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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Richard III by William Shakespeare

I've been looking forward to reading Richard III for a long while now. Why this one in particular? It has one of the most gleefully enjoyable villain protagonists that I have had the pleasure of reading; having found a comic adaptation of an abridged version of the play whilst in high school. Having now read the full play, my expectations were more than met.

For those who have lived under a rock for many years, here's the plot. Richard Duke of Gloster, having helped his elder brother Edward to claim the throne (events that I covered partially in my reviews of the Henry VI plays), decides to usurp his elder brothers and their offspring. In his plot to become king, he decides that the best course of action is to kill anyone and everyone who might be a threat to his claim, and for a time it does work very well. It is only when he goes a step too far that things start to fall apart. But by god, it is fun while it lasts: as a villain protagonist, Richard is just so enthusiastic about being evil that it's really rather infectious. Granted, it means that the Richard III fan-club burst a collective blood vessel whenever the play is performed, but I think that the writing and characterisation for Richard is by far the strongest aspect of the play, regardless of the dubiousness of the play's historical accuracy.
My high opinion of the text was probably to the detriment of my enjoyment when watching the BBC adaptation. The text created such vivid visualisations for me that the actual film adaptation jarred with what had been floating around in my brain. As it was, this was still a very good adaptation in all but one aspect: sound. Almost all the dialogue was incredibly loud at some points, then unintelligibly quiet at other points; it was most frustrating to have to strain to hear Shakespeare's fantastic dialogue, with the knowledge that I'd be deafened if I turned up the volume any louder.

I did consider writing a defence for the real Richard III, but I decided that, interesting as history may be, I am here to assess the merits of Shakespeare's reinterpretation of the man, not compare the two versions. As a play, it's fantastic; it's the rise and fall of a man who doesn't learn when he's made one corpse too many. As a history lesson, it's flawed at best, but if you're consulting Shakespeare as a historian then you have other problems. 5/5

Next review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Signing off,

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Marshmallows For Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Marshmallows For Breakfast is not the kind of book that I usually pick up. To be honest, I can't actually remember buying this for any better reasons than it was cheap and I liked the title. After Gillespie and I though, I think I needed a simpler read, something that would leave me in a clearer state of mind; a comfort read if you will. In that capacity, Dorothy Koomson has certainly delivered.

Marshmallows For Breakfast follows Kendra Tamale as she moves to England after living abroad in Australia. Her hopes at finding a simpler life than the one she had in Australia are quickly dashed when she finds herself helping her landlord's two young children, Summer and Jaxon, as they struggle to deal with their parents' inevitable separation. While the children and their father manage to worm their way into her affections, Kendra is keeping a huge, incredibly painful secret from them.
In regards to the plot, I liked it, but I couldn't help but feel that it was kind of, well, amateurish. The main thing that I can think of is that it feels like the novel tried to tackle too many "big" issues; quite frankly, I think that the pressures of looking after someone else's children and the fallout that comes from divorce are subjects that can easily take up a whole novel by itself. The fact that there are at least three other big issues that get discussed as part of the narrative makes it feel a bit like Dorothy Koomson wrote this more as a way to get her views out to the public. While she does manage to mostly make the inclusion of these issues fit, it does feel a little preachy; the closest character that you could consider a villain is undoubtedly evil and completely unrepentant for what he has done, which just feels weird considering the comparatively balanced and sympathetic way that almost every other character is portrayed in, despite their failings and issues. One thing that I will give Dorothy Koomson credit for is that she doesn't feel the need to force a romance into the already full narrative.
The characters are well-written and sympathetic, especially Summer and Jaxon; I was actually rather surprised to find myself liking the two kids, despite the frequent moments in which they act up like every small child you are ever likely to meet. Apart from the children though, there weren't really any characters that really stood out as such. Well written, but not great.

