Thursday, 31 March 2016

Book #14

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Elfride Swancourt is the daughter of the Rector of Endelstow, a remote sea-swept parish in Corwall based on St Juliot, where Hardy began A Pair of Blue Eyes during the beginning of his courtship of his first wife, Emma. Blue-eyed and high-spirited, Elfride has little experience of the world beyond, and becomes entangled with two men: the boyish architect, Stephen Smith, and the older literary man, Henry Knight. The former friends become rivals, and Elfride faces an agonizing choice.

I love Thomas Hardy with all my heart. Those who have never picked up one of his novels will view this one, before reading, as a tale of blossoming romance in an idyllic historical setting. Although it's, admittedly, partly this, having read many of Hardy's works before, I knew this would be a turbulent, devastating, and heartbreaking affair, with no doubt some sort of tragic ending. I was not wrong, and I love him all the more for it.

Elfride is the Endelstow vicar's daughter, and she's a feisty one at that. Young, impressionable, materialistic, and a bit selfish, she's an infuriating character throughout the novel. Indecision and doubt are rife within her, and the choices she makes doom her scornfully. Despite this, there's something raw, relatable, and honest within her; this alone are her only redeeming features. Introduce the lip-chewer of a love triangle, and we're all in way too deep.

I found both of Elfride's lovers pathetic in their own ways. Now, I'm not sure if that was Hardy's intention, or if this stems from my general experiences with men; I'm hoping it's the former. Stephen, an upcoming, but poor, young architect, is naive, lovestruck, and utterly clueless. Henry, an older, educated, Latin-quoting crank of pretension, is entirely the opposite, yet loathsome in the same exasperating type of way.

Hardy makes interesting social commentaries on the concept of class in the 19th century, mostly in relation to love. This is always something I enjoy reading about, as it' something I find puzzling. To think your father would forbid you from marrying a man due to his father's profession is unfathomable to western women in this age, however was entirely the case at the time. This utterly fascinates me; that Elfride was unable to follow her heart due to her intended's lack of wealth, and that her family had every right to prevent her from doing so, is both horrifying and captivating to me.

The best thing about Hardy novels is how they truly describe nature, and express Hardy's passion for it. A Pair of Blue Eyes, with its pastoral countryside setting, allows you to hear the babbling brooks, feel the Wessex wind on your face, and smell the fresh scents of green across Hardy's fictional county. His descriptions of the colours of Elfride's world lend a real sense of reality to her tale, and paint a gorgeous backdrop to her otherwise melancholy affairs.

A worthwhile and engaging dip into Hardy again. Without spoiling the plot, in true Hardy fashion, he slowly leads up to his finale, rips your world from underneath you, and takes your heart and kneecaps with him. Did they all deserve it, though? Probably.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Book #13

Quidditch Through the Ages by JK Rowling

Did you know that: there are 700 ways of committing a foul in Quidditch? The game first began to evolve on Queerditch Marsh - What Bumphing is? That Puddlemere United is oldest team in the Britain and Ireland league (founded 1163). All this information and much more could be yours once you have read this book: this is all you could ever need to know about the history, the rules - and the breaking of the rules - of the noble wizarding sport of Quidditch. 

There isn't a single sport I'm a fan of, or enjoy, and Quidditch is no exception. I wasn't sure what to expect from this magical sporting reference book, but I'm glad I decided to give it a chance.

Although the chapters on the rules of the game and models of broomsticks throughout the years were laborious, I was delighted with the sections on how the game was invented, how it's evolved, and the reasons behind some of the rules and bans put in place by the Ministry. My favourite part was the description of how the Snitch came into being after the use of the Snidget bird caused public outrage (see: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).

Despite my lack of interest in Quidditch, it's an important element of Rowling's wizarding world, and that fact alone makes this short book a must-read for any Potterhead.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Book #12

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by JK Rowling

A copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them resides in almost every wizarding household in the country. Now Muggles too have the chance to discover where the Quintaped lives, what the Puffskein eats and why it is best not to leave milk out for a Knarl.
This is a wonderful reference book describing the magical creatures of the wizarding world. As always with JK, it's filled with creativity, wonder, and sheer imagination.

I loved reading details of the creatures I'm familiar with from the Harry Potter books, but most of all loved learning about the ones I'd never heard of. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the Loch Ness monster being a very clever kelpie who, despite preferring the shape of a large sea creature, quickly turns into an otter at the first sight of human interest.

Most interesting of all were the introductory explanations on how the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures operates; their laws, procedures, classifications, and ways of concealing the beasts from Muggles, were fascinating. I would've liked more information like this, but it wasn't to be from such a short book. Hopefully the upcoming film will quench my thirst for more explanations on the wizarding world's control methods.

Each of the beasts are described in an almost loving fashion by Scamander (or JK if we want to ruin the illusion), and classified into ranks based on the danger they pose to wizards and Muggles alike, alongside their standing in either beast, being, or spirit category. I was drawn to these animals as I'm drawn to men - the dangerous ones were the best.

