Saturday, 31 July 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson; Treasure Island

Another from the box set of "Children's Classics". It was slightly odd to read this book. I've never seen any of the many film adaptations, but when I was little I did have a computer game of 'Muppet Treasure Island' so I vaguely knew, or remembers parts of the plot as I read. You know when you read/see a reference to something without knowing it's a reference, and then when you read the original, you suddenly remember and go, 'ooooh.'? There was a lot of that.

In case there is somehow, someone who doesn't know the plot of Treasure Island, and can't figure it out from the title, the book is about a young boy, Jim Hawkins, who, at the start of the book, helps his parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. Times at the inn take a turn for the worse when an old sailor, Billy Bones takes residence and soon brings down a host of trouble upon the inn in the form of old crew mates seeking the map he guards. Before his shipmates can claim the map, Billy Bones dies and Jim and his mother, opening Billy's chest, find the map and flee. Of course, no one can resist the temptation to seek out the island marked on the map when they realise that there's treasure buried there and that only they have the directions to find it. But the pirates that sought Billy Bones, the pirates of Captain Flint's old crew, the pirates who buried the treasure, are never far away.

Our concept of a pirate is so fixed now that it is easy to forget just how much it owes to Treasure Island - parrots on shoulders, wooden legs and x marking the spot all stem from here. Once again this is a relatively short book which you can easily read in a day. It's well written, fast-paced and the character of the morally ambiguous Long John Silver (though 'morally ambiguous' just simply doesn't so him justice) really brings the book to life, adding danger and uncertainty whenever he appears on the scene - he's a wonderful character to read about.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Kipling; The Jungle Book

So, after having found Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth in a box set of "children's" books I was about to get rid of, I decided to see what else in there was in there that I hadn't read. Despite it being my box set, that was most of it. Obviously I was given this box set when I was a lot younger and, being young, I had not developed taste as to what was good and bad literature and was more interested in reading challenging books than good books. So this box set stayed largely unread as my young and arrogant self wasn't interested in such easy reads. But looking through the titles I decided that there were a few I should read, and The Jungle Book was one of them.

Now, Kipling is another author for which I've had some of his books sitting on my shelf for years and years without ever having got round to reading them. And The Jungle Book was one of my least favourite Disney films. I positively disliked it. But it is incredibly unfair to judge a book by it's Disney adaptation, so I decided that The Jungle Book would be the place to start.

One of the things I didn't realise until I started reading is that The Jungle Book is a compilation of short stories, only three of which are about Mowgli. The rest are about various animals - a seal, a mongoose, and elephant, etc. They're written in a style that suggests these could be the myths of a group of people, passed down through an oral tradition - fixed epithets and repetition make it easy to imagine these stories being recited to a community by the storyteller. Unsurprisingly, I rather enjoyed the book. I few years ago, as an exercise in myth analysis in a course at Uni we had to use the tools of myth-analysis to offer interpretations of various other texts. The Jungle Book, had I only read it then, would have been great for that. Again, it's a short and easy read to while away a long journey or afternoon alone.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Verne; Journey to the Centre of the Earth

A few days ago I saw the start of Journey to the Centre of the Earth on TV (the old one, not the new one) and after watching a few minutes I decided to go read it instead. I was sure I'd seen it somewhere in the house. I couldn't find it anywhere and decided maybe I was getting confused and had seen it in a bookshop recently and debated purchasing it. So I read some other crap instead. Then, in a box set of books I'd been about to send to the charity shop, I found it. Gleeee.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is the story of Professor Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel and their quiet guide Hans as they follow in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm down to the centre of the earth. So obviously, this is going to require a little suspension of belief about the nature of the Earth's inner layers.

