So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And f...more 5 stars
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And fuck me, if I don’t completely love it. Favourite book of 2012 by a huge margin. I can’t remember what made me pick this book up in the shop – probably the gorgeous cover and the fact the pages are edged in the same blue as the cover design (I’m a sucker for a pretty book) – but I am really glad I did. This is the reason I persist on ‘wasting my money’ impulse buying interesting looking books that I’ve never even heard of before; you might pick up a few duds but occasionally you stumble across something glorious that you’d never have been led to otherwise.
And now I’m left in the awkward position of trying to write a review for a book I totally adored. I’ve heard other people saying reviewing books you loved is harder than books you hated and I never really believed them – but it is. Whilst I loved this book it probably isn’t for everybody – in fact I’m sure it isn’t. And I know from experience that the quickest way you can get someone to dislike a book and notice its flaws is to build up their expectations by raving about it before they’ve read it… Oh welll…here goes…
We, The Drowned is a hard book to describe; at the surface level it’s just ‘the lives and adventures of the inhabitants of a Danish port town over a hundred years’ but that’s not really what it’s about. I tried describing it to my dad as ‘a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the magical realism and about sailors instead of a gigantic Latin American family’ but that description strips One Hundred Years of Solitude of its key features and does both books a disservice. Both are brilliant books, both deal with the history of a place by telling the story of the people who lived there over multiple generations – but apart from that they’re completely different beasts and liking/hating one will not mean you have the same opinions about the other.
So I’ll try again… We, the Drowned is a massive book, 690 pages spanning 100 years and 3/4 (depending on your opinion of Klara) central characters. I agree with another reviewer that the story, though divided into four parts actually feels more like three different books that run into each other:
The first part was all about Laurids Madsen the man ‘who went up to heaven and came down thanks to his boots’, who starts off as a daredevil prankster but comes back from war with Germany with what would now be diagnosed as post traumatic stress. And it’s no wonder; the violence in the book is brutal and him and his companions are sailors, not soldiers. Combat on a sailing ship isn’t the bloodless carnage of something like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s bloody and nasty; people soil themselves and go down screaming and sobbing like children, if someone gets a cannon shot to the head they don’t comically pick their skull back up and get on, their whole face is blown off. If they’re really unlucky they’ll survive it and go home to a family that doesn’t recognise them and doesn’t want to because it would mean acknowledging the person they loved before the war no longer exists. I haven’t read much stuff set on sailing ships beyond the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, but the battle seemed very real to me. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with description and purple prose but I could vividly see and imagine the whole thing. That said, I don’t know how well it measures up to a Hornblower or Master and Commander I’ll add them to my reading list.
Since it’s on the blurb it’s no spoiler to say that Laurids leaves Marstal soon afterwards, and the majority of this part is about his son Albert growing up without him and his later quest to find his father as soon as he’s old enough to go to sea. It’s old-fashioned adventure on the high seas stuff – shrunken heads, murders, cannibals, pearls, pokey little bars, brutal first mates, and ineffectual captains. But between the sailing and adventure there’s Marstal. Marstal is as much of a character as any of the central characters, maybe even more, not only does it ground all the characters into some sort of context but it grows and changes throughout the novel. In a stroke of genius all the Marstal scenes, or scenes where there are a lot of Marstalers present are told in the first person plural ‘we’. This ‘we’ is never acknowledged as a named character, there is no one narrator, but is the collective consciousness of the town itself: for Lauids this ‘we’ was the Marstal sailors who had been recruited for war alongside him, for Albert it is his peers, the Marstal schoolboys. I’ll admit it confused me at first but I grew to love it very quickly, it created a sort of understanding of the town and its people and a sense of inclusion that third person would simply have been too impersonal to portray. Without it the Marstal bits might have seemed like the ‘boring’ parts between adventures but, if anything, I almost came to love them more by the end of the book.
Which is good because the next portion of the book is entirely set there. After the Treasure Island-like adventures of his youth the book skips straight on to Albert as an old man living in Marstal. Although told in the ‘we’ it is really from Albert’s eyes that we see the approach and then the horrors of World War I and the effect it has on the town. And it’s chilling. As a history student, it’s embarrassing to admit but I’d never really looked at WWI from the standpoint of a neutral country and, though I’ve been taught over and over again about the horrors of the trenches, somehow no one ever mentions the war at sea and the sinking of ships. Here the trenches are absent, the suffering of the front lines barely noted, even the losses at sea are distant from the lives of people on the land – life goes on as normal. But, through Albert, we hear about the Marstal ships being shot down and sunk by players in a war they were not even part of. It’s a beautiful and depressing portrayal of war and the effect it has on people and places. As well as the war this part of the book is about growing old – the age of sail is all but dead and the world Albert knew has changed almost beyond recognition. Watching Albert come to grips with this, and the ways in which he deals with his lessening importance within the town is just as powerful, in its way, as the depiction of the distant war.
The third part takes us back to the sea with Knud Erik, a fatherless boy Albert mentored as a child, and his mother Klara. Knud Erik wants nothing more than to be a sailor like both Albert and his father. Klara, meanwhile hates the sea for taking her husband, and so many others, and leaving the women of Marstal in a constant state of grief and uncertainty. She’s the first major female character in the book, and I could take a lot of issues with her but, though she claims to speak for ‘the women’, in the end she’s just about well enough developed that she’s only really speaking for herself, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. I’m still not sure what I think of her, I certainly understand her, and I appreciate her growing into a strong woman who doesn’t use sex as a tool buuut…well, there’s just something not entirely likable about her. Despite the tension it causes, Knud Erik, does of course become a sailor. First sailing on sailing ships as a teenager; having adventures reminiscent of his mentor Albert’s – cruel first mates, vicious storms, murder at sea, icebergs. Then, once the age of the sailing ship is truly over, on steam and then mechanical ships, serving on the allied merchant convoys of World War II.
This again was an entirely different perspective on the War than anything I’d ever read about it before. What the ships docked in London did during air raids is something I’d never really thought about. Nor the horrors of the ‘keep going, don’t stop to rescue anyone’ order given to convoys when one of their number got struck by a u-boat. It gave me a new appreciation for the men who risked their lives, without lifting weapons, to help in the war effort.
All in all a brilliant book – I haven’t mentioned half of the bits I would want to talk about for fear of spoilers. It’s bleak and depressing and certainly not for everyone, but I loved it. Some bits were predictable – I knew what would happen to Karo the moment he appeared, same with the ‘free men’ in the hold and several other characters, but it didn’t seem ‘predictable’ so much as ‘inevitable, given how the characters around them are sketched’ and, instead of rolling my eyes when it happened I was gripped and unable to tear myself away from my book as I watching the build up and then the fall out. Other bits weren’t so predictable; the first ‘romance’ especially left me reeling with an ‘I should have expected that but I really didn't’.
It had its flaws of course – sometimes characters we’d been introduced to reappeared in unlikely places – but nothing too unforgivable. There wasn’t much chance for female characters to shine and the one that did appear as a sailor late in the book I was unconvinced by, but I think that’s the nature of the setting – women weren’t given chances to shine. The adventures were, for the most part, gripping and the Marstal parts were beautiful and really gave a sense of the community there beyond just the main few characters – it wasn’t just ‘main character, his immediate family, and some other people to bulk up the population count’ who lived there – the town was a living breathing character in itself. The use of ‘we’ for the parts set in Marstal worked incredibly well, and wasn’t something I’d really seen done before. The perspectives through which both World War I and II were told were unusual but even more powerful for that.
