Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Book #01

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Sweeping from a harsh land of cold to a summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, A Game of Thrones tells a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; a child is lost in the twilight between life and death; and a determined woman undertakes a treacherous journey to protect all she holds dear. Amid plots and counter-plots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, allies and enemies, the fate of the Starks hangs perilously in the balance, as each side endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Here I am: the last girl to board the Game of Thrones train. I’ve heard the hype and haven’t responded; I’ve listened to people talk about both the books and the television show and haven’t been tempted in the slightest. My slowness can be blamed on my strong moral belief that books are always better than any film or television show, and for that reason should be read before any screen viewing behaviour is attempted. Problem is, there are seven books in the Game of Thrones series, each of them containing upwards of 800 pages; that’s a monumental and overwhelming task, particularly when you have 300ish other books clawing for your attention. 

Neither did I believe the hype. I’ve been burnt before with novels which seemed to be taking over the planet, and which I read in confusion, not quite understanding their greatness. I’ve become wary of these types, preferring instead to stick to my TBR list strictly, and let the kids have their fun with the latest crazes. I’ve learned now, after plunging into this particular storm, that I was completely wrong in doing so. The kids and their crazes clearly can sometimes hit on something wonderful.

My first surprise was how easy Martin’s prose is to read. I expected something similar to Tolkien; long, rambling, irrelevant sentences, and lots of names and I’d struggle to keep grip of. This had nothing of Tolkien’s banality – although there are plenty of names, places, grudges and vengeances to keep hold of, Martin somehow contains it all into an endlessly relevant plot without allowing us to lose track. This was impressive, and I hadn’t expected him to grip me so tightly that I’d power easily through 800 pages in a short week.

Martin employs my favourite narrative style – that of multiple voice – with each chapter giving us the different viewpoints, opinions, and desires, of various characters. This worked incredibly well in showing us both sides of the battles, and the reasoning behind the long-held grudges, allowing a complete understanding of situations and histories, and lending an omnipresent feel as the reader in Westeros. Giving us information to help us pick our own side, yet showing clearly that there really aren’t any good or bad guys here – only the draw of achieving power, desire, and gain – Martin gives us all of the cards, just doesn’t explain properly what to do with them.

In fact, the best part here is not knowing who to trust; we know the main characters are out to achieve their own ends, but it’s mostly the sub-characters whose loyalties can and will shift. These betrayals of trust are too delicious for me to describe; just when we think we understand where the plot is going, some form of corruption will take place and change the direction. It makes for an uncomfortable, yet totally delectable experience, and enforces a trust no one mentality, keeping us guessing consistently throughout the pages.
Rather than a story in its own right, this first instalment feels very much like the beginning. I’ve taken the decision to read each of these back to back. Winter is coming late for me, but I’m here for it. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Book #63

Antigone by Sophocles

The remarkable story of Greek tragedy's most intrepid heroine.

Little Black Classics describes Antigone above as an intrepid heroine, but I prefer the term total fucking badass.

Her uncle, the king, declares her rebel brother’s body as undeserving of a proper burial. Antigone disagrees, and despite the order issued that anyone who attempts to bury the body be put to death, she goes ahead and does it anyway in the name of tradition, honour, and familial love. She stands up for what she believes in, never erring from her path, and was comfortable paying the ultimate price for this. Yas, queen.

This section of the Theban plays, however, focuses more on the vile King Creon, than Antigone herself. His decision to punish her for disregarding the law he has passed, seems just, and would be the consequence of any other to defy him. To put her to death, particularly as his niece, however, is unduly harsh. Unable to recognise any flaw in himself, and refusing to listen to reason, Creon represents in this tale the dangers of believing oneself to be correct and refusing to weigh up every option before taking (seriously dangerous) action. His downfall is tragic, heartbreaking, and entirely pitiful. But is it just?

The morality line here is very thin - what is more correct, being loyal to the laws of the gods and burying your dead correctly, allowing them to travel safely to the underworld, or being loyal to the laws of your city, sending a message to those who dare defy you in an attempt to instil order? Neither can be said to be entirely wrong, but Sophocles allows us to consider where thought has to be applied to both arguments in order to come to a sound conclusion. Neither Antigone or Creon, both being passionate about their cause, were prepared to stop and think about their actions, instead running headlong into what they thought was right, and orchestrating a tragedy of untold severity.

Such an intense and beautiful part of the Theban plays.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Book #62

Murder on the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner

The brand-new Eiffel Tower is the glory of the 1889 Universal Exposition. But one sunny afternoon, a woman collapses and dies on this great Paris landmark. Can a bee-sting really be the cause of death? Or is there a more sinister explanation?

