"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The Hobbit is a fantasy adventure tale set in fictional Middle-earth and is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, although it can be read as a standalone novel. The Hobbit is often considered to be more of a children’s book than its gargantuan sequel, however it is creepy, exciting and has dynamic characters that older audiences will appreciate and doesn’t read too much like a children’s novel, as well as being written in such a way that it is amusing and charming enough for children to enjoy.

The Hobbit is about an unambitious hobbit (these are creatures very much like men, except they are very small, do not wear shoes due to their furry, hard-soled feet and loathe adventures) named Bilbo Baggins who lives his life very contentedly in the cosy comfort of his hobbit hole - complete with numerous pantries to sate his enormous appetite - until he is reluctantly recruited by Gandalf the wizard to accompany a group of dwarves to steal a treasure-hoard from the lair of the fearsome dragon Smaug.

This novel has one of the most fantastic opening chapters I have ever read and is a strong testament to Tolkien’s superb writing talent. I adore Tolkien’s quaint and cosy description of Bilbo’s home, which sounds like the most marvellous and snug place to live in the whole world. This first chapter is very funny, with Bilbo being taken by surprise at the swarm of dwarves who invade his home for tea, and his horror at discovering they want him to come along on an adventure!

Once the party hit the open road they encounter plenty of scary and exciting creatures such as man-eating trolls, goblins and vicious wargs as well as the daunting prospect of being eaten alive by giant spiders. There is always something exciting happening to the group and the narrative is never dull.

All of the characters are wonderfully entertaining. The group of dwarves don’t have very distinct personalities from each other, but Bilbo is a highly amusing fellow. Tolkien sets him up as a bit grumpy and a person who loves his home comforts and loathes any disruption from his mundane daily activities in Hobbiton; he regularly makes reproachful remarks about adventures:

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

However as the story progresses it is interesting to see Bilbo’s ‘Tookishness’ emerge as he uses his bravery and wits (and, of course, the ‘One Ring’ which turns him invisible) to get out of the several sticky situations the treasure hunters find themselves in.

In contrast to his semi-comedic portrayal in The Lord of the Rings films, in The Hobbit Gollum is a strange, scary little creature; he is a gaunt and emaciated thing, constantly arguing with himself, completely set on gobbling Bilbo up if he fails to beat Gollum in a riddle contest.

Due to the thrilling adventure that unfolds between its pages, the compelling and beautifully illustrated characters (many of whom I haven’t even discussed - witty, clever Gandalf, Beorn the grumpy skin-changer, the terrifying dragon Smaug amongst others), Tolkien’s skill at painting a vivid picture of welcoming Hobbiton, gloomy, dangerous Mirkwood and the other fantastical locations of Middle-earth, The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I can’t say anything negative about this enchanting novel; there are moments of great peril and terror, but it manages to remain light hearted throughout. There is something in it for everyone and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 10/10

My other J. R. R. Tolkien reviews:
The Lord of the Rings

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantasy novel of 1986 aimed at children and young adults, but is perhaps better known as an anime by Studio Ghibli. I myself saw the anime film last year before discovering that it was based on a book - this annoyed me greatly since I always like to read the book before seeing an adaptation! However, in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle, the differences between the book and film are so vast that it hardly makes a difference and if anything I would suggest watching the film first in order to avoid being disappointed by the numerous departures that were made from the book. I am not here to focus on the differences between the film and the book in this review though; I am going to review the novel only.

The villagers of Market Chipping in the kingdom of Ingary live in fear of the wizard Howl who lives in a moving castle nearby, as he is rumoured to eat the hearts of young girls. Once her father dies, 18-year-old Sophie Hatter resigns herself to a dull life running the dreary family hat shop while her stepmother gads about town spending lots of money, including Sophie’s wages, every day. Her two younger sisters are sent off to pursue more exciting careers - Lettie is to learn to be a witch while Martha is to be a baker. One night, working late in the hat shop, Sophie is accosted by a disgruntled customer who turns out to be the fearsome Witch of the Waste - confusing Sophie for someone else (one of the many puzzles contained within the novel) she puts a curse on her, transforming her into an old woman! Part of the curse is that Sophie cannot tell anyone that she is under a spell, which makes seeking help rather difficult and puts poor Sophie in a terrible predicament. With limited options, Sophie decides to set out and see if she can find the witch and break the curse. However, she stumbles upon Howl’s moving castle - thinking her situation cannot get any worse, and with night rapidly approaching, Sophie risks her heart being eaten and enters the castle hoping the wizard might help her. Little does she know that her adventure is only just beginning...

