Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Intros & Teasers - 'Another Man's City' by In-ho Choi, Bruce & Ju-Chan Fulton

Another Man's CityThis week I've been reading a number of books on and off, and this one is one one of them. Another Man's City is one of the Library of Korean Literature-series of books. I read another book out of this series, The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, not too long ago and really enjoyed it. The point of this blog is very much the broadening of my literary horizons so I love finding foreign literature in translation. I never thought I'd find such Kafka-esque literature in Korea but Another Man's City is really blowing me away.
Another Man's City is structured as a virtual-reality narrative manipulated by an entity referred to variously as the Invisible Hand or Big Brother. The scenario is reminiscent of Peter Weir's 1998 film The Truman Show and Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled. The novel begins with a series of seemingly minor juxtapositions of the familiar and the strange, as a result of which the protagonist, K, gradually finds himself inside a Matrix-like reality populated with shape-shifting characters.
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesday are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and MizB over at A Daily Rhythm. 380

What the hell? K groped the fuzzy boundary between sleep and wakefulness for an answer - what had awakened him?His alarm clock. The strident ring a desperate cry letting the world know of its existence. Again the shrill clamor.Dammit! K didn't like being woken up. He fumbled at the nightstand, found the alarm clock, silenced it.' 1%
I liked this beginning because it immediately pulls you into the character's immediate sensations. Nothing is worse than the alarm clocks going off in the morning and I could sympathize with K from the get go. But trust me, from here it only gets weirder!

TeaserTuesdays2014e'That spider woman was not Janus, and Janus, whether a man or a woman, was not the spider woman. In that case, was Janus, the place, that is, part of the hour-and-a-half gap in the filmstrip of his memory?' 15%
Ok, so I have chosen the weirdest quote I could find on the page, just to give you a taste of why I'm calling this book Kafka-esque. Janus is a two-faced god, in this case one male and female. It's also a nightclub in this book and K is desperate to figure out what happened the night before.

So, does Another Man's City sound like your kind of book? Have you read any Korean/Asian literature lately?

Monday, 28 September 2015

Interview with Virginia Macgregor, author of 'What Milo Saw'

Displaying WhatMiloSaw_B_9780751554274-2.jpgToday I have the honour of presenting you guys with an interview with the author of the amazing What Milo Saw, Virginia Macgregor! I read and reviewed this book recently and highly recommend it.
Nine-year-old Milo suffers from retinitis pigmentosa: his eyes are slowly failing, and he will eventually go blind. But for now, he sees the world through a pin hole and notices things other people don't. When Milo's beloved 92-year-old gran succumbs to dementia and moves into a nursing home, Milo begins to notice things amiss at the home. The grown-ups won't listen when he tries to tell them something's wrong so with just Tripi, the nursing home's cook, and Hamlet, his pet pig, to help, Milo sets out on a mission to expose the nursing home and the sinister Nurse Thornhill.
Sounds good no? Check out the interview below to convince you even further.

J: What inspired you to write about a character with Retinitis Pigmentosa? 

VM: I’ve always been fascinated by sight and vision: both physically and metaphorically every human being has a unique view of the world. I am also hugely short-sighted (when I take out my contact lenses, everything’s a blur), so I’m aware of having a visual limitation every day. As writer, I naturally made the imaginative leap of wondering what it would be like to lose my sight altogether, or to have a condition that severely limited my vision.

During one of my check-ups, I spoke to my local optician about the kinds of visual impairments that children struggle with, and she told me about a little boy she was looking after who has Retinitis Pigmentosa. At the same time I read a touching article about a six-year-old girl called Molly Bent who had created a bucket list of the things she wanted to see before she went blind. These events all came together while I was planning and writing What Milo Saw and I immediately knew that RP was something that Milo was struggling with too.
Displaying V109 B.jpg
J: Was it challenging to write from a child's point of view?

VM: It was a complete joy. Milo’s perspective was the most fun to write – while I was working on the novel, I really felt like I was living in Milo’s world. Of course, I had to make sure that I got the details (I wanted the viewpoint to be real and authentic), but I never felt it was hard work. Writing from the view of children is one of the things I love most. You’ll find me doing the same in my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells. I think it’s really important that adult fiction reflects a range of perspectives from characters of different ages, including those of children.

J: One of your novel's main characters is a Syrian refugee. How did you go about writing this character?

VM: I am a contemporary writer. That means that I ground my fiction in the here and now. I want every one of my novels to give a sense of what it means to be alive today and that means weaving in the issues that face us as individuals and as a society in the twenty first century. While I was writing What Milo Saw, the Syrian crisis was just beginning to rear its head. It is sad to see how the refugee crisis has got worse than I ever could have imagined when I wrote Tripi’s story. I wanted to show how refugees can enrich our lives, how they are human beings, like you and me, and that some of them have suffered a great deal to find a new life in a safe country. On a personal level, I had a nomadic childhood and my extended family is scattered fire and wide around Europe and beyond, so I am interested in the notion of home and belonging.

J: Aside from the title, there are clear parallels in your novel to James' 'What Maisie Knew'. Were these parallels something you purposefully explored?

VM: While I was writing What Milo Saw I read a number of adult novels written from the point of view of children. I loved how Henry James explored a little girl’s perspective on her parents’ divorce. We see her confronted by the messiness of the adult world and the shortcomings of the grown-ups who live in it. This technique creates what literary critics call ‘an ironic gap.’ Because a child’s view of the world is incomplete, when we, as adults, read that view, we fill in the gaps because we know more than them. This can be hugely poignant. Children also have a wonderfully honest and quirky way of seeing things, which can add humour to an otherwise sad story. 

Thank you so much for your interview, Virginia! I love getting an insight into an author's mind and into their writing process. So, does What Milo Saw sound like your cup of tea?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Weekly Overview

It's been a fun and busy week. I went to see Marina Warner, which was amazing because she's such an inspiration! And the I caught the Donmar staging of Coriolanus in the cinema (praise be to NT Live), which actually made me cry. Ans then on Friday I saw A.N. Wilson talk about this book on the Bible, which was absolutely fascinating. He's such an intelligent and funny man that is was a pure joy!

So that's been my week! I've got a sh*t ton of books due for review in October, here's to praying that I will actually get around to all of them and not die of book-overload!

How was your week? This post is linked up to The Sunday Post over at Caffeinated Book Reviewer.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Friday Memes and 'Fly Away Home'

It's Friday and I'm extremely tired! But it's been one hell of a week. This week I met Marina Warner, one of my favourite authors and academics, and I bought a copy of her new anthology of short stories. She even wrote a dedication into it, which made me rather happy! I'm using this collection for today's memes!
A long-awaited new collection of Marina Warner's short stories. Like her award-winning novels, Marina Warner's stories conjure up mysteries and wonders in a physical world, treading a delicate, magical line between the natural and the supernatural, between openness and fear.
Dame Marina Warner is a British novelist, short story writer, historian and mythographer. She is known for her many non-fiction books relating to feminism and myth. She has written for many publications over the years, including The London Review of Books, the New Statesman, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and Vogue.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted respectively by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda by Freda's Voice.

