Book Review: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

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Published: 2001

I was told to read this book by my boyfriend who wanted to go see the film. As we happen to have a copy of it at home, I found this as an ideal reason to go ahead and read it before we went to see it opening night at the cinema. The book was relatively short, just shy of 300 pages, and as it was children literature I was able to get through it in a span of a couple of days.

Essentially, the book is about a boy named Tom, a young Apprentice Historian, that resides in London. This is not the typical London that you would expect though, as it’s not a stationary city. Instead most of the cities and towns that populate the world have built themselves on wheels. The world has become a city-eat-city kind of world, with the bigger cities often eating up the few small towns left leading to a bit of a crisis and battle for food and resources.

Tom’s adventure really starts when he comes across an attempt-assassin, Hester Shaw; a girl who tried to murder his idol, Head of the Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine. This attempt assassination ends up revealing to Tom that Valentine is not the man he thought him to be, and learns that he has killed Hester’s mother. The rest of the book they try to survive the new and stagnant world, and attempt to board back on London (as they were both pushed off London by Valentine) to stop him from doing further evil.

The book itself I am sad to say was just okay for me. It wasn’t terrible, but I don’t think I would pick it up and read it again or anytime soon. Unlike other children literature novels, this one very much felt like it as written for kids, not giving much to the adult reader to ponder about. It had a standard adventure, good versus evil story, with a protagonist and antagonist but it didn’t offer anything unique or particularly interesting about the journey. If anything it sometimes felt very rushed and tidied together rather roughly.

I do like the character development, for a children’s novel I think it did okay. I can definitely see the argument that these characters did seem quite predictable, but I did like the attempt at bringing in new and interesting characters later on in the book as this made me interested to read on and see who else we would meet. I also really appreciated that the character relationships felt authentic, and there weren’t any crazy, and unbelievable love triangles getting in the way of the story.

The concept of having cities on wheels, and how the author explains the history behind that shift to moving machines was really interesting. I was really intrigued from the beginning to learn more about how the cities came to be like this, and I’m happy to say that the author does a good job weaving an interesting enough story/explanation. I think that this is why the ending is especially interesting, and possibly the highlight of the book.

What disappointed me the most is probably that I liked the idea/concept that this book presented, I just don’t think it was given the time and level of detail to make it truly engaging and entertaining. I found the plot a bit rushed and fragmented, with superfluous characters that I didn’t quite understand their purpose.

It feels as though the author captured the trend at the time of writing – early 2000s I think gave birth to a lot of YA dystopian and steampunk genres being explored. Unfortunately, it doesn’t withstand the test of the time and now feels a bit outdated to me. I think I may have appreciated this more if I had read it at the time of publishing – when I was 11 years old and living in that time period. Now it just reads a bit like a “has-been”.

In terms of the film, which I was really looking forward to seeing after reading the book as I imagine the cinematography to be top notch, I wouldn’t recommend seeing it as it’s very different from the book and this actually peeved me quite a bit. Aside from the costumes and cinematography of the moving cities, everything else was subpar to the book. They completely missed out on a lot of plot, making it even more fragmented, and we didn’t get to see the character relationships develop at all. I did think that the casting was really good for Fang, Hester and even Valentine.

Q: Have you read a book shortly before watching the film? How did you feel about the experience?

 

Book Review: Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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Published: 1962

Wow, I was certainly not expecting what I have received from this book at all. I was completed captivated by the writing style and plot of this novel and I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up. I think I got through it in about 48 hours – and that’s rounding up!

When I found out that Anthony Burgess, the author of this novel, was born in Manchester (England) and even went to Manchester University I was immediately praying that I would love this book and it probably biased me to liking it. Manchester has a special place in my heart, but don’t let my bias fool you, this book has been included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. So not to worry, it’s not just me.

I didn’t know much about the book itself, sort of half guessing it to be of dystopian nature which was an accurate assumption, but I don’t think I was ready for the black satirical humour that encompassed it along with all the other elements of this novel.

