Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Review: 'Room' by Emma Donoghue.

First things first: I just wanted to say thank you to all the lovely people who have taken the time to read my ramblings on all things bookish. Blogs are generally self-indulgent things, and despite my tentative plugging on Twitter and Facebook, I am genuinely surprised at the number of views I've had so far, and the number of people who have said they like it. I started this because I missed thinking about books in a way that was more than, 'I liked that book. It was a good read', so to find out that other, actual people are taking the time to read it is just lovely. I am, of course, assuming these people are real. And if they're not - well, the views are still counted and I'm none the wiser, so happiness prevails.

Now, to business: the review. It occurred to me the other day, as I wittered on about books I hate, that I hadn't actually reviewed anything that hasn't made me laugh in some way. So, to show I've got a serious side, I thought I'd pick a book that covers deeper issues than Regency zombies, French wind-up gags and sex-fuelled Trojans. I think, in this respect, I've picked a good 'un. It first came to my attention whilst I was watching a programme about the Man Booker Shortlist 2010, and I sought it out not long after.

'Room' is the story of a five year old boy, Jack, who has lived his entire life in the confines of four walls, with just his mother and his 'friends' on the TV for company. He does not yearn for much more, because he doesn't know there's much more; he has been brought up to believe that there is nothing outside of the four walls, that the entire universe exists in that small space, and that nothing else - especially not anything on the TV - is real.

The first thing that will hit you about this is the language; it is told entirely through the eyes of Jack, and so the language and the thought processes used are that of a child's. In this respect, I was reminded of 'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess; with that particular novel, I struggled for a good few chapters before I finally learnt the language of the 'droogs', by which point some of the most violent scenes had taken place, and I hadn't even so much as raised an eyebrow. I found that I was sympathetic to Alex because I hadn't fully grasped the horror of his actions, as I didn't understand them when I was reading them, and by the time I realised what he had done, I was already on his side. It's always easier to feel sorry for someone if you don't know the full truth. In the same way, I somewhat struggled to understand Jack, until I got into his mindset, and once I was there, I began to see things from his point of view. This is key to the novel, and an incredibly clever tool of Donoghue's, for it inverts all your feelings towards Jack and his mother; if Jack is unhappy at something, you are unhappy at it as well, even though good, common, adult sense tells you that you should be otherwise.

Given the title, I was ready for a fairly claustraphobic read, anticipating that it would be set entirely within a room, and I also did wonder if it would get a bit boring. However, fairly early on, they do escape - as you may have guessed, they are being held against Jack's mother's will - in amazingly dramatic circumstances, and from then on, they are in the wide world. It is here that the story truly begins; everything else, bar the escape, is a preparation for the reader, getting you into Jack's way of thinking, of his wants, needs and perceptions, so that when he finally sees the world, and how big it is, you too feel the same anxiety, and as he begins to explore the most basic things we take for granted - air, clouds, grass, a patch of sky bigger than a skylight - I found that I was marvelling at it as much as he was; not so much the things themselves, but his reactions.

I also thought this was going to be a bit of a novelisation of something similar to a Josef Fritzl situation, so I will admit that whilst I was wanting to read the book, I was also reluctant, given the expected subject matter. Whilst I was somewhat right about the circumstances under which Jack and his mother are in the Room, I found as I read on that it was less about a traumatic event and more about discovery; we are privy to a child's first view of the world, and the subsequent fear and wonder of it, his mother's rehabilitation into a world she hasn't seen for years, and the reactions of family members who presumed their loved one dead. It's harrowing, but not in the way you might expect; I was expecting to be shocked to my core, and I was, but more at the relationship between Jack and his mother; it's hard to appreciate the lengths a parent might go to in order to protect their child, or the freedom they might crave from that child, all at the same time.

Donoghue's novel is not a favourite of mine; I found it tiring, given it's quite an emotionally heavy read, and I sometimes found that, whilst I was on Jack's side always, he was a bit odious at times - but then, all five year old children are, even to other five year olds. Jack's mother was also a thorn in my side; not because I didn't like her, but because I couldn't work out how I felt about her. Adult Jasmine was filled with respect, awe for her strength, and pity for her situation; but Child Jasmine, who was hanging around with Jack, thought she was really annoying, not at all sympathetic to Jack's concerns and just a bit selfish, really. Then, of course, there's the way of telling it; whilst Donoghue chose an excellent manner in which to approach a touchy subject - one that allows innocence to still exist, without clouding the novel with ugly scenes - it still doesn't change the fact that each time you have to reach into your 'Jack' frame of mind before you can start to appreciate the story, and that's hard work when you're tired and just want a chapter to read before bed.

