Still in post-novel afterglow here (this is what happens when you’re more interested in books than people). I really love this little series, i...more 5 Stars
Still in post-novel afterglow here (this is what happens when you’re more interested in books than people). I really love this little series, it’s like a slice of childhood, I just want to drizzle cream and chocolate sauce all over this book and gobble it up. But that would ruin a very beautiful paperback (and probably my digestive system too) so instead I will simply love it and stroke it and tuck it carefully back on my bookshelf to treasure for all time. Like, seriously, if I could do the Gollum voice that is exactly what I would be doing right now.
And now that I’ve scared all the normal people off I’ll get onto the review. . .
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (henceforth to be refered to as ‘Revels‘, because the title may be gorgeous but it’s also very long and I’m a slow typist) is the second book in Catherynne M. Valente’s children’s series, Fairyland, and is all the more worthy of those 5 stars up there for being a sequel that doesn’t dissapoint. In fact I might even prefer it to the first book, which was one of my absolute favourite reads of last year.
The protagonist, September, is a year older, and matured from a heartless child (all children are heartless according to the narrator) to a young teenager with a freshly grown, raw and inexperienced heart. She’s spent the time since her first visit to Fairyland being the lonely, excluded kid at school, missing her father (away fighting in WWII), and spending her free time reading up on Fairytales and mythology. So by the time the book starts she’s just as impatient as I was to jump back into Fairyland and meet up with her old (and odd) friends there. Only when she gets there Fairyland isn’t quite as she remembered. Magic is now being rationed, just like sugar back in her homeworld, people’s shadows are disappearing and September believes she know’s why and is determined to stop it.
Now, I’m going to admit that it took me a good few chapters to fall in love with the first Fairyland book – maybe because I wasn’t used to Valente’s style and the old fashioned fourth-wall-breaking narrator, maybe because the story seemed to wonder aimlessly about for a long while before the plot was revealed – but I had no such problem with Revels, I jumped straight in and fell in love immediately. We’re taken to different parts of Fairyland in this book, notably Fairyland-Below, and meet a whole host of new characters, but everything that I loved about the first book is still there too. There’s Ell the Wyvern who’s half-library, and Saturday the Marid, the characteristic quirky wonderful narration (perfect for reading aloud to children at bedtime), beautiful chapter illustrations by Ana Juan, and then the book throws in great new stuff like a ‘night dodo’ called Aubergine as well!
More than any of these wonderful Fairyland characters though, I loved September. I enjoyed her practical attitude in the first book but it was impossible for anyone to compete with Ell there as the breakout character. In this book I absolutely I adored her though. Her fresh new heart and extra year’s maturity add a slightly different tone to the book; it’s still quirky and brilliant, but it’s not just a rehash of the first book with a different enemy. September thinks of her parents more in this book, considers both her own and other peoples feelings more, tries to understand them, and deals with teenage emotions and changing relationships. She’s still the same person as twelve-year-old, heartless, September, but she’s grown up, just a little. Everything is more complex, less black and white, right and wrong, than in the first book. Instead of fighting the Marquis, September’s foe in this Revels is herself, or rather the shadow of her twelve-year-old self. And shadows are not inherently bad but simply the sides of ourselves we repress and keep hidden – ‘The Hollow Queen’s’ motivations are those September shares and sympathises with, her actions those September, were she less restrained and a bit more wild, could easily commit. It adds shades of grey to the adventure that I really enjoyed and left me guessing as to just how it could all be concluded.
But, and this will surprise no one I’m sure, it was concluded! And in a way I was really happy about too. The last few pages also won me completely over to the idea of a September/Saturday relationship in the future – he was very quiet in the first book and so harder to instantly love to the same degree as Ell or September, but something he said in the here just won me over completely. If only all men were as sensible and sweet and understanding as Saturday the world would be a totally better place.
Loved, loved loved the whole book and cannot wait for the next one, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, which comes out this year in America, so probably next year in the UK. May just have to bully a friend to send me a US copy.(less)
I was first introduced to Les Misérables, without knowing it, through my music centre’s ‘easter camp’ – three days of learning new music pieces...more 5 Stars
I was first introduced to Les Misérables, without knowing it, through my music centre’s ‘easter camp’ – three days of learning new music pieces for brass band and being forced to sing in a choir with the lame woodwind and string kids – when I was about six. We sang ‘Can you hear the people sing’ while marching up and down the school hall. It’s a memory my mother is very fond of bringing up while bursting into laughter and was the only time I ever enjoyed myself in any choir (and my mum persuaded me to try a lot of choirs, apparently oblivious to the fact that I am so tone-deaf that the conductor always had a quiet word with me after a few sessions to request I either mime or take singing lessons) but I had no idea, until years later that it was part of anything bigger than a cool song about French martyrs and/or slaves with drums.
