Monday, 26 December 2011

Book #47

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Meursault leads an apparently unremarkable bachelor life in Algiers until he commits a random act of violence. His lack of emotion and failure to show remorse only serve to increase his guilt in the eyes of the law, and challenges the fundamental values of society - a set of rules so binding that any person breaking them is condemned as an outsider. For Meursault, this is an insult to his reason and a betrayal of his hopes; for Camus it encapsulates the absurdity of life.

This is one of my favourite novels. I have read it three times; once whilst living in France, once in the original French text, and finally at home in English (which I am ashamed of - there is no way I could manage the entire novel in French any longer, short as it is, and this makes me feel like an absolute imbecile). My thoughts and opinions on the book change each time, and have in fact changed a lot this time. I have seen a lot more in the text than I did in my previous reading, however whether this is down to the last reading being in French or that I have matured in the three years since, I have no idea.

This book has stemmed for Camus's philosophy for the absurd. He believed life had no rational meaning to it, that there is absolutely no purpose for our being here, and that the idea of existence being structured was simply absurd. I believe Camus and many other philosophers were given this idea by the horrors of World War II. For these reasons The Outsider is widely described as existential, and I think to an extent it certainly is. However, the idea of existentialism extends far beyond this, and far beyond my comprehension, and I don't believe Camus explores it in a great deal of detail here. Perhaps existentialist is not the best word to describe this novel, although that could be filed away with many of the other unpopular opinions I have.

Our narrator, Meursault, is as emotionally detached as he possibly could be. For the first few chapters of the novel, I believed him to suffer from depression, however I don't think this is the case. He is just entirely indifferent to people and events around him, and he is incredibly honest in an uncomfortable way which means he does not hide his indifference. In this way he completely rejects social standards, such as crying over his mother's death, and in doing so renders himself an outsider and a reject. It is interesting to note that during his trial for murder, the fact that he did not grieve over his mother's death was the damning evidence which damaged his reputation above all other facts. This prompted a wave of philosophical debate in my own head; however I will spare you the details.

Although this novel works wonderfully well as a literary text, and is in no way a philosophical essay, it also displays Camus's ideas on absurdity and the meaninglessness of life. By absurdity, Camus is referring to the way in which humans attempt to find rational meaning and order in their lives, when there is, and never will be, any at all. For example, there is no rational meaning in aspects of this novel, such as the reason for Meursault committing murder. The idea that something like this can happen for no discernible reason and that Meursault did not have a real reason for committing the act, is unsettling to society and so they will attempt to create reason and order to justify actions - Camus's take on absurdity. I find this idea absolutely delicious.

A small thing I noticed in this novel hit me in quite a big way. In most of the scenes, Meursault is either being watched by someone, or is watching someone. I think this says a lot about the notion of absurdity as well - always watching, always looking for something tangible to hold on to.

This has been more of a philosophical observation than a book review; I'm sorry. It really is a wonderful little novel, although I'm not sure whether it would be more enjoyable if you're not looking for existentialist and nihilist commentary, resulting in strange thoughts enveloping your brain. It's very short, though enjoyable, and the short sentences are very akin to our narrator's personality. I'd definitely recommend this, and I will be gearing myself up to read this in French again at some point in future.

47 / 72 books. 65% done!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Book #46

Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry's bestselling memoir tells how, sent to a boarding school 200 miles from home at the age of seven, he survived beatings, misery, love, ecstasy, carnal violation, expulsion, imprisonment, criminal conviction, probation and catastrophe to emerge, at eighteen, ready to try and face the world in which he had always felt a stranger.

I have always considered Stephen Fry as a national treasure and a man to be adored. Before now, however, I had never read any of his writing. I have to say, my adoration of him has soared after reading this autobiography due to his severe confessional honesty, and his untethered swearing (mainly f--- and c---; joyous!).

There are quite a few shocking scenes in these memoirs: expulsions from school, a spell in prison, and even a suicide attempt. Finding out about these was like being told a secret. I could never imagine Fry in any of these situations; he simply does not strike me as one who would do such things. But he has! And it was so delicious to learn that this famous, intelligent gentleman was once as naive and ridiculous as everyone else.

My favourite thing about this book was Fry's use of obscure words. I reached for my dictionary more times than I usually do whilst reading, and I learned so many new words (namely pleonasm, Fry's guilty pleasure). This is quite rare for me these days; although I do not like to boast of having a large brain and a wide vocabulary, this is the case, and finding new words has become a rarity.

I also really enjoyed the sections relating to Fry's school days. I have had a strange obsession with tales set in boarding schools ever since the wonderful Malory Towers, so I was in my element. Even his descriptions of the buildings sent me into absolute rapture. A strange fetish, but one that is present in me nonetheless!

He does tend to go off on rambling tangents, reminiscing about one thing or another, likening one situation to literary pursuits, and placing quotes from various places into the text where he thought applicable. This could be irksome with some authors, but with Fry it is simply endearing and a bit quaint.

The only downfall with this autobiography is that it only details the first twenty-odd years of Fry's life. We don't even get to meet Hugh Laurie! I find it amazing that it has taken him thirteen years to write the second half, The Fry Chronicles, however I will be attempting to source a copy as soon as I possibly can. Moab Is My Washpot, I feel, is essential for a Stephen Fry fan, full of so much honesty and self-deprecation that I simply cannot fault him.

46 / 72 books. 64% done!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Book #45

The World's Most Evil Murderers by Colin & Damon Wilson

From Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who sexually assaulted and killed five young victims in 1960's Britain, to Andrei Chikatilo, the Red Ripper, who confessed to fifty-fife sex murders in Russia, and from Richard Ramirex, the night Stalker, in the USA to Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf Vampire, these are some of the most evil killers the world has ever seen.

This may have been really, really bad, or I may have a serious aversion to non-fiction. I haven't quite decided yet, but I didn't enjoy this at all.

It's split up into little chunks, one for each monster, and tells you all about their past, what drove them to it, the sordid details of exactly what they did, and how they met their end (if they had yet). Who knew such gore could be so boring? I frequently stopped halfway through a section to skip into the next one because there was no incentive to read on. It was all very dull and clinical, even the most disgusting and shocking of crimes were met with a "meh" from me. It read like a poorly written high school essay; there was absolutely nothing exciting in there at all. A book about serial killers which is lacking in excitement really is something to behold.

I really thought I was one of those crazy chicks with an obsessive interest in serial killers, but after reading this I could take them or leave them. Two people have asked to borrow this book from me, and I am going to feel guilty giving it to them.

I think I hate non-fiction.

45 / 72 books. 63% done!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Book #44

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner and college Darwinist – suddenly turns up in a seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they have learned. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce?

I honestly cannot describe how excited I was a few months ago when reading the above blurb. I thought this book was everything I had been looking for, everything I could ever hope to learn. I had a high opinion of Eugenides, with Middlesex being one of my favourite reads of all time. How could this one disappoint?

It began excitingly enough. I related to Madeleine so well - a girl who is in love with English Victorian and Regency novels, who falls in love with all of the wrong people, and who is entirely socially awkward and romantic. Tick, tick, tick. Then I got bored. I stopped reading, I stopped wanting to pick the book up. Nothing was happening; it was a road to nowhere, a cyclical walk through hell. These characters go on pointless typical journeys in order to 'find themselves'. I started to hate every single one of them (including Madeleine, I could no longer relate, she was so flat), and I didn't learn a thing. No morals of the stories were to be given, nothing was clear, the ending was AWFUL. I am devastated.

The entire thing was so dull that it has taken me weeks to get through. I could not gain the motivation to pick it up and start reading. I am sure one day I even vacuumed the house over reading a chapter. There was the odd streak of Eugenides brilliance, of course, but these were so few and far between that the 400 pages of fog seemed hardly worth it. The tangents Eugenides goes off on were ridiculous! The ins and outs of molecular behaviour of yeast! Quite the thing! This book was terrible.

I would love to sit here and delve into the ironies, subtexts and real meanings of this novel in order to understand it more clearly, but to be perfectly honest I have had quite enough of it. It was a massive disappointment after Middlesex, and it really will make me think twice about buying another Eugenides book (that is, if he writes another one after all of the God-awful reviews on this shambolic work). It may be worth a re-read in a year or so, but for now I'd really like to forget all about it. Infuriating.

