Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Book #27 Physics Of The Impossible by Michio Kaku

Physics Of The Impossible

I didn't like Physics at school. It's 15 years since I took my GCSE and what I basically remember is a few classes on momentum and velocity, a circuit board that made a mini lightbulb light up, and basically bricking it that I was going to fail and poring over past papers in the library. I actually got a B, but God knows how. My point is though, thrilling it wasn't.

When I was on holiday with my sister, I mentioned recent developments in invisibility which caused the tabloid headlines about a potential 'Harry Potter' type cloak in the future, and I also said that I thought that 'one day' time travel would be possible. I was roundly laughed at for DAYS until we had dinner with her friend Bryn, a physicist who was able to back up some of what I was saying. Take that sis!

Wishing to have more concrete knowledge than half hearted bits and bobs, concrete knowledge being the stuff that wins arguments; I went on the hunt for accessible physics books and liked the look of this one "A rich compendium of jaw dropping reality checks" says The Times. 

This book discusses Force Fields, Invisibility, Phasers, The Death Star, Teleportation, Telepathy, Psychokinesis, Robots, Extraterrestrials, Starships, Antimatter, Time Travel, Parallel Universe and Precognition. Not only that but Kaku discusses these things within a frame of popular culture references, so you get what each particular science looks like.  He references Star Trek, Star Wars, and many science fiction films and novels to illustrate his points.

A classic example is the Hover Board from Back To Future 2, the future toy we all thought we would see when we grew up. Currently impossible, the Hover Board is actually technically possible within the laws of physics, it's just that practical reality, discovery and invention haven't caught up to the theoretical science. But one day it might....... :-D

Kaku breaks down all these exciting but currently impossible things from the realms of science fiction into three classes.

Class I impossibilities are currently impossible technologies but which do not violate the laws of physics and may become possible within this century.

Class II impossibilities are technologies which sit on the very edge of understanding, if they become possible it will be in the scale of future millenia.

Class III impossibilities are those which violate the laws of physics, if they ever became possible they would fundamentally alter physics principles as we know them.

Somewhat surprisingly a lot of the topics up for discussion are either Class I or Class II, currently impossible but not necessarily impossible forever.  He quotes the physicist Lord Kelvin, one of the most famous and respected physicists of his era as having said in 1899 "Radio has no future. Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.  X Rays will prove to be a hoax"
That which we call impossible now, our future generations may look back on us and laugh about how quaint we were once.     

One of the things people assume to be impossible but actually technically isn't, is telekinesis the ability to move things with ones mind. Successful attempts at biofeedback experiments have meant that quadriplegic patients have learned to move things with a computer chip installed in the brain enabling them to give a computer basic commands. Further and greater developments in this sort of technology are not far off. Something which hasn't taken off as hoped is Artificial Intelligence, mainly because emotional intelligence, common sense and evolutionary based instincts cannot be programmed, again here's that word again...yet.

In the seemingly impossible sciences : Are there parallel universes in which other versions of ourselves who made different choices exist? How will humans survive when the Sun begins to die? What WOULD happen if you travelled back in time and killed your grandfather? Would you negate your own existence?
At one point Stephen Hawking attempted to find a law of physics which would ban Time Travel, he was unsuccessful. His point was that if time travel became possible in the future, where were the time tourists now? Perhaps the time tourists are already around us...they just have the good sense not to make themselves known!!

Now that I'm older I kind of wish I'd paid more attention to Physics, but if my lessons had been about the sort of Physics Kaku talks about, I totally would have. This is the good physics, the sexy physics, the physics that gets you talking and thinking and dreaming of the future. How many kilowatts does it take?...this book is not.

I'm a geeky girl, I like Donnie Darko, LOST, the new JJ Abrams' Star Trek, Eternal Sunshine Of The  Spotless Mind and things like that. Things which ask questions of not just what could be one day, but what would it do to our humanity if it could?

Kaku closes the book with the sentence "We are not at the end but at the beginning of new physics, but whatever we find there will always be new horizons continually awaiting us"

If you too are a geek, you'll love this, but if you aren't interested...this is the world around you and its future...maybe you should be... 