All in all I just kinda loved it and will be on the lookout for anything else written by Carsten Jensen from now on.(less)
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking...more5 stars
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking what to say about this one. It really is true that positive reviews are harder to write than negative ones. Add to this that this is a very complex novel – touching on themes of slavery, fascism, racism, capitalism, exploitation, class conflict, the european arms race, economics, trade unions, human experimentation, the ‘civilising’ mission, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, Nazi theories of ‘Lebensraum’ and a hell of a lot more – plus the unconventional way it’s written and, well…there’s either too much to say or too little. There’s simply so much stuff I feel I should be better informed on before I could possibly talk about. And then the blurb goes and tells me that it’s an allegory for 1930s Czech politics in and I start feeling even more inadequate in my ability to comment!
Since I don’t feel qualified to talk deeply about the historical specifics I’m going to try to go for the more general approach. Although that extra knowledge and context would have been nice you really don’t need it to understand and appreciate the novel in itself. The themes, although tailored to reflect the political situation of the 30s are sadly still all too relevant and relatable today. And even with only the broadest and most basic knowledge of its historical context it’s very understandable as an allegorical satire of Europe’s own brutal history of oppression, from the slave trade (where the wild newts are beaten senseless, kept in slimy oil slicked tanks, and those that survive the journey sold for extortionate prices) right up to Nazi expansionism (where the newts have propagated so much that they start demanding their territories be expanded into human lands to provide space for them all). It could so easily have come off heavy-handed and trite but the way Čapek handles it, blaming neither side exclusively but criticising both and explaining the political and economic reasons such things came to be with incredible dark humour, stops the book from feeling remotely ‘preachy’. It’s a book that made me think, that absolutely horrified and appalled me in places, but was so spot on with its analysis and caricatures of human nature that you just had to laugh – even as you saw the ‘war with the newts’ becoming ever more inevitable.
It’s a heavy going book, not only in the themes but in the very writing style. It’s one of those books that’s more about ideas than characters and as such there is really no single protagonist. Captain van Toch – who uses frequent racial, national, and anti-Semite slurs but is utterly devoted to the welfare of his newts – is used as the primary character in the first ‘book’ to introduce us to the context of the newts – the size of a child, vaguely humanoid, incredibly intelligent and able to work tools, develop complex skills, and even learn human speech. After that though, as knowledge of the newts becomes widespread and humanity turns to exploiting their abilities for slave labour, the closest thing the novel has to a ‘protagonist’ is a minor character who collects any and all newspaper clippings he can find about the newts. The majority rest of the book up until the final chapters is written almost more as a history textbook than a novel, drawing on these clippings as primary sources to illustrate its points. Far from finding this dull (as I sometimes do when other books try similar things) this was my absolute favourite section of the story, I loved reading all the different newspaper articles Čapek had come up with to illustrate the different attitudes towards the newts in various times and places. Some were funny – Indians demanding lifesaving newts leave for touching members of the higher castes, others were horrific – the report from a scientific conference where the experiments on newts were outlined but none felt unnecessary and they all contributed to making the premise feel fleshed out and ‘realistic’ – and to show the unfolding path both humans and newts both took to get to the war of the title. The formating was occasionally a little irritating – several articles were multiple pages long but because they were all in the footnotes you had to flick back afterwards to find where you had left off the main text – but the writing was so solid I could totally forgive it that. What really got me though was the last chapter ‘The Author talks with himself‘ where Čapek breaks the fourth wall to have an argument with himself about if and how the final war could have been avoided. It’s a powerful chapter on its own even if you ignore the context it was written in and the impending Nazi threat to his own country.
I really wish Penguin had deigned to provide an introduction or afterword for this novel, there’s so much in here that could be discussed and contextualised that the non-inclusion of one really is a massive oversight (which their online reading notes don’t really make up for). The extent of my own (and I suspect a lot of British readers) knowledge of Czech politics in this period is only the very very broad context for the Nazi takeover given at GCSE and A level lessons but just Googling and Wikipedia-ing the author’s name brought up so much that would really have been relevant. Far from just being a science/speculative-fiction author and the inventor of the word ‘robot’, Čapek was very involved in Czech politics, an outspoken critic of fascism and number two on the Nazi’s list of ‘public enemies’ in the country. In a book where one of the main themes is an allegory of the lead up to World War II (though Čapek died before it came to that) it seems kind of astounding that a publisher like Penguin, well-known for providing insightful scholarly introductions, didn’t bother to include one here.
Probably not a book that is universally approachable or has ‘mass appeal’, it quite possibly it requires an interest in modern European history (with some of his depictions of the war against the newts it’s almost astounding to hear that he died before WWII ever commenced). I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want anything too heavy going – but it’s made it onto my list of absolute favourites and I will be tracking down any more Čapek that I can and checking out the rest of Penguin’s ‘Central European Classics’ (something I planned to do anyway since I’ve had such success with translated fiction in the last few years). Love, love, love.(less)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable a...moreCrossposted/edited from my blog
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable analysing it.This makes me a bit of an uncultured idiot when it comes to trying to write a review, but I’m going to do my best. When I do read poetry – and I’m trying to do so more – my preference also lies very heavily towards old-fashioned narrative and epic poems that tell an interesting story. Since I find the King Arthur legend (or legends) one of the most interesting stories there are, buying this book when I spotted it in the shop was a complete no-brainer. I don’t know what a serious poetry fan or scholar would make of it but as a piece of Arthurian literature – especially as a piece of medieval and British Arthurian literature – I found it to be an unpolished gem of a book.
The Death of King Arthur tells the story, with no magical frills or whistles, of Arthur’s last invasion of Europe and his return home to face – and eventually die at the hand of – the treacherous Sir Mordred. It’s a familiar story to almost everyone who’s read even a single children’s ‘life of King Arthur’ type book. What makes this version different, however, is that it does not follow the French Romantic tradition of having Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery as the cause of Arthur’s downfall – in fact there’s no mention of any affair between them and Lancelot gets only a walk on part – instead it’s pure politcs and territorial war that takes Arthur out of Britain and gives Mordred the chance to seize power. As someone who finds Lancelot a rather dull (dare I say ‘Mary-Sue’) character who gets too much exposure at the expense of other knights, I really welcomed this angle. Once the sword’s pulled out of the stone Arthur often seems to fade into a background character – here he’s no doubt the main character with both moments of incredible military skill and high emotion.
This ‘unromantic’ motivation also makes for an ‘unromantic’ poem that focusses not on the idea of courtly love and lofty ideas of ‘Albion’ but positively revels in the horror and brutality of medieval warfare. It’s gloriously unapologetically bloody and violent, to open a few pages purely at random gives me:
"Then good Sir Gawain on his grey steed gripped a great spear and speedily spiked him; through the guts and gore his weapon glided till the sharpened steel sliced into his heart."
"Then eagerly Arthur opened his enemy’s visor and buried the bright blade in his body to the handle and he squirmed as he died, skewered on the sword."
"leaving wounded warriors writhing in his wake; he hacked at the hardiest and hewed them at the neck, and all ran red wherever he rode,"
There are decapitations, guts spilling out of war wounds, people being impaled through the loins…you think of a nasty way to die and I can almost promise it’s there. Little-me would have loved this poem!
