Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

First published in 1899, #158 The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is available for free on Project Gutenberg and on Kindle.

The Heart of Darkness is a very short book – somewhere between 60 and 120 pages depending on the edition. In it, a man named Marlowe tells the story of a period he spent working as a riverboat captain in Africa. He chronicles his own ‘descent into savagery’ and return, and that of a trader, named Kurtz, who goes too deep into the ‘heart of darkness’ and cannot escape.

I don’t recommend this book and I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this review because I simply don’t have the expertise or right through experience to cover the topic well. However, I pledged to read the book, as it’s on the list, and publish my reaction to it, which this is. To be very brief: I think this is an absolutely racist work and the only reason to read it is to bear witness to the institutional horrors of European colonialism, and its acceptance by the leading lights of society.

In this story, black Africans are, at best, described as savages. They are constantly mistreated, abused and murdered by the white characters. Although this happens largely off-screen, the language used to describe them, and the overall tone and attitude to the black characters and their country is grim.

Early on, Marlowe says:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

which is one of the things I can agree with. However, he immediately continues:

What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before,and offer a sacrifice to… [Emphasis mine]

And there I’ve lost him again. Having read the rest of the book, he seems to be suggesting that this is all worthwhile, in some way, that a company, with the support of their government, invading another country, abusing and murdering and massacring the local people, destroying their forms of government and bringing disease, is all OK because of some ideal. I can’t even figure out which one he’s talking about, honestly, although I did reread the section. Patriotism? Christianity? Capitalism? Whiteness? Progress? The Company? I don’t know.

Marlowe does have flashes of insight, where he almost treats the black Africans he is surrounded by as people. For example, noting the desolation of the local area, he wryly notes:

Well, if a lot of mysterious [Africans] armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. [Yeah, he didn’t say Africans. You can guess what he did say or look it up]

Even when he’s describing local workers he respects, it’s not great. Here are the examples I found:

I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.

Marlowe has worked with this man for months on end – at least on two of the voyages and probably the three previous to that – and when he dies, he tips him overboard like rubbish and there’s no mention of anyone telling his family.

At one point, he realises that a good part of his crew are starving – the white men have thrown their rations overboard because they smell (Marlowe supports this) and as they’ve seen few villages and stop more rarely, the crew have had no opportunity to replace the lost food, despite their generous pay of 27 inches of brass wire per week. And yet they haven’t rioted. Marlowe can’t figure out why – he’s been hungry himself, and knows how grim it is:

Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us — they were thirty to five — and have a good tuck-in for once, amazes me now when I think of it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with stength…

For a moment – bracketed by a comment about how he was feverish and a little ill – he says:

I looked at them as you would on any human being.

Then he goes back to wondering why they didn’t eat him – they’re indiscriminate cannibals, you see, would eat anybody:

Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear — or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze…It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. [emphasis mine]


Why, Marlowe, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve said. Bit of a reluctant compliment, but we’ll take it.

Conrad: wrong about everybody
If you ever complain about racism, sexism and other forms of ass-hattery in the ‘Great Works’, someone will generally turn up to point out that the author ‘is only a product of their time (so stop complaining)’, that they, personally, ‘didn’t notice that (so it doesn’t exist / isn’t that bad)’ or ‘it’s a brilliant example of something and beautiful and wonderful in every other way anyway (so shut up)’. I have a little sympathy for these people (at least when they start talking) because what they’re usually saying is: I love it, don’t ruin it. And I’ve done that: I’ve been the insensitive one trying to defend something deeply flawed against reasonable criticism. It’s not a pleasant feeling when something you’ve enjoyed turns out to be rotten.

Conrad’s work seems to me to be rotten through and through. He’s got this major distaste for anyone who is not a white man from a (short) list of acceptable nations. Everyone else gets short shrift, while even the despicable white dudes get a more nuanced description than the rest of us. Let’s hear Marlowe on women. His aunt has just got him a job he really, really wants, so he’s probably pretty pleased with her and the world in general, right? Here he goes:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

I… what? Which women? All women? Working class women? Black women in Africa? I can only assume he means white, middle class women – you know, the ones who are almost human, apart from the delusions and incompetence. Handily, if you replace a few words, you have an apt review of the book:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth CONRAD is. He lives in a world of his own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. If he were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. The confounded fact the rest of us have been living (and thinking) ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole think over.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Set in a world where the Scarlet Pimpernel – master spy and rescuer of aristocrats heading for the guillotine – is real, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is an absolute frolic – and as I type, it’s just £1.75 on Kindle and (in my opinion) well worth the money.

