Read a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall sRead a couple of years ago. Listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobooks now. Added thoughts on narration and such over at my blog: here and here
Overall star rating: 3.5
A Study in Scarlet - 3 stars
There are some truly brilliant parts of this novel, the growing relationship between Holmes and Watson, the interactions between Holmes and the police, the deductive reasoning that sees Holmes pulling solutions almost from thin air, the mystery itself...Why then only three stars? Well... once the mystery is solved – at around the halfway point - all those good enjoyable things that one reads a Holmes story for disappear and the narrative shifts into a third person account of the murderer’s backstory explaining his motives and relationship with his victims.
It’s a jarring change and not really a very welcome one. After spending the first half of the book invested in the relationship between Holmes and Watson and being fascinated by the correct conclusions Holmes could leap to based on almost nothing, I didn’t particularly care to get invested in this second set of characters. The most explanation of motive I needed was a quick monologue from the murderer summarising the key points – not a multi-chapter epic of lost love. But a multi-chapter story-within-a-story was what I got, and it simply didn’t quite work. The third person narrative seemed awkward and ill-fitting with the rest of the book, which reads as a personal account told through the eyes of Dr Watson. If the Holmes canon is meant to be written by Dr Watson, then this section doesn’t quite fit – the information is a bit too detailed for someone who wasn’t there, even if they have received a second-hand account, and the tone is completely different from Watson’s bluff, amiable style of writing. I kept asking myself where this omnipotent narrator had come from and wondering when we could get back to Holmes and Watson.
It didn’t help that none of the characters in this story-within-the-story were very interesting. There was a typical older mentor figure, his adopted daughter Lucy, and a rough handsome young hunter, all felt rather sketched in and none of the other characters were fleshed out even enough to be worth mentioning. The father was fatherly; the daughter was one of those annoying perky orphan kids who say things like ‘Oh! but why didn’t you tell me we were going to die? We can join mother then’ but eventually grows up into the most beautiful woman ever whilst still preserving her childish innocence and ‘charm’ (I use that term loosely); and the hunter was rough, young and handsome and well…you can totally see where that story is going, right? Insta-love! That’s right! Don’t you just love that trope? It’s all very disappointing and predictable, especially as the reader already knows what has to happen and already knows that Doyle is a much, much, better writer than this who can actually write fully developed characters because we’ve just cut away from them to read this second-rate part.
I’ll be fair on Doyle though. This was his first Sherlock Holmes book and it didn’t actually receive any real attention until his short stories were already a hit and he had solidified his style and characters a bit more. When it’s good it’s very good, and he does learn from this mistake in future books. Dodgy flashbacks and inaccurate portrayals of Mormonism aside, it’s worth reading for Sherlock Holmes alone – the mystery is just icing on the cake. He’s a wonderfully real character, even as he manages almost inhuman feats of observation and deduction. He has his flaws – a rather superior attitude being the major one and very patchy knowledge on anything that doesn’t pertain to his own narrow interests in solving crime for another. He’s not ‘perfect’, he’s as occasionally frustrating and annoying as someone with superior skills really is but he is amazingly charismatic. (Watch as these traits change until he becomes a caricature of himself in future stories though).
Now that many of his methods have been adopted both by the police and fictional detectives, you might think he would have lost some of his unique appeal – but I don’t think he has. The style of detective fiction may have shifted to ‘show the reader all the clues and see if they can work it out’, but Sherlock’s cold, calculated analysis of clues the reader (and Watson) weren’t even aware of until he mentions them, are still a joy to wonderful to read.
So despite the low rating I really do think this is a worthwhile read. Just remember though; they do get better! (And then worse...)
The Sign of the Four - 3.5 stars
A much more satisfying read/listen than A Study in Scarlet and one that seems to have learnt from the truly dire mistake of that story. Whilst there is a flashback here to the antagonist’s past and the motivations for his actions, it’s a lot shorter told as a confession – with all the bias and slant to be expected in first person narration – and fits in almost seamlessly with the style of the rest of the story. Also in its favour is the fact that the backstory is a lot more interesting in its own right. But there’s a whole mystery to solve before we get to that part so I’ll backtrack towards the beginning.