'Room' is, however, an exceptional novel for managing to take an ugly, cruel subject, and turn it into a journey. It is poignant, sweet, heartbreaking at times and thought-provoking; it still played on my mind each night after the light went out. I was expecting it to be a bit of a weepy novel as well, but it's not, because at it's core it is about hope, strength, change, and learning how to cope with traumatic events. It never occurred to me before writing this, but Jack's mother went through a traumatic event when she was incarcerated; Jack's trauma comes in their release. I couldn't say why I would recommend this novel, because I'm not really sure why I like it myself; it's just a novel I find myself reaching for from time to time, wanting to read without really knowing why. It's not a book to get lost in, or even to enjoy at that, but if thought-provoking is what you're looking for, it's definitely one to consider.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Books I Love To Hate

I've been thinking about this and it occurred to me that I'm probably only going to really bother reviewing books I like; this is mostly because, for the time being at least, I'm reviewing books that are particular favourites of mine, or ones that have resonated pretty deeply with me. So I thought I'd give a brief run down of some particular novels which I have read once and WILL NEVER READ AGAIN. Well, okay, 'never' is a long time, but definitely not for ages.
This is not designed to put anyone off these books, and these are just my personal opinions. So here they are, the books I love to hate:

1. American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
I'll admit straight up that I saw the film first (despite being about 12 when I saw it - not quite sure how I snuck that one past my mum), and it's still one of my favourite films. I think Christian Bale was absolutely fantastic in it, and I just find it hilarious - that scene where Bateman kills Paul Allen to Huey Lewis and the News? Bloody brilliant. So when I was going on holiday one year, and I saw the novel as part of a Waterstones 3 for 2, I bought it (despite some initial misgivings about the cover - same as pictured - which I found unsettling for some reason), assuming that since I'd enjoyed the film so much, I'd enjoy the book - which I think is a fair enough assumption to make! After all, I knew the plot from the film, knew that it was more a journey into the psyche of a deeply troubled, shallow man, knew that there was going to be scenes of extreme, gratuitous violence. What I did not know was just how much, or indeed in such detail, these scenes would be in. I will admit I'm writing this many years after reading it, so my memories can hardly be called fresh, but I do remember exactly how I felt; horrified, uncomfortable and incredulous. I know now I was, quite frankly, too young to read it, and probably didn't 'get' what the violence represented - his tortured soul, maybe? His need for attention and validation? - but  I don't think I've ever read anything that made me question the sanity of the author; after all, ideas have to come from somewhere - so where the blazes did Easton Ellis get this idea from? And I remember reading one particular, infamous scene, which is probably uncomfortable reading for all, but especially women, when I was literally thinking, 'Who actually writes stuff like this?!' I believe this is considered a modern classic, but I have to say if this is a modern classic, you can keep it; novels are meant to make you think, laugh, cry, scream, jump, shock, escape the world - but American Psycho goes too far for me.

2. Starbook, by Ben Okri
Easily one of the biggest disappointments I've ever experienced, novel-wise. Once again, this was a holiday purchase, and I saw this beautiful cover whilst on my way to the till. I instantly fell in love with it, and when I read the blurb and saw it was 'a fairytale for adults', I was hooked, and genuinely excited about reading it. So excited, that I saved it - treasured it, even - til  it was my very last read. Just take a look at some of my previous entries on Book-Cover Judging and Fairytales, you'll see why I fell for it.What. A. Letdown. I'd love to give you a brief summary of the novel, but I simply can't remember (beyond there's a prince, and a princess, and possibly an enchanted sleep, though I may be making that part up), because all I can remember is that it was so desperately dull and pretentious that it clouds everything else. The language has been described by critics as poetical, beautiful, lyrical - and yes, yes it was. Except, nothing happened. I cannot stress that enough - nothing, even the bits where stuff was meant to be happening. It was just one long novel of nothing, and whilst I stuck at it doggedly to the end, I picked it up each time with the same enthusiasm as I might a maths textbook (no offence, mathematicians), and when I got to the end I was profoundly relieved. I'll own up and say, I probably was my own worst enemy - I put it up on a pedestal from the first glance, expected great things, and as soon as I realised it wasn't going to live up to those expectations, I promptly sulked about it, and so probably stopped myself from enjoying it. Maybe one day I'll attempt it again - part of me is still hopeful, when I glance at that cover - but all I can remember from reading it is the bitter disappointment I felt as I sat in the sun, painfully turning the pages, hoping for something to happen.