I'm going to deduct a point because sometimes it did fly a little over my head, but not for the most part, and that is probably mainly due to my sheer lack of any ground level knowledge. I really enjoyed this book and all the topics covered were interesting. I am definitely going to read more books by Kaku to expand my physics knowledge and, I'm going to lend this book to my sister so she can expand hers! 9/10

Monday, 25 April 2011

Book #26 - Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover

A book more infamous than it is famous 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' is one of those books that you feel 'you must get around to some day'. Published to great scandal in 1929 it remained banned in Britain for salacious content for 31 years and during that time became notorious though few had actually read it. Upon its release in 1960, people queued up at bookshops for it desperate to judge for themselves, it's publication became one of the first major literary events.

The book held a number of surprises for me, I expected to find that in the 82 year time lapse between the book being written and my reading it in the present day, what passed as 'racy' then, would be tame and timid now perhaps even cringeworthy and embarrassing. It is not so. The sex scenes in the book, and there are many are incredibly graphically written, not in a way that feels obscene, to me, anyway but in a way that feels right. They are frankly written, realistic and actually quite tasteful and romantic.   

The phrase 'ahead of his time' is of course a cliche now, but it genuinely applies in this case, were this book written by a modern author in 2011 about a romance between an aristocratic lady and her gamekeeper in 1929, it would probably be equally admired as a modern classic but cause very little in the way of moral outrage now with the potential exception of the Daily Mail.

As a modern reader of literature I find that it has had a real impact on my opinion of society of that time, it was an era perhaps when out of politeness things were left unsaid but not necessarily undone, and that the women and men of the 1920's are not perhaps as different from us as we tend to believe. The free use of the more frowned upon swearwords and modern slang in the dialogue indicates this too; like the paragraph in which Mellors admires Connie's derriere and actually uses the word arse. Obviously there are better examples but I think I'll keep them out of the blog, but it's not really what you "expect" from the "classic writers"

To sum up the plot Connie marries a man who is crippled in the War, he can no longer have children, and he encourages her to have an affair in order to concieve which she then embarks on with the gamekeeper Mellors. (My own frustration with this was the inaccuracy that a paralysed man cannot have sex/children which of course they can, but I sort of have to let that quibble go as this was not widely understood in 1929, and also it's a plot device)
This is where you realise there is more to this story, a man has given his wife licence to have affair, as a means to an end, what does this say about him and about her....?

I read Women In Love at university, and read it rather too quickly in order to have it read on time. I didn't particularly enjoy it or find it remarkable in any way. Last year I read Sons And Lovers which was a really bizarre experience because I really enjoyed the book, and I still think of it occasionally but I absolutely detested the main character and several of the supporting ones. Lady Chatterley's Lover was a different experience again and what I found myself thinking most was what a terrible shame it is that mere mention of the title is inextricably linked to the scandal surrounding it and the idea that it is smutty. There is so much more to Lady Chatterley than sex, although the sex IS well written.

During the course of the novel such diverse subjects are dealt with: the condition of Post World War I Britain, class struggle, class snobbery, intellectual snobbery, society, the roles of men and women, human nature, human frailty the emotional dynamics of a sexual relationship,  love, marriage and the disintegration of those things and even existentialism.

I find it such a shame that if you say 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' to someone, perhaps as recommendation they will automatically assume because of its infamy that you like "dirty books" or something. It's the main association everyone has with it, that it was banned because it was dirty.

And it's not just that! It's so INTERESTING, engrossing, well written and thought provoking that all the sex is just an integral part of the story not the sum of its charms. This book is excellent. Read it. 10/10

Book #25 The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help

Set against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement in the early 1960's, the time of Martin Luther King and earlier, Rosa Parks, the times were a-changing as Bob Dylan sang. But, there is one group of women for whom the times are not changing and that is 'The Help', the black maids whom the wealthier white women hire to clean their homes and take care of their children.

The story is seen through three pairs of eyes in first person narrative. Two maids, Aibileen and Minny and Skeeter, a young white woman who returns home from college to find that her families lifelong help Constantine has simply disappeared.

When Skeeter returns home from college, having seen it as a chance to get an education rather than as her mother had hoped a chance to find a husband, she begins to see childhood friends Elizabeth and Hilly in new eyes after noticing the way in which they speak to and regard 'The Help'.
An incident occurs in which Hilly discovers that Aibileen, Elizabeth's maid uses the same bathroom as her and is outraged forcing Elizabeth to install a second bathroom in her garage and suggesting it should be a general policy.
What is striking within these moments in the novel, is the way in which the racism was so casual, commonplace, in some ways the only viewpoint any respectable white woman can hold if they hope to avoid being socially ostracized, rather than the jaw-dropping bigotry and ignorance we know it for today.