Alas, I’m no longer little-me and I do demand a bit more character development and deeper storytelling to go with my macabre enjoyment of gruesome descriptions. After a promising non-Lancelot focussed start, the middle section gave way almost to a list of who was killed by who in what vividly described way. Most named only appear once or twice and with the exception of Arthur and Gawain (and perhaps Kay if I’m feeling generous) it’s very hard to feel anything for the knights on either side of the battles. I have to confess to several times being confused as to who was fighting who and why. It’s no Odyssey (or even Aeneid) that you could write an essay just on the psychology of a sidecharacter, and for a long time during the middle section I feared I was going to have to give this three stars, but it redeemed itself. Once news of Mordred’s treachery (and the implication of Guinevere’s as well in this story) reaches Arthur things get back on track. It’s still more endless guts and blood but the motivation – and the cost – is both more familiar and more relatable. Even the battles seemed to have new life breathed into them with a wonderful description of naval warfare sticking out especially. And once one of Arthur’s favourite knights is slain on the battlefield there is, in my eyes at least, a beautifully powerful depiction not just grief on Arthur’s part but guilt and shame from the murderer as well. It’s a tantalising hint of the author’s ability at portraying emotions that is, sadly, a little too set aside in favour of bloodshed for most of the poem.
There are other glimpses prior to this – particularly in the second of the two prophetic dreams Arthur has (one of the very few ‘fantastical’ elements of the story) – where Arthur sees himself rise on the wheel of fortune only to be thrown off again. But it was his grief at seeing his friend’s body and the way he openly wept, threw himself on the corpse and had to be almost dragged away before his grief turned to anger and vengeance that struck me. That’s a more human and emotionally Arthur than I’m used to and it packed a punch that I wasn’t expecting after the rather scant emotional story of the rest of the poem.
The rest of it is solid stuff, for what it is. The various wars take up the majority of the poem but there is one traditionally Arthurian type of adventure near the beginning where Arthur pauses his warplans to rescue a kidnapped damsel from a monstrous ogre-like figure who cuts off the beards of the knights he kills and turns them into what I can only imagine is the sexiest patchwork gown imaginable. Apart from that though it’s (more) blood, guts and simplistic and unsympathetic ‘he was rude to me, so I’m going to kill him’ from then on. I enjoyed it, and I’m happy to admit to loving the blood and guts, but it wasn’t until the last section that I felt emotionally invested in the story.
As for its quality as a poem… I don’t know. I found it less well crafted than Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I found myself stumbling over the words and puzzling to make out the rhythm more often – but I also know I’ve been cursed with the worst sense of rhythm (and tone) imaginable and it’s probably perfectly simple for anyone with half an ounce of musical talent. I like this alliterative style of poetry though, it’s one I find very accessable. How much of the language and alliterative bits I liked (or didn’t) is down to the original author and how much Armitage I couldn’t say, and wouldn’t like to guess at. Another translation may well be better – I don’t know, but I did enjoy this one.(less)
It’s that time of year again; it’s summer, it’s sunny, and I have exams coming up – which means lying out on the lawn with a p...moreCrossposted from my blog
It’s that time of year again; it’s summer, it’s sunny, and I have exams coming up – which means lying out on the lawn with a pile of revision, a cold drink, and a Jeeves and Wooster book onside to de-stress between doses of Cold War politics. Add to that the company of my beautiful old dog, take away the revision, replace the non-alcholic drink with a pitcher of Pimms and it’s damn close to the perfect way to spend the summer. And as such I tend to think Stephen Fry is bang on when he says of Wodehouse; ‘You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour’. Damn bloody right. Thank You, Jeeves is probably not the best of the Jeeves and Wooster books and it certainly has it's flaws but it is still a hilariously funny, lighthearted, comedy of errors that deserves every one of the five stars up there for pure enjoyment factor but loses one, I'm afraid, because I'm just not comfortable with some of the attitudes that were considered 'ok' when this was written.
Bertie is, as ever, a charmingly clueless narrator – I confess I have something of a book-crush on old Bertie – with a wonderfully imaginative yet almost childishly simple mastery of the English language that conveys not just the story but a very stong sense of his own character - something that’s often strangely absent from first-person narration. I was having too much fun reading to make a note of all the brilliant phrases, metaphors and similes that made me laugh out loud but there’s one on almost every page. Just opening the book at random gives me ‘He made a noise like a pig swallowing half a cabbage, but refused to commit himself further’ and there are many more and better descriptions in there too if I were to try and hunt them down. The quality of the plot almost doesn’t matter when the writing is this good.
But the plot in fact is fairly stong. Although I could see almost each twist coming up as I approached it was with gleeful anticipation rather than bored ‘knew that was going to happen’-ness. It’s no spoiler to say that it follows the formula of every other Jeeves and Wooster story ever; Bertie inadvertently gets into an awkward situation, which through a series of misunderstandings and ill-conceived attempts to remedy then escalates even further until, just as everything is about to go really bad, Jeeves rescues him with some fiendishly simple plan. It’s a good formula and I was very glad to see that it managed to hold up pretty well when stretched to fill a whole novel – my previous Jeeves experience being just the first three volumes of short story collections. I doubt it’s the best of the Jeeves and Wooster series, but it’s not bad either, especially as a first try.
The one warning I would give is that it is incredibly politically incorrect and racially problematic in places – a lot of the story revolves around Bertie, in blackface, trying to find some way to get the boot-polish off and being constantly foiled. There’s also some casual use of the ‘n-word’ as an perfectly acceptable everyday description. If you keep in mind the time the story was written and the context, it’s not as bad. Blackface minstrels (as far as I can tell there are no actual black characters) were a shamefully real thing, they did exist, and they were a part of the cultural backdrop of the period the Jeeves books are set in (in fact I'm ashamed to say they lasted until the 70s in the UK) – but it is definitely jarring to modern sensibilities and the situation even more cringe-inducing than it was for its intended audience. Nothing intentionally offensive, I hope, but unintentionally. . .very. I (a white girl) was able to half-overlook that and try to forget it to focus on the other wacky events, but I wouldn't blame anybody else at all if they weren't.
Apart from that one rather shocking aspect, it is a good book and, once I accepted ‘ok, different time period, different standards’, I got back to enjoying the situational comedy. Bertie is brilliant, Jeeves is as coolly clever as ever - though there isn't as uch interplay between them as in previous collections, and the side characters were of pretty high quality. I liked Pauline Stoker a lot more than many of the previous female characters in the short stories – I’m meant to, of course, but still - she had a bit of spirit going for her even if she was a bit silly on occasion. While Sir Roderick Glossop making a reappearance and refreshing the reader on his history with Bertie is always fun. The other side characters were a little bit samey-samey filling their designated roles of ‘old schoolfriend in love’, ‘disapproving father’, ‘annoying child’, but Jeeves and Wooster relies on these sort of stereotypes and repeated roles so, until they actually start feeling tired or ringing completely hollow, I’m not going to complain.
As I said, it's probably not the best Jeeves and Wooster – I’m currently collecting the next few novels and so hope to find out shortly – but damn enjoyable if you’re able to get over the different standards of the time. Just what I needed to help me get through revision. However, I’d strongly recommend starting with the first book, The Inimitable Jeeves, and working from there though rather than jumping in here at the first full length novel. It works perfectly well as a standalone book and further reading isn’t required but Bertie does occasionally reference past misadventures from the short stories in passing.(less)
Mwaha! After 24 years I finally managed to finish The Hobbit! And I enjoyed it a lot more than I though I would.
