So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And f...more 5 stars
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And fuck me, if I don’t completely love it. Favourite book of 2012 by a huge margin. I can’t remember what made me pick this book up in the shop – probably the gorgeous cover and the fact the pages are edged in the same blue as the cover design (I’m a sucker for a pretty book) – but I am really glad I did. This is the reason I persist on ‘wasting my money’ impulse buying interesting looking books that I’ve never even heard of before; you might pick up a few duds but occasionally you stumble across something glorious that you’d never have been led to otherwise.
And now I’m left in the awkward position of trying to write a review for a book I totally adored. I’ve heard other people saying reviewing books you loved is harder than books you hated and I never really believed them – but it is. Whilst I loved this book it probably isn’t for everybody – in fact I’m sure it isn’t. And I know from experience that the quickest way you can get someone to dislike a book and notice its flaws is to build up their expectations by raving about it before they’ve read it… Oh welll…here goes…
We, The Drowned is a hard book to describe; at the surface level it’s just ‘the lives and adventures of the inhabitants of a Danish port town over a hundred years’ but that’s not really what it’s about. I tried describing it to my dad as ‘a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the magical realism and about sailors instead of a gigantic Latin American family’ but that description strips One Hundred Years of Solitude of its key features and does both books a disservice. Both are brilliant books, both deal with the history of a place by telling the story of the people who lived there over multiple generations – but apart from that they’re completely different beasts and liking/hating one will not mean you have the same opinions about the other.
So I’ll try again… We, the Drowned is a massive book, 690 pages spanning 100 years and 3/4 (depending on your opinion of Klara) central characters. I agree with another reviewer that the story, though divided into four parts actually feels more like three different books that run into each other:
The first part was all about Laurids Madsen the man ‘who went up to heaven and came down thanks to his boots’, who starts off as a daredevil prankster but comes back from war with Germany with what would now be diagnosed as post traumatic stress. And it’s no wonder; the violence in the book is brutal and him and his companions are sailors, not soldiers. Combat on a sailing ship isn’t the bloodless carnage of something like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s bloody and nasty; people soil themselves and go down screaming and sobbing like children, if someone gets a cannon shot to the head they don’t comically pick their skull back up and get on, their whole face is blown off. If they’re really unlucky they’ll survive it and go home to a family that doesn’t recognise them and doesn’t want to because it would mean acknowledging the person they loved before the war no longer exists. I haven’t read much stuff set on sailing ships beyond the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, but the battle seemed very real to me. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with description and purple prose but I could vividly see and imagine the whole thing. That said, I don’t know how well it measures up to a Hornblower or Master and Commander I’ll add them to my reading list.
Since it’s on the blurb it’s no spoiler to say that Laurids leaves Marstal soon afterwards, and the majority of this part is about his son Albert growing up without him and his later quest to find his father as soon as he’s old enough to go to sea. It’s old-fashioned adventure on the high seas stuff – shrunken heads, murders, cannibals, pearls, pokey little bars, brutal first mates, and ineffectual captains. But between the sailing and adventure there’s Marstal. Marstal is as much of a character as any of the central characters, maybe even more, not only does it ground all the characters into some sort of context but it grows and changes throughout the novel. In a stroke of genius all the Marstal scenes, or scenes where there are a lot of Marstalers present are told in the first person plural ‘we’. This ‘we’ is never acknowledged as a named character, there is no one narrator, but is the collective consciousness of the town itself: for Lauids this ‘we’ was the Marstal sailors who had been recruited for war alongside him, for Albert it is his peers, the Marstal schoolboys. I’ll admit it confused me at first but I grew to love it very quickly, it created a sort of understanding of the town and its people and a sense of inclusion that third person would simply have been too impersonal to portray. Without it the Marstal bits might have seemed like the ‘boring’ parts between adventures but, if anything, I almost came to love them more by the end of the book.
Which is good because the next portion of the book is entirely set there. After the Treasure Island-like adventures of his youth the book skips straight on to Albert as an old man living in Marstal. Although told in the ‘we’ it is really from Albert’s eyes that we see the approach and then the horrors of World War I and the effect it has on the town. And it’s chilling. As a history student, it’s embarrassing to admit but I’d never really looked at WWI from the standpoint of a neutral country and, though I’ve been taught over and over again about the horrors of the trenches, somehow no one ever mentions the war at sea and the sinking of ships. Here the trenches are absent, the suffering of the front lines barely noted, even the losses at sea are distant from the lives of people on the land – life goes on as normal. But, through Albert, we hear about the Marstal ships being shot down and sunk by players in a war they were not even part of. It’s a beautiful and depressing portrayal of war and the effect it has on people and places. As well as the war this part of the book is about growing old – the age of sail is all but dead and the world Albert knew has changed almost beyond recognition. Watching Albert come to grips with this, and the ways in which he deals with his lessening importance within the town is just as powerful, in its way, as the depiction of the distant war.
