Quick sum up: Most of this book was pretty terrible. The awful love triangle keeps trying to take over wh...more 3 Stars - Review when I get back from holiday
Quick sum up: Most of this book was pretty terrible. The awful love triangle keeps trying to take over what little plot there is and the whole book is even more poorly paced than the previous ones. But it is very readable.(less)
Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before remin...more 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.(less)
Objectively the worst book I have read, not just since I started thinking critically about books or reviewing, but ever.
(view spoiler)[Dinner With a Vampire combines all the worst traits of paranormal romance – a bratty and self-absorbed female narrator, an unlikable physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive love interest, vampires who are ‘perfect’ with no faults or weaknesses, the human character being somehow more ‘special’ than other humans, barely fleshed out side characters, telepathic connections, forbidden love etc. etc., you name it. Just a few of these would be bad enough on their own even if written competently, but instead we have them mushed together nonsensically into a big mess where the basic principles of writing such as ‘plot’, ‘continuity’, ‘character development’ and ‘worldbuilding’ have been completly abandoned.
It’s a genuinely terrible book, and one I wouldn’t recommend to anybody (and would advise people who have ever been raped or in an abusive relationship to steer well clear of) but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to actively hate or abandon it. It’s so bad that I had to keep going, just to see how much worse it could get (the answer: lots) but too bad for me to hate it. Rather than resent having to read such poor writing, I can’t help but feel rather sorry for the teenage author (I know I certainly wouldn’t like my unpolished teenage writings published). This is, essentially, a first draft of a book that should never have got past the publisher’s slush pile and as such it feels very harsh to judge it even by the most basic standards of what I expect in a published work.
The reason why it did get past, of course, is obvious: ’17-year old Abigail from Brixham, Devon is already an online sensation, whose writing has attracted over 16 million views on Wattpad. None of her fans have yet to discover the breathtaking end to the novel and there is a huge anticipation to read the finale.’ There, right on the back of the advance aeview copy is the only reason this is being published: to cash in on a huge ready-built online audience by forcing them to buy a copy if they want to read the ending. Shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you. This is, presumably, also why the book doesn’t read like it’s had a proofreader, much less a competent editor – it has to be rushed off the press before the fickle online audience move on and abandon it - and as a result continuity and worldbuilding issues abound.
As an ARC I’m meant to ignore basic spelling mistakes and typos that won’t get past publication (‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’ was one particularly frustrating example but there were many more) what I can’t forgive the editor though is allowing some of the dreadful, confused, and often contradictory writing to slip through. In only the third chapter we have this gem ‘The sun was beginning to rise, and I glanced at my watch’ followed in the very next paragraph by ‘it … was approaching sunrise’ - yeah, we already got that thanks. Basic, basic mistakes. Later being able to feed without killing forms a major part of Violet’s decision to turn into a vampire, except…well she should already know that because it's obvious right from the begining. Elsewhere we have bizarre phrasing – ‘her skin draped in her coat’ does not sound like a description of a living person, much less an appealing description of one. Has she been flayed? No. Then surely what’s meant is that the coat was draped over her skin. And that’s far from an isolated incident, there are innumerable sentences and phrases that just sound wrong. The sort of basic ‘wait a sec…did you really mean to say this?’ stuff that should be so so easy to pick up on and correct but have just been left to lie because, y’know, 16 million readers already hooked, right? No need to bother spending time to make it a quality product! Again, shame on you HarperCollins, shame on you.
Not, however, that this book could ever have been made into a truly good book. The phrases could have been tightened, the basic mistakes corrected, but this was always going to be a horrible book due to the poor plot and dreadful characters. Credit where credit is due, I suppose, the author tries to steer clear of the ‘vampires are sexy but not remotely scary’ trope that’s slipped into vampire fiction recently. These vampires murder and rape without the slightest compunction, instead they’ve been thoroughly ‘defanged’ by forcing them to act like the stupidest, most immature, and most petty sort of teenagers imaginable. When you have a man supposedly in his hundred’s threatening his older sister that he’ll tell daddy when she lost her virginity well…it’s hardly dark and sinister and it’s certainly not ‘charismatic and sexy’.
And the author tries to have it both ways. Kaspar is dark and sinister, but he’s also a gentle little puppy waiting for the right woman to turn him into a noble prince. Those other vampires may be cruel and vicious, but he’s just misguided! And what better way to emphasise it than by using rape as cheap drama. Now Kaspar may have threatened to rape Violet, he may have sexually harassed her several times, but when another vampire violently assaults her he’ll come rushing to her rescue. What a hero! Oh wait, no. he still kidnapped, assaulted, harassed, and threatened to rape her. In fact, even after they have (surprisingly explicit) consensual sex, his pillow talk consists of telling her how he plans to rape the daughters of his enemies. No matter what ‘nasty’ vampires in this book you're meant to compare him with, Kaspar will still never be ‘charismatic, sexy‘ or even likable. I can fall for ‘evil is sexy’ in my fiction, what I can’t fall for is a character written to sound exactly like the sort of bloke who would rape you and then feel sorry for himself when you didn’t like it. That sort of petty evil is sadly all too common in the real word, it doesn’t need romanticising in fiction.