The story follows two adventurous girls: Eloise Kelly, modern grad student, and Amy de Balcourt, living at the dawn of the 19th century. Eloise is writing her thesis on the great spies of the Napoleonic wars – the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation – and one of the sources she uncovers is Amy’s diary. In 1803, Amy was following much the same quest, looking to join the spies and lend her strengths to the fight against Napoleon.

Story over fact
To be clear, while this is a novel set during the Napoleonic wars, it’s not trying to be an authentic Georgian work (or if it is, it has missed) – instead, it’s an adventure story with a strong romantic element, set in a fictional universe. The language is modern, a number of the sentiments are very modern and you could probably swap Amy and Eloise without having to do more than change references to jeans to muslins and tube trains to carriages.

This sort of thing usually drives me crazy, but in this case I could accept it because the story triumphs over the facts. It’s like complaining that action movies aren’t realistic – that’s kind of partly the point of the work. The Pink Carnationis a rollicking adventure, in the tradition of Treasure Island or The Thirty-Nine Steps: implausibility is part and parcel of the genre.

I wasn’t really prepared for the anachronisms going in, and while they didn’t bother me after the first couple chapters, I think I would have been happier forewarned. That said, as we established when I reviewed A Tale of Two Cities, I know very little about the French Revolution and its aftermath – and as it seems to be a theme in my reading this year, maybe I should get a history book or two.

I just really like this book
At this point, if you’ve met me, you can imagine me waving my hands around a lot and possibly almost falling off my seat as I try to explain why, for me, the book was more than the sum of its parts – and the parts are pretty awesome. Avoiding spoilers, I liked:

  • Traditional adventure story with girls in the lead roles
  • Kicking ass in a poofy dress
  • Family ties
  • Family support
  • Developed secondary characters
  • Secondary characters who come into their own
  • Napoleon
  • Spying – with disguises and masks and swords, oh my!
  • Romance

A bit cryptic, I’m afraid. But I was really pleased with the ending, which turned a couple of major tropes on their heads, and am saving the second book in the series for a rainy day.

I think what really grabbed me was the happy enthusiasm – Eloise is happy and enthusiastic about her thesis project, excited to make a historical discovery (such a great, geeky theme for a female lead in what’s marketed as a historical romance); Amy is really excited about becoming a spy and bringing down Napoleon (I’m not saying she’s not a little delusional, but great dreams bring great realities, right?) and the author seems to be really enjoying the story she’s writing.

Despite a number of flaws, I’m inclined to give this book my personal feminist thumbs-up – for no other reason that the women in it dream, plan and act with the same scope that male action heroes do. Take down Napoleon armed only with a hair pin and a black mask? Of course we can!

And that is rather refreshing. So if you’re in the mood for a frolic through Paris in 1803, dive in. If you’re looking for something which will help you write a history paper though – stay away.

A new challenge and an old one – BBC Big Read one year on

A new challenge and an old one – BBC Big Read one year on

About a month ago, I found my reading theme for the year when I signed up for the Tea and Books challenge over at The Book Garden.

This challenge is all about long books. To enter, you commit to reading a number of books each over 650 pages long. There are a few loopholes – and super-long books count double – but it’s pretty straight forward. I signed up immediately and spent a happy hour or three (when I could have been reading) sorting through The List and choosing my long books.

I’ve already read the first one – The Pickwick Papers – and if the challenge does nothing else, then getting me through 700+ pages of Dickens is well worth it. Thank you, Birgit, for the inspiration!

A year of Big Read books
I’m terrible at anniversaries – it’s a blessing and a curse – but I realized recently that I’ve been working on the Big Read challenge for a year now – and I also spent the whole year either reading or avoiding Great Expectations. Oops. Still, I finished it in the end, which I hope bodes well for the challenge as a whole.

I read a lot anyway, so the volume of books for the challenge isn’t the hard part for me. The challenge is to stick with it, to finish each book (including a lot of ones I’ve pegged as long or dull or both). To keep me going, I have formal and informal sub-challenges along the way. So far these have included read for free and read whatever the library hands you.