'My dear, you know that burning house dilemma, when you have to choose what you would take out of it? Forget loved ones, they're thrown in, like Shakespeare and the Bible on Desert Island Discs. No, what would you take with you, after the wife and sprogs've been carried out of the flames in those loely big burly firemen's arms? By the way, since when did they turn into fire-fighters? This gender-blind talk, on trend, not like me, like being a chair, or a customer service officer - not my style.' p.1 (from 'Out of the Burning House')
I love that Warner begins her stories with something so straightforward and recognizable as that 'burning house dilemma'! And how she manages to sound so casual and direct, really address the reader with her questions. It's also always a good way to start an anthology by building a relationship between the narrator and the reader, since those two don't really change between stories.

'The pious acts of disfigurement weren't consistent: a few female saints, a few male saints, and several characters in the stories (men and women) were obliterated like the face of the Prophet in Persian or Indian manuscripts of a similar date, when he and other Islamic saints are screened from our gaze by short veils.' p.56 (from 'Watermark')
This has a very different tone from the previous story and I really like it! Marina Warner is so incredibly learned and intelligent (in case you haven't noticed, I idolize her a little bit) that I'm always astonished when she mixes knowledge with an easy and smooth writing style.

So, that's me for today! Do you like short stories? Would you check out Fly Away Home?

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Les Misérables Read-Through #5: I.v.2 - I.vii.6

It's officially offical: I really like Les Misérables. As a consequence I am slightly (read: extremely) annoyed at the musical and film for having nice songs but not doing Victor Hugo's novel justice by a looong mile. I mean, I'm empathizing with Jean Valjean for crying out loud, something I never did when watching the film. There are so many moment which I feel would have been so much better had the film actually taken direction from the novel. Part of the reason that I'm now completely on the side of the novel is because I have switched to reading 20 chapters instead of 10. It gives you much more of the story to enjoy and discuss. Also yes, here's a picture of Anne Hathaway as Fantine because Anne Hathaway is amazing.

Plot Summary:
In these chapters we really see Fantine being torn down to the ground. It's a lot less sudden in the novel, rather than film where it all happens within a single song. By seeing how Fantine's decline happens slowly but surely it is inevitable to see how society forces some people into destitution. Because Victor Hugo set her up as such a cheerful and innocent character it is heart-breaking to see her spirit brought so low as well. The downward spiral is stunningly described and it really drags you right in.

We also returned to M. Madeleine or, as we all know he's really called, Jean Valjean and got introduced to Javert! There were a couple of amazing scenes which worked really well, such as the lifting of the cart, Valjean releasing Fantine from Javert's custody and, especially, Valjean's conflicting feelings about confronting himself with his past. Although the chapters dedicated to his internal struggle are quite long they are absolutely fascinating insights into the human psyche. I've managed to stop myself at an enormous cliffhanger as well. Fantine is in the hospice, close to dying but desperate to see her daughter and Jean Valjean is on a mad drive to Atras while still undecided on whether to give himself up or no.

Feel of the Chapters:
These chapters are a bit of a whirlwind, considering the slow start of the novel. A couple of the things that have been set up throughout the preceding chapters suddenly are resolved or become relevant and it was great to see Hugo bringing all of these strands together. There is also a lot of desperation to these developments though, which can be a little bit depressing if you stay in it for too long. But that's where it's good that Hugo has picked up the pace because this way the novel keeps going and doesn't linger too long on the misery of others.

General Thoughts:

  • Javert's introduction was interesting. He's an interesting character and like all the others his presence in the novel is very different from the film. Because we get to see his motivation as well as that of the other characters it's a lot easier to feel for him. 
  • I already said this above but I loved seeing how Fantine's mind became darker and darker, how she lost herself in her misery. It was really well-written.
  • Victor Hugo keeps popping into his own story, dropping hints, pointing the reader in different directions and adding his own voice to the story. It's always fun, rather than intrusive, so that's definitely something I hope keeps happening
  • There is no political talk, for once. Most of the chapters so far have had a lot of time for philosophical digressions about life and religion, but real life definitely takes over now.
Something Interesting:
What is this history of Fantine? It is society purchasing a slave. From whom? From misery.From hunger, cold, isolation, destitution. A dolorous bargain. A soul for a morsel of bread. Misery offers; society accepts.The sacred law of Jesus Christ governs our civilization, but it does not, as yet, permeate it; it is said that slavery has disappeared from European civilization. This is a mistake. It still exists; but it weighs only upon the woman, and it is called prostitution.' p.323
The last five times I have picked up references in the novel to discuss here, but this week the above extract was what really stuck with me. Throughout my reading of Les Misérables so far I've been surprised with how liberal and forward-thinking Victor Hugo was, but I wasn't expecting him to so strongly condemn society for prostitution, rather than raging against the women. 

Favourite Quotes:
'Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought.'
I absolutely loved this quote. It's so beautiful I had to get up in the middle of the night to find a pen and paper to write it down.
'Conscience is the chaos of chimeras, of lusts, and of temptations; the furnace of dreams; the lair of ideas of which we are ashamed; it is the pandemonium of sophisms; it is the battlefield of the passions.'
This is just amazingly phrased. Not only is the alliteration in the first part nuts (in a good way) but it is also a great description of something as hard to describe as the conscience. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Short Review: 'The Dover Reader: Edgar Allan Poe', eds. by M.C. Waldrep & J.B. Kopito

'The Raven' is a short story that pretty much everyone has to read early on in their school years. It's a staple of American Gothic literature, but Edgar Allan Poe has much more to offer than just that story. Dover's new Poe Reader gives the audience an insight into a lot more of Poe's work, both prose and poetry. Thanks to Netgalley and Dover Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/12/2014
Publisher: Dover Publications
The father of the detective novel and an innovator in American Gothic fiction, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) made his living as America's first great literary critic. Today he is best remembered for his short stories and poems, haunting works of horror and mystery that remain popular around the world.
This anthology presents Poe's finest works in a rich selection of poetry and prose that features his only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Short stories include "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Purloined Letter," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and more than a dozen others. In addition to a few selections of Poe's nonfiction writing, the compilation offers "The Conqueror Worm," "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and many other memorable poems.
Edgar Allan Poe is the kind of author everyone knows about but that most people only pretend to have truly, extensively read. His style is immediately recognizable, his stories beyond tragic and his poetry beautiful, and this Dover Reader will give you all of it. Although much of Poe's work is already in the public domain, this Reader gives you a good oversight of his prose work while providing you with a good selection of poetry and non-fiction work. Few authors have been as labelled as Poe, whose name is practically synonymous with the Macabre. With this kind of selection it's easy to get a good grip of Poe's entire work and really understand his genius more.

