War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

November 30, 2013 at 10:18 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )




It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.

Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.

“The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.”

-War and Peace

This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.

The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.

“Rostov became thoughtful.
‘I never go back on my word, he said. ‘Besides, Sonya is so charming that only a fool would renounce such happiness.'”

-War and Peace

Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!

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The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )




The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.

The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.

The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.

Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

June 27, 2012 at 17:12 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


The worst thing that can be said about this book is that it is ridiculously sentimental. It is at least as much of a romance as it is an adventure of incredible proportions, but it is the sort of romance in which every single chapter has the swooning heroine declaring to herself that her bosom yearns for the sweet embrace of death, if only she can catch but one glimpse of her beloved; even a cruel word would be sweet, and even a bitter meeting would be as paradise.

“‘And you have let them escape,’ shouts the captain furiously. ‘You’ll go to the guillotine for this, citoyen sergeant! That cart held concealed the ci-devant Duc de Chalis and all his family!’

‘What!’ thunders Grospierre, aghast.

‘Aye! and the driver was none other than that cursed Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel.'”

-The Scarlet Pimpernel

It is difficult to have patience with this level of melodrama, and so it is all the more impressive that Baroness Orczy manages to match her incredibly wet romantic plot, not only with a level of adventure to exceed it (for this would not be a masterful achievement), but with some genuine moments of pathos, and a believable relationship between the star-crossed lovers that is deeper than swooning and soliloquising.

It ought to be made clear: this is not a work to be judged on complex multifaceted characters, or even on serious development or growth. The plot that grows up in the midst of the romance is one of desperate and dastardly deeds by cruel flinty-eyed despots; of dashing and debonair heroes festooned with capes and cutlasses; a thing of death-or-glory last chances and low cunning. The personalities are all rather simple, and are some rather perfect examples of what it is to be a stock character.

But the reader will be along for the ride, and forgive every trope and each predictable scenario that comes trotting by. The surprises are scarcely surprising, but then who ever thought that Long John Silver would slay Hawkins and inherit the treasure? Who ever imagined that Edmond Dantès would rot in his chateau, or that Phileas Fogg would be not be vindicated? The success of The Scarlet Pimpernel is not its novelty or its subtlety, but its heart and its bombast, and the constantly excellent recasting of the age old battle between good and evil, where the foul mask of evil is as immutable as the solid foundation of good.

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Great Apes, by Will Self

June 6, 2012 at 06:51 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )


Will Self is a frighteningly intelligent man who takes a perverse delight in doing disgusting things to beautiful words. Great Apes is one of those books that begins with a clever or original idea (although honestly, not all that original) and works behind it as under a mask to make the initial premise the unwilling slave of a certain conceit of style, or flavour. This book is all atmosphere and very little substance, and all commentary and very little story. It is difficult to tell whether Will Self is unutterably pleased with himself for being so blamed clever all the time, or if he is adopting such a persona in order to laugh at it. It is not really very important which.

The central idea is that human beings are as noble and arrogant as any batch of greasy apes happen to be; and again and again this is piled on with a trowel in much the same way as Orson Scott Card in Lovelock. There is not much more than this, and what might have been an excellent display of Self’s ample wit and silver tongue is instead contorted into a tiresome sneer at humanity.

“Then their tongues slid over and under, pink shrews blindly questing.”

-Great Apes

As might be expected, Will Self writes with a deucedly elegant pen, and weighs and portions his words like an apothecary, or a lover, dosing the reader meticulously with impeccably crafted language, placing each jot and tittle with immaculate care: and using them to paint an ugly and cheap picture of cartoonish horror. There lies the greatest disappointment with this book. It might have been excellent. Instead, it is like the genius in the class who insists on clowning around in every lesson, turning in every assignment late, and with more of an eye towards upsetting the teacher than proving his worth.

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The Spy who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming

March 7, 2012 at 16:47 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction, Thriller) (, , , , )


Without personality, without excitement, without style. Tasteless, graceless, morbid and ugly. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to conclude why the film version of this book has absolutely no overlaps with the novel (although it is more difficult to accept that Fleming managed to publish more books after this utter disaster). In a book ostensibly about James Bond, the famous spy does not appear until the second half of the book, and even then is roughly and rudely sketched. He is certainly not the main character in this book, and barely aspires to a supporting role.

A great deal of this book also ends up reading like a torrid and pulpy piece of romantic fiction, with explicit sex and abuse scenes littered lecherously through the pages, and an increasingly uncomfortable feeling that heroes and villains alike are merely different fantasies flitting through the author’s mind.