The third part takes us back to the sea with Knud Erik, a fatherless boy Albert mentored as a child, and his mother Klara. Knud Erik wants nothing more than to be a sailor like both Albert and his father. Klara, meanwhile hates the sea for taking her husband, and so many others, and leaving the women of Marstal in a constant state of grief and uncertainty. She’s the first major female character in the book, and I could take a lot of issues with her but, though she claims to speak for ‘the women’, in the end she’s just about well enough developed that she’s only really speaking for herself, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. I’m still not sure what I think of her, I certainly understand her, and I appreciate her growing into a strong woman who doesn’t use sex as a tool buuut…well, there’s just something not entirely likable about her. Despite the tension it causes, Knud Erik, does of course become a sailor. First sailing on sailing ships as a teenager; having adventures reminiscent of his mentor Albert’s – cruel first mates, vicious storms, murder at sea, icebergs. Then, once the age of the sailing ship is truly over, on steam and then mechanical ships, serving on the allied merchant convoys of World War II.
This again was an entirely different perspective on the War than anything I’d ever read about it before. What the ships docked in London did during air raids is something I’d never really thought about. Nor the horrors of the ‘keep going, don’t stop to rescue anyone’ order given to convoys when one of their number got struck by a u-boat. It gave me a new appreciation for the men who risked their lives, without lifting weapons, to help in the war effort.
All in all a brilliant book – I haven’t mentioned half of the bits I would want to talk about for fear of spoilers. It’s bleak and depressing and certainly not for everyone, but I loved it. Some bits were predictable – I knew what would happen to Karo the moment he appeared, same with the ‘free men’ in the hold and several other characters, but it didn’t seem ‘predictable’ so much as ‘inevitable, given how the characters around them are sketched’ and, instead of rolling my eyes when it happened I was gripped and unable to tear myself away from my book as I watching the build up and then the fall out. Other bits weren’t so predictable; the first ‘romance’ especially left me reeling with an ‘I should have expected that but I really didn't’.
It had its flaws of course – sometimes characters we’d been introduced to reappeared in unlikely places – but nothing too unforgivable. There wasn’t much chance for female characters to shine and the one that did appear as a sailor late in the book I was unconvinced by, but I think that’s the nature of the setting – women weren’t given chances to shine. The adventures were, for the most part, gripping and the Marstal parts were beautiful and really gave a sense of the community there beyond just the main few characters – it wasn’t just ‘main character, his immediate family, and some other people to bulk up the population count’ who lived there – the town was a living breathing character in itself. The use of ‘we’ for the parts set in Marstal worked incredibly well, and wasn’t something I’d really seen done before. The perspectives through which both World War I and II were told were unusual but even more powerful for that.
All in all I just kinda loved it and will be on the lookout for anything else written by Carsten Jensen from now on.(less)
Read a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of sho...moreRead a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of short stories based on fairy tales. Some stray closer to simple retellings than others (The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon) but they’re all original works rather than just an update of Grimm/Perrault.
I haven’t read much Angela Carter before – just Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, which she compiled rather than wrote herself – but I had heard a lot about this collection from friends who studied it at school or university, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In the end I loved it. Not all stories quite hit the note for me – The Erl-King was probably my least favourite – but each had such an interesting idea behind it, or style of writing, and I could see what Carter was aiming for that it didn’t cause me to feel I should deduct a star. And even if some stories were superior to others they all worked together as a complete collection very well. Almost every story contained a female character that subverted the traditional ‘fairy tale female’ role in some way, however subtle, and was a theme of female sexuality running through all of them that united the collection just as much as the fact that they are all based on folklore and fairytale.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s what put a few of my friends off the stories – that there was so much sex and focus on sexuality, virginity and menstruation in something that was meant to be a ‘fairy tale’. But as someone who frequently finds myself objecting to passive female roles in both fairy tales, novels, and TV and film I found myself really enjoying this book, even if parts of it did seem a bit heavy handed. I also tend to agree with Carter in that these things are there in the original stories if you just look and think for a few moments, she’s just highlighted them and given the women a bit more agency. So for me it didn’t seem like it was ‘ruining my favourite childhood stories’ at all, but merely offering a different perspective on them.
