Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Book #45

The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy

A jealous lover's curse and an ingenious party trick feature in these two suspenseful stories set in Hardy's imaginary Wessex.

The Withered Arm came highly recommended to me, and I was pleased Penguin included it in their Little Black Classics range. Although the range does contain some of his poetry (and we all know how I feel about poetry), the collection would not be complete without some Hardy prose.

He’s a firm favourite of mine, and I was delighted to see his regular style applied here. Although the supernatural isn’t something he would normally delve into, we’re presented with some typically Hardyish awkward relationships, social satire, a lyrical rustic landscape setting, and a running thread of bleak unease. The ending, of course, is tragic and terrible, as is his wont to inflict.

Detailing a spurned lover’s accidental curse on her beloved’s new wife, Hardy skilfully portrays the development and sudden downfall of the relationships. His depiction of the wife’s vicious determination to rid herself of the curse creates an unholy level of tension, with her eventual discovery of the origin then rendering the situation unbearably palpable. Her eventual choice of remedy, and consequences thereof, only Hardy could employ with this level of mastery.

It raised questions about morality, friendship, and reaping what you sow. Hardy seemed to punish every single character here, and, flawed as they were, it felt as though the higher hand of judgement had reached a reasonable verdict.

This is one which will stay with me for a very long time.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Book #44

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

When Nicholas Nickleby is left penniless after his father's death, he appeals to his wealthy uncle to help him find work and to protect his mother and sister. But Ralph Nickleby proves both hard-hearted and unscrupulous, and Nicholas finds himself forced to make his own way in the world. 

Well, fan my brow. I’ve been wandering around this world for years, telling anyone who will listen that my favourite Dickens novel is David Copperfield, with conviction which cannot be rivalled. I’m all a-flutter now Nickleby has come along and knocked Copperfield from the top spot.

What an absolute triumph this novel is. All of my favourite Dickens staples are firmly present - Victorian social customs, comedy, villains, tragedy, debtors, and drunks. There’s plenty of heartbreak and injustice, peppered with Dickens' own brand of humour to lighten the mood to the perfect degree.

There is a lot of plot; I repeat - there is a lot of plot. Dickens goes into tiny detail on setting, atmosphere, and behaviour, creating a beautifully vivid and engaging picture of Victorian London. It feels very deep, and heavy at times; this only added to my enjoyment, but I spent much longer on this book than I have on any other for a while, savouring, relishing, loving.

His technique in presenting the reader with social injustices is gorgeous. Laced with satire, we see our misers and villains gaining the upper hand at every turn; we are scandalised, devastated, incensed. But we remember it’s Dickens, and each and every dastardly character will have his day in the end. Real life doesn’t serve justice quite so perfectly, but anything else here would be an injury.

Despite this, Dickens characters here were nothing but simple. Such a throng of a cast, each of them described to completeness, every flaw and scar exposed. Dickens often characterises his characters as entirely good or bad, placing them into their relevant camps as appropriate. Here, he recognises the range of emotion and temper in his characters, and we even see the squeaky-clean ones make poor decisions, and display emotion not usually attributed to the characters in the more angelic of the two camps.

It gave my joy, it broke my heart. The characters are masterpieces within themselves, the plot divine, everything else just gorgeous gorgeous. Nicholas Nickleby is an absolute wonder. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Book #43

A terrible beauty is born by W.B. Yeats

By turns joyful and despairing, some of the twentieth century's greatest verse on fleeting youth, fervent hopes and futile sacrifice.

This felt somehow nice and gentle.

Yeats’ words move along patiently, despite deeper rooted political meaning and undertones. Nothing too strenuous or exacting, just the quiet tick tock of his beautiful words.

A review from someone who just can’t with the poetry. 

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Book #42

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Imagine a black and white world where colour is a commodity.

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place.
Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour. Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane - a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed. 
For Eddie, it's love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey.

I do adore a good dystopian novel. The future is something none of us can predict with any degree of accuracy, so I enjoy the quite overwhelming ideas which come with dystopia, despite the fact that quite often these are post-apocalyptic and bleak.

Fforde’s take is notably different to many novels which could be described in this way. Although set far in the future, after the Something That Happened, people seem to live in a fairly ordered society which allows them to thrive. It’s only deeper into the novel we realise this way of life is utterly controlled and maintained by Head Office; people are rated on their behaviours, points are awarded and removed for the most ridiculous of acts, and those in power have immeasurable dominance over those who are not. Did I mention no one can see in full colour?

In Fforde’s world, people see their surrounding mainly in shades of grey. Some see only in grey, whilst some see greys peppered with only one other colour. Your perception of this colour, whether dull or vibrant, sets your rank in life. Those who have more than 70% perception of colour are immediately raised into positions of power, with anyone lower fitting into more menial slots. Those who can see only grey are given the least desirable life of all.

This strange caste system was the most interesting aspect of the novel for me. Fforde really plays on societal customs, treatment of others, and democracy, using only an individual’s ability to perceive.

Eddie Russet is a strong Red. When he meets a Grey with a beautiful nose, he is ripped from the comfort of trusting the status quo, and plunged into an exploration of his world, and why things are done in the way they are. Fforde injects a positive message of hope that change can be brought to the system, and leads us on a sweeping mission to subvert the powers responsible.

Although Fforde takes some time to dip us into the paint pot, perseverance is essential. Once the world makes sense, once the sociology can be understood, the journey through his mostly colourless universe is one not to be missed.

Not to be confused with the other Shades of Grey, which we do not speak of.