Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Book #70

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

One hot spring the devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by various demons, including a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full and the forces of law and order in disarray.
Only the Master, a man devoted to the truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, can resist the devil's onslaught.
The devil arrives in Moscow at a time when black magic and supernatural power could wreak maximum havoc. Working with his underling demons, the influential wealthy men of the city see their greed exposed, and their comeuppance is hideous for them, yet exhilarating for the devil and us.

Spanning three storylines, we're initially transported to the realities of life as the devil arrives to play with the Russians. Quickly afterwards, we're immersed in the tale of Pontius Pilate, told incredibly as a interpretive historical view, rather than a Biblical repetition. These two tales flash in and out of one another, until we're with Margarita, and the true powers of the devil come to their delicious finale. 

Our expectations are entirely crushed in the devil's acts. Despite certainly embodying evil, he does his utmost to ensure the people of Moscow get what they ultimately deserve. Although that means, of course, the insatiable greed and corruption of the powerful are punished, he also seeks to reward loyalty and love in the form of Margarita. This gives us a sense of a justice, and shows the devil as pursuing a balance in the world. 

Bulgakov writes of freedom, writes in glorious colours, and takes us to the dizzying heights of imagination and magic. In a world of oppression and unrest, where people disappear during the night, he spent his time imagining the wonder and enchantment that could be.

Attempting to understand the novel as a deconstruction of Stalinist Russia, however, was taxing and debilitating to the plot for me. Despite some less than subtle nods, the book is enjoyed best as a fairytale of retribution and reward. 

I always find it difficult to review the great classics, and I'm sure I've missed the mark again with this one. Despite my poor use of words, it's a hilarious and witty commentary with gorgeous magical-realism, it's survived the death of its maker, and avoided censorship to arrive on our doorsteps.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Book #69

Well, they are gone and here must I remain by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A selection of Coleridge's poems, including 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' and 'Frost at Midnight' 

It is now clear to me I am doomed to live my life with a complete lack of appreciation for poetry. Thank you, Little Black Classics range, for helping me see and understand this. A few of the poetry editions have filled me with some sort of emotion, but I always dread them. Coleridge was no different.

Having read Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and also having enjoyed it (although I promise this isn't just because it's famous), although dreading this instalment, I was also expecting much more from it. Here we have a collection of poems focusing mostly on love, religion, and nature. The style of these weren't quite what my imbecile brain can follow or comprehend, never mind become excited about. The rhythm seemed very off, certainly not captivating, although I'm sure it's probably some sort of revered rhythm I've never heard of.

Is there such a thing as Poetry for Dummies?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Book #68

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay by JK Rowling

When Magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when his magical case is misplaced and some of Newt's fantastic beasts escape, it spells trouble for everyone.
While I'm a true believer in always reading the book before seeing the film, I reversed this mantra for Fantastic Beasts. I've read a few screenplays in the past, and they're so entirely different to prose, I knew I would fare better with the visual effects first. The lack of description in a screenplay completely hinders any sort of imagination building, and the emboldened camera directions are a putter offer. Nevertheless..

As a true lover of the jazz twenties and New York, particularly New York in the jazz twenties, I was so excited about this. Throw in some magic - I am sold and non-returnable. Without turning this into a review of the film, rather than the screenplay, I wasn't disappointed in the scenes, the clothing, and the customs (seedy alleyway bars during Prohibition have always excited me, never mind ones filled with goblins and the worst magical criminals in the city). It was absolutely gorgeous.

Newt is such a beautiful character. His kind heart, and clear love for his animals, truly and irrevocably binds him to Hufflepuff house. There wasn't a great deal of his backstory given to us, only little hints and nods to an excellent relationship with Dumbledore, and more interestingly, an acquaintance with a Lestrange. It leaves an overwhelming desire to learn more of his past life, and most importantly, his school life.

It was wonderful for Rowling to cast a Muggle (or No-Maj, as our American friends call them) as a main character. She's peppered these through the Potter novels, but never in such a way that we can see the total amazement, disbelief, and ultimate acceptance of the magical world. Jacob's awe whilst in Newt's case was joyous, and his admission that he didn't have the brains to dream it almost brought tears to my eyes,

The subtle references to the Potter books were glorious, but not important to the plot. The most important thing about this is that, although set in the wizarding world, you need no prior knowledge of Potter to understand and enjoy the story.

Reading this as a screenplay gave me a huge need to see the film again, but not much more than that. I wish terribly Rowling had released the five films as books first, but in not doing this, she's making the films all the more special.

Roll on Paris.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Book #67

The Flood by Ian Rankin

Mary Miller has always been an outcast. As a child, she fell into the hot burn - a torrent of warm chemical run-off from the local coal mine - and her hair turned white. Initially she was treated with sympathy, but all that changed a few days later when the young man who pushed her died in an accident.
Now, many years later, Mary is a single mother caught up in a faltering affair. Her son, Sandy, has fallen in love with a strange homeless girl - and both mother and son are forced to come to terms with a dark secret from Mary's past.

This was Rankin's first ever published novel, with only a few hundred copies printed at the time. Ironically, it's also my first experience of his writing; I never was attracted by Rebus, but I picked this one up relatively cheaply, and thought I'd give it go.

A strange story, with strangely captivating characters, and a blind sense of not knowing where you're going. The characters here felt realistically raw, and I really enjoyed their accompanying back stories and development.

The utter Scottishness of the entire thing was nothing less than delightful. Small town behaviours and superstitions glared through every page, and the odd colloquialism here and there was excellent (although for a mining town, incredibly lacking). His commentary and research on witchcraft in Scotland was particularly engaging for me, and I only wish there had been more of it. The portrayal of the male descent into despondency after the closure of the pits felt like an important lesson in local social history, and I felt this was done incredibly well, truly enforcing the economic shifts and stresses of the time.