The Sign of the Four opens with the introduction – and actually one of the few mentions – of Sherlock Holmes cocaine habit and exploration into his psychology. It’s one of the things I love about Holmes that I don’t get with my otherwise beloved Poirot – he’s not just a thinking-machine but a complex person. He’s a man of extremes and, if he was non-fictional and alive today would probably be diagnosed with a serious form of mood disorder; if there’s an interesting crime he’ll be in the middle of a rush of activity but as soon as it’s solved he can flip, in an instant to lethargy and (then legal) drug abuse. At the start of the story he’s been in this lethargic, melancholy state for several months. Holmes is too clinically detached a character for him to be very likable or relatable on a personal level – even as someone who suffers from depression myself – but it does make him a more interesting and human character to read about than the earlier version in A Study in Scarlet.
Following a pattern that becomes relatively common in the short stories Watson does his best to get Holmes out of this funk by prompting several small examples of Holmes’ deductive genius – that Watson had gone to a specific place earlier in the day, the family history of Watson’s pocket watch etc. etc. These mainly serve to either show or remind the reader of Holmes’ skill and competence before we get to the real mystery, and it works – though I have to say I do get a bit tired of the ‘this type of mud is only found in one place!’ solutions as they do seem a bit of a cheat and I don’t always agree with Holmes that his explanation is the only one, even if it is the most likely. However, it is only with the arrival of Mary Morstan and her strange story of her father, who disappeared several years ago, and the anonymous pearls she started receiving several years later, that Holmes snaps out of his lethargy and starts getting interested.
Here again, you can see Doyle developing a framework used in later stories – the odd but seemingly but non-criminal story, that leads to something much darker and nastier than it first appears once untangled. Not that a mysteriously disappearing dad isn’t pretty dang dark, but that it isn’t a straight up simple crime such as being called to a murder scene – detective work needs to be done to even discover the crime in the first place. It’s a more complex, and arguably more interesting, device than the relatively straight forward plot to A Study in Scarlet and has the benefit of a more emotional core in trying to find the truth for a living character than A Study in Scarlet’s quest to identify the murderer of a character only introduced as a corpse. Of course Holmes gets the basics in about five minutes flat but it takes a while longer for the full story to be revealed, by which time the character’s have themselves a real crime to deal with and we get to the meat of the story.
And the meat of the story…well it sounds almost Robert Louis Stevenson/’boys own adventure’ in places; wooden legs, stolen treasure, hidden murders, and exotic weapons. It’s got action and adventure tropes in spades – there’s even a chase sequence! But the mystery itself well… Holmes sums it up best himself when he says that normal everyday crimes that offer no distinctive clues are harder to solve than the big ones with lots of unusual elements are. And here there are so many clues; footprints, exotic weapons, poisoned darts, the motif of a man with a wooden leg. Holmes is hardly drawing his conclusions from small inconsequential elements – the basic story (ignoring specific backstory elements only the villain would know) is practically written over the crime scene for anyone with eyes and ears to draw conclusions from. But, of course, the police and Watson are both baffled,
The backstory, when we get to it, though, is fascinating – perhaps more so to me because it focusses on a period of colonial history that I’ve studied; the India Mutiny of 1857. Even if you know nothing about it though it’s a more wonderful and exciting backdrop than Mormon Utah, and there’s a lot more going on than a few blokes all fancying the same girl. There are some, unpleasant, elements of exoticism and Victorian racial theory however – one apparently universally bloodthirsty and violent tribe is described as ‘naturally hideous’ by an anthropology textbook and ‘monstrous’ in appearance by the narrator. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and remember the time period if you find yourself being too annoyed. But there’s also an, admittedly not entirely sympathetic, depiction of Sikhs as being worth a white man’s loyalty that redeems it slightly (many Sikhs fought alongside the British in putting down the mutiny and they were favoured by the Victorian colonial regime set up afterwards). It’s a dark and brutal chapter of colonial/Indian history though that works as a perfect backdrop to the crime and sets a much better and more atmospheric tone for the whole book than is ever achieved in A Study in Scarlet.