Howl s Moving Castle is a really fun, delightful book. There are several moments of humour, mostly thanks to Howl’s flamboyant temperament and his incredible ability to throw tantrums - in particular there is a scene in the chapter entitled ‘In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime’, wherein he gets more than just a bit upset over dying his hair the wrong colour. An original and fun aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle is that it is one large puzzle - Calcifer, Howl’s fire demon, agrees to lift Sophie’s curse if she can figure out how to break the contract between himself and Howl, which the pair forged years ago - as like Sophie, Calcifer and Howl cannot talk about the terms of their spell. Numerous clues on how to break the contract are littered throughout the narrative, giving the reader subtle hints along with Sophie, so it’s fun to see if you can spot them all. On top of this are smaller mysteries to ponder, such as what has happened to the missing Prince of the kingdom, making for a uniquely enjoyable, puzzling and mystifying read.

The characters are wonderful, although I have a particular soft spot for mean-spirited Calcifer. Sophie is very realistic - she makes mistakes and some bad decisions, but she also has a big heart. Before she is transformed into an old woman, Sophie is timid, undemanding and has accepted her small lot in life - she is the eldest of three after all! Once she has been cursed however, her character alters - old Sophie is bold and bossy, busting into Howl’s castle and taking charge, cleaning the entire living space against Howl’s will, and bullying Calcifer into doing whatever she wants. Howl, the likeable but flawed wizard, is a lot of fun. He is an eccentric, vain drama queen and is prone to childish outbursts.

One slight negative is that the conclusion feels a little bit rushed, but I put this down to it being a children’s book, where stories tend to conclude rather abruptly. In addition to this, the plot is perhaps a touch too complex for very young children, who might find it quite confusing, especially towards the end.

Howl’s Moving Castle is an enchanting, original tale with an imaginative plot, wonderful vivid characters, plenty of humour, puzzles, magic, romance and much more. Don’t be put off by this being a children’s book, as it has something for everyone and is a real delight to read. Although Howl’s Moving Castle is a standalone novel, Jones wrote two loose sequels: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, as well as numerous other works for youngsters and others for adults, which - as of reading this novel - I can’t wait to get my hands on.

Rating: 9/10

My other reviews by Diana Wynne Jones:
Charmed Life 

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Five by Robert McCammon

The Five follows the eponymous rock band and their manager as they complete what looks likely to be their final tour together. The group unwittingly attract the attention of a war veteran - Jeremy Pett - who left the Iraq war physically unscathed but mentally disturbed; offended by The Five’s portrayal of American soldiers in one of their music videos, Jeremy endeavours to put his sniping skills to good use by bringing an end to the rock group for good, one band member at a time, with the encouragement of his imaginary pal, Gunny.

This unusual premise for a horror novel immediately sparked my interest, especially since I had heard great things about McCammon’s older works such as Swan Song and Boy’s Life. However I did not enjoy The Five very much and was left dissatisfied by it for various reasons.

First of all, the characters are really lacklustre and flat. The male members of the band do not have very distinct personalities and are more or less very stereotypical rockers, and there is little else that defines them. By contrast the two female members - Berke and Ariel - are polar opposites and are portrayed as a cliché angry butch lesbian and sweet, dreamy, hippy-type respectively. These bland, cookie cutter personalities dominate the book, and as the characters did not feel very real I didn’t much care what happened to them and I found it difficult to become involved in their plight.

In addition to the main sniper plot, there is a spiritual element to The Five that might interest some readers. This aspect begins when the band meet a weird girl at a well giving out water to blackberry pickers, and afterwards they feel compelled to write a group song and then it all develops from there, but it was not fully fleshed out, fell flat and wasn’t very well executed. What it built up to made it seem as though the author was perhaps trying to make his novel deep and philosophical, but it didn’t quite work and I could have done without this part - it felt as though the author couldn’t decide whether he wanted to write a realistic story or a supernatural one so it ended up being an odd mixture of the two which didn’t quite work for me.

On top of these negative points, my main issue with The Five is its length. My hardback copy is 520 pages, which is way too long in comparison with what actually happens in the story and at times it was a struggle for me to get through. McCammon clearly loves music, which in itself is certainly a positive thing, but he quite regularly writes long paragraphs just listing bands or describing every last tiny little detail of a particular keyboard which only true music fans might find interesting, but even then it is overdone. I suppose this aspect of the novel fits with the rock ‘n’ roll theme of the book, but it isn’t necessary to have it dominate the narrative as it takes the reader away from the story. Furthermore, at the end of the novel after the main story has concluded there are 50 pages or so of unnecessarily lengthy ‘after-story’. McCammon works hard throughout to give his characters some life by every now and then going off on long tangents about each person’s back-story - the problem is that they have no bearing on the plot and fail to add any substance to the band members; these digressions feel like padding and only exacerbate the already slow pace of the novel.

