A fun little novel, I tossed up for a good ten minutes or so whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars and eventually decided to round it up (think of 4 Stars
A fun little novel, I tossed up for a good ten minutes or so whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars and eventually decided to round it up (think of it as a 3.75 if you like). This was a bit of an impulse buy – I went into Waterstones to pick up another book, had a quick browse through their special offer’s tables, marked this down as something that looked interesting, and left, walked halfway down the street, turned round, and went straight back into the shop. My wallet’s not particularly happy with me about it (I had to buy a third book to get the ‘buy one get one half price’), but I’m very glad I did. Impulse buys can always be a bit hit or miss (We, the Drowned and War with the Newts were both brilliant, The Sunday Philosophy Club was a steaming pile of shit I couldn’t even finish) but I like to make them when I have the spare cash. There’s just something about picking up a book you’ve not heard anything about that I really love. And although I didn’t fall in love with this book, I am very glad that I picked it up. I really enjoyed it and it’s probably a book that would have completely passed me by otherwise.
It’s a short, cute, little novel set in 1980s France. An accountant treats himself to a fancy meal while his wife and child are away and is stunned to find that his neighbour on the next table is the President, François Mitterrand. Eating as slowly as he can, so that he can bask in the moment, Daniel watches the President and his dining companions leave, only to discover that Mitterrand has left behind his black felt hat. Choosing to keep it for himself rather than return it, Daniel leaves the restaurant with his new hat on his head and a newfound sense of self confidence. Suddenly he’s talking back to his superiors at work, eating breakfast with very important men, and being promoted to regional director. He attributes all this to the power of the president’s hat, and when he loses it himself, he is determined to get it back.
The story follows the hat’s various different owners as it passes from person to person, changing all of their lives for the better. From a woman in a nowhere relationship to a washed up has-been perfumer, the hat seems to have some power to bring back confidence in those unhappy with their situation in life. It is, in some ways, almost a selection of linked short stories, and with limited page time all of the characters have to be painted in quite broad, shallow strokes. Daniel’s quest to reclaim the president’s hat provides a much needed bookend to the story and adds a sense of narrative drive that stops the book from feeling too aimless.
It’s a fun little book and a very easy read – I was surprised just how quickly I got through the (admittedly small) page-count. The writing flows easily and gives you just enough information to contextualise events – the 1980s in France are certainly unfamiliar territory for me at least – without getting bogged down in historical detail. For those who remember the 80s (I’m an ’88 baby, so I don’t) I imagine it’s also a nostalgic look back at a ‘simpler time’, where men still wore hats everyday, television only had so many channels, answerphones still used cassettes, and illicit love affairs were only just beginning to be arranged through online message boards. Laurin weaves in real historical events throughout the narrative and presents the story in the epilogue as something that ‘could’ really have happened.
I’m going to disagree with the ‘Reading Group’ suggestions at the back of my copy and say that this isn’t really a book I want to ask lots of probing questions about right now. Whether the hat really is magic or not doesn’t particularly matter to me. It was simply an enjoyable, refreshing, and rather charming little summer read. And probably a book that I will return to for a reread at some point too, it's certainly quick enough to get through....more
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book. It’s one of those books that sometimes gets quite patronisingly described as ‘charming';3 Stars
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book. It’s one of those books that sometimes gets quite patronisingly described as ‘charming'; a short, well-written and introspective ‘coming of age’ novel touching on several big themes, but that ultimately has no plot to speak of and only the most sketched out characterisation.
The narrator, Minou, is twelve (possibly a bit older – acts a lot younger). One year ago her mother disappeared – the titular ‘vanishing act’ – from the small island they live on. A year later the dead body of a young man washes up on shore and Minou starts to recall her childhood, her mothers disappearance, and the events leading up to it. And that’s really about it – Minou thinks and occasionally writes, but nothing actually happens save in the flashbacks and at the end of the book everyone remains in pretty much the same position they were in the beginning.
Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, some of the best stories can be the more introspective ones, but I don’t think, even internally, Minou went through enough of a change to make a very satisfying narrative. Although the reader learns that a lot of Minou’s perceptions of herself from the beginning of the book are wrong (she is not a rational philosopher like her father but a creative dreamer like her mother) I remain unconvinced that Minou herself ever realises this. In fact I might go so far as saying that most of the more interesting themes in the book are the ones that, while obvious to the reader but the narrator is (and remains) almost oblivious to.
Although no time period is ever explicitly identified, the mentions of ‘the war’, which Minou knows very little about and learns even less about over the story, indicate that Minou’s parents are both survivors of World War II. Perhaps the exact time period was left vague to emphasise the timeless nature of war and allow the reader to imagine it as any war they wanted. It is the after effects of war – Minou’s father’s determined search to find the ultimate philosophical ‘truth’ to cope with his experiences, her mother’s love for beauty and colour and emphasis on feeling rather than thinking – that are important rather than the war itself. But, with references to Minou’s father ‘hiding in a cupboard’ indicating he was a Jew in occupied Europe, I think it would have been a lot more meaningful if the conflict had been identified a little bit more. As it is it’s just ‘the war’ and never intrudes for too long on Minou’s thoughts – though serves to make her father the most interesting and tragic character of the novel.