Similarly to Dover Publications other anthologies, this one is arranged chronologically. However, it is also split up into three sections: fiction, poetry and nonfiction, each of which is chronologically ordered. What I loved about this order is that's from the index it's really easy to see what Poe was working on when, which stories were written at the same time as certain poems etc. This Reader also contains the only complete novel ever written by Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I have read some stunning anthologies of Poe's work which made the most of the Gothic nature of Poe's work through illustrations and lay-out. The Dover Reader is a lot more straight-forward, more of a reference book than an anthology for pleasure reading.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Edgar Allan Poe is a fascinating author whose writings have been incredibly influential. The Dover Reader brings Poe's various works together beautifully and gives a good oversight of his career. I'd recommend this both to those who want a casual read of Poe but also those who want to get a more comprehensive view of his beautifully macabre writings.

Intros & Teasers - 'The Dover Reader: Edgar Allan Poe'

This week I'm using an anthology that I just reviewed today. I mean, who doesn't want to read Edgar Allan Poe all day? Have a look at the Dover Reader below!
The father of the detective novel and an innovator in American Gothic fiction, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) made his living as America's first great literary critic. Today he is best remembered for his short stories and poems, haunting works of horror and mystery that remain popular around the world.
This anthology presents Poe's finest works in a rich selection of poetry and prose that features his only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Short stories include "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Purloined Letter," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and more than a dozen others. In addition to a few selections of Poe's nonfiction writing, the compilation offers "The Conqueror Worm," "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and many other memorable poems.
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesday are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and MizB over at A Daily Rhythm.

'Of my country and of my family I have little to say. Ill usage and length of years have driven me from the one, and estranged me from the other. Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodise the stores which early study very diligently garnered up.' 1% (from 'MS. Found in a Bottle')
I always feel like with Poe's short stories you have to get into it initially. So this beginning doesn't really do anything for me so far, but I tend to always fall in love with Poe's stories halfway through!

TeaserTuesdays2014e 'My father made no direct opposition; but my mother went into hysterics at the bare mention of the design; and, more than all, my grandfather, from whom I expected much, vowed to cut me off with a shilling if I should ever broach the subject to him again.' 48% (from 'The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym')
I am really curious what has triggered such a response in the family, especially since there are such different responses. I especially love the fact that the Grandfather seems to have almost the strongest objection. This just painted a really fun image in my head so I thought I'd share it.

So, what are you sharing today? And do you like Poe? Got a favourite short story?

Monday, 21 September 2015

An Evening with Christopher Rush and Topping & Co. Booksellers

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending an event at the St. Andrews branch of Topping & Company Booksellers, celebrating the upcoming release of Christopher Rush's new novel Penelope's Web. In his new novel Rush retells the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Odysseus' and Penelope's point of view, bringing the humanity back into this epic tale.

Pub. Date: 24/09/2015
Publisher: Polygon
Odysseus returns to Ithaca after nearly twenty years, half of it spent as a soldier and the other half as a soldier of fortune. During his absence his wife Penelope remains faithful, despite Odysseus being missing and presumed dead, but when her husband suddenly reappears he confronts those who have been trying to seduce his wife and kills them all. This is a novel about war and peace, about how returning soldiers can find peace more horrible than war, and home more hellish than the battlefield.
'Penelope's Web is a book about war that, like The Naked and the Dead or Catch-22, manages to be about very much more… Christopher Rush has written a profound meditation not just on our present condition but on how we all live inside 'the web', how we weave fact, the way we make and unmake fictions, and how we choose to live and die by them'--Brian Morton, Scottish Review of Books
Crucial to a fun reading event is atmosphere and if there is one thing a Topping & Co. store can provide, aside from books, it's atmosphere. Surrounded by walls lined with full wooden bookcases (the kind that come with a ladder!) it's easy to get in the mood for a book reading. If you're then also provided with a glass of wine on the house nothing stands in the way of a good evening.

The night started with Christopher Rush addressing the audience, relating his journey as a writer and his inspiration for Penelope's Web. Christopher Rush proved to be not just a great writer but also a great speaker, easily holding the audience captive with his stories. Rush covered a lot of topics, from his childhood education in Greek by (present and non-present) teachers, to the, beautifully phrased, 'ocean of European myth'. It's always gratifying to hear an author describe their work process and inspiration sources.The way Rush talked about the web, of weaving being a style of story-telling that retains stories better than manuscripts can sometimes (think Tapestry of Bayeux!) was fascinating. This web of words has also spread across all of Europe, making the Odyssey relevant for this born Fifer.

After entertaining the audience with his personal stories Rush moved on to reading passages from his novel, giving everyone a taste of Rush's ancient Greece. Where Homer keeps a cool distance from his characters, immortalizing them as almost God-like heroes, Rush takes a more human approach, showing these legendary heroes to be just like everyone else. They are warriors, rough and full of hard edges, and behave as such. Rush's language is unapologetic but also very lyrical in places. Without echoing Homer Rush nonetheless manages to capture the same magic.

Overall it was a very enjoyable evening with great company! For anyone who ever spends some time in St. Andrews I highly recommend dropping by Topping & Co. This evening with Christopher Rush was part of the St. Andrews Literary Festival which has a lot more interesting author events coming up. I myself will be visiting two more, but do follow the Twitter hashtag #StABookFest.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Friday Memes and 'The Decameron'

The DecameronIt's Friday and I've survived my first actual week back at University. There is a lot of work that needs to be done but I'm enjoying all of it and I already feel like I'm learning things. It's making me a lot more productive as well, which is a good thing. But let's get it on with the memes.

This week I'm featuring a novel from my 100 Classics list which I really should've started by now. I'm talking about The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.
The Decameron (c.1351) is an entertaining series of one hundred stories written in the wake of the Black Death. The stories are told in a country villa outside the city of Florence by ten young noble men and women who are seeking to escape the ravages of the plague. Boccaccio's skill as a dramatist is masterfully displayed in these vivid portraits of people from all stations in life, with plots that revel in a bewildering variety of human reactions.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted respectively by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda by Freda's Voice.

'Gracious Ladies, so often as I consider with my selfe, and observe respectively, how naturally you are enclined to compassion; as many times doe I acknowledge, that this present worke of mine, will (in your judgement) appeare to have but a harsh and offensive beginning, in regard of the mournfull remembrance it beareth at the verie entrance of the last Pestilentiall mortality, universally hurtfull to all that beheld it, or otherwise came to knowledge of it. But for all that, I desire it may not be so dreadfull to you, to hinder your further proceeding in reading, as if none were to looke thereon, but with sighes and teares.' p.12 (first page of narration)
I managed to find myself an old timey-version of the text, which is nice because it feels authentic but it will probably be heard to read.

'Whereto Master Guillaume suddenly replied; Do nothing but this Sir: Paint over the Portall of your Halles enterance, the lively picture of Liberality, to bid all your friends better welcome, then hitherto they have beene.' p.56
I'm thinking Guillaume hasn't been the best of hosts. I do like the advice though, it's nice and prosaic. You should always be a good host, especially to friends.

