Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Charlotte Bronte; Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is the story of young, poor, unloved orphan, who, by the time she is twenty, is neither poor, unloved, nor completely without family. There are some ups and downs and at times it really doesn't look like it' going to work out, but thanks to a curious string of coincidences it all turns out alright. There are a few minor unhappy incidents designed to make you think that it didn't quite turn out perfectly, but they rather just highlight that it did. Having said that, the characters are likable enough, so it's forgivable.

I'm pretty proud of myself for finishing this book, because it's one of the very few books I tried to read before and never finished. When I first read it I hated Jane, I thought she was whiny, self-pitying, attention-seeking and just... generally eugh. This time, I found her tolerable to start with, and even likable as she grew up. But I can perfectly understand why my younger self really didn't like her. She's the kind of person my younger self would have wanted to punch if they'd met in person.

Unfortunately, however, I am apparently some sort of soulless demon for not crying at the end. So sayeth some idiot wannabe journalist writing for my Universities student newspaper. And, as briefly mentioned, one of the reasons I didn't cry is because it's all just so perfect. Then minor bad events are just highlight how pukingly perfect everything is rather than conceal it. It's tolerable, but I can't love it. Also, Bronte's occasional decisions to change tense just completely threw me out of the story every time she did it. I could cope with it the first few times, when she seemed to be doing it to get across the intensity of Jane's feelings when she met Rochester, but there were a few other times she did it that rather baffled me, and even the early times weren't done skillfully enough to avoid me breaking off and thinking 'hey, wait, what? ...Eh, fine...' I also found some of the descriptive language rather amusing. It made me think of Tiffany Aching and her dictionary swallowing.

It's not a bad book, but I found it a bit contrived, cliche, and not fantastically written, probably one of the worst classics I've read (bearing in mind that even the worst classics are a good deal better than most other books).

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Alcott; Little Women

Little Women is the story of four sister, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy who are miserably poor. Except they're not miserable, because they love each other and they love their mommy and daddy and they love God, and therefore everything is actually OK. The story goes through one year in the lives of the March family, in which each girl undergoes some small trial so that she can overcome some perceived flaw. Except for Beth, who is actually perfect, so she just gets ill instead.

It's well written, but personally I found it a little... obvious in it's structure. At the start of the book each girl names a flaw of hers that she's going to work on overcoming for that year, and then, in turn, each of them has an encounter/episode of some sort which shows up this flaw and allows them to conquer it. And well... this just isn't really my kind of book. I read it because I felt it's a book I should have read by now, and because it's one of my Grandma's favourites. And I can see why. She could have jumped right out of the pages of one of these books. She could be the fifth March sister. But... me? Gimmie byronic heroes over these little martyrs any day. It's not that I dislike books that try and impress a sense of morality upon the reader, or that give you characters who are good, kind and incredibly moral. I just get annoyed when actually, everything turns out alright for them in the end, apparently because they're good and moral. Bad things with lasting effects should have happened. Someone should have died.

Unsurprisingly, I'm not going to be tracking down any of Alcott's other books about the March family to read.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Kundera; Immortality

I think trying a synopsis of Immortality is probably some sort of crime. So I won't write one. It's possibly a book to approach best without knowing much about, except that Kundera is funny at times, an astute observer of human nature, and very, very clever.

Though I must add, I disagreed with him about a few things.

This is the book for you if you like books that make you think, and think properly about people and humanity. If you like books that have as much philosophy and dialogue as plot. If you like books that are clever, unconventional, and very clever about how they're unconventional.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Pratchett; Wintersmith

Tiffany Aching, now thirteen, still training to become a witch and coming along nicely, dared to dance with the Wintersmith, and now the Wintersmith is entranced by her. But he seems to have mistaken her for someone else. Someone of a... more summery disposition. And his infatuation with her and the havoc that her dance caused to the natural order are starting to have interesting and dire consequences - for both herself and everyone else. A multitude of Tiffany shaped icebergs have been reported by sailors. Of course, they don't know they're specifically Tiffany shaped, for which Tiffany is rather grateful, but she'd still rather people weren't crashing into icebergs shaped like her.