Despite my grumbles, there are some positives to The Five. Firstly, McCammon can write really well and I am looking forward to reading some of his older novels because of his obvious talent as a writer. Secondly, McCammon does a terrific job of highlighting the devastating effects fighting a war can have on a person and explores the extreme psychological consequences of this. He is very sensitive to the feelings of war veterans in his execution of the story, and I found it quite touching as well as an interesting and unusual topic to tackle in a horror-thriller novel. In addition, the novel is very much about the extent that you follow your dream job (in this case, a successful rock band) before you abandon it for stable and secure work - something I’m sure many people in the arts will be able to relate to.

I had been eager to read this novel for some time, but the pace was slow and the plot was drawn out, it featured a weak supernatural element and bland stereotyped characters - all of which led The Five to be a disappointing venture for me. Some good editing would probably have boosted my enjoyment, and although it is by no means a bad book and I can appreciate its appeal, it was deeply dissatisfying and was not for me personally. However if you enjoy thrillers with a supernatural touch, love rock ‘n’ roll or music in general and don’t mind plots that progress slowly then you may enjoy The Five.

Rating: 5/10

Thursday, 20 September 2012

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle is a collection of the funny but poignant diary entries of aspiring writer 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain as she hones her writing skills by attempting to ‘capture’ her life in her ramshackle old castle in the middle of the English countryside. Within the castle reside her impoverished family: her beautiful, shallow and discontented older sister Rose, her eccentric (to put it kindly) father who is suffering from financially crippling writer’s block, her stepmother Topaz, her little brother Thomas, and finally Stephen - the son of one of the Mortmains’ now deceased maid - who is enamoured with Cassandra in spite of his love being wholly unrequited.

The novel begins by documenting the day to day lives of the Mortmain family as they struggle to earn enough money to live; it is incredibly endearing and sad how much Cassandra values something as simple as bread with butter and honey:
“I shouldn’t even think millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.”

The main story begins when the two American heirs - Simon and Neil Cotton - to the estate of which the castle is a part turn up, and the Mortmain family have their lives changed dramatically in the 6 months that Cassandra’s diary spans.

I Capture the Castle is a mesmerising and utterly charming tale. In many ways it reminds me of a more modern version of Little Women, but at the same time I found it to be quite a depressing read because of the characters’ circumstances, and Cassandra’s ignorance of the gravity of her family’s troubles.

The narrative is beautiful - Cassandra’s voice is engaging and honest; she is a character who is difficult to dislike. She peppers her diary with references to literature, particularly the Brontë sisters and Austen:
“‘How I wish I lived in a Jane Austen novel!’ 
I said I’d rather be in a Charlotte Brontë. 
‘Which would be nicest - Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?’” - Rose and Cassandra
Although I Capture the Castle is set in the 1930’s, the issues and feelings that Cassandra is forced to tackle - growing up, falling in love, financial strain, loneliness and family strife - are timeless and make her a very relatable character, especially with readers who are of a similar age.

The ending was quite unusual and not all the loose ends were tied up. Nonetheless I felt happy with how Smith concluded the novel as it fit with the journal format that she had chosen to write the story - this meant I didn’t feel annoyed by the slight open endedness of the tale as I have done with other books.

Though I Capture the Castle is often classed as a young adult novel, it is definitely relevant to older readers and can be readily enjoyed by practically any age group. Going into the book, I thought it would be quite a juvenile story and I dislike diary style books as a general rule (however, it reads very much like a novel rather than a diary - there are chapters and no childish ‘Dear diary...’) but I found I Capture the Castle to be a delightful, if depressing, read. It is a very real, heartwarming story and it deals with issues that people face every day; it is alarmingly relevant nowadays considering its publication date. I Capture the Castle is a charming and compelling novel, but at the same time it is a very sad tale and has left me not really knowing how I truly feel about what happened between its pages, but one thing I do know is that it will stay with me for a very long time.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier was inspired to write Jamaica Inn by a tavern of the same name on Bodmin moor, and is a gothic tale comparable to her own Rebecca as well as the Brontës’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, from whom du Maurier took inspiration in her writing. It is set in 19th century Cornwall and shares the mystery-thriller genre of the first two but is also shot with an element of romance.