So, that is me

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Les Misérables Read-Through #4: Ch. I.iii.3-I.v.1

I'm getting on relatively well with Les Misérables, which is utterly astounding. Victor Hugo's style is totally up my street, pretentious, full of references and details, but bitingly honest and sharp. I am now also, officially, more than 10% into the book (I'm 11% in) which means it will take me about 40 weeks, so a whole year to read this book... I'm still debating on whether to read quicker and I think I've officially decided that for next week I'll try to read 20 chapters. Pray for me!

Plot Summary:
It has been refreshing to leave Jean Valjean aside for a bit. His story of woe and misery is touching but can become a little bit too much at times to deal with. Not that Fantine's story is any less horrible, at least in the end. We return to Fantine and her merry group of "friends" who are having the time of their life during spring. Hugo goes a bit mad in his descriptions of love and nature at times, but on the other hand it is like a breath of fresh air. If only it wasn't so clear it was never going to end well. When she is left by her lover it doesn't come as a surprise, but that doesn't make it any less sad which is all up to Hugo's writing.

We're also introduced to the Thenardiers and their daughters, Eponine and Azelma. It is safe to say that the Thenardiers aren't half as funny as Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are in the film. They come across as horrible people and, for once, their circumstances aren't an excuse. It's the first time Hugo seems to actively judge his characters and present them as despicable. Poor Cosette gets left with them and their treatment of her is definitely wrong. I also really liked the way Hugo describes how she changes by their treatment, it's very honest. Towards the end of the chapters a strangely familiar man shows up, a certain Father Madeleine.

Feel of the Chapters:
The initial chapters in which we get to see Fantine have a good time and her lover Tholomyes gets quite argumentative at times. It's all very bittersweet, beautiful but doomed. These chapters can b a little bit hard to read because Tholomyes' speeches are always long, always full of references that are not always easy to understand or even know. Hugo also really manages to make one feel for Fantine in a way that is not full of pity. There is respect there, both in Hugo's text and in how the reader sees her. Life was cruel but she's dealing with it in the only way she know show. For me that is a major departure from the film, where she is really only a victim.

General Thoughts:

  • No Jean Valjean was a breath of fresh air but since I know he is Father Madeleine I am actually quite glad to know he's coming back into the story. Since his characterization has differed so from the film I am actually looking forward to seeing him interact with the other characters.
  • I absolutely loved the way that Hugo dealt with Fantine's female friends, all women who hand around rich men in order to survive. It would have been so easy to judge them and make them terrible people in order to make Fantine even better, but Hugo actually shows awareness for their situation. Their decisions might not be the best but there is a reason for them. 
  • Why was Azelma not in the film? I understand you already have a lot of characters but they could have quite easily done with less of some and more of Azelma. Although, in all fairness, I don't know how important Azelma will really be since she is, currently, 18 months I believe.
  • Hugo got into a little bit of political arguing in these chapters as well and I absolutely loved it. There is a quote from this below and it means I got really excited because I thought we'd get more revolutionary talk, but unfortunately no. It does beckon well for the future Barricade chapters!
  • WheRE iS JaVErt?!
Something Interesting:
Tholomyes goes on a little digression about Aspasia and since I'm a major sucker for Greek history and mythology I thought I'd share what I found out about her. Aspasia was an immigrant to Classical-era Athens and, according to Plutarch, her house became an intellectual centre. This would be backe dup by the fact she is mentioned in the works of many Greek philosophers, but then there are also those who think she was nothing more than a brothel keeper. Aspasia is a great example of how history views women sometimes and it was interesting that Tholomyes brought her up in the moment where he is both judging and praising the surrounding women. Lucian wrote of her:
'We could choose no better model of wisdom than Milesian Aspasia, the admired of the admirable 'Olympian'; her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdness and penetration, shall all be transferred to our canvas in their perfect measure.'
Favourite Quotes:
'When the hour strikes, this man of the fauborgs (suburbs) will grow in stature; this little man will arise, and his gaze will be terrible, and his breath will becomes a tempest, and there will issue forth from that slender chest enough wind to disarrange the folds of the Alps.' p.229
Way to stir up my own revolutionary spirit! I loved this little insight into how passionately Hugo can write and it also really makes me look forward to when we get to the actual revolutionaries.
'All the most august, the most sublime, the most charming of humanity, and perhaps outside of humanity, have made puns.' p.234
So, that is me for this week. Have you been reading Les Mis? And are you as disgusted by Tholomyes behaviour?

Review: 'When Mystical Creatures Attack!' by Kathleen Founds

I requested When Mystical Creatures Attack! a very long time ago because I was absolutely fascinated by the blurb. Something about it really drew me in and I am ashamed of myself for never getting to it until now. This novel is something else! Thanks to the University of Iowa Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/10/2014
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
In When Mystical Creatures Attack!, Ms. Freedman’s high school English class writes essays in which mystical creatures resolve the greatest sociopolitical problems of our time. Students include Janice Gibbs, “a feral child with excessive eyeliner and an anti-authoritarian complex that would be interesting were it not so ill-informed,” and Cody Splunk, an aspiring writer working on a time machine. Following a nervous breakdown, Ms. Freedman corresponds with Janice and Cody from an insane asylum run on the capitalist model of cognitive-behavioral therapy, where inmates practice water aerobics to rebuild their Psychiatric Credit Scores.
The lives of Janice, Cody, and Ms. Freedman are revealed through in-class essays, letters, therapeutic journal exercises, an advice column, a reality show television transcript, a diary, and a Methodist women’s fundraising cookbook. (Recipes include “Dark Night of the Soul Food,” “Render Unto Caesar Salad,” and “Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake.”) In “Virtue of the Month,” the ghost of Ms. Freedman’s mother argues that suicide is not a choice. In “The Un-Game,” Janice’s chain-smoking nursing home charge composes a dirty limerick. In “The Hall of Old-Testament Miracles,” wax figures of Bible characters come to life, hungry for Cody’s flesh.
Set against a South Texas landscape where cicadas hum and the air smells of taco stands and jasmine flowers, these stories range from laugh-out-loud funny to achingly poignant. This surreal, exuberant collection mines the dark recesses of the soul while illuminating the human heart.
As the blurb says, When Mystical Creatures Attack! is made up of a lot of different types of text narration, essays, fictional short stories, journals etc. Founds choice to use so many different mediums really sets her novel apart since reading it feels incredibly refreshing. Each chapter holds a surprise, each story-line is told in a different style, potentially by a different character etc. It is very refreshing to read a novel which is so willing to explore different and new styles of writing, explore with multiple genres within a novel and have such a variety in characters. All of this makes When Mystical Creatures Attack! an utterly delightful read, almost impossible to put down. Even when the story seems to simply be rambling on it's a true joy to read. Founds also doesn't shy away from not chasing after a happy ending, allowing stories to take their natural cause whether that's pleasing to the reader or not. It's daring and therefore one of a kind.