Where the creatures originate from, which magical potions or objects can be made from their venom, skin, or other body parts, and their individual characteristics are all covered in short bursts of detail.

Another volume of pure magic from JK; I'm excited now to see Newt on the big screen!

Book #11

Caligula by Suetonius

The biography of the brutal, crazed and incestuous Roman Emperor Caligula, who tried to appoint his own horse consul.

Written by Roman historian Suetonius, this instalment in the Little Black Classics range describes the cruel, sadistic and mad deeds of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Remembered as the most insane emperor of Rome, we're treated to recountings of his capricious killings, his wanton sex life (sisters, other men's wives, other men - he wasn't fussy), and his determination to appoint his favourite horse head of the Senate.

Caligula is a fascinating figure, particularly in that he began his reign well-respected and loved. The people rejoiced at Tiberius' death and were delighted to have Caligula appointed as emperor. Something seems to have snapped in him along the way, whether it be the stress and influence of power, or otherwise, and led to the madness of his ruling. Suetonius touches on Caligula's mental illness and insomnia to give us an insight into the mind of the man, but it must be remembered that this account relies entirely on story and rumour as all official documentation was destroyed.

Suetonius lists Caligula's deeds one after the other; a seemingly endless list of macabre whims which become a tiresome narrative with no sense of a story. This style isn't entirely engaging, however I may be greedy with my literary needs considering this was written in the first century.

An interesting look into first century Rome, and the terror and fear that can be induced by a powerful leader.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Book #10

The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom

When Conrad buys a big old house in Wisconsin, his wife Jo doesn't share his enthusiasm, reluctant at the idea of leaving their LA life. But Conrad's new purchase is not all that it seems. Soon Conrad is hearing the ghostly wailing of a baby in the night, seeing blood on the floor & being haunted by a woman who looks exactly like Jo.

Before opening this book, I had a quick read of the back cover which informed me I was about to read "the scariest book since The Shining." Now, call me a cynic, but I thought that was probably a bit of a stretch. Not only have I come away entirely correct, I have also come away incredibly pissed off at spending precious reading time on this tripe.

Ransom drags us into his terrifying house in Wisconsin where all the wild things his head can conjure are about to happen. The first 100 pages are gripping; I enjoyed getting to know the characters, their situation, and I must admit I was suitably terrified by a doll chasing the protagonist around his bedroom. The plot is set up to undoubtedly twist towards the end, and I was looking forward to this. What ensues are a further 300 pages of nonsense, a main character I wanted to boot in the shins, and a twist which could be better described as a slight bend.

Our protagonist, Conrad, is a hateful entity. I do enjoy books where I'm taught to loathe the narrator, but this didn't work here; and how I loathed him. A ridiculous, pathetic, selfish man, who drinks so much iced tea I actually thought it was part of the twist; an idiot who gets embroiled in his haunted house and doesn't seem able to make any sound decisions unless they involve his penis. Ransom writes of Conrad's sexual longings to develop the idea of the house trying to create a baby; instead of achieving this understanding in his reader, he (unwillingly) casts Conrad as the pervert next door. I hated him, and at every turn of the page wished the house would gobble him up and spit him out the back door.

The finale was frustrating, pretty boring, and tied up barely any of the hints Ransom had left for us in the preceding pages. Hardly anything was explained, but by this point you're just keen to get to the last page and move on.

Utterly disappointing, with only one real terrifying scene before you realise the whole thing belongs in the bin; please avoid this at all costs and go back to the The Shining. Whoever compared this to King's finest work should be made to read no other novel but this one until their dying day.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Book #09

Travels in the Land of Serpents and Pearls by Marco Polo

In this selection from Marco Polo's famous travel book, the intrepid Venetian describes the customs of India, recounts the story of the king who died eighty-four times and explains how to retrieve diamonds from snake-infested caves.

Marco Polo's descriptions of India are utter madness; serpents guarding diamonds, kings with 30,000 wives, a prince taking to isolation after seeing an infirm old man, and everyone an idolater. They read like tales of fantasy, but with each of them comes a shred of realism, something we know to be true, and this lends an element of trust to his words, despite his constant exaggerations.

My favourite claim of his was that the people he encountered skinned beasts to make leather. He lists the animals, including our favourite common mammal: the unicorn. This really hammered home for me how naive we were in those days, and how Polo's interpretations of India seem ridiculous now that we live in such an educated world. Could it be, perhaps, that Polo had simply never seen a rhinoceros?

He gives no personal opinion on the customs he experiences, no praise or vilification for the way these people live their lives. Although his prose is repetitive and stark with facts, all that shines through is his wonder at this new world.