To explain my apprehensions a bit more: I tried to read The Hobbit many, many times in my childhood and each time utterly hated it and failed miserably. I think several of the very numerous creases and damage to the cover of my family’s copy may even have come from me hurling it away in disgust. What annoyed me most though, what really, annoyed me was always that it was a story I should have absolutely loved – all the plot ingredients were there; quests, dragons, dwarves, goblins, treasure, all that fantasy stuff I used to practically live and breathe – but I just simply couldn’t get over the fucking tone of the book. I felt patronised by the narrator, annoyed by the constant outbursts of song, and generally talked down to. In fact, when I was about five, I very stroppily insisted that my parents never tried to play the audiobook in the car ever again (it was a staple for long journeys at the time) because, although the bits with the trolls and the goblins and the dragon were great, I was fed up of hearing how ‘Bilbo Baggins wished he was back in his hobbit hole. Not for the last time!’ repeated every few minutes.
So, despite loving the basic plot and absolutely adoring Lord of the Rings, I'd never managed to finish The Hobbit and was very, very apprehensive about giving it another go – but all the same I really wanted to at least try before I went to see the film. And actually I’m really fucking glad that I did, cause read with adult eyes I actually really liked it (though I confess to still being annoyed by the songs).
As I’m sure everyone will know, The Hobbit tells the story of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and his many wonderful aventures after becoming reluctantly roped into helping the least-prepared band of dwarves ever reclaim their treasure from the dragon who ruined their homeland. It also (again as everyone knows) serves as a prequel of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, though is very different in tone. Written for a younger audience it’s more episodic in structure and fun in nature than its sprawling sequel. The quest to recover the dwarvish treasure serves as an overarching plot but, for the first half of the book at least, the journey to the Lonely Mountain where the dragon lives is made up of a series of random encounters and seemingly unrelated adventures. More than being a fun adventure story, however, there’s also a strong character arc (for Bilbo anyway) and a surprisingly mature finale. For a rather slim book there’s a hell of a lot happens and, save for the stupid songs, there’s almost never a dull moment. So although I hated it as a child I have to admit that it’s not at all hard to see why it is such a very beloved children’s classic.
The first part, where the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have to overcome obstacle after obstacle to reach the dragon’s lair is still probably my favourite – I’ve always been a sucker for ‘journey stories’ and all the really memorable incidents happen here, the trolls, the goblins, Gollum. But it’s also where the tone is at it’s most irritating – the ‘not for the last time!‘s are frequent (though thankfully not as frequent as I seemed to recall) and the Rivendell elves who sing the ‘O! tra-la-la-lally/here down in the valley!/ha ha!’ song deserve thirteen dwarven axes to the fucking head, but the Gollum episode alone makes up for that. Gollum is, quite simply, the absolute best thing about Middle Earth – full stop. I loves him, I loves him, I loves him.
The rest of the story never quite reaches the brilliance that is Riddles in the Dark where Gollum appears, but it’s still pretty damn good and, as the journey portion concludes and the company realise they actually have to face the dragon, Smaug, you begin to really see the influence that sagas and epic poetry had on Tolkien’s writing. At least one episode with Smaug is lifted almost directly from Beowulf (maybe more, I’m only partway through Beowulf at the moment) and the characters prove to be far more flawed and selfish than you normally find in the heroes of children’s books. It turns the fun romp through the forests and mountains of the first half into something more poignant and mature. I’m not entirely sure I would have got on with this section so well when I was younger – I was normally asleep by this point when we played the audiobook in the car and I probably wasn’t used to protagonists turning out to be dickish and random people who had only just been introduced doing important deeds that would normally be reserved for the heroes – but I liked it and it is, I think, one of the things that sets The Hobbit apart from similar children’s adventure stories.
And onto the downsides. Again, I found the songs and poems (with the exception of Gollum’s riddles) annoying, far too frequent, and mostly unneccessary. The last chapter alone had three songs in it – none of them needed. I guess there must be people out there who like them but I’m really not one. They were shorter than I remembered though, which was something at least. The amount of stuff per page ratio also meant that very few of the characters apart from Bilbo ever got that much focus or do much for themselves. The thirteen dwarves are, for the most part, completely interchangeable and there seems no reason for half of them to be there except to bulk up the numbers so that Bilbo can make the group a ‘lucky fourteen’. Thorin is the leader and a bit of a pompous dickwad, Kili and Fili are the youngest and therefore get all the shitty jobs, Balin is friendlier with Bilbo than most of the others and Bombur is constantly refered to and berated for being fat enough for two. And that’s literally all the character traits I can remember. I think Oin and Gloin light a candle at one point but I can’t remember them doing anything else even remotely useful. It’s the nature of this type of epic adventure storytelling of course to focus almost solely the main character (few of Odysseus’s sailors or Beowulf’s companions are even given names for example) but it does make them feel rather like dead weight a lot of the time. Combine that with the fact they’re also the most incompetent bunch of adventurers ever, constantly in need of rescuing and never managing even a single thing for themselves, and I feel rather sorry for the dwarves. They clearly didn’t know (or stop to consider) just what their quest actually entailed. They’re so clueless about their planned adventure that they pack musical instruments but no proper weapons! I can’t help but feel that Gandalf really should have given the poor things a better briefing.
Overall though a very enjoyable little book. The bits that annoyed me as a child still annoyed me as an adult though not to anything near the same extent. I do wish there had been a bit less singing and a bit more of certain characters in it, but I liked it all a hell of a lot more than I was expecting to. A pretty solid 4 stars.(less)
So, after reading a few stories in a row that didn’t quite ‘click’ with me I thought I’d pick up something nice, easy, and fun – and this prove...more 4 Stars
So, after reading a few stories in a row that didn’t quite ‘click’ with me I thought I’d pick up something nice, easy, and fun – and this proved to be exactly what I needed. Without spoiling the first book too much, The Sisters Grimm is a fractured fairy tale/fairy tale mash-up series following the adventures of Sabrina and Daphne Grimm as they solve fairy-tale crime and try to track down their abducted parents. If I’m honest, it’s not the best-written of series so far, but it’s very fun, the ideas are good, and as a sucker for reimagined fairy tales I’m kinda moving towards loving it. Enough that I’ve already put in a library reservation for the next book anyway.
The Unusual Suspects follows closely on the events of the first book, the gap between them being a mere three weeks, with Sabrina and Daphne just starting at the local school and beginning to settle into the weird world they’ve been thrown into. Or Daphne is settling in anyway, Sabrina, the primary protagonist, is really not. Already the less likable of the two sisters, Sabrina is actually a bit of a brat in this book, taking her initially understandable distrust of the fairytale ‘everafters’ to the point of outright bigotry. To be honest this didn’t bother me too much as I could understand, to an extent, where Sabrina’s character was coming from. Her development is obviously going to be a big theme throughout the series though as she learns to accept other people’s views, let them in emotionally, and stop thinking of herself as the sole person looking out for her younger sister. But for that to happen she has to start off pretty angry and closed off and for me, at least, Buckley managed to straddle the line with her character just about right, though she was occasionally annoying I never disliked her – but I can understand it being a potential stumbling block for other readers. Daphne, of course, is still wonderful and I love the easy way she trusts people and enjoys almost everything the story throws at her without questioning its total oddness, but then that’s eight-year-olds for you.