This book, as a whole, is simply more grown up in every way than its predecessor; the narrative issues have been ironed out, more humanity has been given to the characters, the tone is much more consistent, and there’s an emotional heart to the story. Now I don’t actually rate this emotional heart particularly highly or find it remotely necessary for this type of book – it consists of Watson rather fancying the female client and if there’s one thing Doyle isn’t good at, it’s romance – but it succeeds far better than the romantic insta-love storyline in A Study in Scarlet. This is a lot to do with the fact that we’re privy to Watson’s thoughts and understand his bias but mainly because Mary is a fundamentally more interesting, complex, and less annoying character than Lucy ever was. It may not be my favourite thread of the storyline but it doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
It’s not a ‘perfect’ Holmes story – but the elements of the character and storytelling technique are still being introduced and developed. However you can see here, far more than in the first Sherlock Holmes book, why the Holmes stories took off the way they did.
Random almost unrelated recommendation!The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman – a victorian-set mystery novel that also features the India Mutiny as a key element of the backstory. Aimed at children/teenagers but an enjoyable read that features both a pretty awesome female protagonist and a female villain who isn’t a femme fatale.
5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectiv5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively there is no way Dracula would get 5 stars. Love it as I do, it’s got some glaring flaws. The reason Dracula is regarded as a ‘classic’ isn’t because it’s a literary masterpiece on par with the greats – it’s really not – but because it’s really good at what it is; crowd-pleasing horror, and because it helped create the popularity and features of the ‘modern vampire’. Thankfully however book reviewing is all about opinions and I can be as unobjective as I want.
I first read Dracula when I was about 12 and this was my first time going back to it. I have to admit, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. If I read it today it would probably only get 4 stars, but nostalgia and the love of gothic novels it inspired mean I just don’t have the heart to take that star away from it. Flawed as it is, I still love it.
And there are bits that are truly deserving of 5 stars. The whole first section where Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania visiting the Count’s castle is just wonderful. Told through Jonathan’s diary, the slow realisation of what his host is and the danger he is in makes for intense reading (or listening). However it’s easy to get a spooky atmosphere going when your setting is a deserted, ancient, castle sitting atop a cliff in a foreign and superstitious land, once the action moves to England the atmosphere suffers. Whitby is windswept and beautifully grim enough that the build up to, and events following, the Count’s arrival there still feel tense and scary, and for a while John Seward’s madhouse and his dealings with Renfield – a patient who believes that by eating spiders and flies he absorbs their lifeforce – is creepily compelling. But…well after the first vampire staking the book loses steam.
A lot of the tension in these first parts is tied over from the cliffhanger of Jonathan’s diary and not knowing whether he survived or not. The characters in England are not too compelling all by themselves. Harker’s fiancé Mina is alright, she’s a strong independent woman in a way that’s acceptable to the Victorians – which means she can write shorthand and use a typewriter. But then there’s her friend Lucy who is your stereotypical damsel in distress, going sleepwalking round graveyards in her nightgown, and the three almost interchangeable men who fancy her. Dr. John Seward, already mentioned, owns a madhouse and is one of the main narrators – the story being epistolary, told through letters and diary entries – Quincey Morris is a Texan who knows a lot about guns and uses amusing ‘slang’ but is actually quite fun, but Arthur Holmwood, the rich son of a British Lord, is a total snorefest. So guess which one Lucy goes for…
It’s all a bit too coincidental and neatly connected to take entirely seriously – Jonathan Harker is engaged to Mina – who is best friends with Dracula’s first victim – who turned down a proposal from John Seward who lives next door to Dracula’s new house – and was taught by Van Helsing, who is the only person in the Victorian world to recognise and know how to kill a vampire. But well, I don’t think it’s a book you’re meant to take entirely seriously. One thing I did like about the characters though; these blokes manage to stay friends and not get pissy at each other after Lucy makes her choice – they respect her decision, stop pursuing her romantically, and stay friends with both each other and her without being all grumpy about it. Can you imagine that happening in a modern vampire novel?