(My apologies to those who were looking forward to this review, particularly Ingrid – sorry, petal)

44 / 72 books. 61% done!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Book #43

Cruel Venus by Susan Lewis

Allyson Jaymes has it all - celebrity, power, and a glamorous marriage, until her world is destroyed by the bitterest betrayal of all: her husband's explosive affair with her 19-year-old assistant, Tessa Dukes. Tessa's ambitions burn fiercely. Her chilling manipulation of fame and her steady destruction of so many dreams and ambitions lead all concerned into a fatal minefield of sexual obsession, psychotic jealousy and deadly treachery.

It is incredibly rare for me to read a book from this kind of genre. If I do, I am normally rolling my eyes in despair after the first ten pages. I can't stand chick-lit books about how horrible men are, adultery, women's moans etc. I only began to read this because my grandma had been raving about it, gave it to me, said I had skipped in front of a long queue of friends who were to be loaned this book, and urged me to read it.

I have to hand it to her, it is gripping. By reading the blurb I had thought it would be all "cry cry cry my husband has cheated on me with a younger woman boo hoo" and so forth. Although there was, of course, a great deal of that; it had a lovely little edge of spite to it. I am a huge fan of spite and scandal, so Lewis lured me in with this. I was forced to abandon my literary puritanism, throw caution to the wind, and immerse myself in the backstabbing and betrayals of wronged against women. Fascinating!

Lewis did well with her characters here, I feel as though I was provoked to like and dislike as Lewis saw fit. The depth was good, although I'd have liked to hear a bit more, slowly but surely of Tessa's damaging past. It was almost as though we were being fed little by little, in quite a tantalising way, then Lewis hits us with "YES this is everything that has happened to her, look I need to go, let's not talk about it again, no I don't know anything else about it."

The novel is filthy, though, to the point where I will struggle to look my grandmother in the eye when handing her copy back to her. The sex scenes occurred incredibly often - I think this Susan Lewis is more of a romance writer than anything else. It was a very sexy book.

The narrative was consistent throughout the novel, with chapters being sectioned off into smaller chunks given from the point of view of different characters. I was irked by the fact that the novel was broken into three large sections of a number of chapters each, which were named after the three main female characters. Surely if you name a section of a novel after a character then that section should be narrated by them or from their point of view? Why stick their name at the front of a section for no reason?

The ending wasn't incredibly satisfying and didn't tidy things up very nicely. My grandma had actually asked me to tell her who I think 'did it' (a murder, not it, everyone was doing it in this novel) as she couldn't work it out. I think I know, but the final sentence is very ambiguous and incredibly annoying.

I enjoyed this, although I see it as a literary escape, a rest for my mind, and an easy read. It really didn't take me too long to read, didn't challenge my mind in any way, I didn't learn anything substantial from it (apart from a few shocking sex acts that I had no idea existed or were indeed possible), and I am not intrigued in the slightest to read any more Susan Lewis novels. However, I would definitely recommend this to lighter readers who like a bit of bitchiness and suspense; it's definitely worth a read as a holiday novel.

43 / 72 books. 60% done!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Book #42

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Clifford Chatterley returns from the First World War as an invalid. Constance nurses him and tries to be the dutiful wife but begins to feel oppresses by their childless marriage and isolated life. Partly encouraged by Clifford to seek a lover, she embarks on a passionate affair with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.

This is my first foray into Lawrence and I am still quite unsure how I feel. This was my second attempt at Lady Chatterley, and it took me a very long time to get into my stride. The beginning of the novel is greatly about business, class and industrialism, and I am unashamed to say that things only began to get interesting when Lady Chatterley begins her affair.

I think my main confusion with this novel stems from the messages it is conveying. On one hand it is incredibly Victorian, and Lawrence's comments on social class and feminism clearly show this. However, it very well may be the most modern and relatable classic work of fiction I have ever read, and most definitely the first Penguin Modern Classic I have read with such profanities included in the text. The structure and narrative themselves are incredibly modern; however some of the plot lines are so aged. It was difficult to remember that this novel was written in the early 1920s.

I think one of Lawrence's messages here is that sensuality and sexuality are far more important and superior to the workings of the intellectual mind, and the pursuit of intellectual activity. Lawrence then goes on to explore the importance of uniting the mind with the body and allowing them to work in unison to obtain a higher happiness and worth than is possible without such intertwining.

Free speech is a big thing here, rather than the stereotypical free love. I particularly liked the class comments, the differences between men and women (at the time of writing and also in the present day) and the question of whether love is a physical or mental thing. Or both!

The characters were quite flat, boring and unlikeable. Lady Chatterley was entirely dull, Mellors was almost a comic stereotype, and Clifford was your typical wronged against pathetic male who reminded me slightly of pathetic males I have encountered in my own life.

It seemed slightly misogynistic to me, and I wasn't blown away in the slightest. There was a comment somewhere saying that women don't like sex and if they do they are lesbians! The ending was an incredible anti-climax with absolutely no reader satisfaction whatsoever. To me, this is one you would read to say you have read it, and then file it away never to be looked at again.

42 / 72 books. 58% done!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Book #41

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London's East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home.

Yet another novel I had high expectations of and have come away from underwhelmed and confused. I did enjoy the story, and I feel like I learned a lot about culture, however the plot was very weak, and I didn't fall in love with any characters. Falling in love with at least one character per novel is a requirement for me.

Nazneen, our protagonist, is as emotionless as they come. She wanders through her life as though she is practically brain dead, and even when the most emotionally gripping things happen to her she remains stoic. I couldn't fathom her out. She begins an adulterous relationship with a younger man and her feelings for him are described, but they are somehow metallic and meaningless. She is a still life painting; a hologram of life. I originally thought that she was portrayed like this to embody the oppressed nature of a Muslim wife, but this isn't the case. There are other Muslim wives in the novel who have so much more character. Towards the end of the novel, Nazneen begins to stand up for what she believes in, but even this just seemed alien and downright odd. I couldn't stop imagining her walking around with a perpetual poker face, regardless of the situation she found herself in.

I would have liked more from Nazneen based on the fact that she was uprooted from her home in Goripur and taken to London where everything is different. Other than a fleeting scene involving her bursting into tears over a bowl of cornflakes on the flight over, there was nothing in the vein of trying to fit in. I enjoyed Nazneen's memories from Goripur and really immersed myself into these. The difference in culture is so lovely to read, especially when there's jinns, talking birds, and exorcisms involved. I just wanted a bit more, a bit of comparison and contrast in Nazneen's blank canvas of a brain.

I particularly liked the letters Nazneen's sister sent to London from Dhaka. These were full of life, emotion and wonder. Hasina's life was far from perfect and she was not without her problems, but her letters oozed soul. I did have a problem, however, with the way these letters were written. Ali had Hasina write in broken English, and I couldn't understand why. Surely Hasina would not be writing to her sister in English? They both spoke Bengali, so I wasn't sure whether Ali was implying that Hasina was poorly educated or whether these letters had been translated into English by Nazneen. Neither of these outcomes make sense, and the thought irks me - are we to be looking down on Hasina?

The poltics and racial issues here are themes I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into, and learning from. I just couldn't. The planned marches, the riots, the looting, the fights; all of these just passed me quietly and they shouldn't have done. They didn’t make sense to me, and were poorly explained.

I am really disappointed in this. I had heard so many good things, and it really just wasn't what I was expecting. The ending was awful, cheesy, and really made me wonder what people have seen in this book.

41 / 72 books. 57% done!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Book #40

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle's absence in Antigua, the Crawford's arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation.

I am a huge fan of Austen, and have taken it upon myself to read every piece of her work I can get my hands on. Mansfield Park did not fail to disappoint me, and was filled with the humour, complexities, emotion and romanticism I have come to expect from her.

Most Austen novels centre around young women trying to find their feet in the complex social order of things in the 19th century. This is normally determined by marriage; a sort of snakes and ladders game in social circles. Our protagonist, Fanny, is a completely different breed from Austen's other heroines. She is extremely timid and moral, and is a stark contrast to Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. She is constant pillar of righteousness throughout the entire novel, whilst being surrounded by the shallow, the disrespectful, and the superficial.