And then the whole ‘rape as a tool to push two characters together romantically’… oooh boy do I hate that trope. I don’t object to rape in fiction; it’s a real thing, it happens, frequently, and it needs to be discussed openly and not made taboo. The test though is in how an author deals with the after affects. What rape in fiction should never be is simply an easy excuse to scare a female romantic lead away from all men but the ‘hero’. And guess how it’s handled here? Yep, exactly that way. Before the rape; she hates Kaspar and sees through all his shit. After the rape; he rescued her and now they’re best friends and she totally wants in his pants. It’s handled so badly and so insensitively (despite a few ‘I felt dirty, I shouldn’t be acting this way’ protests from Violet that never ring quite true with everything else shown on the page) that only a few pages, and a few days, after almost dying from the attack she doesn’t mind at all when Kaspar sneaks into her room while she’s asleep, covers her mouth to stop her screaming, and then practically demands she consents to having him suck her blood. Better still as soon as he leaves his best friend comes in (the other side of the love triangle) and forces a kiss on her which she’s totally ok with. It’s just…it boggles the mind really.
I could go on about the bad things in this book forever but what, I think, they mostly stem from is being originally published serially online. Even if I didn’t know the origin of this book I’m fairly sure I could guess it just from reading. It doesn’t read like a book, it reads like someone’s simply hit the print button on an online fiction and then bound the pages together. Instead of natural, flowing, plot and character development this book is just a string of things happening for no particular rhyme or reason. No time for proper world building or character development, got to keep the audience coming back, can’t let up the pace! This might be tolerable when reading one chapter a month, maybe even one a week, but read it all in one go, as one reads a novel, and you realise that the tone and characterisation are just all over the place and that actually, no, it’s not ok for these things to be happening so soon after each other.
Then there’s the bits that seem obviously inspired by feedback comments from fans ‘oh you’re so Kaspery! – It’s a word I made up’, ‘I can’t die! I’ve never been to Disneyland!’ ‘It’s pronounced Sage-en, not Sagean’ (this last one is particularly dumb because the character had only ever heard the word so, not knowing how it's spelt, would have no reason to be pronouncing it with an ‘a’ in the first place).
Add to this the fact that the plot doesn’t even make sense – the easiest and least dangerous thing to do would just be to give Violet back to her family, bind her to an agreement of secrecy and let her go on her way. That and there is no way Violet could possibly ‘know’ the big secret she guesses blindly, and even less way that the vampires shouldn't already have considered it - but guess what? Her wild guess is totally correct and the vampires are stunned! Then there’s the sudden shift in genre near the end of the book as well; it’s all ‘clichéd vampire romance’ yawn yawn yawn. But then WHAM! ‘Actually there are several alternate universes and Violet is the heroine who has to save them all!’. Except instead of ‘wham’ it’s more of an ‘oh shit, I forgot to do my worldbuilding earlier or set up this plot thread properly but this is totally what this book is actually about’.
And then Violet... Why should I care for this character? I can feel sorry for her situation, but the character herself is not written to be sympathetic in any way. She’s lost her brother and that’s meant to be a big plot point explaining how she ended up where she did; except he barely gets referenced three times and it’s always ‘it was really sad when he died, it affected me a lot’ without ever actually seeing it affect her. Her ex-boyfriend cheated on her but that again gets about three references. Her little sister has cancer, but she’s too busy drooling over Kaspar to think of her family more than about twice and then acts like a total bitch to them at the end. She slut shames all of the previous girls Kaspar has ever slept with, deciding they must be ‘whores‘ (as far as I can tell none of them are sex workers and Charity, the girl particularly demonised by Violet, Kaspar and the autor, actually did fancy and want a relationship with Kaspar, it was him using her purely for sex). She pretty much slut shames her best friend (never mentioned again) in the first chapter, does the same to Kaspar’s sister, and even thinks of Kaspar’s exes ‘whores’ as she is shagging him. Why should I like her? She’s a judgemental bitch and her Stockholm syndrome isn’t written in anything like a believable enough way to prevent her from just looking like a complete idiot. (hide spoiler)]
In short: this book simply too bad for me to hate it. It's so clearly not of publishable quality that I just feel kind of sorry for it for not being given the constructive criticism and redrafting it so desperately needed before being sent out into the world.
Terrible writing, terrible editing, and a terrible plot. 0 stars.
Thank you to Waterstones for sending me an Advance Review Copy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Still in post-novel afterglow here (this is what happens when you’re more interested in books than people). I really love this little series, i...more 5 Stars
Still in post-novel afterglow here (this is what happens when you’re more interested in books than people). I really love this little series, it’s like a slice of childhood, I just want to drizzle cream and chocolate sauce all over this book and gobble it up. But that would ruin a very beautiful paperback (and probably my digestive system too) so instead I will simply love it and stroke it and tuck it carefully back on my bookshelf to treasure for all time. Like, seriously, if I could do the Gollum voice that is exactly what I would be doing right now.
And now that I’ve scared all the normal people off I’ll get onto the review. . .
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (henceforth to be refered to as ‘Revels‘, because the title may be gorgeous but it’s also very long and I’m a slow typist) is the second book in Catherynne M. Valente’s children’s series, Fairyland, and is all the more worthy of those 5 stars up there for being a sequel that doesn’t dissapoint. In fact I might even prefer it to the first book, which was one of my absolute favourite reads of last year.
The protagonist, September, is a year older, and matured from a heartless child (all children are heartless according to the narrator) to a young teenager with a freshly grown, raw and inexperienced heart. She’s spent the time since her first visit to Fairyland being the lonely, excluded kid at school, missing her father (away fighting in WWII), and spending her free time reading up on Fairytales and mythology. So by the time the book starts she’s just as impatient as I was to jump back into Fairyland and meet up with her old (and odd) friends there. Only when she gets there Fairyland isn’t quite as she remembered. Magic is now being rationed, just like sugar back in her homeworld, people’s shadows are disappearing and September believes she know’s why and is determined to stop it.
