Friday, 28 March 2014

The Complete Father Brown Stories - G K Chesterton

I can't believe it's actually taken me a month to finish this book, although in my defence I did work a lot, and it is a very long book. Each story varies between about 10-20 pages, but the complete collection weighs in at almost 800 pages.

I'm not normally a fan of short stories (the only collection I've really enjoyed is Michael Marshall Smith's What You Make It). My reason for disliking most is that they lack a sense of depth and continuity, the ability to get lost in them, which is my main motivation for reading fiction in general. The Father Brown Stories, however, obviously have continuity, because they're a set of stories about the same character. Each mini-mystery manages to set the scene so effectively that, even after 15 pages, you feel as though you've lived a full novel in the setting.

G K Chesterton also has a gift for pithy and amusing character description - a good example is:

He saw Dr Simon, a typical French scientist, with glasses, a pointed brown beard, and a forehead barred with those parallel wrinkles which are the penalty of superciliousness, since they come through constantly elevating the eyebrows. (from 'The Secret Garden')

His ability to effectively describe a character or place in one sentence in a way that really evokes them is what, for me, really sets these stories apart. The mysteries themselves vary in their complexity and convincingness, but are always solved with a wonderful sense of humanity and compassion. Most other detectives I remember reading about see the crime as a cold, set puzzle to be solved analytically and the criminal mercilessly packed off to gaol, if they haven't already been killed in some way. Father Brown, however, solves a crime by imagining the type of person who would do such a thing, putting himself in their place, and working from there. When he's discovered the criminal, he often lets them escape rather than dragging them in to face the full force of the law. He even converts a world-reknowned thief to the side of justice and remains fast friends with him throughout the series.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend reading the entire set of stories back-to-back (unfortunately I feel compelled to read books that way, but I'm not sure it's the way to get the best out of short story collections), but I'd definitely recommend them as something to dip into. Each story is atmospheric and the pervading sense of compassion gives a much more optimistic feel that that found in most detective stories.

Next up: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

Why read fiction?

This week's Booking Through Thursday is a pretty short question:

Why do YOU read fiction?

Short, but tough to answer. For me, reading fiction is a vital function, like eating or breathing. I've been doing it for literally as long as I can remember, and if I don't have at least one fictional world available at any time, it just feels unsettling and wrong. I need to start a new book as soon as I've finished the last one, or I just a bit lost. Is that strange?

What I love about fiction is the way you get to live so many different lives, through different eyes, in a vast variety of worlds - historical, fantasy, or future ones. It pulls you out of your everyday existence. Through fiction, I've been assassins, queens, detectives, murderers, regency ladies, wizards, explorers, highwaymen, time travellers, and so many more. It expands your mind and your experiences, letting you travel the world (and a million other worlds) without leaving your seat.

So yes, that's why I read fiction.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Re-reading books

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

I’ve asked before if you re-read your books (feel free to recap), but right now I want to know if that habit has changed? Did you, for example, reread more as a child and your access to new books was limited by how often you could convince your mother to take you to the library? Has the economy affected your access so that you’re forced to reread more often now? Have you grown to look at old books as old friends so that you’re happy to spend time with them rather than rushing the next new thing?

I suppose I now reread books less often than when I was a child, because I do have a lot more new books to read. I still have old favourites I like to return to occasionally (mainly Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett and Helen Fielding), but for me the magic of reading mostly lies in exploring new worlds. I enjoy returning to Austen and Fielding because of the comfort the stories bring, but with Terry Pratchett's best work (in my opinion, the middle range of his novels, rather than the earliest or latest) you notice new jokes and amusing turns of phrase each time you read them, the same way a beloved comedy series gives you something new to laugh at every time you rewatch an episode.

How about you? Do any of you like to reread books, and if so which ones?

Divergent - Veronica Roth

Surprise review!

I know I said the next review would be of The Complete Father Brown Stories, but frankly, at over 800 densely packed pages, it’s very long. I thought I’d intersperse some light relief in the form of Divergent, the first novel in Veronica Roth’s teen trilogy.

I hadn’t heard of this novel until I saw a trailer for its film adaptation in the cinema, and had been looking out for it since. I thought the trailer looked interesting, but a little like it was jumping on the Hunger Games bandwagon.

Divergent did remind me of The Hunger Games, but mostly in a positive sense, in that it’s a teen dystopia with a strong female protagonist. The setting is a society divided into five distinct, sequestered factions, based on primary personality traits – Abegnation for the selfless, Dauntless for the brave, Candor for the honest, Erudite for the intelligent, and Amity for the peace-loving. On reaching 16 each child undergoes a test to determine their most suited faction. While most get a distinct recommendation, Beatrice’s results are inconclusive, making her a Divergent, someone who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. She chooses to leave her family and join the Dauntless faction, and the novel follows her struggles to adapt in her new life, in a world about to fall apart.

