Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too....more 4 Stars
Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too. Although I really enjoyed most of it I did have to slog through it at points like no other book I can even remember. It was rewarding, definitely, but boy was it draining. There were several times I just had to put the book down for a couple of days and it took me faaar too long to finish (I was meant to be done by the end of September), but at no point did I want to abandon it. Now that I am done, rather than dwelling on the book itself, my presiding emotions are simply a sense of relief and vague pride in having finished. But I’ll try to get over that to write a review.
This wasn’t the Anna Karenina that either the blurb or pop-culture had really promised me. The famously doomed love affair is not the sole focus of the book – I’m not even sure it’s meant to be the main focus at all – but one of many themes and threads that run through the story. In fact Anna Karenina herself is neither the most compelling character nor the one who gets most page time. That last honour (though not, for me, the first) would probably belong to Levin, an introspective country gentleman, and his romance with Kitty Scherbatsky (two characters I’d never really heard of before starting the book) gets at least as much attention as the more passionate affair between Anna and Vronsky. As well as these simultaneous and contrasting love stories, however, there’s a lot of page time spent on stuff that doesn’t at first glance seem to add to the narrative – Russian politics, agricultural theory, the aftermath of emancipating the serfdom… It can probably be a bit much if you go in expecting only an epic love story. Personally I really enjoyed most of these chapters, particularly the ones on agricultural theory and Russian peasantry. It might just be the former history student in me but I found it absolutely fascinating to look at the types of thoughts and theories being written in late Tsarist Russia and find the little hints of things to come that Trotsky couldn’t possibly have known about when he wrote it. In fact I often found myself enjoying Levin’s chapters on interacting with the peasants and trying to find the most efficient way to run a farm (while not particularly enjoying Levin as a character) more than I liked a lot of the angsty relationship drama – at least early on. But equally a lot of people I know who don’t share my geeky interests found these chapters a real drag and I can totally understand why.
The main criticism I heard from friends before I started the book though was ‘none of the characters are likable’ and ‘it’s just horrible people doing horrible things to each other’. And that’s true, to a certain extent. There were characters I liked (Oblonsky is fantastic and I actually really liked his long-suffering wife, Dolly, as well) but everyone in the book is a far cry off perfect and although they do grow and change over the 900 odd pages it’s not necessarily in positive ways. I started off not thinking much of Vronsky for his behaviour towards Anna (seriously, stalking is not the way to win a girl!) but ended up totally wishing he would kick her jealous, clingy, batshit insane, bitchy arse to the curb and stop putting up with her shit. At the same time I could totally relate to why Anna was behaving the way she was, her frustration with her situation of being ostracised by society until she divorces her husband and marries Vronsky instead, while only wanting herself to be his mistress/lover and enjoy the sex and the romantic times and being the centre of his world without being expected to settle down and start popping out his children.
The characters weren’t necessarily likable, but they were certainly interesting and I have to say that Levin, who everyone else seems to love, was the only one who consistently pissed me off. He’s often thought to be a stand in for Tolstoy’s own views so I’m not sure what it says about my opinion of him that I found Levin to be a patronising, moralising twat of the ‘I can’t be a misogynist, I think women are paragons of perfection!’ school of misogyny. Even another character in the book (hurrah for Oblonsky!) had to eventually call him out for always assuming that women naturally wanted to be mothers and nothing else. The way Levin romanticised everything to the extent that reality always disappointed him wound me up, especially when it came to Kitty *gasp* actually existing as a person with opinions of her own that didn’t always gel with his vision of her as a subservient woman who should always agree with him. Every time another man even spoke to Kitty he seemed to instantly think the worst of her and get irrationally jealous. It was more unhealthy than Anna/Vronsky/Anna’s husband in places and I just wanted Kitty to get out of there fast because no one deserves end up with someone who has that little trust and respect in them. But since Levin and Kitty were the foil for Anna and Vronsky’s romance I never really expected that to happen. They’re meant to be the healthy happy and pure relationship to Anna’s hurtful, miserable and adulterous one.