Overall, this is a comfortable read. It's not something that I would recommend to someone looking for a book that will challenge them or broaden their horizons. This is well-suited for when you've reached a point where you're just emotionally or mentally tired. 3/5

Next review: Richard III by William Shakespeare

Signing off,

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Like The Mall, Gillespie and I is a book that I won as part of a give-away, courtesy of Savidge Reads. I entered this one less for the premise of the book itself, which was okay; what sold me most, other than the lure of a free book, was the enthusiastic way in which he praised it. So, having finally read it, will it live up to the many good things that made me want it in the first place?

Gillespie and I tells the story of Harriet Baxter, an English spinster who goes to Glasgow for the International Exhibition, following the death of the elderly aunt whom she was nursing. Whilst there, she becomes close friends with the Gillespie family; the father figure, Ned Gillespie, is an artist at the Exhibition, and it is his biography that an older Harriet purports this novel to be. At first glance, it appears to be an innocent enough narrative, maybe something along the lines of a slice of life/historical novel. That's when things start to go wrong; I shan't tell you exactly what goes wrong, but I will say that it comes about incredibly suddenly, tearing apart the family that come to feel very dear to you, as well as making you doubt everything that you had read before.
In regards to plot, it is superbly written. Jane Harris sows seeds of doubt so expertly that you don't even realise they're there until something else comes up that makes you re-examine what you thought you knew. The ending of the novel left me rather shaken really, simply through the doubts that had built up over the course of it; if someone had asked me what my opinion of events was at the beginning, middle and end, I would have given completely different versions at each point, simply because the circumstances changed so much. I honestly can't find fault in this writing.
Probably the most important character in Gillespie and I is that of the narrator, Harriet. She's the most important character, yet I can't actually think of how to describe her. I can think of qualities that, had I been asked towards the beginning, would have come to mind: straightforward, helpful, loyal, intelligent and possessing a barbed wit. As of now, I can agree wholeheartedly about the last item I mentioned there: she does indeed have a barbed wit, which she uses to pepper the narrative with humorous asides. As for the other qualities, I honestly couldn't say one way or the other.
The other main characters worth mentioning are the Gillespie family. There's Ned, an artist who is almost pre-disposed to seeing the best in other people and is devoted to his family, his children especially. His wife, Annie, is a little less trusting than Ned, but is a loyal friend when her trust has been earned. His mother, Elspeth, is largely self-absorbed, but undoubtedly has her family's best interests at heart. Finally, there are his children, Sibyl and Rose, who couldn't be more different in temperament. Almost every character grows on you by the end, which is why what happens feels so tragic and confusing.

I would definitely recommend this to, well, pretty much anyone. Mystery fans will probably enjoy the twists and turns that occur throughout, although this may perhaps end with everything a bit too much on the vague side for some. It is a bit of a slow burner, but it is more than worth the effort overall. 4.5/5

Next review: Marshmallows For Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Signing off,

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince was one of those books that I would have eventually gotten around to reading, but thanks to the intervention of my boyfriend I decided to give it a read now, seeing as he seemed to like it so much. Am I glad that I bumped it up the list then?

Seeing as this is more an instruction manual of sorts, I have no real synopsis for this. For those of you who don't know, this is essentially a guide on politics, written with prospective rulers in mind. It has also forever linked Machiavelli's name with the archetypes of the intriguer and, in some cases, the agent of the Devil. And that's kind of sad, because pretty much everything that he wrote down here makes a lot of sense. For instance, when discussing whether it is better for a leader to be loved than feared, a lot of criticism seems to be targeted at his answer of:
"One would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both." 
The only part of that line that I knew of before reading this was the "better to be feared than loved", which seems a lot harsher without the context; it's pretty clear that a combination of the two qualities is the ideal here, but from a pragmatic stance it's good to know which quality you can get away with not having should that ideal be out of your reach. Weirdly enough, it actually reminded me of some of my favourite teachers when I was younger; while they were fun and interesting, the thing that made me respect them and listen to them in the first place was the knowledge that they would not put up with any bad behaviour from me. The whole book is kind of like that. While I can see where the whole "ends justifies the means" perspective can be derived, I would say that the book is more an instruction manual focusing on lessons regarding pragmatism and learning to rely on your own wisdom/judgement/skills instead of the wisdom/judgement/skills of everyone around you.

