Re-rated. Was too generous in my first review. With hindsight it's def a 1 star read and probably one of the worst books I've ever read.
I outlined my...moreRe-rated. Was too generous in my first review. With hindsight it's def a 1 star read and probably one of the worst books I've ever read.
I outlined my initial thoughts to this book in my blog straight after I finished but I think it's time for a proper review now that I've put some distance between myself and the book.
Now let me start off by saying that I was not the target audience for this book, I could not be any less the target audience for this book if I suddenly sprouted chest hair and grew a penis. Despite this though I can see why other people liked, even loved, it - but it just wasn't for me. I read it because the concept sounded interesting and becaue my best friend picked it out for our book group read.
Other reviewers have summarised my thoughts far better than I ever could but it basically boils down to loving the concept but being hudely dissapointed with the execution. There were so many interesting questions and themes that could have been explored that were barely touched on only to get dismissed in favour of stressing once more how 'romantic'the whole messed-up sittuation was and how perfect Henry and Clare were for each other.
And maybe Henry and Claire were perfect for each other - they certainly had totally identical narrative voices and a similar self-absorbed nature that prevented them from caring about anyone else or feel anything remotely resembling guilt or shame when they did horrible things to those they purported to care about. Basically I'm saying the characterisation was poor and that neither were likable. Neither character ever seemed to develop past initial character drafting stage - appearance, backstory, favourite bands...Check. Personality? Not so much. Henry tells us how wonderful Clare's personality is, Clare tells us how wonderful Henry's is and neither ever shows any of their own.
In fact the whole book seems to rely on 'tell, don't show'. Henry and Clare love each other, lets not question why (she loves him because he pretty much groomed her to, he loves her because... she's fit, has red hair, and can keep up with him sexually better than any woman in the past? That's all I could come up with when I tried to stop and really think about it). We're told Henry and Gomez will become best friends in the future, then it is the future an they're best friends, but nothing in their actions show that they even like each other. We're told Henry was a horrible person before he met Clare but, despite the time travel thing being the perfect way to show it, we never see that. We're told that he changes because of Clare but his narrative voice and personality don't, they remain constant throughout. By the end of the book the only change we've seen him go though on the page is getting a haircut.
Although these are pretty big writing criticisms I think, to be honest, the book could have been improved hugely by a better and more ruthless editor. At 519 pages the book is simply too long for the story it's trying to tell. It could have been cut a good 200 pages and been vastly improved for it. The first half is just padded with needless scenes like Henry being awesome at pool or Henry impressing his awesomeness on a couple of easily impressed teenagers by listing off a reel of punk bands, that barely anything of interest actually happens. Niffenegger is obviously going for a book in two acts - first 'light fluffy' then 'bleak and miserable'. The problem was that by the time I reached the hard hitting stuff I was already bored with the characters that I couldn't care less about what horrible things started to happen to them in the second half. And boy did a lot of drama start happening, I won't spoil anything specific but instead of breaking down in tears I was rolling my eyes by the end of the book. By making the first half so long and full of inconsiquential nothingness any emotions that should have been triggered by the tragedies in the second half just didn't happen. Maybe if the characterisation had been beeter I would have cared.
2 stars 1 star. Poor characterisation, poor editing, and simply not my type of thing. I still say that the concept is brilliant though, it's just a shame it was used to tell such an insipid and irritating love story rather than being properly explored. Totally overated.(less)
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredi...moreCrossposted from my blog
I’ve spoken about my love of all things Arthurian before, so I was really expecting to enjoy this book. All the ingredients are there – it’s centered on a character I normally like, on events that are often just skated over as prologue, and grounded in more unique ‘realistic’ Dark Age Britain than the typical ‘castles and knights’ setting. It was also pretty popular back in its day. Alas, I learn, yet again, that popularity often has little to do with quality. It’s not that I actively dislike the book – it’s solidly in ‘ok’ territory – but I can’t really think of anything I liked about it either. There were a lot of neat ideas but, like every character in this novel, they were never developed.
It’s told, first-person, from Merlin’s perspective as an old man looking back on his life. However, the first few pages of the prologue, where Merlin describes how his memory works as an old man ‘the recent past is misted while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured’ is the last time the narrator sounds the age he is meant to be. When describing his childhood, he sounds like neither a child or an old man looking back on events – his voice simply narrates things, as they happened, with very little passion or personality, even when describing his strongest feelings. It’s all a bit too measured and distanced so that, despite being the narrator, I never felt remotely drawn to him or that I had any sort of grip on his personality. Since Merlin was both the narrator and the only character that seemed intended as more than a bunch of familiar stereotypes, this was a pretty big problem.