On the whole though, irritation with Levin and reading fatigue at the sheer length of the book aside, I really enjoyed Anna Karenina. It was a slog, not going to lie about that, it took a lot of effort to get through, but I think in the end it was worthwhile. I enjoyed the odd chapters on politics and agriculture and, eventually, I found myself getting pretty into the love stories as well. I’m still a bit disappointed with the way the start of Anna and Vronsky’s affair and that how and why she caved into him wasn’t really shown – one chapter she was fancying him but loyal to her husband and the next they’d had sex. It was a rather beautiful scene actually and I really liked the way Vronsky compared the crime and aftermath of adultery with that of murder, but I don’t know, it seemed to miss a bit of build up somewhere. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending either. After the culmination of the book that everybody remembers (even if they haven’t read the book) we get several chapters of Levin being introspective and an obnoxiously heavy-handed moral and religious message. What I really could have done with instead was less Levin and more Vronsky and Karenin, both of whom were much more interesting characters. But the majority of the book I liked. Trotsky handled an insane number of characters (all with several different names depending on the social status of who they’re speaking with) magnificently and there was a lot of really beautiful, true to life, writing.
The one passage that will probably stick with me the most, is the lingering death of one of the character’s relatives and the way everyone about him just wanted him to die and for it to all be over. After spending what seemed like forever in that situation myself over this summer sitting by the hospital bed of somebody I loved, it was the one section I could really truly relate to. But even that didn’t affect me as much as I felt it should (given how recently this was and how horrible I found it) and the reason I only give this four stars rather than four-and-a-half or higher is really because of that feeling; I simply never connected with the story on a particularly personal level. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t invested in it. I wanted to see what happened, but as an impartial observer and, ultimately, I didn’t really mind or care what the hell happened to all the characters.(less)
My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing three-star affairs. This book, however – whether i...more 4 Stars
My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing three-star affairs. This book, however – whether it’s the more academic tone or simply the subject matter – I really enjoyed. First published in the 70′s it probably contains some disputed or out-of-date ideas and evidence by now, but it was one of (if not ‘the’) first academic texts to thoroughly examine women’s roles in Ancient Greece and Rome. So, as a woman who is interested in Ancient Greek and Rome, and who gets irritated with 50% of the worlds population being treated as unimportant – and sometimes even completely ignored – by history textbooks*, I had to read.
And it’s a very interesting read. Perhaps a little dry in places but I preferred that to an overly informal tone and I have read plenty much, much, drier – so I think this book probably got the balance about right for me. It’s well footnoted (always a plus, even if I don’t read every citation I like to know they are they in case I ever do want to check out the original source) but, most of all, the subject matter is really interesting. The book examines female roles from Ancient Greece – predominantly Athens as that’s where most of the literature and archaeological evidence comes from, but also Sparta and other city states which were generally lot more favourable towards women’s rights than ‘the birthplace of democracy’ was. From the more passive roles in Classical Greece it then moves through the Hellenistic period towards ancient Rome, where women, although second-class citizens, were considerably more free and even gasp allowed out of the house! It's political correctness gone mad, I tell you!
As someone who is more interested with Ancient Greek literature and legends than the ins and outs of city state politics (and who is less interested in Rome than Greece), I found the early chapters; discussing the iconography and roles of Greek Goddesses, the portrayal of women in Homer, and the way women were depicted in Classical tragedy and comedy, more interesting and more accessible than some of the chapters based more on the historical facts. But that’s a personal preference, and I do think Pomeroy gives enough context in this book that you don’t have to be an expert on the politics of ancient Athens or Rome to understand it.