The book opens with the title story, The Bloody Chamber, by far the longest story of the collection and quite possibly my favourite. Based on the tale of Bluebeard, its plot sticks very closely to that of the original, but is told in first person from the perspective of Bluebeard’s latest wife and updated to mid 20th century France. Instead of being an anonymous woman in a fairy tale the unnamed narrator becomes a real person, easier to relate to – a young woman not forced into but willingly marrying a much older man she feels nothing for, and is a little intimidated by, in return for his money. I have to admit this characterisation did not endear me to her at first but being able to read her thoughts, why she had done it, how she had had to rebel against her more sensible mother, and the slow realisation of what the marriage actually entails helped me to feel for her as a person who had made an understandable, if very unfortunate, decision. By telling it through the teenage bride’s eyes Carter highlights the more subtle everyday horrors that are there but very much brushed over in the original – the terror of a young girl getting married, the fear of her wedding night, anxiety about disappointing her more experienced husband, the realisation she’s trapped in a relationship with someone she doesn’t want to be with, having sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, enjoying sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, the irrational jealousy of a man’s previous partners and inferiority complex that comes with that. It’s all very relatable, even though I haven’t exactly been there myself. The discovery of the ‘bloody chamber’ itself is just the culmination of a growing sense of unease and ‘wrongness’ about the husband that has been building up from the beginning. As well as bringing out these overlooked themes I also prefer Carter’s ending to the original. It’s arguably still a bit of a deus ex machina but it is a better foreshadowed one.
The next two stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Mr Lyon again stays pretty close to the original in terms of plot only updating it to an era of motorcars, while Tiger’s Bride is more of a subversion. Of the two I preferred The Tiger’s Bride, perhaps because it didn’t feel quite so familiar. The ‘Beauty’ character’s father being a compulsive gambler who loses their fortune, drags her through Europe, and finally gambles her away to ‘la Bestia’ was a refreshing twist on the kindly old man of most versions, struck by misfortune through no fault of his own. Again this story is told in first person by the heroine but she’s a much more feisty character than the narrator of The Bloody Chamber and reacts in quite different ways to their broadly similar situation, quietly refusing to be dominated by the men in her life and offering no compromises to them until they compromise themselves.
Puss-in-Boots is a very different story in many ways from the rest. It’s a comedy for one, not as gothic in tone as the other tales, and the female character stays fairly firmly on the sidelines. It’s told rather brilliantly through the eyes of Puss in Boots, which makes for great lines such as ‘I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats’ and tells the story of the trickster cat trying to secure the beautiful, married, woman his whoremongering master has fallen for. It’s a humorous, very bawdy, little story that doesn’t require thinking too seriously for.
The Erl-King and The Snow Child I’m honestly still not sure about. I know what Carter was trying to do with The Erl-King and I actually really like the concept but, for whatever reason, I found this story a lot harder than the others to get sucked into and enjoy. I think it’s one I might have to give a reread at some later date to get full enjoyment from it. Meanwhile The Snow Child is such a short and odd little vignette writing up my thoughts could only spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it – but it’s the story most of my friends studying this book had the most trouble with and I can see why.
The Lady in the House of Love then plays off vampire mythology rather than fairy tales, telling the story of Dracula’s lonely descendent stuck in her crumbling mansion unable to see the light of day, and the arrival of a bicycling soldier there on the eve of the First World War. It’s the most original of the stories and, I think, a beautiful example of vampire fiction – haunting, lonely, and gothic. Possibly not what one would really expect in a book that’s meant to be based on fairy tales, but as a lover of gothic literature as well I wasn’t complaining. It was one of the highlights of the book for me and I think would stand up well in any compilation of vampire short stories as well (in fact I spotted several people here recommending it for consideration as one of the best works of vampire literature since Dracula).
And from vampires to werewolves, the last three stories all play off Little Red Riding Hood and similar stories. The first, The Werewolf is again so short saying much at all would spoil it so I’ll content myself with saying that I liked it, but that the story seemed very familiar – though that could easily be the result of pop-culture osmosis, (this book being published in 1979 and having a fairly big impact) I think I’ve read almost identical stories in collections of folklore. The Company of Wolves is more strongly linked to the familiar Red Riding Hood tale, with the girl being lured from the path by the ‘wolf’ who beats her to her grandmother’s house. To be honest though I’ve heard so many interpretations and retellings going ‘Red Riding Hood’s really just about sex – didn’t you know? The Red Hood totally symbolises menstruation’ that I just don’t particularly care for hearing it again. Angela Carter was probably one of the first to do so and it’s possibly this story that has influenced so many others to bang on about it though so I will cut her some slack. It’s a very well written piece but for me the standout part was the first third or so, before it gets to the Red Riding Hood narrative, and is just giving lots and lots of lovely folklore-and-mythology-like anecdotes about wolves and werewolves and the stories of people who have been turned into wolves.
Wolf-Alice is the final story based, apparently, on a version of the Red Riding Hood tale I’m not familiar with, tells the story of a feral child raised by wolves. ‘Rescued’ after her adoptive mother is shot dead she goes first to a convent, where they despair at her wild ways, and then sent off as a servant for the mysterious Duke – who has no reflection and likes to cannibalise the corpses from graveyards. I had a bit of trouble trying to work out what exactly the Duke was meant to be – a pre-Dracula type vampire or werewolf perhaps, when the two were more similar and a lot less romantic, or possibly a ghoul. But in the end it doesn’t really matter – whatever he is he’s lost enough humanity that he no longer has a reflection and humanity itself is disgusted and fearful of him. The story’s not really about him anyway (I just found him fascinating) but a coming of age story for Wolf-Alice who, raised by wolves, has no understanding of either time or puberty but has to grow up and develop from a wild dog-like child into a young woman, with only her own reflection in the Dukes mirror to guide her. It’s a powerful little story, but for me not quite as good as The Bloody Chamber or The Lady of the House of Love.