Now Tiffany is hiding from the Wintersmith as she tries to think up of a way to solve this newest problem before the winter starts to get longer and harsher than it should. Once again the Nac Mac Feegle are on hand to help, whether wanted or not, along with the witches and Horace the cheese, who seems to act rather like a member of the Feegle clan.

This is the last installment for the moment of the Tiffany Aching books (I timed it rather well, I think, the next is due out in September). And has a mixture of the best old characters (The Nac Mac Feegle, Granny Weatherwax) some old familiars from the adult series who haven't appeared much before (Nanny Ogg and Greebo) as well as a few new characters, big and small (Horace, You and Miss Treason). A mixture which keeps things nicely interesting and prevents boredom or bewilderment. This book has a slightly more romantic element to it, but it's well managed. It's not soppy or overdone and is written with Pratchett's usual wit and humour, which makes it more than palatable even for those of us who aren't usually interested in reading about typical teenagers and their crushes.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Pratchett; A Hat Full of Sky

Tiffany Aching is definitely a witch. But she could definitely do with some training. And that's just what she's about to get. For the first time in her life, Tiffany is leaving the chalk to begin an apprenticeship under Miss Level, a curious but friendly witch with more arms and legs than is normal. But Tiffany has inadvertently attracted the attention of... something. Something which has no body of its own - a parasite which invades other bodies, only leaving when it's driven the host to madness and death - and it's decided it quite likes the look of Tiffany's body, thank you very much. But this is an ancient evil chasing Tiffany - it cannot be killed, so how can she defeat it? Even the help of the faithful Nac Mac Feegle, cheery guardians of their old Kelda, whether she wants them to be or not, might not be enough to help Tiffany this time...

This is the second book about the young Witch Tiffany Aching and once again, it's classic Pratchett. It's just as witty, funny and inventive as ever, though I wish Pratchett would explain a little more why Tiffany is tied to the chalk in a way that no other witch seems to be tied to her native soil - but this isn't too big an issue. It's an important point that she is tied to the chalk, but it's not as if the book doesn't make sense without knowing why she is. It's also interesting to have Tiffany's perspective on things as she meets Discworld's most famous witch, Granny Weatherwax. Tiffany herself is, I find, a very relatable character - she behaves in a very realistic and understandable way (I remember reading several children's books and finding myself at times - both when I was younger and when I reread them when I was older - thinking 'What? WHAT? This is NOT a reasonable reaction. This does... Not. Make. Sense.) so I appreciate how realistic I find her actions and reactions to be when reading about Tiffany.

Tiffany seems to be getting a few years older in each book which makes me wonder if, one day, when her childhood is done, will we see her pop up in a Discworld novel instead?

Phew! I really need to catch up on reviews - I'm still about five books behind myself. Erk.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Pratchett; The Wee Free Men

You can't grow a good witch on chalk, everyone knows that. Too bad nobody told Tiffany Aching that. Or the Feegle clan that live up on the chalk, who have already identified her as their hag. But why are the Nac Mac Feegle looking for the hag? And where did that headless horseman and the thing from the ri- and wait a minute, where's Tiffany's brother? According to the Kelda - leader of the Nac Mac Feegle - he's been taken by the fairy queen, who's not quite as good at looking after children as she likes to think she is.

She might not know any magic yet, and she might be very young, and she might not be that fond of him, but that was Tiffany's brother, and no one steals her things, especially not some silly fairy. So with the help of the Feegle Clan, a talking toad, and Granny Aching's copy of Diseases of the Sheep, Tiffany sets off to get her brother back.

This was one of the most enjoyable light reads I've read in a long time - top form wit and cunning from Pratchett, and laugh out loud funny in several places. Tiffany is a great character who was a pleasure to read about and the Feegle clan are hilariously lovable rogues, the plot is engaging and moves along quickly. As a kids book it can be read in a single day, or afternoon if you're an older or faster reader. I couldn't wait to start the next book when I was done and grabbed it off the shelf straight away.

Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Pianist

The Pianist is the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist for Polish radio before and after the Second World War. He tells of the segregation of the jews from the rest of the population and how they were gradually all removed and taken to the camps - he himself survives through a remarkable series of chances and help from brave friends and strangers willing to risk their lives to save him.

