Of Mice And Men

Reading Of Mice And Men in public drew some raised eyebrows from those around me; not because it’s anything like as controversial now as it has been in so many schools since it first became a noteworthy text, but simply because people were astonished that I hadn’t read it sooner! It’s a set text for so many younger high school kids, and somehow it was never taught in any class I was in. To be honest, I’m so glad that I wasn’t forced to read this in a classroom environment. John Steinbeck writes with a wonderfully dignified air of melancholy that perfectly compliments the characters and setting, and the gut-wrenching ending, to my mind, rivals any work of modern fiction. As I write this review, it’s been a few weeks since I finished the book, and yet George and Lennie’s relationship was so real to me that it still brings a small wave of emotion back each time I think about it.Read More »

The Wind in the Willows

When the books I’m reading start, cumulatively, to get a little dark, it’s nice to take a step back once in a while and indulge in a more playful book. The Wind In The Willows is a curious example this, because it treats its characters and scenes with a gravity that you simply don’t find in modern children’s fiction. The world of the Willows is a mishmash of fantastic ideas, and the sincerity with which Kenneth Grahame underpins the whole enterprise lends an air of wonderment to the proceedings, anchoring passages of unashamed fun to a substantial foundation while infusing the more emotional moments with oodles of pathos. This, in turn, creates a rock-solid emotional bond between the reader and the characters, making for an absorbing and emotionally satisfying narrative.Read More »

Twelve Years A Slave – A review of the book and film

Every time I sit down to write one of these blog posts, I keep trying to think of new ways to push myself – little things, usually, like playing with language choices and structural devices, and other stuff that probably would never cross the minds of most of the people who read these. This week I’m aiming to be a little more explicit in my experimentation, by writing a combined book and film review. In line with my aforementioned “Best Picture Quest”, I chose to read and then watch Solomon Northup’s memoir of slavery in 1850’s Louisiana, Twelve Years A Slave.Read More »

The Beautiful And Damned

There was one question that kept coming back to me during The Beautiful And Damned: how much can you enjoy a book where characters you like are subjected to a prolonged though well-deserved fall from grace? Or a book in which principle characters spend most of the story feeling interminably bored and doing nothing about it? The answer, as it turns out, is “a lot more than you’d expect”. I think the main reason for this is that F Scott Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer of two things: prose, and deteriorating relationships.Read More »

The Driver’s Seat

I’m…I’m honestly finding it difficult to work out where to start with this one. I loved the previous Muriel Spark book I read, and after reading this one I’ve certainly not been put off reading any of her other books, but this was…weird. Brilliant, in a lot of ways, but bizarre. Not “fun and kooky” type bizarre; more like “that’s-completely-out-of-the-blue-how-on-earth-was-I-supposed-to-expect-that” type bizarre. The Driver’s Seat is, unquestionably, a very dark book, but it has left me wracking my brain trying to work out what Spark is trying to say through it.Read More »

The Tempest

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.”

This is definitely an unusual review for me to write, but also an important one in a number of ways. I’ve never really enjoyed reading plays for fun before now; I’ve always thought they ought to be performed rather than read, but it’s something that will become pretty important during my English degree – so I decided I should get some practice in. It’s also the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and there’s been loads of brilliant TV about Shakespeare recently which has kept him at the forefront of my mind. This led me to realise that I really don’t know enough of his plays, so I decided to take a step to remedy that and read his final play: The Tempest.Read More »

The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

“You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others…”

There are certain works of art where the more you learn about their creation, the more you appreciate how brilliant they are. Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a brilliant poem, and one of my favourites, yet it gains an extra levels of “wow” when you realise he wrote it on a whim in a friendly poetry competition with a friend. So it goes with Jekyll & Hyde, which is a brilliant book in its own right but becomes even more amazing when you realise Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it in six weeks, in bed, while recovering from illness. (And, in honour of that marvellous feat, I have elected to write this review in bed too, and to try and write it as quickly as possible!)Read More »

The Handmaid’s Tale

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

It’s finally here – the review of a book that was recommended to me by so many people that I accidentally bought two copies of it, and didn’t even realise until months afterwards. Easily the most compelling book I’ve read recently, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian, speculative fiction of astonishing invention and dynamism. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this a chronicle of downtrodden and oppressed women in an insidiously male-dominated world, but unlike Hardy, Margaret Atwood doesn’t simply content herself with pointing at her characters and going: “Look how awful this is! Look! Isn’t it horrible?! So horrible right?!?!”. Instead, Atwood, persuasively presents her ideas to the reader in an intellectually engaging way, creating a novel that is almost in dialogue with its reader.Read More »

Through The Looking Glass

“I said you LOOKED like an egg, Sir. And some eggs are very pretty, you know.”