It’s a technique I use for lots of longer projects, because it’s natural that motivation will flag when the goal seems so far away, and completing a mini-challenge can be a real boost. I’m already looking forward to book 100 – after that, it’s just a long slide to the end of the project, right?

Current challenges
As the Big Read is going to be with me for a while, I can’t expect it to always be interesting – without a little help. The challenges have evolved and at the moment I’m working on:

  • Read long books (for the challenge above)
  • Read the books I expect to be dull
  • Publish at least one review of a Big Read book every week
  • Get to 100 books!

I’m trying to be realistic with my goals. I started this project on a whim but I do want to finish so I’m shifting it as I go and try to keep the goals mutually supportive – or at least mutually compatible. There’s a bit of a clash between publishing every week and reading really long books so one might have to go. I suspect that a book a week won’t be sustainable long term, but it does keep the pace up.

It’s been an interesting year – I’ve discovered a couple of books I really love and now have the right to an opinion on a good number of classic novels I’d never read. Many of these books are cornerstones in English and English-language literature, so being aware of their plots and themes has expanded my literary vocabulary.

The only problem – I don’t know what to read next! Check out the full Big Read listand the list of books I’ve read and recommend me something. It doesn’t have to be your favourite, or even a book you like – just pick a title and maybe add a line to tell me why you think I should read it.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

I am clearly missing something about Dickens novels, as the ones I like the most appear the lowest down the list. I should probably search out the ones panned by critics and fans alike, the ones rarely mentioned, and I’d love them. Anyway, #106 The Pickwick Papers is available for free on Project Gutenberg and is the second lowest on the list. Oliver Twist trails at #182, and I’ve read and enjoyed that one.

The novel follows the adventures of Mr Pickwick and three of his protégés as they venture forth from London to the provinces, hoping that travel will broaden the mind and improve their spirits. They plan to report back to the rest of the Pickwick Club, left behind in London, regularly with news of their scientific and social discoveries.

The Pickwick Papers has a somewhat annoying conceit which is that the story has been reconstructed from the papers left behind by the eponymous club. It’s useful to the author, no doubt, as it allows him to steer away from things he doesn’t want to talk about. It also means that Dickens shouldn’t be able to recount things certain people would prefer went unrecorded or wouldn’t have known, but he doesn’t let the conceit constrain him, and gives up mentioning after about the first ten chapters.

Better than Great Expectations
All in all, I found The Pickwick Papers to be the easiest of Dickens’ novels I’ve read. The story starts straight away and rattles off, shifting locations and plots in a pleasing, if episodic, manner. It was published – and probably written – in installments, which actually works quite well as the whole is enormously long – over 750 pages, depending on the edition – but each chapter is about the same length and contains a complete incident.

Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, there are relatively few characters – although I would applaud anyone who could keep them all straight reading it in monthly installments as some characters must have vanished for a year or more before popping up again and throwing themselves into the action.

I did struggle with a few elements though – I had trouble keeping the characteristics of Mr Pickwick’s three friends apart, as they all seemed very similar. They did have certain traits which stood out, but on the whole it was a bit of a blur. I also couldn’t tell how old people were supposed to be – particularly the three friends – as Dickens frequently exaggerated for comic effect, and I just got confused. At one point he described someone as ‘single young lady of 53′, obviously satirical but the other descriptions are as much in doubt. Add in the different standards of the day and I wound up feeling faintly – or not so faintly – horrified any time one of the characters made a pass at a woman as the ladies all seemed to be about 17 and the men all sounded about 60.

19th century life displayed and dissected
The Pickwick Papers is written to be amusing – it’s droll in parts, wry in others and often satirical. As a result it’s focus is typically on ordinary events, the kind which don’t make much of an appearance in other works. So we see, for example, the process of hiring a cab, paying a fare, travelling by stage, taking a room at an inn – minutiae of early 19th century life which just don’t appear in many books or period dramas but which help bring the era to life.