The story chugs away pretty slowly and, because I wasn’t enamoured with the narration, at times it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Even when things did happen, though, I didn’t feel particularly excited. Everything had a tendency to happen to the characters, rather than the characters doing things for themselves. Even declaring war seemed to be just a natural course of events rather than a proactive decision made by a person. This lack of agency was only enhanced by Merlin’s magic – which rather unsatisfactorily seemed to consist of knowing what to do and that he would get out ok. As he says himself ‘I am a spirit, a word, a thing of air and darkness, and I can no more help what I am doing than a reed can help the wind of god blowing through it’. Which means that, since Merlin never once tries to stray from this path or do anything for himself without ‘the wind of god’, that there’s really no tension, and that anything Merlin does achieve isn’t something that can really be attributed to his character but to the undefined ‘god’. It robs Merlin of the moral ambiguity he should have and makes him a dumb, uninteresting, tool instead of a great, cunning and complex character. Throughout the later sections of the book when Merlin’s reputation had grown far and wide, all I could think of was ‘why? He’s done nothing for himself yet’. If his personality had been more complex, this wouldn’t be a problem, but his personality was simply ‘I am the breath of god’ and never got any further than that.
And if you don’t like Merlin there’s really no one to relate to or care about in this book. His servants Cadal and Cerdic are both quite likable – but almost completely interchangeable. His teachers Galapas and Belasius have quite different methods and attitudes, but don’t get meaty enough roles for this to even be an interesting contrast. Ambrosius is wise and patient, Uther is rash, petty and impulsive. Every female is either a saint, ‘slut’, or nursemaid. The simplistic style of both the narration and the characterisation actually left me stunned when, in the last half I discovered through repeated casual use of the word ‘slut’ and one boob-groping almost-sex scene that this wasn’t written as a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that makes it unsuitable for most kids (I would probably have really enjoyed this book about 15 years ago) but it’s a pretty stong indicator it wasn’t meant to be aimed at them. Which left me naturally wondering who exactly it was aimed at, because it really doesn’t read like a book aimed at adults either.
Eventually, the author’s note at the back of the book clued me in – people who enjoy the Arthur myth. Well, I love the King Arthur myth and it didn’t work for me. When Merlin visits the well outside Galapas’ cave I wasn’t thinking ‘oh, that’s a really clever reference to a line in Monmouth’ or when Belasius becomes Merlin’s tutor I wasn’t going ‘Ah, the romanised name of a character who got mentioned in an offhand remark in Monmouth’. Was I hell, I was hoping that they would be interesting and relevant characters and events in this book, the one I was actually reading. I’ve got nothing against these little references, actually I really like them usually, but if they take up that much page-time they need to serve a narrative purpose too. As it is there was a huge section of ‘part II’ that dealt with Merlin discovering that Belasius was a druid – and that’s not even a spoiler because literally nothing developed out of this multi-chapter waste of time and it was hardly mentioned again. The only purpose, seemingly, was to fit in the names of a couple of characters from Monmouth – one who did reappear towards the end, but in such a totally minor role that he may as well have been introduced to the reader then.
Despite all that I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book. Most of it would make an alright children’s novel and the only thing I really took offense to was the casual misogyny and the way in which every single female character was portrayed. And yes, part of this is the setting but I don’t think that’s an excuse – A Song of Ice and Fire has an even more misogynist setting with an even more pervasive rape culture, but it still manages to have strong female characters and to indicate that there is something deeply wrong and unpleasant with the anti-female attitudes of the societies it portrays. Merlin, however, despite hearing that his mother was beaten almost into miscarriage for getting pregnant outside marriage, despite observing the way she was treated, even despite learning later exactly how long his mother had known his father, still goes about throwing words like ‘slut’ around to describe a serving girl in a relationship with her master and then has the audacity to complain that she left him to fend for himself when her master leaves the house. This on the same page as he’s mooning over a totally transparently non-celibate nun. Only Niniane and Ygraine escape with anything remotely resembling complex characterisation – and even then it’s all about their love lives.
All in all a disappointing book on a huge number of levels for me. But I wouldn’t tell other people not to read it. I can see why people might like it but it simply didn’t work for me. As a retelling of Merlin’s early life I guess the ideas are quite interesting, as a story in its own right it’s simply dull. The elements are all there, but they’ve been stuck together with plasticine.
I’m half tempted to read the rest of the series anyway, just to see how Stewart handles King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but there are so many other books out there that I know I’ll enjoy, that I probably won’t bother.(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)
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne...moreCrossposted/tweaked from my blog.