Now I said the writing wasn’t the best. For me it was particularly noticeable in the first portion of the book where there was a lot of info-dumping to bring readers up to speed with the setting and the events of the first book. Once that’s ploughed through though it’s actually fine. Though Buckley is definitely guilty of the trap, particularly common in busy settings such as schools, where the author only bothers to name those background characters who later turn out to be plot-important, meaning that a large portion of the ‘mystery’ turns out to be not so mysterious with the guilty parties pretty easy to identify by halfway through the book (imagine Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets if the only named student besides Harry, Ron and Hermione was Ginny, or a Poirot where nobody but the guilty character was given a name or description). But then again this is a story where you’re obviously meant to solve the mystery alongside or slightly ahead of the characters, where the focus is more on the ‘fairy-tale’ aspect than the ‘detective’, and which is written with a pretty young audience in mind. So for what it’s trying to do it works pretty satisfactorily with enough hints and not too many red-herrings that a younger reader shouldn’t feel the mystery beyond them and might even have a few ‘I knew it!’ moments without the characters themselves looking too stupid either.
I have to say I wasn’t as impressed with the standalone plot for this book as I was with the first book, The Fairy-Tale Detectives, it felt a bit lacklustre in comparison, but what I really enjoyed in this book was the character interactions. After not quite loving Puck as much as I think I was meant to in the first book (it felt a bit like the writer had wanted to use Peter Pan but then remembered that copyright is ridiculously muddy so just switched the name) I think he started to come into his own in this one. I’m probably not the target audience for his 'hilarious' burping, nose-picking, and whoopee cushion antics, but his enthusiasm for dodgeball and his stubborn insistence that he’s a villain won me over. He’s not as good as Daphne but I like him. Mr. Canis and Granny Relda I continue to absolutely love (more Canis, please!), and we began to see a bit more of other everafters and what their ‘everafter-ness’ meant for their family lives. The real hook to pick up the next in the series, however, lies with the developments in the overarching plot of finding and rescuing Sabrina and Daphne’s parents from the mysterious ‘Scarlet Hand’ and the cliffhanger of an ending. I wasn’t expecting so much movement so soon into the series, but am very eager to see where it leads.
A definite four star read and a series I would recommend to people with children if I actually knew any. Am very surprised it’s so hard to find in British book shops and libraries (I’ve had to order in the next from London as my local library service for the region doesn’t have anything beyond the first two books and I’ve only seen them once in a brick and mortar bookshops). Definitely deserves a bit more attention than it seems to be getting over here.(less)
My super-slow marathon of Percy Jackson continues and I have to say I’m still enjoying these books immensely. Might have to stop relying on the librar...moreMy super-slow marathon of Percy Jackson continues and I have to say I’m still enjoying these books immensely. Might have to stop relying on the library soon and buy myself a set of paperbacks for whenever I’m in the mood for a fun-filled Greek-mythology fix. If you didn’t like the first two books this one isn’t going to convince you, it’s very much more of the same – Percy and his friends battling Greek monsters and deities in modern-day America. But if you’ve enjoyed the series so far this is a pretty solid addition to it.
The Titan’s Curse gets off to probably the fastest start of the books so far, throwing Percy and the reader straight into the action, and from there the pace doesn’t really let up until the very end. Although it retreads a lot of familiar ground – somebody Percy cares about has been kidnapped by a baddie and must be rescued, Kronos and his servants are getting more bold and powerful etc. etc. – there’s enough different that it doesn’t feel like a cheap rehash. The main story is moving onwards, new characters (a whole host of them!), both good and bad are being introduced and the world is beginning to feel more fleshed out than just Percy, Annabeth and Grover. And with the introduction of Artemis and her followers on one side and the sinister ‘general’ on the other, the struggle between good and evil is finally starting to feel epic in proportion instead of a teenage strop blown out of proportion.
Personally I again found elements of the prophecy pretty predictable, it has to be said. I called which of the five was to die, and how it would play into the larger prophecy, pretty quickly. But again this didn’t really hamper my enjoyment of spotting all the different mythological sources and giggling at the inventive ways they were reinterpreted. I enjoyed the new characters and I particularly enjoyed watching Percy interact regularly with people beyond his immediate friends from the first two books. It’s nice to see that he isn’t the centre of the universe and that interesting things can happen to other people too!
And that’s pretty much all I really have to say on this one, I think. It’s another that I picked up as a light easy read while I was sitting by my granny’s bed in the hospital and, to be honest, I read it in a bit of a daze with so a lot of the little details kind of escape me now I try to think back. General impressions, however, were that it was a highly enjoyable read; the characters were still fun, the ideas still clever, and the juxtaposition of Ancient mythology in modern America still frequently hilarious. I’ll be needing more Tyson in future books though, Tyson is awesome.(less)
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is subtitled ‘A 21st Century Bestiary’ and that’s what it is; not a natural history book, not an encyclopedi...more 4 Stars
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is subtitled ‘A 21st Century Bestiary’ and that’s what it is; not a natural history book, not an encyclopedia of animals, a bestiary – an odd fusion of science and navel-gazing. While in a medieval bestiary real and mythological animals were used as symbols for human virtues or vices, in this book real animals are used as starting points to examine wider issues about how human’s relate to both the world and each other. So the Axolotl entry looks at the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Gonodactylus examines the scientific evolution of the eye, and so on. It’s a unique and very interesting approach, but one that doesn’t quite hit the mark in every entry. In the spirit of mimicking of medieval bestiaries the book has also been gorgeously designed; there’s gilding on the cover, a full-page illustration and illuminated capital letter for each animal that incorporates the major themes of the entry, and (best of all) marginalia. It is, quite simply, a beautiful book. And not only beautiful on the outside but unique on the inside.
So how did it miss the mark on some of its entries? Well, as admitted by Henderson himself in the introduction, some of the metaphors tying the animal to a wider issue are a little strained – such as the Venus Girdle entry where ‘I also want to make a case for these scintillating bodies of rainbow-light as an emblem of orgasmic beauty as a whole’ then flows into a discussion about scientist’s aversion to studying the orgasm and enjoyment factor in sex when looking at animal reproduction. Interesting as both Venus Girdles and human attitudes towards the orgasm are, it’s a pretty tenuous link at best. Another entry about crabs had a bizarre analogy to robots in it that left me blinking at the page waiting for it to explain. Other chapters seem a bit unevenly weighted, again acknowledged in the introduction (‘Some of the analogies and digressions I have followed have little to do with the animals themselves’). There were a few that moved on from the animal – which I’m going to admit was the main thing I was interested in – a little too quickly for my liking, leaving me going ‘wait! But I didn’t learn anything new yet!’.
In fact, I actually learnt a hell of a lot from this book. Did you know that a dolphin orgy is called a ‘wuzzle’? It’s the most adorable term for a gangbang I’ve ever heard. A moray eel has two sets of jaws. There are breeds of sharks called wobbegongs. Dolphins will play ball games using inflated pufferfish (dolphins are the dicks of the sea). And the Japanese macaque has a face that resembles George W. Bush (once it’s seen it cannot be unseen!).
Henderson is obviously passionate about animals, zoology, and conservationism, he writes in the first person about several of his own experiences with the animals he mentions. His writing style is easy to read and the science is (mostly) presented in a way that I could absorb and understand. I was disappointed to find, when doing a bit of research myself, that one American church he sites as believing Jesus co-existed with dinosaurs and pterosaurs is actually (probably) a parody – nobody on the internet seems to be able to tell 100% whether they’re real or not, so I guess it’s fair enough to mention them, but the omission that many believe it to be parody was either disingenuous or not well researched (that whole chapter was a bit odd actually). On the science, the animals, and his own contemplations though, he is a lot better.