Despite all that, it's apparent in places that this was Rankin's debut novel. Although allowing us to guess at the promising mysteries during the entire journey, it was fairly easy to guess the real story behind Mary's past. Most disappointing of all, was the bland finale; I'm not one to need everything tied at up the end, and quite enjoy abstract and open endings which leave the reader to interpret things for themselves. Rankin didn't deliver on either of these scores, instead giving us a poor, rushed, and badly executed ending, with far too many unanswered questions. I only wanted a tiny bit more than Rankin was able to give me.

Nonetheless, the story had me engrossed, had enough potential to allow me to believe in Rankin's storytelling abilities, and most importantly, make me ready enough to melt myself into a Rebus novel. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Book #68

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

A classic story of friendship between man and beast. Saved from the jaws of the evil tiger Shere Khan, young Mowgli is adopted by a wolf pack and taught the law of the jungle by lovable old Baloo the bear and Bhageera the panther. The adventures of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the snake-fighting mongoose, little Toomai and the elephant's secret dance, and Kotick the white seal are all part of Mowgli's extraordinary journey with his animal friends.

I, alongside many others, have only until this point based my entire knowledge of The Jungle Book on the Disney adaptation. In the present day, I doubt that's anything to be ashamed of, but I'm ashamed nonetheless. Having now successfully traversed my way through Kipling's jungle, I am delighted (albeit initially disappointed) to report that it's a collection of jungle stories, rather than a novel. I wanted more Mowgli, but the trade-off was worth it.

Much darker than Disney, Kipling teaches us of friendship, courage, loyalty, and rules, in the form of short stories and poetry. I was surprised at the depth Kipling gave to his stories, and this only made it all the more enjoyable. Most of all, his jungle social commentary is on point, and still resonates today with certain personalities or groups.

Mowgli and all his well known friends star only in the first three chapters. It was wonderful to see Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, and all of the others again, and to share in Mowgli's adventures in the jungle. Kaa was a good guy, the wolves are sometimes bad guys, and Shere Khan actually gets what's coming to him. Learning the laws of the jungle was brilliant, and Kipling did a good job ensuring his animals remained as animals; not behaving like humans, and having thought processes particular to their species; the monkey behaviours were my favourite of all in this respect.

My favourite story of them all was that of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. What a badass mongoose that guy is. Taken in by humans after their son falls in love with him, the bold RTT makes it his mission to kill off anything that threatens his new family; mainly the two arsehole snakes that live in the garden. Kipling gives us a mongoose vs snake battle royale; suspenseful, horrific, and somewhat delectable, I was absolutely engrossed with it.

A gorgeous collection of adventures written with style, profundity, and charm. And I will repeat (as it can only be a good thing), darker than Disney.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book #67

Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov perfected the short story, as shown in these three moving miniature dramas of love, dread, and lies.

These three short stories were excellent. All touching on humanity's quest for happiness, the importance we place on love, and the ability we have to deceive each other; they were stirring, and quite impressive.

The Kiss was definitely my favourite. In a darkened room, a soldier is kissed by a woman mistaking him to be her lover. The joy this brings to the soldier is immeasurable, and he begins to invent situations in his head, of love and marriage, despite never having seen the face the kiss belonged to. He is soon plunged into an melancholy, as he realises the scenes he's created in his mind will never come to pass. His feelings are beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, and Chekhov's commentary on the fatalities optimism and hope can bring, is devastating.

The Two Volodyas tells of Sophia, who married for money. Meeting an old friend who, despite a prior life of immorality, has converted to life in a convent, she mourns the friend's loss of life, living in an oppressed and dull dungeon. Soon after the meeting, she begins to realise her own life is much the same, and she reverts to affairs and debauchery, understanding her greed has not brought her happiness.

Gooseberries is absolutely the most dismal of the three. A man tells the story of his brother, whose life's ambition was to live in the country in a grand house surrounded by gooseberry bushes. Once he has achieved this goal, the man visits his brother and becomes aggrieved at the superiority of his happiness. This being told, the narrator pontificates on the meaning of happiness - how can one be happy when so many others around the world are suffering? To be happy, we must shut out the misfortunes of others, and pretend they don't exist. It's thought-provoking; the brother worked hard all his life in order to pursue his dream, now he has it, he should not be allowed to enjoy it because of the world's sufferings. Can he single-handedly stop these sufferings, however? He can't. So should he be allowed to be happy, despite the deprivation of others which he's unable to control? Such questions.

It reminds me of the feeling that occurs when something traumatic happens in our lives. After the loss of a loved one, you see others carrying on with their lives in the same way as they usually do. You wonder how they can be do audacious as to do so; you cannot believe they're completely unaware of the grief you're experiencing. How dare they?

An excellent first experience of Chekhov; his commentary on the human condition is timeless, as is his ability to relate the complexities of life. I found this is to be another success story of the Little Black Classics range, and long may it continue.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Book #66

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

When Alice steps through the looking-glass, she enters a world of chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters who behave very strangely. Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the dotty White Knight and the sharp-tempered Red Queen - none of them are what they seem. In fact, through the looking-glass, everything is distorted.

I'm sure a huge number of us, as children, have wondered what's on the other side of the mirror. Is it a world where everything is opposite, or is it something else entirely? Does the entire world mirror our own, or does the area just outside of our view hold something completely different? Carroll once again taps into the inner curiosities of our younger friends, and delivers another illogical, yet captivating, tale of Alice's adventures.

The world through the looking glass is infinitely more complex than Wonderland. Alice is given a clear route to follow here, which reads like more of a quest than her wanderings through Wonderland ever could. Although the characters she met in Wonderland could never be described as friendly, most of those through the looking glass have something not quite right about them; whether disdain, an agenda, or something else ticking under the surface, I couldn't quite make my mind up.

Carroll's word play here is twice as fascinating as it was in Alice, and our girl's frustration at being mocked for the words she uses is absolutely delightful. Most of the characters Alice meets here regale her with some form of poetry or song, all peppered with nonsense. My favourite of these is The Walrus and the Carpenter, a macabre sort of poem which sends Alice into a flurry of confusion as to which of the two is the biggest villain, and to whom she should apportion the most blame, as though that's of any importance. The poem itself can be broken down into all sorts of interpretations, mainly religious, however I love it for exactly what it is: an act of evil coaxing in order to satisfy a hunger. Ponder that.