On a dreary November day, a coach rattles along the Cornish coast towards Jamaica Inn - a forbidding tavern owned by the vicious Joss Merlyn, a place where the locals fear to tread - bearing the newly orphaned Mary Yellan who is coming to live with her Aunt Patience. The unsuspecting Mary arrives to find that at the hands of her brutish husband, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, her Aunt has been transformed from the beautiful, carefree woman she remembered to a gaunt, terrified wreck. The Inn stands dark and forbidding on Bodmin Moor, and reeks of violence, fear and drink. Naturally Mary endeavours to rescue her Aunt from the Inn and her villainous husband, but in the process unwittingly becomes hopelessly ensnared in the plots of Joss and his accomplices. Her situation only becomes more grave when she feels herself falling for Jem, Joss’ younger brother, whom she dare not trust...

Once again, I was enthralled with du Maurier’s amazing writing skill; from the first sentence I was enraptured, and her descriptions of the creepy old inn, the rainswept Cornish coast and the chilly winter moors are gorgeous and paint a vivid picture. Added to this is a foreboding, dark atmosphere that looms over you as you read, creating a combination which means the narrative is never boring.  

The characters are vibrant and richly described and bear a great contrast to one another. The arch-villain, Joss Merlyn, is a formidable and terrifying foe - almost as scary as Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca - and capitalises on the dark and dangerous atmosphere of the novel. He is a vile man, but I enjoyed reading about him nonetheless; he is unpredictable and savage so I was afraid of what he might do next, and his treatment of others - particularly poor Aunt Patience - is a bit hard to swallow. Jem Merlyn on the other hand is a loveable scoundrel, and although Mary is initially put off by his less-than-noble profession - a horse thief - she feels herself falling for his roguish charms, but she dare not trust him considering his kin. As a reader, I felt myself liking him and wanting Mary to trust him, but at the same time not being sure if she should, and like her hoping throughout that he wouldn’t end up being wrapped up in Joss’ schemes! It is this total immersion in the plot and with the characters that makes Jamaica Inn such a great read, and is a testament to du Maurier’s pure skill as a writer and storyteller. Finally there is Mary Yellan, our heroine in this gothic Cornish tale, is not your average 19th century woman of literature - whose greatest cares usually revolve around finding an ideal husband:

“Mary had no illusions about romance. Falling in love was just a pretty name for it, that was all.”

Thanks to Mary Yellan’s tomboyish personality the romantic element of the book is not overbearing and is of a playful nature rather than sentimental and sickly - so even the most romance loathing readers should not be put off by this aspect of the novel.

Jamaica Inn is a concise, mysterious, scary story which is written beautifully and boasts a rich cast of imaginative characters. The pace is quick and it never meanders needlessly, the story itself is very atmospheric and full of suspense, mystery, horror and a sense of urgency due to the imminent danger. I really enjoyed it - in fact I like it almost as much as Rebecca - and I think this would be an easy novel for anyone to love.

Rating: 9/10

My other Daphne du Maurier reviews:

The Scapegoat

Monday, 10 September 2012

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Do not be fooled by the title - Geek Love is not a story about high school nerds finding love against all odds, the ‘geek’ in this brilliantly original and thought-provoking tale is Lillian Binewski. Lil used to make her living by biting the heads off live chickens at her husband’s family carnival. After the carnival suffers a lapse in popularity, Lil and her husband Al cook up a money making scheme to keep themselves in business - they decide to breed their own freak show. Throughout her pregnancies Lily experiments with prescription and illicit drugs, insecticides and radioisotopes to ensure that each child born is more grotesque and mutated than the last. The couple's plan produces a unique and disturbing cast of characters: firstly there is Arturo the Aqua Boy, a hairless child with fins in place of arms and legs, accompanied by a dangerous lust for power; next comes Iphigenia and Electra, beautiful Siamese twins with a talent for music and who are literally ‘joined at the hip’; then we have Olympia, who is a bald, hunchbacked albino dwarf; and lastly the youngest Binewski child, Fortunato or ‘Chick’, who was nearly abandoned at birth by his twisted parents due to his misleading ‘normal’ appearance. In reality though Lily and Al had created their most dangerous and wonderful child-masterpiece to date...