Now, I’m going to admit that it took me a good few chapters to fall in love with the first Fairyland book – maybe because I wasn’t used to Valente’s style and the old fashioned fourth-wall-breaking narrator, maybe because the story seemed to wonder aimlessly about for a long while before the plot was revealed – but I had no such problem with Revels, I jumped straight in and fell in love immediately. We’re taken to different parts of Fairyland in this book, notably Fairyland-Below, and meet a whole host of new characters, but everything that I loved about the first book is still there too. There’s Ell the Wyvern who’s half-library, and Saturday the Marid, the characteristic quirky wonderful narration (perfect for reading aloud to children at bedtime), beautiful chapter illustrations by Ana Juan, and then the book throws in great new stuff like a ‘night dodo’ called Aubergine as well!
More than any of these wonderful Fairyland characters though, I loved September. I enjoyed her practical attitude in the first book but it was impossible for anyone to compete with Ell there as the breakout character. In this book I absolutely I adored her though. Her fresh new heart and extra year’s maturity add a slightly different tone to the book; it’s still quirky and brilliant, but it’s not just a rehash of the first book with a different enemy. September thinks of her parents more in this book, considers both her own and other peoples feelings more, tries to understand them, and deals with teenage emotions and changing relationships. She’s still the same person as twelve-year-old, heartless, September, but she’s grown up, just a little. Everything is more complex, less black and white, right and wrong, than in the first book. Instead of fighting the Marquis, September’s foe in this Revels is herself, or rather the shadow of her twelve-year-old self. And shadows are not inherently bad but simply the sides of ourselves we repress and keep hidden – ‘The Hollow Queen’s’ motivations are those September shares and sympathises with, her actions those September, were she less restrained and a bit more wild, could easily commit. It adds shades of grey to the adventure that I really enjoyed and left me guessing as to just how it could all be concluded.
But, and this will surprise no one I’m sure, it was concluded! And in a way I was really happy about too. The last few pages also won me completely over to the idea of a September/Saturday relationship in the future – he was very quiet in the first book and so harder to instantly love to the same degree as Ell or September, but something he said in the here just won me over completely. If only all men were as sensible and sweet and understanding as Saturday the world would be a totally better place.
Loved, loved loved the whole book and cannot wait for the next one, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, which comes out this year in America, so probably next year in the UK. May just have to bully a friend to send me a US copy.(less)
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)
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)
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earl...more 3 stars
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I absolutely adored Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, when I read it earlier this year and a big part of that enjoyment was the writing style which was verbose and beautiful but also unashamedly honest and dirty and not at all ‘flowery' or 'delicate’, thick with references and heavy with unusual and striking descriptions that transformed the everyday and even the crude into the magical. Nights at the Circus is like that, but more so. More so to the point of absolute suspension-of-disbelief-shattering distraction, in fact.
Maybe it’s just that what works for me in a short story just seems too much when sustained over the course of a whole novel, but I found this book very hard to get into. As much as I wanted to like and get a grip on the characters and the story everything simply felt overpowered by the descriptions and writing style. Even when stuff was going on – and a lot of stuff did happen in this book – it felt like I was reading something that was all style over substance.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, or that the writing didn’t contain some absolutely beautiful descriptions, but I didn’t enjoy the book anywhere near as much as I’d hoped.
Nights at the Circus tells the story of Fevvers, a tall, brash, cockney woman with the wings of a swan sprouting from her back, through her meeting with Jack Walser, a restless, blandly handsome and blandly personalityless American journalist. Fevver’s is the toast of the town when Walser first meets her for an interview; an internationally famous aerialiste in the travelling circus, painted by famous artists, admired by the Prince of Wales, and subject to excited speculation as to whether she really was hatched from an egg or is simply a fabulous conwoman. Walser starts the novel determined to prove that it’s the latter, finds himself falling for her (no spoiler, it’s in the blurb!), and up and joins the circus himself to pursue the story and uncover the mystery behind Fevvers’ wings – or so he tells himself.
It’s a bizarre, weird, and frequently quite funny picaresque novel in three parts that are split up very distinctly by location, theme, and even narrative style. The first part ‘London’ tells the story of Fevver’s early life before joining the circus and is done almost exclusively through dialogue. It’s Walser’s first interview with her and so there are frequent breaks for description and reactions set in the present, but the majority of it is backstory told in Fevver’s own words with occasional interruptions by her audience. And this is where I first found Carter’s style started to grate. Possibly I simply don’t know enough truly charismatic people, but Carter’s very beautiful and distinctive writing style just sounds all wrong when coming directly from the mouth of a character rather than the narrator. I kept going ‘really? that was the most natural way you could think of to get that message across’. I gave benefit of the doubt, allowing for the fact that Fevvers is a very charismatic character and that she had rehearsed all this for her interview, but in the next two sections when other characters all started talking in this very verbose, unnatural, reference heavy way my suspension of belief just snapped. What works in narration doesn’t always work for dialogue and when, with a very few exceptions, all characters, regardless of background or education, tend to speak the same I tend to get super tired of it super fast.