Although I didn't prefer it to Wonderland, I definitely laughed more here. There were some excellent characters, and some excellent moments that will no doubt continue to live on in my memory. I'll leave you with my favourite:

"And when I found the door was shut, I tried to turn the handle, but-"
There was a long pause.
'Is that all?' Alice timidly asked.
'That's all', said Humpty Dumpty. 'Goodbye.'

Friday, 25 November 2016

Book #65

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

On an ordinary summer's afternoon, Alice tumbles down a hole and an extraordinary adventure begins. In a strange world with even stranger characters, she meets a rabbit with a pocket watch, joins a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, and plays croquet with the Queen. Lost in this fantasy land, Alice finds herself growing more and more curious by the minute.

Everyone knows this story, so I won't insult anyone's intelligence by trying to explain it all to you. Undoubtedly, the characters of the Disney film will be imprinted in your memory, making it entirely impossible to imagine the characters of Wonderland looking any different to how they were drawn for that. Unlike many book to film nightmares I've experienced, this phenomenon only created a sense of nostalgia, rather than frustration, when coursing my way through the pages.

Children's literature is a difficult feat. I've written before my thoughts on young readers' minds, and their capacity to hold, enjoy, and interpret so much more than many authors think them capable of. It's a real shame to place in front of them a novel that deals only with trivialised and dumbed down accounts of life. It's even worse to give them a story which only holds loud, patronising, and obvious moral messages in an attempt to make them a good person.

Carroll understood this. In Alice, he gives us a complex and confusing world which children will have to wrap their minds around. He gives us illogical nonsense within its pages, which will fill the readers with complete awe and (no pun intended) wonder. The colourful characters, their ridiculous reasoning, and the pace of Alice's adventures, have no doubt kept kids gripped for years.

Despite its renown for being a children's classic, there are many important sections to analyse here for adults. Admittedly, there's no real need to, as the story is wonderful on its own, but it's great to understand Carroll's hints towards growing up, politics, the law, and the monarchy. He gives us a clean exacted prose littered with word play and language twists, which, although entirely uninteresting to children, will cause the wordy adults amongst us to giggle with joy.

Yeah, he liked a bit of the old opium, as evidenced by the caterpillar smoking hookah on a magic mushroom, but thinking DRUGS whenever Wonderland is mentioned means discounting its merits. Carroll has created a story which transcends time, and has remained in our minds since the 19th century. Drugs, though.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Book #64

The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen

A selection of Austen's dark and hilarious early writings - featuring murder, drunkenness, perjury, theft, poisoning, women breaking out of prison, men forging wills and babies biting off their mothers' fingers.

This is quite possibly my favourite instalment so far in the Little Black Classics range. I could read Austen until the end of the time, and have quite an irrevocable love for her. To be able to read a collection of short stories she wrote as a teenager, which were never meant to be published and were only written for her own amusement, alongside that of her family and friends, was a complete treat for me.

They are not the Austen we are used to; they don't involve important satirical social commentary, nor do they come across as affected by love as some of her later works. They are somewhat hilarious and provoking little clips of fun, that glaringly show Austen's talent was within her from an early age. Her spelling in places is incredibly askew, and Penguin's decision to leave these unedited portray a gorgeous picture of the naive author. I loved it.

It's so easy to imagine a young Austen amusing herself by writing these, and giggling along to herself as she came up with more scandal and shock to surprise her family. She has her characters behave in ways which would be thoroughly condemned in her time, and this mischievousness is completely loveable.

Lastly, as I probably say in every Austen review, she resonates today with her empathy for women's emotion, as clearly shown in the title of the final story:

What a woman.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Book #63

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Dark allegory describes Marlow’s journey up the Congo River and his meeting with, and fascination by, Mr. Kurtz, a mysterious personage who dominates the unruly inhabitants of the region. 

Reading A Hippo Banquet led me into this one perfectly, and gave me the only thing lacking from Kingsley's accounts: human nature and interaction.

The framed narrative worked wonders for me. The narrator beginning the story gazing down the Thames, imagining the hope and promise far-off lands can offer, was exactly the way I felt after Kingsley's colourful and utopian descriptions of Africa. Once he has heard Marlow's story, he feels as though he is staring straight into the heart of darkness. The narrator is beside us in the audience, listening to the story, trying to understand its meaning, and ultimately becoming convinced of the horrors spun by the teller.

Marlow's tale is filled with moralistic warnings; the main one being that even the most upstanding citizen can be consumed by madness, and descend into brutal behaviour often painted as civilised. The barbarism here wasn't from the 'uncivilised savages', but from the apparent white pillars of the community, many of whom (including Marlow) are only in Africa in order to experience something, or advance their careers. His commentary on imperialism parallels this, and although interesting, is difficult to comprehend into a defining conclusive statement on Conrad's true opinion.

The prose perfectly captures a man telling a story; he struggles, he stops, he diverts. Despite this, all the workings of excellent literature are there. He throws symbols at you mercilessly, and the only way to enjoy the book is to interpret these to the best of your ability. Each device weaves together to create the gloom of being walled in, of being alone, and of slowly losing your mind.

An utterly uncomfortable read, it's an important one in understanding the dangers of power, the importance of conscience, and the overwhelming complexity of human nature.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Book #62

A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley

Told with verve and self-mocking wit, the adventures of doughty female Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley describe stumbling upon five hippos by night, dodging elephants and fighting off a leopard with a stool. 

I had never heard of Mary Kingsley before picking up this book, and I'm both ashamed and amazed at this fact. A woman choosing to be an explorer in Victorian times was shocking; exploration and travel were men's hobbies (usually for the very rich) and for Kingsley to simply take off and pursue her dream, not bothering one ounce about what society's opinion of this was, shows complete strength and drive.