Verne's writing is great for fast paced action and quickly progessing plots and great characterisaton. I feel I know Axel and Lidenbrock in a way I don't get to know character is some modern literature because they're so dull. They don't have any defining traits. They're not passionate, bloody-minded, overbearing, cowardly, kind... they're just robotic. They behave in completely boring ways, you can sniff out any defining characteristics that govern how they act in situations... enough about the failures of other books. In Verne, that's never a problem. His characters, have character. And that makes them a pleasure to read about.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a short book, easily read in a day or an afternoon. Perfect for a long drive or flight, or an afternoon alone.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Book With No Name; Anonymous

Where to start? First, let's acknowledge that when someone says something is diabolically awful, and should never have been written, our curiosity is naturally piqued and we want to see for ourselves just how bad it is. Now I can't persuade anyone not to do that, but if you do, please, for the love of God, buy it second hand. Because whoever wrote this piece of crap doesn't deserve a single penny more from it than they've already made.

The premise: a magic stone kept safe by some monks on an Island has been stolen. It's magic, therefore everyone wants it. Two monks are sent to retrieve it. Also, some mass murder who was last seen five years ago (when the stone was last stolen - apparently these monks never learn) seems to have returned. A detective is sent in by the government to find out what's going on. He's a paranormal detective, so no one likes him, except his newly assigned partner, of which the same can be said. They figure out that the killer's victims have one thing in common. They all read a book with no name, by an anonymous author. Violence and swearing ensue.

The book is written by an English author, which is obvious not only from the spelling and the note at the front explaining the spelling for the benefit of American readers, but because, despite being set in a fictional city in America, every single person talks like they're English. They use entirely British swearing. That is how underwhelmingly little sense this book makes. There are expert detectives who behave like complete and utter rookies and, since, as the author keeps saying, "It didn't take a detective to figure out that..." I start to wonder why he bothered to make them detectives at all. All around there are contradictions between what the author says a person or situation is like, and then how he actually portrays or describes it. This specialist detective whose worked so many cases and is trusted with top secret government information is a complete and utter idiot. I can only assume that this is because the author himself isn't smart enough to write a smart character.

And I got tired of things happening. Literally. People get into cars and drive off, literally. They cheer, literally. Crowds gather, literally.

This book supposedly has three editors. Three editors who, I can only assume, don't speak a word of English. Basic commas and apostrophes are missing all over the place. This is comma usage even 11 year olds get their heads around.

Halfway through reading, I remembered what the book reminded me of in terms of style and attempts at humour. It reminded me of how I wrote when I was in Year Eight - i.e. when I was thirteen years old. That is the literary skill of this author. A thirteen year old. Admittedly the plot is more complicated than mine were at thirteen, but stylistically, it's the same. And at least I knew how to use a comma.

Another problem with this book are the tedious and continual references to films. Evidently, the author fancies himself a film buff. Therefore, every single character in this book is also a film buff. And on the topic of films, the author clearly has no idea that there is a distinct difference between writing a book, and writing a screen play. What he has attempted to write here is a screenplay. And that's how it reads. I sat there feeling that I could cope with this three page long conversation about crappy films if it were on screen, but in a book, I just want to rip certain chapters out. No plot would have been lost. Just a discussion of whether director x is better than director y. If I want to read about films, I'll go pick up a Kermode book, thanks.

I'm also making a wild stab in the dark that the author is male, based on the fact that the description of key male characters is... rubbish. The main detective character? He's black. That's all I know. I don't know whether that's because the author labours under some delusion that all black people look the same and therefore, telling me he's black should plant in my mind a complete image of a 5'8 man with short fuzzy black hair, medium build and toned body or whether he's just completely uninterested in what his male characters look like. His female characters, on the other hand, are described in the following kinds of way: 'her hair was scraped back, she looked a bit plain, but Detective Moron thought she'd scrub up nicely. Maybe even supermodel material in the right hands. maybe she was dressing down to avoid unwanted attention in her incredibly dangerous line of work as a library receptionist, or maybe her boss demanded that she look plain...'

What?

This is book is no where near as funny or clever as it thinks it is. There was one genuinely funny joke in there, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or not. There are more loose ends than you would care to count left at the end of the book - actions without motives, characters without explanations. It's rubbish. Worst book I've read this year, possibly the worst book I've ever read.