The Pickwick Papers first appeared in 1836, the year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne.Victorians tend to seem prudish, with their 14 pounds of underwear and stories of covering the ‘limbs’ of pianos to protect nice young ladies from thinking about legs – either it was a late-Victorian phenomenon or the Pickwick Club don’t move in such elevated circles, because they come across as a collection of fairly randy drunkards. A The Pickwick Papers drinking game would be to match the characters drink for drink, and have any drinking team with a sporting problem looking for a basin to throw up in pretty quickly.

I won’t say I took a wild shine to any of the characters, but I did enjoy the stories and one part, where they go pigeon shooting, almost made me laugh out loud (it’s Chapter 7, to save you reading the other 56) and I enjoyed their trips to some of my old haunts – they visited Bath, Bristol and perhaps Ely or Norwich, although the description there wasn’t as vivid. In fact, one of our favourite pubs in Bath – somewhere you can get a good pint and hear yourself talk – is named after one of the characters: it’s Sam Wellers on Upper Borough Walls.

The Pickwick Papers also links through to plenty of other books – it was clearly popular at the time and seems to have been considered wholesome reading for children, which seems slightly odd with all the drinking, kissing serving maids and whatnot. For example, the altogether more puritanical Little Women devotes the whole of Chapter 10 to the Pickwick Club and the Marches own version thereof.

While I wouldn’t start a fan club, I did enjoy The Pickwick Papers overall – although it’s got little in common with the rest of Dickens’ oeuvre, so if you’re wondering if you’ll get on with the rest of his works, don’t start here.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Knitting Classic Style by Véronik Avery

Knitting Classic Style by Véronik Avery

Inspired by classic fashion designs from the last hundred years or more, Véronik Avery’s Knitting Classic Style features 35 knitting patterns. Most of the designs are for women, with a few for men and children and a number of accessories which could be for anyone.

Véronik Avery is a very talented designer who has an amazing way with cables and textures, so when I spotted this book on NetGalley, I immediately requested a review copy.

Knitting Classic Style is not a new book, although it has been released in a new edition. It was first published in 2007, which means that you can see all 35 designs from Knitting Classic Style on Ravelry as well as some designs on the publisher’s website.

The new edition is available on Kindle, which I have mixed feelings about – I knit a lot from patterns I’ve loaded onto my Kindle, but it can be very hard to see images as you can’t zoom far enough in, so following a chart might be a royal pain. That said, I haven’t seen this book on Kindle, so it may be fabulous. On to things I do know about!

Beautiful, elegant designs
Avery comes from a fashion background – she worked as a costume designer before she began knitting – and has an eye for stunning cables, particularly. I love her use of textured stitches and colourwork throughout this book.

Avery delves into the fashion history which inspired each pattern, giving you something to read and enjoy even if you never knit any of the patterns. In some ways, I feel like this would be a great coffee-table book – it’s just that pretty, and the bits of history are intriguing to dip into.

Perhaps because of her start in sewing, most of the patterns are in the knit and sew up format, although there are a few pieces which have a more interesting construction. I think this is probably deliberate – seams give a garment structure, and it’s clear Avery knows what she’s doing – but if you’re a fan of everything in the round (like I am) this may not be the book for you.

The patterns are complex and many use fine yarn for large projects, and this is not a book which takes the beginner through step-by-step. I think the patterns are clearly written (although I haven’t tried to follow one) but there is plenty of ‘while keeping the stitch pattern correct ALSO…’ which I know drives some knitters up the wall. Read carefully, is what I’m saying.

A few qualms
The book is also a typical hotchpotch, more women’s cardigans and jumpers than anything else, but also tops for men and children, socks, hats and other accessories. It’s not a format I, personally, care for – even though I love Avery’s designs, I know there’s no way I’ll be knitting a man’s jumper in the foreseeable future, or a cardigan for an 8-year-old, so these are a waste of space for me, and I’d prefer a more targeted book.

I’d also be reluctant to buy this book because I feel like it’s not really for fat chicks. As a plus-size knitter, I know I won’t get the same drape and slouch some of the designs use, while the fitted pieces just won’t look the same either. Again, this is a matter of personal taste, and it’s clear that there has been an effort to size the designs up and down, so that individuals can choose.

Design sizes seem to go from the low 30s to the low 50s (in inches) but this is only over 4-6 sizes, which may be problematic. There’s also a wide range in available sizes: the finished size of the largest size offered on the first 3 garments is 40in, 47in and 52in respectively, and the lowest sizes varied as well, so if you’re under 37in or over 40in you can’t guarantee a fit.