No doubt dispelling many social expectations of the time, she travels alone with only an interpreter and natives guiding her through the jungles. Not a single white man 'escorts' her on her mission; she learns as much of the language and dialect as she can, and survives an emancipated woman. And what a woman.

Her musings on her time in Africa are peppered with humour alongside hints at the danger she was in, between both the big game and the natives. Although she reminds us frequently of her feminine disadvantage (with female locals fleeing upon seeing what they believe to be a white woman devil), she also shows us determination; whether that be eating a snake her awestruck companions believe to be treacherous, or fighting off a leopard with a wooden stool matters not. Despite her dangers, a clear love of animals seeped through her words, and this was the most heartening aspect of all.

The writing itself is gorgeous; I loved reading her descriptions of her surroundings and the animals she encountered. My favourites were the birds; their colours, their bodies, their behaviours. She captured all of these beautifully, and I could picture everything so vividly, I thought I could smell the gunpowder.

For me, this volume is what the Little Black Classics range is all about; opening readers up to writing they otherwise wouldn't be exposed to, and prompting them to look at these types of historical figures in more depth. This was absolutely captivating, and an excellent legacy for an excellent woman.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Book #61

Business Stripped Bare by Richard Branson

In Business Stripped Bare, Sir Richard Branson shares the inside track on his life in business and reveals the incredible truth about his most risky, brilliant and audacious deals. Discover why Virgin tried to take on one of the world's biggest superbrands, how Virgin Mobile USA holds the record as the fastest company in history to generate revenues of over one billion dollars (faster than Microsoft, Google and Amazon) and how Richard is the only person in the world to have built eight billion-dollar companies from scratch in eight different sectors.

There were a few raised eyebrows when I announced this was what I was reading next. Despite being a non-fiction hater, I have a business degree, and I manage a team. I bought this book back in the university days, read a few pages, then left it to languish on my bookshelf, always favouring the excitement of the fiction world over business facts and advice. I should have stayed there.

Branson is one of the main men in business today. Virgin is one of the most diverse brands on the planet - he has his fingers in rail and air travel, banking, telephony, health and fitness, and even has his own branded vodka. This autobiography had lots (and lots) to say about how he managed it all, but instead of taking us under his wing and giving true business advice, he simply told us what he'd done, how brilliantly it had worked, and implored us to follow his lead.

Don't get me wrong, there is an entire chapter detailing mistakes made in the past, and how he learned from them. This is an excellent message, but the mistakes seemed to conveniently be the fault of something, or someone, else (such as, when a Virgin train derailed and killed a passenger, it was the fault of the rails, not the train), or mistakes that could easily be written off to experience and didn't exactly land Branson in a tonne of shit.

I was looking, in the main, for ways in which to empower employees to own their roles and take joy from them. Branson is a man of the people, and I was convinced his chapter on being exactly that would give me some, if not all, of the answers. Turns out all he suggests are completely common sense strategies that any manager worth their salt will already have employed. He gives no examples of times he's empowered and motivated his own staff, and instead boasts that they just manage to find the right people to work for Virgin. As though absolutely no lazy bellends have slipped through the net somewhere; they are all amazing entrepreneurs.

Let me be perfectly honest - I skipped most of this. Self-aggrandising, name-dropping, dull, heavy on the factual statistics, light on the business advice, and no doubt heavily ghostwritten, it was another nail in my non-fiction coffin.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Book #60

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Stories about murder, mystery and madness, portraying the author's feverish imagination at its creative height.

As someone with a good few copies of Poe on her bookshelf, I'm embarrassed to say this is my first foray into the master of macabre. This is a collection of three of Poe's short stories, and each of them was as creepy as the next; I loved every single word.

A Tell-Tale Heart is one of Poe's most famous short stories. Its terror comes not from the act of the narrator (the killing of an old man), but from the narration itself. Speaking as though to a policeman, or doctor, he tries to prove his sanity by detailing the calm and collected way in which he planned the murder, and the detached manner in which he carried out the act. His justification for this alone reeks of madness; the old man had an evil eye - very much like a vulture's - which caused our narrator great unease. The way this was written was utterly delectable; frightening, unsettling, and most of all, seeped in tension.

The Fall of the House of Usher immediately introduced us to a dark and gloomy house in the middle of nowhere, in true gothic style. He visits an old friend who has come down with an affliction, and soon comes to discover the family and the house, are far more disturbing than he had imagined them to be. I loved this for all of the gothic elements employed; the house, the darkness, the strange sounds, and the ultimate ending. A true terror.

Finally, and quite unfashionably (as is my way), I found The Cask of Amontillado to be my favourite. No madness, no gothic supernatural, just pure human evil. Simply a tale of revenge, Poe kept the climax quite veiled until the final moments. Deliciously horrid.

This is an excellent collection, showcasing Poe's varied styles and approaches to terror. A great starting place for Poe, but also a terrific quick read if you want to get back into the macabre. Wonderful.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Book #59

The Virgin of the Wind Rose by Glen Craney

While investigating the murder of an American missionary in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam.
Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon's Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged:
The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal's Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.
Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this fast-paced thriller to expose the world's most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer's connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days. 

If you found the above blurb lengthy and confusing, you're going to have a hell of ride with this one. Filled with religious and historical detail, almost painfully so, this novel takes us on a mission of intrigue towards the End of Days.

Almost two books in one, we see Jacqueline Quartermane, a devout Christian and American lawyer, try to make sense of the death of her fiancé in Ethiopa, after finding out his reasons for being there weren't quite as honest as Christian as he had maintained. Parallel to this, we're transported to the Portuguese 1400s, see the Inquisition begin to rise, and follow the paths of three squires enrolled into a secret society. Both paths begin to intertwine and make sense of each other, despite the separation of time.

The writing was impeccable, and kept my attention mercilessly. Craney weaves his mysteries expertly, with plenty of twists and surprises along the way. There was always a perfectly positioned clue to move the plot along, and Craney never patronised his readers by explaining their meaning too clearly.