Although this novel is greatly looked upon as a romance novel (as most of Austen's works are), I feel it is a lot more than that. Austen comments greatly on the social structure of the time, of the slave trade, of poverty, and most importantly of family. There is a message here behind almost everything, and it really is wonderful, and exciting!

There is a lot of hints here towards the argument of nature or nurture which are very interesting, and Austen explores whether or not your qualities are innate, or whether they are a result of the environment you are brought up in. She doesn't come to a definite conclusion on this one, but gives us a feast for our thoughts. (If anyone is interested, I haven't come to a conclusion on this argument either, and I am still sitting on the fence)

Austen also sets Mansfield Park - a haven filled with lovely people - in the countryside, and writes about the more urban areas, such as London and Portsmouth as filthy areas of vice and ruin. I loved this. I loved seeing such poverty in Portsmouth depicted as a life that Fanny had escaped, and I loved the contrast when she was finally summoned back to Mansfield.

I found the ending to be rather abrupt and rushed. Since it was the happy ending we were all hoping for, I would've expected it come with a certain coup de foudre. Unfortunately, it was a slowly but surely type of ending, which is more typical of life in general. The romantic in me was hoping for something more, but isn't this always the case?

I can never really bash out a good review on classic literature. I feel a bit humbled, and as though it isn't really my place to comment (a bit like Fanny Price, actually). However, this is quite the Austen novel, and if you're a fan I'd definitely recommend. Love triangles, materialism, charity, walking and talking in well-kept gardens, LETTERS! I loved it.

40 / 72 books. 56% done!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Book #39

Madeleine by Kate McCann

Kate McCann's personal account of the disappearance and continuing search for her daughter.

I'd like to begin by saying I am not used to reading or reviewing non-fiction. I don't read a great deal of it as it doesn't let me escape in the same way as fiction does. This book in particular is awful to use as a tool for escapism, of course. I have also never truly had a proper opinion on this case until this book was given to me, and I was urged to read it.

I can't possibly begin to review this book in the same way I would a normal work of fiction. It was no literary miracle; I cringed at some of the grammar and sentence structure employed. But that isn't what this one is about, so I suppose all I can comment on is the situation.

The whole point of this book is to keep Madeleine's name, face, and story in the minds of the public in the hope that someone will bring the McCanns some sort of deliverance. The whole thing is eye-opening - Kate holds nothing back, and it's interesting and aggravating to see how they were treated at the lowest point in their lives. She is honest to the point of over-justification, which I didn't think necessary.

There is a lot of criticism of other parties, such as the Portuguese police force, which is obviously incredibly one-sided. This certainly does elicit great sympathy for the McCanns, however it did lead me to wonder how the criticised parties would defend themselves when faced with such observations. A great deal came across to me as sheer retaliation, which I suppose is fair enough.

There are lots of things going on in this book and I found it difficult to keep track of names, places and occurrences. I was frequently lost.

I have always maintained an indifferent attitude towards this case; however this book has tugged at my heartstrings somewhat. I cannot imagine the pain and frustration this has caused the McCanns. As Kate says herself in the book, the not knowing must be the worst part.

The book is very dark, dismal, and emotional. The ordeal the McCanns have gone through is something not to be wished on a worst enemy, and no doubt the writing of this book opened up painful wounds. I respect this as it's all in aid of finding Madeleine since there is no police body looking for her anymore. It's heartbreaking.

Fingers crossed the funds raised from this book, or the wide reach it has had, will prompt some sort of breakthrough in this investigation. It has left me feeling strangely empty, and I am reverting back to my imaginary land of fiction.

39 / 72 books. 54% done!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Book #38

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

An inmate of a mental institution tries to find the freedom and independence denied him in the outside world.

I'd like to begin by mentioning that this is the first time I have read this novel, and I have never seen the film. I loved everything about it.

One flew east, one flew west. One flew over the cuckoo's nest. This rhyme alone is referring to being insane and being very far from home. I think even the title of the book in reference to this nursery rhyme lets you know exactly what you are in for.

Our narrator, Chief Bromden, is one of the most unreliable narrators I have come across. He is a paranoid hallucinating schizophrenic, so the narrative comes across as disjointed and, let’s face it, completely cuckoo. Despite these flaws, I fell in love with him. He comes across in the beginning as so weak and consumed by a fog he constantly believes to be there. By the end of the novel he has had such a journey that he is a completely different person. He often imagined the hospital itself to be controlled by an array of different machines and electronics - I loved this contrast with his past lifestyle, which was completely centred on earth, hunting and raw living. Chuck Palahniuk also made a comment about the novel which mirrors Chief Bromden's view of the hospital as mechanistic. He said the novel "focuses on the modern paradox of trying to be human in the well-oiled machine of a capitalist democracy." That's something worth considering.

Although Bromden was my favourite character, much has to be said about McMurphy. When he arrives in the ward, he is a spark of light in a depressing environment. He clashes considerably with the air of oppression, instead exhibiting symbols of freedom, sexuality, violence, and self-confidence. He immediately engages the head nurse (the source of the oppression) into a power struggle, and by doing so rallies the other patients into coming alive to help him in this war of wills.

Using McMurphy's booming character, Kesey really sends a message to us about the power of enjoyment and laughter. When McMurphy enters the ward for the first time, his laugh is the first real laugh that has occurred in the ward since anyone can remember. As the novel progresses, and McMurphy's influence becomes stronger, the men on the ward learn to laugh, and it seems through this they are able to grow stronger.

It is interesting to note that this novel was born from Ken Kesey's experiences of working night-shift in a mental health facility. No doubt he witnessed first-hand some of the events and situations in the novel. I find that incredibly intriguing, and his disturbing little sketches which were peppered throughout the novel did a lot to add to this appeal.

The tragic ending was awful, and almost an anti-climax as it didn't seem to enforce the message the book was trying to relate to us. However, such is life. Solutions do not always present themselves, and often, because of this, we are left with tragic endings. Despite this, the symbol of freedom from hopeless, trapped situations such as these transcends the tragedy, and makes the reader consider morality and human spirit.

Many have been heard to suggest that this is best American novel of all time. I have only just finished it an hour ago and I am severely inclined to agree with them. I could not recommend this novel enough.

38 / 72 books. 53% done!

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Book #37

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Described as a "tragedy of sorrows," this story tells of a girl uprooted from a secure and innocent childhood. Cast into a world where evil takes many shapes, little Nell meets the stunted, lecherous Quilp, whose demonic energy dominates the book. Sometimes fairytale and sometimes myth, this is Victorian life at its most bleak.

This has been my first real brush with Dickens, other than dabbling in A Christmas Carol last December. It has taken me around a month to read the novel, which is a long time for me. I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything, and as a result I have come away from it with a lovely feeling of satisfaction.

The characters were simply wonderful, my favourites being Whiskers the pony, or the lovely Dick Swiveller (his name throwing me into fits of giggles upon the first reading). I did notice that the characters were quite polarised - the good characters were intrinsically and impossibly good, the evil characters intrinsically evil, but the inbetweeners, the supporting characters, had good, evil, and a thousand other grey shades within their personalities. Dick was one of these characters, not entirely moral, slightly selfish and a mild alcoholic. However, by the end of the novel he was kind, gentle and entirely moralistic. Whiskers was a highlight due to his inability to follow orders, dragging his master’s cart wherever he thought suitable, and in his final act, kicking the doctor who had been hired to make him better.

The plot centres around a journey, which I found exciting as Nell and her grandfather fall in with all sort of characters, circus people and a travelling waxwork museum. It was quite eccentric and animated, and alluded greatly to how people of high class entertained themselves in these times.

I enjoy reading about 19th century Britain in the general, and here Dickens makes several social comments on inequality of class.

I particularly enjoyed "Chapter The Last" which served as a "What are they all doing now?" chapter. This was a wonderful finale, and filled me with satisfaction. It's lovely at the end of a novel to know that the good are living well, and the evil ones have had what they deserve.