I thought the obligatory teenage romance aspect was rather more simplistic than that in The Hunger Games, but then again I really liked the more complicated and gender-stereotype-reversing romantic situation between Peeta and Katniss, so Divergent had a lot to live up to there. In terms of grittiness, this novel got its collateral damage in almost from the beginning, and the sense that  there are real consequences to the characters’ actions is with you throughout.

I felt as though I could see the larger of the plot twists coming, but was pleasantly surprised to be surprised by some of the reveals that took place. I can confidently say that, if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, you’ll like this, and I look forward to reading the other two novels in the trilogy and to seeing what they make of the film adaptation.

Next up: The Complete Father Brown Stories, by G K Chesterton

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Meaning of Reading

This week’s Booking Through Thursday is:

Another question raised by YA author A.S. King‘s blog post last week which touched on censorship—especially as it pertains to young adult books.
She writes:

If there really is [an ideal] town like this in America, I am happy about that. Really truly happy. But are your teenagers going to stay in that town forever? Don’t you want them to go to college? Or go out in the world and do stuff? And don’t you want them to be prepared for all of these real things that happen all the time in real life? Don’t you want them to know that they will make mistakes? Don’t you want them to learn how to make smarter mistakes? 

Fiction can help. I write my books for one reason, whether they are for adults or teens. I write to make readers think. I write to widen perspective. I write to make readers ask questions and then answer the questions or start conversations. And I write sometimes to give voice to the throwaways, of which our society has many, but we usually hide them because we are still uncomfortable with what we see as our own mistakes. Make sure you say that in a whisper. Throwaways.

And so … this, right here, pretty much explains exactly WHY I like reading so much. Yes, it’s fun and entertaining and diverting, and all that, but ultimately, it TEACHES me things. It broadens my horizons and makes me look at ideas and people and life in general in new and interesting ways. Isn’t that what reading and art in general is SUPPOSED to do? How do you feel about this? Do you agree? Disagree? Discuss!

I completely agree with the idea that reading should teach you something. That’s what stories were originally intended to do – to provide life experience without the need to go out there and make lots of dangerous mistakes yourself.

While a lot of modern (and, admittedly, some not-so-modern) novels and films are simply pleasant to look at without much depth, for me the sign of a good story is that, by the end, the protagonist has changed and grown. If you could drop the finished character right back at the beginning and they’d make exactly the same choices, it wasn’t a worthwhile story. So many plots nowadays focus on the superficial (rags-to-riches is a popular theme, in which the main character is usually showered with popularity, wealth, etc for reasons beyond their control that have nothing to do with their own personal merit), whereas the majority of novels written 100 or 200 years ago focus on the development and the learning curve of the protagonist.

I think fiction is a great place to learn about the more challenging aspects of life and to experience them in a safe and vicarious manner. For me, reading a book I’m really into is like living another life, in another world – it’s a truly wonderful feeling.

The above question is also addressed with fantastic insight by the aptly named Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, which I whole-heartedly recommend to anyone interested in the reading and writing process, its history and its development.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

To the Daisy - William Wordsworth

On my way through Wordsworth's Poetical Works I found an elegy William Wordsworth wrote for his brother John, who was killed in a shipwreck in 1805. Although unpromisingly entitled To the Daisy, I found it one of the most personal and touching expressions of grief in the collection so far, and thought I'd share it here, as Google seems to think that Wordsworth's To the Daisy is a completely different poem. It's a little long, but worth it:

Sweet flower! belike, one day, to have
A place upon thy poet's grave,
I welcome thee once more:
But he, who was on land, at sea,
My brother, too, in loving thee,
Although he loved more silently,
Sleeps by his native shore.

Ah! hopeful, hopeful was the day
When to that ship he bent his way,
To govern and to guide:
His wish was gain'd: a little time
Would bring him back in manhood's prime,
And free for life, these hills to climb,
With all his wants supplied.

And full of hope day follow'd day,
While that stout ship at anchor lay
Beside the shores of Wight;
The May had then made all things green,
And, floating there in pomp serene,
That ship was goodly to be seen,
His pride and his delight!

Yet then, when call'd ashore, he sought,
The tender peace of rural thought;
In more than happy mood,
To your abodes, bright daisy flowers;
He then would steal at leisure hours,
And loved you glittering in your bowers,
A starry multitude.

But hark the word! - the ship is gone;
From her long course returns - anon
Sets sail: in season due,
Once more on English earth they stand:
But when a third time from the land
They parted, sorrow was at hand
For him and for his crew.

Ill-fated vessel! ghastly shock!
At length deliver'd from the rock,
The deep she hath regain'd;
And through the stormy night they steer,
Labouring for life, in hope and fear,
Towards a safer shore - how near,
Yet not to be attain'd!

"Silence!" the brave commander cried!
To that calm word a shriek replied,
It was the last death-shriek.
A few appear by morning light,
Preserved upon the tall mast's height:
Oft in my soul I see that sight;
But one dear remnant of the night -
For him in vain I seek.

Six weeks, beneath the moving sea,
He lay in slumber quietly:
Unforced, by wind or wave,
To quit the ship for which he died,
(All claims of duty satisfied;)
And there they found him at her side,
And bore him to the grave.