My main issue was with the immense level of detail involved in the story. Craney is clearly incredibly intelligent, and has vastly researched his stuff. For me, it became difficult to keep track of names, symbols, relics, and even where the characters were in the world at any particular time. The changing landscape of the plot happened so quickly, that although it moved the plot on wonderfully, I was plunged into confusion often. I believed this to be down to my slim knowledge of religion, the Columbus era, and the Knights Templar, but now I realise it was just a tonne of information being cannonballed my way, and I wasn't able to catch it all.

This is a long haul of a book, and you have to ensure you're alert, and ready to interpret the next clue. Despite its length, it's a fast-paced torrential whirlwind of information. Some suspension of belief is required, however Craney's clear historical and religious facts make up for it.

One for fans of historical and religious mystery, but mainly one for fans of cryptography - hopefully you'll have more success with your own grey matter than I did with mine.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Book #58

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

London is poised on the brink of World War II. Timid, scrawny Willie Beech -- the abused child of a single mother -- is evacuated to the English countryside. At first, he is terrified of everything, of the country sounds and sights, even of Mr. Tom, the gruff, kindly old man who has taken him in. But gradually Willie forgets the hate and despair of his past. He learns to love a world he never knew existed, a world of friendship and affection in which harsh words and daily beatings have no place. Then a telegram comes. Willie must return to his mother in London. When weeks pass by with no word from Willie, Mr. Tom sets out for London to look for the young boy he has come to love as a son. 

I have read this book over a hundred times over the space of twenty years, and it's nothing less than wonderful with each read. Initially, I was introduced to it through the standard primary school studies of WW2. Adopting a fascination for evacuees, ration books, and air raid shelters, and as the girl who read so much she had to be placed into a reading group all on her own, I was directed towards this novel by a teacher.

Flash forward twenty years, and I'm a bitter old cynic chasing the warm feeling I experienced before my heart frosted over. Sad films, romantic displays of affection, sick puppies on the telly; nothing was making me feel anything. Enter William Beech, the frail, frightened and abused evacuee; show me Mister Tom, the grumpy old man with a full heart; give me Sammy, the most perfect dog I have ever seen written; describe to me the horrors of wartime England, and the way people came together to get through it, and I'm done. I'm brimming over with warmth, fuzz, and a slight relief that my heart can still be reached somewhat.

The story is steeped in the innocence of being young, discovering the world, understanding the importance of friendships, and most of all, the importance of having someone you can trust, even if you are the unlikeliest pair Little Weirwold has ever seen.

Magorian's descriptions of William's new home are completely gorgeous. The rolling countryside, the horse and cart, the sun shining through tree branches, were all written simply yet delicately, creating in us a strong sense that this is where William belongs. Summertime dissolves into a chill, with rain bouncing off the gravestones, and William and Tom running for cover in their cottage. Magorian's description of Tom's fireplace, and the two of them curled up on an armchair reading together, did a lot to warm my otherwise chilled soul.

For these two to come together, grow together, and encourage each other (however unobserved) to change into stronger and more loving people, just brings a total lump to my throat.

Despite the comfort and simplicity of William's new life, Magorian doesn't keep us safe. She reminds us of war happening just outside of Little Weirwold's utopia, and jars us unexpectedly into the terrors of its grasp by sending our lovely little evacuee back to the ravaged dirty streets of London. I was rapt. Although the novel deals with an abundance of serious issues, Magorian writes these subtly, in a way which won't perturb young readers, but also being careful enough to highlight the more adult issues for those of us guilty of being a bit older.

The most gentle and heartwarming childrens' novel, I will come back to it time and time again. It's more than worthy of any reader, of any age, and I would encourage those of you who haven't tried it to absolutely pick it up. Those of you who have, please read it again. 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Book #57

The Terrors of the Night by Thomas Nashe

The greatest of Elizabethan pamphleteers, Nashe had a magical ability with words, never more so than in The Terrors of the Night, where he mulls over ghosts, demons, nightmares and the supernatural. 

Well, this one wins the prize for most misleading description of the Little Black Classics range so far. Demonic horrors and spirits on the weekend of Halloween? I am ready to be scared. What followed instead was fifty pages of blather on the devil, demons, superstitions, and dreams.

Nashe bleats on for ages in robust lecture fashion. It reads like a stream of consciousness essay, which is never really effective. I imagine, in his time, this would be interesting, and perhaps even frightening; but the back of the book had so convinced me I'd be scared, that I was incredibly disappointed. The only scary thing about this is the thought of it being longer, or indeed having to read it again.

Did you know dreams are a culmination of our thoughts during the day, and anything that's stuck in the back of your mind? Did you know that the main cause of insomnia is a guilty conscience? Did you know that spirits are more likely to target women, as they are so so incredibly weak? Yeah, okay, that's an Elizabethan social thought of the 1500s, but the repetition of women's susceptibility to being haunted was incredibly tiresome.

A wordy, diverted ramble through what felt like Nashe's thought process on the supernatural. I once listened to a tired and drunken friend beat on about the philosophies of life for what felt like hours; had I given him a pen, I imagine his thoughts would read a lot like Nashe's essay.

I have been robbed of my presumed Elizabethan ghost stories.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Book #56

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author's lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

I used to think it entirely blasphemous to loathe a great work of fiction with my entire being, but here we are. Moby Dick was an absolute slog, an utter bore, and (no apologies here) a waste of my precious reading time. I persevered, I read all 600-odd pages, I looked up things I didn't understand, I tried to get with the overly eloquent language and the tedious factual offerings which removed me from the plot. I did everything. I hated it.

The tale of one man's vengeance against the sea monster who nibbled off his leg, in my mind, was going to be what all the classics lovers in the land said it was going be - epic. There is nothing epic about interrupting a plot with grand commentary on whale anatomy, the origins and evil of the colour white, or where each nail and screw goes on a ship. If Queequeg was in my flat, I'd have allowed him to eat my eyes.