There is something absolutely magical in reading about characters who are open about their problems and the damage in their lives. Too often trauma is used by authors to explain a character's erratic actions, without actually going into this trauma. Unfortunately this has led to especially mental health issues becoming an excuse for bad behaviour and to it being over-used and thereby also abused. Founds is incredibly honest in a way that you don't read often. Through her use of the different mediums she manages to really get into her characters' minds and show how mental illness can play with a person. It's at times chilling to read and even horrifyingly recognizable at other times.

Somehow this novel feels incredibly young. Whether it is Founds ability tap into youth culture and their specific issues, or the variety of mediums used, When Mystical Creatures Attack! hits all the right notes. Especially the essays from Ms. Freedman's school children at the start of the novel show Founds' skill at slipping into her characters' skin and making a reader perfectly believe in her characters being real. Founds plays with the notion of fiction, making the reader wonder what is real and what isn't, what is in characters' heads and what is actually happening within the story. And what of this story actually applies to real life? I've always been an advocate of literature making readers question themselves and the lives they live and When Mystical Creatures Attack! is a perfect book, in that respect.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

When Mystical Creatures Attack! is one of my favourite reads this year. Kathleen Founds really breaks boundaries in her book, moving fluidly between writing styles, mediums and genres. It's a fascinating story with beautiful characters that deserve your attention. I'd recommend this to fans of experimental fiction and confrontational reads.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Short Review: 'The Dover Reader: Joseph Conrad', eds. by M.C. Waldrep & A. Daurio

Joseph Conrad was the kind of author I was almost too prejudiced against to start reading. The "masses" have built up a lot of prejudice regarding the racist sentiments in his work although I have always found that those attitudes are severely judged within his work. So I was extremely happy to find a reader full of his work, especially one by Dover Publications who seem to specialize in bringing classics back. Thanks to Dover Publications and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Pub. Date: 17/12/2014
Publisher: Dover Publications
Fluent from birth in French as well as his native Polish, Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) learned his third language, English, as an adult. And it was in English that he wrote his evocative stories and novels, drawing upon his experiences in the British and French navies to portray the struggles of humanity amid the world's vast indifference. 
This anthology offers readers the essential Joseph Conrad, including his debut novel, Almayer's Folly. Other features include his political thriller, The Secret Agent, along with his most famous novel, Heart of Darkness, and a related account of an 1890 expedition, The Congo Diary. A selection of short stories includes "Youth: A Narrative," "An Anarchist," "An Outpost of Progress," and "The Secret Sharer."
It's difficult to write a comprehensive review about anthologies or readers such as this. As such the quality or merit of an author doesn't have to be discussed anymore since a dedicated anthology, a sort of 'greatest hits' collection so to say, proves that these are already accepted. However, as said above, Joseph Conrad is quite a conflicting author for many. His time in the Congo exposed him to the worst of humanity, a lot of which comes back in his writing. Too often he is cast aside as a racist author, but I'd have to disagree. Those opinions are definitely present in his writing, but they are always given to characters who are consequently judged by the book for those opinions. Just for the sake of exploring the consequences of Imperialism it is very worthwhile to read Conrad's work. Although nothing in this anthology is new or previously unseen material, it is good to have it all together in a single place.

The organization of this anthology is one of its main bonus points. The texts are arranged chronologically, moving from something almost akin to biographical material in 'The Congo Diary' during Conrad's time in Africa to his fictional works, spanning a time period from 1890 to 1909. Heart of Darkness, arguably Conrad's most famous novel, is at the very heart of the anthology and it becomes beautifully clear how many themes play in the novel which worked throughout his whole career. Some anthologies organise themselves around themes, which has its own advantages, but by showing an author's actual chronological journey reveals a lot about how their writing style developed etc. For example, reading 'Almayer's Folly', Conrad's first novel, before moving on to Heart of Darkness will show how much he has progressed.

I give this reader...

4 Universes!

Personally I was already a fan of Joseph Conrad before this anthology, but I enjoyed being able to see his progression as an author. Not all of his work was entirely to my taste but Dover Publications continues to bring out great anthologies. I'd recommend this to fans of Imperial literature and, naturally, fans of Joseph Conrad.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Intros, Teasers and 'Ivory Vikings'

This week I'm using Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them (long title, I know) by Nancy Marie Brown. I have always been fascinated by the Lewis Chessmen so I was really excited to see a book about them on Netgalley, especially since it seems to argue a woman made them.
In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects. 
Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
Tuesday Intros and Teaser Tuesdays are hosted by Diane over at Bibliophile by the Sea and MizB over at A Daily Rhythm.

'In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-two game pieces carved of ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen - the Lewis Chessmen - the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eights and four inches tal, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moonfaced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but warriors, some going berserk, biting their shiels in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps - simple octagons - and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, like checkers. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets - only one knight, four rooks, and forty-four pawns are missing - about three pounds of ivory treasure.' p.1
I realize this is quite a long introduction, but I really like Brown's description of the chess pieces. There is quite some detail there and her description is so,,, emotive, if that makes sense? The figure you can see on the cover is a queen, which are among my favourites in the whole set.

'Carved out of one large stone, of the soft reddish volcanic tuff found on the hill across the river from Skaholt, Bishop Pall's sarcophagus is simple and elegant, its rounded lines ornamented only by two cylindrical knobs projecting from the broader end.' p.140
As a student of Icelandic history I have a vague understanding of who Bishop Pall is, but again it was the description of the sarcophagus which really held my attention during this teaser!

Does Ivory Vikings sound like your kind of book? And had you heard of the Lewis Chessmen before?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Weekly Overview

It's been a busy week, both because it has been Fresher's Week at St. Andrews so there have been loads of events to go to and loads of people to meet. I'm not quite sure I can actually remember everyone's names or faces but I'm sure I'll meet them again soon. It was also my birthday yesterday so yaay! It was the first time I spent a birthday away from family and it was extremely relaxing and chilled. I had some lunch with people from my course and in the evening had some drinks with my new housemates but I didn't go crazy since I have work to do!

But let's get my personal life out of the way and have a look at what happened on my blog this week!

I think considering how busy I was this week I have done quite well to get two reviews up! Admittedly I haven't gotten a lot of other reading done, but now that University is starting I'll have loads of ideas and things to talk and blog about. God I'm happy to be back at University!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Friday Memes and 'The Romance of the Rose'

Book Blogger Hop is hosted by Billy over at Book Blogger Hop. This week's question was suggested by Elizabeth from Silver Reviews:

What is most rewarding about being a book blogger?

There are quite a lot of things which I really enjoy and which are rewarding. However, the main thing that makes me feel like I actually contribute something, so to say, is when I get feedback from authors on my reviews! For example, this week I reviewed What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor, which I really enjoyed! I Tweeted her about my review and she liked it and it was just so rewarding to really feel like my review made a difference to her.
I also reviewed The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne and I got a similar response and it just made me really glad to see people share the link to my review! And the fact that Monica herself enjoyed it as well was even better!