After this incident, Skeeter befriends Aibileen first in an attempt to find out more about the missing Constantine and then to get cleaning tips. Eventually, Skeeter decides that she wants to write a book an insight into the lives of The Help that the white employers take for granted and slowly but surely nervous maids begin approaching her...

What is good about this novel is the different narrative voices which are each distinct from the other, so that when you are reading Aibileen chapters as opposed to Skeeter's it feels real and sincere.
What I also liked about this novel is the quality of the 'silent voice' Aibileen and Minny's inner reactions to the events in the homes and the casual racism thrown in their faces by their employers. The silent rage they cannot express for fear of being fired, makes the reader angry for them and rooting on their behalf. The moment when Aibileen is forced to say thank you for being made to use a separate bathroom made me cringe with embarrassment and anger. Hilly, the self appointed Queen Bee of the piece, is also an excellent villain.

This book in terms of it's style of prose and narrative flow reminded me particularly of the authors Sue Monk Kidd and Joshilyn Jackson and their excellent books 'The Secret Life Of Bees' and 'Gods In Alabama' so I think if you liked those books you'll like this. I wouldn't say it was mind-blowing or earth shattering or trying to blaze a literary trail, but the kind of book you can read on a deckchair in a garden on a sunny day with a Pimms and find enjoyable.     8/10

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Book #24 A Feast For Crows by George R.R Martin

A Feast For Crows

This, the fourth book in the A Song Of Ice and Fire series really divided me if I'm honest and I think due to the fact I can't write about the plots in a way which doesn't involve spoilers, this will be a fairly short review.

A Feast For Crows is essentially, by Martin's own admission half a book, he intended to write in other plots and characters as well but then the sheer length of the manuscript got too large and he decided to move the second half into a new book A Dance With Dragons, which he tells the reader in the Authors Note will be published 'next year'. He wrote said Authors Note in 2005, A Dance With Dragons is due for publication in July 2011. Martin has had hate mail from his own fans as a consequence. Personally I'm glad that I got into the series late as I only have to wait about three months, I don't know how early fans of the books survived!

A Feast For Crows tells the story of events picking up from where A Storm Of Swords left off using primarily the viewpoints of Arya, Jaime, Samwell, Sansa, Brienne and for the first time Cersei. It also throws in point of view narratives from members of the Greyjoy family and the Martell family and it was the latter I was disappointed with. Attached to an already large cast of characters I found myself failing to care about these others. There are several chapters devoted to decisions over the Seastone Throne that to be honest could have been axed and appeared as a couple of paragraphs of news and information via other characters. Though interesting things happen at Sunspear we don't know these characters enough to have a vested interest.

I think were Martin does have a problem in his writing is with editing and knowing what to leave in and out he seems to be unable to stop himself and the counterpart A Dance With Dragons is apparently equally long. A Dance Of Dragons will be taking place in the exact same time period of events as A Feast For Crows but will focus on the adventures of Jon Snow, Daenerys, Tyrion, Stannis and others, whilst the events in this book took place. This means that Martin has written over 2,000 pages about one section of time in Westeros. Although I enjoy the novels, I find this a little excessive and I had trouble again with an overflow of characters and remembering whom was whom particularly when minor characters from earlier novels were mentioned again.

Many major things happen in A Storm Of Swords, but this is not the case with A Feast For Crows when only one or two truly significant things happen. If A Dance With Dragons proves eventful I am afraid to say that when looking back on the Series as a whole, fans may say that A Feast For Crows was one of the weaker books.

I'm quite glad that this series is on hiatus for now because it means I can get back to putting variety into the blog, and blog more often, the sheer size of these novels meant they took longer to read than most.  

7/10 but nearly gave it 6.5

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Book #23 - A Storm Of Swords by George R.R Martin

A Storm Of Swords

Originally published in two separate parts, we have arrived at the mammoth third installment of the Song Of Ice and Fire.  We are joined by two new narrators Jon's friend Samwell Tarly, and Jaime Lannister. This just after I praised the fact in my last post that not having Jaime as a narrator made him a more elusive character!