I imagine that you’re supposed to pick a size (say 2XL) and stick with it throughout, so that each design will finish with the fit Avery had in mind, but as there’s no overall sizing information or ease indication I’m wary. I’m not a nervous knitter but I would hate to invest in good yarn and start in on one of these complex patterns, only to realise that, nope, I’m sized out of this design. Again, not a timid knitter – and I’ve even done a little tech editing – but altering one of Avery’s designs to fit is more work than I care for.

The accessories are also restricted in size – even the simple stripy socks are one-size-fits-some, as are the gloves and mitts, and most of the other hats and socks.

All in all, I’m happy to see this book back out again, with an ebook and a new paper edition. Avery’s designs are absolutely beautiful, and when I have a knitting lounge, I’ll buy a copy to put on the coffee table. I’m not sure I’d ever knit anything out of it though…

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, STC Craft / Melanie Falick Books. You can see their page about Knitting Classic Style here. Errata for Knitting Classic Style are here but I imagine that refers to the previous edition, rather than this new one.

Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

Want to get rich quickly? Willing to pay someone to tell you how? Well, you’re taking a big risk – and probably they’ll get rich while you won’t.

Helaine Olen’s book takes a long, hard look at personal finance and investment advice offered by both individuals and financial institutions to assess whether any of it does what it says on the tin.

Having been a little broke on a lot of occasions, I’m always interested in personal finance advice, whether it’s how to save money on the weekly shop or how to have an enviable retirement. Pound Foolish sounded intriguing, so I requested a review copy and the publishers, Penguin Group USA, kindly sent me one.

Show me the money!
I found Pound Foolish absolutely fascinating – and rather terrifying. I was actually slightly disappointed when a friend turned up early for coffee – I’d counted on another 15 minutes to finish my chapter.

In Pound Foolish, Olen covers the most prevalent financial advice offered in America over the last 50 years and examines its effectiveness. The results may surprise you – very little of it works.

K tells me I’m a pessimist – I like to think I’m a rational skeptic – so I wasn’t surprised that get-rich-quick schemes only enriched the founder (the house always wins, right?) but I was surprised at how many large, respectable financial institutions were systematically creating confusing products and situations to ensure that more of their clients’ money was spent on fees and charges.

Show me the science!
Olen deals in facts and figures, but the book is very readable. It’s illustrated throughout with anecdotes and conversations with people attempting the schemes or using the financial services she describes. Combined with the deliberately eye-catching stories and tactics used by the advisers she features, it makes the book very readable.

Naturally, I haven’t checked out all the facts and figures, but the book comes with a slew of end notes and references, which means that if you want to question any detail, you can do the research.

My personal belief is that the point of living in a society rather than struggling individually is that as a group we can afford to help and support those who are slipping. That on this march into the future we can carry those who can’t walk, get wheels for those who can’t keep up, and generally do it together. If for no other reason than we were all immobile infants at one point, and however fast we run in the middle years we’ll probably all end up dependent once again in the end. So why make people gamble with their care when, as a group, we can provide that?

Olen’s book takes a long, hard look at the creed of independence which is growing in America, sweeping away social services and support just as the Baby Boomers start to reach out for them. It’s a terrifying prospect, and I sincerely hope – although equally sincerely doubt – that she’s wrong about some of the things. As a bit of a hippie who has lived in the UK for much of my adult life facts like:

in 2007, doctor bills factored in 62 percent of all bankruptcy filings

just make my heart ache. Bankruptcy means losing everything, almost down to the clothes on your back. Having to go through that because of an illness, or the loss of someone you loved is a sign, in my mind, that something has gone badly wrong in the ‘Greatest Nation on Earth’.

Pound Foolish is a book to read with highlighter in hand, as Olen drops in many ideas you might want to consider later. A couple which grabbed me were:

Under the suitability standard, there is no legal requirement for a broker to tell you how much you are paying for the service, or if there is a better product available at a lower charge.


