the India Mutiny as a key element of the backstory. Aimed at children/teenagers but an enjoyable read that features both a pretty awesome female protagonist and a female villain who isn’t a femme fatale.
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least pol 5 Stars
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least polished of Austen’s novels – the pacing feels a bit off in the second half and the ending feels quite rushed – so I was originally going to give it either four or four and half stars to reflect that, but actually, flawed as it is, I can’t help absolutely adoring it.
The main attraction I think is that it’s a bit different from her later-written and better known books – more youthful and vibrant and funny. Austen is always funny, of course, but you really get the sense that she was having fun with this one. The heroine, Catherine Morland, is the youngest of Austen’s female leads, being an impressionable seventeen – and at that awkward teenage stage where you’re starting to be considered an adult, but nobody’s really quite explained the rules for you. She’s not got Elizabeth’s quick mind, Emma’s overwhelming self-confidence, or Elinor’s thoughtfulness. But neither is she a Marianne; wild impulsive and romantic, with no concern for how others view her. She wants to be clever, self-confident, and thoughtful, she desperately wants not to behave improperly and draw negative attention to herself, but she isn’t even sure what’s considered improper and what isn’t. She’s unguarded and open in her conversation, takes people at face value, and tends to fold to the opinions of people who she believes have more experience. In short she’s a slightly self-conscious and eager to please teenager.
Taken to Bath for the season by a family acquaintance, the first half of the book follows Catherine’s adventures (and misadventures) of her first experience with high society and the friends (and false-friends) that she meets there. Poor Catherine is immediately out of her depth, there’s balls and plays and more balls and more plays and shopping and boorish suitors, and lots of young pretty people in fancy clothing. All the normal rules of society seem so relaxed that it’s hard to fathom what is appropriate and what isn’t, especially when people keep telling Catherine different things and her guardian is more concerned with the price of muslin than in advising her through these new experiences. At first mortified that she doesn’t know anybody, Catherine soon falls into the company of the beautiful and flirtatious Isabella, with whom she indulges heavily in a shared love of sensationalist gothic novels, and Isabella’s unbearable brother John. She also meets Henry Tilney, the best love interest in Jane Austen. Henry has the distinct advantage of neither being a cousin, nor having known the heroine from the moment of her birth, but even ignoring that he’s clearly the best – he’s funny, sarcastic, flirty, and genuinely kind and considerate. Darcy might be the one everyone lusts for, but Henry’s the one I would like to date. He takes the piss out of himself and likes to banter! That is literally all I ask for in a bloke. And really, can you imagine putting up with someone as self-important and judgemental as Darcy? Yuck.
The second half of the book takes us away from the relaxed society of Bath and into the austere setting of Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s home (invited there by Henry’s younger sister). And here it turns into a parody of the gothic novels Catherine loves to read. In the setting of an old medieval abbey her imagination, encouraged it has to be said by Henry’s teasing, goes into overdrive and she starts seeing murder, madness, and evil in everything. What is the secret of Northanger Abbey? Is Henry’s mother really dead? Mad? Locked up? Murdered? And why do his children all feel so uncomfortable in General Tilney’s presence? Dun dun dun! It’s in equal parts funny and excruciatingly awkward watching Catherine investigate her suspicions only to find innocent explanations in everything. But there is a mystery there, if a more mundane one – and it arrives rather abruptly at almost the very end of the novel before getting almost as abruptly resolved.
The pacing is definitely a little off in this last half and if I was judging purely on quality I would deduct a star (maybe two) for it. But you can’t judge a book purely on the quality of the writing, books are emotional things and I’m irrationally in love with this one, flaws and all. I love the characters, I love the humour, I love the interludes by the narrator, and I love the easy-going, friendly romance between Catherine and Henry. No great smouldering love affair but two characters who first experience attraction over a shared joke – that’s a relationship I can get behind. Catherine is absolutely adorable, Henry is totally fanciable, and many of the sidecharacters are up there with the best of Austen – although General Tilney is rather weakly sketched, I love Isabella, and John the boorish boorfaced bore may well be a very simple stereotype but he’s no less fun to absolutely loathe because of that.
A lighter, fluffier read than most Austen, it’s very evidently written by a younger writer, but it definitely deserves more love than it seems to get. Only thing I don’t like is that the afterword in this edition takes things waaaaaay too seriously – it’s a total funsponge. The book itself though, is great....more
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen 4.5 Stars
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen binge (all her major novels, back to back, in order of publication) and thus was feeling a bit romanced-out by the time I got round to this one and didn’t really ‘click’ with it. I’ve always suspected that my ambivalence towards it back then was a little unfair and that a reread would improve my opinion, and I’m happy to say that I was right. It’s still not my favourite Austen but I did really really enjoy it and predict at least a couple more rereads in the future (which is a lot more than can be said about Mansfield Park).