Although I didn’t love every individual story in this book I think it is a great collection, well worthy of five stars, and one I am sure I will be returning to frequently when I want a short and familiar read. The sex and feminism probably isn’t for everyone, I’m ready to allow that, but I quite like a bit of intelligent feminism in my literature, especially if it’s challenging the predominantly passive role of women in fairy tales and giving them back a bit of a voice. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber may do almost exactly the same thing as she does in the traditional stories, but here there’s a sense of her being a fully realised person, not a generic woman who does what she does because women are all fundamentally the same. (less)
It’s summer again! And summer means lying out on the lawn with a cold drink and a Jeeves and Wooster. The UK’s been having somewhat of a heatwa...more 5 Stars
It’s summer again! And summer means lying out on the lawn with a cold drink and a Jeeves and Wooster. The UK’s been having somewhat of a heatwave recently so actually the ‘lawn’ was more like ‘straw’ and I missed the company of my beautiful dogdog who passed away last month, but otherwise it’s as close to perfect Jeeves and Wooster conditions as you can get and I was able to spend a very enjoyable day snorting to myself over Bertie’s misadventures.
There is, of course, nothing significantly different in The Code of the Woosters from any of the previous Jeeves books – Bertie finds himself in an awkward situation, it escalates and escalates and escalates, and then Jeeves solves it – but that is all I want from a Jeeves and Wooster. I know exactly what I’m getting from these books and that’s a familiar but very very funny comedy of errors, wonderful use of the English language, and absolutely masterful storytelling.
In this book Bertie is invited to Totleigh Towers to help heal the rift between Gussie Fink-Nottle and his fiancée after a misunderstanding over him removing a fly from her cousin’s eye. Bertie must also steal a silver cow creamer from his host, Sir Bassett, a magistrate who once fined him five pounds for pinching a policemen’s helmet, and find a way of reconciling Sir Bassett to the idea of his niece, Steffy, marrying the local curate. All the while escaping the clutches of Bassett’s other houseguest, Roderick Spode, a man who ‘Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment’ and who aspires to become a Fascist Dictator (it's the 30s). Of course, it’s never quite that simple and Bertie finds himself getting tangled in an ever more messy web of miscommunications and misunderstandings. It’s all ridiculous, brilliant, stuff.
And Bertie is probably my favourite first-person narrator ever. Its his character, more than the situational comedy, that really makes these books great. He narrates how he speaks and he speaks like a 1930s not very bright member of the idle rich, peppering his language with deliciously dated terms and slang slang ‘golly’ ‘bally’ ‘rot’, and references to half remembered (and normally misunderstood) quotations, stories or songs. ’...I mean to say. I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot as well.‘ It’s almost impossible not to hear his voice as you read. And it’s all so understated and played so straight (this is where most TV adaptations of Wodehouse get it so dreadfully, dreadfully, wrong) that it’s impossible not to love him.
So, five stars for this one. Yes, it’s simply more of the same but when the same is as brilliant as P.G. Wodehouse at his best, that doesn’t really matter. It’s precisely what I’m looking for on a glorious sunny day. I doubt I’d recommend reading the whole series back to back (that really would get repetitive!) but when the sun’s shining and I’m in the right mood they’re absolutely glorious.(less)
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking...more5 stars
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking what to say about this one. It really is true that positive reviews are harder to write than negative ones. Add to this that this is a very complex novel – touching on themes of slavery, fascism, racism, capitalism, exploitation, class conflict, the european arms race, economics, trade unions, human experimentation, the ‘civilising’ mission, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, Nazi theories of ‘Lebensraum’ and a hell of a lot more – plus the unconventional way it’s written and, well…there’s either too much to say or too little. There’s simply so much stuff I feel I should be better informed on before I could possibly talk about. And then the blurb goes and tells me that it’s an allegory for 1930s Czech politics in and I start feeling even more inadequate in my ability to comment!