Never the less, I enjoyed the story of Fevver’s early life. It was probably the part that most resembled what I liked about The Bloody Chamber, a decadent gothic tale of whorehouses, freak-shows, and female solidarity. The second section, Petersburg, however, is where the story really came together for me. The narrative balance shifts back more in favour of the omniscient third person narrator and the story shifts almost to a series of vignettes about the various colourful characters that inhabit the circus – Colnel Kearney and his fortune-telling pig, Buffo the clown, Mignon the Ape Man’s wife, the apes, the strongman, little Ivan, the silent tiger tamer, the other aerialistes – all leading up to the culmination of an uforgettably eventful final performance before the circus moves on. This was the part of the book I really enjoyed. It was funny in places, poignant in others and only the characters all speaking the same way really marred my enjoyment. Fevver’s story took a bit of a backseat until toward the end, but I actually prefered it that way, and Walser, though still pretty bland, started to come into his own a bit as he witnessed and interacted with the unusual life and inhabitants of the circus.
Part three, Siberia, however, is where it all went off track and started to unravel for me though. In fact, had I not been on a train, my copy of the book would probably have hit a wall when the narration suddenly shifted into first-person, and then hit the wall again when it shifted back. Almost all the chapters dealing with Fevvers in this third section now flow back and forth between an omniscient third person and Fevver’s point of view with very little rhyme or reason and no clues as to when the changes are going to happen. One moment you’re reading third person description and then BAM! Next sentence you’re suddenly in Fevver’s head going ‘wait, what…that doesn’t make sense, how did I get here?’. The dull love story also comes more to the forefront in this section and, to be honest, I don’t care enough about either character to really give a crap about it. I'm with Fevver's foster mother, Lizzie, in the 'why bother with him?' camp.
So ultimately a 3 star read for me. I wanted to like it more. It’s a very clever book with lots of great ideas and feminist and social themes running through it – all of which are more interesting than the basic framework of the boy chases girl story. There’s a lot of stuff to pick out and enjoy and yes, it is beautifully and vividly written – but almost tortuously so. For every descriptive gem there’s a nice idea somewhere else belaboured to the point of irritation and the characters, even Fevver’s who is meant to be‘larger than life’, don’t have enough of an independent voice for me to particularly care about them or their fate. In the end, much as I wanted to feel strongly about the characters get into the story for its own sake, I had to battle against the way it was written to do so.
I still love Angela Carter’s writing, and I still love The Bloody Chamber, and I am glad I read this. But ultimately I think the style displayed here is much better suited to short stories than it is novels.(less)
In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an...more3 stars
In many ways this book is very similar to another I’ve read this summer; both are European-inspired fantasy, both first-person narratives of an older man looking back on his youth, both main characters are royal bastards with magical powers looked down upon by their contemporaries and more at home with servants, and both go on to use skills and cleverness, even more than their natural magic, to become invaluable weapons and support to their royal patron. The difference is, however, that The Crystal Cave is pretty rubbish, while Assassin’s Apprentice is very good. So why then only 3 stars? Well, quite simply it was one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ books – I enjoyed it very much when I was reading it but every time I put it down it just didn’t have the ‘grab’ factor to make me want to pick it back up again straight away. And without that ‘grab’ factor I don’t think I can really award it 4 stars or above.
And there were other factors as well that led to reduced stars.To be honest, this book and I didn’t quite hit it off right from the start. On the very first page in fact, after the extract from the ‘history of the setting’ textbook which prefaces each chapter, I almost hurled my book across the room with a dramatic ‘Noooooooooo!‘ when I saw that the first line was ‘My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip‘. A whole 400 plus page book in first-person present tense? Say it ain’t so! Thankfully, reading on a couple of pages proved it wasn’t so as the narrator slipped back into telling his story in the past tense. Even so, it was an unpleasant scare and one that probably affected my enjoyment of the early parts of the book more than it should have done.
But I got past that and, by the end, I was really enjoying the book. Fitz is an interesting character, a little slow at times perhaps, and unusually prone to having people just reveal important facts when he’s around, but interesting and fairly realistic and sympathetic in his flaws and concerns. Other characters…Verity I quite fancy actually. As a middle sibling I think I have a lot of sympathy for the second son, always overlooked in favour of his brother, trying to come to terms with the inevitable comparisons and do his best despite not feeling adequate. Burrich…I believe I was meant to like, or at least grow to like him. But I didn’t. Not that I hated him either; I could see all the reasons why I should like him and why he was a complex character but it all seemed so obviously designed to make me like him that in the end I just felt a bit ‘bleh’ ambivalent about him. And that’s a fault I found with the characters all the way through actually. While the good guys were not perfect (the main character’s training to be a killer after all) they were notably sympathetic while all the bad guys were unambiguously evil, untalented, petty, jealous and vindictive with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. All of which made the final confrontation rather predictable and unsurprising. Even the reveal had me going ‘well yeah, how could you not have worked that out for yourself already?’. It didn’t help that this plotline was rather rushed, being pushed into and then resolved in, only the last few chapters.
While Assassins Apprentice is a very good introduction to the world of the ‘Six Duchies’, the key character’s that inhabit it, and the overarching plot for the whole series, it fell down a little as a self-contained story. It’s the first part of a three-book ‘biography’, and it reads that way; the majority of the page count is spent on Fitz growing up and the experiences that effect his development, so much so that the final conflict comes off as rather rushed and forced, having only been a very minor thread for the first four fifths of the story.
But that’s not all a bad thing. The overarching story of external threat being set up for the series as a whole is much more interesting than the almost cliché political scheming for power that this first book concludes with. Had the story had more of a single-book plot focussing more on what became the eventual climax of this book, I would probably have read it as a standalone and not been fussed about picking up the next in the series – but the mystery of the Red Ships and the sense that the shit’s going to really hit the fan in some nasty, scary, and sinister ways in the next couple of books has me hooked.