I was also interested to read the following information on Wikipedia: "In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume of 'The Old Curiosity Shop' was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel .... Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read the last installment in the United Kingdom), 'Is Little Nell alive?'" (Source)

I'd definitely recommend this one. It's not entirely plot-driven, which is why I think it took me so long to read, but is more a series of little stories about each of the characters. If you bear this in mind, you'll enjoy the novel.

37 / 72 books. 51% done!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Book #36

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Centuries ago, when magic still existed in England, the greatest magician of them all was the Raven King. A human child brought up by fairies, the Raven King blended fairy wisdom and human reason to create English magic. Now, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he is barely more than a legend, and England, with its mad King and its dashing poets, no longer believes in practical magic. Then the reclusive Mr Norrell of Hurtfew Abbey appears and causes the statues of York Cathedral to speak and move. News spreads of the return of magic to England and, persuaded that he must help the government in the war against Napoleon, Mr Norrell goes to London. There he meets a brilliant young magician and takes him as a pupil. Jonathan Strange is charming, rich and arrogant. Together, they dazzle the country with their feats. But the partnership soon turns to rivalry. Mr Norrell has never conquered his lifelong habits of secrecy, while Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous magic.He becomes fascinated by the shadowy figure of the Raven King, and his heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens, not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.

It's an intimidating tome at first - 1,000 pages, 69 chapters, and it has quite a weight to it that I've never really noticed in a book before. Upon finishing the story, though, I can only imagine this weight is due to the intricacies of the worlds that are held within the pages.

The novel isn't written as a fantasy novel as such. It reads a bit like Dickens, with some Austen thrown in, and the only way it could be described as a fantasy novel is that it's about magic. It isn't, however, your Harry Potter breed of magic. Clarke's 19th century magicians are concerned with the more poweful, disturbing, and eerie sort of magic. Magic that goes from our realm to elsewhere, magic that comes into contact with otherworldly beings (namely fairies), unknowable magic that sets your nerves on edge.

There were parts of this book where I felt horrible uncomfortable and uneasy. The eerie worlds that Clarke wove into the novel were very real, and very frightening. Her characterisation was absolutely spot on, and there was one character in particular whom I disliked greatly, and who terrified me. This was, of course, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, whom I will speak no more of in case I spoil the novel, and/or work myself up into a panic.

I was also a bit disturbed, but deliciously so, by the idea that as well as our own world, there are other worlds which are home to fairies and other beings. These worlds can be accessed by the fairy roads, and through mirrors. When I was younger, I was convinced there was another world just inside my mirror, so this came as a bit of a shock. In fact, as I’m typing this I’m mentally daring myself to turn my head to the left and look into my mirror. I still haven’t done it, it’s the eeriest thought that somewhere, or something, is in there.

Clarke also gives us subtle social commentary on 19th century politics, sexism, racism and poverty. It's wonderfully given to us as the idea that "Oh, this is the way it was back then. But, wow, weren't they wrong?"

Her research on her plot was undeniably thorough. I can't pretend to have a great deal of knowledge on 19th century England, Napoleonic wartime, or anything at all from this period, so I was at a loss at times to deduce what was historic fact and what was Clarke's invention. Sometimes I did wonder if she was playing upon something that did happen, and attributing it to magic. However, I am sure those of you who do have ample knowledge in this area would get a lot of pleasure from these parts of the novel.

I wasn't too sure whether I was satisfied with the climax or not. It wasn't an ‘everything has gone back to being nice’ kind of ending. It was tragic and devastating, but left wiggle room for a sequel (which, I believe, is being written as we speak). I am still trying to come to terms with it.

I could have written a better review on this. My thoughts are disjointed as I've just put the book down this second. I wish I could do this more justice, and be more coherent, but my brain is all over the place.

Anyway, this was beautifully written, the plot flitted gorgeously from person to person; the characters were lovely, frightening, pitiful and selfish. However, I wouldn't recommend it to just anyone. You have to really want to read it; you have to stick by it. It isn't a fast-paced adventure novel; it really is a queer little tale that takes time. I found it to be a rare treat, something that will stay in my mind for a long time. If your interest isn't piqued after two chapters, put it down and save your time. This book is not for you.

(I am still struggling not to look in this mirror.)

36 / 72 books. 50% done!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Book #35

The Prime Minister's Brain by Gillian Cross

Everyone at school is playing the new computer game, Octopus Dare, but only Dinah is good enough to beat it. But she forgets who she is when she looks into the whirling eyes of the Octopus...What is happening, and how is the Demon Headmaster involved? And what will he do if he really does get into the Prime Minister's Brain?

The sequel to The Demon Headmaster! I enjoyed this one a great deal more than its predecessor.

The computer game plotline dragged me right into the book when I was younger, and it did this time too. The book was written in the 80s, and reading the descriptions of these old-fashioned computers the characters were using was quite amusing. I loved that Cross made Dinah carry one of these monumental contraptions across London on the tube. She must have been having a laugh. No one used a mouse either, all of the computer activities were command based. Press O to open, it was brilliantly retro. I also really liked the font changes in the novel which illustrated words appearing on a computer screen, à la:


Very enthralling.

The characters end up splitting up at the beginning of the novel, and the chapters are set out nicely to alternate between their different narratives, which varies the plot slightly and gives us an all-seeing eye of sorts.

Some of the language used is quite dated, and it reads sometimes as a jolly-oh Enid Blyton type of novel. This strangely contrasted with the futuristic, mechanical feel of the novel, and felt quite odd. The characters in the book do remind me a lot of the Famous Five, and to associate them with computers and the future is just completely bizarre.

I didn't realise there were six books in this series! I have only ever read the first two. I doubt I'll track down the remaining four, however, as I'm not too sure it would be worth my while.

I much preferred this novel to the last, but perhaps I am just remembering my feelings on first reading it. I remember absolutely loving it. I probably won't visit The Demon Headmaster and SPLAT again for a long while, though.

This is the end of my nostalgic readings for now. I am now moving onto some very thick books and I am excited, but slightly nervous about the imminent book avalanche that will no doubt occur when I try to remove the next one from my shelves.

35 / 72 books. 49% done!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Book #34

The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross

Dinah moves in with the Hunter family and starts going to the same school as her foster-brothers Lloyd and harvey. It's not easy, as they seem to hate her, and school is really strange. Pupils suddenly talk like robots and do weird things - even Dinah finds herself acting oddly. She's sure the headmaster has some kind of power over them, and is determined to find out more. But the Demon Headmaster is equally determined to stop her.

I loved this book when I was younger, and I especially loved the television series. Who could forget those horrible green eyes of doom? Yuck.

Despite this long lost love, I'm not too sure if this book is a good one for adults to return to. I remember finding it so exciting in my younger days, but reading it this time, I felt a bit depressed! I didn't feel a great deal of suspense as I read; there definitely should have been some there. I didn't have much feeling for the characters either; no love for the goodies and no hate for the baddies. It was all a bit bland.

The whole premise of the book is a terrifying one, and very reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four (which is in fact mentioned in the book twice, but not as a comparison to events). The idea of a school such as this, with this kind of man in power is quite lamentable. However, (and I will ignore for the moment the fact that this is a book aimed at children) Cross shows us this scenario to be just a wee bit of a stress and a burden. No big deal, just a minor annoyance. This will probably pass over younger reader's heads, but it bothered me. I was particularly shocked by the snowball punishment. It was very cruel. The three characters who endured it seemed to be quite fine afterwards, but I was chilled to the core along with them.

Cross used the word "realer" in this novel, and my eyes crossed in frustration reading this horrible error. My particular copy was published in 1998, so I can only hope later editions have this mistake amended. It was awful.

Although more could've been done with the plot and the characters, it will always be a childhood favourite of mine. I'm moving on now to the sequel, which I seem to remember I enjoyed a bit more!

34 / 72 books. 47% done!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Book #33

99 Fear Street: The House of Evil (Collector's Edition) by R.L. Stine

Take a tour of the scariest house on Fear Street in this spooky trilogy. "The First Horror": Twins Cally and Kody Frasier have moved into the scariest house on Fear Street. Will they become its next victims? "The Second Horror": The minute Brandt moves into town, he's got three girls fighting over him. But Cally's ghost wants him most of all. "The Third Horror": Kody returns to the infamous 99 Fear Street to make a movie about her life--and find her sister. But soon the horror film is becoming all too real.