Up until the first staking the gothic atmosphere of the first section remains, if in slightly lesser form, as John and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy’s life from her ‘mysterious wasting disease’ and near constant blood loss every night. After it’s been established what’s causing it however the book slows down to a bit of a crawl. There are lots of conversations where the characters inform each other of facts the reader already knows and seemingly have endless discussions about what to do without actually doing very much. Instead of trying to hunt Dracula down it becomes a ‘destroy them all’ quest surrounding some of the objects he brought with him from Transylvania. Also while John Seward, Quincey, and Arthur all love to gush about Lucy, Van Helsing seems to have a raging hard-on for Mina (and I am so sorry to have given you that mental image). After he meets her he barely seems to go two sentences without praising her in some way and instead of being ‘Mina’ she’s always some variation of ‘that wonderful woman’. It gets a bit old after a while and I kinda wished the characters would stop praising each other by the time I reached the half way point.
Eventually though, the stakes get raised again with a threat to ‘wonderful wonderful Miss Mina’ and we get the gang finally heading out to take on Dracula himself. They’re no Buffy though so don’t expect too much in the way of action. And the hunt, like the middle section, tends to drag on a bit before the rather sudden conclusion.
I’ve made it sound really bad now I’m afraid…it’s not. It’s a good fun book and I have a lot of affection for it – I wouldn’t give it 5 stars if I didn’t – but I’m not blind to its flaws and don’t think they should be glossed over when writing a review. The story starts off very strong and gets increasingly weak, but there’s still enough to sustain it, and no one can doubt how influential a book it is. Dracula is a very compelling, if simplistic, villain and I would take him over a certain other vampire who isn’t killed by sunlight any day....more
I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was twelve. My big sister was playing Ysabell in a5 Stars
A reread in memory of Terry Pratchett. RIP.
I was first introduced to Terry Pratchett when I was twelve. My big sister was playing Ysabell in a year 10 house play production of Mort. Neither of us were familiar with Discworld at the time, but she borrowed the book from the student director and I borrowed the book from her. And that was it. It was wonderful and clever and different from anything I had read before.
Over the next few years I attempted to complete the whole series of (then) around 25 books. With no budget for buying books, and so many to read, I borrowed them from the town library, the school library, the earlier mentioned student director (who was then dating my sister and probably thought he was only lending them to her). Once I was a bit older with a bit more disposable income and a few older admirers of my own I purchased a few for myself and borrowed even more. I can’t remember what order I ended up reading them all in, but it was whatever was available at the time, and most certainly not the ‘correct’ order. I read Carpe Jugulam before Wyrd Sisters and got confused by the change of cast, and Feet of Clay before Guards! Guards! and was distressed to find Angua and Detritus were not guards in the earlier book. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (the first two books in the series) were the final books I read in my catch up – which was probably good as they are by far the weakest. But throughout this disorganised mishmash or chronology and characters there was one subseries, and one character, who always remained my favourites. The City Watch, and Commander Samuel Vimes.
I watched the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork shrink and grow and shrink and grow as I erratically read whatever I was able to get hold of at that moment. Only when I had caught up – and my parents had caught up enough on mine and my sister’s shared love of the series to start buying new releases for us at Christmas – did I start to read them in order. And the first of these Christmas presents gifted to me rather than my sister, was Night Watch. I had finished it by Boxing Day morning.
Still, when I heard the news of Terry Pratchett’s death this Thursday, it was Guards! Guards! I sought out, and the excuse to finally read The City Watch series in the correct order (and apparently my big sister had the same thought). As I could not locate the book, however, I picked up Night Watch instead. And I think, even had I found the book I was initially looking for, Night Watch was the right choice. It’s one of the most poignant and most human stories in the whole series. A policeman and a murderer, sent back in time through a freak magical accident (more details on that in Thief of Time) to a time when the city watch was incompetent, the ruler of Ankh-Morpok relied on torture and secret police, and rebellion was brewing in the slums. And a young Sam Vimes needs to learn to become the man (and the policeman) he will be. Only one problem – the murderer’s first act is to kill the man who would teach him that, and potentially change the course of history forever. Its up to Commander Vimes to step into his mentor’s role, teach his younger self the morals of policing, and become the leader of a revolution he already knows is doomed.