The book follows a teenager named Alex and his little gang of friends as they commit various crimes in near dystopian England. Alex is a barbarous and cruel anti-hero who is cleverly complimented with an affinity for classical music. Before we get into the classical music, I’d just like to address what I mean about Alex being a cruel teen. You can’t really phantom the sheer brutality that Alex and his gang of friends commit throughout the novel to innocent victims, starting with chapter 1. Within the first 12 pages of the novel, the gang spot an old man carrying books from the library which they attack as follows:

“’You naughty old veck, you,’ I said, and then we began to filly about with him. Pete held his rookers and Georgie sort of hooked his rot wide open for him and Dim yanked out his false zoobies, upper and lower. He threw these down on the pavement and then I treated them to the old boot-crush, though they were hard bastards like, being made of some new horrorshow plastic stuff.” (12)

There are further horrors that appear in that paragraph which I am going to omit for everyone’s safety and also because I don’t want to get reported for violent language via WordPress. Burgess doesn’t shy away from really depicting how addicted these boys are to committing violent acts, and after the attack on the old man Alex proceeds to drug and rape 2 younger girls later on in the book, and terrorize a young couple including raping and murdering their wife. Burgess does such an incredible job of telling the story of Alex and his gang, that I couldn’t turn away.

For a while after reading the book, I thought there was something seriously wrong with me – why did I love reading about all this violence, teenage angst and brutality?! What I realized is that, but by flipping each page, I was desperately hoping and praying that there is a happy ending and that something will happen that will make them realize that what these boys are doing is not okay. I think a part of me wanted to believe that this boy just had a rough start at life, and that he’s going to develop into a better human being after a eureka moment (I was so naïve and hopeful, it’s like I’ve never read a dystopian novel before!).

For a while I was buying that lie and the author even hinted that there might be a solution for Alex and his affinity to violence. When he gets jailed in Part 2 of the novel an opportunity presents itself to Alex, or more specifically an experiment. In order to have this sentenced terminated he would take part in an experiment that would make him averse to violence, and reform him. The experiment itself was pretty brutal, as Alex was injected with nausea-inducing drugs while watching graphically violent films, which eventually conditioned him to become severely ill at the mere thought of violence. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of this experiment is that Alex is no longer able to enjoy his beloved classical music as before, because they played it as background music during his sessions. But it does appear to work:

“ ‘But,’ I said, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before…’
‘What is happening to you now is what should happen to any normal healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the forces of evil, the workings of the principle of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy.’” (119)

Afterward, he’s released from jail but he struggles to fit into regular life. He’s lost the only love in the world, classical music, and due to his past his family and friends don’t fully trust him and abandon him. Despite having the right behavior, he’s an outcast with no purpose in life.

The moral questions that the novel raises are incredibly interesting – like the freedom to choose between good and evil. When Alex had the freedom to choose his own actions, it lead him to intervene and destroy the lives the innocent other people. Yet, I’m not convinced that it was morally right for the government to program and engineer a desired choice of behavior for Alex, by exposing him to their experiments, as that didn’t help him either.

I think that this book is amazingly simple, yet simultaneously complex. The novel is formed of three very obvious parts: the first is when we meet Alex and exposed to his criminal and hooligan behavior, part two is his being reformed by the government, and the third is when he has to live his new life as a non-violent man. There is a strange satisfaction behind having such a clear split of the book, and makes it really easy to go back and read through the parts or sections that were of interest to compare and contrast the main characters development (or perhaps lack there of!).

The book also has a layer of complexity, as the author created his own language that the characters use throughout the book. I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of a pain to get used to the Nadsat words for the first few chapters as was constantly flipping to the index to learn this new vocabulary. Having said this, there is a lot of repetition and after the initial steep learning curve, it does make the book feel more special. It also cool to learn that Burgess was a linguistic and that he was able to connect with that knowledge on a different level with the creation of the Russian influenced English language. You don’t get to see that very often!

If you can’t tell already, I am completely taken with this book and actually can’t wait to read it all again as I find the questions of morality and the psychological reflection and development of Alex extremely fascinating. With no hesitancy, I am happy to profess that this has now become one of my top 10 books of all time! So what are you waiting for, go out and read it!

Q: Have you come across a book that really resonated with you in the last 6 months? What was it, and what did you enjoy most about it?

 

Book Review: The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Published: 1995

Finally I have broken my streak of disappointing novels – just in time for the new year! I remember hearing good things about this when I did some research on the internet, and after reading a quick synopsis about this book online it sounded quite interesting and appealing to me – particularly the fact that it’s a historical novel. A nice change from the dystopian and fantasy books I have been reading.