Just as the book preceding this one acted as a palate cleanser, Through The Looking Glass was a literary oasis for me; a brief, whimsical respite between two fearfully oppressive books. After Tess of the D’Urbervilles almost broke my brain, Lewis Carroll was there to lift my spirits with another dose of fantastical invention and frivolity, with a book that is childish in the best possible sense.Read More »

Tess Of The D’Urbervilles

This review of what is, perhaps, Thomas Hardy’s most famous and well-received novel, has genuinely angered me as I’ve written it. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an unrelenting tale of woe and injustice, against both its heroine and the reader, and to discuss that in any degree of detail requires spoiling the event early on in the novel which precipitates the entire narrative – though I promise not to spoil anything further about the plot. Although it’s mentioned in most blurbs and synopses of the book, it’s the type of event which would serve as a comeuppance to a more disreputable heroine in a moral tale. Here, however, it’s a paragon of injustice which Hardy wields like a battle-axe in order to critique sexual morals and gender roles of the Victorian age (while also taking your standard potshots at organised religion and the ways of provincial life).Read More »

Tuesdays With Morrie

“The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

There are two things I feel I ought to warn you of as I begin this review. Firstly, there’s no way I can write about Tuesdays With Morrie without breaking my 500 word rule; and secondly, I really, really loved this book for intensely personal reasons, and probably not for the reasons that Mitch Albom intended when he wrote it, or indeed for the reasons that most people loved it.Read More »

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is my palate cleanser. Suffering from a fierce book hangover after Great Expectations, I needed to blitz through something light-hearted and so utterly contrary to the gloomy books I’d been reading in recent weeks that it would reinvigorate me on my classics-devouring quest. Lewis Carroll was the man to rise to that challenge, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the book to meet it; a story that is saturated to the point of bursting with whimsy, intelligence and mad imagination in ways I have never before encountered while reading any book.Read More »

Great Expectations

It’s been over six months since I last read a novel by Charles Dickens (I’m not counting A Christmas Carol, that was only a short story!) because as much as I enjoyed it, Hard Times was actually pretty difficult to wade through. It was perfectly content to rely so heavily on its satire of Utilitarian ideas and the treatment of the working classes during the industrial revolution that, by the novel’s end, 200 pages felt like 500. The opposite, I think, can be said of Great Expectations. Its 500 pages simply flew by in a whirlwind of memorable characters, slightly contrived but thoroughly enjoyable plotting, and themes treated so lightly that teasing them out was actually a great deal of fun.Read More »

Rebecca

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

This is definitely a departure from the last book I read, and was absolutely intended to be so. I am currently on my holidays, so this book counts as my “trashy holiday reading” – after all, I can’t keep reading classics forever. In a sense, though, I’ve completely failed to meet this aim; what Daphne du Maurier has written here is not only compulsively readable, but brilliantly written and tightly plotted to boot. Rebecca (both the book and the character) had me on the edge of my seat with a significantly raised pulse, especially in its final few chapters – none of which I shall spoil here (apart from in one subtle pun towards the end of this review), just in case you haven’t read it yet.Read More »

Middlemarch

I can’t remember when I last read a book which actually won me over despite skepticism forming in my mind as I read its opening chapters. I’ve certainly read books recently that have started out strongly but, as they wear on, squander the goodwill built up in their opening chapters (looking at you, Vanity Fair), so to find the antithesis of such a book in George Eliot’s exquisite meditation on Victorian provincial life, Middlemarch, was a wonderful surprise.Read More »

Peter & Wendy (Peter Pan)

All children, except one, grow up.

With the possible exception of Frankenstein, this is the first review I’ve written for a book where I was familiar with the story before I’d even seen the first page (though it won’t be the last, I’m sure). In this case that was actually very helpful – once the basic beats of the plot were dealt with (given that I knew them so well), I found myself much more able to focus on the conceits of J.M. Barrie’s writing that make Peter Pan such a timeless and magical story.Read More »

The Sense of an Ending

Have you ever read a book which, try as you might, defies analysis of any kind as you read it? Every time you try to intellectually distance yourself from the work to analyse what makes it so good, the power of the text draws you back in anyway, making your efforts seem like child’s play. I’ve experienced this a few times as a reader, but never more so than when reading Julian Barnes’ thoughtful meditation on ageing, memory and regret, “The Sense of an Ending”.

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The Turn of the Screw

Dear Mr Henry James,

If it wasn’t already clear in my review of Heart of Darkness, my fascination with a book and the level of ambiguity with which it’s written tend to correlate quite well. When reading your wonderful novel The Turn Of The Screw, it struck me that not only must you have discovered this, but you had so clearly set yourself a challenge to see how much of a novel’s particulars you could keep under wraps while still maintaining my interest in the story. Read More »

Nineteen Eighty-Four

There are two things I ought to clarify as I start this review. Firstly, although I read Brave New World quite recently, I will keep comparisons between that text and this one to a bare minimum, because cleverer people than I have written more insightfully on the two texts together than I could hope to, and I don’t think I have anything new to add to that discussion. Secondly, and this is important to note: this is not a perfect book. I ought to make that abundantly clear to begin with, because this retrospective will look like an almost unabashed love letter to what at least one eminent critic described as “[George Orwell‘s] final masterpiece”, when in truth I’m not sure I could truthfully say that I even loved the book. The pacing, especially in the first 100 pages, is all over the place – there are whole passages of such dense exposition that the story literally stops dead while the reader is caught up – and as the book progresses Orwell becomes so dogged in his pursuit of reaching the logical conclusion of his ideas that there ends up being very little in the way of narrative resolution by the novel’s end. But thematically, politically and imaginatively, Nineteen Eighty-Four is so uncompromising and so consistently brilliant that one can’t help but feel a sense of awe at what Orwell has accomplished.