So, this is what makes this book blogging rewarding to me!

One of the main things I have to read for University at the moment is The Romance of the Rose, a medieval French text by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Of course I am reading it in translation, so I thought I'd start sharing my reading with you.
The Romance of the Rose (Third Edition)
Many English-speaking readers of the Roman de la rose, the famous dream allegory of the thirteenth century, have come to rely on Charles Dahlberg's elegant and precise translation of the Old French text. His line-by-line rendering in contemporary English is available again, this time in a third edition with an updated critical apparatus. Readers at all levels can continue to deepen their understanding of this rich tale about the Lover and his quest - against the admonishments of Reason and the obstacles set by Jealousy and Resistance - to pluck the fair Rose in the Enchanted Garden. The original introduction by Dahlberg remains an excellent overview of the work, covering such topics as the iconographic significance of the imagery and the use of irony in developing the central theme of love. His new preface reviews selected scholarship through 1990 and beyond, which examines, for example, the sources and influences, the two authors, the nature of the allegorical narrative as a genre, the use of first person, and the poem's early reception. The new bibliographic material incorporates that of the earlier editions. The sixty-four miniature illustrations from thirteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are retained, as are the notes keyed to the Langlois edition, on which the translation is based.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 is hosted by Gillion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice.

'Many men say that there is nothing in dreams but fables and lies, but one may have dreams which are not deceitful, whose import becomes quite clear afterward. We may take as witness an author named Macrobius, who did not take dreams as trifles, for he wrote of the vision which came to King Scipio. Whoever thinks or says that to believe in a dream's coming true is folly and stupidity may, if he wishes, think me a fool; but, for my part, I am convinced that a dream signifies the good and evil that come to men, for most men at night dream many things in a hidden way which may afterward be seen openly.'  p.1
I like the way that the narrator seems to address the reader directly and talk about his own experiences, but personally I don't really believe in dreams as prophecies, so to say. I do, however, believe that we see the good and evil of the world in our dreams. I'm looking forward to getting more into this book/

'But I, outside the wall, was given over to sorrow and woe. If anyone knew the life I led, he would have to take great pity upon it.' p.56
I wonder how the seemingly cheerful narrator suddenly became so desperate between the first and the 56th page. It's quite a difference in tone, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works out!

That is me done for today! Since I actually have a day off I'll be able to do some blog-hopping and see everyone else's answers and teasers :)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Les Misérables Read-Through #3: Ch. I.ii.7-I.iii.3

It has been a little bit harder to do the reading this week since I've been back at University and have tried to actually stick to my review schedule. However, I have noticed that now that the story is picking up it's a lot easier to get through the reading. I've only made it about 8% into the book which isn't that impressive considering that I have been reading for three weeks. If I keep this up and even make space for some off weeks in which I can't get the reading done, it would take me roughly a year to read it. I'm not quite sure I'm willing to spend that long on it so I'm considering upping the reading from ten chapters to fifteen, or even twenty, a week. 

Plot Summary:
So, we left Jean Valjean just before he decided to commit another crime. Whereas his character had something incredibly annoying about it in the film, since he wouldn't stop complaining without actually doing anything, Valjean is actually very interesting so far. Hugo takes a lot of time to actually go into his mindset and it makes his character all the more likeable. The bishop almost disappears completely from the narrative and his impact on Valjean is more implied than explicitly stated.

The shift between Books 2 and 3 also means a shift between main characters. I was quite excited to see Fantine, even if the description of her is completely different from what I had imagined. Hugo almost seems as if he himself is in love with her but slightly unbelieving that she could even exist. She definitely comes across as the kind of character who is set up for doom. With his intrusive narration Hugo constantly seems to warn the reader to not let her seeming happiness fool anyone into thinking there will be a happy end.

Feel of the Chapters:
The chapters which deal with Valjean's theft are quite dark, darker than the ones before that even. Victor Hugo goes on a long metaphor about a drowning man to show us how lost Jean Valjean really is. It feels as if the whole story has been playing at dusk, with the sun setting and everything cast in shadows. In comparison, the three chapters concerning Fantine are days of sunshine! The descriptions of nature, innocence and youth provide an incredibly strong contrast against Valjean and since we have seen him lament the cruelty and injustice of society for pages and pages the sunshine surrounding Fantine is almost too bright. It's quite sad to know that it's all going to end for her.

General Thoughts:
  • When Hugo suddenly went off on a whole chapter long tangent about the sea and about a storm I wasn't quite sure what was happening but it was a great way to show his character's mindset.
  • I'm wondering whether we'll see the Bishop again since, after 200 pages, I'm relatively attached to him. 
  • I'm also wondering where the people who wrote the musical got their ideas for the lyrics from since I haven't really recognized anything so far. I do hope that by the time we get to the barricade-crew that at least one of them asks whether we can hear the people sing!
  • Fantine is the kind of character, so far, that I want to shake a little bit. I mean, innocent characters are always the kind of characters you want to protect and hide from the world but there is only so much innocence that one can take. Fantine's downfall is pretty much set in stone, and not only because Hugo decided so, but because that is what happens to people who don't understand the cruelty of the world.
  • I really enjoyed the way that Hugo bemoaned how much Paris had changed from the time he was writing about to the time he was writing in. If only he could see Paris now! I doubt, somehow, he'd be a big fan of it.

Something Interesting:
Not quite sure what's happening here, but it feels fitting!
I absolutely loved the first chapter of Book 3. It was like the Victor Hugo version of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. Hugo thought that it was important to note down the little things that happened since:
'It is of the physiognomy of the years that the physiognomy of the centuries is composed.' p.209
I love the idea that, in order to really understand what happened in a year, a decade or even a century, that you have to look at all the little, maybe insignificant things that happened. It is the one way in which all of us really have an impact on our world, through tiny little things each day. Admittedly Hugo picked some of the more absurd and therefore hilarious events.
'M. Francois de Neufchateau, the praiseworthy cultivator of the memory of Parmentier, made a thousand efforts to have pomme de terre [potato] pronounced parmentiere, and succeeded therein not at all.' p.208
If you've just spent a good hundred pages on human misery, then this chapter is a real highlight. I also feel like I now really know how the upper classes in Paris spent their time.

Favourite Quotes:
'From year to year this soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal sureness. When the heart is dry, the eye is dry. On his departure from the galleys it had been nineteen years since he had shed a tear.'
It's quotes like this which have really made me start to love Victor Hugo! It's a quote which really manages to describe what poverty and hardship can do to people. If you have to struggle for your very existence day by day, then you can't afford to be soft. I can feel myself warming to Jean Valjean... what have you done Hugo?
'It seems as though all the water were hate.'
I doubt I have to say this is also a quote about Jean Valjean. I just thought it was just such a beautiful quote and I don't have a lot more to say about it. 