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne du Maurier. They’re a bit of an odd bunch – a mix of the supernatural and the mundane. Some of them embrace the ‘unknown’ with psychics, pagan worship, and life after death, while others seem to be building you up towards that only to tear it away by having the explanation something completely grounded in reality. Whether you find this second-guessing rewarding or frustrating, though, is probably personal preference. One theme that runs through all the stories, however, is the idea of taking the protagonist away from their home and putting them into an unfamiliar environment, where the setting itself serves to increase the sense of suspense and the character’s own alienation. It’s a collection of stories about how people react and adjust when taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into creepy situations they have very little control over. And it has to be said, most characters don’t do so well…
The first story in the collection, Don’t Look Now tells the story of a married couple holidaying in Venice as they attempt to get over the death of their young daughter and repair their own relationship. It is by the most famous story in this collection, having been made into a classic horror film in 1973 with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Now I haven’t yet seen the film but my big sister has, and I still remember how freaked out by it she was when she came back from her friend’s sleepover and told me about it. With that in mind and my dad’s explanation of the storyline and constant ‘this reminds me of Don’t Look Now‘ and ‘watch out for little girls in raincoats!’ whenever we ended up wandering round Venetian backstreets and canals at night on family holidays (which happens surprisingly often actually), I had been building this expectation for years that the book must be something truly atmospheric and full of suspense. It wasn’t. I did my best to make it so – I read it while I was in Venice, in the evening, on a poorly lit bench in a small square off a load of little backalleys that I had to wander back through to get to my hostel – and it still didn’t evoke the slightest sense of unease. Maybe I did it wrong, maybe if I had read it at home with only my imagination and memories of Venice I’d have found it creepier. And there’s also the fact I had the plot spoilt for me by hearing about the film – which actually changes a few key details in ways that actually improve it. In the book the explantion for John’s obsession with the little girl in the raincoat is never really that satisfactory and the psychic old women just seem random, disconnected and kind of silly – the film’s decision to make the raincoat girl resemble the dead daughter would have done a lot to improve the sense of suspense and unease both about the supernatural elements and the character’s mental health and just well...make the whole story a bit less random. The ending though, the ending I actually liked in all it’s silly, unintentional hilarity. I’ve seen other reviews claim that du Maurier does a great job of building up suspense only to fail with sudden endings – it’s a criticism I actually agree with in many cases, but in this story I think there was the opposite problem. The ending, though silly, would have worked really well if the build up of suspense had been better done in the main body. As it was, the story just seemed to have too much of John and Laura going out for diner and days out and having rather dull marital disagreements and not enough taking advantage of the creepy setting to explore the grief of losing a child.
The second story, however, does suffer from the sudden ending negating the atmospheric tension of everything that came before, and in a pretty bad way. Not After Midnight tells the story of a ‘lonely teacher’ who goes on holiday to Crete to get some painting done and ends up involved with the mysterious American couple over in one of the other holiday homes. I’d actually take issue with the back cover (and Wikipedia’s) description of the main character as ‘lonely’ – he doesn’t seem lonely to me, he seems like someone who likes being alone to get on with his own thing and doesn’t actually want to be bothered – especially by constantly drunk, boorish Americans. Surely nobody who’s ever experienced being next to one of them on holiday can blame him for that? The loneliness is there, certainly, but it’s something that he develops afterwards and as a result of his holiday and that’s actually pretty important – he wasn’t particularly damaged before the events of the story. To miss that is almost to miss the point. But onto the story… I liked the build up of atmosphere and suspense here a whole lot better than I did in Don’t Look Now. Where it fell down though was the ending, which was frankly pretty rubbish. It felt way too sudden, rushed and dropped in there without any explanation purely for ‘shock factor’. I had to go back and spend a few minutes trying to piece how it all fitted together with the rest of the story – and not in the fun ‘oooooh, I get that now!’ way but the ‘that really should have been a little clearer, and I still don’t get why she said that if what was going on was actually this...’ way. Just a little longer drawing out the ending and making sure the pieces all fitted together a bit more neatly would really have improved this one, because the actual story, though hardly ‘serious literature’ wasn’t that bad.
A Border-Line Case was much more solidly written and probably, if I was being completely objective, the best of the bunch. I can’t rate it too highly though because it uses several tropes that I’m frankly a bit bored with. And, though I was surprised with the twist in the middle, I saw the end ‘twist’ coming a mile off. The heroine of this story is aspiring actress, Shelagh, travels to Ireland to visit Nick, an estranged old friend of her father's, because of an off-hand remark her dad made shortly before his death about wanting to make up. Of course Ireland and England don’t have the best of relations in the 1970s so Shelagh, a little out of her depth, uses her actress skills to disguise her identity. And…well…she must be a damned good actress because the lies she makes up are totally transparent bullshit to anyone simply reading them on the page. People buy (or pretend to buy) them though and she eventually gets ushered in to meet Nick on his mysterious island of mysteriousness where he is surrounded by young men and likes digging up iron age burial sites and not reporting them to trained archaeologists to make proper surveys of (yes, that is something that bugs me in real life, proper archeological surveys are important damnit!). We get some wonderfully 1970s PC ‘oh my god, he might be a homo‘ thoughts from Shelagh as she tries to puzzle out the reason for Nick’s reclusiveness which made me laugh a little. Which was good, as her other thoughts made me want to bash her head in for being a fucking idiot with no ‘creep creep, stay away from this person’ sense of self preservation. She’s only 19, I know, but really; everything about the situation says ‘run for the fucking hills’. A solidly written story, though. Definitely the most consistently well written of the first three stories, but I found neither main character relatable, likable, or particularly believable, enough for me to enjoy it very much. The ‘twist’, though possibly relatively shocking in the 70s, was pretty predictable and, by now, majorly overdone. I’ll give it the fact it has a good title than can be interpreted in a number of ways though – that was pretty clever.