What Minou is more interested in is recounting the little domestic scenes between her parents and the small events of the island (it’s so small the only other two inhabitants are a priest who loves to bake and a heartbroken stage magician who makes a living making boxes for sawing women in half) that reveal every other character, and particularly her mother, to be tired and ultimately tiresome stereotypes. Maybe I’m meant to find the ‘quirky impulsive woman who wants to be free’ an interesting concept, but Minou’s mother reads too much like the character in a children’s book to really read any further depth into. She’s quirky and beautiful and feminine and always wears dresses and loves to paint. She has wild red hair and rowed to the island on a boat accompanied by a golden bowl and a pet peacock! Everything about her just serves to make her seem ever more like a fairytale archetype and less like a real person. Which, when the story revolves around her, is kind of unfortunate.
But the book never aims at realistic character study. Minou’s narration is always the narration of a child – who sees the world in simple (and sometimes simplistic) ways and does not always understand what it is she is observing. In that way the characterisation of her mother makes sense; the way Minou sees her is just as influenced by her father’s stories of her as her own memories. At least it at the beginning. As Minou examines her childhood more does emerge but, however well written the book and however well mastered the childhood-perfective, the mother’s fate still follows an ultimately clichéd trajectory.
Ultimately The Vanishing Act is good, for what it is. It’s a quick one day sort of read that is an enjoyable way to spend a single afternoon, but nothing really all that special. The characters, seen through the eyes of a child, remain simplistic and unexplored, and not very much happens. But the writing, if you enjoy naive child narrators, is good and there are interesting themes in there too, if you’re prepared to dig down a bit more than Minou ever does.
So three stars. I liked it, and I can think of a few people I might recommend it to, but that’s about it. A short, forgettable, breather sort of book to fit in nicely between either more heavy going or more action-packed novels....more
I actually read these stories in two different editions. I started with the Collector’s Library edition of Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales before realising I actually read these stories in two different editions. I started with the Collector’s Library edition of Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales before realising that they had cut all Jacob’s original annotations and end-notes. Purely by chance I then I discovered this rather dusty copy hiding in the spare bedroom, spotted that it had all those end-notes and also contained Jacob’s follow-up More Celtic Fairy Tales, and did a bit of a book swap. The Collector’s Library edition is undoubtedly the more attractive book – this one is pretty old, has awkward page numbering that starts over again at 1 halfway through, and that annoying thing where illustrations are followed up by a completely blank page even in the middle of a story – but for me having access to Jacob’s notes on each story was more valuable than how pretty the book was. Sometimes in fact those notes were more interesting, and in several cases rather longer, than the stories they were about – though I didn’t always agree with some of his comments. Probably not something that matters to a lot of readers, but if you’re interested in the provenance of the fairy tales it’s definitely worth checking out whether the edition you pick up contains these end-notes or not.
Now, onto the stories. As with most fairytale collections they’re a very mixed bag. A lot I had heard before, some I hadn’t and many many echoed very similar tales I had heard from other European traditions. Some are magical, some are mundane, some are funy, some are sad, some are preachy, and some are just plain weird. Most I liked, some I didn’t, but almost all of them were interesting in some way or another. One thing I will say though – these Celtic fairy tales are less likely to have happy endings than the ones most of us are used to and more likely to end with a nice bit of polyamory (though Jacobs’ very obviously changes at least one ending to avoid this – which I did not appreciate). Also many of the names are damn near unpronounceable.
And there’s not really that much more to say. Taken out of the historical context of the 19th century fairytale revival and Jacobs’ role in that, it’s just a nice little book of slightly unusual fairytales – and not always told in the most accessible way. What really makes it special, apart from the detailed notes on each tale is the illustrations. John D. Batten’s work is absolutely beautiful, utilising a variety different styles to match the tone of each story – so the tragic episodes taken from Irish mythology are given lovely almost Art-Nouveau plates while the sillier more humourous stories have simple more cartoonish illustrations.