Brokerage and industry lobbying groups […] have more or less threatened to cease offering advice to those with small IRA accounts if forced to adhere to the higher fiduciary standard. According to their rationale, the proposed rule is unworkable because agents will have to spend so much time with each individual, they will lose money. Think about this for a moment. If the financial services industry is forced to take the time to find out what their customers best interests are and then act on them, the industry doesn’t have a viable business model. [emphasis mine]

Olen’s tour through financial advice is well worth reading, although she doesn’t, at any point, offer to make you rich. Her clear, precise writing unwraps many complex financial concepts and products, showing you what’s behind the glitter. Reading this book is a good introduction to personal finance – and should, hopefully, give you a touch of skepticism, encouraging you to look a gift horse in the mouth. After all, you have to pay to feed the thing, right?

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Penguin Group USA. You can see their page about Pound Foolish here.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Published in 1925, #43 The Great Gatsby is close to being out of copyright – but in most of the world, it isn’t. If you’re in Australia or a country which has similar copyright laws, you can download The Great Gatsby free from Gutenberg Australia.

Set in the roaring part of the Roaring Twenties, F Scott Fitzgerald tells the story of some of the bright young things who are lighting the New York scene up with jazz, liquor and money. Told from the point of view of Nick, who has to at least pretend to work for a living, we see the misery behind the mask – and the mask behind that.

I had to read The Great Gatsby in school, and hated it. We took it apart line by line over the course of some weeks – it was an exam text, although I can’t remember which exam it was for – so I picked it up again with some trepidation, having filed it in the At Least It’s Short section of the Big Read list.

A thing of beauty
Beautifully wrought phrases in the early part of the book caught me by surprise, and I settled down to enjoy it. I can’t help but admire Fitzgerald’s writing. Descriptions like:

The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens — finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.

did more than make me feel I understood where the story was set. Fitzgerald also has a very neat turn of phrase –

that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer

captures a sensation I’d felt but never vocalized perfectly.

He gave me a really strong sense of place and atmosphere – at one point in the book, it’s stiflingly hot, New York in the summer with no air con, and despite it being neither warm nor sunny where I am, the feeling of heat and the sense of the sun beating down on the back of my neck was almost enough to give me a headache. I couldn’t point to a particular passage for this – the sensation built up over the course of the chapter, matching the tensions rising among the characters. It was all very effectively done.

But not a joy forever
As soon as Gatsby turned up my old ennui resurfaced. I simply don’t like any of the characters in the book – even Nick, our narrator, who has a job and rather less spare cash than the rest seems to just wander around going to parties and accidentally ruining lives. I wouldn’t normally quote from late in the book, but these lines sum up how I felt about the whole thing without giving much of the plot away:

They were careless people […] they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

I’m sure that’s the point Fitzgerald was making – that this society, this high-life is smashing people up – people who barely get a mention in the book, the ripples of this hedonistic life scarring the servants and workers who prop it up and who don’t have the power to say no. It’s almost feudalistic.

However, I feel that Fitzgerald’s criticism stops short of mine – that I would include the whole upper-crust cast, Nick and all, and probably Fitzgerald himself. The characters are all about thirty – and act like they’re seventeen, drinking and partying and getting in spats about who fancies who. Perhaps they had to start later than modern teens, perhaps I’m showing my puritanical bourgeois streak, but I just can’t be bothered with the lot of them.

Gatsby aside, the book became distasteful to me as we began to encounter characters who were not white, Christian and well-off. In a line here or there, Fitzgerald’s descriptions seem to indicate at very least a lack of respect for the characters he’s writing about, which he always affords to even the unpleasant, mercenary or cruel rich, white folks. The few people of colour, foreign descent or other religions are caricatures and grotesques.

I have mixed feelings about The Great Gatsby. I’ve read The Diamond as Big as the Ritz which I liked better, and I do like Fitzgerald’s style. But admiring the brushwork isn’t really enough for me, when the subject matter bores or disgusts, so I don’t expect to read the book again. That said, I do feel better disposed towards Fitzgerald now – the beautiful phrases have banished the schoolroom drears to the point where I can actually have mixed feelings rather than a rabid dislike.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Holders by Julianna Scott

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Becca has always protected her little brother, Ryland. When she comes home from work to find him hiding in the garden, she starts getting angry – another group of strangers have come to their home to take Ry away ‘for his own good’.  Because Ry is different – Ry hears voices.