Having Jaime on board does work though as he is one of the more fascinating characters and the events of Storm Of Swords serve to create a much different man from the one we've previously seen. Although there are certain sections in Storm of Swords that disappoint, Arya persistently lurches from disaster to disaster with no real purpose and I still can't warm to Daenarys...Storm of Swords is packed with amazing and unexpected moments.

Though there are points along the way where chapters merely serve as exposition or to move characters from one event to the next, some of the major episodes and incidents in this novel and there are many, are breathtaking. There are several battles and several weddings, each more unbelievable, in the best of senses, than the last, several shock deaths, many plot twists you do NOT see coming, and a closing epilogue which leaves you open-mouthed. My personal response was "Wait....? Let me read that again....oh my god I DID read it right....WHAT? AWESOME!" It closes on a truly special twist following a twist, an ultimate cliffhanger.

There are also some really satisfying moments for favourite characters, Tyrion particularly, and certain characters really do get the comeuppance the reader has been desperate to see in the first two books, and the two shadowy conspirators Varys and Baelish outdo themselves with their intrigues.

Having read A Game Of Thrones and A Clash Of Kings you begin to presume. You presume you know where Martin is going with certain characters and certain plots, both in this book and the books to come and you are certain you know who the 'good' and 'bad' characters are.   The joy of this book is that Martin laughs in your face and proves you presumptuous, suddenly everything you thought you knew shifts, and leaves you reeling in shock.

I sincerely hope that the HBO series starting on Monday here succeeds long enough in order to bring this third book to the screen as some of its moments are almost made to be seen on screen. If this book were a theatre performance, there are moments where you would start applauding for the sheer talent of the writing, both in concept and execution. Although I was uncertain of it at the beginning, there are so many wonderful things in Storm of Swords from massive events to one line sentences, so many genius moments that I must give this book a 10/10

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Poem #2 - Desiderata

I'm posting this poem because a) I wanted to give the blog a break from swords and castles and b) Me and my sister really like it. If you haven't ever read it do so, it may change your whole day.

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann (1872-1945)

Monday, 11 April 2011

Book #22 A Clash Of Kings by George R.R Martin

A Clash Of Kings

So, onto book two of A Song Of Ice and Fire saga. It is frustrating to write a review of a book within a series because I don't want to spoil things for those who haven't read A Game Of Thrones yet. I will keep things practically spoiler free, don't worry you can keep reading!

A Clash Of Kings is exactly that, following on from the first book six different people have declared themselves the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. Four of these are each aware of the others, but two have yet to be revealed. Who is a mere pretender and who has the strength to be King? Let battle commence!

Again Martin tells the story from third person point of view, the majority of narrators returning from a Game Of Thrones are joined by Theon Greyjoy, Ned Stark's ward and Davos a low-born knight of the household of Stannis Baratheon. Thinking about these narrators it occurred to me that Martin has not chosen to tell his story through the voices of powerful, the Kings or the would be Kings, or those with money or influence. He has chosen women, children, a bastard, a dwarf, a ward, and a man in service.
These individuals are pretty much powerless when it comes to changing the course of events but are directly affected by their consequence. There are bigger characters. When I read I want to know more about Cersei and Jaime Lannister, Lord Varys "The Spider" and Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, but I think in choosing the characters he does to narrate, he makes these bigger characters who they are, sinister, elusive and enigmatic and to be feared. It is a great trick on behalf of Martin, and a commendable one, if we entered their world-view and knew what they were thinking they might lose their mystique.

It occurred to me whilst finishing this book, and getting the next that epic is the word which truly defines this saga. The next book coming up is A Storm Of Swords. A Storm Of Swords is 984 pages long, just 36 pages shy of the Penguin Edition of Ulysses, and the first three books combined are longer than War and Peace. Make no mistake these books are LONG, but they fly along at a cracking pace, are compulsive, addictive and worth the effort.

In terms of the blog, I did worry that people will stop checking it out if I'm just writing about The Song Of Ice And Fire, but although there are to be seven novels only four are currently released so that's only two more posts after this one! I would take a break and do some others first but I CAN'T I NEED to know what's next.

In terms of the book I went up and down with this one. Obviously as with any novel you have favourite characters and so prefer "their" chapters (in my case Tyrion and Arya) over others. The books' main flaw is that it's over populated there are too many Ser So and So and Lord Such And Such and they all blend into one, particularly as their few purposes seem to be to do well in battle, be a turncloak (i love that word) or die in place of a main character. They are like all those dudes in the background at Helm's Deep in Lord Of The Rings whose sole purpose is to fall off the top of the castle. It's like how all Jack Bauer's colleagues die and he miraculously survives. They make up the numbers is what I'm saying and don't effect the overall narrative of the plot. I appreciate however that Martin is building a picture of a real land in his description of Westeros and real lands are populous, and need to be portrayed as such...