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Room

As I write this, I’ve just finished a glorious afternoon in bed watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, as part of a personal crusade to see as many winners of the Oscar for “Best Picture” as I can. As much as I’d love to give it a full review here, I will suffice for now by saying that it was fantastic, and a big part of that was due to the awe-inspiring scale of the thing – with widespread desert vistas, a cast of thousands and a running time that is not for the faint of heart, it was truly epic. By contrast, one of the books I read this week functions on maybe the smallest of human scales, spending much of its pages confined to a single small room, with a cast of only 2 people, and yet I was not bored by a single sentence of it. In honour of the film adaptation that’s currently garnering Oscar buzz in some pretty prestigious categories, I read Emma Donoghue’s critically lauded and now Oscar-nominated story Room.Read More »

Heart of Darkness

It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone…”

I’ve set myself some pretty interesting challenges on this blog over the last few months, but I can’t remember having as much trouble trying to figure out my thoughts on a book as I have with Joseph Conrad’s brilliantly written yet enigmatic tale of the dark side of imperialism and man’s obsession, Heart of Darkness.Read More »

Brave New World

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.

When it comes to critical theory there are, broadly speaking, two opposing schools of thought regarding how one should view a work of art – whether that be fine art, literature, film, music or a well-made lasagne. One side would argue that it is impossible to review a work outside of the contexts in which it was created; the contextual date provides valuable insight that can inform one’s perception of the work in question. The other side would say that this is exactly what ought to be avoided; that a work should be examined completely independently of context in order to judge it purely on it’s own merits, and that a critic should try their best not to have their opinions coloured by any extraneous information pertaining to a piece of work that does not originate within the work itself. As with many things, I usually fall somewhere in the middle of this when I review a book – I try to remain a little sympathetic to the environments and contexts surrounding the creation and release of a book as I read it and write about it in order to increase my understanding, but I rarely use this information to excuse the flaws of a book or to showcase it’s merits.

But rules are made to be broken, and as I was thinking about the imaginative scope of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, it struck me as a breathtakingly inventive novel even before I thought about when it was written. But when it is placed within this context it becomes, to me, more amazing and more interesting still.Read More »

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead, to begin with…This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

I woke up the other day with a peculiar notion lodged in my brain. It was my first day off in many many weeks, and I finally had a good stretch of time to catch up on all the TV I’d missed, and to finish the book I’d been reading for so long. However, this idea was too stubborn to be shifted, and I knew it would be a worthwhile undertaking, so here is the result. The idea was this: to read and reflect on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in time for Christmas, in amongst all the present-wrapping and TV-watching and chocolate-eating that is essential in the run up to Christmas Day!Read More »

Frankenstein

To be honest, I was not expecting to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein anytime soon. I studied the Gothic genre during my A Levels, and this was on my “Read Me Soon Please” list throughout, but I never got around to reading it at the time. Unexpectedly, however, recent circumstances led me to put down the book I’ve been reading for almost two months (which I have now resumed, and a review of which shall appear as soon as I can muster enough brain power to wrap my head around it) in order to read “Frankenstein” quickly and messily.Read More »

Hard Times

Hard Times concerns itself with the goings-on of several varied protagonists in the fictional Northern industrial populace of Coketown. Given the novel’s title and industrial setting, those going in with no real preconceptions of the text (like me) might presume a few things about the tone of the novel, the course the plot will likely take, and the types of characters who will carry that plot. But this story, one of Charles Dickens’ least-read works and certainly his shortest, challenged my prejudices at every turn with pointed satire, surprising emotional power and witty, brilliant writing.Read More »

Tender Is The Night

One of the things I hated about English in high school was when teachers would attempt to explore the deeper themes of a text which was all surface and no substance. Trying to “uncover the author’s intentions” would turn into an exercise in wild speculation which would invariably have nothing to do with the author’s intentions or ideas, and would therefore be incredibly frustrating to study – like a game of Hypothetical Eye-Spy, except with more chance of being shot down by the teacher if you offered up an idea that was too tangential to their lesson plan.

The Great Gatsby was different. At 16 (the first year of A Level) I was finally studying a text that felt, for the first time, like even the deepest discussions only scratched the surface of the author’s intentions. Read More »