I did enjoy some of the commentary, particularly the racist custom of the time, and seeing this being different when away from land. I loved Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship at the beginning of the novel, but would've liked to see more of the comical and loving side of them once they were onboard the Pequod. I also loved the homoerotic tones that came from men on a boat squeezing a load of sperm in a bucket, and squeezing each others' hands at the same time. Oh, Melville!

Few of the characters had any real charm, with most of the crew bleeding into each other until you couldn't tell one from the other. Ishmael was merely there to put the whole thing into words, and barely got involved in what was going on. Ahab was originally painted as a demoniac monomaniac, but quickly turned into a sad old man who needed to go home and assess his priorities.

I'd feel like a high school English student being force fed Moby Dick if I called it boring, so in the interest of expressing my vocabulary, it was completely spiritless. It was also boring.

Being about a third of the way through Moby Dick, and realising you're in the middle of nowhere in the throes of insanity, is probably a lot like being on a three-year voyage with this lot. Nowhere to turn, with the days (or pages) fading into one another, hating everyone you come into contact with, and when everyone dies, you're just glad it's finally over. If I rationalise that in my mind as what Melville was trying to achieve, I'll feel a lot better about spending so much time on this gargantuan monolithic nightmare of a novel.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Book #55

For One More Day by Mitch Albom

Charley Benetton is a broken man, his life destroyed by alcohol and regret. He loses his job. He leaves his family. He hits rock bottom after discovering he won't be invited to his only daughter's wedding. And he decides to take his own life.
Charley takes a midnight ride to his small hometown: his final journey. But as he staggers into his old house, he makes an astonishing discovery. His mother - who died eight years earlier - is there, and welcomes Charley home as if nothing ever happened.
What follows is the one seemingly ordinary day so many of us yearn for: a chance to make good with a lost parent, to explain the family secrets, and to seek forgiveness.

I had read this book before, many years ago, before I knew how it felt to lose someone. I hadn't taken much from it; I enjoyed it, yes, but it didn't hit me quite as hard as it did this time.

You would have to spend a lot of time, with a lot of well-prepared arguments, to convince me we don't all take our parents for granted. Of course we do. The love they pour upon us in different ways, whether it's asking if you're home safely, or sticking some money into your bank account, is all testament to the unique selflessness that can only come from loving a child. Albom shows us a heart-rending and impactful example of the guilt and circumstances involved in not giving this love back to the best of your ability.

Chick Benetto tells the story of his life's descent which led him to attempt suicide. At the end, he is allowed one more day with his mother, who passed away eight years previously. A countless number of us would do anything for this chance with a loved one, and the storytelling through flashbacks was nothing other than gorgeous. Chick remembers the times he wasn't there for his mother, and remembers the times she was devotedly there for him. He learns of things she did for him, things she had given up for him, and of all the ways she loved him he hadn't previously had any inkling of.

The plot is nice, and flows well, with some interesting family commentary, and a couple of plot twists. Despite this, the message is the key thing here. Although part of this is to encourage us to make the most of the treasure of life, the most important thing is to make the most of the treasure of family.

Simple, but steeped with true Albom emotion, this is a hard hitter. Don't postpone your visits, appreciate the company, and phone your mum before the freedom to do so is taken away.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Book #54

How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing by Michel de Montaigne

A selection of charming essays from a master of the genre exploring the contradictions inherent to human thought, words and actions. 

I took very little from this. Montaigne, the French Renaissance philosopher, states an incredibly obvious case in that humans are cursed with conflicting emotions. We laugh when we're upset, we cry when we're happy. This may have been an interesting essay in the 16th century, but it's hardly groundbreaking in our day.

He goes on to write how words are meaningless and actions are the only thing that matter, enforcing the moral of deeds not words. The irony of Montaigne feeling this as a famous writer was not beyond me.

I did enjoy the quotations (kindly translated) in French, Latin, and Greek; most of them quite poignant and relatable. They did well to reinforce his points, but not well enough to let me enjoy his own words.

We also learn of our conscious, of philosophy preparing us for death, and the wily ways of Fortune. Incredibly dull; I wouldn't like to have a drink with him.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Book #53

Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide by JK Rowling

Hogwarts An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide takes you on a journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You’ll venture into the Hogwarts grounds, become better acquainted with its more permanent residents, learn more about lessons and discover secrets of the castle . . . all at the turn of a page.

My favourite of the three. I can't begin to explain how many times I've longed to explore that castle, or find out more about its inhabitants, whether ghost, portrait, or otherwise. This is our version of Hogwarts: A History, and I'm so glad to have it.

One of the biggest plot holes in the series involves the time turner, and Rowling addressed this graciously:

She admits she went into the time travelling business "too light-heartedly", hence the various discussions between Dumbledore and Hermione on the dangers of letting anyone see you time travel, and the later destruction of the Ministry's collection of time turners. Rowling's explanation of the five hour limit patches up a lot of these plot holes.

I was so fascinated to read of some of the things that didn't make it into the novels, particularly Nearly Headless Nick's ballad detailing his death, and the names and characters of some of the ghosts who didn't make the final cut. The decision to magic up a train and use it to transport the students to Hogwarts was also an absolute jewel, with Muggles from Hogsmeade 'forgetting' they had a train station, and railway working Muggles in Crewe wandering around for weeks with the strange feeling they'd misplaced something important, but never realising it was an entire train.

The best thing about Hogwarts, of course, is its founders (i.e. Salazar) and its origin. Reading about the main man and his creation of the Chamber of Secrets, alongside the Gaunt family's in-school boasting of their knowledge of the chamber, made my Slytherin heart beat with joy. I bet I could open it with a bit of practice if someone could just distract Myrtle.