And now my favourite, The Way of the Cross, and I’ll admit this is probably because I have a bit of a fascination with Jerusalem. This story has a far larger cast of characters - a whole tour group of pilgrims - all given about equal attention. The story kicks off with poor Rev. Edward Babcock, a relatively young, urban cleric away on his own holiday, having to step in, last-minute, to be a tour guide for a group of snobby village parishioners he doesn’t know. It takes a while to get into it and I have to admit to being frustrated by du Maurier’s use of the whole ‘young attractive women cannot resist dreadful, boorish, middle-aged men’ theme. It just drives me batty, these men (and I include Mr. De Winter from Rebecca here as well) are so absolutely dire. I don’t know why anyone, regardless of age, would ever fancy them ever. There were enough characters, however, that if one storyline bothered me it was quickly moved away from to feature somebody elses. The basic plot is quite a simple one – all the characters get separated from each other, overhear unpleasant truths and gossip about themselves, and have an absolutely horrible time – mostly in karmic and amusing ways. There’s a sense at the end though that maybe, just maybe, they learn something from their experience and emerge better people for having visited the Holy City. Given the limited page and large number of characters it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s not bad. I actually liked the ‘annoying’ know-it-all kid, who has a great time approaching Jerusalem’s depiction in the bible and the reality of the present city as an archeological problem, rather than desperately seeking spiritual guidance or forgiveness. Questioning whether an important historic site really is where, or as old as, the tourist board claims it is, is something me and my dad often do on holiday and I appreciated the fact that somebody was culturally aware and respectful of the other religions that also live and worship in Jerusalem . A fairly simple, quite formulaic little story, with rather two-dimensional characters. But the prose did by far the best job in this book of evoking a strong sense of location.
The last story, The Breakthrough, is probably an acquired taste. It’s pretty much an unpfront science-fiction/supernatural crossover. Our ‘hero’, Steven the computer guy, is moved to some arse-end-of-nowhere government research facility run by a nutter who the whole scientific community mocks and peopled by about two equally secretive underlings. The machines are all called Charon 1, 2 or 3 so if you know your Greek mythology it’s no surprise what the ‘secret’ aim of the research is. It’s…I dunno. It’s not bad but it isn’t an especially original idea and the execution feels incredibly dated… There’s state of the art giant talking computers, hypnotism, ‘idiots’ (not my wording!) possessing untapped potential abilities to move things around with their emotions, a dog obedience-trained to the point of brainwashing, twins that have a special bond that continues even after one dies… it’s as if du Maurier’s throwing in absolutely everything she can think of - and it’s only a forty page story! It’s just too much, too crowded, everything's competing for attention and it only really serves to undermine the actual themes and questions the plot is trying to raise. Maybe if I was more of sci-fi fan than a gothic/supernatural/suspense person, I would find this more to my taste but it just felt…inelegant I suppose. Unpolished. Not really thought through.
Overall an interesting collection. Although I didn’t rate all the stories too highly, I found something to enjoy about all of them and I don’t regret spending time reading this. Yeah, it’s not the best and not quite my thing but it was interesting at least. My main problem wasn’t that the stories weren’t good, but that I got very frustrated that a lot of it could just be so much better if only it had been more vigorously edited and reworked. Both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight had the potential to be a hell of a lot better than they actually were.(less)
A wonderful book, spoiled, in part, because I already knew the story. It’s (deservedly) a very famous book and the plot is one that is hard not...more4 Stars
A wonderful book, spoiled, in part, because I already knew the story. It’s (deservedly) a very famous book and the plot is one that is hard not to know, even if you’ve never read it. Normally this isn’t a problem for me, I read classics I know the story to or have seen on film/tv/stage all the time. The problem is that with this book, like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Rebecca, knowing the basic plot essentially robs you of the ‘aha!’ moment when the twist is revealed, and all the uneasy suspense and questioning you should be doing leading up to it. It worked for me in the same way rereading does; knowing the big twist, I could spot the hints and the foreshadowing, and appreciate just how good a writer Charlotte Brontë was and how well plotted and put together that bit of storytelling is – but I felt robbed of that ‘first read’ feeling and as a result the book wasn’t an unputdownable five stars. Perhaps that's unfair, but I can't help that.
In fact I found the middle section quite tedious. Without that mystery and suspense to sustain me I found the Jane and Mr Rochester relationship rather lacking and some parts of the dialogue downright irritating. What works so damn fucking beautifully in Jane’s narration simply doesn’t when put into dialogue – nobody needs that much extraneous detail when having a normal conversation. I could totally buy why these characters fell for each other and the immense attraction of their opposing personalities – but I felt it more natural and real when reading each other’s thoughts on the other than I ever did in any of their scenes or conversations. In other words, for once, the ‘telling’ was much stronger and more effective tool than the ‘showing’.
But that’s a small quibble. Whatever you may have heard about this book I do not think it is, primarily, a romance. It has a hell of a lot of romance in it but, essentially, it’s about Jane herself; the story of her progress from an unloved, orphaned, child into a strong, confident, and happy young woman – the romance is only a part of that, albeit a major one. The first ten chapter glimpse into her childhood shows how much her character’s journey goes from a girl who lets her passions best her to a woman who, though still passionate, knows how and when to temper them and when to speak out. I will put in a disclaimer here though to say that I loved this look at Jane’s childhood a lot more than my friend who was also reading the book did, she saw it as a slow start to overcome before she could get to the good bit. Personally though I adored how Jane (though her dialogue sounded a bit too articulate for a ten-year-old at times) so totally summed up the childhood frustration I always had (and still have to some extent now) of being unable to find words to express thoughts as correctly and coherently as she would like.