The Story of Deidre
Hudden and Dudden
My copy of this book isn’t a particularly good or quality printing, being just slightly more advanced than a bound photocopy of the two original publications (I hate that the page numbering restarts at 1 when you reach More Celtic Fairy Tales). But I can imagine an edition with the annoying format niggles ironed out and maybe a fancy hardcover, would make an absolutely beautiful addition to any library of fairy tales....more
Full review to come. But if you want a book about whales, look elsewhere. If what you want though is a meandering book of Philip Hoare's person1 Star
Full review to come. But if you want a book about whales, look elsewhere. If what you want though is a meandering book of Philip Hoare's personal philosophical ramblings and introspective wankery, littered with purple prose and overblown metaphors, this is definitely the book for you!...more
One of very many children’s books on Greek mythology, I picked this one up mainly because it’s Usborne (I grew up on Usborne books and I have a 4 stars
One of very many children’s books on Greek mythology, I picked this one up mainly because it’s Usborne (I grew up on Usborne books and I have a certain amount of loyalty to them despite the fact that they keep puttingoutgenderedshitlikethis) and because the pictures inside are pretty dang gorgeous. With so many of these sort of books about though it’s always worth flipping through a few in the bookshop, maybe reading a couple of the stories, and getting the one that works for you. This one, I have to say, doesn’t quite work for me. It’s very good, perfect for the purpose I got it for – which was to ensure my Greek storytelling event later this month is age appropriate – and I’ll be keeping it in my library of Greek myths, but it’s far too kiddified in places for my own personal liking. For public storytelling where I don’t know how (over)sensitive or protective children’s parents are it’s great. For my own kids/nieces/nephews (if I were ever to have any) I would want something that didn’t gloss over Theseus leaving Ariadne, or pretended that Jason and Medea didn’t murder her brother.
It’s a beautiful book though, and I think it achieves its aim of working for both children too young to read and children just learning. It’s written in a way that works very well when read out loud, while the typeface is big, bold, and easy to read for when the child wants to pick it up for themselves, and it's all accompanied by some really lovely and eyecatching illustrations. There’s also a pronounciation guide for the Greek names at the back, which is very useful. And then it’s got some really nice stylistic touches. Every page, even when it isn’t illustrated, has a patterned border running round it – spiders for Arachne, snakes for Perseus and Medusa, a variety of Greek pot patterns etc etc. but a unique pattern for every story. The longer stories (Hercules, Odysseus, Jason) are broken up into smaller sections, making them easier to digest if you’re reading ‘one a night’ with a child, and each story is written on different coloured pages, making it very easy to tell when one story ends and another begins. I don’t have a working scanner or I’d put in a few examples here but I did find one bookseller site that did have a single page sample:
For me, though, though the book itself is beautiful (the dragons and sea serpents are all particularly great) the content of the text plays it just a little too safe: Medea doesn’t kill her brother, she lives happily ever after with Jason, Ariadne doesn’t get abandoned, Theseus’s dad doesn’t commit suicide, and the battles against monsters seem a little too perfuntory, making them less compelling than they should be. And yes, it’s for kids (Usborne.com says 7+ but it’s clearly aimed at younger), but the Usborne books of mythology I was reading when I was that age didn’t shy away from that stuff – they may not have gone on to detail Medea’s infanticide, but they showed her killing her brother to help Jason escape. Lessons and videos we watched at primary school discussed Theseus leaving Ariadne. The ending of the Theseus story was always bittersweet, with the minotaur having been killed but, due to Theseus’s neglect in changing his sails, his father having given him up for dead and jumped into the sea in grief. That’s the emotional heart of the story.
I just find this book a little too codling in places and I know that, as a child, I prefered my monsters scarier and less easily dispatched and that what drew me, and continues to draw me, to Medea was her ruthlessness – she was so unlike any princess I’d ever read about before. A great book for read aloud sessions with groups of young children you don’t know because, personally, I don’t particularly want to step on someone else’s parenting. But if I was reading this aloud to kids I knew well I would be surreptitiously adding more of the ‘unsuitable’ bits in for them. Kids can deal with a lot more than people think and I think it’s the fact that Greek myths often don’t conform to the ‘happily ever after’ narrative that makes them so intriguing....more
Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before remin 3.5 stars
Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before reminding myself that a) it’s probably far too expensive for me b) I don’t read non-fiction that often and have a whole bookshelf of it already that I haven’t managed to read yet, and c) I’m not as much of a sciencey person as I would like to be and probably won’t understand it anyway. However, this winter I managed to get myself a temporary Christmas job in Waterstone’s entitling me to 40% (40%!) discount for the month of December. So naturally I not only bought absolutely all of my Christmas presents there, I treated myself to some as well by ignoring all the paperback fiction I normally pick up and going straight for the stuff I always talk myself out of buying.
Kraken, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to its gorgeous cover (and it is a gorgeous cover). I liked it, I almost really liked it, but in the end I just had too many reservations about the writing style to enjoy it as much as I had been hoping to. It started well, for the first few chapters I was utterly hooked – cephalopods fascinate and creep me out in almost equal measure – but then it seemed to lose direction. I’d had some issues with Williams’ writing in the early chapters – it’s very obvious from early on that she’s a science journalist rather than a scientist and it reads like Sunday supplement journalism – always bringing it as much back to the author of the piece as the actual subject. Too many unneccessary ‘I think’ and ‘This reminds me of’ or slightly over-flowery scene-setting that actually distracted my attention from the subject and reinforced the presence of the author in moments that didn’t need it. But after a few chapters it seemed to lose something in the sense of direction as well.