A very interesting, and very unique, book. I found something to enjoy in every entry and it is presented absolutely beautifully. Not one to pick up if you’re just after the nitty-gritty science facts, or only want to hear about animals and don’t really care for the author’s tangents. But if you think the idea of a modern natural history text written and presented in the style of a medieval bestiary sounds pretty awesome it might be worth checking out.(less)
I'm never quite sure how to rate non-fiction. With fiction it's all about plot, character and writing style - all stuff I can have quite strong opinio...moreI'm never quite sure how to rate non-fiction. With fiction it's all about plot, character and writing style - all stuff I can have quite strong opinions. Despite being a history student, I'm never going to feel so strongly for a history book - instead I have to try and judge on how interesting and accurate I found it (something always made harder if it's your first read on a particular subject). Writing style, though quite crucial for mass-market books (academia can be as poorly written as it likes, apparently, as long as the ideas are new*), is something that also needs to be assessed as a far less important factor than I would for a novel - a compellingly written but totally inaccurate history book is in many ways worse than a horrifically written and inaccurate one.
With that in mind I haven't rated this fours stars because 'I really liked it', I might find history books fascinating but I rarely more than 'like' them. The rating comes from the fact it's a very good and apparently well researched introduction to the time period. It's a nice easy read that doesn't feel overly academic but still manages to fit a fuckton of information in. And, even better for a geek like me, it endnotes to the original sources and important secondary works pretty extensively - so if there's anything a reader wants to question there's normally a note in the back of the book directing them as to where the information came from. Now I didn't do this but just knowing I can always makes me feel a bit happier. Despite the gimmicky title it is a book that could be read purely for fun or used as a starting point for academic work.
But the gimmicky title...it's oddly both the books main strength and its main weakness. 'Time Traveller's Guide'...eugh. I'll admit it's what made me pick the book up in the shop and flip though it, I imagine it's what made many people pick the book up, but once you've read it it doesn't really feel like a very accurate title. The chapters may be entitled 'what to wear', 'where to stay', 'what to do' etc. etc. but it does not read as a guidebook.
I'm not sure I'd have enjoyed it if it had to be honest. What it was was a fascinating and detailed account of everyday medieval England - not the big events or the great men and women, the everyday stuff - what people ate, what they wore or owned, how different sections of society interacted with each other. Basically all the background stuff that everybody thinks they know about the middle ages (it was dirty and grim) turned around and put into a more human context. As Mortimer points out, how would a medieval peasant woman who works hard to keep herself and her house as pristine as possible react to such an accusation? People should be judged and understood by the time they're in, not by modern sensibilities.
Now I'm a big fan of 'but what was it like for ordinary people?' question, I probably don't ask it enough but I think it is important, especially in medieval history. When almost all the written sources come from the upper classes or the clergy and the sheer force of personality of the rulers can so easily overpower everything else, it is important to remember that the vast majority of people’s voices aren't being recorded to reach a modern audience. Mortimer doesn't quite redress that balance - I don't think anyone can with the sources available - but he does paint an interesting picture of everyday life based on facts, statistics, and anecdotes gathered from a lot of research, from which it takes only a little imagination to start thinking of the people from all classes who inhabited medieval England as complex people rather than medieval fantasy stereotypes.
The title is a gimmick, there's no point denying that, and if you pick up this book expecting a gimmicky 'guidebook' you might be disappointed. But on the other hand what you will be picking up is much better. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is a very interesting and accessible portrait of the place and period - something I think a lot of people are interested in but, sadly, doesn't often get taught much beyond year 9 or so (ages 13/14) until university**.
It's not perfect and it sometimes rather awkwardly straddles the gap between mass appeal and 'serious work', but it's definitely worth a read if you have even a passing interest in the period. The title might be gimmicky but the approach of 'living' the history and telling it in the present tense isn't.
And if medieval England isn't quite your thing the Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England has just come out in hardback.
*I've lost count of the times I've wanted to throw 'key texts' across the room for crimes against English.
**Or at least it didn't in my school. Hitler, Russia, British interwar politics, and a teeny bit of American boom and bust was all I got from GSCSE and A levels. (less)
Rivers of London (because I’m not American) is a series I have mixed feelings about. I got the first book as an impulse buy because of its beau...more4 Stars
Rivers of London (because I’m not American) is a series I have mixed feelings about. I got the first book as an impulse buy because of its beautiful cover (the UK editions are gorgeous) and spent a lovely day lying out in the park getting myself very sunburnt as I totally immersed myself in the story. I got home, book finished, and preordered the next two in the series straight away. In the over-a-year I’ve been waiting for this book to come out, however, the second in the series arrived and it was…well…no where near as good as the first book. In fact I barely liked the second book at all and was beginning to think that maybe I had been wrong about the series, maybe the first one wasn’t as good as I thought and maybe I only enjoyed it so much because it was the first book I read for fun after sorting my life out and seeking help for my depression. Thankfully, with the arrival of Whispers Under Ground, I can rest easy that the series is good after all, very good, and that Moon Over Soho was just a blip in an otherwise very promising urban fantasy series.
Whispers Under Ground is a bit heavier on the police procedural side than the previous offering. That’s probably not for everyone but after being seriously annoyed at how utterly unprofessional Peter was in Moon Over Soho I was really glad there was a return to basic standards of policing. Also returning is Lesley May, something I was delighted with. I like Lesley and I like her and Peter’s banter-filled relationship – though I actually do hope that they stay friend’s rather than eventually ending up together. If nothing else, Lesley also provides a check against Peter’s occasional bouts of idiocy. The multi-book ‘ethically challenged wizard’ subplot introduced in the last book carries on, but the main focus, as in the first book is solving the initial crime – a fatal stabbing on the Underground tracks.
It’s a more mundane crime, in almost every way, than those in the two previous books and the police work is more mundane as a result. Without so many chase scenes, magical threats, and general life threatening danger it felt like a slower book – but it actually rattles along at a fair pace, the whole story taking approximately a week from murder to solution; and it's a very easy book to just devour in one sitting. What we get instead of a magical menagerie of fucked up experiments is a surly half-fairy, magic pottery, and a lot of traipsing through underground railway lines, sewers, world war two bunkers, and secret passages. It’s hard to describe it in a way that sounds interesting but it really is.
Peter’s habit of explaining the history of all the London places he visits in the story still remains and, now that I’m more familiar with London myself, I can understand why some people find it irritating. For the most part I still find it interesting – I’m the sort of person who does like to know and work out the history of the place and actually my dad is very like Peter when it comes to this habit of explaining architecture and history, so I guess it’s something I’m used to. However the description of Baker Street tube station almost had me shouting ‘I know what fucking Baker Street looks like, everyone in the world has travelled the Bakerloo line!’. What also remains is Peter’s apparently teenage hormones, I’m probably being a bit unfair here and I’m sure Peter’s voice is quite an authentic and realistic one, but I still don’t particularly enjoy hearing him admire a female character’s bum. Buuuut, it’s much more understated than previously and he doesn’t do his thinking with his penis this time so I’m going to accept it and move on. For the most part I really enjoy Peter’s voice.
Back to proper policing also means back to character interactions with lots of other police officers, both familiar and new, and I am always delighted with how Aaronovitch gets the multi-cultural nature of London (as he should, being a Londoner and all). No all white cast here but a real mix of races and ethnicities and each character, mostly, treated as a person (if a not-yet developed one) rather than a walking stereotype (though Peter does often like to speak in stereotypes himself). There’s not much in the way of complex character development in this book, and I think Nightingale is woefully underused, but the character interactions are crisp, realistic, and often funny. Like most police procedurals it’s not so much about the character’s as the plot, and both that and the cast are pretty well put together and enjoyable.