I’ve said before that Jane’s narrative voice was ‘damn fucking beautiful’, so I’ll elaborate here. I have genuinely not read a first person narration that allowed me to understand the character in this much depth and detail before. Jane is an amazingly fully fleshed out character and she tells her story beautifully; even when I didn’t agree with her actions or would do a different thing myself, I could understand completely why she would make them. She also acknowledges her faults – and the faults of those about her – without ever falling into angst, self pity, or petty bitching that so often seem the hallmarks of first person narration. She might seem passive and mild when first compared to other women in the story, but she’s as passionate as any of them and braver and more decisive to boot - she’s just less showy about it. The action she takes partway through the book would have won me over to her completely, had I not already been on her side, for the sheer guts of it.
It’s a genuinely brave and unselfish decision and it leads to some real suffering – not least to her meeting with the absolutely vile St John Rivers. While I was underwhelmed by Rochester (according to my edition’s afterword one of the strongest characters in English literature) I was overwhelmed by St John. Whilst I flagged in my reading of the Thornfield chapters I could not put the book down in this later section, so fueled was I by my desire to see St John get thumped – unlikely as I knew it was to happen. I haven’t hated a character this much since Theon Greyjoy (which was admittedly only last month) and I hate St John even more than him. Jane might have some affectionate words to say towards his better qualities but I have none; for someone who purports to be doing god’s work he’s a cynical, bullying, selfish, hypocrite and I don’t believe he has any redeeming qualities at all. That Charlotte Brontë makes the man who’s lived a life of sin and cares more for himself than others the hero, and the missionary vicar who puts aside love for duty an emotionally abusive villain is one of the best twists in the book.
And it’s a book surprisingly full of social issues – not just the difference between preaching a Christian life and actually practicing it (St John’s not the only vicar attacked for that) but the treatment of orphans and te vulnerable, the shameful Victorian cost-cutting measures taken at the expense of human lives, the way higher classes (even Jane, on occasion) look down on the poor, the difficulty for a woman to exert her independence in a male dominated society. It brings up traditionally villanous or buffoonish traits – alcoholism, sexual temptation, infidelity and treats them sympathetically. Jane’s a moral character but even she does not see things in black and white – that’s a trait solely reserved for the hypocrites on the book (just like in real life). I will say that there is some unfortunate but generally mild ‘England is best, ra ra!’ patriotism (mostly at the expense of the French) and I don’t like the implication Rochester, at least, makes that Jane is the paragon of womanly virtue and any woman who doesn’t have all of her qualities is deficient – but I can accept that the character has that opinion.
The treatment of a certain character does distress me, and I will be reading Wide Sargasso Sea – a prequel by another author depicting Rochester’s early life – as soon as I’ve finished my massive to-be-read pile, to see another angle than the one portrayed in Jane Eyre. But I’ll save my discussion on this aspect for people I know have read the book.
In short though and without getting into spoilers, I thought this was a wonderful book with a quietly charismatic narrator and, despite not loving it enough for five stars I really enjoyed it and will be putting the rest of Charlotte Brontë’s books straight onto my wishlist.(less)
So first thing’s first: this is a beautiful, wonderful book and the three stars up there reflect my experience reading it much more than they d...more 3 Stars
So first thing’s first: this is a beautiful, wonderful book and the three stars up there reflect my experience reading it much more than they do the quality of the book itself. It’s a gorgeous, quirky, little book. Fifty islands from around the world: on one page a detailed map, on the opposite page a few basic facts and a little vignette about an event in the island’s history. I loved, loved, loved the idea when I first picked it up and flicked through it in the bookshop, and there’s nothing wrong with the execution either – it’s precisely what I expected. But three stars simply because I realised that I didn’t love the idea as much as I thought I had.
The maps are gorgeous, no question, and the little vignettes which accompany them are fascinating – weird evocative little stories of explorers, indigenous peoples, castaways, marooned slaves, scientific experiments, inbreeding, murder, mutiny, all the sorts of things a lifelong fan of Treasure Island should absolutely love. And I did love them, I just found the lack of facts or reference points slightly maddening, a lot of the stories were so interesting that I wanted to look them up, check out the history behind the vignette, but was only given enough information to try for a google/Wikipedia search and then go link-crawling from there.
But the book isn’t meant to be 100% factual, referenced, history so complaining about something that wasn’t meant to be there not being there is a bit silly. What the book actually sets out to do, it does very well. It is as much, if not more, about the imagination and the literary idea of the ‘remote island’ as it is about real places. Written by an author who grew up in East Berlin and could only experience the wider world through maps and literature, this is something for everybody who once played at being a pirate or an explorer or a sailor when they were children and dreamt of visiting far off and undiscovered places and having wonderful adventures. And, disappointed as I was not to enjoy the book as much as I had hoped, I so still count myself among that group of people who spend far too much time imagining adventures on weird and remote islands and wishing they were a pirate.