(Sorry about the miniscule book cover! This isn't the newest or most popular book, so I found it difficult to find a clear cover picture, unfortunately!)

I must have read this trilogy a thousand times many moons ago. I loved scaring myself, and I loved reading about the supernatural. I can't remember, however, being as scared reading it as I was this time. I am the grand old age of twenty-three (almost twenty-four!) and I was jumping out of my skin when I heard the slightest noise in my empty house. This is what R.L. Stine is all about. I am a grown woman, it's ridiculous.

I find it amazing how kids can read these books, actually. All three were filled with such gruesome and gory scenes, terrible cliff-hangers at the end of each and every chapter, and trauma every few pages. It was delicious.

The first book in the trilogy is exciting, but upon reading the next two it's soon quite obvious that it's also an excellent set-up for what's to come in the next two installments. The ending is absolutely shocking - my book is the Collector's Edition (three books in one), I have no idea how I would've felt if I only had the first book and wasn't able to read on afterwards.

The second book becomes darker and a bit more creative, with Stine dabbling in ritual magic and voodoo. I found our male protagonist to be slightly irritating, particularly when he has three girls fawning over him at one point, making him think he was a bit of a ticket. His ending, though, was almost as delightful as the last! The twist was perfect, and I had forgotten all about it. Although I did work a few things out before they happened in book two (which, to be fair, is to be expected with an adult reading literature aimed at a younger audience), it was in no way as predictable as Call Waiting.

The third was probably my least favourite, but was still enjoyable. I found the plot to be slightly unbelievable to begin with - all of these horrible events happen at your old house, so you decide to go back so you can star in a film about it? Nonetheless, I enjoyed the gore, and I enjoyed the casualties. It was possibly the most gruesome of the three, but this is a very close call. I'm not too sure if the second or third installments would be as exciting if the reader hadn't experienced its predecessors, however.

I am an absolute sucker for being scared. I love it, and I had forgotten how wonderfully spine-tingly R.L. Stine's stories and words were. I have no idea where all of my old Point Horror and Goosebumps books are, but I really will have to have a look because I had lots of fun reading this one, despite having to put all of the lights on in the house before going downstairs for a glass of water during the night.

Normal service will resume soon; two more children's novels to go!

33 / 72 books. 46% done!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Book #32

Call Waiting by R.L. Stine

A killer who phones his victims before murdering them is stalking Karen, and if Karen cannot trace the caller, she will become his next conquest.

I found a few of my old, young adult books while cleaning, so I'm going to give them a bash. It's quite a difference reading books which are so short, and with such massive text size! R.L. Stine was one of my favourites while growing up, first Goosebumps, then Point Horror as I 'matured'. It was interesting to read this one from an adult's perspective, but I was sad to discover I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I was expecting!

To begin with, the entire story was incredibly predictable. I worked out about ten pages in who this 'phantom' caller was going to be, and the other little plot points weren't too difficult to fathom. This is a kid’s book, though, so I’m sure I can forgive this.

Stine portrays his teenage characters quite well; I think he gets their feelings and actions spot on. In particular, Karen's crazy teenage girlfriend behaviour was quite accurate, and can be attributed to people in real life quite easily. For this reason, I didn't like Karen. She was a complete brat, very selfish, and cracked in the head. I didn't particularly like any of the characters; none of them were developed enough.

I liked that the book was set in the 90s. It was so odd to read, especially as it's set around telephone calls and there were no mobile phones in those days. I also enjoyed the incredibly 90s Saved by the Bell patter that was peppered through the dialogue. Awesome!

This definitely isn't R.L. Stine's best. There are many other Point Horrors he has written that have had me terrified. I think it may be down to the fact that there isn't anything supernatural going down in this one, just emotions and silly behaviours. It was enjoyable nonetheless and has inspired me to have a dig for the huge amount of others I had back in the day.

Stay tuned for another R.L. Stine review!

32 / 72 books. 44% done!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Book #31

The Shack by William P. Young

Mackenzie Allen Philips' youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his great sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgement he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack's world forever.

I was really unsure about this one, and I still am to a certain degree. It's an incredibly religious text. I believe my reservations in that area may have something to do with me not fully enjoying the book, and they will certainly be a burden to me when attempting to review it. It really felt that rather than telling the reader a story here, the reader is to be taught a lesson about God, and about why he allows such pains and sufferings to take place in our world.

The protagonist was a man who had turned his back on God after his youngest daughter had been abducted and killed. God then writes a note inviting our protagonist to the shack where the ordeal happened, in order to have a wee chat. Believable?

The theological explanations which are given here are written in an extreme, poetic, Hallmark card fashion. There were times when my eyes began to glaze over due to an influx of biblical buzz words and motivational sentences.

However, God is certainly presented as someone to think about. Young challenges our preconceived notions of God, and questions our judgements upon Him, and judgements upon our peers.

Young is not a terribly good writer. Many times I noticed words which seemed to have been placed into a sentence by extreme use of a thesaurus. There were far too many adjectives, and a disturbing amount of similes. He is, however, a man who has gone through some ordeals in his life, spent a great deal of time evaluating these and trying to find God. I respect that.

This book would be a better read for practising Christians, or indeed people with an interest in religion. It has certainly changed some of my perceptions of God, but it has absolutely not given me any sort of incentive to convert to Christianity, as the blurb and various reviews I read suggested it would.

31 / 72 books. 43% done!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Book #30

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Baby is twelve. Her mother died soon after she was born so she lives with her father - and his heroin addiction. She's grown up in Montreal' red-light district, never staying anywhere long enough to call it home, and now Baby is losing the only constant in her life; her father. He's been sent to hospital and she's been forced into foster care. She longs for his return; other people's families are no substitute for her own. Starved of affection, Baby is attracted to all the wrong people. And when her father betrays her and she is sent to a juvenile detention centre, she is more at risk than ever. Baby' survival rests on her gift for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness which fall into her lap.

There are so many reviews of this book out there, and it’s difficult to find one which will say a bad thing about this book. It has been praised so highly that I had no choice but to read it. It’s described it as outstanding, witty, riveting and believable. To me, unfortunately, this book was none of these things, and I cannot begin to imagine why people thought it was. I hated it from beginning to end; it was truly awful.

When I start a book, I like to finish it. I like to get a good idea of the writing style, and if I hate the book from the beginning I like to see whether or not my opinion can be turned around. This has been known to happen. Forcing myself to finish Lullabies was nothing short of self-torture. There was nothing in this book that made me want to keep reading. The characterisation was laughable! I had no shred of concern about anyone in the slightest. This is a very young girl who has been thrown into a world of prostitution and addiction. O'Neill did absolutely nothing to evoke my sympathies in this girl; in actual fact this poor abused girl was a chronic irritation. From the beginning, pieces of plot are thrown at us for nothing more than shock value. I didn't feel shock. I didn't feel anything because I wasn't connecting with anything in this book at all. It was a completely numb experience for me.

The Independent on Sunday said this book was full of 'magical imagery'. I do beg to differ. O'Neill tried too hard to romanticise scenes, giving us the most ridiculous imagery that could ever be imagined. Her similes were irrelevant and nonsensical; it seemed as though they were just thrown in to put stars in our eyes. Each sentence seemed to be a line of nonsense which had just been thrown in for effect. The plot ended up extremely disjointed as a result of this - I had no idea where I was for the majority of my time reading. I’d have laughed if I wasn’t too busy grinding my teeth.

Not only did O'Neill overly fabricate her writing style, her morals leave something to be desired as well. There was no sense of right or wrong in this novel, the themes of addiction and prostitution were embellished into elements of a wonderful, glamorous life. There was no shred of empathy, just a severe elaboration of a girl's poverty stricken life.

Although I can appreciate what O'Neill was trying to do with this novel, it is safe to say that she has missed the point by a long shot. I could go on and on about this book's shortcomings, but I would be sitting here for a long time. I just can't even begin to fathom why this novel has won and been nominated for so many book awards, where better novels have deserved to win, but have missed out. It’s shocking.

If you value my opinions at all, please avoid this one. I feel like I have wasted my time reading and reviewing when I could've been reading something else. Avoid like the plague!