So overall this was a book I enjoyed and, while I didn’t love it, I can see why my friend who recommended it to me does. As someone who read a lot of fantasy (both good and totally horrendous) when I was a child and teenager, a lot of the elements did feel like stuff I’d ‘read a million times before’ and that probably did affect my enjoyment. But the characters and the larger set up for the next books outweighed the familiarity of the main conflict in this one. The rest of the trilogy is definitely going on my list of books to get out of the library and I expect to enjoy them very much. After that though…I probably won’t bother with picking up any of Robin Hobb’s other books unless those two wow me.(less)
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘th...more 3 Stars
So I guess the best way to succinctly sum up my feelings on this book is to repeat what I told my mum when she asked how I was enjoying it: ‘the TV adaptation is better than the book, and the story is better than the writing’.
North and South is a story I’ve been in love with since I watched the BBC adaptation with Richard Armitage in 2004. It’s basically Pride and Prejudice in an industrial Victorian city, with class issues and commentary mainly replacing the originals gender issues. Mr Darcy is mill owner and self-made-man, Mr. Thornton, while Elizabeth Bennet is the socially conscious and initially insufferably snobby, Margret Hale. Instead of Pemberly and the Bennet sister’s there’s a backdrop of industrial revolution, class tension, and trade union strikes and a supporting cast ranging from servents and mill hands to lawyers and Oxford academics.
Gaskell, though, is no Austen and I found her writing very hard to get into at first. Less wit and charm and more turgid preaching and moralising. Neither of which I am particularly patient with. It improved towards the middle, where the older characters start suddenly dropping like flies, but the first half was a real slog. Gaskell does that Victorian omniscient narrator thing where, instead of enhancing the understanding of the side characters by popping into their thoughts, it ends up dully explaining everything and robbing the book of any tension. All tell and no show, especially at the beginning when we’re meant to be forming our first impressions of the characters. No disagreement between Margaret and Mr. Thornton (or anybody else for that matter) is allowed without instantly flitting into Thornton’s thoughts to let us know that it’s just a misunderstanding, that he didn’t explain himself properly, and that he finds Margaret beautiful. Kinda robs the romantic tension somewhat. Which is probably why I prefer the TV version so hard, Richard Armitage can convey Thornton’s feeling more effectively in a single look than Gaskell can in a whole chapter.
And then there’s also the preachiness. The only character more insufferable for it than Margaret (who spends a good quarter of the book angsting over telling a lie - to save somebody’s life but it was a lie so must be bad) is Bessy, the terminally ill mill worker who spends every waking moment talking about how glorious heaven will be when she gets there. It’s genuinely cringe inducing and after about two pages I was wishing she would just pass away and put me out of my misery.
But three stars because I do like the story itself, the social commentary is interesting (if a little moralising in places), and once I got into the book (about the halfway point) the writing seemed to improve so by the end I was enjoying the novel more than I was frustrated with it. I also really like the side characters of Higgins, the trade unionist and Mrs. Thornton, Mr. Thornton’s imposing mother who doesn’t put up with any of Margaret’s fancy southern shit. The romance, I thought, was unconvincing but, I think, even Gaskell found that the secondary point after exploring the social tensions between the working class and the ‘masters’, the industrial north and the rural south. So after a tricky and deeply frustrating start, I did end up enjoying (if not always agreeing with) this book.
Will probably be a while before I decide to read another Gaskell though, and if I do it’ll probably be a library jobby. The ideas and plot may be good, but I’m not sure her prose has aged particularly well.
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later...more4 Stars
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later, but it really does capture the magic of the city. Or at least it did for me; how someone who has never visited the place would find it though…I’m not that sure. In fact I would probably only gift this to a child who already had some knowledge of, or better yet had actually been to Venice. There’s a handy map with key locations on at the very start of the book and a fantastic set of very accessible author’s notes at the back, but to get full enjoyment from it I do think the reader has to have at least seen a photo of Venice. Because, putting aside the beautiful and lovingly depicted setting, the storyline and characterisation are fairly standard children’s fantasy fare.
Teodora is an orphan, with no knowledge of her real parents but a deep yearning to see Venice. We can already see where the backstory will be going, yes? She also has some pretty nifty abilities, not least a form of magic synaesthesia where she can see people’s words, written in their handwriting, hovering above their head when they speak. She also has a photographic memory, can read people’s hearts and deepest emotions by touching their chest, and can read upside down. After years of nagging, her adoptive parents finally and reluctantly take eleven year old Teodora to see Venice. Problem is that they’re scientists, and the only reason they’re in Venice is for urgent scientific discussions on how to save the city from the sudden and bizarre series of problems that threaten to destroy it; the wells spout boiling poison water and the high lands flood while the lowlands stay dry. And if you think that sounds more like a magical curse that science won’t be able to solve you would be absolutely right.
So it’s a typical orphan discovers a magical society, saves the world/Venice and discovers their true identity after teaming up with a member of the opposite sex that they initially deeply disliked. Oh, and throw in a prophecy that could only be talking about her as well… I probably read hundred’s of these when I was a kid. What sets it out from the rest is the setting and the history. Every little thing – from the big-bad of the book, his child-killing henchman, to the winged lions and giant cats who protect the city – have their basis in Venetian history, folklore, or art. The henchman, horrifically, is apparently from the first group and used to sell a very popular cannibal stew before he was discovered and executed – like a real life Sweeney Todd without the hairdressing or the middle-woman. And it’s titbits like that that really brought the story to life for me and sucked me in. It’s an amazingly informative book and you can tell the author has done a shitload of research, but the facts are worked in almost seamlessly into the story and I rarely felt that I was being lectured or info-dumped on.