Since I don’t feel qualified to talk deeply about the historical specifics I’m going to try to go for the more general approach. Although that extra knowledge and context would have been nice you really don’t need it to understand and appreciate the novel in itself. The themes, although tailored to reflect the political situation of the 30s are sadly still all too relevant and relatable today. And even with only the broadest and most basic knowledge of its historical context it’s very understandable as an allegorical satire of Europe’s own brutal history of oppression, from the slave trade (where the wild newts are beaten senseless, kept in slimy oil slicked tanks, and those that survive the journey sold for extortionate prices) right up to Nazi expansionism (where the newts have propagated so much that they start demanding their territories be expanded into human lands to provide space for them all). It could so easily have come off heavy-handed and trite but the way Čapek handles it, blaming neither side exclusively but criticising both and explaining the political and economic reasons such things came to be with incredible dark humour, stops the book from feeling remotely ‘preachy’. It’s a book that made me think, that absolutely horrified and appalled me in places, but was so spot on with its analysis and caricatures of human nature that you just had to laugh – even as you saw the ‘war with the newts’ becoming ever more inevitable.
It’s a heavy going book, not only in the themes but in the very writing style. It’s one of those books that’s more about ideas than characters and as such there is really no single protagonist. Captain van Toch – who uses frequent racial, national, and anti-Semite slurs but is utterly devoted to the welfare of his newts – is used as the primary character in the first ‘book’ to introduce us to the context of the newts – the size of a child, vaguely humanoid, incredibly intelligent and able to work tools, develop complex skills, and even learn human speech. After that though, as knowledge of the newts becomes widespread and humanity turns to exploiting their abilities for slave labour, the closest thing the novel has to a ‘protagonist’ is a minor character who collects any and all newspaper clippings he can find about the newts. The majority rest of the book up until the final chapters is written almost more as a history textbook than a novel, drawing on these clippings as primary sources to illustrate its points. Far from finding this dull (as I sometimes do when other books try similar things) this was my absolute favourite section of the story, I loved reading all the different newspaper articles Čapek had come up with to illustrate the different attitudes towards the newts in various times and places. Some were funny – Indians demanding lifesaving newts leave for touching members of the higher castes, others were horrific – the report from a scientific conference where the experiments on newts were outlined but none felt unnecessary and they all contributed to making the premise feel fleshed out and ‘realistic’ – and to show the unfolding path both humans and newts both took to get to the war of the title. The formating was occasionally a little irritating – several articles were multiple pages long but because they were all in the footnotes you had to flick back afterwards to find where you had left off the main text – but the writing was so solid I could totally forgive it that. What really got me though was the last chapter ‘The Author talks with himself‘ where Čapek breaks the fourth wall to have an argument with himself about if and how the final war could have been avoided. It’s a powerful chapter on its own even if you ignore the context it was written in and the impending Nazi threat to his own country.
I really wish Penguin had deigned to provide an introduction or afterword for this novel, there’s so much in here that could be discussed and contextualised that the non-inclusion of one really is a massive oversight (which their online reading notes don’t really make up for). The extent of my own (and I suspect a lot of British readers) knowledge of Czech politics in this period is only the very very broad context for the Nazi takeover given at GCSE and A level lessons but just Googling and Wikipedia-ing the author’s name brought up so much that would really have been relevant. Far from just being a science/speculative-fiction author and the inventor of the word ‘robot’, Čapek was very involved in Czech politics, an outspoken critic of fascism and number two on the Nazi’s list of ‘public enemies’ in the country. In a book where one of the main themes is an allegory of the lead up to World War II (though Čapek died before it came to that) it seems kind of astounding that a publisher like Penguin, well-known for providing insightful scholarly introductions, didn’t bother to include one here.
Probably not a book that is universally approachable or has ‘mass appeal’, it quite possibly it requires an interest in modern European history (with some of his depictions of the war against the newts it’s almost astounding to hear that he died before WWII ever commenced). I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want anything too heavy going – but it’s made it onto my list of absolute favourites and I will be tracking down any more Čapek that I can and checking out the rest of Penguin’s ‘Central European Classics’ (something I planned to do anyway since I’ve had such success with translated fiction in the last few years). Love, love, love.(less)
5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectiv...more5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively there is no way Dracula would get 5 stars. Love it as I do, it’s got some glaring flaws. The reason Dracula is regarded as a ‘classic’ isn’t because it’s a literary masterpiece on par with the greats – it’s really not – but because it’s really good at what it is; crowd-pleasing horror, and because it helped create the popularity and features of the ‘modern vampire’. Thankfully however book reviewing is all about opinions and I can be as unobjective as I want.
I first read Dracula when I was about 12 and this was my first time going back to it. I have to admit, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. If I read it today it would probably only get 4 stars, but nostalgia and the love of gothic novels it inspired mean I just don’t have the heart to take that star away from it. Flawed as it is, I still love it.
And there are bits that are truly deserving of 5 stars. The whole first section where Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania visiting the Count’s castle is just wonderful. Told through Jonathan’s diary, the slow realisation of what his host is and the danger he is in makes for intense reading (or listening). However it’s easy to get a spooky atmosphere going when your setting is a deserted, ancient, castle sitting atop a cliff in a foreign and superstitious land, once the action moves to England the atmosphere suffers. Whitby is windswept and beautifully grim enough that the build up to, and events following, the Count’s arrival there still feel tense and scary, and for a while John Seward’s madhouse and his dealings with Renfield – a patient who believes that by eating spiders and flies he absorbs their lifeforce – is creepily compelling. But…well after the first vampire staking the book loses steam.