Except this time, the strangers really do know what’s wrong with Ry: he’s growing into his magic, and has no one to teach him how to control it. Becca accompanies Ry to his new school, to help him get settled in – and finds out more about the world of magic and her own family than she ever bargained for.

The Holders is published by Angry Robot Books under their YA imprint, Strange Chemistry – here’s their page about Julianna Scott’s book. They very kindly send me a review copy, because I asked. I asked because I’ve ready a number of AR books and definitely recommend them (they include: Moxyland, Zoo City and Walking the Tree). I also really like magic, and school stories and magical school stories are definitely right up my street.

I’m telling you this, so you understand why I read – and am now reviewing – The Holders. Because although I really, really wanted to like it, and loved the opening pages, I didn’t. After the first chapter, the book heaped disappointment on disappointment, to the point where I stopped reading a couple times to complain to K about it.

It’s a real shame, because it’s not badly written – it’s over-troped. The Holders reads like a bingo-card example – which may mean that people who haven’t read as much fantasy as I have can still enjoy it, but when I compare it to the books I was reading and loving as a young adult, like Witch Week, Matilda, Wizard’s Hall and, of course, Harry Potter and All Those Sequels, The Holders just doesn’t make the grade.

I try not to put spoilers in a review, but I realise that what annoyed me may actually appeal to you, so here’s a list of the major things which bugged me, in no particular order:

  1. Women can’t have magical superpowers because WHO KNOWS
  2. Except, some do. And they are RARE and SPECIAL and BELOVED
  3. But their powers are never as good as the men’s
  4. An evil, evil supervillain
  5. Good guys are just good
  6. A prophesy…
  7. About a chosen one
  8. Soul mates – because an instant and unbreakable connection with someone you’ve just met is the surefire way to guarantee a happy and healthy relationship
  9. Magic is something you’re either born with or can NEVER learn
  10. Magic is something you’re just good at, and then have to learn to control – unlike, say, playing the piano, tennis or ANY OTHER HUMAN SKILL EVER
  11. Characters who are hundreds of years old but who talk and act like they’re their apparent age
  12. Magic is dying out because WHO KNOWS but probably genetics, because when a person with a rare skill or attribute (like ginger hair or brain surgery) has children with someone without that skill or attribute (like all women ever) then the children born with that skill or attribute have it in a weaker form. It’s like the power law of magic or something.
  13. No real ending because SEQUELS

If you’ve been reading my reviews on G+ and here for a while, you’ll know I can forgive a lot of these things – the Harry Potter books are all about #4, 6 & 7 with helpings of #9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a severe case of #11 and even my beloved Diana Wynne Jones did ‘men’s magic is different from women’s magic’ and other things which make me want growl from time to time.

I think where The Holders really fell down is: the magic isn’t fun enough and it isn’t serious enough. In the Harry Potter world, the magic is bonkers and brilliant – it’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for fabulous, pleasing, silly, wonderful excess. The books are literally stuffed with amazing sweets, never mind the rest of it. On the flip side, The Magicians by Lev Grossman takes magic seriously, and asks what effect magical powers would have on the world and the people who use it. And both are good and interesting.

The Holders falls in the gap between the two – it’s neither pleasingly silly nor exploring a complex what-if in a new way, or from a new perspective. It’s not terrible, it’s just not that interesting – if it were an episode of Buffy, I’d happily watch the characters I already knew work through the problem, but as it is, despite liking Becca and Ry from page one, by chapter four I just didn’t care.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The highest rated Dickens on the list, #17 Great Expectations bored me rigid. It’s taken me half a year to finish this book – I’ve read other Dickens novels to get away from it. Nonetheless, Great Expectations is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, an orphan with little to hope for who is being raised by his sister. After a few early upsets, he meets the wealthy Miss Havisham and her beautiful ward, Estella, and a mysterious benefactor takes pity on him and sends him away to be raised as a gentleman – giving him the expectations mentioned in the title.

Why bother?
Given how long it took me, you may be wondering why I finished Great Expectations – after all, I made no promises about finishing all the books on the list, only trying them. The answer to that is twofold: completeness (of the list) and Thursday Next.

The Thursday Next series of books is written by Jasper Fforde and covers Thursday’s adventures in and out of fiction. It starts with The Eyre Affair, which features Miss Havisham as a main character. In spoiling (to a certain extent) Great Expectations, Fforde encouraged me to finish the book, just to see what happened inside the novel.