Is it as good as A Game Of Thrones? No. Has it succeeded in making me desperate to keep up with the fates of the all characters? Yes. See you on the other side of 984 pages! Wish me luck! 7/10

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Book #21 - A Game Of Thrones by George R.R Martin

A Game Of Thrones

I don't tend to read science fiction or fantasy often, the latter particularly which makes my last three book choices including this one quite unusual, but A Game Of Thrones has been adapted for television by HBO and is due to start on Sky Atlantic and I am always one to read the book before seeing the adaptation. On top of that the book was sold to me by a strong promise I would love it by Jen, one of my Twitter and blog followers.

The book throws you in, and immediately I was trying to decipher the What, Where, When and Who of the story.  When  you are thrown into a contemporary world these things are often unimportant at the start because you can place the story within your own reality, and generally I like the writer who doesn't patronise and spell things out. In a fantasy novel on the other hand it's very difficult because you are trying to establish the realities and parameters of an entire world which only exists in two places, on the page and in your head. The novel comes with an appendix at the back, but i didn't discover that on my e-Book til I finished it and even then it didn't tell me clearly what I had wanted to know.

The following contains no spoilers of the novel, as the events take place well before the novel begins and do not form any significant section of plot in the book.

Fourteen years previously Aerys Targaryen was King of the previously independent Seven Kingdoms, which had over time become provinces of one kingdom.
He was usurped by Robert Baratheon, who killed Aerys' heir Rhaegar and Rhaegar's children after Rhaegar had kidnapped his love Lyanna Stark.

Aerys, following a betrayal by the Lannister family, was killed by Jaime Lannister, who earned the name Kingslayer. Robert went on to marry Jaimes' twin Cersai Lannister and make her Queen, because his true love Lyanna Stark had died.

All this has already happened before we join the story and I personally would have liked it explained at the start in some kind of prologue, instead of spending 200 pages piecing it together whilst also tracking the new story.

And so the novel begins fourteen years later with a visit by King Robert to his old friend Eddard Stark.  The novel is told from the point of view of several different characters: Eddard Stark, his wife Catelyn and several of his children Bran, Sansa, Arya and Jon, as well as two characters not from the family; Tyrion, the younger cynical dwarf son of the House of Lannister and Daenerys, one of two remaining children of the House of Targaryen currently living in exile. Each chapter is headed by the name of the character whose world we are focusing on.

By choosing to tell his story from eight different and often differing points of view Martin succeeds in building a detailed and rounded view of his world. I liked this very much, particularly as the characters spread out to different areas of the realm and have different perspectives and opinions on events. Sometimes one chapter's character will reveal to the reader something the next character featured has yet to find out, which complicates matters for them and which I enjoyed. The stories are told from third not first person points of view, but you definitely feel the different voice and character of each one from dutiful Eddard, to spirited Arya to Jon struggling with his illegitimacy and his place in the world.

This is definitely a novel of houses and dynasties and the importance of ancestry it's about rivals and allies and claims to the throne. The Houses Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Targaryen, Tully, Arryn and more are intertwined through birth and marriage some are honourable, others not so, and others changeable according to interest. The structure of the realm and indeed the novel is reminiscent both of Lord Of The Rings and medieval literature. There are halls and mead, jousting and swords and horses and people riding under banners and swearing fealty to their liege. It is full of skullduggery, secrets, conspiracies and treachery behind the veneer of the pretentions of a royal court and it sucks you into its intrigues.

Whilst this is going on, something else is happening, and those engaged in their Game Of Thrones are not paying attention, with the reader, sensing this may later prove to their cost in what will be an eventual total of seven books in the series.
The Wall, is 700 feet high built to protect the realm many years before and staffed by the Night Watch men who swear the length of their entire lives in service to the watch, but what is The Wall protecting the realm from and if the stories are just old wives tales why does it still exist, and just exactly why are experienced rangers vanishing without trace?