But Vimes (wonderful Vimes!) never half-arses a job. And, as the timeline changes in subtle ways, he realises that perhaps things aren’t so doomed after all. If he does things right this time and learns from his past, maybe this time the revolution will be successful, the friends who died might live – but doing so would change his future forever; he would lose both his wife and his unborn child. And this is why Vimes is my favourite character in the whole of the Disc. It’s all exemplified in this one book. Although Vimes is grumpy and pragmatic and cynical and never fails to fight dirty, he will always always do what is right and gets so caught up in being a policeman that he always gives his all and follows the job through right to the end. He adores his wife, but that’s who he is, and he cannot let the people around him down by not trying his best. Its one of the more angsty, more depressing, and most beautiful Discworld books from what I regard the best period of Pratchett’s writing.
And as it deals with Commander Vimes travelling back into his own past, well prior to the events of his introduction in Guards! Guards!, it serves my rereading from the beginning purpose even better than the first book of the series itself! It sets up what the characters and the city were like before the current ruler and before Vimes’ meteoritic rise through the ranks better than any of the early books do, and I’m sure will make me appreciate just how much Vimes achieves in the rest of the series.
So 5 stars. Forever 5 stars. Funny, sad, and thoughtful. A good book for grieving a wonderful wonderful author and a brilliant person. RIP Terry Pratchett. You will be missed.
Sidenote: My copy of Guards! Guards! has now been found, the next few books are reserved from the library or on order from the bookshop. This City Watch reread is totally happening! Watch this space! And I promise future reviews will try to be more about the book than this one too....more
This was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book thisThis was the book that as a kid that got me totally hooked on Greek mythology, and indeed mythology in general. Probably more than any other book this had a massive impact on my tastes and interests growing up. It also provided me with my first fictional crush in the shape of Ulysses (Odysseus - this book unfortunately adopts Roman naming for the heroes, though not the gods). As such I'm not even going to try to write an objective review here.
The book tells the stories of three legendary Greek heroes; Ulysses (Odysseus), Hercules (Heracles), and Jason. Each story is told in an almost comic book format - roughly 1-5 panels a page but no speach bubbles, the story is writen underneath each illustration in full continuous prose. This means that as well as the writing being simple and easy to understand for young reader's there's also lots of great visual imagery for younger children reading with their parents to interact with and appreciate. (My mum probably has a box somewhere of poorly rendered tracings and attempts to copy the more striking panels)
Although it's written for children it doesn't sanitise the stories any more than is really necessary - which is something I always appreciate when it comes to mythology. And as someone who sometimes handles show and tell of Egyptian and Roman objects in museums I can appreciate how hard it can be to get the balance right (hint: violence is ok, sex is not - make of that what you will). The circumstances of Hercales birth are rather glossed over, but the reason he had to do penance is not, nor is the lengths Medea will go to to for Jason. (On a sidenote how did that man think that shit wouldn't go down when he swapped her for a more politically advantageous wife? He almost deserved what he got for sheer stupidity).
After the end of each story ther's also a 'about the story' page which provides extra information on the characters, places, and mythology, as well as recomending other children's retellings of the same or similar stories (probably now out of print). It's a little simplistic but it served as a gateway into more serious Greek Mythology.
I realise this book is very old, probably quite dated, and out of print. But it was an absolute favourite growing up and deserves a bit of praise. It is single handedly down to this book that I eventually went on to do an A level in Classical Civilisations, considered doing Classics as my degree, and opted for several Ancient History modules when I eventually went down the History route instead. Although my opinions on the heroes have changed as I've read more 'original' greek and Roman works - I was so disapointed with Odysseus when I read Homer and lost a lot of respect for Jason when I read Euripides - my love for this book remains constant. The only book that arguably had anywhere near the same influence would be my picture book of King Arthur.
So though I don't expect anyone to go out and buy this book (if you even can anymore) I felt it deserved a review. And I am going to keep my Ribena stained, broken, spined, sticky paged copy and if I ever have kids (or if my sisters do) I will pass it on and hope that it inspires the same sort of passion for mythology in them too....more
For anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a formaFor anyone new to Sherlock Holmes this is really the place to start. Doyle finally hits his stride with this collection of short stories. It’s a format that suits both the characters and the mysteries far better than the slightly drawn-out novels (with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is ace) and has the blessed relief of absolutely no obscenely long and involved story within a stories. It’s also, from memory, the most solid of the short story collections as a whole – Memoirs containing a couple of duds and later collections a little bit lackluster in comparison – even so, it’s a mixed bag. On second reading (or rather listening) there were stories I liked rather less than on my first read, but none that I actively disliked.