“All women love semi-rape.”

-The Spy who Loved Me

In short, this is not a spy novel. It is barely a thriller. Its shabby pages are a blend of unmemorable, unlikeable, unsympathetic nonentities; and in this case, that includes the vague and barely-present James Bond himself. Ian Fleming can write well (for all that he is a misogynistic old deviant), but it is not only the banal plot and appalling characters that condemn this book, and it suffers badly from a depressing array of pacing problems, mawkish and scattered dialogue, unimaginative and clichéd description and a host of other problems. This is a truly dreadful book, without anything to recommend itself at all.

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God Knows, by Joseph Heller

December 7, 2011 at 18:50 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


Joseph Heller is one of the finest writers of the last century, and it is almost certain that he would enjoy a vastly higher reputation, had he but written a few more books. He enters historical fiction in the same cavalier way that he approaches the subject of war in Catch-22; with a brash and arrogant disdain for either the facts of the matter, or indeed the details. David converses as readily about Agamemnon, Shakespeare and the United States as he does the Philistines and the Exodus. The utter glee with which Heller plunges into these anachronisms is thrilling to behold, and the brazen confidence he shows is offset only by the amazing success he has in making it all work.

Heller’s David is very much like the young men in Catch-22, and would not appear out of place in the 256th Squadron. He is blasé and world-weary, snide and sarcastic, insightful and bitter, wise and yet a buffoon, and utterly obsessed with sex. At first it seems that Heller is simply snarling at God through the character’s mouth, and scrawling over a biblical character in angry crayon. For the first several chapters, that is all this book is, and all that it offers. Later on, Heller himself gets a little bogged down with the sheer amount of history, and some of the chapters end up as rather desperate paraphrases of the Bible, without much elaboration on his part. But in between these two extremes, there is a great deal of thinking going on. A great deal of sadness and introspection, and a great deal of despair and desperation. “The danger in being a king is that after a while you begin to think you really are one,” he soliloquises, in one of the more poignant reflections on the shabbiness of his life. Or his character’s life.

“God knows what I mean. I feel nearer to God when I am deepest in anguish. That’s when I know He is closing in again, and I yearn to call out to Him now what I have longed to say to Him before, to address my Almighty God with those words of Ahab to Elijah in the vineyard of Naboth, ‘Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?'”

-God Knows

And that is one of the more noticeable things here. Such is Heller’s genius that it is very difficult to know when he is being honest. It is very easy to wonder if he is laughing up his sleeve at David’s existential crises; if he is snorting dismissively at David’s lustful fantasies, or sharing them; if he shares David’s odd and fascinating mixture of furious pride and desperate entreaty to God, or if he is utterly detached from it. Behind the gratuitous and filthy language, the sardonic and trenchant humour and the near-nihilistic monologues, there are moments of real profundity. Joseph Heller might not know what God is, but he knows with a startling clarity what man is, and his portrait of the human arrogance and tragedy is picture perfect. It is very possible that in the moments of quiet and thoughtful introspection Heller is laughing up his sleeve. But if he is, then his sleeve has some genuine thoughtfulness and pain in it, and he lays it all out on the pages of his book with the masterful and genius talent that is his trademark.

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The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

October 29, 2011 at 22:07 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


Kazuo Ishiguro’s great success in this little novel is his ability to move his story onwards at a lively pace without once losing the consistency of the voice he has chosen to use. This success is all the more notable when it becomes apparent that he has not only the abilty to build the character of Stevens upon a skeleton of reminiscences to a fully fleshed portrait of a deeply interesting man, but also the skill to weave the most important parts of his story through implication and inference.

The Remains of the Day is a slow story, but far from the slowness of a painfully-dragged weight it has the pace of a lazy river, and Ishiguro has the patience to allow it to develop organically: a brave choice that does not even allow the reader a clear glimpse of his chosen subject or message until at least a quarter of the book has passed. It is a delicate character study, but it is the character study of a nation and an epoch, without ever being grandiose or gaudy enough to become its own pastiche.

“Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. For endless members of parliament debating things to a standstill. All fine a few years ago perhaps, but in today’s world?”