3. A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer
This is a bit of a rogue cannon entry, as I don't actually hate this book (so I probably shouldn't have called this blog 'Books I Love To Hate'... Oh well, you live, you learn). This is a noble book. It was a brave thing to write this, and I applaud Dave Pelzer for it. The life he was subjected to by the person who should have loved him the most - his mother - is just horrific, and it makes any sane person wonder what kind of mental state you'd have to be in to treat own flesh and blood that way. So to not only live through that, but be able to write it down, recall it, in such a calm fashion, not only breaks your heart but swells it in appreciation of what strength of character it must take to survive such ordeals. And this is why I shall never read it again; because it is simply too real to manage more than once. Whilst I can't even begin to comprehend how painful his life must have been, the glimpse I got was just too much for me. I love books because they take me somewhere else; they transport me to beautiful countries with exciting people, darstardly villains, and teach me lessons about things I didn't even know about. Whilst I'm glad I read it, I could never read it again; knowing that the man who wrote the words lived the awful childhood you're reading about, knowing that there are actually people out there who do things like this to defenceless children - it makes me sick. I would say that everyone should read this book once, but no more than that; it's just too upsetting.

4. We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
This was an odd one. Like Starbook, I found the premise interesting - a mother reflects on the childhood of her firstborn son, who is serving time in prison for committing a massacre; like American Psycho, I found it to be very different to what I was expecting, and similar to A Child Called It, I found it upsetting at times. But - and this is why it's made this list - mostly I just didn't care. Obviously I wasn't a fan of the homicidal Kevin - I don't think you're meant to be - but I didn't care about his mother, Eva, the narrator, either. Nor was I fussed about his father - who I liked about as much as Kevin, actually - or even his little sister, Celia. There was just no one I felt any interest in whatsoever, no real connection with the characters, and as a result, even though I knew this was probably one of those books which I would in later years be told I just 'had' to read, I just wasn't interested. I persevered nonetheless, mostly because I refused to be beaten by it, and I'm stubborn that way, but I really did find it a bore. It's hard to enjoy a book when you just can't connect with the characters, even less when it's an unpleasant enough story by itself. I didn't struggle through it in the same way that I did with Starbook - that's the beauty of having an actual plot - but I certainly felt the same sense of relief that I did when I finally got to the end.

5. After The Party, by Lisa Jewell
This was another disappointment. Lisa Jewell was one of the first 'grown up' authors I loved, and Ralph's Party - the novel to which After The Party is the sequel - remains, in my opinion, one of the most gloriously romantic, realistic, genuine books I've ever read. So when I heard there was a sequel, detailing the continued relationship of two characters from Ralph's Party, I just had to have it, and I bought it as soon as I could, and devoured it in one weekend. It left me, to continue the eating metaphor, empty. The first book was a witty, clever, insightful glimpse into the relationships between several different people, and how the oddest little events can affect something so much bigger, and I just loved it - I still do. I fell in love with Jewell's writing style, and the way she seemed able to voice thoughts I'd had but never been able to word. Consequently, I read all her others - and there are a few - and whilst I started to lose faith around the awfully-titled 31 Dream Street - ugh - I still kept on buying. But this was the last straw. I found After The Party cynical, bitter and more than once got the impression that it was less about the characters and more about a personal experience, and whilst I have no idea about whether my hypothesis is true, it made me sad that two of my favourite characters had been taken and twisted in this way. The end of the novel was somewhat hopeful, I guess, but the damage was done by that point. I guess this suffered from Starbook-ism, in that I was let down by my own expectations, but this wasn't the first time I felt that Jewell had lost her mojo a bit, and in fact was, for me, the definitive proof she had. One of the saddest things to happen to a person is to fall out of love, and I felt some of that sadness when I read this book and finally realised that I, too, had fallen out of love with Lisa Jewell.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Review: 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

As a young, easily-influenced teenager studying GCSE English Literature, I, like pretty much all the others in my all-female class, fell in love with a certain Fitzwilliam Darcy of Derbyshire when we, as part of our study of the novel 'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen, were allowed to watch the BBC serial from 1995 in lessons. In hindsight I think it's safe to say we fell in love with Colin Firth more than Darcy, who, let's face it, is a bit of an [insert favoured expletive here] for the first part of the book, where as Firth is just lovely all-round. Since then, I've read the novel quite a few times, mostly because I quite like the flow of language that is characteristic of Austen's books, but also because it's quite a nice, simple story that nearly everyone knows of in some form or other, that's been adapted many, many times owing to it's status in the nation's heart as a favourite love story.