And because the writer has such a grip on the sense of place and history, the sense of atmosphere comes off very well too. The prologue is a beautiful thing; a wonderfully creepy and unsettling introduction to the undead antagonist and his powers as, against all advice, a young family attempt to cross the lagoon on a foggy evening to baptise their infant daughter. It’s probably the best moment of the book but the creepy atmosphere does pervade the rest of the novel as well, not least the Brustolons dripping blood from their mouths that start appearing everywhere (though I was very glad when the racist history of these objects and the horrors of the Venetian slave trade were finally addressed). Like most good children’s books for this age group, it’s dark, creepy, and atmospheric with a real sense of danger and doesn’t shy away from the idea of death.
Where it falls down though is the characterisation. Brownie points for Teo’s adoptive parents being genuinely loving towards her, but a couple taken away for making them the sort of oversimplified scientists who don’t get ‘the arts’ at all – at least until the very end. And the rest of the side characters are similarly sketched out or stereotypical. Even Teodora and Renzo I never felt had all that much depth to them. Renzo is clever – which means he knows local history – and a bit of a snob, while Teodora is a generic ‘nice to everyone’ protagonist. Out of the two of them this makes Renzo the more interesting character with the larger story arc, although he doesn’t end up doing that much except providing Teodora with explanations for things. Teodora meanwhile has all these amazing talents but constantly forgets to use them – in fact I’m not sure why the ‘can read people’s hearts by touching them’ power was there at all if it wasn’t actually going to be used for anything. Maybe it’ll be used more effectively in the next book.
The end half of the plot left a little to be desired as well, with the way to defeat the big bad being far too easy and slightly underwhelming. And I wish the magic of The Key to the Secret City had been either a bit more explained or had nothing directly to do with the mermaids. But, to be honest, for what I was reading this book for, these are fairly minor nitpicks. It’s a decently told pageturner with some original touches that I really liked – Theodora’s ability to see the spoken word, for one, and the mermaids having learnt ‘human’ from sailors all having rather coarse language (though it could have done with being more distinctly Italian or mishmash of languages than ‘pirate’ /’cockney’). Teodora’s not the most compelling main character and I wish Renzo had done a bit more, but I still liked them both and they’re probably on about the same level as most children’s protagonists.
In fact that’s probably something true of the whole novel – a very good children’s book but, if not for the magic of the Venetian setting, not an outstanding one. I enjoyed it a lot, enough to get a copy for my friend’s birthday and reserve the next book at the library, and I would definitely recommend it, but it’s not mindblowing.(less)
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least pol...more 5 Stars
Probably my favourite Austen. A re-read for an online book group, but a book I’ve been meaning to reread for a while anyway. It’s the least polished of Austen’s novels – the pacing feels a bit off in the second half and the ending feels quite rushed – so I was originally going to give it either four or four and half stars to reflect that, but actually, flawed as it is, I can’t help absolutely adoring it.
The main attraction I think is that it’s a bit different from her later-written and better known books – more youthful and vibrant and funny. Austen is always funny, of course, but you really get the sense that she was having fun with this one. The heroine, Catherine Morland, is the youngest of Austen’s female leads, being an impressionable seventeen – and at that awkward teenage stage where you’re starting to be considered an adult, but nobody’s really quite explained the rules for you. She’s not got Elizabeth’s quick mind, Emma’s overwhelming self-confidence, or Elinor’s thoughtfulness. But neither is she a Marianne; wild impulsive and romantic, with no concern for how others view her. She wants to be clever, self-confident, and thoughtful, she desperately wants not to behave improperly and draw negative attention to herself, but she isn’t even sure what’s considered improper and what isn’t. She’s unguarded and open in her conversation, takes people at face value, and tends to fold to the opinions of people who she believes have more experience. In short she’s a slightly self-conscious and eager to please teenager.
Taken to Bath for the season by a family acquaintance, the first half of the book follows Catherine’s adventures (and misadventures) of her first experience with high society and the friends (and false-friends) that she meets there. Poor Catherine is immediately out of her depth, there’s balls and plays and more balls and more plays and shopping and boorish suitors, and lots of young pretty people in fancy clothing. All the normal rules of society seem so relaxed that it’s hard to fathom what is appropriate and what isn’t, especially when people keep telling Catherine different things and her guardian is more concerned with the price of muslin than in advising her through these new experiences. At first mortified that she doesn’t know anybody, Catherine soon falls into the company of the beautiful and flirtatious Isabella, with whom she indulges heavily in a shared love of sensationalist gothic novels, and Isabella’s unbearable brother John. She also meets Henry Tilney, the best love interest in Jane Austen. Henry has the distinct advantage of neither being a cousin, nor having known the heroine from the moment of her birth, but even ignoring that he’s clearly the best – he’s funny, sarcastic, flirty, and genuinely kind and considerate. Darcy might be the one everyone lusts for, but Henry’s the one I would like to date. He takes the piss out of himself and likes to banter! That is literally all I ask for in a bloke. And really, can you imagine putting up with someone as self-important and judgemental as Darcy? Yuck.