So, like most people, my initial understanding of the actual story only came when I finally went and saw the musical in my late teens and quickly devoured the plot description in the programme before the curtain came up so that I would know what the hell was going on. Boiled down to its very basics: it’s set in 19th century France where ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks redemption, adopts an orphan girl, and is ruthlessly pursued for over a decade by police inspector Javert, also there’s a slightly cheesey love story where the orphan girl falls in love with a student revolutionary and lots of awesome revolutionary singing. Oh and the staging of the street barricades is fucking spectacular. I knew it was based on a long book by Victor Hugo (aka that guy who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame)but until I grew up a bit out of my silly ‘classics are all boring and even when the plot’s good they’re way too slow and written in irritating ways’ phase , I wasn’t much interested in picking it up. (And can I just say how glad I am that I got over that phase!)
Sooo, fast forward a few years, I’m a bit less of a prat and I know a bit more about the book; mainly that not only is it huge but very, very, dense – going off on multi-chapter author tangents on anything from the Battle of Waterloo to the architecture of Parisian sewers. Still, I wanted to give it a go, I don’t mind thick books, love a bit of history (especially social history), enjoyed the stage show, have a relatively high tolerance for tangents, and just thought that this was really one of ‘those’ classics that you should probably at least try. So after doing a small bit of research into the various unabridged translations on the market (no matter hw long the book I get angry if I later find out I didn't read the whole thing), it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I finally picked up my brick-sized copy and started to read. And both feelings turned out to be pretty well-founded in the end too; I absolutely adored the novel, it was truly brilliant in places, but bloody hell some of it was tedious – just not necessarily the parts I had expected.
‘There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell – not even on the background‘. The book loves tangents so much it even starts with one; fifty pages of in-depth character study for a bishop who disappears around ninety pages in – though his actions set in motion the entire plot. The primary character, Jean Valjean, does not appear until page fifty and Fantine, the character the first section of the book is named after, does not appear until page one hundred and three. It could easily be frustrating, especially when the bishop is so very very perfect and good and exactly how an ideal bishop should be. But actually, I really enjoyed it. The writing was fabulous, and the character study was so in-depth that I didn’t feel annoyed by this near perfect portrayal, he felt like a genuinely good person and not ajust a plot device. I suspect it’s something that many readers have to struggle and force themselves through, but for me, it worked.
And, actually, so did a lot of the author tangents. I struggled with the fifty pages detailing the Battle of Waterloo later – but I still enjoyed it, I simply had to take it slowly because I have no head for military strategy. I enjoyed the asides about French politics, I fucking adored the chapters on the architecture and history of Parisian sewer system (adored!). I’m probably odd (I also like the farming and agricultural history sections in Anna Karenina better than the main plot), but I liked a lot more of these overgrown author tangents than I disliked, and they made me pine for an education system where the French revolution and Napoleonic Europe is a compulsory part of the history curriculum rather than a ‘some schools might offer it at A level’. The tangents that I did dislike though, I found reeeeally irritating; the study of the monastic system (normally a subject that fascinates me) effectively ground the whole plot to an absolute standstill, and after such high-tension exciting scenes before hand it was even more annoying, same with the excruciating dissertation on Parisian criminal slang (to be fair probably a hard subject to translate into English). Whenever the plot seems to be going somewhere at any sort of speed and you’re really getting into it, WHAM! Author tract to slow things waaaaay back down again. But actually, the things that frustrated me most in this book, related more to the main plot and the characters than to the infamous tangents and info-dumps that I had been warned about.