So imagine my surprise when, at university, a friend gave another friend, who was a self-confessed Austen-hater, a copy of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' for her birthday - not only did I not know such mash-ups existed, but I wasn't sure how I felt about 'interference' with a novel already so well-loved by so large a number. Mind you, as I reasoned at the time, no one's forcing me to read it, I can happily stick with my good old, dog-eared, normal version.

How I actually came by my copy of the Zombiefied version I'm not actually sure - I think someone might've given it to me, but then I might've bought it myself - it's one of those I can't really remember where, or when, I got it. However, whenever it may be that I did come into possession of it, I haven't read the original since. From the first line, 'it is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains,' you know immediately that you are not in Regency England any more; or rather you are, but in an alternate version where the undead roam the earth and the Bennet Sisters are martial artists and deadly with a katana, musket - any type of weaponry that you can imagine. There's one character - who shall remain nameless here - who manages to slay the 'unmentionables' with nothing more than a damp envelope. I'd like to see even Chuck Norris achieve such a feat.

The devilishy-simple charm of this novel comes from the fact that the original story - and, for the most part, the original text - remains almost entirely unchanged. My copy of 'P&P&Z' certainly seems smaller, with bigger print, than my copy of just 'P&P', and yet I cannot think of a single occasion that has not been left out; I guess maybe some of the less crucial scenes were shortened, but on the whole it is an incredibly faithful representation. Some characters are killed off, but not before they've served their purpose, and there are alternate endings for others, but it all ties in really well with the story, the new way of viewing the characters and the general importances placed on the deadly arts in this Zombie Regency. But most of all, it is the language that amazes me, because even in the bits where it's quite obvious that Seth Grahame-Smith has taken over, it still 'fits'; at no point does it it feel like you've jumped from Austen, to Grahame-Smith, to Austen again - it's all kind of seamless. All I can guess is that Grahame-Smith not only very carefully studied the manner that the original was written in, and the way the characters spoke, but also scoured each page to see where he could effortlessly slide in a zombie-reference here, a battle-scene there, etc. Well done, that man. Of course, it's not all perfect - there are some pretty cheeky references that certainly were not in Austen's novel, such as Elizabeth's obvservation of 'the way (Darcy's) trousers clung to those most English parts'. See, you know that's not meant to be there, yet it doesn't seem entirely out of place - it's just because you know that, in Regency England, where manners reigned supreme, no one would dare refer to anything so, well, private - ahem.

I must add it's not really for the faint-hearted; there are some gruesome illustrations in my copy, and whilst they are just (beautifully drawn) illustrations, it was a bit of a surprise the first time I read it to turn the page and see the Bennet Sisters slicing some zombie throats. Then there are some detailed descriptions of zombie-deaths and zombie-customs that are a bit, er, well, gross is the best word, I guess. It's not for purists, either; if you're the kind of Austen fan who believes that her works should remain untainted by such alterations, then I don't recommend this at all, and certainly not another one that was written, 'Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters' by Ben H. Winters (which, incidentally, is not as good as 'P&P&Z', but still very enjoyable nonetheless - especially when Colonel Brandon first arrives and he's basically a squid from the neck up.) If you're not a fan of zombies either, don't read it - whilst they aren't the main characters (mostly... ooh or am I bluffing?), there's enough of them to warrant an inclusion in the title so you're probably best off avoiding it.

I really, really enjoy reading this, and every time I do read it, I always laugh at the zombie bits, smirk at the self-referential bits and enjoy the basic story, which, as I said before, remains unchanged in the plot line and the main plot points. I also always seem to forget - though I probably won't from now on as I'm about to write about it - that there's a hilarious little 'Reader's Discussion Guide' at the end, the kind you do get in the versions of novels that are specifically published for studying in class. It really does make you think about the novel more deeply, and consequently adds to your enjoyment and understanding of the novel - especially when pondering such questions as, 'Some critics have suggested that the zombies represent the authors' view towards marriage - an endless curse that sucks the life out of you and just won't die. Do you agree...?' I also have to say that I prefer the idea of women who spend their days practising stealth tactics and slaying zombies, who carry daggers and can support their entire body weight on one finger, to the insipid sewing, piano-forte-playing, reading sisters of the original - I'm no feminist and I certainly don't carry daggers, but it makes a change to the atypcial heroines of the day, who sit around waiting for the men to come into the room before the fun can begin.