30 / 72 books. 42% done!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Book #29

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Harry has been burdened with a dark, dangerous and seemingly impossible task: that of locating and destroying Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes. Never has Harry felt so alone, or faced a future so full of shadows. But Harry must somehow find within himself the strength to complete the task he has been given. He must leave the warmth, safety and companionship of The Burrow and follow without fear or hesitation the inexorable path laid out for him.

I can't even begin to describe how much my opinion of this book has changed since I read it last year. Although I cannot pretend that it's my favourite of the seven, it held a lot more sway for me this time than any other time I have read it (which is only twice before this time, fact fans).

Many of the elements which I had distaste for on my previous read throughs have been redeemed in my eyes. I see the reason behind these now, the symbolism, and the meaning. For example, I didn't like Rowling's stories of Dumbledore's past, how she told of him dabbling in lowly, and ignoble acts. But, why not? Our heroes can't all be shiny, golden idols. I think Rowling is trying to make a point of the fact that Dumbledore made mistakes, he was imperfect, but what a man!

I think my opinions on the novel have probably changed due to the excessive amount of fangirling I have been doing since my reading of the novel last year, and now. I had extreme doubts about the epilogue last year, but after just finishing reading it the tears are still drying on my face. Maybe I'm growing up.

When the book came out in 2007, I was almost upon my 20th birthday (which is, incidentally, on the 31st of July, the same as Harry's, and JK's). I tried my best to be immovable, invincible, and impassive. I was of the opinion that Harry's death should have been inevitable. Rowling, however, felt the need to give Harry a loophole; a chance. And Harry deserved this, because good people deserve good things. This is what I've come to realise.

So, again, my opinion has changed. Yes, I am a massive fangirl, but these books mean so much more to me than light entertainment. This series has taught me, over a fourteen year span, the merits of friendship, bravery, honesty, and love. This will all sound horribly cheesy and unlike me, but there are only a bare minimum of you who I will expect to understand. No saga has made such an impression on me as this one. A different burst of emotion is experienced on every page. It is nothing less than wonderful, and I'd like to thank J.K. Rowling for giving me something that can be cherished as much as this can.

29 / 72 books. 40% done!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Book #28

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

'In a brief statement on Friday night, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge confirmed that He Who Must Not Be Named has returned to this country and is once more active. "It is with great regret that I must confirm that the wizard styling himself Lord - well, you know who I mean - is alive and among us again," said Fudge.'

I often wonder whether this installment is my favourite, rather than Goblet of Fire. I have never made up my mind. They are both two very different novels, but I think this one has climbed to the #1 spot this time.

It's just wonderful; anguish, heartache, adventure, mystery, love, family, BETRAYAL. I could go on and on.

The best thing about this novel is the insight we are given into Voldemort's past life. It is incredible to learn about him as a young boy, and how he became the most powerful Dark wizard of all. I loved learning of what made him tick, what sort of things he was attached to, how he used people, and how he used his power. And we saw all of this through the Pensieve. I have such a high opinion of this plot device; I could talk about its merits forever. I have never come across something so effective in conveying past events - it allows us to witness events first hand rather than through the jumbled words of someone else, and it allows us to witness them more than once if need be. I love it.

Of course the heartbreak comes in the final few chapters when we lose Professor Albus Dumbledore, the heart and soul of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is an unbelievably emotional moment; a great loss. I believe the lament of the phoenix spoke for everyone at this point.

The novel ends and opens a wonderful, tantalising path for the final novel to go down, and although it doesn't end with a cliffhanger as such, it makes you desperate to read more, to make sure everyone will be okay, but with a dreadful feeling in your stomach because you know what's coming.

Time for Book 7.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Book #27

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter is due to start his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry. He is desperate to get back to school and find out why his friends Ron and Hermione have been so secretive all summer. However, what Harry is about to discover in his new year at Hogwarts will turn his whole world upside down. But before he even gets to school, Harry has an unexpected and frightening encounter with two Dementors, has to face a court hearing at the Ministry of Magic and has been escorted on a night-time broomstick ride to the secret headquarters of a mysterious group called 'The Order of the Phoenix'. And that is just the start.

I always hope my feelings for Order of the Phoenix will change with a re-read. It is my least favourite of the seven, and I can never quite put my finger on a specific reason as to why this might be. I have a few theories, however.

The suspense of the first four novels isn't as apparent here. There is not so much incentive to read on, the mysteries involved aren't as tantalising, and there isn't as many new spells, objects or people to meet and discover as in the previous installments. These small nuances are quite important to me.

Rowling's character development is quite bland. We don't learn a great deal about her characters which we didn't already know, and only the slightest of things seem to develop, such as the way Ron and Hermione act around each other. These things can only be noticed if you are already aware of what happens later in the saga, however.

Harry is absolutely deplorable throughout the entire novel. I often wonder if Order of the Phoenix is my least favourite installment due to my intense dislike for his attitude in it. Rowling is trying to bring across his teenage angst and temperament, but he just comes across as completely abhorrent. I do not deny that being the Chosen One must be a bit on the stressful side, but all he did was piss and moan for 700-odd pages. He is nothing but rude and disrespectful to Ron and Hermione, who have with nothing but the best intentions. I felt so sorry for them. Not only this, but Harry's attitude towards Dumbledore in the penultimate chapter was nothing but foul. He is, quite simply, a horrible person in this novel.

It's an enjoyable book, just not as much as the others. And at 700 or so pages, it's full of inconsequential nonsense which is quite entertaining, but which is completely irrelevant and could probably have been left out entirely.

At least I know Half-Blood Prince will remedy all of this.

27 / 72 books. 38% done!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Book #26

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Once returned to Hogwarts after his summer holiday with the dreadful Dursleys and an extraordinary outing to the Quidditch World Cup, the 14-year-old Harry and his fellow pupils are enraptured by the promise of the Triwizard Tournament: an ancient, ritualistic tournament that brings Hogwarts together with two other schools of wizardry--Durmstrang and Beauxbatons--in heated competition. But when Harry's name is pulled from the Goblet of Fire, and he is chosen to champion Hogwarts in the tournament, the trouble really begins.

My favourite of the seven!

The plot thickens! This is quite a hefty tome - 637 pages to be exact - and I think this is testament to how complex the plot is becoming. Rowling is aware her readers are growing up, so she weaves layers and layers of plot into this novel to make it as intricate and exciting as she possibly can. I think the entire plot in this installment is wonderful.

The Triwizard tournament is my main reason for loving this one. I loved meeting wizards from other countries and learning of their cultures, and different ways of life. There were different spells, objects, creatures and places to learn about during the tournament. We are even allowed a peek into the Prefects' bathroom!

Rowling's character development is lovely. I really love seeing Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up. In this installment, Rowling gives them all exactly the same teenage stresses that we all go through, and it's refreshing to see. I particularly enjoy Harry's "Wangoballwime?" invitation to Cho.

Barty Crouch Jr. is a character who has always intrigued me. I hate him so much that I almost love him in an odd way. The chapter Veritaserum in which he tells his story is one of my favourites in the book. It's just so fascinating; the things he did were deplorable. I find it a shame that the kiss was performed on him - he could've done some wonderfully awful things later on in the saga.

I love reading the series back to back. But, as always, I never want to begin reading Order of the Phoenix because it's almost like the beginning of the end. Here I go!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Book #25

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he was said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Now he has escaped, leaving only two clues as to where he might be headed: Harry Potter's defeat of You-Know-Who was Black's downfall as well. And the Azkban guards heard Black muttering in his sleep, "He's at Hogwarts...he's at Hogwarts." Harry Potter isn't safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Because on top of it all, there may well be a traitor in their midst.

Although not my favourite in the series (the winner of this title is the next in line - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), this definitely comes a close second. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is how large a leap it is from Chamber of Secrets. Things start to get very serious (and very Sirius), very quickly. The story is darker, bordering on deadly in places, and it's full of suspense. I also feel that the story in this one is the most intricate of the first three, with lots of lovely little details woven into the plot; the kind that make you breathe, "Oh!", once you realise their significance. Lovely!