Although each chapter does flow on from the other and although it’s full of fascinating stuff, I still can’t really quite work out the logic to the structure. It all seems to flow in a slightly aimless way, a bit hither and thither, sometimes moving onto something else and sometimes revisiting things from earlier chapters – which leads to quite a bit of repetition. Of course it’s probably thanks to Williams’ journalist background that I can actually understand the science involved at all and am not overwhelmed by technical words and details. It’s definitely an accessable read that doesn’t require any qualifications in marine biology before you can understand it – but I do think that it could have benefited from a more scientific approach to structuring the chapters.
The second disappointment was that it wasn’t as much about squid as I had been expecting based on the title. And I’m not talking about the fact that squid share their page time with octopuses and cuttlefish – which are both equally fascinating – but the human characters who fill up the book. In many places it’s almost more about the human experts and cephalopod research scientists than it is about the animals themselves. ‘The Curious, Exciting, And Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid‘ is not just the science of how a squid works but how the squid has helped human scientists with other problems. So as well as learning about the evolution of the squid eye we get descriptions of the harvesting of squid for research purposes, stomachs being removed, heads cut off, and their enlarged axon (nerve cells) studied by students of neuroscience because they’re similar in structure but much larger than human axons. Now I’m not squeamish and I didn’t actually mind this, it makes fascinating, if slightly gruesome reading in fact – it just simply wasn’t quite what I had expected when I picked up the book. Interesting as I find dissections and scientific research (I was always upset that we never got to dissect an eye for GCSE biology at my school, a squid would have been amazing!) I’m more interested in the animals themselves than how Julie’s PHd about them is going (very well, as it happens) and would probably have prefered a lot of the human research stuff to appear as little asides rather than as the main focus of whole chapters.
But that’s a problem with my expectations – obviously Williams is more interested in the research and scientific potential of squid and it’s totally valid that she does chose to write about that. I’m not sure I would have picked it up had I known how the balance of science of squid/squids contribution to science was weighted, but I’m very glad that I did, it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I would probably, however, recommend it to people more interested in the sciencey side of things than the animal side – quite a few other reviews I’ve read were pretty disgusted with the animal cruelty of the scientific experiments and harvesting (I was pretty horrified myself actually by the octopus who had had the left and right sides of its brain split to function individually). For me the thing that bothered me most though was the ‘me-ness’ of the writing style – it’s rather like a tv documentary where the presenter is just slightly overdoing it so you’re always aware of their presence (more ‘The One Show does marine biology' than David Attenborough’s Blue Planet). But that didn’t stop it from being both an enjoyable and extremely educational read....more
Without a doubt the darkest volume of Fables yet, this volume is also the best addition to the series for a long time. It’s not up to early Fab 4 Stars
Without a doubt the darkest volume of Fables yet, this volume is also the best addition to the series for a long time. It’s not up to early Fables standards, and I’m still not quite sure that the series was best served by continuing after the main plotline of the Adversary was concluded, rather than ending it on a satisfying, epic conclusion – Fables has been starting to show the wear and tear of a story stretched out beyond it’s initial plotline for a while now – but this has restored some of my faith.
I can’t really say I enjoyed this volume, it’s a pretty horrible story, but it was also a very powerful one. The cubs have been a constant presence in Fables since their introduction but, apart perhaps from Ambrose, I’ve always found them rather one-note and rather underdeveloped until these last two volumes – almost indistinguishable save by their gender and hair colours. Yet Cubs in Toyland, despite a few pacing issues, got me invested in their fates and managed to land some pretty emotional punches too.
And the artwork, I’m sure, played a big part in that. I’ve loved Mark Buckingham’s art since the beginning of course (though his Pinocchio took some getting used to) but it worked particularly well in this story. If you want bleak, hopeless, and more than a little terrifying, he’s obviously your guy.
As for the story. I’m not quite sure how and where it fits into the wider Fables plots going on at the moment, but obviously it’s going to have a huge impact on the Bigby/Snow family in future books. Therese (the blonde girl cub) is magically kidnapped by a creepyass toy boat and taken to a creepyass magical Toyland peopled by broken dolls and dismembered teddybears who declare her their queen. Only living in a decaying castle full of decaying toys isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (who knew?) and in a land of inanimate objects there is nothing for a human girl to eat. It’s up to her family, and particularly her brother, ‘pack leader’, Darien, to find and rescue her before she slowly starves to death.
As well as the Toyland plotline we also got a look in on the training of the new North Wind (my joint-favourite of the cubs), an intriguing vision of their future (my least favourite bit of artwork in the volume – magic hair colour change and stupid posing), a short story from Bigby Wolf’s past that promises an interesting future for another of the cubs, and the set up for nasty bit of backstabbing and treachery down the line in the main Fabletown plot too.