‘Grown up’ Cossette is, frankly, one of the most insipid, uninspiring, and dull characters in literature. The only point where I put this book down for a whole day wasn’t during any of the lectures on French politics or long descriptions of 19th century Paris, but during the romance sub-plot with her and Marius (who started out interesting and grew gradually less and less likable the more he mooned over Cossette until, at the very end, I wanted to punch him repeatedly in the face). I’m not a big ‘love at first sight’ fan at the best of times but this love story was just….eh. There were glimmers of something more interesting in Cossette, of her acting like a real teenager; when she discovers she’s ‘pretty’ she becomes a little vain, she gets over heartache quicker than Marius, notices other handsome men, but ultimately her characterisation is shallow and lazy. She exists only as a plot device – something to provide motivation for the two male heroes of the book, her ‘father’ Jean Valjean, and her love interest Marius. Every flaw she’s given fails to turn her into a more complex character (as it is with the men) but merely confirms her role is no longer 'orphan child' but‘generic female love interest’. And I’m not entirely sure that Hugo is very good at writing women in the first place anyway. He over-romanticises them, puts them on a pedestal, and sings the praises of their purity and innocence. Only Éponine, wonderful Éponine, – the urchin girl with feelings for Marius – manages to rise above the 'good woman=feminine and fragile, bad woman=unfemine' stereotype to be presented as a complex and compelling character in her own right. And it makes her, along with Javert and John Valjean, one of the best bloody characters in the whole novel.
When it’s good though, it’s absolutely great. The Jean Valjean vs Javert plot is as compelling as it is totally improbable. I only wish we had seen a bit more of Javert. From the musical I was expecting him to be a bit more of a major character than he is, as it is he just sort of pops up where needed, steals the scene, and then disappears again until the plot calls him back. The dogged pursuit of John Valjean I’d been sold is really less ‘dogged pursuit’ and more John Valjean constantly being thrown by sheer chance into the same policeman’s path again and again ad again (there’s a lot of chance and coincidence in this book). No matter how contrived though, those encounters are still wonderfully tense and dramatic. It’s during these chance encounters, the chase scenes and the attempts to hide their identity from each other, that the book starts moving at a bit of a clip and I found myself thinking ’1200 pages really isn’t all that long, I’ll be done in no time!’. Whatever the other subplots of the novel - and there's a lot going on - the real climax of the book is the absolutely beautiful resolution of this storyline. Arguably I'm just more drawn to this storyline because I’m much more of a fan of adventure stories than I am romances but I found this plot line both more compelling and better written. It was more original, and had far more to say than the Marius-Cossette romance that is the other main plot. Realistic would be the wrong word to describe it, it relies too much on contrived coincidences, but I found the characters and their motivations more believable.
All the bits that annoyed me though – from the ‘women are angels’ to the ‘stalking is love’, ‘love makes you not give a shit for anyone but your love interest’, the slightly heavy-handed lectures, and the idea of ‘deserving/undeserving poor’ lurking beneath the portrayal of many characters, was totally forgiven by the last section of the book. Even if I had hated the beginning and middle I would have had to give five stars to this book just for the chapters set in the Paris sewers and Javert’s final scene. Wonderful, wonderful writing. It’s possibly that I’m odd, but I think many people have a fascination for the tunnels and buildings underneath cities – from the abandoned tube lines in London to the catacombs and sewers of Paris – Hugo certainly does anyway, and so do I. I’m not about to go all urban exploring or anything because I’m a wimp (though I have visited the Paris catacombs), but I will read the fuck out of a book that makes effective use of these creepy abandoned underworlds beneath the city. The claustrophobic atmosphere in these chapters were just great, I could totally see the scenes playing out in my head as the characters tried to find their way in the dark maze of stinking sewers, their feet sinking into ‘bogs’. I loved it so much I even adored the info dump, which started out as an unpromising essay on why human manure should be sent to fertilise the fields rather than ferment in the sewers but ended up being a fascinating history of the sewer network in Paris, the dangers to the people who work (and lurk) there and the clean up mission started under Napoleon. It doesn’t sound fascinating, I know – but what can I say, I’m the daughter of a civil engineer and a town planner; I can’t help but find infrastructure cool. Other people love the barricade scenes (which were pretty dand ace as well – and without doubt the highlight of the stage and film versions) or the romance, I love the sewer chapters – different strokes.
Without that though, it would still be a solid four and a half, at least, star book. I may have been bored by Marius and Cossette – and Marius started as such a promising character too before he lost interest in anything but Cossette . I may have found the odd info dump annoying or poorly placed, but the sheer scope and ambition of the piece is astounding. Yes, it’s definitely heavy-handed at points and the ‘redemption’ story feels a bit of a joke to me as a modern reader because Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family hardly makes him a criminal who needs redemption – he’s simply not a bad man to begin with. But the call for prison and judicial reform and the message of how society can force a good man or woman (in the case of Fantine) to desperate and illegal actions out of love for a child – and how society then expels and ostracises them rather than attempt to understand or lend a helping hand is one that, sadly, is still applicable today. It’s heavy-handed because, at the time, it needed to be. If nothing else too, the book taught me a lot of stuff on 19th century France – and I’m never averse to learning more about historical periods I know very little about.