I think it’s one of those books that was just the right book at the wrong time but that, given a bit of time and a more ‘dipping in and out of’ approach, will probably go up and up in my estimation. I can’t say I love it yet, that’s why it’s only three stars, but I do think that I will come to love it. I just need to let it sit for a bit and pick it up only occasionally and when in the right mood and it’ll probably become as much a treasured possession as my much-loved encyclopedia of classical mythology.(less)
I love J.K. Rowling so fucking much. Harry Potter, her ridiculously huge donations to charity, and then this. Now, I’ll admit I probably woul...more 4.5 Stars
I love J.K. Rowling so fucking much. Harry Potter, her ridiculously huge donations to charity, and then this. Now, I’ll admit I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at this book if it wasn’t for the name on the cover (certainly not this cover anyway, it’s fucking bland – the original illustrated red cover on the hardbacks I would totally have picked up) and I was prepared for anything from mild disappointment to vehement dislike, judging on the mixed reviews it recieved, but actually I really really liked it. It’s not going to be for every Harry Potter fan of course, and I can understand why so many of them really didn’t like it – it’s bleak, it’s depressing, it’s full of swearwords and sex, it’s very very mundane, and none of the characters are really ‘likeable’. But that’s actually what I liked about this book. It was 'ordinary', but it felt incredibly realistic. And doubly so because I actually live in a town very very like the fictional Pagford myself.
I’m not in the West Country, like Pagford and Yarvil, and my hometown’s probably a bit bigger, less chocolate-box pretty, and less self-important than Pagford, but I am in a staunchly conservative, overwhelmingly middle class, almost entirely white town in rural England. I even have old-schoolfriends (so guys only in their twenties) who do fucking door to door canvasing for the tories – it’s that sort of place. So yeah, lots and lots of the social issues this book examines, and lots of the characters and attitudes felt familiar to me. The classism, the disdain for people in council housing/on benefits/dealing with addiction, the ignorance surrounding other cultures, the ridiculous self-importance of local politics, and the general smug, superior attitude of some of the characters.
And those characters, though not always likeable, were brilliantly complex and realistic. The Casual Vacancy is in fact almost more about the character studies than about the story. There are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Like real people, everyone has their own flaws and motivations. So Krystal, the sixteen-year-old who brings up her baby brother on a council estate, constantly trying to get her mother to quit drugs, is no self-sacrificing saint but is also a foul mouthed teen who will beat you up for being related to the wrong person. And Parminder the parish councillor and local GP who gives everything to the community is a pushy parent completely oblivious to her own daughters utter misery or the racist bullying she faces. While Samantha; loud, brash, snide, and obnoxiously petty, can sometimes be very sympathetic in her utter hatred of the place and the people she spends time with. The only character I could find absolutely nothing to like or sympathise with was ‘Fats’, the middle-class teenager determined to find himself and be ‘authentic’ by being a total shit to everybody.
The story starts with the death of popular Parish Councillor, Barry Fairbrother, and follows the reactions of individuals and the community, to his death. But as well as leaving behind a grieving widow, children, and friends, he also leaves a seat on the parish council to be filled – and it isn’t long before both ends of the local political spectrum are pushing for their own candidates to give them the winning edge in the debate on whether to cut off the local council estate and close down the addiction centre. As I said, it’s a pretty mundane in terms of story and setting. But what it does do, the characters, and the way it peels off the veneer of ‘pretty little quaint english town’ to highlight very real social issues, it does very very well.
I can imagine this is quite a divisive book, but I loved it. And I’ll definitely be lending my copy to my best friend next time I visit her in London. Because I just know that it will remind her of home (and certain people here) too.
Of note – for those that have already read the book – the goodreads exclusive Rowling did on crafting her characters for this book is a really interesting read. Warning: contains massive spoilers for those who haven’t read the book yet.(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)
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen...more 4.5 Stars
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen binge (all her major novels, back to back, in order of publication) and thus was feeling a bit romanced-out by the time I got round to this one and didn’t really ‘click’ with it. I’ve always suspected that my ambivalence towards it back then was a little unfair and that a reread would improve my opinion, and I’m happy to say that I was right. It’s still not my favourite Austen but I did really really enjoy it and predict at least a couple more rereads in the future (which is a lot more than can be said about Mansfield Park).
As most people talking/writing about Austen will tell you, Persuasion is the most ‘mature’ of Austen’s books, which, despite sounding totally pompous, I guess I have to agree with. It’s a more sedate novel than Austen’s earlier works; less full of sparkling wit but touching more overtly on social, gender, and class issues. It tells the story of Anne Elliot who, at 19, broke off an engagement to a handsome young Navy officer due to pressure from her friends and family about his lack of wealth and connections. Eight years later, age 27 and still unmarried, her own family has frittered away all its money when Captain Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, rich, well-regarded, and determined to marry and settle down with anyone but Anne Elliot.
The two are thrown frequently into each other’s company by mutual acquaintances (ignorant of their earlier engagement) and have to learn to deal with their lingering feelings, regrets, and resentments as well as their change in situations, ignorant comments from people who don’t know about their previous relationship, jealousies caused by various other suitors, and her horrible snobbish family. It’s a very one-sided romance for most of the book, however, which makes it hard for me as a reader to fall in love with Wentworth the same way I can for most of Austen’s other heroes. As the story is told almost purely from Anne’s perspective, Captain Wentworth appears to spend most of the early parts of the book ignoring her, getting in petty jabs when telling people about the qualities he wants in a wife (‘firmness of character‘ – just give that knife a bit more of a twist will you, Wentworth?), and paying more attention to almost every other female character. This is probably the reason I wasn’t such a big fan of Persuasion the first time round – I expected more romance and more interplay between the two characters – but that’s not really the focus here.