The second half of the book takes us away from the relaxed society of Bath and into the austere setting of Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s home (invited there by Henry’s younger sister). And here it turns into a parody of the gothic novels Catherine loves to read. In the setting of an old medieval abbey her imagination, encouraged it has to be said by Henry’s teasing, goes into overdrive and she starts seeing murder, madness, and evil in everything. What is the secret of Northanger Abbey? Is Henry’s mother really dead? Mad? Locked up? Murdered? And why do his children all feel so uncomfortable in General Tilney’s presence? Dun dun dun! It’s in equal parts funny and excruciatingly awkward watching Catherine investigate her suspicions only to find innocent explanations in everything. But there is a mystery there, if a more mundane one – and it arrives rather abruptly at almost the very end of the novel before getting almost as abruptly resolved.
The pacing is definitely a little off in this last half and if I was judging purely on quality I would deduct a star (maybe two) for it. But you can’t judge a book purely on the quality of the writing, books are emotional things and I’m irrationally in love with this one, flaws and all. I love the characters, I love the humour, I love the interludes by the narrator, and I love the easy-going, friendly romance between Catherine and Henry. No great smouldering love affair but two characters who first experience attraction over a shared joke – that’s a relationship I can get behind. Catherine is absolutely adorable, Henry is totally fanciable, and many of the sidecharacters are up there with the best of Austen – although General Tilney is rather weakly sketched, I love Isabella, and John the boorish boorfaced bore may well be a very simple stereotype but he’s no less fun to absolutely loathe because of that.
A lighter, fluffier read than most Austen, it’s very evidently written by a younger writer, but it definitely deserves more love than it seems to get. Only thing I don’t like is that the afterword in this edition takes things waaaaaay too seriously – it’s a total funsponge. The book itself though, is great.(less)
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen bi...more 4 Stars
I’ve been meaning to reread Persuasion for ages. It’s the last of Austen’s novels and the first time I read it was during a bit of an Austen binge (all her major novels, back to back, in order of publication) and thus was feeling a bit romanced-out by the time I got round to this one and didn’t really ‘click’ with it. I’ve always suspected that my ambivalence towards it back then was a little unfair and that a reread would improve my opinion, and I’m happy to say that I was right. It’s still not my favourite Austen but I did really really enjoy it and predict at least a couple more rereads in the future (which is a lot more than can be said about Mansfield Park).
As most people talking/writing about Austen will tell you, Persuasion is the most ‘mature’ of Austen’s books, which, despite sounding totally pompous, I guess I have to agree with. It’s a more sedate novel than Austen’s earlier works; less full of sparkling wit but touching more overtly on social, gender, and class issues. It tells the story of Anne Elliot who, at 19, broke off an engagement to a handsome young Navy officer due to pressure from her friends and family about his lack of wealth and connections. Eight years later, age 27 and still unmarried, her own family has frittered away all its money when Captain Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, rich, well-regarded, and determined to marry and settle down with anyone but Anne Elliot.
The two are thrown frequently into each other’s company by mutual acquaintances (ignorant of their earlier engagement) and have to learn to deal with their lingering feelings, regrets, and resentments as well as their change in situations, ignorant comments from people who don’t know about their previous relationship, jealousies caused by various other suitors, and her horrible snobbish family. It’s a very one-sided romance for most of the book, however, which makes it hard for me as a reader to fall in love with Wentworth the same way I can for most of Austen’s other heroes. As the story is told almost purely from Anne’s perspective, Captain Wentworth appears to spend most of the early parts of the book ignoring her, getting in petty jabs when telling people about the qualities he wants in a wife (‘firmness of character‘ – just give that knife a bit more of a twist will you, Wentworth?), and paying more attention to almost every other female character. This is probably the reason I wasn’t such a big fan of Persuasion the first time round – I expected more romance and more interplay between the two characters – but that’s not really the focus here.
It’s Anne’s feelings, the heartbreak, the uncertainty, and the hope that form the emotional heart of the story, and I think they’re handled very well. I can only really say ‘think’ here because I have never been in love nor pined for an ex (I mean I have got back with one once, but that was a drunken mistake that shall never be repeated). But Anne’s jumble of thoughts and feelings at being suddenly thrust into the company of the man she loves, who she believes resents her, felt believable and genuine. She’s a quiet but complex character and rereading it, knowing not to expect the witty flirting of Pride and Prejudice, I was able to enjoy the book and feel for Anne’s situation a lot more than I did the first time round.
The other interesting thing about Persuasion is that it is much more critical of traditional class and gender roles than Austen's other works and reflects how these things were beginning to change in the early 19th century. Anne’s family may be titled while Wentworth’s aren’t, but her family spend away their wealth on frivolous, useless vanities and are almost bankrupt by the start of the book, forced to give up their few genuine duties as landlords by retreating to a cheaper environment and letting out the ancestral home to strangers. Meanwhile Wentworth and his brother in-law build significant wealth and respect by risking their lives in service for their country and return richer and on almost equal social footing with Anne’s father. The novel celebrates this social mobility achieved through military service (Austen’s brothers were both naval officers) while showing a more critical portrait of the aristocratic classes than in any of Austen’s previous books. While most of the titled characters, and Anne’s family especially, are so preoccupied with status that they are blind to the individual merits (or lack there of) of those they socialise with, Wentworth and his navy chums just hang out, have fun and act like real friends who actually care about each other – and it’s obvious which society Anne prefers. Then there’s Admiral and Mrs. Croft, possibly the only happy married couple in all of Austen’s novels, who do almost everything together, genuinely enjoy each others company, and serve a big ‘fuck you’ to everybody who tries to force women into traditional ‘delicate female – must be protected’ stereotypes – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
Persuasion isn’t as overtly witty as some of Austen’s other books (though it definitely has its moments, Anne’s family are hilariously awful), the romance isn’t as up front as perhaps people expect from an Austen novel, but I really like it. It’s a quieter book with a nice feelgood story that also has a few things to say; both about romance, forgiveness, second chances, and about society in general. Not that that isn’t always there to varying degrees in all her works – I will scorn anyone who says Austen is nothing but ‘romance and finding a husband’ – but in Persuasion it’s just that bit more open. It also contains one of my favourite Austen quotes of all time:
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
You tell ‘em, Miss Austen!