It does get better
Having reread the Thursday Next series (more on that another day) I picked up Great Expectations where I’d left it, about chapter 30 (of 59). And I waded on through Pip’s formative years (he reminds me of Adrian Mole, honestly, with his self-centered self-importance) I despaired a little but! I burst through into the final chapters of the book – the last third or so suddenly starts revealing secrets kept, wrapping up trailing sub-plots and crams in a surprising amount of action. It’s as though after watching someone paint a fence very slowly for a couple hundred pages we’ve suddenly been catapulted into an action film.

The shock was pleasant and I was glad I hung on until the end – given that I’d started the book, that is. The less Pip talked, the more I liked everyone else in the book – I had one character I was rooting for in the first half (Herbert) but several others redeemed themselves (in terms of being interesting, not necessarily ethical) and by the end of it, I wished most people well and although I was still glad to wave them goodbye.

I doubt I’ll reread it, but if I did, I think I’d start half way through. Pip repeats himself enough that that shouldn’t cause too many problems…

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Crochet One-Skein Wonders by Judith Durant and Edie Eckman

Crochet One-Skein Wonders by Judith Durant and Edie Eckman

There’s something for every crocheter in this collection of 101 crochet projects, each taking just one skein of yarn. Crochet One-Skein Wonders includes a wide range of projects, from baby bootees to sofa cushions, toys to jewellery.

I’m a sucker for anything yarn-related and I’ve been wanting to get back into crochet, so when I spotted Crochet One-Skein Wonders on NetGalley, I immediately requested a review copy. The book is out today, so I can tell you: it’s good.

Views of a lapsed crocheter
For some reason, crochet doesn’t seem to be quite as popular as knitting. In my case, it’s because I have to look at my hands while I crochet, which means I can’t watch TV – listen to the TV, sure – or make eye contact while I’m doing it. I also find it harder to get started and to follow patterns.

That said, crochet can go incredibly quickly and turn out some amazing sculptural pieces – without much effort. It’s particularly good for no-sewing toys and lace patterns which will make a knitter’s mind boggle. So I think it’s a skill well worth having – and if you’re a beginner or a lapsed crocheter like me, this is a great book to start a crochet pattern library with.

Why do I recommend it? Well, it does what it says on the tin – the projects are each for one skein (or a partial skein) of yarn, which means they’re quick to make and require little investment. The designs are a mix of old favourites (like a simple beanie hat) and quirky new ideas (like that clever cushion on the cover). They range from super-simple to intriguingly complex and the patterns are arranged by yarn weight, making it easy to find a project to match a skein in your stash.

However, if you’re a crochet-expert, you may find this book a little simple – it might be good for quick gifts, but I feel like the individual patterns might not be wildly exciting if you’ve already crocheted hats, scarves, toys, socks and so on.

Focus on the patterns
Clever design is one thing, but how the pattern is presented can make the difference between a frustrating UFO and a delightful finished project.

Each pattern is clearly presented, and includes finished sizes as well as standard information such as yarn and hook details.

One clever touch is that the designers or editors seem to recognize that starting the project is how many people work a tension square, so some of their tension information is in terms of the first few rows or rounds – genius idea, if you ask me, and should be standard for small projects.

Many of the patterns have both written instructions and charts, which is ideal if you’re learning to read one or the other, or are beginning crochet. As crochet is often worked in the round, and rarely works every stitch on every row, I find charts incredibly helpful to get the overall picture, but sometimes confusing to work from without a bit of help. Having both makes my life easier.

The book uses a number of different techniques – including Tunisian crochet and felting – which it doesn’t explain in great detail. I don’t think this is failing – there’s a lot packed in there already – but it’s worth knowing that this is a pattern book, not a how-to book.

I don’t buy pattern books unless there are several projects I want to knit – with this one, there are at least a dozen I’m interested in, either because the technique looks interesting or I want the finished project. I like that the book uses a mix of solid yarns and variegated, hand-dyed and and commercial. I feel like I could dive into my stash, pull out any ball and find a pattern to make – which is what I want from this type of book, really.

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Storey Publishing. This review is a book-only review: I have not crocheted any of the projects – yet!