As I said, this book has a few pacing issues, the conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory, and could probably do with a bit more exposition about certain plot elements, but it is the most raw and powerful instalment Fables has had in while. So while not ‘enjoyable’ per se, and while still far from my favourite volume, it still gets a high star rating from me.
But I will be happy to get back to the grown-up, better developed cast in the next volume....more
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 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....more
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have3 Stars
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have to say is that I like the story itself, but I simply can’t make myself trust Heaney as a translator.
I have no particular reason not to trust him as a translator, let’s get that straight. I don’t read Old English, have never read an unabridged Beowulf translation before, and this one is very highly and widely regarded by people who can and have – so I’m not anywhere near qualified to say anything about how faithful/good a translation it is. I just have a gut feeling that, really, I’d have been better off with a different translation. When I finished the book I didn’t feel ‘yes I’m done with Beowulf, I’m one badass classics reader’ but, ‘I should probably go buy/borrow the Oxford World Classics edition’.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for an edition translated by a poet who’s famous in his own right – but then that never bothered me with Simon Armatage’s translations of Arthurian epics. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for one translated by a poet I studied and disliked at school – but I assumed I’d grown out of that rather juvenile ‘I studied it so I hate it’ dislike and had only heard good things about his translation. Maybe it’s just because it’s fucking Beowulf and I was expecting something truly awesome… Whatever the reason I ended up feeling disappointed with the poem and disappointed with myself for picking this translation. It’s not bad, it’s very readable in fact and the story, as expected, is pretty damn cool. I just simply can’t get over the feeling I’m reading Heaney’s version of Beowulf rather than Heaney’s translation. It’s probably irrational – not being able to read Old English I’ll never know – but reading the introduction, which is lots about Heaney and very little about Beowulf didn’t really do anything to challenge this gut feeling. In fact reading the all about Heaney introduction (in several parts cause I had to keep putting it down from boredom) just reminded me why I found him so utterly unbearable to study at GCSE.
But for people without my anti-Heaney baggage – it tells the Beowulf story and it is very readable. As I said, I can’t speak for its accuracy as a translation, just of my own personal response to it so I’d take this whole review with a massive grain of salt too....more
Deathless is an absolutely fantastic, wonderful, intelligent, beautifully-written book. A retelling of the Russian Fairytale,Marya Morevna a 4.5 Stars
Deathless is an absolutely fantastic, wonderful, intelligent, beautifully-written book. A retelling of the Russian Fairytale, Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, Valente transports the story into the politically turbulent setting of 20th century Russia, and asks the very questions I asked myself when I read the original 'Who is Marya Morevna? And why and how the hell does she have Koschei the Deathless locked up in a closet?'
Instead of being simply a straight up retelling, Deathless tells the story of Marya Morevna, from her childhood in ever changing St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad, watching the city transform around her and each of her three sisters marry a bird that fell from the tree outside her window, to her capturing the attention of the mysterious Tsar of Life, Koschei the deathless, and everything that that sets in motion.
It's a hauntingly beautiful fusion of Russian folklore and history, figures such as Baba Yaga, Domovoi, Likho, and Koschei himself, walking the streets of communist Russia, playing roles and parts I'd never have imagined but that worked seamlessly. The turbulence and struggles in the strange and sinister fairy world reflecting the horrific struggles in the strange and violent real world, the wars, the poverty, the siege of Leningrad. For the first three-quarters of the book it is, unquestionably, a five star read. Unfortunately, for me, as the story moved away from its grounding in real world history and further into the fairyland and the twisted gothic romance between Marya and Koschei, it lost something of what made it so special. By the end it was still a beautiful wonderful story but it had shifted too far away from its roots and tried to be a bit too clever with it's allegories for me to feel entirely satisfied with the resolution.
I would, however, recommend it to anyone who's enjoyed Valente's work before and, really, to anyone with an interest in Russian history or folklore....more
Still in post-novel afterglow here (this is what happens when you’re more interested in books than people). I really love this little series, i 5 Stars
Still in post-novel afterglow here (this is what happens when you’re more interested in books than people). I really love this little series, it’s like a slice of childhood, I just want to drizzle cream and chocolate sauce all over this book and gobble it up. But that would ruin a very beautiful paperback (and probably my digestive system too) so instead I will simply love it and stroke it and tuck it carefully back on my bookshelf to treasure for all time. Like, seriously, if I could do the Gollum voice that is exactly what I would be doing right now.
And now that I’ve scared all the normal people off I’ll get onto the review. . .
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (henceforth to be refered to as ‘Revels‘, because the title may be gorgeous but it’s also very long and I’m a slow typist) is the second book in Catherynne M. Valente’s children’s series, Fairyland, and is all the more worthy of those 5 stars up there for being a sequel that doesn’t dissapoint. In fact I might even prefer it to the first book, which was one of my absolute favourite reads of last year.