On a final note, the 'Book With No Name' could have been a cool point, could have left you going 'ohh, I've read the book, now am I going to die?' Even if he hadn't ruined that by making the book so ludicrous (not a flaw in itself, of course) he ruins that by telling you the content of the nameless book, which then makes it clear it's not the book you're reading, so the title just becomes an almost amusing self-reference.

Thank God I only wasted one day of my life on it.

Tom Holland; The Vampyre

The Vampyre starts with a young woman seeking the lost journal of the (in)famous poet Lord Byron. She has the documents to prove its existence. She has a location and she has the key. What she didn't expect was to find Lord Byron still alive. Or rather, still walking and talking. Following in the footsteps of Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire Byron then relates in a single night the story of his transformation.

Despite the obvious debt to Anne Rice in terms of framing the narrative, Tom Holland's book is easily the better of the two. Anne Rice's characters are dull, unlikable and have no redeeming features. They're not even interesting enough to hate. They're just dull and absurd. Holland's characters at least have a little more depth, and he adds an interesting twist to the dilemma of vampirehood by stipulating that to retain their eternal youth, a vampire must drink the blood of his or her own kin. Nice touch.

The book starts well. It keeps tension running high for the first quarter or so of the book, but then, once Byron's transformation is complete the drama and the tension start to flag. After a while I got tired of reading descriptions of necks being cut, blood being lapped and people being sexed. I found the description of the amorous relationships between the characters dull, shallow and unconvincing, but there are enough things going on in the book that that's not an irreparable damning criticism. My only other problem was the fact that Byron is essentially an uber-vamp, better than all the rest. The only reason given for this seems to be that he's just a great and talented man. Talent in life equates to power in undeath, apparently.

Flaws aside, the book is well researched and stylistically fine. It's not Homer, but it's a perfectly fine easy-read style. And for any literature buff, there's the added enjoyment of reading about Byron and other figures he meets - Percy and Mary Shelley, and Polidori (which explains the referential title of this book and spelling of it), and Tom Holland has very cleverly weaved the idea of Byron being a vampire into known facts and events in Byron's life. When you sit back and realise how cleverly and skillfully this has been done, it becomes very easy to forgive him the minor flaws of Anne Rice's outer framework and slightly flat relationships. Which makes this by far the best modern vampire novel I've read.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Voltaire; Letters on England

Right now I'm kicking myself for not having read any Voltaire sooner. I've had several of his books sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and just never got round to reading them, though I knew I should. I guess this one didn't have a particularly appealing title. But, as is so often the case with classics you don't think will be particularly interesting, once you start reading they turn out to be great. I finally picked this one up because I was stuck in Bristol for a week with no entertainment bar books, so I grabbed a few short volumes off the shelves and started reading through as many as I could.

Letters on England is a fairly self-explanatory title, it is a collection of letters written by Voltaire when he was in England, discussing various aspects of English culture - certain religious movements, scientists, politicians, patrons of the art, etc. often in quite flattering tones. I also found parts of it quite informative. Quakerism isn't a topic I've ever really been interested in enough to research, but Voltaire provided an informative and amusing account of the life of William Penn. There are also letters discussion Newton, smallpox vaccinations and English academies. All of which are far more interesting than they sound.

Volatire's style is light, intelligent, witty, and easy to follow. proving once again, if it still needed to be proven, that one does not necessarily need a huge vocab and overly-complex style to let everyone know how smart you are.

Juvenal; The Sixteen Satires

Putting aside his rather pronounced misogyny (his satire attacking women is by far the most vicious), which is not as easy (nor should it be) as many men seem to expect, the satires can be entertaining and, if taken with several pinches of salt, informative. The Satires cover a wide range of subjects and provide a rich and cynical perspective of Roman life in Juvenal's time. Now, I have a complicated relation with satire. In theory, I like it. But I've read very little that i'e liked. I find myself constantly frustrated with how crude and brazen the satire I read is. I want something subtle and clever and these satires seem blissfully unaware of the concept of subtlety, so I was slightly disappointed in that respect, because I always hope that the next satire I read will be the one that makes me say 'This. This how you do it.' It wasn't.