-The Remains of the Day

Never is Ishiguro’s reluctance to allow climax and denouement reach the forefront more evident than his casual avoidance of almost every key sequence of action: from mild mishaps to tragic disasters through to the final meeting between his two chief characters, all is constantly shuffled into the past tense, creating both a poignant sense of things past, as well as building upon his ever-present sense of narrative slowness. This is not the easiest book to read, and neither is it the most satisfying. It is hardly anticlimactic, but it could be easily described as disappointing, for characters and reader alike. But for an interesting and beautifully-written novel to read on a rainy day, there really are few better.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

October 18, 2011 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


The worst news for writers in the world everywhere is that they almost certainly will never write a book as good as this one. One of the most marvellous things about One Hundred Years of Solitude is that after reading it, the world seems slightly grey and pale, like waking up from the most vivid of dreams. This is the sort of book that readers will stay up all night reading. This is the sort of book that will give readers the same dreams that the characters dream. This is the sort of book that readers will sit silently and think about after finishing. This is the sort of book that readers will begin all over again because of the wistfulness and the delight in memory and the staggering sense of a full and rich chronicle. This is the sort of book that readers will feel they have lived, and it will be a surprise to look up from the pages and realise that a hundred and twenty years have not, in fact, gone by since starting it.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

-One Hundred Years of Solitude

It would be immature and churlish to say that this is the best book ever written, and certainly there are parts of it that are dimmer by comparison than the others. The story of Remedios the Beauty is somewhat palid compared to (for instance) the stories of Amaranta or Aureliano Buendia, and Gabriel García Márquez relies on sensuality a little too much (particularly with the story of José Arcadio), which is one of his enduring faults. The politics of the book are rather lofty, but readers do not need intimate familiarity with the Liberals and Conservatives and their bloody ravening of South America in order to enjoy this book.

García Márquez betrays himself as a mystic more in this story than in many of his other classic works, and it is this sense of a century- (or centuries-) long dream drifting past and ebbing and flowing back and forth in time itself that emerges as a principal flavour. He fixes upon certain words and motifs so regularly that they gradually become redefined according to his story (the eponymous “solitude”, for instance, or the cruel rains). His ability to subvert even the simple meaning of words, to take them and make them so intractably a part of his narrative, is astonishing. His characters are at once believable and multifaceted, even when they take the most fantastical and grotesque forms. Truly a master of the ensemble writing, there are at least a dozen characters who might be said to be the chief focus of this book, and two dozen more who will surely win fans, who will fight for them as personal favourites. As in the later work, Love in the Time of Cholera, his creations are shown aging and loving, dying and hating, evolving from young children to decaying patriarchs and matriarchs with a kind of graciousness and sweetness fascinating to behold. The author has utterly mastered the art of making a sad or even an unpleasant or devastating thing beautiful, and of making a lovely thing bittersweet.

This book ought to be recommended reading everywhere.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

May 26, 2011 at 19:14 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


It is difficult to pick up a theme in this book, and hold onto it long enough to feel truly at home with it. Hurston slings her readers back and forth between four different stories–the dim Eatonville of the present, and each of her protagonist’s wildly different marriages–without mercy and without hesitation, and the book ends abruptly before any of these have really hit home.

Their Eyes Were Watching God could either be described as bleak, or as forlorn and wistful; Hurston does not really go deep enough into the story, and does not seem committed enough to tracing the lives of her creations, for either description to seem entirely appropriate.

Her great success, if it is not necessarily found in the harrowing pain or in the dazzling glory of her narration, is in her startling way with words, and her almost careless ability to command the English language to stand up and dance for her. Hurston’s prose is poetic without appearing florid and deeply metaphorical without becoming melodramatic; she slips in the most intricate phrases, shocking in their simplicity and fragility; and then forgotten and left, set gently aside for the rustic speech of her characters. This framework of linguistic beauty is what this book ought chiefly to be read for, and its tragedy and history secondarily.

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Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian

February 10, 2011 at 13:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction, War and Politics) (, , , )


Firstly, Bohjalian’s description of the budding romance between Callum and Anna was simply unreadable, and begs the question whether there are any clean historical fictions left to us! Gratuitous, and utterly unimportant to the story itself. It actually detracted significantly from the gravity of the situation, and while it is understandable that Bohjalian wanted to show “normal life” thriving even amidst such horror, he could have done it quite well enough without all the rumpus.

That aside, Skeletons at the Feast was generally an unsatisfying read. There was no sense of climax or crisis, only a plodding inevitability that mirrored the depression of some of his more deprived characters, and trickled to a sudden and rather bland ending. His greatest success in the narrative was how he effortlessly blended scenes from past and present, and switched viewpoints with an elegance and delicacy rarely seen in modern fiction. This intriguing and capable style rescued the book from what otherwise might have been an utter loss, when considering its insipid storyline and truly awful attempts at romance.

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