Another exciting thing about this book is the deeper insights we are given into certain characters - Snape in particular. We're given a lot more of his past, and how he has come to hate Harry with such venom. I feel Dumbledore is shown a new light here too - he can be quite shrewd when he wants to be, and perhaps isn’t the jolly old gentleman we thought he was in the first two installments.

Most of all, our introduction to the Marauders is my favourite part of the novel. It's wonderful to see Harry presented with information about his father, and watching him meet some of the most important people in his father's life. Sirius and Lupin are two of my favourite characters of the series, and I really love meeting them all over again each time I read Prisoner of Azkaban.

Things are beginning to get exciting; so much so that I am almost dreading reading Goblet of Fire. It’s about to get real.

25 / 72 books. 35% done!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Book #24

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Harry is returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry after the summer holidays and, right from the start, things are not straightforward. Unable to board the Hogwarts express, Harry and his friends break all the rules and make their way to the school in a magical flying car. From this point on, incredible events happen to Harry and his friends--Harry hears evil voices and someone, or something is attacking the pupils. Can Harry get to the bottom of the mystery before it's too late?

Click here to read my review from last year.

It is amazing how light and fun-filled these earlier installments seem to be when thinking about later episodes in Harry's life, and how horrifically dark these turn out to be. Despite Harry's run-ins with Lord Voldemort in the first couple of books, it really does all seem very jolly, ha-ha, Quidditchy in the beginning. I like this to an extent, as it's nice to see Harry having a pleasant(ish) childhood before things start to get messy. I don't like the feeling of sheer dread that comes with this, though, knowing what the poor boy will have to go through in a few years time (not to mention how emotionally distressing I always seem to find it, no matter how many times I have been through exactly the same events in the past).

Again, Rowling's imagination is fantastic here, and I can't praise her characters enough. We are introduced to Gilderoy Lockhart, who is obessed with his own fame and incredibly self-absorbed. Rowling has written him in such a way that we can completely identify with him - after all, there is a Gilderoy Lockhart imitation in everyone's life.

I particularly like this novel because Harry destroys the diary. I wouldn't want to go into detail and risk posting a huge spoiler; however I am sure the most Potter-hardcore of those who read my blog will know how monumental a moment this is on Harry's journey - even if he doesn't know it yet.

It's the little things that make the books work. De-gnoming at the Burrow, Floo powder, Howlers, Valentines dwarves, broken wands, flying cars - the Whomping Willow! It's all so exciting and different, yet glaringly believable. I cannot fault the stories at all.

Onwards, upwards, and further into the wizardly darkness I go.

24 / 72 books. 33% done!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Book #23

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Say you've spent the first 10 years of your life sleeping under the stairs of a family who loathes you. Then, in an absurd, magical twist of fate you find yourself surrounded by wizards, a caged snowy owl, a phoenix-feather wand and jellybeans that come in every flavour, including strawberry, curry, grass and sardine. Not only that, but you discover that you are a wizard yourself!

It has been almost an entire year since I read the Harry Potter series, and I was becoming slightly restless, almost missing the characters. Since the final film is just around the corner (cue bulk-buying of Kleenex), I have resolved to read the books all over again to ensure the story is at the forefront of my mind before I walk into the cinematic finale. I am more than a fan of this series; I am a psycho fangirl.

I read and reviewed this one last May, and my first review can be read by clicking here. I thought it would be nice to do an entirely new review, but I think I will probably repeat some of the sentiments from last year.

Meeting Harry again at the beginning of his wizarding career is a pleasure. He is so innocent and vulnerable that Rowling makes you feel that he really deserves all of the wonderful things that happen to him. He hasn't been tainted by the cruelty he's been subjected to by his horrid aunt and uncle, and you can almost feel his essential goodness emanating from the first few pages. I remember completely falling in love with him when I was younger, and I am still in love with him.

I especially enjoy reading Harry Potter as a series because Rowling places tiny nuances into the early novels, hinting at the shape of things to come. Having prior knowledge of what Harry will endure in later novels is almost delicious, and Rowling's little hints are as equally thrilling.

I got slightly emotional in places here, most memorably when Harry had the Sorting Hat on and it screamed, "GRYFFINDOR," and also when Dumbledore awarded Neville ten points for his house as "he had never won so much as a point for Gryffindor before." The feelings I stumble upon whilst reading through these again are always so strange, but wonderful. It's like a set of old friends who I am visiting after a time apart, which is very odd, but I like it.

There are many things, good and bad, that can be said about Rowling's writing (although I would advise you not to criticise her to my face), but her characters cannot be faulted. They are all so rich and full, most of them remind you of someone you know, and you feel what you are supposed to feel for them, whether it is love or hate. The backgrounds we are given are always so concise and so deep that her characters will live on for a long, long time.

Rowling also manages to create this fantastical world of witches and wizards and makes it completely believable - so much so that I am of the opinion that the books were written to introduce us Muggles to the existence of the wizarding world in order to gauge how accommodating we would be towards them. We are shown so many weird and wonderful things, but not once does it feel at all far-fetched - it's Harry's world where anything can happen.

One book down and six to go. I am so excited, as always, about reading over these. It really is my favourite series. It sounds clichéd, but there is something very magical about the whole thing, and this is why it has become a sensation.

23 / 72 books. 32% done!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Book #22

Harry Potter: Film Wizardry by Brian Sibley

Immerse yourself in the world of the spectacular Harry Potter film series, and learn why Yule Ball ice sculptures never melt, where Galleons, Sickles and Knuts are really "minted", how to get a Hippogriff to work with actors, about the inspiration behind Hogwarts castle, and why Dementors move the way they do.

This was wonderful; I really, really enjoyed it.

I am by all means a fan of the Harry Potter books before the films, but I have always been very impressed by how the films have taken shape and evolved over the years. I think they do a good job of representing the wizarding world in a visual form. This book gives an amazing insight into how this is achieved, and some of these ways and means are absolutely incredible.

The photographs, storyboards, and concept art that were printed in the book were breathtaking. These, combined with the copies of props which came with the book (the Marauder's Map, Umbridge's proclamations, Harry's acceptance letter to Hogwarts, and even a Yule Ball programme), ensured a wave of goosebumps up and down my arms every time I turned a page. I especially enjoyed the pages detailing Weasley's Wizard Wheezes - everything is so eccentric and colourful; it'd be an incredible place to work.

I was particularly struck by the passion for the saga that each and every person who works on the films very obviously has for both the books and the films. The effort that could be put into a single prop - even one which is visible for only a fleeting second - is truly epic. There was an intense amount of research put into even the smallest of moments; I particularly liked the inspiration for the Ministry of Magic taken from research of the Soviet Union. The quotes given from the crew members really show their devotion, also. They really are the best people for the job.

Each of the main characters has a page dedicated to them, how the actors who play them ended up with the part, and in some cases how they were transformed into their character. This was absolutely fascinating; I particularly enjoyed reading about Evanna Lynch who plays Luna Lovegood - she seems so like her character, and such a big fan of the series.

I was also treated to a sneak peek of some of the scenes from the last film - namely Gringotts Bank and the Room of Requirement before it's consumed by Fiendfyre. My heart was pounding as I pored over it, I will not lie.

This is a good example for an anti-ebook argument. There is absolutely no way an ebook reader could begin to convey anything this book is trying to evoke in a reader. The glossy pages and the pull out pages did a lot for my appreciation. I honestly don't believe that this would have had the same effect had I read it from a screen.

This really has been great, and it's a wonderful book for anyone who likes Harry Potter - but especially the more hardcore of fans amongst us. It's inspired me to begin reading the series again in preparation for the final film, which will break my heart. I reviewed the entire series last year, and will be doing this again.

Haters to the left.

22 / 72 books. 31% done!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Book #21

Spiral by Koji Suzuki

Pathologist Ando is at a low point in his life. His small son's death from drowning has resulted in the break-up of his marriage and he is suffering from traumatic recurrent nightmares. Work is his only escape, and his depressing world of lonliness and regret is shaken up when an old rival from medical school, Ryuji Takayama, turns up on his slab ready to be dissected. Through Ryuji's bizarre demise Ando learns of a series of mysterious deaths that seem to have been caused by a sinister virus. From beyond the grave Ryuji appears to be leading Ando towards a suspicious videotape -- could this hold the answer to the riddle of the strange deaths? Or is it merely the first clue?