Fangirl ramblings, I know. My only criticism would be that it just wasn't enough. I won't be satisfied until all 1,000 pages of Hogwarts: A History are written. I'd pay about 300 quid for it.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book #52

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

Lurching from the cappuccino bars of Notting Hill to the blissed-out shores of Thailand, Bridget Jones searches for The Truth in spite of pathetically unevolved men, insane dating theories, and Smug Married advice ("I'm just calling to say in the potty! In the potty! Well, do it in Daddy's hand then!"). She experiences a zeitgeist-esque Spiritual Epiphany somewhere between the pages of How to Find the Love You Want Without Seeking It ("can self-help books really help self?"), protective custody, and a lightly chilled Chardonnay.

After my embarrassing self-discovery review of Bridget Jones's Diary, where I admitted to the world that yes, I was Bridget Jones, I launched into the sequel ready for more relatability and laughs. I was disappointed to learn that Fielding had decided to throw Bridget to the wolves of sequels, and deliver to her readers a multitude of setbacks that became less believable as the diary went on.

Jones in her underwear outside and being happened upon by her ex. Jones finding a small Oriental boy and a bunny rabbit in her boyfriend's bed. Jones arrested for drug trafficking. Jones being targeted by a lunatic murderer. The ridiculousness of it all made the story less funny than its predecessor, as one spent the entire time exasperated by this hapless bad luck magnet. It was so forced. It felt like Fielding was capitalising on Bridget's wit and irrevocable calamity, so she hammed both of these up to an uncomfortable degree. Utter slapstick.

The diary format I so loved in the previous novel failed miserably this time. Fielding opted for longer diary entries, giving the story more of the feel of a novel, where previously the shorter glimpses into Bridget's life given the air of writing on the go, again in the most unfeasible places. God knows how she managed to smuggle her diary into a Thai prison, or to write exactly 0 minutes after having sex.

A catalogue of stories you'd hear from exaggerating drunks, and, quite frankly, an organised mess. I'm pleased to report I'm no longer Bridget Jones, as (and I struggled to believe this previously) she truly is a fictional being whom I cannot relate to. Fielding lost her everywoman.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Book #51

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones' Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget's permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

I've had this on my shelf for years. My literary snobbery dictates that all chick-lit novels are flouncy, pathetic nonsense; so much so that this week, when asked what I was reading, I would reply, "Bridget Jones; not my kind of thing, but I'm giving it a bash because I'm taking my mum to see the new film next week."

Actually, let's talk about the first film. 2001. I was fifteen and laughing at a woman in her early thirties who lived alone and couldn't keep a boyfriend. Flash forward the same number of years and I am that woman. My fifteen year old self did not see that one coming.

Being Bridget makes this book a good one. The way she scrutinises herself to the point of considering plastic surgery, analysing things she's done or said which have led to unfortunate circumstances, desperately trying to give up vices, yet having absolutely no impulse control, and most of all, being asked yet again by friends, family, and family friends "why haven't you got a boyfriend?, make her (quite sadly and embarrassingly), one of the most relatable characters I have experienced in recent years.

Fiction in diary form has always been a draw for me, so this added to my appreciation of the story. I've always felt it allows you a personal insight into the narrator's life. Bridget's wit and absolute palaver make her entries hilarious; even if she claims to be writing in the toilets at work, or whilst in the midst of a culinary disaster.

It's not the best book I've ever read. It's not even really up there with the all right books I've read. It's a bit nonsensical, slightly repetitive, and sometimes exasperating. I wasn't particularly impressed with the ending. But it's funny, it's honest, it's real. And I'm about to read the sequel.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Book #50

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics, and Pesky Poltergeists by JK Rowling

These stories of power, politics and pesky poltergeists give you a glimpse into the darker side of the wizarding world, revealing the ruthless roots of Professor Umbridge, the lowdown on the Ministers for Magic and the history of the wizarding prison Azkaban. You will also delve deeper into Horace Slughorn’s early years as Potions master at Hogwarts - and his acquaintance with one Tom Marvolo Riddle.

This is what I was waiting for; the stories of those attracted by power, the story of Azkaban, and tales of backdated political corruption. This little Slytherin's dark glee was bubbling.

The comparison of two Slytherins here is very important in diffusing some of the myths about our house. While Umbridge is the epitome of evil, she is ambitious (albeit selfish) in the main. I never believed she truly supported Voldemort, only chose her side by weighing up what benefits could be gained from each (and being appointed the severe head of Muggle-born oppression was a big one). Slughorn, however, has always been my favourite Slytherin. Slightly weak, yet kind-hearted, he revelled in others' accomplishments in order to have these reflect upon himself. Seeing, in this collection, his abject regret and woe at his ultimate mistake (explaining the concept of Horcruxes to Voldemort), truly shows where his loyalties lie. Not all Slytherins are dark, and Rowling does a good job here to show us the proof. We're ambitious, we're cunning, and we're classy as hell.

I've always been particularly impressed by Rowling's choices when naming characters and objects within her world. Being allowed to see the reasoning behind some of these is nothing short of wonderful. The derivation of Umbridge, Slughorn, and Quirrel's names was explained brilliantly, and reinforces my opinion that none of them could go by any other name.

Another excellent collection from Pottermore. Although I'm aware most of these stories are available to read on the website, there's something to be said about the flow of them being sewn together. I'm very sorry I only have one left to read. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Book #49

The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer

One of the most bawdy, entertaining and popular stories from The Canterbury Tales. 

Earlier this year I made an attempt on The Canterbury Tales, and quickly realised this valiant endeavour wasn't bringing me any joy. Having The Wife of Bath in the Little Black Classics range, I felt, would ease me in gently and possibly alleviate any feelings of hatred towards the entire work. I fool myself like this often.

I know it's not that I'm wary of a classic challenge. Is it my irrevocable incapacity to appreciate poetry? Who knows. I didn't enjoy it. I should've loved it due to the examination of this medieval female, who seems to actually relish in recounting the tales of her five marriages; she pays no heed to the social expectations of the time, has entirely no shame, and details some of her sex life brazenly.

Would I have appreciated this more as prose? Yes. Is it just me and my steeled poetry brain-blocker? Probably. 

Book #48

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack's ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack's country home on the same weekend the "rivals" to fight for Ernest s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds pandemonium breaks loose. Only a senile nursemaid and an old, discarded handbag can save the day.