Although the blurb asks many questions, Pomeroy avoids giving too many answers in the book. The evidence, both literary and archaeological, is sparse and fragmentary for anything to do with how the less privileged classes of Greeks and Romans lived. The literary evidence is almost entirely written by educated men and most histories of the period and analysis of the archaeological evidence has been done by men too. So often, rather than give a definitive answer, Pomeroy will promote a number of theories that both she and others have come up with. The only one of these I really couldn’t stand was when she mentions the Freudian Psychoanalytical approach to examine why male Greek playwrights wrote abut women in the way they did. I guess it was the 70s, but many Freudian ideas are now no longer regarded as sound in actual psychology so they need to start getting the fuck out of disciplines like History already. While there’s nothing, in theory, wrong with psychoanalysis and examining how a person’s childhood shapes the person they become, straight up Freudian psychoanalysis is full of all sorts of misogyny and bollocks and just needs to die. Also it's an approach that really works a lot better when you actually know something about the person's childhood and can use that to interpret how it informed their writing. If all you have is the writing, then you're just making shit up to fit your own theory - and that's just bad history.
Over all, though, a very interesting and informative book. A lot of the Greek stuff I was at least passingly familiar with from A level Classics and First-Year Ancient History modules, but there were several ways of looking and interpreting things (such as the case for female primogeniture in Homer and the Troy myth) that somehow I’d missed myself and had never been mentioned by my teachers, so that was really interesting for me in a really geeky way. Also I know shamefully little about Roman history beyond the bits everyone knows: ‘gladiators!’ ‘The occupation of Britain!’ ‘Baths!’ ‘Pompey!” and ‘Ripping off the Greek Gods, changing their names and stealing their myths!’ – so the chapters on Roman society were really informative for me as well. And I am glad (though not at all surprised) to see that Roman women weren’t treated quite so badly as the poor old Athenians were. Seriously, Athens was a shit place to live if you were a girl.
From the look of Amazon, most of Pomeroy’s works now seem to be out of print or really expensive, which is a shame. But if I ever spot one going cheap in a second-hand bookshop I will probably pick it up. I thought this was a very well written book that got the balance right between not patronising those familiar with the time frame and not alienating those who weren’t. Also, if anyone here is taking GCSE or AS/A level Classic Civs, I would really recommend reading the chapters on Homer and the Greek tragedies. I kind of wish I had.
* The introduction here contains the ridiculous examples of ancient history books where the word ‘women’ was not included in the indexes, and a book on Ancient Greece that stated the only two unenfranchised classes were ‘resident aliens’ and ‘slaves’, conveniently forgetting that no women of any social class in Greece were enfranchised either. But I'm sure the writers weren't actually misogynists - they just momentarily forgot that women existed, that's all! And then so did their proof-readers, editors, and publishers. And that's almost worse.(less)
So continuing on my fantasy and children’s fiction binge – summer is the one season where I use the library regularly for lightweight, fun books I don...moreSo continuing on my fantasy and children’s fiction binge – summer is the one season where I use the library regularly for lightweight, fun books I don’t necessarily want to buy. Percy Jackson is one of those very popular series where it’s practically a requirement that everyone under a certain age has to have read it. I’m not under that age. Though I had heard a lot of talk bout these books and, due to the Greek mythology aspect, had been half-planning to check them out for a while, it took one of my best friends all but ordering me to pick up the first book for me to get round to doing anything about it. And boy, am I glad she gave me that much needed boot to the arse. It’s probably a bit premature to judge the whole series but, based on the first book, these would have been five-star instant favourites with little-me. If only they had been published a decade earlier!
Percy Jackson, protagonist and narrator, is a ‘troubled kid’ – ADHD, dyslexia, a habit of constantly getting into fights, emotionally abused by his step-father – who suddenly finds out that not only are the Greek Gods real, but that one of them (though I won’t say which) is his father. Also real: every single monster from Greek myth and legend – and they’re all after him. After a bit of time in the safe sanctuary of Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods, he gets more bad news: Zeus’ lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is suspect number one. To prevent a war between the gods, Percy must undertake a quest back out into the monster-filled world and retrieve the lightning bolt himself.