It’s not a five-star book, it wasn’t amazing and I don’t think I’ll ever ‘love’ this book with the same passion that I do my favourites. But it’s a very enjoyable page-turner/summer read and one of only two current series that I rush out to buy the moment a new book is released in hardback.(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)
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never...more 4 stars
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never got round to picking up. Thankfully Goodreads came to my rescue again when one of my groups set it as their August group read and forced me to finally grab myself a copy and get reading. And I’m very glad they did because it’s the sort of book that’s right up my alley.
Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, runs into a mysterious woman dressed all in white wandering along the road at night on the very eve he is due to depart for a situation in the country. He helps her to escape from the men pursuing her and then tries his best to forget about it – despite the fact that she seems intimately familiar with the same family and country house he is about to take his position at, and that when he gets there he finds she bears and uncanny resemblance to his new pupil, Laura Fairlie. As Walter falls hopelessly in love with Laura and discovers her longstanding engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, the mystery of the ‘Woman in White’ and the words they exchanged that night begin to haunt him. Does she know some dreadful secret about Laura’s fiancé? Was he the one who sent his men to pursue her that night and why? Or is she really as she seems and just a poor escaped madwoman?
As a gothic epistolary novel, told through various character’s accounts, I really liked the structure of this book, as well as the different styles and voices of the various narrators. The justification given in the first chapter that ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness – with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect’ is interesting – and very telling of the fact that Collins was himself a lawyer. It certainly made me question the reliability and bias of the narrator’s and I enjoyed the little glimpses were a minor character uninvolved with the wider implications, such as the cook, housekeeper, took up the pen to narrate specific events. By using diary entries and statements and accounts written in hindsight by the characters Collins avoids the dreadful ‘as you already know…’ infodumping that characterises epistolary novels told exclusively though letter writing. There’s a definite purpose to the story and narration but you also can’t implicitly trust anything anyone says either and the narrator’s are frequently wrong or misguided in their analysis.
Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister, are the main narrators but quite possibly the least interesting. Walter is a fairly typical Victorian hero, while Marian is meant to be a ‘strong woman’ and for the most part is, but falls into that unpleasant habit of internalised misogyny that strong women written by men often seems to feel. I swear that after the 75thbillion time she said something along the lines of ‘but I’m only a woman’ or ‘I didn’t share the defects of my sex’ or ‘he thought me the most sensible woman he had met in a long time’ I was just about ready to slap her. Being female is not a defect! But then I remember just how easy it is to be made to feel this way – even today – when everything around you promotes the message that women aren’t as good as men. And then when I compare her with the fragile, constantly swooning, Laura I end up totally seeing why she thinks her ‘unfeminine’ behaviour is so remarkable. Even Walter seems to prefer Marian, who he treats as a respected equal, to his beloved Laura, who he treats like a particularly vulnerable and sensitive six year old. The best narration in the book, though, comes from the more unsympathetic characters; the hilariously uncaring and hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, the cold and haughty Mrs Catherick, and the jovial villain, Count Fosco.
It’s a long book, at over 600 pages, and it can drag a bit, but a lot happens. And a lot of it very melodramatic – women fall down in swoons at bad news and catch deadly fevers from wearing wet clothes while men plot elaborate murders, steal money from their wives, manipulate everybody around them, and go on random expeditions to Central America. It’s very much classic Victorian gothic, and a lot of the tropes and twists are no longer shocking but fairly predictable and almost cliché. In that way I found the first half of the book, which was all about the slow building of atmosphere and suspense, vastly superior to the second half where things seemed almost rushed into conclusions with a lot more resting solely on sheer coincidence and dumb luck than felt satisfactory – hence the 4 star rating rather than a 5. The conclusion of Count Fosco’s storyline in particular felt both totally predictable and completely out of nowhere - as if Collins had written himself into a corner in how to deal with him and simply jumped on the first idea of how to get out of it that popped into his head.
That said it’s an enjoyable read. The conclusions left me not quite loving it but I definitely liked it a lot and look forward to reading more of Collins’ work.(less)
I seem to be going on a bit of a supernatural binge recently; first Dracula, now this, and next it’ll probably be that werewolf book that’s been gathering dust on my shelves. If this isn’t your thing, sorry, I’ll be back to reviewing other genres again soon, I just need something easy but fun while I get through the last of my exams. And onto the book… I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting but what I got was a modern (if we can call something written in the 1980s and set in the 1850s modern) vampire novel that didn’t make me pull a face in disgust, roll my eyes, click my tongue, or hurl the book across the room. For that alone it should get at least four stars. Extra marks for being a damn good yarn and just the sort of book I was in the mood for. It’s not a perfect book but it left me with a happy ‘just what I needed right now’ afterglow.
The vampires are no Draculas – like almost all writers, Martin gives his own spin on the realities and fictions of vampire lore – but they are wonderfully dark, seductive, and chilling – with the emphasis where it should be; ‘dark’ and ‘chilling’. Simultaneously both more complex and far more simplistic than Dracula, these are the sort of vampires to run away from really really fast. But they’re not all the same either, there are distinct personalities among them that make them relatable, in their own way – no ‘all vampires are soulless and identical’ stereotyping to make it easier for humans to guiltlessly eliminate them. Although I wasn’t too keen on some of the changes Martin made to vampire lore – the physical differences between human and vampire anatomy for one – I did approve of the handling of the vampires personalities. Even the idea of whether a vampire could go ‘vegetarian’ if they wanted was floated in a way that didn’t make me rage too hard (which is an impressive feat) and some good mileage was gotten from the ‘are we really any different from humans who eat meat’ line. You can see the inspiration from Stoker there, of course – Dracula has his ‘brides’ (who are quite frankly pretty ineffective), the bad guy here has a whole mixed gender entourage, Dracula has Renfield, the vampires here have Sour Billy and Abner Marsh to do their bidding and assist their aims during the daylight hours. The details and mythology are changed but the ideas remain – and I thought the idea of having the vampires as pack creatures with an ‘alpha-vampire’ was a lovely, and very sinister development. People who can calmly command others to do horrific things are almost always more scary than those that do horrific things on their own (in fiction at least)
What really suckered me in though, as well as the refreshingly dark vampires, was the setting. New Orleans is one of the few places in the USA I really really want to visit and somehow it just seems the right place to dump vampires, and the slave-trading 1850s the perfect time period for it. It’s not just the vampires; the whole society of the place is rotten and festering and violent and ugly, hiding beneath a thin outward veneer of beauty. And the Fevre Dream herself is the same – beautiful and grand and hubristically opulent, it’s almost asking for the trouble it gets. As her journey downriver just gets worse and worse and the boat travels deeper and deeper into slave trading county towards New Orleans, the tension and foreboding atmosphere is almost palpable. And there’s a certain simple genius in the idea too – vampires on steamboats, travelling up and down the country able to stop off and kill at any point along the river, all the while living in complete luxury…it just fits somehow.
The one thing I had misgivings on after reading the blurb, some of Martin’s stylistic tendencies, didn’t actually bother me in the slightest. Yes, Martin does list everything that ends up on a character’s plate, but here it works far better than it does in A Song of Ice and Fire because his main character is an overweight glutton. He’s also brilliant and brave and stubborn, but he loves his food and it makes perfect sense for it to be mentioned so much in the third-person limited narration. And the clothes descriptions…thankfully few and far between, or at least it felt that way, mainly reserved for first impressions and significant outfits.