This book is good, tremendously good, and not the sort of thing I would normally get excited over. It's so good that I've already moved on to A Clash Of Kings book #2 in the saga collectively known as A Song Of Ice and Fire. It has made me exceptionally nervous though as to whether the TV Series will a) do it Justice or b) make me want to chuck things at the TV. I'm going to dock a point off it for being unnecessarily lacking in clarity about the past, though it makes me wonder if that in itself is going somewhere.

I would say that this is a book I would never have chosen to pick up myself. I hadn't even realised the TV series was based upon a book, so thanks to Jen for recommending it, if the content doesn't sound much like you either give it a chance but if you genuinely abhor stuff like Lord Of The Rings and can't imagine anything worse, this isn't the book for you.  9/10

Monday, 4 April 2011

Book #20 Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire

Mirror Mirror

Gregory Maguire is Wicked. Literally. He is the author of the novel Wicked, a re-imagining of the Wizard Of Oz story told from the perspective of Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West. The novel then spawned the award-winning Broadway and West End musical of the same name. I adore both.

Therefore, picking up Mirror Mirror in the bookshop was not a hard sell. As Maguire in general writes updated or unusual versions of old fairy stories, it only took the title for me to conclude that the Snow White story must be the basis of this novel "Mirror Mirror on the Wall, who's the fairest of them all?"
I didn't read the back cover.

This is where it gets a bit weird, I plan to go to Florence in May, and was discussing it and aspects of Italian history when The Borgias, a powerful Italian family from the 16th Century came up.
Mainly because Showtime have replaced their exceptionally silly but good value "history" series 'The Tudors' with a new series about this family. Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI  infamously had 7 illegitimate children, among them Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, and the surname became a byword for general debauchery and villany.

After this conversation, I pulled my copy of Mirror Mirror out of the bag, turned to the back and found that fictionalized versions of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia appear in this novel. Freaky or what? It is what Jung termed a 'synchronicity of chance'. I seemed oddly destined to read it.

At university I studied Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber short stories, which themselves are modern re-tellings of fairy stories, or children's tales. I hate to say it given that Carter is highly regarded and I'm sure many would disagree but I think Maguire does it better. He's more accessible, he retains more of a fable like quality to his prose, and he seems to genuinely love the topic he's chosen to make himself known for: classic stories retold in new ways. Carter on the other hand seemed to be engaged in a writers experiment, to me, anyway.

Although it's Snow White and would be a comfortable read for a mature young adult, it's not a kids story, absolutely not, it's an adult version of the tale. Although there are dwarves, one is called Heartless and another Gimpy, there are no Dopey and Doc here. Having The Borgia siblings as characters brings all the seediness of their world : incest, murder and greed. Lucrezia steps in to play the Wicked Stepmother role whilst Cesare provides the storyline which leads to Maguire's Snow White: Bianca De Nevada being left parentless.

There is a school of thought which suggests that some of The Borgias Lucrezia particularly have had their personalities maligned by history, and by the urban myths that sprang up around their family. I don't know enough about this point to argue it. What is quite clever is that a 16th century woman was required to be evil, and rather than go down the traditional road with the story of a wicked parent/guardian, so overdone in practically every genre from Dickens to Harry Potter; Maguire chose to use a woman from history with an already established reputation.

I didn't LOVE this book, the way I LOVE Wicked, but it's really enjoyable to read and cleverly written. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes old stories told in new ways, anyone who liked Wicked either the novel or musical or anyone who just fancies something a bit different for a change.


Sunday, 3 April 2011

Book #19 Shikasta by Doris Lessing


Sometimes we read a book because we choose it, but I think other times we read a book because it chooses us. I particularly feel that way about my favourite novel 'Cry The Beloved Country' by Alan Paton which seemed to me to wink at me every time browsed my school library shelves, willing me to pick it up. Another reason I think we choose books is because we know that someone else loved it or it had a great impact upon them, and we choose upon faith in recommendation from them. Or in this case perhaps more out of curiosity, as an experiment, an effort to know someone more through the books that mean something to them.

Which poses the question, can you learn more about who someone is through reading books they read? Or do your own feelings about literature and the different eras in which you read the book, colour your persepective making it essentially, a different book for you?

Having read Shikasta I think so, and that poses another interesting question for me - is it possible that no-one can ever read the SAME book because of that said issue. The fact that the experiences of life which we draw from and what those experiences lead us to draw from the novels we read are always going to be different?