So, we've met Jean Valjean and Fantine, but there's still no Javert in sight! Where is my favourite righteous police officer? I'm actually slightly afraid that since the novel has made me like Valjean, will I dislike Javert? I'm not quite ready for that.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review: 'The Girl in the Road' by Monica Byrne

The Girl in the Road is a novel I won't forget very quickly. Sometimes novels come at just the right time and that is definitely the case with Monica Byrne's novel. There is so much to it which is relevant and interesting that I am ecstatic to have had the chance to read it. Thanks to Little, Brown for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review and letting me be part of the novel's blog tour.

Pub. Date: 09/09/2015
Publisher: Little, Brown;

Stunningly original and wildly inventive, The Girl in the Road melds the influences of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Erin Morgenstern for a dazzling debut.
Meena, a young woman living in a futuristic Mumbai, wakes up with five snake bites on her chest. She doesn't know how or why, but she must flee India and return to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. Having long heard about The Trail -- an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea -- she embarks on foot on this forbidden bridge, with its own subculture and rules. What awaits her in Ethiopia is unclear; she's hoping the journey will illuminate it for her.
Mariama, a girl from a different time, is on a quest of her own. After witnessing her mother's rape, she joins up with a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. She meets Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. Yemaya tells Mariama of Ethiopia, where revolution is brewing and life will be better. Mariama hopes against hope that it offers much more than Yemaya ever promised.
As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama's fates will entwine in ways that are profoundly moving and shocking to the core. Vividly imagined and artfully told, written with stunning clarity and deep emotion, The Girl in the Road is a true tour de force.
It's hard to describe exactly what kind of book The Girl in the Road is because it seems that Monica Byrne consciously made it close to impossible to actually label her book. The novel moves very fluidly between different genres, different types of narration and between two characters who are wildly different, or are they? As Meena finds herself on the Trail for her journey, the reader finds themselves on equally shaky ground, edging onwards, unsure but desirous to get to the end. In parts the story line of The Girl in the Road can get confusing, but it's all part of the magic of the novel. Byrne doesn't want to make it easy for her readers and the way that her narrative shifts is very innovative at times. When her characters struggle to make sense of their surroundings so does the reader and this makes The Girl in the Road a really engrossing and immersive read.

The Girl on the Road is a novel that not everyone will enjoy. There are a number of scenes and moments throughout the story which will stroke people the wrong way, largely because Byrne doesn't shy away from showing the violence of humanity. It is precisely for this reason, however, that Byrne's novel can rightly be said to belong next to Margaret Atwood's work. Some of the passages in this novel are shocking, yes. Things happen that shouldn't be happening but because they do in our world they happen in our literature. Whenever people argue in favour of "realistic literature" this is not what they mean. Sometimes we just want to read stories in which everything will be allright, where the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses. But every once in a while a book has to come around to confront you a little bit, shake you up so you put the glasses down and have another look at our world. Byrne's characters aren't necessarily loveable, rather they are understandable. They are girls and women who do things wrong, who make serious mistakes and deceive themselves. Byrne is one of a number of female authors in the last few years who seem to have purposefully left behind the "pure and innocent girl"-stereotype. Byrne's women are as complex and confused as her men and in her exploration of them she makes statements about all humans.

Monica Byrne's writing style in The Girl in the Road is beautiful. Imagining a global society only a few decades beyond ours, Byrne creates a world in which technology has advances but along a natural path. Culturally, Byrne imagines a multicultural world which means her narrative is infused with words from other languages which one slowly starts understanding throughout the novel. Nothing that happens in Byrne's world feels completely impossible or out of place and yet there is an eerie sense of other-worldliness to it as well. The world that Meena and Mariama move through is described very vividly, whether it's descriptions of emotions or of the African landscape the latter travels through.The shift in pacing throughout the novel works really well, never letting the reader completely settle in. As said above, the novel very much feels like the Trail itself, constantly presenting you with new challenges and obstacles. The end is ever so worth it though!

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I absolutely loved The Girl in the Road. It was a novel that didn't let me go, that kept drawing me back in. Monica Byrne writes a fascinating story with characters that are incredibly interesting. This is a novel you have to stand open for but I wouldn't be surprised if The Girl in the Road becomes a classic. I would actually recommend this to fans of Margaret Atwood, readers who want to be challenged by their reads.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Review: 'What Milo Saw' by Virginia Macgregor

What Milo SawSometimes it's hard to pinpoint exactly why a novel draws you in, what it is that makes you decide to pick it up and dedicate to it. This is the case for me with What Milo Saw. It's not a read I'd normally gravitate to but after finishing it I'm really glad I did take the plunge with it. Thanks to Little, Brown, Sphere and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 13/07/2015
Publisher: Little, Brown; Sphere
Nine-year-old Milo suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa: his eyes are slowly failing, and he will eventually go blind. But for now, he sees the world through a pin hole and notices things other people don't. 
When Milo's beloved 92-year-old gran succumbs to dementia and moves into a nursing home, Milo begins to notice things amiss at the home. The grown-ups won't listen when he tries to tell them something's wrong so with just Tripi, the nursing home's cook, and Hamlet, his pet pig, to help, Milo sets out on a mission to expose the nursing home and the sinister Nurse Thornhill.
A great word to describe the first impression of this novel is the word 'lovely'. For some this word falls a bit flat, but I think it is a perfect descriptor sometimes. What Milo Saw is a beautiful book which takes its time to tell an adorable story with a wide cast of characters. However, below the surface there is a lot more going on than the narration betrays. Whether it's ageing, getting divorced or the pressures of everyday life, What Milo Saw picks up on a whole range of topics which can hit really close to home. Macgregor manages to have these themes run through her novel very subtly, each of them serving the novel's main narrative while also getting space of their own. Each of the characters is used by Macgregor to explore one of these by shifting narrator between chapters and it works surprisingly well. The only potential down point is that the ending of the novel felt almost too quick, as if the whole narrative was tied together too neatly. But then all the story lines did get their own endings, each in their own way.

What Macgregor does beautifully is write from the perspective of a nine-year old. Children are always difficult narrators because they either have to be made too wise to allow for a narrative to actually fully develop or are dumbed down so much that they're not even recognizable as children. In some ways Macgregor's novel follows in the footsteps of What Maise Knew, both title-wise and in her characterization of Milo. Henry James' heroine from the title sees too much and hears too much but interprets it all in her own way. In much the same way Milo is a conduit through which the reader experiences much of the novel's story. However, Macgregor infuses Milo with a kind of childish innocence that is missing in James' novel which makes the reader rather attached to her main character. Even when a different narrator is speaking Milo is almost always at the centre of things. Macgregor also describes his condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, very well. Although it is a disadvantage, as also portrayed as such, it doesn't hinder Milo or hold him back.