When I read this, I had to constantly remind myself that this was real - this wasn't fiction, this was the record of someone's life, what they'd seen and what they'd lived through. I thought about it quite a lot - why I had to keep reminded myself that it was real, and then, at the end I learned that he'd written it himself very shortly after the war had ended. And I realised that the reason I was having to remind himself that this was real was probably because he was having problems with it feeling real, too.

For me, the most moving part of it was the accompaniment of the account by several extracts from the diary of the German soldier who was one of the many people who helped save Wladyslaw Szpilman's life.

Most people should, I think, at some point in their lives when they're old enough to understand - or rather, when they're old enough to understand that they can never truly understand - should read an autobiography of someone's life during the Second World War. This would be a good one to choose.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Philip Reeve; Infernal Devices

In Anchorage In Vineland, the only city on the Dead Continent, Wren - daughter of Hester and Tom is bored. Life there is too quiet, and she craves adventure like those her parents had before they fled over the ocean from the war the Green Storm were waging against the Traction Cities sixteen years ago. And then, out of the blue, the opportunity to escape rises with the appearance of some Lost Boys - people Wren has only ever heard about in stories from the adults who lived through the move across the ocean. But Wren's escape plan is turned upside down as she becomes the captive of first one person, then another until finally she ends up right in the middle of the war her parents were fleeing.

This is the third book in the Mortal Engines Quartet, and by far the weakest so far. I suspect it will be the weakest of the lot, since the penultimate book in any trilogy is usually just a long prologue to the final volume and rarely worth much on its own. Also, the final one won an award or two, so I have hopes that it might turn out to be almost as good as the first one.

I had huge problems buying into Hester's attitude to her daughter - Reeves turns Hester from a girl with understandable insecurities who made a mistake through a mother completely alienated from her child to... just a plain psychopath. I don't buy it. There's no reason for it. I also didn't buy into Wren's attitude to her mom - she's ashamed of her because she has a scar on her face? That's... just not believable. This is her mom. That's how she's always looked. Typically, if you grow up with something like that, it doesn't phase you because it's always been normal to you. If I saw that other people were embarrassed by my mother because she was different, I wouldn't suddenly think that I should be embarrassed by her too, I'd be angry at them for being so stupid and narrow-minded. And this incredibly twisted, unbelievable mother-daughter relationship completely ruined it for me.

If you can get past that, then there are a few good points - the story is fast-moving and engaging and the thread with Dr. Zero far more realistic in terms of dealing with human emotion, so it's far easier to feel an emotional tie with the character.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Pratchett; Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

So, knowing that I really rather used to like Pratchett at one point, I wasn't going to be put off by one bad book, and gave another one a go. I picked this one because, well, it's shorter and easier to finish if I'd found out I didn't like it. But that was not a problem at all.

As money-making scams go, the setup Maurice, the talking, thinking cat has arranged isn't too bad at all. The rats go in, stealing food, peeing on the food they don't steal, dancing around and generally scaring the townsfolk. Being smart, they know to avoid the poison and they're getting remarkably good at disarming traps. Then, after a few days, the boy comes in with his pipe, rids the town of its "plague" of rats, and hey! Easy money. And since they've made quite a lot of money this way, and the rats are starting to have worrying thoughts of an ethical nature about what they're doing, they agree that the next town will be the last one.

But when they get to Bad Blintz, they realise that something else is already causing trouble in this town. There are rat traps everywhere, but no rats anywhere, and haven't been for quite a while, by the looks of things. And yet the villagers claim that most of their food is still being stolen by rats. On the surface, Maurice and his piper boy, Keith, are tracking down part of the problem in some greedy rat catchers. But the educated rats are nervous, because there's something very wrong going on in the sewers of Bad Blintz, something far worse than just two greedy men.

This book restored my faith in Pratchett. It was far better than Thief of Time. The female character was annoying and, I thought, a bit of an obvious plot device for promoting the point that just because it's a story, and a fantasy setting, it doesn't mean it can't be realistic about how people act. But once you got past that, it was good - funny, fast-paced, entertaining, an genuinely quite dark and scary in some places.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Pratchett; The Thief of Time

The Thief of Time is part of Pratchett's (in)famous Discworld series.