There's probably a surprisingly small number of people who'd want to read this; first, you've got to find people who don't mind the language of Regency novels - some people just don't get on with them. Then, you've got to find in that group the people who wouldn't mind it being adapted for comedic purposes, and then in that subgroup, identify who likes zombies. It's potentially a niche market. For example, my boyfriend flat-out refuses to read it, despite my insistence that it's nothing like the Pride and Prejudice adaptation that I made him watch six hours of over the course of a week; and I can kind of see where he's coming from, as it is, essentially, still a girls' book. The main characters are women, and the main feel of the novel is still there - the zombies merely add to the fun, it's still all about the Darcy/Elizabeth love story and that mustn't be forgotten. However, I'm sure his mind will change when I drag him to see the film version when it finally comes out (no news on when that will be just yet.) So in the meantime, I suggest you familiarise yourself with this zombie-killing, katana-wielding, all round ass-kicking version of Austen's classic, and dare you to say the zombies don't improve it.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

How to judge a book without a cover?

I got to thinking of this after meeting up with a friend this weekend, who was enthusing over her Kindle and how great it was that she could carry around so many books at once; I, who have been resisting Kindles with decreasing tenacity since they came onto the market, lamely replied, 'But I like the covers on proper books!', and gestured at the copy of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen) that was in front of me. It was a pretty rubbish argument as apparently you still get cover images on Kindles, but it did get me thinking... As the interest in vitual literature increases, does the book cover become negligible?

We've all been taught since we were little, 'not to judge a book by it's cover', that homely metaphor to not judge on appearances; and yet, as the number of books available to us increases in mind-boggling numbers every day, I find myself relying heavily on the cover to give me my first indication of if it's a book for me or not; after all, as a very contradictory argument, first appearances count. Of course, some pieces of literature are so famous that having a cover for them is already a bit pointless, as their reputations precede them; pieces by Shakespeare, for example, or Chaucer, or 'Dracula' by Bram Stoker. Simply put, if you're going to have a library full of many leather-bound books (stay classy, Ron Burgundy), they're either going to be super-special special editions, ones you've bound yourself or the expensive kind you get in second-hand bookshops. For those of us who have to make do with our local Waterstones or library, covers are still a large part of the selection process, and when you've got literally thousands of books waiting for you to purchase them, you need a quick glance at the cover before you take the extra step of reading the blurb. I for one tend to breeze past any section that has covers showing any of the following:
  • Illustrated women with really tiny dogs
  • Illustrated women gazing out at the Manhattan/Parisian/London skyline
  • Illustrated women holding cupcakes
  • Illustrated women with lots of shopping bags and, perhaps, a pram and a tiny dog, wearing impossible stilletto heels
  • Brawny men cradling swooning women on the deck of a pirate ship/a beach/a stormy cliff.
There is a bit of a theme there. But that's because, whilst I do enjoy a bit of chick-lit from time to time (one of my guiltiest pleasures is a free copy of 'I Heart New York' by Lindsey Kelk that I got with Cosmo once, a novel as shallow as it's title and yet I. CAN'T. GIVE. IT. UP), I generally don't read chick-lit anymore, so being able to see the distinctive covers from a distance - usually in sickly shades of baby pink, sky blue and mint green - allows me to steer well clear, and go for something with, I don't know, a man in a helmet, or a tiger, or a multi-coloured car, or a something like that. It allows me to be more selective in my choice of literature, something I could've done with when, as a naive thriteen year old, I went against my instincts, ignored the kind-of freaky cover of 'American Pyscho' by Bret Easton Ellis, bought it anyway and subsequently didn't sleep for a week, I was so disturbed by what I had read.

This may be harsh to the chick-lit titles, but let's hold on a minute here. If you're shopping for clothes, you don't go into the shop blindfolded and randomly pick out whatever your hand falls on; you carefully assess what styles you like, narrow that down to what styles suit you, and then narrow that down to what you can afford. It's similar with books; you're looking for something to spend your time with, and you don't want to get it wrong. Obviously the blurb will give you the overview you need to judge if the book is for you, but then you can't read the blurb of every book in the store; you use the cover to find one that captures your imagination.

 I for one have resisted the Kindles for this long on the basis that I prefer the feel of a proper book; of pages, the spine, the way my fingers sometimes smudges the print on lesser-quality publications, and the simple sensation of holding a book - I fail to see how, in this respect, a Kindle beats a physical book (though I'll be singing a different tune when it comes to packing for my holiday, and I find I've  used up my baggage allowance on books before I've even packed my clothes). A cover is part of that feeling; for instance, if I've just read a book that has particularly resonated with me, I sometimes study the cover, trying to prolong the sensation the book has given me by trying to recognise aspects of the plot in the cover, and I'd be sad to lose that.