A wee bit bland, and undoubtedly forgettable, it's a worthwhile read on Polo's experience in India in the 13th century.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Book #08

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

Is there no explanation of the mystery of The Haunted Hotel? Is The Haunted Hotel the tale of a haunting -- or the tale of a crime? The ghost of Lord Montbarry haunts the Palace Hotel in Venice --- or does it? Montbarry's beautiful-yet-terrifying wife, the Countess Narona, and her erstwhile brother are the centre of the terror that fills the Palace Hotel. Are their malefactions at the root of the haunting -- or is there something darker, something much more unknowable at work? 

I'm a huge fan of The Woman in White, so I was delighted when I discovered The Haunted Hotel as a Kindle freebie. Both titles are misleading to the reader initially; both evoke expectations of true ghost stories and supernatural happenings, where mostly this isn't the case at all. My previous dips into Collins, however, meant I was ready for him and his suspense tactics this time.

The Haunted Hotel has more paranormal plot twists than The Woman in White, but reads more like a murder mystery. We begin with Countess Narona confessing her betrothed, Lord Montbarry, had broken an engagement to another woman, that this in itself had evoked feelings of doom in relation to her upcoming marriage, and that she felt the jilted woman would be instrumental to her downfall. After the wedding, the Lord dies of a sudden illness in a hotel in Venice, and his courier is reported missing. Subsequently, after a slow start, some minimum tension, and a dash of unrequited love, all characters are dragged by destiny to the hotel in Venice to face the horrors awaiting them.

While he slowly leaks out the elements of his mystery, Collins creates a real suspicion in the reader. He builds his plot craftily, with each tiny consequence threading into the next and sealing the next moves of the characters perfectly.

Collins uses his characters to provide a well-rounded plot, alternating between narrators to bind the story together. Each of these perfectly ensured all loose ends were tied, and that each side of the story was conveyed. The characters were incredible; I loved the descriptions of Countess Narona, with her dark eyes and pallid complexion. Collins has written her in such a way that it was impossible to suspect anything less than pure evil from her role in the story.

Even the smaller characters were gorgeous to me; the old maid whose fingernails were itching to scratch Montbarry's face after jilting her Agnes; Francis Montbarry who was interested in nothing other than his theatre company and employing the most sought after dancers in Europe, and even the hotel manager who did everything in his power to assuage the fears his guests expressed over Number 14, despite the damning evidence that something was afoot.

The conclusion was employed wonderfully, and I particularly enjoyed Collins' use of a story within the story in order to explain the entire mystery. It was atmospheric; the villains were chilling in their macabre indifference to their crime, and their sordid justifications were unfathomable.

I enjoyed this entirely, and I'm looking forward to reading The Moonstone in the near future. It was, however, more fast-paced than the Collins I'm used to, with less detail and fewer curves. I wouldn't recommend this as a first foray into Collins, but it's a worthwhile novella for one used to his writing.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Book #07

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war.
His problem is Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he's committed to flying, he's trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he's sane and therefore, ineligible to be relieved.

This was either my fourth or fifth attempt at conquering this novel. I could never come to grips with the prose, the non-linear time structure, or the abject sense of chaos the entire premise conveys, and I don't think I was alone in that mindset. This time, those were the things I loved most about Catch-22, and Heller's commentary on the madness of war was able to grasp and hold me.

Rather than describe the transgressions and obscenities of WW2, Heller shows us the nonsensical, insane, and entirely ludicrous side of war. The bureaucratic decision making processes are hilarious, yet terrifying. The reasoning of the soldiers puzzling, yet justifiable. He gives us a jumble of events, characters, and rules, and allows us to pick these apart with what feels like only a minuscule amount of assistance.

The narrative is haphazard, chronologically unsound, and utter bedlam. There's foreshadowing, backshadowing, confusion and frustration. Heller sets up jokes and delivers the punchline 200 pages later. He kills off characters in the beginning and tells us their stories at the end. He tells us he's killing them off, then leaves us in suspense until he does. The madness of Pianosa is delivered perfectly by baffling the reader from the outset.

All of Heller's characters are crazy in their own ways, yet developed to the point of adoration. Their logic is utter nonsense, but justified by various facets of Catch-22's ruling. Their dreams and aspirations are as unachievable and ridiculous as the next, yet all pursue these with conviction burning away any concepts of the obvious. They argue with each other in absurdities; completely groundless and crazy reasoning supports the bureaucracy and is accepted by all in this institution of war.

These insane, irritating eccentrics, however, are all as delectable as can be imagined. Heller's foreshadowing of characters deaths, or his heartless killing of them, came as a blow every single time. His tone changes from light to dark abruptly, and this in itself foreshadows catastrophe. You're immersed in comedic commentary, laughing at his black humour, before being catapulted into the atrocities of frenzy. Utterly unsettling, this gives a real stomach lurch, and can only be reminiscent of Heller's wartime experiences.

I'm glad I finally allowed this genius novel into my life. I learned to roll with the chaos. Become consumed by the madness, and you'll understand perfectly how to appreciate this novel.