Many years ago someone attempted to build a clock so accurate it didn't just measure time, it trapped it. The clock was built of glass and crystal except for one small spring of metal. When the clock was activated the metal spring had proved a fatal weakness and the clock broke, shattering time along with it. The Order of Wen the Eternally surprised, monks who have taken it upon themselves to guard time pieced it back together in a patchwork way, taking time from one place and dumping it in another, reusing certain bits and dumping any excess time in the sea. And they removed all memory of the glass clock ever having been built.

But you can't remove something like that. Not completely. It trickles back in through fairy-tales and dreams and now The Order of Wen the Eternally Surprised are running out of time, because someone is building a second glass clock. And this one won't have a metal spring. Lobsang, the tricky orphan recruited from the Guild of Thieves in Ankh-Morpork who has more skills than he should for one so young, and the renowned hero Lu-Tze, a cheery sweeper who no one notices will need all their skill to stop the clock before it can be started. But help may come from unexpected places, for Susan Sto-Helit (Miss Susan to you), granddaughter of death is also on the trail.

I was unpleasantly surprised by how uninteresting I found this book. Maybe I've just been spoilt by excellent literature and TV that deals with time in brilliant ways, but I just felt that this was nowhere near as clever as it could, or should be. I had far higher expectations from Pratchett. I also got quite bored at times waiting for the book to catch up with the plot twists I'd already figured out. It did however, go a decent way to redeeming itself in the last third of the novel, and there were still a few ideas in there that were both interesting and amusing - the procrastinators, for one.

I did, however, find Susan's character completely unlikable. Which again, rather surprised me. I don't remember her being that incredibly predictable or dull, but I found myself impatient for her to get off the page whenever it came to her narrative thread. For me, it was the scenes with either Death or Ronnie (or Death and Ronnie) that saved it.

It's a decent read for any Discworld fanatic, I suppose, but far from the best that Pratchett can do.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Samuel Butler; Erewhon

Erewhon was one of the book that came up a few times in The End of Mr. Y, for being a thought experiment. It also happens to be one of the books I'm looking after for a friend whilst she's out of the country for 18 months, so it made sense for my next read.

At its core, this book is a big thought experiment and social criticism, wrapped loosely in a narrative about the discover of new lands, hidden behind a mountain range, and new people by a single man who then spends several months first learning their language, and studying their culture. The elements of the culture he describes - the unlawfulness of being physically ill, the Schools of Unreason, The Musical Banks, the book on the machines, etc. provide the dress-up for the social criticism and thought experiment.

Though I found the first few chapters - the travelling to, and discovery of, Erewhon - slightly dull, once that was over, however, and it was into the actual discussion of Erewhonian culture, I fell in love. It's very clever and thought provoking (as, I suppose, a thought experiment should be) and underlying much of it there is an incredibly ironic sense of humour - just the sort I love. And because it doesn't just ask 'what if?' but also, 'how is this, which seems absurd, really different to what we do?' it can provide quite a strong criticism of certain elements of our own culture - still largely relevant to today. I would class it as one of those books that anyone who considers themselves an intellectual should have read.

Scarlett Thomas; The End of Mr. Y

Ariel Manto, A PhD student researching thought experiments in literature, and despite the fact that her now missing supervisor told her to ignore him, she has an ongoing interest in an obscure English author by the name of Thomas Lumas. Thomas Lumas who wrote a book called The End of Mr. Y which no one has read in a long time because no one can find a copy of it anymore. Thomas Lumas, who wrote a book and then promptly died. Along with anyone else who read it. And suddenly, Ariel finds herself with a copy of this book. The book that people die after reading. But she's not the only one interested in Lumas' last work...