Personally, I don't think covers will ever become neligible, because they're now so closely associated with the books themselves; as the outer representatives of the books' contents, we need the covers to give us our 'first impression', to draw us in and give us our first inkling of what we're about to read; is it an adventure? A romance? A mystery? Yet another 'saga' about vampires who defy the Dracula Blueprint? And even if we one day succumb to the eBooks entirely, and relinquish our beloved hard copies (unlikely, but possible), we'll still want to be looking at the covers on Amazon before we commit to downloading.

P.S. I would like to point out that, having never used a Kindle, I'm not actually 100% sure if book covers are included when you download eBooks; I've gone on the word of my friend, which may or may not be wise! Still think the point stands though.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Review: Troy Trilogy by David and Stella Gemmell

A very good, very brave friend of mine recommended these books to me. He's brave because the poor lad, as a fresh-faced, first year undergrad of Accounting and Economics, foolishly sat down to watch Wolfgang Petersen's Troy with me, a fresh-faced, first year undergrad of Classical Studies. What ensued was around two and a half hours of me obnoxiously interrupting every few minutes to explain why it was all wrong, that Achilles/Brad Pitt should be dead by this point and that the whole thing was pointless without including the gods. Needless to say he hasn't watched it with me again, so it was with a courageous heart that he suggested I read these books, already a favourite with him, although he was hasty to clarify that it wasn't anything like the film Troy.

The basic premise, as you can probably guess, is The Iliad, the epic poem by Homer. Told from the point of view of several characters closely linked to the legend - Andromache, wife of Hector; Odysseus, the infamous storyteller and strategos; and Aeneas, the future founder of Rome - the tale begins long before the war, in a time when relations between Agamemnon and Priam - the respective kings of Mycenae and Troy - were, if not good, apparently more... cordial, shall we say, than they end up. The novels progress to show a fairly believable breakdown of that cordiality between the kingdoms, and how this impacts on the lives of the central characters.

What I enjoyed most about reading these books was that they were, actually, kind of believable, and gave plausible suggestions for certain aspects of the Trojan legend. For example, there is a relatively unique interpretation for the birth of the Trojan Horse, which both sticks closely to the story we know, but also seems almost realistic. I don't want to give anything away, but I've got to say it's a feasible explanation, and demonstrates perfectly how, as time moved on and the story was re-told by bards, it could've taken on the form that we know - a great wooden horse, with the enemy in the belly.

There are, of course, many recognisable characters from the myth - as well as Andromache, Aeneas, Priam, Agamemnon and Odysseus, there's also Hekabe, Kassandra, Penelope and Menelaus - all the familar names. There's even - if you've a knowledge of the Old Testament - a little side-story involving a very familiar prophet of Judaism and Christianity, which not only gives one particular character a decent vehicle, but also very nicely gives you a timeline for when the Trojan War occurred (of course, we can't be very sure when the War really happened - our best sources, ancient historians such as Herodotus, place the war at anything between the 12th and 14th centuries BC - hardly a narrow window.) But there are also several original characters, who allow the story to travel outside the confines of the myth, as opposed to the well-known characters, who are tied tightly to the events of the legend and so cannot stray too far from the original story. This is an effective tool, as it not only widens the scope of the War and it's impact, but also allows the Gemmells to explore different aspects of the myth - such as the impact on the soldiers, on citizens of Troy and on those who live far from the city where the War takes place.

I do want to make one thing clear; these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, anything but 'popcorn literature' pieces. There's the usual gratuitous sex scenes, and the dialogue between some of the characters is pretty cringeworthy at times. And as for characterisation - well, they're hardly complex; tortured hero with a secret past; rejected lover who can't let go; warrior woman who doesn't stand for any trouble from any man;  happy-go-lucky soldier who loves a battle and a drink...  Pretty standard. The battle scenes are interesting, though - and they'd have to be, as this is, after all, a story about a war. And whilst there's some really original interpretations in there, they are just historical novels and not anyhing to set any store by. But I'll tell you what else they are; immensely enjoyable, exceedingly difficult to put down, and they do inspire interest in the original legend; I've now started re-reading my copy of The Iliad. I must admit that, if I'd found these on my own, I probably would've shied away, maybe even sneered a bit. I would've missed out on a really fun read, and what's more, I know I'll read them again and again, because they tell one of my favourite stories in a way I've never heard it, and one that I think I prefer above all other interpretations I've heard.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Review: '1000 Years Of Annoying the French', by Stephen Clarke.