A lot of the tension in these first parts is tied over from the cliffhanger of Jonathan’s diary and not knowing whether he survived or not. The characters in England are not too compelling all by themselves. Harker’s fiancé Mina is alright, she’s a strong independent woman in a way that’s acceptable to the Victorians – which means she can write shorthand and use a typewriter. But then there’s her friend Lucy who is your stereotypical damsel in distress, going sleepwalking round graveyards in her nightgown, and the three almost interchangeable men who fancy her. Dr. John Seward, already mentioned, owns a madhouse and is one of the main narrators – the story being epistolary, told through letters and diary entries – Quincey Morris is a Texan who knows a lot about guns and uses amusing ‘slang’ but is actually quite fun, but Arthur Holmwood, the rich son of a British Lord, is a total snorefest. So guess which one Lucy goes for…
It’s all a bit too coincidental and neatly connected to take entirely seriously – Jonathan Harker is engaged to Mina – who is best friends with Dracula’s first victim – who turned down a proposal from John Seward who lives next door to Dracula’s new house – and was taught by Van Helsing, who is the only person in the Victorian world to recognise and know how to kill a vampire. But well, I don’t think it’s a book you’re meant to take entirely seriously. One thing I did like about the characters though; these blokes manage to stay friends and not get pissy at each other after Lucy makes her choice – they respect her decision, stop pursuing her romantically, and stay friends with both each other and her without being all grumpy about it. Can you imagine that happening in a modern vampire novel?
Up until the first staking the gothic atmosphere of the first section remains, if in slightly lesser form, as John and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy’s life from her ‘mysterious wasting disease’ and near constant blood loss every night. After it’s been established what’s causing it however the book slows down to a bit of a crawl. There are lots of conversations where the characters inform each other of facts the reader already knows and seemingly have endless discussions about what to do without actually doing very much. Instead of trying to hunt Dracula down it becomes a ‘destroy them all’ quest surrounding some of the objects he brought with him from Transylvania. Also while John Seward, Quincey, and Arthur all love to gush about Lucy, Van Helsing seems to have a raging hard-on for Mina (and I am so sorry to have given you that mental image). After he meets her he barely seems to go two sentences without praising her in some way and instead of being ‘Mina’ she’s always some variation of ‘that wonderful woman’. It gets a bit old after a while and I kinda wished the characters would stop praising each other by the time I reached the half way point.
Eventually though, the stakes get raised again with a threat to ‘wonderful wonderful Miss Mina’ and we get the gang finally heading out to take on Dracula himself. They’re no Buffy though so don’t expect too much in the way of action. And the hunt, like the middle section, tends to drag on a bit before the rather sudden conclusion.
I’ve made it sound really bad now I’m afraid…it’s not. It’s a good fun book and I have a lot of affection for it – I wouldn’t give it 5 stars if I didn’t – but I’m not blind to its flaws and don’t think they should be glossed over when writing a review. The story starts off very strong and gets increasingly weak, but there’s still enough to sustain it, and no one can doubt how influential a book it is. Dracula is a very compelling, if simplistic, villain and I would take him over a certain other vampire who isn’t killed by sunlight any day.(less)
This was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this...moreThis was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this had a massive impact on my tastes and interests growing up. It also provided me with my first fictional crush in the shape of Ulysses (Odysseus - this book unfortunately adopts Roman naming for the heroes, though not the gods). As such I'm not even going to try to write an objective review here.
The book tells the stories of three legendary Greek heroes; Ulysses (Odysseus), Hercules (Heracles), and Jason. Each story is told in an almost comic book format - roughly 1-5 panels a page but no speach bubbles, the story is writen underneath each illustration in full continuous prose. This means that as well as the writing being simple and easy to understand for young reader's there's also lots of great visual imagery for younger children reading with their parents to interact with and appreciate. (My mum probably has a box somewhere of poorly rendered tracings and attempts to copy the more striking panels)
Although it's written for children it doesn't sanitise the stories any more than is really necessary - which is something I always appreciate when it comes to mythology. And as someone who sometimes handles show and tell of Egyptian and Roman objects in museums I can appreciate how hard it can be to get the balance right (hint: violence is ok, sex is not - make of that what you will). The circumstances of Hercales birth are rather glossed over, but the reason he had to do penance is not, nor is the lengths Medea will go to to for Jason. (On a sidenote how did that man think that shit wouldn't go down when he swapped her for a more politically advantageous wife? He almost deserved what he got for sheer stupidity).