It’s the sort of fun nonsense I would have adored as a kid and not only is it a fun yarn, but it’s written intelligently. The narration, as you would exect from a book aimed at children and told by a twelve-year-old dyslexic, is simple and easy to read. It also does a damn good job of portraying Percy’s character and emphasising that ‘troubled’ and low grades doesn’t mean ‘stupid’. What especially won me over to him was that Riordan didn’t do that thing where the main character knows nothing about the setting (however much they really should) and has to have everything explained for him. Percy may be new to the whole demigod thing but he knows at least the basics of Greek mythology and is able to provide reader-exposition as well as many of the side characters. I also really liked the touch that his (and the other demigods) dyslexia was because his first language was meant to be Ancient Greek. In short he seems competent and he’s likable and complex enough that when certain god-like powers start to kick in I wasn’t instantly thinking ‘what a Mary Sue’.
The Greek mythology, as well, is well handled. Things are played with and changed about but there’s an obvious understanding and respect for the ‘original’ myths that I think even little-me would have appreciated (and little-me was such a pedantic little shit she refused to watch Disney’s Hercules when she was 9 because the trailers showed him riding Pegasus). I liked most of the updates and changes here and I really liked that, though several ‘obvious’ monsters were used, some lesser known ones that children might not be familiar with – such as the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey – also found their way in as well. Little-me might possibly have something to say about Athena having children but, as I said, little-me was a pedantic shit. And Athena totally had the hots for Odysseus anyway so I can buy her eventually deciding to stick the middle finger up to the ‘virgin goddess’ depiction.
The story itself isn’t too remarkable – it’s basically an American roadtrip with lots of run-ins with Greek monsters and a very foreshadowed twist. But it’s well told, enjoyable, occasionally very funny, and sets up an interesting arc for the rest of the series. I’ll be checking out the next couple of books from the library very shortly, I think.(less)
The library finally got it in for me! And I think it might just be the best in the series so far – though not without a lot of problems. The ma...more 4 Stars
The library finally got it in for me! And I think it might just be the best in the series so far – though not without a lot of problems. The major one being that the author can’t do a natural sounding recap for shit. So after the big cliffhanger the last book ended on, we get a first chapter of what should be an exciting action/revelation scene being awkwardly interrupted for massive infodumps to tell us everything that has led up to this point – and not even particularly accurately. Two mysteries solved does not equal ‘as they solved one mystery after another, the girls had started to discover a disturbing pattern‘ except in the most strict technical sense. As a result of this ‘stop and explain everything’ approach, the flow of the early portions of the book feels very disjointed and it’s a while before the writing finally finds its feet. It’s practically an advert for why some series are much better off sticking a ‘the story so far’ page in before you get to the prologue. But once those pacing issues are ironed out, the standalone plot for this novel is much more interesting than the last entry in the series.
This book marks a pretty big advancement in the overarching ‘who kidnapped the Grimm’s parents? and how to rescue them?’ arc, with Sabrina and Daphne beginning to uncover more about the mysterious ‘red hand’ organisation as they encounter one of its deadliest members – and her pet Jabberwocky. It also introduces the Grimms to yet another long-lost relative, and fills in some important elements of the backstory – why their father never told them about their heritage, why he was always so against telling them fairy-tales, and how one of the ‘goodies’ of the fairy-tale world turned out to be the big bad of the book. And well…if I thought attitudes to mental health were bad over here I would hate to live in Ferryport Landing! I’d be setting my pet Jabberwocky on people after that too!
The Jabberwocky, of course is the biggest threat in this book and the main plot revolves around finding and reforging the only weapon that can kill him – ‘The Vorpal Sword’ (unfortunately lacking in ‘snicker-snack sound effects) – a quest which takes the young Grimms into the most dangerous corners of Ferryport Landing and to meet some of the most interesting characters. Twinned with this plot is the return of the black sheep in the Grimm family and the tension between his and Granny’s way of doing things. So while Daphne follows Granny Relda’s practical and down to earth approach, Sabrina begins to use and abuse magic props to do things the ‘easy way’. It’s all a little bit Buffy; a heavy-handed ‘power corrupts’ aesop, and a ‘magic=drugs!’ anallogy which felt pretty tired to me. But then, the seven-year-olds this is aimed at probably haven’t watched Buffy and with any luck don’t have much knowledge of drugs. It still rankled a little bit, especially as it’s Sabrina, yet again, who’s being an idiot. I love little Daphne, I do, but I think it’s her turn. And just once I’d like to see the black sheep return and actually be right (or at least not totally wrong) while still keeping the older generation sympathetic.