Nineteenth century crime set in Paris is something completely up my street. Couple that with the murder taking place at France’s most infamous landmark, and I was living for this concept. I am sorry to say this whole novel was très atroce.

My first disappointment was the sheer subtly of the murders themselves. People stung in the neck, presumably by an insect, and expiring instantly, doesn’t have the same sort of brutal drama I cling to in a crime novel. For the Parisians to be bumbling around terrified of a swarm of ‘foreign killing bees’, was laughable, and a little bit pathetic.

Secondly, Izner did nothing to create tension, nor to evoke in the reader an appetite to discover who the killer really was. After pages of Legris either coming to ridiculous conclusions and making an arse of himself, alternating his shagging of two women, or having eureka moments and bursting out of the door of his bookshop like a total madman, it got old really really quickly.

So many red herrings and clues were introduced that it was impossible to keep hold of them all together. Whenever Legris came upon another conclusion, I had no idea how he had ended up there. 

And wow, what a number of characters were introduced in a less than three hundred page novel. I could barely keep track of them, had no idea who Legris was speaking to, or pointing the finger at next; the whole thing was a confusion of dapper and sophisticated Frenchmen, any of whom could have been THE BEE. Mon Dieu!

With that being said, the ending was wound up nicely, with everything explained well and contained; it was just a shame the rest of the novel didn’t give me anything so solid and suspenseful to keep me going.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Book #61

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year by Sue Townsend

The day her twins leave home, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. For seventeen years she's wanted to yell at the world, 'Stop! I want to get off'. Finally, this is her chance. Her husband Brian, an astronomer having an unsatisfactory affair, is upset. Who will cook his dinner? Eva, he complains, is attention seeking. But word of Eva's defiance spreads. Legions of fans, believing she is protesting, gather in the street. While Alexander the white van man brings tea, toast and sympathy. And from this odd but comforting place Eva begins to see both herself and the world very, very differently.

So Eva waves her twins off to university, and after doing so finds a soup spoon on the chair it took two years for her to embroider. The remainder of the soup is thrown over the chair, and Eva goes to bed for an entire year. That’s basically it; there are no underlying mental health issues to speak of, no particular traumatic events in her past which have led her to this. She just feels like it.

The concept is interesting, and a lot could have been done here. Townsend starts off strongly, but we soon come to realise that although around one thousand madcap things are happening all at once, nothing is really happening at all to move the plot along. 

And don’t we all feel like staying in bed for as long as possible. Let’s face it, though, there are unavoidable tasks to be completed out of bed, such as feeding ourselves and going to the toilet. Eva’s reliance on others to help her with such tasks, and her willingness to starve rather than get out of bed to find food, was maddening. She was selfish and thankless in expecting others to succumb to her every whim, such as boarding up the window, or removing every stick of furniture from the room. Had these behaviours been attributed to some sort of illness, all would have made sense, however this was just the way Eva was. I hated her.

The finale is poor, as though Townsend also gave up and went to bed without properly rounding off some of the plot points she had only just opened up. I would have liked to have seen Eva reach some sort of conclusion about the way she had treated some of her friends at family throughout her holiday in bed, or even better, I’d have liked to have seen her comeuppance. 

As a lover of Adrian Mole, I wasn’t disappointed with the humour here. Townsend’s sarcasm is glorious, witty, and wonderful. Some of the one-liners from the characters had me grinning, and these made the story itself much lighter than I had expected. These flashes of comedy made the book worthwhile for me, and although the plot progression left much to be desired, I couldn’t actually put it down.

A definite lightweight novel for those looking for something not terribly taxing. Don’t expect a journey, a conclusion, or anything as funny as Mole, but you will laugh. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Book #60

Sindbad the Sailor

A selection of fantastic and perilous adventures at sea from the Thousand and One Nights. 

I enjoyed this little glimpse into the Thousand and One Nights

Sindbad the Sailor recounts his travels and adventures to Sindbad the Porter, and although I found them somewhat far-fetched, brutal, and wondered how such a level of misfortune could befall one man, they felt almost like gorgeous little fables.

I’m interested in the origin of these tales; there is very little to go on in terms of where they’ve come from, and even less on who wrote them. That they’ve travelled over to the West slowly, is more than apparent, and that in this edition Allah has been amended to God is a curious fact to consider.

Although short and jarring in their seemingly random selection, Little Black Classics have achieved what I was looking for in this series: to open my eyes to new texts and spur me into buying the originals, which I’m sure for this addition in particular will display far more colour and vividness than three short stories can evoke here.