Still not my favourite Austen, but probably the one I will revisit the most often. I think it’s one of those books that every reread provides something slightly different. I liked it the first time but felt slightly disappointed, this time I enjoyed it a lot and got more into the characters and the quiet unshowy romance, next time… who knows? Maybe I’ll finally start to fall in love with Captain Wentworth – the 1995 and 2007 film/TV adaptations are certainly pushing me that way already with their delicious depictions of him.(less)
My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing three-star affairs. This book, however – whether i...more 4 Stars
My last couple of forays into non-fiction historical writing have been kind of disappointing three-star affairs. This book, however – whether it’s the more academic tone or simply the subject matter – I really enjoyed. First published in the 70′s it probably contains some disputed or out-of-date ideas and evidence by now, but it was one of (if not ‘the’) first academic texts to thoroughly examine women’s roles in Ancient Greece and Rome. So, as a woman who is interested in Ancient Greek and Rome, and who gets irritated with 50% of the worlds population being treated as unimportant – and sometimes even completely ignored – by history textbooks*, I had to read.
And it’s a very interesting read. Perhaps a little dry in places but I preferred that to an overly informal tone and I have read plenty much, much, drier – so I think this book probably got the balance about right for me. It’s well footnoted (always a plus, even if I don’t read every citation I like to know they are they in case I ever do want to check out the original source) but, most of all, the subject matter is really interesting. The book examines female roles from Ancient Greece – predominantly Athens as that’s where most of the literature and archaeological evidence comes from, but also Sparta and other city states which were generally lot more favourable towards women’s rights than ‘the birthplace of democracy’ was. From the more passive roles in Classical Greece it then moves through the Hellenistic period towards ancient Rome, where women, although second-class citizens, were considerably more free and even gasp allowed out of the house! It's political correctness gone mad, I tell you!
As someone who is more interested with Ancient Greek literature and legends than the ins and outs of city state politics (and who is less interested in Rome than Greece), I found the early chapters; discussing the iconography and roles of Greek Goddesses, the portrayal of women in Homer, and the way women were depicted in Classical tragedy and comedy, more interesting and more accessible than some of the chapters based more on the historical facts. But that’s a personal preference, and I do think Pomeroy gives enough context in this book that you don’t have to be an expert on the politics of ancient Athens or Rome to understand it.
Although the blurb asks many questions, Pomeroy avoids giving too many answers in the book. The evidence, both literary and archaeological, is sparse and fragmentary for anything to do with how the less privileged classes of Greeks and Romans lived. The literary evidence is almost entirely written by educated men and most histories of the period and analysis of the archaeological evidence has been done by men too. So often, rather than give a definitive answer, Pomeroy will promote a number of theories that both she and others have come up with. The only one of these I really couldn’t stand was when she mentions the Freudian Psychoanalytical approach to examine why male Greek playwrights wrote abut women in the way they did. I guess it was the 70s, but many Freudian ideas are now no longer regarded as sound in actual psychology so they need to start getting the fuck out of disciplines like History already. While there’s nothing, in theory, wrong with psychoanalysis and examining how a person’s childhood shapes the person they become, straight up Freudian psychoanalysis is full of all sorts of misogyny and bollocks and just needs to die. Also it's an approach that really works a lot better when you actually know something about the person's childhood and can use that to interpret how it informed their writing. If all you have is the writing, then you're just making shit up to fit your own theory - and that's just bad history.
Over all, though, a very interesting and informative book. A lot of the Greek stuff I was at least passingly familiar with from A level Classics and First-Year Ancient History modules, but there were several ways of looking and interpreting things (such as the case for female primogeniture in Homer and the Troy myth) that somehow I’d missed myself and had never been mentioned by my teachers, so that was really interesting for me in a really geeky way. Also I know shamefully little about Roman history beyond the bits everyone knows: ‘gladiators!’ ‘The occupation of Britain!’ ‘Baths!’ ‘Pompey!” and ‘Ripping off the Greek Gods, changing their names and stealing their myths!’ – so the chapters on Roman society were really informative for me as well. And I am glad (though not at all surprised) to see that Roman women weren’t treated quite so badly as the poor old Athenians were. Seriously, Athens was a shit place to live if you were a girl.
From the look of Amazon, most of Pomeroy’s works now seem to be out of print or really expensive, which is a shame. But if I ever spot one going cheap in a second-hand bookshop I will probably pick it up. I thought this was a very well written book that got the balance right between not patronising those familiar with the time frame and not alienating those who weren’t. Also, if anyone here is taking GCSE or AS/A level Classic Civs, I would really recommend reading the chapters on Homer and the Greek tragedies. I kind of wish I had.
* The introduction here contains the ridiculous examples of ancient history books where the word ‘women’ was not included in the indexes, and a book on Ancient Greece that stated the only two unenfranchised classes were ‘resident aliens’ and ‘slaves’, conveniently forgetting that no women of any social class in Greece were enfranchised either. But I'm sure the writers weren't actually misogynists - they just momentarily forgot that women existed, that's all! And then so did their proof-readers, editors, and publishers. And that's almost worse.(less)