The protagonist, September, is a year older, and matured from a heartless child (all children are heartless according to the narrator) to a young teenager with a freshly grown, raw and inexperienced heart. She’s spent the time since her first visit to Fairyland being the lonely, excluded kid at school, missing her father (away fighting in WWII), and spending her free time reading up on Fairytales and mythology. So by the time the book starts she’s just as impatient as I was to jump back into Fairyland and meet up with her old (and odd) friends there. Only when she gets there Fairyland isn’t quite as she remembered. Magic is now being rationed, just like sugar back in her homeworld, people’s shadows are disappearing and September believes she know’s why and is determined to stop it.
Now, I’m going to admit that it took me a good few chapters to fall in love with the first Fairyland book – maybe because I wasn’t used to Valente’s style and the old fashioned fourth-wall-breaking narrator, maybe because the story seemed to wonder aimlessly about for a long while before the plot was revealed – but I had no such problem with Revels, I jumped straight in and fell in love immediately. We’re taken to different parts of Fairyland in this book, notably Fairyland-Below, and meet a whole host of new characters, but everything that I loved about the first book is still there too. There’s Ell the Wyvern who’s half-library, and Saturday the Marid, the characteristic quirky wonderful narration (perfect for reading aloud to children at bedtime), beautiful chapter illustrations by Ana Juan, and then the book throws in great new stuff like a ‘night dodo’ called Aubergine as well!
More than any of these wonderful Fairyland characters though, I loved September. I enjoyed her practical attitude in the first book but it was impossible for anyone to compete with Ell there as the breakout character. In this book I absolutely I adored her though. Her fresh new heart and extra year’s maturity add a slightly different tone to the book; it’s still quirky and brilliant, but it’s not just a rehash of the first book with a different enemy. September thinks of her parents more in this book, considers both her own and other peoples feelings more, tries to understand them, and deals with teenage emotions and changing relationships. She’s still the same person as twelve-year-old, heartless, September, but she’s grown up, just a little. Everything is more complex, less black and white, right and wrong, than in the first book. Instead of fighting the Marquis, September’s foe in this Revels is herself, or rather the shadow of her twelve-year-old self. And shadows are not inherently bad but simply the sides of ourselves we repress and keep hidden – ‘The Hollow Queen’s’ motivations are those September shares and sympathises with, her actions those September, were she less restrained and a bit more wild, could easily commit. It adds shades of grey to the adventure that I really enjoyed and left me guessing as to just how it could all be concluded.
But, and this will surprise no one I’m sure, it was concluded! And in a way I was really happy about too. The last few pages also won me completely over to the idea of a September/Saturday relationship in the future – he was very quiet in the first book and so harder to instantly love to the same degree as Ell or September, but something he said in the here just won me over completely. If only all men were as sensible and sweet and understanding as Saturday the world would be a totally better place.
Loved, loved loved the whole book and cannot wait for the next one, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, which comes out this year in America, so probably next year in the UK. May just have to bully a friend to send me a US copy....more
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the 'big three' 20th century political dystopias; Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, a 3.5 Stars
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the 'big three' 20th century political dystopias; Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, and Huxley's Brave New World. It is also the only one of them to be written by an author who actually lived in a Police State (two in fact: Tsarist Russia followed Communist Russia). And, to be honest, those are really the main two reasons for reading it - its literary significance and its historical context. Take that away and it's a very dated and rather hard to relate to bit of sci-fi that I would probably never have picked up, let alone stuck with to the end. With both of these factors in mind, however, I found it utterly fascinating.
We tells the story of D-503, in fact it's presented as an account written by D-503, the head architect on the first OneState rocket to be sent into space. It starts, several days prior to blast-off, with D-503 picking up his pen to write an account of OneState society for any 'inferior life forms' the rocket may encounter. However it quickly turns into a more personal diary chronicling D-503's growing dissatisfaction with OneState as he falls in love with the mysterious I-330 and finds himself unwittingly swept into the plans of an underground resistance group to try to topple the regime. If you've read 1984 (and I have, though a very long time ago) it's impossible not to see the connections and to realise how much Zamyatin's work must have influenced Orwell's. Where 1984 had a strong cast of characters, however, Zamyatin's seem strangely blank and completely unrelatable.
Part of this is, of course, due to the nature of the story. It's a dystopia; society is different, and in OneState individuality is a disease. People are simply numbers, cogs in the machine of state. There is no real concept of 'I', but only 'we' and the narrator can't ever quite break away from his conditioning. But also it's a dystopia and in this case that means an 'ideas over characters' plot and try as he might, Zamyatin can't make me find his narrator very interesting. I-330 is probably meant to be the standout character of the book, she's strong, charismatic, politically active, and sexually promiscuous, but she always felt too much like a necessary 'part of the plot' for me to get a grip on her as a character. Much more compelling, for me, was O-90, D-503's plump state assigned sex partner who's hopelessly in love with him - why, however, I never quite worked out.