And one more bit that niggled. The hetronormative attitude that means after saying only ‘the kiss of someone with royal blood‘ can break a curse, the characters rush to Prince who hates them rather than approach the friendly Princess they know who would be more than happy to oblige. The cursed character’s a child – it’s really not like it’s going to be a romantic kiss either way. And even if they hadn’t thought of it themselves it would be nice to have seen Snow White stepping forward to do it after Charming starts kicking up the fuss that he does – it’s not like the two characters weren’t hanging out together for most of the story.
Overall though I really liked this book. Buckley is by no means the best writer in the world, but he’s good with ideas and there was a lot in this book to like. It’s got a more exciting and less predictable plot than the first two Sisters Grimm books and it really pushes the overarching-plot along as well.
I’ll wait a little while before ordering the next book from the library, but it’s definitely a series I plan on carrying on with.(less)
Again, this is going out to my newsfeed so whole review under spoilers for discussion of books 1-4
(view spoiler)[Running concurrently (for the first half at least) with events from A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons follows the characters who didn’t appear there – mostly Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys. With the main cast scattered across the Narrow Sea up or North of the Wall it works better as a Song of Ice and Fire book than A Feast For Crows did. In the last book the plot felt very centred around Kings Landing with chapters set elsewhere feeling very much like interludes, A Dance With Dragons is a return to the feel of the first three books – geographically diverse and nominally ‘separate’ plotlines all interweaving to form a much larger story.
It also brings the return of some of my favourite (and least favourite) characters. Bran is back! I’m not sure there’s enough of him, to be honest, but he’s back and he’s north of the Wall. Also Davos. No matter what anyone else says I love Davos. Theon (who I hate) is back, and actually has an interesting role to play this time in an interesting plot line. And then there’s the ‘big three’ – Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys – all of whom have big things going on for them in this book. Dany is trying (and failing) to rule the conquered city of Myreen (why do people want her as queen of Westeros again? She’s just as terrible as you would expect a power mad overly entitled 15 year old to be if you gave her a throne), Jon as the newly elected commander of the Nights Watch is giving the Wall a serious shaking up, and Tyrion is on the run after murdering the most powerful man in the kingdom.
So right from the offset there’s a wider variety of things going on than in the previous book – which also means that some of the story lines are probably more hit-or-miss too, depending on what your reader preferences are. Personally, I found the Dany chapters tedious and unpleasantly colonialist (nothing quite as bad as the third HBO season’s white saviour shot of her crowdsufing her rescued brown subjects but yeah… that imagery certainly came from somewhere). I also wasn’t keen, and never have been, on the way she, as a very young teenage girl, is presented as a male sexual fantasy. Compare the treatment of her character with that of Sansa, who is only a year or two younger, and I actually feel quite sick. And this book especially was big on the ‘sexy Dany’ as she considers both offers of political marriages and her own inexplicable attraction to a man who dies his beard blue. Yes, girls did get sexualised younger in earlier time periods that Martin uses as his inspiration, I have no real problem with the characters doing that but the way its presented (and has been from book one) by the author always makes me feel as a reader that I’m meant to enjoy and be complicit in the sexualisation and I’m really, really not. Possitives though – at least this time she’s and active agent in her sexuality and sex life, making her own choices rather than being sold into sexual slavery and raped. Aside from the skeevy pervy bits I also found her chapters pretty dull and I could see where most of it was going well before we got there.