Aside from everything else What Milo Saw is incredibly topical. One of the main characters, Tripi, is a Syrian refugee who fled his home-country with his little sister when the bombs started falling and their parents disappeared. Rather than exploit Tripi's story for sympathy or "representation", Macgregor actually works with it and makes it part of the whole story of the novel. As the UK battles with itself over taking in more refugees it's gratifying to see a contemporary novel make the presence of refugees and immigrants a natural part of the English environment. Tripi is crucial to the development of What Milo Saw and he is one of the kindest and empathic characters in the whole novel. This kind of representation is what matters and it can only be hoped that it will set a precedent.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading What Milo Saw and couldn't wait to get back to it every time I had to put it down. Milo is a main character you can really get attached to and the rest of the characters are all written in a very emotional but recognizable way.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Weekly Overview

I have arrived in St. Andrews! Genuinely, this place is stunning! I'm loving everything I'm seeing and I can't wait to start my MA degree although it'll be a lot of work. It was quite a long drive up from London although we stopped halfway at Durham for an overnight break. I'm hoping this year will be awesome! But let's get onto what happened this week.

Two reviews, wow, so impressed with myself... I really need to step it up but now that I'm back in a productive environment maybe that'll kick be back into gear! Also, just so you guys appreciate how awesome my university is, below are two pictures!

Yup, we got a free book on arrival! This university knows me so well. Can't wait to start reading!

I have missed the sea so much that it's almost not funny! And I love seeing it and smelling the sea-breeze, so this year I will be doing a lot of my work right where I took this picture. 

This post is linked up with the Sunday Post over at the Caffeinated Book Reviewer! Also, come follow me on Instagram so  can follow back because I need more book blogs to follow on there for my daily fiction-fix!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Les Misérables Read-Through #2: Chapters I.i.11 - I.ii.6

Jean Valjean illustration
To my shock, horror and glee I am enjoying Les Misérables quite a lot. Although I'm not even 10% in I feel like I've gotten a good feel for the novel and for Hugo's writing. I also haven't hit a wall yet, which I was quite honesty expecting to happen around the 100 page mark. Whenever I read a book I am uncertain about I give it a 100 pages to convince me. For most authors that's enough to get out of the rough first few chapters, to set up a good story and get some proper characterization going. I have run into books which have failed the '100-page Test' and those become DNFs, but I'm glad to report Les Misérables will not be one of those.

The title of this post has gotten a little bit more complicated than I expected it to. The previous post was originally just titles Chapters 1-10, but then during my reading now I realized that not only is Les Misérables split into five volumes but those volumes are also split up into separate books which have their own chapter count. As such I have decided to go with a system similar to how one references quotes in plays. The capital Roman numeral refers to the volume, the small Roman numeral to the book and then the number refers to the actual chapter. So Chapter I.i.11 means the eleventh chapter in the first book ('A Just Man') in the first volume ('Fantine'), whereas I.ii.6 is the sixth chapter in the second book ('The Fall'), still in the first volume. This is a 100 Classics read for the Classics Club.

Plot Summary:
In the previous post I close-to complained about nothing really happening despite a good 80 pages being filled with words. Well, that has definitely changed! At the end of this section of the book the plot has most definitely been introduced. Since I already know the story, having seen the film, I was expecting not to be surprised by much of the happenings in the novel. However, just like the previous ten chapters were full of new and unexpected information, so are these next ten. Where Hugo initially put a lot of time and words into making sure we understand how holy and good M. Myriel is, he suddenly seems to decide to show him from a more human side. It was interesting to see how the meeting with the member of Convention did change him.

Key to these ten chapters was the introduction of Jean Valjean, which occured pretty much dead centre in the fifteenth chapter. It would be fair to say that the way Hugo describes him doesn't immediately make me think of Hugh Jackman. Valjean comes across very rugged, sometimes rude, less self-conflicted and more angry. His story, however, is greatly expanded upon and I really enjoyed reading about his actual life. The reason his characterisation in the film always annoyed me so was because everyone kept hammering on about the piece of bread but there was never any true context given to it. Hugo takes a lot more time, naturally, but also seems to know what to tell and what to leave open to guessing. He sketches a very interesting portrait and for the first time in my life I am interested in knowing more about Jean Valjean.

Feel of the Chapters:
Whereas initially it all seemed to be very light and calm, the tone of Les Misérables takes a determined nose-dive down once an actually miserable character is introduced. In reading how he is treated by those around hi, how he suffers and how he responds to M. Myriel, the presence of Jean Valjean does a lot to darken the general atmosphere. Although I enjoyed the lighter and more sarcastic style of writing I find Hugo's darkness a lot more fascinating. Hugo really delves into his characters at times and, somehow without passing judgement, reveals their right- and wrongdoings.

General Thoughts:
  • Hugo as a narrator is incredibly present. I have already said so in the previous post but it keeps surprising me how big a part of the story he is. It was especially interesting when it came to discussing Jean Valjean's escape attempts and life as a convict because Hugo kept referring to "other sources" which would verify his tale. 
  • The despair of Jean Valjean's story really comes across in Les Misérables the novel, rather than Les Misérables the film. In the film they move through his backstory so quickly that it is practically irrelevant, whereas here you can really feel the burden that Valjean carries with him. His punishment, in the sense of his sentence, is something that really follows him around and against which no one is willing to protect him. It's very well done.
  • I have touched on it a little bit already but I am surprised by how kind and understanding Victor Hugo is towards his miserable characters. Although he does not propose major changes or anything like that, he is very understanding of the fact that people are forced into actions by their circumstances and that society isn't a very friendly place for some. 
  • Old school French passport
  • I am now really looking forward to the introduction of Javert, I think once the novel moves away from M. Myriel, our kind bishop, the story will pick up more pace and become a bit more intense and interesting.
Something Interesting:
The yellow passport that Jean Valjean carries around intrigued me. So I decided to look into it since I wondered why Jean Valjean would willingly show it off to anyone, thereby dooming himself to be judged. Back in the day, France required people to carry around internal passports so they could move between cities. The yellow passport was reserved for convicts which presented them as criminals, even if they'd served their sentence, and thereby made them outcasts. What this passport really shows is the ease with which people judge others based on a name that follows them and I think this is something that is still current. Just look at the refugees from Syria right now, who are judged as immigrants etc. without people taking their actual circumstances in consideration.

Favourite Quotes:
'Ignominy thirsts for consideration.' Ch. 3 (Book 2)
This is so very true! When you're being shamed by some one it means a lot when someone else takes the time to be considerate or kind to you. Many of us have had to learn this in high school, unfortunately, but it's also an important thing to know since you can really make a difference in someone's life.
'There's a sacred horror beneath the porches of the enigma; those gloomy openings stand yawning there, but something tells you, you, a passer-by in life, that you must not enter. Woe to him who penetrates thither!' Ch. 13 (Book 1)
I felt like this quote really captures how the mood of the book has changed. We're now talking about the horror and the woe of a normal ife, rather than describing idyllic trips around the mountains by a bishop. Also, the phrasing of this quote is beautiful.

I'm really enjoying Les Misérables now that the intensity has increased a little bit. Victor Hugo isn't only writing an interesting story, he is also painting a fascinating portrait of France.