Aaaaah. There is just so much stuff I could say on this book! So many themes and characters and scenes that I could talk for ages about that I haven’t even touched on here but I really gone on long enough and I think I’ve put down my main impressions ok, so I’ll leave it here. A long, brilliant, and occasionally frustrating book. I thought it was wonderful and, though I won’t be embarking on a reread any time soon, it’s going pretty hight on my list of favourite classics and Hugo's being bumped up on my list of authors to read more of.
Now to check out translations for 'Notre-Dame de Paris'...(less)
Now it’s probably worth mentioning before I go into a glowing review that 1) I am a massive dog person – to the extent I haven’t grown out of...more
Now it’s probably worth mentioning before I go into a glowing review that 1) I am a massive dog person – to the extent I haven’t grown out of pointing and going ‘pretty doggy!’ whenever I see one, and 2) I’m not approaching this book fresh but as a reread of one of my childhood favourites. And we should probably throw in a 3) there as well – my copy of the book is a wonderfully illustrated little 1963 hardback which my dad passed onto me, having bought it with his own tenth-birthday money after falling in love with the Disney film. It’s an absolutely beautiful object and everything about it only adds to the charm of the book. In fact I almost found it hard to read with both him and my sisters constantly peering over my shoulder or stealing the book whenever I set it down to look at the black and white pictures.
But onto the review…
Before Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Lyra Belaqua or any of those modern protagonists were about, before I was even introduced to Roald Dahl; The Hundred and One Dalmatians was a firm and familiar favourite. I’d seen the film (an incredibly poor quality pirated VHS tape my dad had got my big sister when they lived in Hong Kong) endless times, I’d had the book read to me by my parents (Dad was better with the voices), and, above all, I had listened to the audio-cassette, narrated by Joanna Lumley until it wore out (if anyone can track this down on MP3 I will love you forever). In fact I was so familiar with the story I’m not entirely sure that I had actually read it before this, I think as a child I might well have been too scared of damaging dad’s copy to risk it. Point is, this book is a very old and comforting friend – which is just what I needed last weekend.
It’s a warm, fluffy, little story full of rather old-fashioned British charm and a gentle but witty narration that should appeal to all ages. True, the gender roles are old fashioned – one of the nannies wearing trousers is regarded as shocking and Pongo’s rather ditsy wife is simply called ‘Missis Pongo’ (Perdita is a separate character) but it’s all so quaintly and humorously done that it simply brings a smile. Also I can’t condemn the book totally on those grounds because Cruella de Vil’s ‘I am the last of my family so I made my husband change his name to mine’ was a total revelation for me as a child and I can probably attribute this one line (despite it being said by the villain) to my strong opinions on taking a husbands name. Here it’d probably be interesting to compare and contrast the dynamics of Cruella de Vil’s marriage to that of Pongo and Missis who ‘had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage but was still called Missis by most people’ – but I’m not the person to do that, I love this book too much to go too deep into any analysis. Lets just say that whatever the intention (and I think Dodie Smith is actually gently mocking sexist attitudes ‘Pongo and the Spaniel laughed in a very masculine way’ rather than deliberately propagating them) little-me took away a very feminist message from Cruella de Vil. Only once, in fact did the book really disappoint on this sort of ‘value-slippage’ front – the depiction of a gang of ‘gipsies’ trying to steal valuable dogs. It’s an episode I don’t remember from my childhood and that I’m going to try to forget about again now, thankfully it only takes up a page or two and the rest of the book is lovely.
Pretty much everyone must know the basic storyline by now – Pongo and Missis’ fifteen puppies are stolen. While the humans are baffled the dog community of Great Britain gets to work, and though the Twilight Bark locate the puppies at Hell Hall – where Cruella de Vil plans to turn them into fur coats as soon as they get big enough. Pongo and Missis must adventure across England, braving bad weather, stone-throwing children, hunger, fire, and being captured by the police, to reach and rescue their puppies, assisted by a string of helpful canines who help them evade capture. A lot more happens than in either Disney version (though there are thankfully considerably less raccoons) and I was surprised by how many of the events on Pongo and Missis journey to the puppies I had forgotten.