After the end of each story ther's also a 'about the story' page which provides extra information on the characters, places, and mythology, as well as recomending other children's retellings of the same or similar stories (probably now out of print). It's a little simplistic but it served as a gateway into more serious Greek Mythology.
I realise this book is very old, probably quite dated, and out of print. But it was an absolute favourite growing up and deserves a bit of praise. It is single handedly down to this book that I eventually went on to do an A level in Classical Civilisations, considered doing Classics as my degree, and opted for several Ancient History modules when I eventually went down the History route instead. Although my opinions on the heroes have changed as I've read more 'original' greek and Roman works - I was so disapointed with Odysseus when I read Homer and lost a lot of respect for Jason when I read Euripides - my love for this book remains constant. The only book that arguably had anywhere near the same influence would be my picture book of King Arthur.
So though I don't expect anyone to go out and buy this book (if you even can anymore) I felt it deserved a review. And I am going to keep my Ribena stained, broken, spined, sticky paged copy and if I ever have kids (or if my sisters do) I will pass it on and hope that it inspires the same sort of passion for mythology in them too.(less)
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...more 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.(less)
Eeeeeh! Well it looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a good reading year. Not only have I liked pretty much everything I’ve read so far but I’v...more 5 Stars!
Eeeeeh! Well it looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a good reading year. Not only have I liked pretty much everything I’ve read so far but I’ve discovered a new favourite. When I say that I loved this book, I really mean it. I can’t say it’s my absolute favourite because picking a single favourite is too hard, but it’s definitely among the books that I would take to a desert island or save from a burning building. It’s got everything; revenge, wrongful imprisonment, murder, duels, bandits, drug-fuelled hallucinations, treachery, buried treasure… you name an adventure trope and it’s probably in there – as well as one of the most scary anti-heroes/anti-villains in fiction. It’s a book that’s so high on melodrama and absurd plot twists it could easily become ridiculous, but it’s so utterly compelling that it never does. At approximately 1250 pages long, it never felt like a slog, in fact it practically zipped along and I’m actually a bit sad to have finished it.
The Count of Monte Cristo tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a young sailor about to be promoted to captain and to marry Mercédès, the love of his life, when, on the day of his wedding, he is falsely accused of being a Bonapartist conspirator by his jealous friend’s and rivals and thrown into Azkaban the island fortress of the Chateau d’If. While rotting away in his dungeon he befriends another prisoner, discovers the location of some burried treasure, and vows to escape and take his revenge on those who put him in prison. All this, and Dantès eventual dramatic escape, happen very early on in the book and from there on it’s almost a thousand pages of long, intricate, gloriously drawn-out revenge schemes as Dantès, transformed into the ‘avenging angel’, the absurdly rich Count of Monte Cristo, returns to destroy the lives of those who wronged him.
His enemies are all now very important men; Fernand, the young man who as in love with his fiancé is now a Count,the respected veteran of many wars, and married to Mercédès, Danglers, the jealous shipmate who instigated the plot is now a rich and successful banker, and Villefort, the young prosecutor who buried the proof of Dantès innocence to further his own career, is crown prosecutor. But they all have weaknesses, flaws, ambitions, and guilty secrets in their past that the count exploits one by one to ruin them in a twisty-turny adventure of deception, secrets, murder, and betrayal in high Parisian society.
It’s gripping stuff not least because the Count of Monte Cristo is such a terrifying and compelling character. Hardened by his experiences he is cold, calculating, and cruel. Instead of taking a dagger and killing his enemies (as the ‘real life inspiration’ for the character is said to have done) he insinuates himself into their lives, expertly manipulates them, befriends their children, and then sits back and watches impassively as his machinations lead to their self-destruction, happily believing himself to be enacting God’s will. The sheer tension and dramatic irony as the reader watches these ‘friendly’ interactions, knowing, that the Count is plotting everybody’s downfall is what drives the book. He’s an impossible character to like - only towards end does he ever question his methods, his aim, and the collateral damage and innocent people harmed in his schemes – but damnit he’s compelling. He’s compared, frequently, in the book to the Lord Ruthven (from the Vampyre by Polidori) and it’s an apt comparison, there’s really more of the vampire and the villain about him than the hero for most of the novel. And that’s where the strength of the book lies, not just in relishing the nasty characters lives come crashing down around them, but in the growing horror of the person Dantès has become, the lengths he will go to get his revenge. And how, just how, he can ever find redemption and peace or even reconcile himself to an ordinary life once his revenge is finally complete.
I could say more, but I don’t really want to go into any details that will spoil any of the intricate plots. I’ll just leave it by saying again that I loved it. Some of the characters are pretty sketched out and plot-devicey, sure – but then it also has great side characters like the ‘unfeminine’ Eugénie or the stroke victim Noirtier who will save his granddaughter from loneliness, arranged marriages, and murder attempts all while paralysed from the eyes down. It relies massively on coincidences, everybody seems to know each other in contrived, slightly incestuousy ways, and the Count is utterly brilliant at absolutely everything – but then that’s half the fun. Dumas doesn’t always get his continuity right in terms of dates and places but fuck it, with a book this good it just doesn’t bother me. It’s an absolutely wonderful page turner and I loves it.