It's all too easy to dismiss some of the great classics as dull before even picking them up. Even as an avid fan of Victorian literature, I'm guilty of this from time to time. I did not expect to shake with such laughter as I did reading this; Wilde has a skill for commenting on the ridiculousness and vanity of Victorian social custom.

The dialogue is masterful, the characters charming and hilarious, and Wilde's concept of Bunburyism reflects the rigidity of maintaining a good social reputation. Algernon invents an invalid friend named Mr Bunbury, who provides him with the excuse (through serious turns of fictitious ill health) to turn down dinner invitations, or indeed turn down anything he'd prefer not to attend, in order to escape to the country. The importance of being seen as an upstanding gentleman was high, but the temptation to escape it all and indulge in some mischief so strong, that Jack and Algernon play a deceiving game to satisfy the selfish curiosity they both hold dear.

I have a strong dislike for liars, so seeing the two of them become so entangled in the mess they'd created brought tears of laughter to my eyes. Watching the two women believe they are both engaged to the same man, and then subsequently entering into the most civil and polite slagging match of all time was also a great moment of fun. But the handbag - oh the handbag; that was the best of all.

To write such a funny play with an important message to the classes was Wilde's master stroke. An absolute classic, and one which, I imagine, could be improved only by a turn on the stage.

"Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that."

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Book #47

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies by JK Rowling

These stories of heroism, hardship and dangerous hobbies profile two of the Harry Potter stories’ most courageous and iconic characters: Minerva McGonagall and Remus Lupin. J.K. Rowling also gives us a peek behind the closed curtains of Sybill Trelawney’s life, and you’ll encounter the reckless, magical-beast-loving Silvanus Kettleburn along the way.

I cannot get enough of the bloody wizarding world.

This short collection of stories from Rowling delves into the lives of two of my favourites - McGonagall and Lupin - alongside those of Trelawney and Kettleburn. I greedily devoured the childhoods, loves, and family lives of the former two; both of them had such heartbreak and darkness surrounding them. Going into this already emotionally invested in both of them, it was a really sad, but important, read.

McGonagall's choice between locking away either her wand or her love for a Muggle farm boy was woefully tragic. I loved seeing this side of her. Despite loving her fierce yet composed manner, and her strict but loving teaching methods, seeing a reckless, besotted McGonagall only made her ultimate decision all the more heart wrenching. To then see this episode in her life cement her close friendship with Dumbledore after an evening's spilling of hearts, well didn't my heart just spill over as well.

Lupin's family life, and self-imposed exile from society was another blow. To think of the weight his father had to carry, knowing his son's condition was entirely his fault, is absolutely harrowing. Lupin's moral battle over whether to marry Tonks, and the deeper insight into this thought process, made me melt inside. That he finally succumbed to his feelings only to die shortly afterwards is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy. I'm still not over that.

Trelawney and Kettleburn's chapters were considerably shorter, but I was grateful for their comedic value. I've always enjoyed Trelawney's smoke and mirrors approach to her supposed skill, and the details on Kettleburn were nothing short of hilarious, despite his blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the novels.

This was a wonderful little collection of details on the characters I loved the most from the series. It's pleasing to see that Rowling hasn't yet left the wizarding world behind and is continuing to give us more of what we what.

I'd like a Marauders one next; an entire book, not a wee one like this. Please and thank you.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Book #46

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.

This was outstanding.

In a horrifying dystopian future, women are stripped of their money, their job, their name, and their rights. Those who are unmarried, in second marriages, or in any kind of marriage the government disapprove of, are uprooted from their family homes and installed into the lives of those with status. Their role is to conceive a child for their appointed commander and his wife, due to the nations fertility problems.

I fooled myself into thinking this would be the story of a strong feminist narrator who would overcome and perhaps overthrow the rules pressing down upon on her. It was much more melancholy than that; it was quiet, it was sad, it was a narrator who had accepted her fate, accepted her instruction, and lived each day in an apathetic haze. She tells her story with a subtlety which can only be described as frightening, flicking into memories of her previous life with a distant, yet resigned, longing.

Making sense of the world Offred has found herself in was absolutely wonderful. Atwood writes with a confusing sense of unreality until more is given away slowly, and the mist begins to clear. We're left pretty much on our own to work out the details, and this trust in her reader is beautiful, making the realisation an unnerving prize; we've worked for it, but by this point, we're not sure we want it anymore.

I was struck by Offred's memories of her past, and her commentary on how she didn't realise she was happy then. This is utterly frightening; does it take something like that to make us realise we were happy? Do we ever stop and think, this is beautiful; I'm so happy? Rarely, is my guess.

One other moment of wonder for me was in Offred's flashback to the day she realised her bank account had been stopped, and her entire property transferred to her husband. She remembers how unmoved he was by this; he didn't understand her upset, he couldn't see how this was affecting her so badly. She thought, in some deep place, he actually liked the power. Think about that for a second.

Those of us who cannot thrive on an open ending won't do well with the finale of this novel. But the ambiguity is the whole point. Should we see our protagonist with a happy ending? Or does that just suggest that even in the most oppressive and dictating society, there are such things as happy endings? We were guessing the fates of all of the characters here; why not one more? With this, Atwood has ensured we will never forget the handmaid.

What terrified me most about this novel was that the government's horrific return to 'old values' was spurred on by an Islamic Fundamentalist attack. It was written in 1984. With all that's going on in our present day, it's not too difficult to imagine the implementation of new (or indeed old) doctrines which could, no doubt, entirely oppress a collective group. It makes you understand the women's attraction to the self-knotted rope. The scariest dystopian novels are the ones that aren't so unrealistic.

This is a stifling and totally disturbing account of how our daily routine and comforts can be stripped away in a small space of time. That the regime we are used to is entirely controlled by our government; laws can be passed to change whatever security we hold dear, and if that happens, the most likely outcome will be that we keep silent in order to prevent the worst.

I will never forget this book.