My favourite bit, of course, is the idea of dogs having a human-like society and the cameos of all the different breeds of dogs and the different personalities and class backgrounds they’ve been given from the dedicated and hard-working Great Dane to the kindly old upper class Spaniel, the smart, military, sheepdog, the ‘feather brained as well as feather tailed‘ Irish Setter (my cousins used to own these and they really are feather brained), and most of all the Staffie terrier who gets no greater joy than cannonballing into people’s chests. As a dog person there is very very little about this book that I don’t love – and the gorgeous illustrations in this copy of all the different breeds involved in the Twilight Bark is just the icing on the cake.
A lovely, lovely, children’s classic that was just the sort of warm fuzzy nostalgia I needed right. The intelligence and warmth of the narration also makes it a book that parents will probably enjoy reading to their child and can get some humour out of themselves.
A quick word of warning though – the sequel, The Starlight Barking, is very, veeeeeery different. It’s certainly an ‘interesting’ read, but The Hundred and One Dalmatians may well read better as a standalone and I wouldn’t recommend one just because you liked the other. (less)
A History of the World in 100 Objects started life as a radio programme by the BBC (podcasts still available to download for free here) in whic...more 5 Stars
A History of the World in 100 Objects started life as a radio programme by the BBC (podcasts still available to download for free here) in which the director of the British Museum used 100 very varied objects from the museum’s collections to emphasise key points and ideas throughout human history. Although I didn’t listen to it at the time (I have now dowloaded the podcasts), as a history student with an interest in archaeology and museum’s I was aware of it, so a few years later when I saw this beautiful blue copy of the book sitting on the ‘buy one get one half-price’ table in Waterstone’s it was impossible to resist. I had intended, like several people I know through my museum volunteering, to read just one entry a day and work myself slowly through it, but instantly found myself enjoying it so much that I was devouring whole blocks of the book at a time and having to force myself to stop and save some for later.
The objects are arranged in roughly chronological order and arranged in blocks of five by theme (so for example we have ‘The First Cities and States’, ‘The Beginnings of Science and Literature’ ‘Pilgrims, Raiders and Traders’). Each object has its own short chapter of about 5 or 6 pages explaining what it is, how and who made it, and what it’s historical and cultural significance is, all headed by a small but high quality black and white photograph of the object, making it a very accessible read even for those who might normally feel daunted by non-fiction and an easy book to dip in and out of at leisure (no footnotes here and everything explained simply yet intelligently). Unfortunately it would make the book far too expensive to include large, coloured, photographs of each object, which is a bit disapointig – though it does have high-quality coloured inserts for about 30 of them. However, being based on a BBC radio series, supplementary coloured (and zoomable!) photos, often from a variety of angles are available online – a discovery that led to me reading the whole book with my laptop at my side, frequently pausing to zoom in and study the objects in more detail. If you’re unaware of that resource though – and it isn’t obviously advertised in the book itself – the size of some of the pictures, particularly for those objects with lots of intricate details, could be quite frustrating. Overall though, and for the price market it’s aiming at, this is an absolutely beautifully put together and classy lookong book that should be very possible to enjoy even without using these internet resources.
It isn’t a history such as conventional history books might tell either. It’s not, predominantly, about ‘big events and famous people’ (though a few certainly do appear) but about the development of humanity and the development of ideas – writing, trade, religion, attitudes. The objects are there not just because they’re beautifully crafted or fascinating in their own right, but to provide snapshots of the time and place they were created in. They range from high status objects made for kings and rulers to fragments of broken pottery and navigational tools – each telling a little about the world it came from. Some of these we now a lot about down to the owner of the object itself or even the exact date it was made, in other cases the objects are the only material evidence left through which to draw conclusions about the people who made them. This object-based method is one of my favourite ways of looking at history or trying to understand other cultures and one that museums are absolutely great for. I learnt a ridiculous amount of ‘useless’ but totally fascinating facts from this book and have to admit to showing them off a bit whenever I can fit them into conversation.