Geek Love is narrated by the dwarf Olympia, or ‘Oly’. The story begins in the present day, with Oly in her 30’s, and then rotates back and forth from there to her former life at the Binewski Fabulon approximately 20 years previously; the narrative is dominated by the story of Oly’s past rather than the account of her present, with the account of her current situation acting as a framework to the main bulk of the novel.

This book is the most captivating, distinct and imaginative story I have read in a long time. As I’m sure you can imagine after reading the premise above, the tale of the Binewski family is rife with implicit shock value, and throughout subverts preconceptions of typical family values. The philosophies of the Binewski family are very disturbing; the children see nothing wrong with their parents having created them as ‘freaks’ and instead they see themselves as the elite and feel sorry for those they call ‘norms’; turning contemporary social conventions on their head:
“What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
“The only way you people can tell each other apart is by your clothes.”

The novel offers a lot of food for thought, and questions what should be considered normal, and the extent that the average person fears normalcy and simply blending in with the background, amounting to nothing important:

“I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”

Geek Love has an exemplary writing style, incorporating a real carny-hobo feel into its narrative. Dunn is wholly devoted to capturing Oly’s voice instead of trying to use ill-fitting long words like some authors might, and this makes the whole story feel so much more poignant as it renders the individuals true to life.

The characters in this novel are incredibly vivid and realistic, making them easy to love or hate. Arturo ‘Arty’ is a manipulative, power hungry megalomaniac, who will stop at nothing to be the best and is quite despicable. The twins’ personalities are vibrant enough that they feel like very separate people in spite of their conjoined bodies. Oly is harder to figure out; she is the one who feels the most useless - she doesn’t have her own act like her older siblings, and her loyalty is often divided. Chick is a loveable, innocent character who allows himself to be manipulated and led astray and evokes sympathy in the reader.

Despite the abundance of brilliance this novel exudes, one issue I had with Geek Love was the rushed climax of Oly’s ‘past’; it felt incredibly slapdash in comparison with the rest of the novel, which at times meandered lazily along and was slightly more drawn out than necessary. Only about a page of writing detailed this shocking dénouement, whereas events of much less significance and importance were given many more.

In conclusion, Geek Love is truly one of a kind; I have never read a novel like it before and I doubt I will again. It is a powerful piece that inspires deep reflection, and by its very nature has the ability to shock and disturb, yet without being overtly grotesque. Due to the thought-provoking nature of the text, it would make for great reading and discussion in a literature class so I’d highly recommend this one if you’re part of a book group. The premise might be difficult for some people to swallow, but if you can stomach the initial concept it is a rewarding read that will stay with you for some time afterwards.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of four detective novels starring the infamous Sherlock Holmes and was originally published as a serial in ‘The Strand Magazine’ from August 1901 - April 1902.

Sir Charles Baskerville has been found murdered in the Baskerville family home in Devon, and the prime suspect behind his grisly death is a legendary spectral hell-hound that supposedly haunts the moors surrounding the Baskerville residence after an ancient curse was put on the family. Fully occupied with a different case in London, full time sceptic and arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. John Watson down to the spooky moors of Devon in his stead to puzzle out the real culprit behind Charles’ murder before his heir - Henry Baskerville - meets the same gruesome fate.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is told through the eyes of Watson rather than Holmes, and focuses on his thought processes more so than the detective’s; since Hound is my first Holmes novel, I was not expecting this perspective, but it worked very well. The characterisation is strong; Holmes in particular is a very compelling and entertaining character - he is highly charismatic, brilliantly intelligent and eccentric as well harbouring numerous flaws. Holmes’ character is a good contrast to the subdued and ordinary - though certainly capable and brave - character of Watson.  

What struck me the most upon reading Hound was Doyle’s immense skill in creating a spooky atmosphere; his writing drew me in and I could really imagine the misty English moors and the terrifying Great Grimpen Mire which claims the lives of those who venture too deep into it. The sense of isolation, mystery, bewilderment and fear were intense and made for an exciting, absorbing tale.

The Hound itself capitalises on the creepy atmosphere of the novel; drafted from the ghostly black barghest of British folklore, it bears similarities to ‘the Grim’ in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, although it is a much more foreboding enemy in this supernatural-horror mystery.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is a classic, and for good reason. The characters are fabulously constructed, the writing is beautiful and absorbing, the setting is ominous with its misty, dark moors containing a ghostly giant black dog and mysterious figures silhouetted in the foggy moonlight, the threat of danger is constantly looming and it maintains a quick pace which keeps the story eventful and exciting. It might be a little predictable, but that’s about the only complaint I can make, and it was a very enjoyable short read.  

Rating: 8/10