The characterisation is well, what you’d expect from a George R.R. Martin book really – pretty solid for the main characters, a bit simplistic for some of the side ones. I loved that the hero was a fat warty old(ish) guy. There aren’t enough ugly protagonists and I really loved Abner Marsh not just for that but for being a straightforward, slightly slow but not unintelligent, normal bloke. Joshua York I was less enamoured with, but he was more interesting than your standard vampire even if he came off a little cliché at times. Few of the other vampires were really given enough pagetime, Julian was a monster, but a suave one, Valerie was flighty and romantic, others you ot a general impression of, but there were a number of names that I’m not sure ever did get paired with personalities or faces. I would really liked to have seen a bit more of Jean and Catherine in particular as they both seemed interesting characters in their own right, but I understand the limits of the narration style and the character relationships didn’t allow for that. A good enough job was done in establishing the vampires as not all being of the same temperament and opinions that I can’t complain too hard that not all of them got intricate backstories. Sour Billy, though…he’s written to be hated; a nasty racist, sadistic, little shit of the highest degree, but to be honest I spent a lot of the book feeling pretty ambivalent towards him and seeing him more for his role in the story rather than taking his character too much to heart. Probably because his brand of violence is true to the setting and time period, I reserved almost all of my disgust for the concept and history of slavery and the real life people who abused and still abuse others they view as below them, rather than for Billy, who is only a fictional character. When he does horrific things to the black slaves, and non-slaves, I didn’t feel the surge of hatred towards Billy that I should; just shock and outage for the more minor characters and all the people who really went through that experience.
Now I realise I haven’t said much about the plot other than what can already be inferred from the blurb; that’s because it was surprisingly unpredictable, taking a couple of turns I hadn’t quite expected, and I don’t want to spoil anything. This makes saying what I didn’t like so much a bit problematic. I’ll just say that the rating reflects purely how much I enjoyed the book rather than how wonderfully well written, fully fleshed out and likely to become a classic it is. I had several mostly minor quibbles with Joshua’s backstory when we finally get it, but it was written before a lot of the newer vampire stuff that’s turned that storyline into such a cliché, so I’ll give Martin some leeway there. I’m not entirely sure everything always played out in the best way but it was enjoyable and that’s all I really asked of this book. The only scene I have to say that I genuinely disliked was when, to show off how lawless a place was, a random background character stripped an unconcious girl naked and started unbuttoning his trousers only for someone to intervene – by telling him to carry her upstairs and do his business there. It served the purpose of showing how unconcerned everyone there was very well but I didn’t like it, and the later back-reference of ‘it’s ok, she probably woke up and slit his throat’ just seemed to trivialise the rape/intended rape a bit too much for my liking. I know Martin was pulling the ‘nobody is innocent, and everyone here is a criminal’ card by turning the implied rape on its head but it was such an offhand comment it didn’t really work for me.
Apart from that one bum note, however, it was a really enjoyable read. Not something I would recommend to anyone who passionately dislikes vampires, genre fiction, or George R.R. Martin - but if you’re willing to give any of those a try and you like your vampires pretty dark, it’s worth giving this one a go. Sure, it’s not ‘great literature’, but for what it is, it's very good - and a damn fun way to spend a few hours (especially just after a very stressful exam!).(less)
I first started reading Ivanhoe when I was eight and promptly managed to lose my copy among the piles of books lying around the house. Although...more 4 stars
I first started reading Ivanhoe when I was eight and promptly managed to lose my copy among the piles of books lying around the house. Although I didn’t get very far it stuck with me – mainly because of the cover, a knight on horseback – and is something I’ve been meaning to pick up again ever since without really knowing much about what it was about. So naturally when I spotted this beautiful little edition in the ‘three for two’ pile I grabbed myself a copy without even bothering to read the blurb. And boy. . .if I had actually finished reading this when I was eight it would probably be one of my favourite books ever.
Everything about the story is practically designed to appeal to eight-year-old, Robin Hood loving, King Arthur obsessed, me; jousts and tournaments, conniving villains, witch trials, castle sieges, nobility in disguise, plots of high treason…Robin Hood himself even puts in a pretty major appearance! From twenty-three-year-old me, however – who expects a bit more in terms of characterisation and knows a lot more about medieval history – it only gets a 4 star rating. While I had immense fun with it I just can’t quite love it with the passion I know that little-me would have.
It’s ‘historical fiction’ with the emphasis firmly on the ‘fiction’ and there are some truly glaring inaccuracies and anachronisms. But that’s part of the charm, I think. Sure I could pick a thousand little and not so little holes in the story and details, but I enjoyed myself too much to feel the need. As the afterword in this edition succinctly puts it it’s more ‘Robin Hood land‘ than ‘medieval England’ and historical accuracy doesn’t really matter for the story it’s trying to tell. And ‘Robin Hood land‘ is a fitting description – despite the King Arthur-like trimmings of Knights errant, jousting tournaments, and damsels in distress – it’s a Robin Hood story through and through, although one where Robin Hood himself plays only a secondary role.
England after the third crusade, Richard the Lionheart trapped in a foriegn prison, and his brother John plotting and scheming to seize the throne – it’s a setting familiar to anyone with even just Disney knowledge of Robin Hood (an underated Disney classic that needs far more love). What Scott does with it though is shift the focus from the oppression of one greedy monarch on the poor to a more systematic and widespread racial tension; the Normans (descendents of William the Conqueror’s army) oppress the ‘native’ Saxons, nobility and laymen alike, and both the Normans and the Saxons oppresses, misuse, and hate the Jews. The Saxon-Norman tension is certainly an interesting twist on a familiar setting and it was nice to see the widespread antisemitism of medieval England acknowledged and criticised, I just wish that the Jewish characters, particularly Isaac, hadn’t conformed so damn much to antisemitic stereotypes themselves – it undermined the point in places and made portions of the book downright distasteful to read.
Ivanhoe, though, is definitely an action rather than character-driven story and relies on this sort of stereotyping to work. While there is a large cast of pretty wonderful characters – Cedric the Saxon and Wamba the Jester being my personal favourites – there’s not that much depth to any of them. Which to be honest is mostly fine with me considering the clear action-adventure slant of the story. Apart from my feelings about Isaac, the only characters I wish we could have seen more of were Ivanhoe himself (who for the title character does surprisingly little and is far less interesting or fleshed out than almost every other character) and his love interest, Lady Rowena (who, when compared to the Jewish heroine, Rebecca, comes off incredibly lacking in the personality department). That, the antisemitism, and a truly implausible event near the end of the book is really what stops me from liking this more because, blandly perfect main characters aside, the events and the supporting cast are both great fun.
It’s not a fast paced book my modern standards, there’s probably too much ponderous description and historical asides, but I quite like that; it’s a style that fits the setting and there’s plenty to enjoy in the way of unlikely character interactions even when there’s not much action going on. When the action does come round though it’s exactly the sort of chivalric knights and castles stuff you expect – which is exactly what I was reading for. Tournaments, sieges, out of control fires. . .the only action scene I found disapointing was that the final showdown ended on a bit of an anticlimax – more swordfighting would have been nice.
If you’re into tales of King Arthur, medieval chivalry, or Robin Hood and don’t mind your historical fiction very heavy on the ‘fiction’ side it’s definitely worth a read. In the end though, if you’re looking for a ‘serious’ classic rather than a fun (if wordy) adventure story, this one is rather more style than substance.(less)