And onto critique. By its very nature it’s a history of the world framed from a western (specifically a British) perspective. However, aknowledging that, it does a lot to include objects from a variety of cultures across almost the whole globe, to put the emphasis on a multitude of cultures both still existing and those long destroyed, and to admit to the limitations of its method in providing a ‘complete history’. I was very impressed right from the introduction, which discussed the flaws and problems inherent in picking out just 100 objects to illustrate the whole of human history, and went on to emphasise the importance of objects in understanding other cultures rather than relying on second-hand accounts from those who colonised or destroyed them. Unlike the other ‘History of the World’ book I read recently this one actually does read like a history of the world and not a ‘history of Europe with occasional interludes to other places’. The introduction is correct though when it says it’s impossible to represent everyone in just 100 objects – the absence of Jewish objects is certainly noticeable (with the exception of a Hebrew astrolabe included to show medieval communication between Christians, Jews, and Muslims) in a book which has several objects from the development of every other major world religion, as is the absence of Innuit or Yupik objects when most other areas of the globe are covered. You can’t fit in everything in just 100 objects, but something from one of the most inhospitable areas that humanity has managed to live in and adapt to would have been nice.
Then there’s the uncomfortable question of provenance that a reader can’t help but raising, even if the book tends to downplay it – why does the British Museum have all these wonderful objects? Shouldn’t they be given back to Greece/Egypt/South America etc. when they were acquired in such questionable and often violent ways*. The ownership is far from clear-cut for several of the most stunning items in this book. They make for fascinating history of course, and the book would be a poorer history of the world without them – the circumstances they were acquired in is as much part of that history as the circumstances they were created in and it’s impossible to escape the colonial narrative that parallels the global one - but it’s something you can’t help but be aware of and made to feel slightly uncomfortable about when reading some of the entries. A lot of the chapters, I have to emphasise, are for objects freely given or fairly paid for, not every foreign object in a museum has been seized unfairly, but some of the British Museum’s most famous objects certainly have been and I don’t find their arguments for keeping many of them particularly convincing.
Overall though I think it’s an absolutely wonderful book and one totally deserving of five stars. Probably one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. I would happily recommend to anyone with an interest in history, archaeology or anthropology. I’m not so sure on some of the objects picked for the ‘modern’ chapters (I would have liked to see a modern reliable contraceptive on there or at least mentioned) but for the for the 95+ historical objects I was absolutely hooked. It’s a very accessible read but there is a hell of a lot of fascinating information packed into each short chapter and it’s a book that definitely warrants dipping back into at a later date. I was very impressed with the range of objects, learnt a lot of new facts, gained much more of an understanding about periods of history or cultures that I knew shamefully little about before, and have a whole host of new objects to look out for next time I’m in the British Museum – which hopefully won’t be too far away if the trainlines could just stop flooding for a few days!
* Not particularly relevent to the book but one of the most telling labels I’ve ever seen in a museum was in one of the ones I volunteer at, an anthropology museum that prides itself on preserving, where possible, the original Victorian labels. After identifying the object (I think it was a toy or charm of some sort) it simply read 'taken from a child in Africa’.(less)
Eeeee! (That’s my excited noise) How could I not pick up a book with a title that awesome? It’s been on my wishlist since it was first drawn t...more 5 stars!
Eeeee! (That’s my excited noise) How could I not pick up a book with a title that awesome? It’s been on my wishlist since it was first drawn to my attention, so naturally as soon as I spotted a copy in the bookshop I just had to buy it. And I am so, so, glad I did, and that I’m such a shallow reader easily swayed by a pretty cover and a wonderful title, because boy did this book live up to both! I do get the feeling that it’s probably one of those books that you either love or you feel distinctly ‘meh’ about, but for me it really worked. I found it a lovely, charming, clever little fairytale and a perfect book to wrap up my summer-holiday children’s book binge.
I haven’t read anything by Valente before but she’s definitely going on my list of authors to check out (in fact I’ve already ordered myself a couple of her earlier books). The writing, which so easily could have felt forced, overblown, or patronising, was just beautiful. It’s almost a book to be read aloud – and I would definitely recommend it as a bedtime-story read for children. The omniscient third person narrator frequently interrupts the story to explain, to reflect, to apologise, and to almost have a conversation with the reader. It’s a style that is so so hard to get right and that I’m always a bit sceptical of but is just pulled off to perfection here. And the ideas… Valente has one hell of an imagination. I absolutely loved her vision of Fairyland; it’s just brimming with original and unusual characters. Where it possibly falls down if you’re not immediately enamoured with the beautiful prose is that it’s slow to get to the point. For a little while after September steps out of her window and runs away to Fairyland things are a little confused, without any clearly defined plot beyond stumbling blindly around the strange setting. But the initial, seemingly random, encounters do in fact lead into a bigger story, and a pretty good one at that; with magic spoons, despotic dictators, and herds of wild bicycles. You’ve just got to be a bit patient before it unfolds.