Vain service! yet not vainly done,
For this, if other end were none,
That he, who had been cast
Upon a way of life unmeet
For such a gentle soul and sweet,
Should find an undisturb'd retreat
Near what he loved, at last;

That neighbourhood of grove and field
To him a resting-place should yield.
A meek man and a brave!
The birds shall sing, and ocean make
A mournful murmur, for his sake;
And though, sweet flower, shalt sleep and wake
Upon his senseless grave!

Thursday, 6 March 2014


Today’s Booking Through Thursday is an interesting one:

I think most of us are probably against censorship on principle, but … do you think it should vary depending on the impressionable age of the readers? Or is it always wrong? How about the difference between ‘official’ censorship by a government or a school system, as opposed to a parent saying No to a specific book for their child?

While I do think that certain books aren’t suitable for readers until they reach a particular level of maturity, it’s difficult to judge what that level should be.

I suppose with ‘official’ school-system censorship, the schools are buying in the books themselves, and so have a right, to an extent of course, to decide which materials should and shouldn’t be purchased.

As far as parents go, I think it should be the same as with films or video games – if a parent thinks the child is ready for it, then let them read/watch/play something, with supervision, and be ready to answer any questions that arise.

The difference between parents and blanket censorship is that the parents know the child personally and know what each child is ready for, whereas governmental or school-wide censorship tends to be more politically motivated. I don’t agree with the government or schools banning books outright because of the messages they contain – people don’t (or shouldn’t) believe literally everything they read, and even if you disagree with the ideology in a text, it doesn’t mean that reading it is wrong.

What do you think? Leave a comment below or on the original question at Booking Through Thursday!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Time Traveler's Wife - film adaptation

I’ve heard conflicting opinions of the film adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, from ‘it’s ok’ to ‘terrible’, and a variety of more in-depth thoughts in between. I have to say (apparently controversially) that I actually got quite caught up in the film, although I also agree with a friend who said that it lacks the depth of the book. Some of that can be excused as simply having to compress material into the timeframe available, but to me it also felt rather sanitised.

SPOILERS AHEAD – if you haven’t read the book and don’t want important plot points revealed, stop reading this now. And go and read the book.

For those of you still with me, some of the exclusions that bothered me most were:
1) Kimy – she kind of stepped into the space left by Henry’s mother in the book, and without her his childhood background is pretty much a blank. Same with the rest of the characters really, there isn’t much background for anyone in the film.

2) Ingrid – her troublesome presence at the start of Henry and Clare’s real-time romance gives the book a sense of reality and messiness. Without her to show the negative impact of Clare’s appearance in his life, it all feels a little convenient and fairy-tale-ish.

3) Clare and Gomez’s attraction - again, without this, it’s too clean and convenient.

4) Henry’s feet - or rather, the lack of them was lacking. I guess the amputation could have been a little gory for translation to the screen, but they had no problem showing the bullet wound, and there was no need to show the feet in graphic detail. I found his amputation one of the most surprising and significant turning points in the novel, so the film really lost something for me by backing out on this one.

5) Henry and Clare’s final meeting – for me, knowing that neither would meet the other again until the very end of Clare’s life gave the finish an extra poignancy. The film left it with the hopeful feeling that Henry might pop in at random to see them at any time, which again feels like a bit of a cop-out.

Finally, not really an omission, but the focus of the film had changed to Henry, rather than Clare, who as the titular character, really should have stayed the main focus, in my view. I know that awareness is changing towards allowing female characters more screentime now, etc, and that if one character has some kind of ‘superpower’ type ability it guarantees they’re more interesting as far as Hollywood is concerned, but it seems a shame. The book really left you with the impression of a strong, loving relationship struggling against massive odds, whereas the film felt more like the biography of a guy who just happens to time travel.

That said, I enjoyed watching it, and admittedly it did make me cry like a little girl at the end.

What do you think? Do you disagree with any of the impressions above? Are there any other changes you liked or disliked? Leave a comment below!

Monday, 3 March 2014

Book Haul: Episode II

I know, I really shouldn't have. But with paperbacks 50p each and hardbacks £1 at a local charity shop, I think it's a testament to my amazing self-restraint (and the fact that most of the selection available were romances or thrillers) that I came home with only 6 books.

Today's additions to my not-so-little family of books are Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, Christopher Priest's The Prestige, Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, E M Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady, Edward Marston's The Iron Horse, and Stephen Fry in America.

The first two I chose because I'm aware of the films (I've seen and enjoyed the film of The Prestige, but haven't seen The Lovely Bones yet), and I've read another Jasper Fford and loved it. I've heard good things about The Diary of a Provincial Lady, and other two just looked fun. Now to squeeze a little more space out of my bookshelves...

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Book haul

I've just been to Bath for the day, and came back full of delicious food and a bag of second-hand books I really shouldn't be spending money on, but just can't resist.

Today's haul cost just over £5 and consists of Georgette Heyer's Cousin Kate and The Grand Sophy, Larry Niven's Ringworld, and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Now to find space on my bookshelves!