It’s Anne’s feelings, the heartbreak, the uncertainty, and the hope that form the emotional heart of the story, and I think they’re handled very well. I can only really say ‘think’ here because I have never been in love nor pined for an ex (I mean I have got back with one once, but that was a drunken mistake that shall never be repeated). But Anne’s jumble of thoughts and feelings at being suddenly thrust into the company of the man she loves, who she believes resents her, felt believable and genuine. She’s a quiet but complex character and rereading it, knowing not to expect the witty flirting of Pride and Prejudice, I was able to enjoy the book and feel for Anne’s situation a lot more than I did the first time round.
The other interesting thing about Persuasion is that it is much more critical of traditional class and gender roles than Austen's other works and reflects how these things were beginning to change in the early 19th century. Anne’s family may be titled while Wentworth’s aren’t, but her family spend away their wealth on frivolous, useless vanities and are almost bankrupt by the start of the book, forced to give up their few genuine duties as landlords by retreating to a cheaper environment and letting out the ancestral home to strangers. Meanwhile Wentworth and his brother in-law build significant wealth and respect by risking their lives in service for their country and return richer and on almost equal social footing with Anne’s father. The novel celebrates this social mobility achieved through military service (Austen’s brothers were both naval officers) while showing a more critical portrait of the aristocratic classes than in any of Austen’s previous books. While most of the titled characters, and Anne’s family especially, are so preoccupied with status that they are blind to the individual merits (or lack there of) of those they socialise with, Wentworth and his navy chums just hang out, have fun and act like real friends who actually care about each other – and it’s obvious which society Anne prefers. Then there’s Admiral and Mrs. Croft, possibly the only happy married couple in all of Austen’s novels, who do almost everything together, genuinely enjoy each others company, and serve a big ‘fuck you’ to everybody who tries to force women into traditional ‘delicate female – must be protected’ stereotypes – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Persuasion isn’t as overtly witty as some of Austen’s other books (though it definitely has its moments, Anne’s family are hilariously awful), the romance isn’t as up front as perhaps people expect from an Austen novel, but I really like it. It’s a quieter book with a nice feelgood story that also has a few things to say; both about romance, forgiveness, second chances, and about society in general. Not that that isn’t always there to varying degrees in all her works – I will scorn anyone who says Austen is nothing but ‘romance and finding a husband’ – but in Persuasion it’s just that bit more open. It also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes of all time:
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
You tell ‘em, Miss Austen!
Still not my favourite Austen, but probably the one I will revisit the most often. I think it’s one of those books that every reread provides something slightly different. I liked it the first time but felt slightly disappointed, this time I enjoyed it a lot and got more into the characters and the quiet unshowy romance, next time… who knows? Maybe I’ll finally start to fall in love with Captain Wentworth – the 1995 and 2007 film/TV adaptations are certainly pushing me that way already with their delicious depictions of him.(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)
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later...more4 Stars
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later, but it really does capture the magic of the city. Or at least it did for me; how someone who has never visited the place would find it though…I’m not that sure. In fact I would probably only gift this to a child who already had some knowledge of, or better yet had actually been to Venice. There’s a handy map with key locations on at the very start of the book and a fantastic set of very accessible author’s notes at the back, but to get full enjoyment from it I do think the reader has to have at least seen a photo of Venice. Because, putting aside the beautiful and lovingly depicted setting, the storyline and characterisation are fairly standard children’s fantasy fare.
Teodora is an orphan, with no knowledge of her real parents but a deep yearning to see Venice. We can already see where the backstory will be going, yes? She also has some pretty nifty abilities, not least a form of magic synaesthesia where she can see people’s words, written in their handwriting, hovering above their head when they speak. She also has a photographic memory, can read people’s hearts and deepest emotions by touching their chest, and can read upside down. After years of nagging, her adoptive parents finally and reluctantly take eleven year old Teodora to see Venice. Problem is that they’re scientists, and the only reason they’re in Venice is for urgent scientific discussions on how to save the city from the sudden and bizarre series of problems that threaten to destroy it; the wells spout boiling poison water and the high lands flood while the lowlands stay dry. And if you think that sounds more like a magical curse that science won’t be able to solve you would be absolutely right.
So it’s a typical orphan discovers a magical society, saves the world/Venice and discovers their true identity after teaming up with a member of the opposite sex that they initially deeply disliked. Oh, and throw in a prophecy that could only be talking about her as well… I probably read hundred’s of these when I was a kid. What sets it out from the rest is the setting and the history. Every little thing – from the big-bad of the book, his child-killing henchman, to the winged lions and giant cats who protect the city – have their basis in Venetian history, folklore, or art. The henchman, horrifically, is apparently from the first group and used to sell a very popular cannibal stew before he was discovered and executed – like a real life Sweeney Todd without the hairdressing or the middle-woman. And it’s titbits like that that really brought the story to life for me and sucked me in. It’s an amazingly informative book and you can tell the author has done a shitload of research, but the facts are worked in almost seamlessly into the story and I rarely felt that I was being lectured or info-dumped on.