I was also quite intrigued by how the author came across the subject and idea for this novel. From what I had read about the author, she became interested in knowing more about the history of philosopher and poet Friedrich von Hardenberg after reading Hymns to the Nightand Heinrich von Ofterdingen, particularly when the latter mentioned the ‘Blue Flower’, which was an idea of profound importance to the philosopher-poets of that mind-crowded period. I don’t normally get this sort of explanation or back story to author’s so this appealed to me quite a bit.

The other element that grabbed my attention, was the fact that Penelope Fitzgerald loved writing stories and biographies of people that were outsiders or misfits – she was drawn to unsettled and imperfect characters; characters that seem profoundly lost and doomed. You can definitely see this theme permeate in this novel, and I couldn’t help but appreciate that as well.

The novel is based on true events and life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), before he became famous under the name Novalis, with his Hymns to the Nightand Heinrich von Ofterdingen(the novels that inspired the author). The novel takes place from the years from 1790 to 1797, and follows primarily the life of von Hardenberg (eldest in his family) as he finishes university and as he embarks in his professional life. We also get snippets into his siblings’ lives as well, and it plays a nice contrast to that of our main protagonist. This novel is unique in the sense that there is no real antagonist in then novel – perhaps one might argue that death takes on this role.

I absolutely loved the way that the author, Penelope Fitzgerald, really embraces the Romantic period of the day and makes an effort to keep German diction throughout and where possible – making the story feel much more authentic. She doesn’t shy away from bringing about the realities of life in that time – she dedicated paragraphs to highlighting how poor hygiene was back in these years when she talks about the washing day:

Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year.  (1)

The novel is heavily character driven – with little actual plot taking place (you know this is fine by me!). Each character is carefully described with beautiful diction, and you can’t help but feel like you understand these characters on a deeper level.

The author also cleverly employs the role of diaries to not only fast forward, and quickly sum up days and weeks, but also to highlight the different character’s personalities. Before we don’t know much about Sophie – the apple of von Hardenberg’s eye – but after reading through her diary entries we get a sense that she’s not particularly astute, and rather a simpleton considering she is meant to be of noble standing:

Tuesday September 11

Today the painter did not come down in the morning for breakfast. My stepmother sent up one of the menservants with this coffee, but he said through the door, namely that he wished to be allowed to think.

Wednesday September 12

We began pickling the raspberries.

Thursday September 13

Today was hot and there was thunder and nothing. (149)

Fitzgerald is clearly a very talented writer and I absolutely love her writing style. She is able to paint so vividly such a wide range of sensory details. Take this sentence for example:

In her mouth was something bitter, that tasted like the waters of death. (165)

Such rich and vivid imagery and sensory details are absolutely brilliant. Especially as they are cleverly woken into the text, and not over powering. Sometimes authors can take this too far and make it feel heavy and complicated, but I think Fitzgerald chooses very wisely and poignantly the best times to sprinkle this in, which makes it stand out.

I wasn’t a massive fan of the main character, von Hardenberg, which is a shame as that’s who inspired the author to write this historical novel in the first place. I love imperfect characters that have flaws and weaknesses, but his weakness, or I should say obsession, with Sophie is very annoying, and diminishes my respect for him a little bit. I find the characters of Caroline Just, Jacob Dietmahler, Bernhard and Erasmus von Hardenberg more interesting.

Overall, I was really pleased with this novel and enjoyed reading it. The short chapters (there are only 282 pages with 55 chapter) keep you interested, as the author makes each one quite to the point. Again, thanks to the authors rich writing she can do this and get away with it I think. I would definitely recommend!

Book Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

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Published: 2013

My luck with picking up good books is clearly on a bad streak. What is wrong with me? This was a book that was on my reading list for 2018 as I loved the idea of reading a book where Historians are portrayed as heroes, and history is seen as cool not only nerdy. However, I could not come to grips with the author’s writing style, lack of character development and overall plot.

I think what annoyed me most was the first person narration and overall writing style of the author. So sorry Jodi, international bestseller and all, but it was not gripping and I would gladly put your book down, I’m afraid. Her writing was choppy and didn’t feel well written out at all. I understand that as first person it was what the character was meant to be thinking, as she was thinking it, but I felt she went too far and the writing style really began to irritate me. Here’s a fun little challenge for you, count the number of periods in this single paragraph:

“I tried to pull myself together. There would be extensive loss of life. There wasn’t anything I could do. There wasn’t anything I should do. Well, so that for a game of soldiers. Maybe I wasn’t very important in the scheme of things, but there’s always something you can do.” (97)

That’s literally just a randomly chosen paragraph from the book. If you like. The start and stop effect. You would really. Enjoy this book.