I vastly preferred Jon Snow and Tyrion’s chapters. Jon is really coming into his own, proving to his men that he isn’t just a kid but that he’s a Commander who will take control, shake things up, and try to reform the Night Watch to the power it once was. But, as with all reformers, not everyone will agree with him. I will be very very interested to see what happens on the Wall when book six eventually comes out. And Tyrion, as always, gets some of the best chapters by merit of the most interesting and varied supporting cast. But he still has the unfortunately repetitive habit of repetitively repeating the same things repeatedly. In previous books it’s been ‘I’m in love with a whore’ and ‘my sister tried to kill me’, this book it’s ‘I killed my father and King Joffrey’ (only one of which is true) and ‘Maybe I should ask her/him/them ‘where whores go”. Also there’s the fact that in the third book he murdered a woman for the crime of sleeping with someone who wasn’t him. There’s not really any coming back from that in my eyes, no matter how witty you are.
Which, funnily enough, is also the problem I have with relatively new viewpoint character Victarian. Introduced in A Feast for Crows, he returns in this book when the timelines merge once more. Brother of the new king of the Iron Islands, and experienced raider, Victorian bears a grudge against his brother for shagging his saltwife and ’forcing’ Victarian to kill her. No sympathy. Really. None. Anyways, he’s been given the mission of bringing the Dragon Queen, Daenerys back as a wife for the new new king of the Iron Islands. So there’s a lot of him travelling on a boat, raping a ‘dark mute’ his brother gave him as a present, and plotting to marry Dany for himself. And he’s not the only one, Quentin Martell of Dorne is on his way to Myreen as well to court the new Queen and persuade her to return to Westeros and take an army of Dornishmen as a wedding gift.
So lots going on in this book. Some worked for me (mostly the bits in northern Westeros and north of the Wall), some didn’t. It felt more like a Song of Ice and Fire book in structure and plot than the previous volume did. But I found that this was the book where I found popular criticisms of Martins style the most valid – the sexualisation bothered me more than in previous books and seemed more out of place, I felt there was a lot more rape happening on page and that it was presented in more worrying ways than in earlier volumes (a prior relationship with a man – only revealed after the sex scene – does not give him the right to corner you outside your bedroom and fuck you until you cry after you say ‘no’.) and there was a heavy-handed and exoticism and otherising in the way non-westerosi characters were portrayed that made Dany’s conquest and rulership uncomfortable. Probably most annoying from a purely narrative perspective, though, was that Martin’s penchant for unexpected twists and ‘it can always get worse’ meant that at the end of the book I was left with a ‘well what was the point of all that then?’ feeling. The place that Martin chose to wrap up the book (apparently earlier than he had wanted, pushing some already written material back into the next book) meant that several of the plotlines, for me, ended up feeling like a five-book-long shaggy dog story.
So yeah, I really enjoyed this book, it’s highly readable, and I really look forward to the sequel – especially for what’s happening in the north and at the Wall – but I did have some pretty big problems with it too and I don’t want to gloss over them. Hope to see all the characters together again properly in The Winds of Winter, whenever that comes out. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never...more 4 stars
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never got round to picking up. Thankfully Goodreads came to my rescue again when one of my groups set it as their August group read and forced me to finally grab myself a copy and get reading. And I’m very glad they did because it’s the sort of book that’s right up my alley.
Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, runs into a mysterious woman dressed all in white wandering along the road at night on the very eve he is due to depart for a situation in the country. He helps her to escape from the men pursuing her and then tries his best to forget about it – despite the fact that she seems intimately familiar with the same family and country house he is about to take his position at, and that when he gets there he finds she bears and uncanny resemblance to his new pupil, Laura Fairlie. As Walter falls hopelessly in love with Laura and discovers her longstanding engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, the mystery of the ‘Woman in White’ and the words they exchanged that night begin to haunt him. Does she know some dreadful secret about Laura’s fiancé? Was he the one who sent his men to pursue her that night and why? Or is she really as she seems and just a poor escaped madwoman?