So yeah, my review of this is pretty short and actually more of a defence for Machiavelli's less-than-stellar reputation. Really, I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in politics, anyone who wants to work with people one day and anyone who is trying to write anything like epic fantasy or other fiction genres involving politics. If you're interested in the context or history of the writing of The Prince, I would recommend the Penguin Classics version, or any version with annotations, as they are very interesting. 4/5

Next review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Signing off,

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Mall by S. L. Grey

I got The Mall when I won a give-away from one of the blogs that I follow, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review; I saw the premise on his blog (which you should definitely check out, hint hint) and thought, "Yeah, that sounds like my cup of tea". It has, unfortunately, taken me over a year to actually get round to actually reading it. So, a year on, am I glad that I won that give-away?

The premise follows Rhoda and Dan, two young adults who meet in a Johannesburg mall. Rhoda is a junkie who has lost the young boy that she was babysitting whilst going to buy some cocaine, while Dan is one of the employees at the mall's book-shop. Convinced that Dan has seen the boy, Rhoda bullies him into showing her the service corridors of the mall, in an effort to find him before she has to get him back to his parents. Instead of finding the boy, however, they find their worst fears come to life, eventually leading to another mall that is a warped mirror of the mall in the real world; all the while they are goaded by threatening text messages, in places where they shouldn't be receiving any.
I genuinely like the premise here. If you can create something that is completely screwed up and weird, then that automatically earns you points in my eyes. The author has to really nail the execution though, if I'm going to love it. I almost loved this one. Granted, I've been talking to friends and family about just how weird this actually got for me, and they've been kinda put off by it; looking at it in retrospect though, it does make sense as a whole, which I really liked. If you actually boil the plot right down, it's incredibly simple; introduce characters, then BAM, horror imagery and situations. It actually kind of reminded me of survival horror video games at first. I guess what I really liked about this was the concept of the other mall and the effect that the experience has on the main characters. I shan't talk about the latter, as that strays into spoiler territory. I think I'm probably safe to talk about the mall itself though, so I'll mention the part that really interested me about it: the satire of capitalism. The other mall essentially embodies the warped version of capitalism's sort of ideal vision, as there are three main options for them there: become a Shopper, become an Employee or drop out of the system altogether. Become an employee, and you become a mindless drone chained to your counter, with a gaping wound in the side of your neck. Become a shopper and you literally live to shop, altering your body in the mean-time to be either morbidly obese, completely emaciated or have parts of your body hacked off or pumped with silicon. Drop out entirely and you risk your life and sanity beneath the mall, taking what you can from the remains left by the shoppers and the employees. This idea just works for me, as it perfectly reflects the excess and unfairness that can be the result of overt consumerism. The only thing about the premise that really bothered me all that much was the logistics of it; there's evidence that Rhoda and Dan aren't the first people to disappear into the other mall, so part of me was wondering just how several disappearances of mall patrons would go unnoticed by the rest of Johannesburg. Unless disappearances are that common an occurrence over there, which is a thought I'd rather not entertain.
In terms of the characters, I thought I would hate them after I'd read the first couple of chapters. On the one hand you have Rhoda, a junkie who pretty much abandons a child in her care to get drugs, and then proceeds to threaten a guy with a knife to get him to help her. On the other hand you have Dan, an entitled, passive-aggressive brat who hates his life because he can't get his gold-digger co-worker to notice him, much less go out with him. At first, I was pretty much hoping that they would both die in the course of the novel, but they did grow on me as I read on. They aren't my favourite characters from a book, by no means, but they do become more sympathetic as they go on.

Overall, I would recommend this heartily to horror fans. The imagery is visceral and imaginative, and the horror elements are well-implemented. I would say that those with a weak stomach should avoid this, along with those who are easily shocked by swearing. It's a book that took me a while to get into, but I'm very glad that I persevered. 4.5/5

Next review: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Signing off,