Shikasta is the first in a quintet of 'space fiction' novels by the highly respected author Doris Lessing who won the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2007, so great credentials there. The quintet is collectively known as Canopus in Argos : Archives, which are in the first novel at least a set of historical documents relating to the struggle of the Canopus Empire regarding the difficult planet Shikasta.

Shikasta first known to Canopeans as Rohanda, is seen as a planet of promise and brought into the Canopus Empire, were they attempted to colonise it and bring it in line with the rest of the Empire. When this attempt fails they leave the planet largely to its own devices and watch horrified as it devolves. Shikasta is revealed to be our planet Earth.

Canopus continues to send agents in disguise to Shikasta to help change the course of events, and improve the conditions of Shikastans but any improvements largely breakdown over time. These interventions are cleverly shown to mirror the events and covenant of the Old Testament, we don't realise but Canopus is our master and God.

By choosing to use observers from outer space as her primary voice in the novel, it has a sense of detachment and superiority, Canopus judges but is not to blame.  The archive reports read as anthropology which as a writer is a different angle to take and for a reader makes a new experience.
Here Lessing uses the disgust and despair of the Canopeans to launch a blistering attack on 20th Century human behaviour and by doing so makes her novel something of a polemic.

This is for me what makes my response to the novel somewhat mixed.  It was published in 1979. In that era and in the 1980's which followed many things occurred or were occurring politically: The Cold War, Feminism, the rise of Capitalism, and Thatcherism and the breaking of the trade unions. Lessing's writing in Shikasta is clearly heavily influenced by the current events of the day. I imagine that those who cared about those subjects or were involved in them politically or personally found the novel mind-blowing, exciting and massively important and relevant.

I, however, reading it in 2011 living in the Post-x era with the benefit of history know that much of what is predicted did not come to pass, and society has gone for good or ill a very different way. One notable "mistake" if you like is that those in the novel living in The End Times do not have and never did have computers. This kind of thing makes the novel dated yet it remains a curiosity. 

I went up and down with this novel as I read it, liking it in parts more than others. I struggled with the last third, particularly The Trial, although the issue put on trial is very important and still a relevant question to this day, I found the notion of this issue having a trial itself and its written execution rather absurd.  It would never happen.

Given that this book is part of a quintet I bought all five at once, and, I'm not sure if I regret that now or not, I certainly like the concept and am interested to see how Lessing applied it to different situations and characters but I am wondering if I will also find the ideas and themes of the other four books similarly dated.  7/10

Friday, 1 April 2011

Book #18 About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

About Love and Other Stories

Wanting the blog to have variety of types of writing and content, this is my first short story anthology. I feel I must say at the start : DON'T BE SCARED OF CHEKHOV. I say that because I think that a lot of people view the great Russian writers as hard-going, long and inaccessible. Chekhov is none of these things, and the translation by Rosamund Bartlett makes it an easy read.

Chekhov is renowned in the business as 'the greatest short story writer who has ever lived'.  I had already read one of his other short stories 'The Bet' some time ago, which isn't in this collection but is brilliant, do seek it out.

I think that because the collection is called 'About Love' I expected the stories to all be about love, and though a lot of them actually are, I think it's just called that because it's the title of one story.

There are 17 stories total in this collection and as with anything that has a variety I liked some more than others. The first three stories are in fact about love, one about a chance romantic encounter on a journey, another about a father's concern over an errant son, and the first 'The Huntsman', a character who as far as I'm concerned deserves a punch in the face.

'Gusev' a story of two ill men on a boat journey home and 'Fortune', about two shepherds discussing hidden treasure seem to break the pattern, but could both be seen as being about aspects of love in a certain light, the love of adventure and nostalgic love.

After Gusev comes my two favourite stories 'Fish Love' written in 1892 and 'The Black Monk' from 1894. Fish Love because it is so bizarre as to make it unique and The Black Monk because I think it must be a very early example of a character with either bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and as such interested me. I also really enjoyed The Student' a really short one in which a student has a sudden revelation, a type of which I identified with.

Some of the stories I confess got on my nerves, I didn't particularly like The House With The Mezzanine or The Lady With The Little Dog but I think that's just a question of personal taste.

Also in the collection are a trio of stories from three men on a hunting trip which are slightly connected by their storytellers but not interwoven, which is fun

Despite it taking me longer to read than I expected it would, largely due to a bout of food poisoning I enjoyed this collection and would seek out other collections 7/10