Would highly recommend it to almost anybody (though make sure you go unabridged! And I can’t speak for the quality of other translations).(less)
Graaaar! Where were these books all my childhood? Damn Rick Riordan for not writing these a decade earlier!
Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book....more5 Stars
Graaaar! Where were these books all my childhood? Damn Rick Riordan for not writing these a decade earlier!
Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book. A lot.
Picking up a year later after the events in the previous book it got off to a slow start. The first few chapters felt rather like a rehash of the start of The Lightening Thief: it’s the end of school year and Percy is unpopular and picked on because he’s befriended and defends the ‘weird’ guy – who inevitably turns out to be more than just a ‘weird’ guy – followed by a monster attack and a run to the safety of Camp Half-Blood. Once there, however, things pick up.
Camp Half-Blood is no longer safe – somebody has poisoned the magical tree that protects the camp and monsters are breaching the barriers to attack. The gods have blamed Percy’s mentor, Chiron, and replaced him with the wonderfully horrid Tantalus. Only the Golden Fleece can purge the poison from camp and renew its protections. But the Fleece lies all the way across the mythical ‘Sea of Monsters’ and is currently in the possession of one of the worst of them all – the man-eating cyclops Polyphemus – who has captured Percy’s best friend Grover. If Percy and his friends can’t travel through the dangerous Sea of Monsters and get there in time Camp Half-Blood will be destroyed and Grover eaten by a sheep-loving monster.
The stakes feel a lot higher and far more real than they did in The Lightning Thief, with its rather generic threat of a war between the gods. Here the things at risk are people and places both the reader and Percy are more familiar with, and I felt far more invested in Percy’s quest to save them than I did in the previous book. It also helped that Odysseus and Jason are probably my favourite heroes and that I’m a complete sucker for adventures set out at sea – and this book was heavily based on the Odyssey with Scylla and Charybdis, Circe, Polyphemus, and the Laestrygonians all making appearances. The tone felt more in keeping with the idea of classical greek myth and epics than the previous book, which was Orpheus as a modern roadtrip with added monsters.
Also an improvement in this book was the characterisation. Both Percy and Annabeth feel a bit more fleshed out after a whole book getting to know them and a whole host of side characters have been introduced. Tyson and Tantalus are my absolute favourites of these, but I was really glad to see other campers being given names and a bit of personality as well – one of the things that bothered me in the first book was that Percy only seemed to interact with about three named half-bloods while he was at camp and the rest were simply nameless blobs on the sidelines. They still don’t play a big part, but it’s nice to see that they’re being acknowledged and aren’t just faceless props.
What I really like about Percy Jackson though is Riordan’s ability to seamlessly include and explain a whole host of Greek characters and monsters without letting up either the fast pace or humourous tone to indulge in an unwelcome info-dump. There’s no question that he knows his stuff and he strikes the balance just right at giving a quick, accesable, overview for those who aren’t familiar with the material, and not getting it wrong or being patronising to those who do.The handling of Tantalus is probably my favourite example from this book. One of the most infamous Greek criminals he is so not the person you want running a children’s camp that his appointment – and his cavalier attitude to monsters trying to pick off his charges – is just hilarious. The way Riordan explained his backstory and included and adapted the punishment placed on him by the gods is just an added stroke of brilliance. There are some twists somebody with knowledge of Greek mythology might spot (the parentage of the cyclopes for example) but it doesn’t impede on enjoyment at all.
The Sea of Monsters, as well as being a brilliant self-contained storyline itself, also develops and advances the overarching series plotline wonderfully. So much so that even bare bones reviews for future books will likely contain spoilers for the first two. The villain and his top henchman are taking a more active and less sneaky role, working almost in the open to recruit a whole host of mythological nasties that makes me really excited to see how the final confrontation’s going to go down. There’s also the reveal of the real reason the ‘big three’ aren’t allowed to have children. It may be another prophecy (in a genre where every protagonist seems to have a prophecy about them) but I prefer it to the ‘powerful demigods started WWII’ reason given in the last book. Maybe because I’m old enough that my grandparents fought and lost friends and relatives in WWII but I always find the ‘it was caused by magic’ explanation found in a lot of fantasy and urban fantasy rather distasteful. Now that a better reason has been given I can ignore that one little niggle that much more easily.
In short, a wonderful novel that can be enjoyed by both children and adults, mythology lovers and the uninitiated. And it’s also that all too rare thing: a sequel that is better than the first book. I hope the trend continues, but I suspect that – with it’s references to the Odyssey and the introduction of Tyson and Rainbow – this will continue to be my favourite of the series for quite some time.(less)