Secondly, I wish to discuss the lack of character development, as well as the general lack of character variation as well. I think by now you know that for me characters are the main driver of books and therefore they can make it or break it. After reading the book I just don’t feel there was any character development at all. The main character Madeleine Maxwell, is the same when she started – stubborn, confident and courageous – and ends with having learned nothing new. She is the absolute be all and end all of the book.

There is absolutely no complexity in the characters to make them interesting and stand out. They may have different names, but their mannerism and behaviour feel identical, with no defining features. Likewise, none of the other characters do anything memorable or interesting besides the main character, they feel extremely incompetent given their titles and roles. This might be with the only exception of Sussman who we find out plays a different role to the one initially assigned. The role of Max’ lover aka Leon Farrell is absolutely cringeworthy. His entire purpose is to love Max unconditionally, and ask her how she feels every time she gets back from one of her adventures. That relationship also doesn’t feel authentic at all, and is missing the depth and believability that would make it successful in my eyes.

In terms of my second point about characters, they have no individual personality traits. The protagonists tend to all be hilarious, smart and want-to-be-hip, and the antagonists are evil, rude and ruthless. I was so grateful for having the dramatis personae at the beginning because I used that extensively throughout the book to differentiate the characters by their roles in the book, as you couldn’t distinguish them based on their personality or language.

Last point about characters – sorry this book has just properly butchered it! – is that everything exciting happens to Max, the main character. Every single time she goes on an mission in a pod, it always goes wrong. Everything she does is always a novelty and exception to the “norm”. As the norm was never properly established anyway, her uniqueness just guides the whole book and makes it all very predictable and therefore not entertaining to read.

Okay, I just really needed to get those points off my chest as they were suffocating me! Now I did give this book some stars, so it wasn’t all completely bad. I still really appreciate the author trying to make History trendy and fun. She does warn on the first page that she did make all this up and that she’s not to be held accountable for the historical accuracies within the book. I liked that she added that because it didn’t make her pretentious, and right away set the tone for the book – adventure and humour are the key themes here, so don’t get bogged down by the details.

I also liked that she put in red-headed characters in the book – that’s right multiple, not just one! I do feel that we (yes I fall into the ginger camp!) are somewhat underrepresented in novels and media, and the author displayed that she wasn’t afraid to take risks and pave her own path by choosing unique characters instead of the stock ones.

I also appreciated her attempting to give reader some back story to the historical events that took place, for example Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre:

“In August 1819, sixty-thousand demonstrators assembled in St Peter’s Square, Manchester. They were anti-poverty and pro-democracy which did them no favours at all in the eyes of authority…equally looking forward to the day, but for completed different reasons were the local Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley. The protested linked arms to prevent this and were struck down by the Yeomanry…the crowd panicked; this was seen as an attach and six hundred Hussars went in. Eighteen people, including one woman and one child, were killed.” (p73)

I actually did not know about this, and as I reside in Manchester this hit home and I thought was really neat to include – particularly as for the rest of the book characters would go on adventures in the bigger scenes of the Cretaceous and Egyptian periods.

So overall, I have been left rather disappointed and underwhelmed. Needless to say I will not be reading the other 7 novels in the series.

Q: Have you ever been stuck on a bad reading streak?

 

Books to See This Year

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As it’s the beginning of the year I am struggling to fill my official Reading List for the year 2015. Of course I am going to change it throughout the year knowing my indecisiveness, but at this moment in time it needs to be filled!! Lucky for me I stumbled across this fun web-link peruse, detailing 21 books that are turning into movies this year. Some of them are not big surprises, like Suzanne Collin’s part 2 of the Mockingjay Series and Fifty Shades of Gray, the latter which I refuse to attend as the actor hired to play Christian is so average looking it hurts to even consider going and paying money.

On the plus side there are A LOT of books which I have never even heard of but have real A list stars in them. Like The Mordecai Trilogy (the movie is featuring Johnny Depp!?!?) by Kyril Bonfiglioli, has anyone heard of this? Or Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Depp again and Sienna Miller?!?!?!?!?). Did I freaking miss something? Not yet thankfully! So if you are stuck like me and are wondering what book to add or delete from your list, click and see what there is in store.

—–> 21 Books To Read Before They Hit The Big Screen In 2015 <—–cumberbatch