Now before we get started, let's clear one thing up; I am not a Francophobe. I actually stumbled across this tome in a Waterstones in Brighton about 6 months ago, and, being easily amused, noticed the title and took a look. I was also intrigued as I was going on a trip to France and I liked the idea of having some related-reading for the plane. In hindsight, I could've chosen a less inflamatory-sounding title, and consequently wouldn't have chickened out of reading it on said plane (instead I read my boyfriend's book over his shoulder.)

So, we know why I chose it to read in the first place; now why to review? Well, it's mostly because it's the first one I thought of. No, seriously. But I learned to trust my instincts a while ago, and this time I've decided to follow them.

This, as one might guess by the title, is a history of the relationship of France and England, covering a millenium, from William the Conqueror deciding he wanted to be King of England, right through to the building of the Channel Tunnel. It's also a light-hearted explanation of how the English are always right and the French are always wrong, even when the French believe otherwise. Obviously this is not to be taken seriously, but it certainly makes for entertaining reading, especially during a chapter entitled, 'Food, Victorious Food' - as a nation, we are inherently jealous of the France's natural affinity with all foods delicious, so it's particularly enjoyable to sit and find out that actually, the croissant is technically Viennese and that the British came up with the way to cook steak first.

This is, by no means, a usual choice of book for me. Whilst I absolutely love history and am fascinated about the process of how we went from that to this, from then to now, ever since I left university I've not felt any real desire to go out and buy a proper history book, so this was a first for me. As a result, I'm no expert on what makes a good history book, but what I do know is that, throughout the 640 pages or so that it took to account the turbulent Franco-Anglo relationship, I was (for the most part), engrossed, and, just as importantly, amused. I've since read several other books of the same ilk, and none of them have made me chuckle in quite the same way, and neither have they engaged me in the same way. As well as this, I didn't feel bogged down in the language; you know how some history books like to get clever with language, and start using over-long words? Well this one doesn't, and as a result, it's that bit more enjoyable to read. I always find I get along with a book better if I don't have to 100% concentrate on what I'm reading, so I can let my mind wander and start to imagine what I'm reading.

I will admit that I did get a bit tired towards the end of all the France-bashing; I understood when I bought the book that I was committing to some hardcore, tongue-in-cheek anti-French reading, but eventually I came to feel that that the point was being laboured. The very last paragraph rather shakily argues that using St Pancras as the new UK terminus for the Eurostar is a bit of an 'up yours' to the French, like the old terminus, Waterloo, was a bit much for me (not to mention a bit of a poor finish to an epic history). It's just a train station, for goodness' sake, I don't think that much thought was put into it, beyond which station was central enough and large enough to be both a national and international station.

Over all, this was a surprisingly enjoyable read; I was a bit daunted by it at first, given the size and the fact that it was the first true-history book I've read since university, but since then I've not only dipped into it from time to time, but read it cover-to-cover more than once. It's taught me so much about French history, but also about English, American, and European; in one read I think I doubled my understanding of the history behind some of the most powerful and influential relationships of the last two hundred years. But more than this, and so much more importantly, it inspired me to learn more about my own country's history; not long after reading this, I bought 'A Short History of England' by Simon Jenkins. I think it's a general consensus that a good teacher not only teaches, but inspires you to learn more; in which case, Stephen Clarke, you're good teacher.


I know I've already said that this blog is going to focus on reviews of books that I've read, but something caught my eye on BBC Breakfast yesterday, and continued to play on my mind for most of that day and today. The particular story was, that apparently, 'some parents are choosing not to read classic fairytales to their children, because they have deemed them too frightening or politically incorrect' (the full video can be seen on the following link: ). Now, this got my hackles up for a myriad of reasons.

Firstly, it seems to border on the ridiculous that, in a world of  increasingly-realistic video games and violent images all over the TV and web, that someone would deem something like a fairytale to be too frightening. Sure, if you're going to read your children stories from the original Brothers' Grimm collection, then alright, you're probably going to scare your little ones witless. I read them for the first time about two years ago and I'm not going to lie, some of them surprised me with some fairly horrific elements. But 'Goldilocks'? The scariest thing about that particular story is that the bears come home to find a little hooligan squatting in their cottage, having chomped her way through their breakfast. And as for 'Red Riding Hood'? Okay, there is a wolf masquerading as an old woman, having eaten said old woman, and alright, when the huntsman comes along and chops him up, that could be a bit frightening. But there's a way round that; explain to your children that, quite simply, it's not real - wolves can't talk, much less cross-dress, and there's only wolves in Scotland anyway, so if you're south of Edinburgh you're laughing. In fact, the best way to avoid scaring your little 'uns is to remind them, as the woman towards the end of the video points out, 'It's a fairy tale, it's not real life.'