And then there's the thing that made me really lose sympathy for the main character. Not his OneState 'I am a cog in a machine and I like it' socialisation, but the racism. As the black character is sympathetic I hope this is just another example of how OneState is a horrible horrible place - but I do struggle with a narrator that keeps describing his friend as having 'african lips' with 'spittle flying from them' every time he speaks or 'moving like a gorilla'. I just... it's not nice to read.
The plot too, it has to be said, isn't always the most compelling, though it certainly has its moments. It fluctuates between serious political concepts and actually quite comical B-movie black and white sci-fi. You can practically imagine the rocket scenes being done by dangling a toilet roll dressed up as a spaceship in front of a piece of card painted black with stars, and the sex scenes are just - well the comedy has to be deliberate. And it is funny, not just 'oh dear how dated' funny, but genuinely funny in places - it just all gels very oddly together leaving me unsure what the tone of the book was really meant to be. The narrator himself is also so naive and confused by events that the story itself feels confused in places and I wasn't always sure what was actually going on - I'm still not sure exactly what was going on in some parts actually. It was a fascinating read, utterly fascinating, but not always quite as enjoyable a read as I was hoping for.
I'm glad I read it, but I won't be reading it again. To be honest I found it more interesting for its historical and literary significance than its own merits and I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone I know as a casual read, unless I happened to know that they were interested in either Russian Communism or early 20th century science-fiction....more
How good did the blurb sound? A detective novel that takes place in Communist China! Unfortunately, and despite almost every other person I k 2.5 Stars
How good did the blurb sound? A detective novel that takes place in Communist China! Unfortunately, and despite almost every other person I know enjoying it, I found this novel pretty underwhelming. Proof, I guess, of just how subjective reading can be. It’s not a ‘bad’ book, it had a lot of promise, and it picked up in the middle after a slow start. But in the end it just wasn’t for me and I can mainly pinpoint this to four things: way too much exposition and introspection on unimportant details, obvious clues going unnoticed for far too long, descriptions and portrayals of female characters that consistently skeeved me out, and a main character that was hard to feel anything for.
So I guess I’ll start on the overabundance of exposition. The book is absolutely full of details about life in 90s Communist Shanghai. Which would be fascinating (and still is fascinating at times) if was slipped into the story with a bit more skill. As it is the author seems so concerned his audience won’t understand Chinese words or concepts that instead of simply letting them work out the meaning from the context he has to stop the story to explain them. Every, single, time. Which ends up creating a disjointed flow and making me feeling incredibly talked down to. I may not know a lot about communist China and I certainly want> to learn more but that doesn’t mean I want to be spoon-fed it like a baby. Despite all the information given about Shanghai here I never for one moment felt I had a grip of the city, like I could see it in my mind’s eye as I was reading. It felt like listening to someone who had been on holiday there talk about it (without photos), or sitting in on an informal evening lecture, rather than being transported there yourself.
I mean, information is all very good, but sometimes you've just get on with the story. If I don’t understand some minor detail I’ll do the same thing I would do for a book set in Britain or the US (and I frequently don’t understand geographic or cultural references in books set in the USA); I’ll grab a dictionary or open Wikipedia, and look it up. China is not fantasyland where the author needs to explain concepts and show off their world-building – it’s a real place, the information is out there if people want to go looking for more detail. And frankly even if this was set in a fantasyland where I couldn’t look things up I would still find the infodumping poorly timed and overused. Yes, Communist China is very interesting, but either get better at integrating your information into the story or save the explanations for the stuff that matters.
Maybe it’s a silly thing to moan about, the information on 90s China seems to be what most other reviews really loved about this book, but for me it mostly just spoilt the pacing. I just keep thinking that, if this had been written for a Chinese audience, with the assumption that the readers had a basic understanding of the setting, it would have been a much much stronger and better flowing novel (and it’s not as if relevant details couldn’t be put into notes at the end – translated fiction and old classics have endnotes for this sort of stuff all the time). As it is it’s too catered to ‘person who knows nothing about China’ and busy interrupting itself to explain the setting for it to actually get on with the story.
And it has a similar problem when it comes to portraying politics, or human emotion in general for that matter. It’s almost didactic in places, we’re spoon-fed exactly what we’re meant to think of the Chinese Communist Party. Every time something happens Chen’s explanation of the ‘political reasons’ is never far away, even when it’s just repeating the same thing we’ve been informed 12millionty times before or when it’s so fucking obvious it’s not hard to work out for yourself (I’m thinking particularly here of the final chapter and a prominent ‘well duh!’ moment for me). Trust me to work a little out on my own please, I already spotted all the clues to the mystery chapters before your detective after all.