The Adventure of the Red Headed League, despite Doyle apparently regarding is as one of his best, is probably the one that comes closest. It’s one I never particularly took to on first reading either; the solution being to obvious, the ‘mystery’ too farfetched, and the apparently highly intelligent villain too completely unsubtle in his agenda. But then I do have to give Doyle some leeway for not living in an age where people were so exposed to these sort of scams on an everyday basis (what person using the internet hasn’t been told they could earn ‘$500 an hour’ by signing up to some obviously dodgy service?).
A Scandal in Bohemia is also one I don’t have that much time for. Maybe I should; it’s the one with ‘the woman’, Irene Adler in and she famously outwits him but… well he isn’t that hard to outwit here. His plan to get her to reveal where the photograph he’s been asked to retrieve is is brilliantly simple, but it’s also very obvious and kind of stupid. It’s pure dumb luck – and stupidity on Irene’s part – that the plan works in the first place, and her ‘outwitting’ him consists of realising what Holmes was doing (which wasn’t subtle) and making a contingency plan while Holmes sits about wasting time not acting on his information. Holmes isn’t meant to be sympathetic for most of this story, I realise, and it’s meant to show him underestimating female intelligence, so far so successful, no problems there – but it would have been nice to give him a decent female adversary rather than simply rely on him acting stupid for the plot to work. Even in a story about Holmes overcoming his sexism there’s a lot of pretty implicit sexism. Irene is ‘the woman’ because she’s different from ‘other’ women. Yawn, move on. At least there isn’t any sexual tension there.
It doesn’t help greatly that this story is followed by another story which concludes with the quote ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatcheth a delusion from a woman‘ and the decision not to tell a young woman the truth about the mystery she asked him to solve – thus letting her evil stepfather’s plan to pocket her inheritance succeed. But then Holmes is a flawed character who makes flawed decisions and I can’t get too angry with a writer for portraying a complex character rather than going for a boring one with a flawless moral compass. I might not like Holmes’ decision at the end but it’s a solid story and it’s not out of character.
In fact I enjoyed all the stories, just at different levels. None of the three mentioned above are ‘bad’, I just find them less compelling or slightly more problematic than others. Certainly none had me wanting to check how much longer I had to sit through until the end – which happened frequently during A Study in Scarlet. And there are some real highlights in this collection too, particularly ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band‘, neither of which I want to say much about for fear of spoilers, except that they both have a wonderful sense of atmosphere and impending danger and that the stakes feel high.
Not that Holmes always deals with high stake cases, one of the best things about the Holmes stories is the sheer variety. Mundane mysteries (The Blue Carbuncle) through to actual crime (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet) and up on to murder (The Boscombe Valley Mystery), he deals with them all with varying success. Often a story will start out as one thing and then morph seamlessly into something much more sinister. And despite his almost superhuman deductive reasoning Holmes can, and does, make mistakes and, refreshingly, the stories don’t always have a pleasant outcome. Sometimes, as in The Redheaded League or Scandal, the solution – or part of it – is not that hard for a modern audience used to detective fiction to reach, but it’s enjoyable to see how Holmes gets all the details sorted so quickly and explains it to Watson, and there are other stories where the revelation is genuinely surprising.
Reading this collection, unlike the earlier novels, it is not remotely hard to see why the public took to Holmes the way they did. Even for someone bought up on Agatha Christie murder mysteries (Poirot, not Marple) Holmes offered something genuinely new and refreshing when I first picked this book up – a complex, active lead, solid foundation of friendship between him and the narrator (why does Poirot stand Hastings? Why does Hastings stand Poirot? It’ the biggest bloody mystery of the whole series), and a variety in both plots and outcomes....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
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. ...more
Sloooooly replacing my lost books/tatty Narnia paperbacks with these beautiful hardbacks (looks seriously better than it appears in the cover pictureSloooooly replacing my lost books/tatty Narnia paperbacks with these beautiful hardbacks (looks seriously better than it appears in the cover picture here - all quality paper and beautiful spine and shiznit). Will do a reread* once I've got the set. :D
*and try not to get too angry at the odd preachy/racist/sexist/stupid bullshit....more