This is the book I should have read instead of wasting my time on The Book With No Name. There are so many good things about this book. This is the easy read for an intelligent reader. Instead of idiotic discussions on movies, the discussions are on Derrida and quantum mechanics. Definitely my kind of thing. It's not hard to follow, but you do have to let it have your full attention. I suppose some people might get bored of the frequent theoretical discussions, and if you're the kind of person who tunes out when someone else starts talking about literary analysis or theoretical science then no, this really isn't going to be the book for you. The only thing that really didn't interest me were the droll passages where she dwells on her history of self harm and past sexual exploits. I just... didn't see the point. There were also one or two ends that really shouldn't have been loose, but were hardly plot-destroying.

However, one of the little things I really enjoyed was the fact that Scarlett Thomas made the evolutionary biologist the 'clever, and yet... and the same time, so incredibly stupid', narrow-minded one. Just because you study a science subject, it doesn't make you better, smarter, or more open-minded. And it gets boring to constantly read about narrow-minded theists.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Christopher Tyerman; The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction

It's nonfiction. It's an introduction to the Crusades. With me so far?

As I'm sure I've said before, and will inevitably say again in relation to this series of books: they're good, but they're not quite introductions for the complete new-comer to the topic. I always feel that you get a little bit more out of them if you've already done some very preliminary reading on the topic yourself.

I've had this sitting on my shelf for a while and picked it up a few weeks ago after a discussion with a relative about the crusades and the influence of Islamic societies in general. He had what seemed to me a pretty warped opinion and would try and deny that anything good had come out Muslim societies, even when presented with pretty concrete examples. I was pretty sure that a lot he said about the crusades had that same warped twist to it, but I found I didn't really know enough about it myself to be able to really argue against him there. So I decided to cure my ignorance.

I wouldn't say I'm not fully equipped to enter into a debate with people about all aspects of the crusades, but I can certainly utter with confidence the immortal line, "It's not that simple." And maybe even go a little way into explaining why.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Anthony Hope; The Prisoner of Zenda

The penultimate book in the pile from the "children's" classics box set. Another title that I'd not heard of before I saw it in this set.

The Prisoner of Zenda is about Rudolph Rassendyll, one of the idle rich, who decides to entertain himself by visiting Ruritania. Upon reaching Ruritania, he discovers that he is the exact image of the soon-to-be-crowned king of Ruritania. But the King has a brother, Black Michael, who is determined to claim the throne for himself and plotted darkly against his brother and now holds him prisoner in the castle of Zenda. To keep Black Michael off the throne whilst they plan a way to save the king, Rudolph agrees to play the part of the man he looks so much like.

A few pages in I knew I was going to like this book, it had a sense of humour that I immediately warmed to. As an adventure novel with some romance thrown in it is a perfectly fine book. But what really made it stand out to me was the inner turmoil and moral dilemma of Rudolph after he has fallen in love with the Princess Flavia, and she with him. Does he keep the throne, knowing Black Michael will never be able to call him out, or does he make the attempt to free the king, knowing that if he does he will have to leave the woman he loves and she marry a man whom she doesn't love. By the end it is far more than just an adventure story and is rather touching. Definitely my favourite so far from that box set.

Stephen Crane; The Red Badge of Courage

Another one from the "Children's Classics" box set. I can't say I've heard of Steven Crane before, I think he may be more popular in America than here in England. Or maybe there are just gaping holes in my knowledge of good literature.

The Red Badge of Courage is the story of a young man who joins the army to fight in the American Civil War and portrays the thoughts, fears, hopes and doubts of a soldier fighting for the first time. The back cover comments briefly that it is a remarkable portrayal of war considering the author had never experienced war himself. Which irks me. The whole point of writing fiction is that you're able to write about things that haven't happened, or haven't happened to you. Whether the author has been to the country they're writing about, seen the revolution they're writing about, is neither here nor there and simply shouldn't be taken into consideration, in my opinion. It is either a good portrayal of war, or a bad portrayal of war. There should be no qualification that it's good 'for someone whose never experienced war' and, frankly, this book doesn't need that qualification. It is an excellent portrayal of war. That's all there is to it.

It is perhaps a little slow in places, and I did find myself wondering whether I wanted it to be slightly more damning of war than I felt it to be, but in the end I found I could cope with the fact that it doesn't shove a moral view down you throat, but rather presents you with a reality and lets you decide for yourself.