Secondly, and this I do feel very strongly about, if you're not going to read a child fairytales, what are you going to read them? Don't get me wrong, I know there are millions of books and novels for children, and that if you are wealthy enough you could purchase a different storybook for every day of the formative years of a child's life, but let's not forget how central the old fairy tales are to childhood. I for one can't remember ever not knowing Cinderella, or Jack and the Beanstalk, and I certainly can't remember ever being frightened by them. These are tales that have been around for centuries, the kind of stories that you grow up simply knowing, that seep into everyday life. For example, what if you decided to not read your child fairy stories; would you then not take them to the pantomime at Christmas? And if you're not going to read your children fairytales, you might as well not let them know the nursery rhymes either - after all, the three blind mice have their tails cut off by the farmers' wife, and in that summary you've already got animal cruelty, and  lack of sympathy to a disability being highlighted. Plus, Tom Tom the Piper's Son steals a pig and away did run - never mind Goldilocks, that's real theft! And once you've started that particular snowball there's no stopping it, and then you risk ending up with a child like Eustace from Voyage of the Dawn Treader  - one with so little imagination, it takes being turned into a dragon to convince him that Narnia is real and not a dream. Given a choice I'd definitely not run the risk of my child turning into a dragon.

The irony that I found in this was that these parents who have decided not to read fairy tales to their kids are choosing to read them more modern classics, such as The Gruffalo. I think The Gruffalo is a great story, but I remember reading it for the first time and I'll be honest, I was kind of frightened by the titular character (and I was about 19 then). He's a fearsome beast! With fangs! And a boil on his nose! And yellow eyes! How is that less intimidating than, say, a wily imp who's good at spinning, a la Rumpelstiltskin? And let's not forget that the mouse in The Gruffalo tells lots of fibs throughout the entire story - sure, it's to save his own neck, but still, if you're going to get all up-in-arms about a little girl having a cheeky nap in a bear's bed, you should probably not be happy about a lying mouse.

My point is that, whilst they may've once been tales of woe and warning against bad behaviour in little ones, they're now as much a part of childhood as climbing trees, stealing biscuits when your mum's not looking and not wanting to go to school. Take them away, and you're taking away a part of childhood. Sure, some children may be a bit frightened at first, but every child can come up with the monster under the bed by themselves; they don't need fairy tales for help with that. Maybe I'm just clouded by nostalgia, but one of the things I look most forward to about having children of my own is telling them fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, or Sleeping Beauty, and you know what else? I'm going to tell them the Greek myths too, and I can guarantee they're more likely to scare a child than any Big Bad Wolf. You know why? Because I don't want my children growing up not knowing the old stories, because how would they appreciate the new ones without them?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

So it begins...

Well, everyone seems to be blogging these days, and I'm not one to avoid a bandwagon when it's in town, so here I am, hopping right on.

I've actually been thinking of blogging about books for a while, ever since I read 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett way back in June 2011, whilst on holiday. I'm not quite sure why that particular one, out of the many, many books I've read, made me want to do it; maybe it's because I found so much to say about it, and I sensed my boyfriend was getting tired of my jabbering on about it, that I thought something like this would help. Naturally, after I had the idea, I did what I do best; ignore it for ages and then finally cave in. That's how I roll.

The name of the blog may, to some, be familiar; I have borrowed it from a favourite song of mine from a favourite band of mine, Maximo Park. Hopefully they'll be okay with it. But it's also more than that. If you were to ever go into the loft at my parents' house (and I'm not quite sure why you would), you would find the usual mish-mash of attic paraphernalia - old childhood toys; the kind of chairs that only get brought down at Christmas for the unfortunate relatives who make it to the table too late; Christmas decorations and old school memorabilia. But you'd also find many, many boxes filled with even more books, that form a kind of labyrinth around the loft. In fact, if you were a Borrower, you'd almost definitely get lost in the long and winding path these scattered boxes create. A recent trip home took me into this loft, where I found my memories also packed up tight with the sad little books who got 'put away' so long ago, when I decided I was grown up and would read grown up books from now on, thank you very much. As I took the books from these boxes and marvelled at how many books I had forgotten, I resolved that, in years to come, I would have some solid record of books I loved and loathed, seeing as my memory has already started de-cluttering itself.

I won't say this blog will be looking at new releases, or even be giving my view on 'critically acclaimed classics'. Quite frankly, I'm not so arrogant as to think anyone would give two tosses about my opinion on books everyone already loves. However, I will be reviewing any book I care to; depending on how much I like, or dislike, the book in question. I hope I'll enjoy writing it, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it.