If I had to compare this with other books it’s a little like a modern Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz. A young girl gets sent to a strange land where she meets many strange and non-human people and has many strange adventures. It’s a million times better written and more interesting than The Wizard of Oz though and has a million times more of an overarching plot tying it together than Alice in Wonderland (no disrespect to Alice which is a great book too). The character of September also feels a more fully fleshed out lead than either of those leads. She’s not too saccharine and sweet or unbearably precocious but there is something rather special about her never the less. She’s a practical, smart, determined girl who takes charge of her own adventures. She also isn’t remotely close to ‘perfect’ but grows and changes over the course of the story. Initially ‘somewhat heatless’ (all children start off heartless but grow hearts at different rates as they grow up) she originally doesn’t think twice about not explaining or saying goodbye to her parents but she does feel the niggling guilt throughout the story and by the end of the book she seems to have a very big heart indeed. But although she’s grown as a person this isn’t done through any of the usual sickening lectures or ‘special lessons’, just natural gradual character progression and reaction to the world about her. Despite the big fairy tale themes of friendship and love and bravery, this book never even comes close to ‘preachy’. And although September’s not quite like any twelve-year-old I know she feels real as a character (note: I know very few twelve-year-olds).
My favourite character though would have to be Ell or, to give him his proper name, A-Through-L the Wyverary. An adorably friendly and knowledgable (on any subject starting with A-L at least) Wyvern who claims to be half-library. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding him my favourite but he’s just such a wonderful creation and an absolute sweetheart.
It’s a very odd, rather whimsical, little book; one I’m not sure what I would have made of as a child but one I absolutely adore as a twenty-four-year-old. It’s definitely a children’s book, no doubt about that, but I do think it contains something for pretty much any age group. I wouldn’t have appreciated the narrator’s humour quite so much or picked up as much on some of the themes or references when I was younger, and I’ll probably pick up more on a few others if I’m ever a parent. It’s a book that can be enjoyed, I think, on many different levels.
It was an absolute joy to read and a book I can definitely see myself coming back to and rereading during my ‘downs’. All that’s left to say really is bring on book two in January. Can’t wait.(less)
Another five stars for Percy Jackson! Riordan really pulled it out of the bag for a gripping, action filled, and surprisingly emotional finale....more 5 stars
Another five stars for Percy Jackson! Riordan really pulled it out of the bag for a gripping, action filled, and surprisingly emotional finale.
The Last Olympian moved away from the standard Percy Jackson formula a lot: it’s not just Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and guest half-blood of the book – everybody is involved – and there’s no ‘road trip’ element either. Everything is firmly set and grounded in New York, the site where the final battle between Titans and demigods will take place. After four books of fun, but slightly formulaic adventures this was a breath of fresh air and just what the series needed to end on a high note – it genuinely felt epic, high-stakes, and exciting – a proper all out battle, not just Percy and his friends upsetting things. As one character says it’s like the Trojan War all over again and in a lot of ways it is – complete with the devastating feud of Achiles and Agamemnon(this time between the Ares and Apollo camp cabins).
As I said everyone who has ever been given a namecheck seems to play their part in this book; Beckendorf, Silena Beauregard, Clarisse, Travis and Connor Stoll etc. etc. And I was genuinely impressed with how much Riordan managed to make me care about some of their fates considering all but Clarisse had essentially been little more than ‘walk on’ parts before this book. It does make me a bit sad though to think how much more exciting and emotional this book would have been if Riordan had bothered to spend the time giving them proper personalities earlier on. Clarisse again excepted because Clarisse did have her day in the sun in Sea of Monsters and has always been the best fleshed out of the ‘less important’ half-bloods. She’s also a BAMF, a genuinely strong female character, and probably my favourite besides Tyson – and I loved loved loved seeing her odd friendship with the Aphrodite cabin leader. Why couldn’t we have seen more of those nice little camp dynamics earlier? I mean I honestly snorted when I first saw the blurb for this book ‘forty of my demigod friends‘ Percy’s only ever mentioned about five non-plot-crucial camper's names before this book! But credit where credit’s due, Riordan did a great job of making me interested in them in a very very short amount of time and as a result the final battle managed to pull at the emotional ‘oh shit who’s going to make it through?’ side of things as well as being a totally wonderful action sequence.