This is the sequel to Ring, which I read in April last year and really enjoyed. Unfortunately I didn't find this one quite as interesting and engaging as I did its predecessor.

It takes place almost immediately after the previous novel leaves off. Our protagonist, Ando, is dissecting the body of one of the characters who died in the previous novel. This leads to the discovery of the Ring virus, and everything from this point is given a scientific explanation. Not being particularly scientifically minded myself, I struggled to understand the links. The way Suzuki tied the supernatural to science was incredibly difficult for me to grasp, and it wasn't really what I was looking for in this novel; I like my supernatural to be inexplicable.

Much of the book is spent explaining what happened in Ring, and although this was a good reminder, also allowing the book to be read as a standalone, it was very tedious.

For these reasons too, I didn't feel the novel to be very effective as a horror. I felt no forms of suspense, shock or panic at any point whilst reading, and it failed to hold my attention at times. It just wasn't as creepy as I was expecting, and this in itself disappointed me.

Despite all this, I'm still interested in reading Loop, the final installment of the trilogy. I'd only recommend Spiral if, like me, you are interested in reading the entire series. I absolutely would not recommend this as a standalone read, unless you have a specific interest in how science relates to the paranormal.

21 / 72 books. 29% done!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Book #20

Porno by Irvine Welsh

In the fag-end of his youth, Simon 'Sick Boy' Williamson is back in his native Edinburgh after a long spell in London. Having failed spectacularly as a hustler, pimp, husband, father and businessman, Sick Boy taps into an opportunity, which to him represents one last throw of the dice. To enable this scam to work out, Sick Boy needs bedfellows.

This is the sequel to Trainspotting, and takes place ten years later. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews on this one, always comparing it to Trainspotting, but I have to say I like it just as much, if not more than, its predecessor.

It's slightly less intense than Trainspotting and shows sex rather than heroin as the drug of choice. Despite this, it's still filled with corruption from beginning to end.

It's possibly not the best book to read in public. I have the edition with the cover above, and this provoked a few raised eyebrows from the public when I was doing my relentless 'read whilst walking somewhere' routine. If you're easily embarrassed, then this is one that should be read only in the comforting depths of your own home.

The main thing to notice here is how deeply Irvine Welsh falls in love with his characters. They appear in sequels, but they also appear dotted around in the backgrounds of his other novels and this intertwining is something I love about his work. Porno seems to have been written to continue the stories of the much loved characters from Trainspotting, and who can blame the man for this? I found the character development to be almost perfect; every character was more or less where I would've expected them to be ten years down the line.

The narrative is set out similar to Trainspotting’s, with each new chapter being narrated by a different voice. This is wonderful as it gives us a greater insight into the minds and actions of more of the characters, rather than just one. Again, some of the characters use Scot's dialect, which can become tiresome (I imagine) if it's not your native tongue. Most of Sick Boy's chapters were written in perfect English, but it was interesting to note the occasions where he reverted back into Edinburgh slang, and wonder upon the reasons for this. How pondersome of me, I know.

There is a lot Welsh is trying to say here about consumerism and corporate capitalism, which is interesting to think about also.

I wouldn't say this is a necessary read for everyone who has read Trainspotting. It is necessary, however, for lovers of Irvine Welsh and his characters; the insight into them here is phenomenal.

It's filthy, it's dark, it's dirty and hilarious. I really don't understand what's not to love here. I'd even go as far as to demand another installment.

20 / 72 books. 28% done!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Book #19

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life.

This is an old favourite of mine. Irvine Welsh can do no wrong in my eyes.

Trainspotting is almost like a collection of short stories in the way it's written. Welsh flits through different narrators so quickly and frantically that you really have to pay attention to the words and themes in new chapters in order to understand who is telling you this next particular tale.

Welsh writes predominately in Scottish colloquialism, particularly in common Edinburgh dialect. I found this easy to read, being Scottish, but at times I wasn't too sure whether anyone other than a native Scot would be able to understand certain parts of this type of narrative. I imagine it would be a bit like reading A Clockwork Orange for the first time.

The book is dark and absolutely repulsive, but at the same time hilarious and relatable in places. There are some real emotional and moral struggles, and although these are experienced by some depraved criminal losers, sympathy can still be evoked by Welsh.

As a small aside, and since this a question that many people ask me, I'd like to comment on how much I prefer the book to the film. In all fairness, the film is one of my favourites, but it misses out a lot of key points and issues, and embellishes a few others. It's a lot less disjointed than the book is which is less appealing. It raises fewer questions. It's like Diet Trainspotting.

I have always maintained that Irvine Welsh is a man who can bring the lowest lows to life. Anything coarse or depraved that can be imagined can be personified by this man. I think it's his sheer sickness that I'm attracted to; I like reading his books and being transported almost down into the gutters with his characters. I’m sure this is a book that most people are familiar with, and I’d urge everyone to read it. It’s harrowing and to the point, and it’s something that has to be read.

19 / 72 books. 26% done!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Book #18

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Weary of academic study, an eminent scholar turns to magic and makes a deal with the Devil. Mephistopheles will serve him and give him whatever he wants, but after twenty-four years Faustus must keep his side of the bargain.

This was a challenge, and I loved it. It's a Renaissance play and was written with obvious Shakespearean qualities - blank verse with iambic pentameter - and I was happy to work hard to read and understand what was going on. I think it's what I really needed to get myself back into serious reading. It's a set book for my university course, but it was also one I had been dying to read for some time. Two birds, one stone, etc. Christopher Marlowe was friends with Shakespeare, which attracted me to him. I also read about his heretic comments and his strange death, which made me even more eager to read this play.

Faustus is an intellectual who feels that although he has studied medicine and philosophy he finds it all a bit of a bore and is looking for something different, something more out there. For this reason, he decides to dabble in black magic and become as close to a God as he can possibly be. This backfires a bit, and he indulges in twenty-four years of pointless conjuring, only to have his soul dragged to hell by Lucifer after his time is up. During this time, he becomes something almost like a court jester – entertaining the rich, and becoming even less of a God than he was in the first instance.

He comes close to saving himself many times, but ends up falling into the same cycles of having doubts about the contract, being persuaded otherwise by the powers of darkness, and then convincing himself to see through his agreement with Lucifer.

I think Marlowe is subtly expressing his opinions of the church in this piece. Faustus had anti-religious feeling, and I believe this may have been the way Marlowe was feeling at the time also. There are many rumours of his unorthodox opinions, and this was one of them. The concept of belief and unbelief is rife throughout the entire play, with Lucifer and various devils appearing on stage, but God never making a single appearance throughout.

I felt the characters to be quite allegorical, with each one representing an abstract idea - such as one of the seven deadly sins. Although this made most characters slightly flat, I enjoyed it all the same.

There are so many things I'd love to talk about in depth, but I'd really like to save myself for my analytic essay on this work. However, I'd definitely recommend this one to someone who likes a challenge. It gets easier to understand the more you read, and it becomes enthralling. Marlowe’s points about religion and society are interesting; the whole thing has a breathless feeling to it. I’d ask you to try it.

18 / 72 books. 25% done!

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Book #17

No Mean City by Alexander McArthur

First published in 1935, No Mean City is the story of Johnnie Stark, son of a violent father and a downtrodden mother, the 'Razor King' of Glasgow's pre-war slum underworld, the Gorbals.

This book primarily deals with the poverty in the slums of pre-war Glasgow. I found it to be quite horrendous in places, particularly in the gang mentalities and how difficult it was for people to get into an education or a career which would be good enough to allow them to escape the slums. It made me wonder whether I would be able to better myself in such a situation, and the answer was - probably not.

The lives of all of the inhabitants of this novel just seem so incredibly depressing, and filled with violence and hardship. Very few people have ambitions; many are content to just soldier on with what they have been given.

I didn't find this to be well written, but I think it overcomes this with its brutal and frank social observations.

This is definitely worth a look, particularly if you are familiar with the Glasgow area. I found it interesting to be reading about streets and places I know with a historical slant placed on them, and I also enjoyed the use of Glasgow slang to project pieces of realism. It's harrowing in places, and definitely cutting edge, but I’d recommend it.

17 / 72 books. 24% done!