Personally, as an aspiring Classicist I found several parts particularly interesting and useful for future research... but if someone asked me to assemble a list of say, the top fifteen classical authors that anyone should read, Juvenal wouldn't be on the list.

Tactius; the Agricola and the Germanicus

This was a quick and easy read and, and it's going to be a quick and easy review. If you're anyway interested in Ancient History, or the history or Britain then sooner or later you'll read this book (or at least the first book - the Agricola, if you're more interested in Germany then the Germanicus is the way to go). And you'll be pleased to know when you do that it will be informative and with a nice, easy style. If you just fancy increasing your general knowledge, or your claim to call yourself 'cultured' then this is a fairly painless book to add to your repertoire. Also, if you're British, or have a fondness for Britain then you'll probably find several passages in the Agricola describing the weather rather amusing.

For myself, Tacitus' style makes such simple, pleasurable reading that halfway through I had a growing urge to put my copy down and go find the Latin instead.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Radcliffe; The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne is Radcliffe's first novel and, as the name might suggest, it's about two families in charge of their respective castles. And in one castles there's a bad and evil man who killed the good and righteous lord who lived in the other castle. The good and righteous wife of the good and righteous lord, being secretly superwoman, lovingly raises her fatherless children to be good at absolutely everything. Even sword play, apparently. When he gets older, the good and righteous son of the good and righteous lord meets a good and righteous peasant who is faithful to the good and righteous family, and they decide it's time to get revenge on the bad and evil man in the other castle. Drama ensues.

As I said, this is Anne Radcliffe's first novel, and because of that I'm prepared to forgive a lot. I'll forgive the undeviatingly formulaic structure and plot, and even the 'every-gothic-cliche-I-know-must-be-included' aspect. I'll forgive the women fainting and becoming ill every time anything mildly exciting happens in their life, but what really bugs me about this book and indeed, the romantic/gothic genre in general, is this constant reiteration of the idea that only the nobility -only the upper class - can be good, virtuous, and kind. And it bugs me so much because it's usually a major plot point. The hero(ine) of the novel - a lord, lady, prince, baroness, etc. - will inevitably fall in love with a virtuous, beautiful, talented... peasant. And then lament for the whole novel that they cannot marry them because they're a peasant and it would be awful and blah blah blah. Only to discover at the end that actually this paragon of virtue is a lost member of an aristocratic family and awwwww, happy ending, they can get married now. All is right with the world. Just once I'd like them to find out that no, that great and kind man is really a peasant and yes, the working class can be just as virtuous as the nobility. It vexes me. I am greatly vexed.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

George Orwell; Why I Write

Ah, Mr. Orwell, it would not be unpleasant to readily consent to a detailed consideration of the various ways in which it is not an unjustifiable assumption to say I love thee.

This book is one of the Penguin series of 'Great Ideas' and contains, as seems usual for these books, more than just the essay printed on the cover. Along with 'Why I write' it also has 'The Lion and the Unicorn', 'A Hanging' and 'Politics and the English Language'. The first and third are essays that almost everyone would benefit from reading, the final essay is one which anyone trying to write in English should read and the second is one which anyone claiming to be English should read, for at least the first few sections.

'The Lion and the Unicorn' is the longest of these essays and starts with a (still largely, and perhaps depressingly) description of the typical English person - our teeth might be better but we are still quite xenophobic, and yes, for the intelligentsia who aren't so xenophobic and consider themselves 'European' rather than British, the thought of standing to attention during 'God Save the Queen' really does gall.

The final essay is one on laziness and ineptitude in writing English and apart from being witty and amusing, makes some quite useful points for anyone who spends any time writing, be it a blog, school/university essay, or an attempt at a novel. If I was selfless enough to be an English teacher then I would certainly make all my pupils read this.

This was just the book I needed right now. I've been struggling for weeks to manage to get stuck into anything, and was moaning to my boyfriend just the other day how I needed something short, intelligent and not bombastic. This was it.