As a gothic epistolary novel, told through various character’s accounts, I really liked the structure of this book, as well as the different styles and voices of the various narrators. The justification given in the first chapter that ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness – with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect’ is interesting – and very telling of the fact that Collins was himself a lawyer. It certainly made me question the reliability and bias of the narrator’s and I enjoyed the little glimpses were a minor character uninvolved with the wider implications, such as the cook, housekeeper, took up the pen to narrate specific events. By using diary entries and statements and accounts written in hindsight by the characters Collins avoids the dreadful ‘as you already know…’ infodumping that characterises epistolary novels told exclusively though letter writing. There’s a definite purpose to the story and narration but you also can’t implicitly trust anything anyone says either and the narrator’s are frequently wrong or misguided in their analysis.
Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister, are the main narrators but quite possibly the least interesting. Walter is a fairly typical Victorian hero, while Marian is meant to be a ‘strong woman’ and for the most part is, but falls into that unpleasant habit of internalised misogyny that strong women written by men often seems to feel. I swear that after the 75thbillion time she said something along the lines of ‘but I’m only a woman’ or ‘I didn’t share the defects of my sex’ or ‘he thought me the most sensible woman he had met in a long time’ I was just about ready to slap her. Being female is not a defect! But then I remember just how easy it is to be made to feel this way – even today – when everything around you promotes the message that women aren’t as good as men. And then when I compare her with the fragile, constantly swooning, Laura I end up totally seeing why she thinks her ‘unfeminine’ behaviour is so remarkable. Even Walter seems to prefer Marian, who he treats as a respected equal, to his beloved Laura, who he treats like a particularly vulnerable and sensitive six year old. The best narration in the book, though, comes from the more unsympathetic characters; the hilariously uncaring and hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, the cold and haughty Mrs Catherick, and the jovial villain, Count Fosco.
It’s a long book, at over 600 pages, and it can drag a bit, but a lot happens. And a lot of it very melodramatic – women fall down in swoons at bad news and catch deadly fevers from wearing wet clothes while men plot elaborate murders, steal money from their wives, manipulate everybody around them, and go on random expeditions to Central America. It’s very much classic Victorian gothic, and a lot of the tropes and twists are no longer shocking but fairly predictable and almost cliché. In that way I found the first half of the book, which was all about the slow building of atmosphere and suspense, vastly superior to the second half where things seemed almost rushed into conclusions with a lot more resting solely on sheer coincidence and dumb luck than felt satisfactory – hence the 4 star rating rather than a 5. The conclusion of Count Fosco’s storyline in particular felt both totally predictable and completely out of nowhere - as if Collins had written himself into a corner in how to deal with him and simply jumped on the first idea of how to get out of it that popped into his head.
That said it’s an enjoyable read. The conclusions left me not quite loving it but I definitely liked it a lot and look forward to reading more of Collins’ work.(less)
I really enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect by any means and a lot of it felt quite predictable but it’s aimed at younger children than most o...more 4 stars
I really enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect by any means and a lot of it felt quite predictable but it’s aimed at younger children than most of the books I’ve been reading this year and it’s got a nice cosy childhood feel to it. It’s also in a genre I tend to like – fairy tale mash-ups. It seems you can’t escape them at the moment what with Once Upon a Time (started strong, very quickly got too boring to watch) and Grimm (started dull, got stronger as the series went on) as well as the flood of mediocre Snow White and Red Riding Hood films in recent years trying to be the next ‘big thing’. People seem to have cottoned on that they don’t have to pay copyright charges on fairy tales and are milking it for what it’s worth.