And because the writer has such a grip on the sense of place and history, the sense of atmosphere comes off very well too. The prologue is a beautiful thing; a wonderfully creepy and unsettling introduction to the undead antagonist and his powers as, against all advice, a young family attempt to cross the lagoon on a foggy evening to baptise their infant daughter. It’s probably the best moment of the book but the creepy atmosphere does pervade the rest of the novel as well, not least the Brustolons dripping blood from their mouths that start appearing everywhere (though I was very glad when the racist history of these objects and the horrors of the Venetian slave trade were finally addressed). Like most good children’s books for this age group, it’s dark, creepy, and atmospheric with a real sense of danger and doesn’t shy away from the idea of death.
Where it falls down though is the characterisation. Brownie points for Teo’s adoptive parents being genuinely loving towards her, but a couple taken away for making them the sort of oversimplified scientists who don’t get ‘the arts’ at all – at least until the very end. And the rest of the side characters are similarly sketched out or stereotypical. Even Teodora and Renzo I never felt had all that much depth to them. Renzo is clever – which means he knows local history – and a bit of a snob, while Teodora is a generic ‘nice to everyone’ protagonist. Out of the two of them this makes Renzo the more interesting character with the larger story arc, although he doesn’t end up doing that much except providing Teodora with explanations for things. Teodora meanwhile has all these amazing talents but constantly forgets to use them – in fact I’m not sure why the ‘can read people’s hearts by touching them’ power was there at all if it wasn’t actually going to be used for anything. Maybe it’ll be used more effectively in the next book.
The end half of the plot left a little to be desired as well, with the way to defeat the big bad being far too easy and slightly underwhelming. And I wish the magic of The Key to the Secret City had been either a bit more explained or had nothing directly to do with the mermaids. But, to be honest, for what I was reading this book for, these are fairly minor nitpicks. It’s a decently told pageturner with some original touches that I really liked – Theodora’s ability to see the spoken word, for one, and the mermaids having learnt ‘human’ from sailors all having rather coarse language (though it could have done with being more distinctly Italian or mishmash of languages than ‘pirate’ /’cockney’). Teodora’s not the most compelling main character and I wish Renzo had done a bit more, but I still liked them both and they’re probably on about the same level as most children’s protagonists.
In fact that’s probably something true of the whole novel – a very good children’s book but, if not for the magic of the Venetian setting, not an outstanding one. I enjoyed it a lot, enough to get a copy for my friend’s birthday and reserve the next book at the library, and I would definitely recommend it, but it’s not mindblowing.(less)
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘th...more 3 Stars
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘the TV adaptation is better than the book, and the story is better than the writing’.
North and South is a story I’ve been in love with since I watched the BBC adaptation with Richard Armitage in 2004. It’s basically Pride and Prejudice in an industrial Victorian city, with class issues and commentary mainly replacing the originals gender issues. Mr Darcy is mill owner and self-made-man, Mr. Thornton, while Elizabeth Bennet is the socially conscious and initially insufferably snobby, Margret Hale. Instead of Pemberly and the Bennet sister’s there’s a backdrop of industrial revolution, class tension, and trade union strikes and a supporting cast ranging from servents and mill hands to lawyers and Oxford academics.
Gaskell, though, is no Austen and I found her writing very hard to get into at first. Less wit and charm and more turgid preaching and moralising. Neither of which I am particularly patient with. It improved towards the middle, where the older characters start suddenly dropping like flies, but the first half was a real slog. Gaskell does that Victorian omniscient narrator thing where, instead of enhancing the understanding of the side characters by popping into their thoughts, it ends up dully explaining everything and robbing the book of any tension. All tell and no show, especially at the beginning when we’re meant to be forming our first impressions of the characters. No disagreement between Margaret and Mr. Thornton (or anybody else for that matter) is allowed without instantly flitting into Thornton’s thoughts to let us know that it’s just a misunderstanding, that he didn’t explain himself properly, and that he finds Margaret beautiful. Kinda robs the romantic tension somewhat. Which is probably why I prefer the TV version so hard, Richard Armitage can convey Thornton’s feeling more effectively in a single look than Gaskell can in a whole chapter.
And then there’s also the preachiness. The only character more insufferable for it than Margaret (who spends a good quarter of the book angsting over telling a lie - to save somebody’s life but it was a lie so must be bad) is Bessy, the terminally ill mill worker who spends every waking moment talking about how glorious heaven will be when she gets there. It’s genuinely cringe inducing and after about two pages I was wishing she would just pass away and put me out of my misery.
But three stars because I do like the story itself, the social commentary is interesting (if a little moralising in places), and once I got into the book (about the halfway point) the writing seemed to improve so by the end I was enjoying the novel more than I was frustrated with it. I also really like the side characters of Higgins, the trade unionist and Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Thornton’s imposing mother who doesn’t put up with any of Margaret’s fancy southern shit. The romance, I thought, was unconvincing but, I think, even Gaskell found that the secondary point after exploring the social tensions between the working class and the ‘masters’, the industrial north and the rural south. So after a tricky and deeply frustrating start, I did end up enjoying (if not always agreeing with) this book.
Will probably be a while before I decide to read another Gaskell though, and if I do it’ll probably be a library jobby. The ideas and plot may be good, but I’m not sure her prose has aged particularly well.