And what an action sequence. . . so much action in this book. Both Riordan and the Titan’s seem to have pulled out all the stops for this one sending in monster after monster after hordes of fucking monsters. I loved it. It’s certainly the most action packed of the book so far. It’s also the most grown up. I said in my last review that Percy’s narration was essentially the same at twelve as it is at fourteen. Now, at fifteen-sixteen, it still has exactly the same tone but there’s a maturity to it as well that wasn’t quite there before, nothing particularly tangible that I can pinpoint, but it’s there and the idea of him kissing girls no longer makes me feel weird. And the storytelling’s more mature too. Yes, the action scene is fantastic but there’s also an interesting underplot to examine Luke’s backstory and how and why he’s ended up where he is. It’s a little predictable and a lot of it seems information that could have been included in earlier books (though not quite Deathly Hallows level of final instalment info-dumping) but it does deepen the Percy Jackson world and mythology just that little bit more and makes this book that little bit more than just a 300+ page action-scene. It also sets everything up pretty neatly after the conclusion of this series for a final prophecy to kickstart the next.
I read this whole book with a massive grin on my face almost the entire time. A very fitting end to a great series of books. I will now be paying the cute guy who runs the children’s section in Waterstones a visit veeeery soon to buy the first two of Riordan’s follow-on Heroes of Olympus series.(less)
Eeeeee! Love, love, love. And just the sort of read I needed right now. Doubts about whether I’m just a bit too old to get the full enjoyment...more 5 stars
Eeeeee! Love, love, love. And just the sort of read I needed right now. Doubts about whether I’m just a bit too old to get the full enjoyment from these books officially over. I think I might even like this one more than Sea of Monsters and I am definitely, definitely, looking forward to seeing how the final confrontation will go down in the next book.
Battle of the Labyrinth answered (or at least addressed) a lot of my little niggles about the series – we saw adult half-bloods, Percy had his ‘my family are the good guys because they’re my family’ mentality questioned, the differences and distances between mortals and half-bloods was explored, Percy acknowledged that he didn’t really bother to interact with many other half-bloods, and I finally learnt how Riordan reconciled the idea of Athena as a virgin goddess with her having a whole host of half-mortal children (and loved the implication that my childhood-favourite hero, Odysseus, was full mortal). All this while giving me a massive dose of Tyson (Tyson!), a gigantic friendly hellhound (doggy!) and using a lot of the most overlooked, ignored, and least known aspects of Greek mythology. It had Empusas! And… well, lots of others that I don’t want to list because it was such fun running into them when I wasn’t expecting it.
Battle of the Labyrinth also, finally, gives the Percy Jackson series its ‘Voldemort in a cauldron’ moment – from this book onwards shit gets real. It almost seems a bit late for it in the penultimate book of the series, and I do hope The Last Olympian doesn’t feel rushed as a result, but I can’t wait to see how it wraps up. It certainly made this book feel more ‘fate of the world’ than the series has managed for me before – there are monsters in numbers and powers that even Percy and Annabeth can’t beat on their own so it really is starting to feel like a proper war – two sides against each other – rather than a couple of kids and their whacky Greek rogues gallery.
I should probably also mention that, at fourteen, Percy and Annabeth are growing up and hitting puberty. Percy’s narrative voice doesn’t really seem to change though, it sounds the same in Battle of the Labyrinth as it did in Lightning Thief when he was twelve. He just finds girls, and Annabeth in particular, a lot more difficult to understand – and to be honest I can’t say I blame him, Annabeth acts like a total brat in this book whenever he even talks with another girl. The series has obviously been heading for an Annabeth/Percy pairing right from the start of course, but I really hope she does some growing up and gets given a chance to shine properly in the last book – this book was meant to be her quest after all, but you wouldn’t know it from how it actually went down – rather than simply being relegated to ‘clever female love interest’.
To be honest, this series is never going to be up there with Harry Potter for me – the characters simply aren’t developed enough for me to immerse myself in it in the same way and it still feels a bit like a series of random encounters- but for what it is (an action packed adventure stuffed full of geeky mythological references) it’s absolutely wonderful and I love it to pieces. Will be cracking open the final book straight away and almost certainly buying myself a complete set for rereading purposes in the near future.(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)
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)
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)
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)
Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively the...more 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, a 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. 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 though 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)