As most people talking/writing about Austen will tell you, Persuasion is the most ‘mature’ of Austen’s books, which, despite sounding totally pompous, I guess I have to agree with. It’s a more sedate novel than Austen’s earlier works; less full of sparkling wit but touching more overtly on social, gender, and class issues. It tells the story of Anne Elliot who, at 19, broke off an engagement to a handsome young Navy officer due to pressure from her friends and family about his lack of wealth and connections. Eight years later, age 27 and still unmarried, her own family has frittered away all its money when Captain Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, rich, well-regarded, and determined to marry and settle down with anyone but Anne Elliot.
The two are thrown frequently into each other’s company by mutual acquaintances (ignorant of their earlier engagement) and have to learn to deal with their lingering feelings, regrets, and resentments as well as their change in situations, ignorant comments from people who don’t know about their previous relationship, jealousies caused by various other suitors, and her horrible snobbish family. It’s a very one-sided romance for most of the book, however, which makes it hard for me as a reader to fall in love with Wentworth the same way I can for most of Austen’s other heroes. As the story is told almost purely from Anne’s perspective, Captain Wentworth appears to spend most of the early parts of the book ignoring her, getting in petty jabs when telling people about the qualities he wants in a wife (‘firmness of character‘ – just give that knife a bit more of a twist will you, Wentworth?), and paying more attention to almost every other female character. This is probably the reason I wasn’t such a big fan of Persuasion the first time round – I expected more romance and more interplay between the two characters – but that’s not really the focus here.
It’s Anne’s feelings, the heartbreak, the uncertainty, and the hope that form the emotional heart of the story, and I think they’re handled very well. I can only really say ‘think’ here because I have never been in love nor pined for an ex (I mean I have got back with one once, but that was a drunken mistake that shall never be repeated). But Anne’s jumble of thoughts and feelings at being suddenly thrust into the company of the man she loves, who she believes resents her, felt believable and genuine. She’s a quiet but complex character and rereading it, knowing not to expect the witty flirting of Pride and Prejudice, I was able to enjoy the book and feel for Anne’s situation a lot more than I did the first time round.
The other interesting thing about Persuasion is that it is much more critical of traditional class and gender roles than Austen's other works and reflects how these things were beginning to change in the early 19th century. Anne’s family may be titled while Wentworth’s aren’t, but her family spend away their wealth on frivolous, useless vanities and are almost bankrupt by the start of the book, forced to give up their few genuine duties as landlords by retreating to a cheaper environment and letting out the ancestral home to strangers. Meanwhile Wentworth and his brother in-law build significant wealth and respect by risking their lives in service for their country and return richer and on almost equal social footing with Anne’s father. The novel celebrates this social mobility achieved through military service (Austen’s brothers were both naval officers) while showing a more critical portrait of the aristocratic classes than in any of Austen’s previous books. While most of the titled characters, and Anne’s family especially, are so preoccupied with status that they are blind to the individual merits (or lack there of) of those they socialise with, Wentworth and his navy chums just hang out, have fun and act like real friends who actually care about each other – and it’s obvious which society Anne prefers. Then there’s Admiral and Mrs. Croft, possibly the only happy married couple in all of Austen’s novels, who do almost everything together, genuinely enjoy each others company, and serve a big ‘fuck you’ to everybody who tries to force women into traditional ‘delicate female – must be protected’ stereotypes – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Persuasion isn’t as overtly witty as some of Austen’s other books (though it definitely has its moments, Anne’s family are hilariously awful), the romance isn’t as up front as perhaps people expect from an Austen novel, but I really like it. It’s a quieter book with a nice feelgood story that also has a few things to say; both about romance, forgiveness, second chances, and about society in general. Not that that isn’t always there to varying degrees in all her works – I will scorn anyone who says Austen is nothing but ‘romance and finding a husband’ – but in Persuasion it’s just that bit more open. It also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes of all time:
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
You tell ‘em, Miss Austen!
Still not my favourite Austen, but probably the one I will revisit the most often. I think it’s one of those books that every reread provides something slightly different. I liked it the first time but felt slightly disappointed, this time I enjoyed it a lot and got more into the characters and the quiet unshowy romance, next time… who knows? Maybe I’ll finally start to fall in love with Captain Wentworth – the 1995 and 2007 film/TV adaptations are certainly pushing me that way already with their delicious depictions of him....more