For me though my affection for the genre started when I was very small with Each Peach Pear Plum – a classic of the ‘read aloud to your baby’ picture books – and The Jolly Postman, or Other People's Letters and The Jolly Christmas Postman - a brilliant interactive pop-up series for young readers that I honestly cannot recommend highly enough for people with young kids. Of course there’s the retellings - Revolting Rhymes and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs were practically required reading in primary school and they’re both great – but for me it’s always been about the shared-world thing where characters from different and sometimes very disparate fairy tales live alongside and interact with each other. Jasper Fforde does a similar thing for and adult audience with his Nursery Crime series and uses out-of-copyright literary characters for the same purpose in his Thursday Next series (both brilliant – Thursday Next more so than Nursery Crime). And anyone who’s been reading my blog/following me on goodreads for any length of time knows I’m totally hooked on Bill Willingham’s Fables comics which transports fairy tale characters to modern-day New York. So…how does Michael Buckley’s work compare? And is that even a fair question?
Considering the different age groups all those books at I’d say not – but it’s something I couldn’t help doing as I read. There were a lot of superficial similarities to works I’d read before – particularly Fables – to the extent it sometimes did feel like Fables for kids. There were fairy tale characters living a secret existence in New York state, Jack the giant-killer as a pretty unheroic but friendly wastrel, and Prince Charming as the mayor is an impoverished but ambitious royal who’s married and divorced almost every princess there is. But these are mostly are similarities stemming from the source material itself – once you decide to use fairytale characters it’s natural to combine all the Prince Charming’s into one character, and once you’ve done that you do then have to account for how many times he’s married. The vaguely similar personalities of Jack I’d attribute to the same thing – tell his story without the assumption that he’s the ‘hero’ and he becomes a lazy and uncaring kid who’d rather take the easy way out than work hard to help his family and eventually becomes a housebreaker and robber (and that’s just if we ignore the giant killing). It’s striking, and whichever order I read the books I’d be noticing the similarities, but I won’t hold that against this book – especially as I actually vastly prefer this version of Jack and the target audience should probably not be reading Fables in the first place and so won't have that comparisson in their minds.
So putting aside comparisons with similar books, how did I like it? Well enough. It’s not exactly going up on my list of ‘favourite books ever’ but I enjoyed it and thought it was a clever and entertaining little book with some very funny moments and interesting characters. I want to see more of Mr. Canis for certain, I enjoyed Granny Relda, Jack, and Puck, and got a few giggles out of King Arthur being concerned about the state of his car and the three little pigs working as policemen – nice pun there. I got a bit fed up on the emphasis of certain character’s ‘thick english accent’ and making him say Britishisms where they don’t really fit (who the fuck asks for bubble and squeak for breakfast? It’s horrible at any time of day, but breakfast?) but I can overlook it.
Now onto the main characters! Little Daphne I loved, but Sabrina’s personality – and the story is told from Sabrina’s third person-limited perspective – does make it a bit hard to get instantly into the story. Not only is she a cynic for the first half of the book but she’s also a very guarded and defensive child who doesn’t like to listen to anybody else about anything – a bit like book 5 Harry Potter but without the capslocky shoutingness. It makes perfect sense of course, she’s a child who feels the hurt of being abandoned by her parents and has had to play the role of mum and dad to her little sister through several different abusive and neglectful foster families – but it can come off as ‘high and mighty’. (Coincidentally I really liked the touch that they had resigned themselves to the idea that their parents had abandoned them rather than trying to rationalise it as ‘something must have happened to them, they wouldn’t abandon me’). Sabrina’s character development is a big theme of the story of course and she does get gradually better, but if you don’t like her much to begin with it might make the book harder to enjoy.
The story itself is good fun with a nice amount of action with lots of odd little fairy tale quirks to it – chase scenes on flying carpets etc. The twists and turns were a bit predictable – but then I’m twenty-four, I would expect to be able to predict most children’s stories by now, at seven I’m almost certain I’d have been surprised by them. Buckley also manages to pull off the start of an intriguing looking metaplot concerning exactly what has happened to the girl’s parents as well as neatly and satisfactorily tying up the novel’s stand-alone plot.
It’s very much the ‘first book of a series’ with a lot of time spent introducing the different elements and characters, but it’s the first book of what looks to be a very fun and entertaining series. I’ll certainly be ordering the second one from the library soon anyway.(less)
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 forma...moreFor 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.(less)