Which brings me neatly onto my second objection: the mystery really wasn’t all that mysterious. A female body is found in a rural canal. Naked, strangled and wrapped in a plastic bag. A post-mortem reveals that she had sex shortly before her death, that her stomach contains caviar, and that her body shows no sign of a struggle. So what is the only hypothesis do the police originally draw from this? That she was raped and murdered by a random stranger. It takes about six more chapters for Chen to finally go ‘caviar! That’s expensive and well beyond her means. She must have eaten out with somebody!’ and when he does everybody is amazed by his deductive reasoning. The same deductive reasoning that told him earlier that ‘She could not have been romantically involved at the time of her death. There was no privacy possible in [her] dorm building’ – because apparently a couple is only allowed to have sex in the girl’s dormroom and meeting up elsewhere is totally out of the question! The list of overlooked clues could go on and on – but eventually they realise them and discover their suspect at around the halfway point. The rest of the book is mostly trying to prove that hedunit and working on discovering the motive against some half-hearted pressure to stop from higher up. In terms of a ‘murder mystery’ it’s rather lacking.
What really irritated me though was the way the female characters were presented. In part this is of course deliberate – the investigation unearths an underworld of misogyny, 'western bourgeois decadence', sexual blackmail, and both sexual and emotional abuse. The killer’s attitude towards women is truly vile. I expect to be disgusted at that though, and I expect to be irritated by the way that women were viewed in communist China (and not just there) as primarily ‘wives’, ‘Party members’ or ‘wanton‘ (seriously, I should have done a tally for the amount of times the author used/misused the word 'wanton'). What I didn’t expect was to be so utterly skeeved out by the protagonists attitude towards women as well. Oh he’s not a vile abuser like the killer, obviously, not by any means. He doesn’t overtly sexualise and dehumanise women as nothing but objects – but he does that sickening overly romantic ‘poetic’ praise, 'women are gentle flowers' shit which is almost just as dehamanising and creepy. The way he describes women’s appearance in such flowery ways (often accompanied by a Chinese love poem that the woman reminds him of), or the way the author constantly feels the need to point out when a woman’s t-shirt is ‘tight’ or her blouse is ‘almost transparent’ or that her nipples are showing through the fabric. Stop it, stop it, stop it.
The scene where Chen first meets his love interest is just terrible. He heroicly catches her as she trips over and the narration basically says that she ‘need not have been embarrassed’ because Chen found her attractive and didn’t mind the physical contact. Not only cliché but gross as well. Like, my embarrassment at tripping should be directly tied to whether the guy who helps me out finds me attractive? NO. Then there’s the scene where he realises the witness he’s about to interview is a prostitute, thinks about showing his ID card, but then decides he’ll have an exotic Japanese foot massage first. Yuck. Meanwhile his coworker Yu is out interviewing another potential witness and when she doesn’t want to speak to the police he falsely claims he has photos of her having sex and will release them to her employers. Again: yuck. Oh and then I’m meant to buy it when he is all outraged that her ex made exactly the same threats. I wouldn’t want eiher of these men as policemen.
I think I’m meant to find Chen an intellectual romantic but I just can’t. Yes, society seems to have taken a collective shit on women in this book, but Chen’s analysis is often totally misogynistic as well, basically amounting to ‘if women aren't married with children their lives must be miserable’. In part it is just a reflection of the time, I can aknowledge that, and that would actually have been interesting to explore. But the way that Chen is so very obviously meant to be sympathetic and seems to be almost an author avatar at times (they’re both poets and members of the Chinese Writers’ Association) made his interactions with women super awkward. And quite frankly I just can’t fell comfortable with a character when the third-person limited perspective is so skeevey.
Which, as I started off saying, all contributes to me not feeling very much in the way of interest in Chief Inspector Chen. He’s meant to be a bright young thing. An intellectual young police officer with a promising political career ahead and a private yearning for a ‘normal’ family life. Also everybody but everybody in the book thinks he’s awesome and freely tells everyone else how awesome and 'promising’ he is. But his constant poetical digressions slow an already slow book down and did nothing for me, and he seemed almost completely disinterested in the case (despite the narration frequently trying to convince me that it had taken over his life). And a disinterested detective makes for a disinterested reader. There’s no real urgency to solve the murder for most of the book, just endless descriptions about the changing structure of the communist party. And if the author and the main character can’t seem to bring themselves to care about the actual murder case the book is meant to be about, why should I?
Having said all that – and I realise it’s a lot of negaive stuff, more so than I expected when I started this review – I’ll repeat again: it’s not a ‘bad’ book. Lots of people far more clever than I am think it’s a very good book, it just contains several elements that personally irritate and/or bore me. There was enough of a good idea here and, when the book finally picked up, enough good writing, that I’m not going to write Qiu Xiaolong off just yet. Perhaps a lot of what I disliked can be ascribed to first-novel-nerves and the concept, if not always the execution, was very interesting. I’m not exactly going to go hunting down the rest of this series or anything, but if I see one of them on the library shelf and I feel in the right mood I might just give it a go. Now that the setting's been established he might start focussing more on the story.
2.5 stars from me – solidly in the middle. Didn’t particularly like it, didn’t really dislike it....more