Tag Archives: historical

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

I’ve just finished reading #49 Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and it’s a beautiful book. I think it deserved to win the whole show.

When war is declared in 1939, Willie is evacuated from London and sent to stay with Mr Tom, a widower living in a country village. Mr Tom has lived alone for 40 years, and didn’t expect to start childrearing at this late stage. Willie is frightened of the countryside, and worried that Mr Tom will be as strict as his mother. And yet, one way or another, they have to learn to live together.

Just lovely
I couldn’t think of any other books Magorian has written, which sort of surprised me. This is such a beautifully written novel that I feel like all the author’s books should be hits, and I should have read them all. Looking her up, it seems that she hasn’t written much, by the book-a-year standard of other authors, and also writes for younger children.

I don’t know when it was written, but it’s a clever, lovely book. It’s got a mix of happy and sad, rough and smooth. It’s engaging and interesting all the way through, and I treasured the small victories as much as the big ones. It also has an effective sense of perspective, remembering that in an individual life – particularly in an individual childhood – apparently small things, like a bike or a trip, can loom large. That learning and growing isn’t always easy, isn’t always dramatic, but it is always happening.

Let’s talk about The Issues
Given that I’ve read two Jacqueline Wilson novels recently, I’m attuned to noticing when children’s books tackle serious or traumatic issues. Goodnight Mr Tom is set during the Second World War, so it’s not surprising that it deals grief, loss and change. Coincidentally, like Secrets it also tackles child abuse and what parental love really means.

Comparing Goodnight Mr Tom to Secrets, I feel that Mr Tom has much greater depth. It’s a book that I’d be happy to read again, one that I was looking forward to reading after all these years, and one that I’d happily pass on to a child. Secrets is good, but I don’t feel that there’s as much to it. It’s shorter, simpler, and perhaps expects less from its readers. That said, I don’t think that Mr Tom has complex or archaic language in it, although it does have some historical items and situations that aren’t explained. I think it is probably almost as easily accessible as Secrets, as long as the reader isn’t put off by the extra pages.

I would guess that this is a book aimed at and recommended for older children, probably age about 10-12. Willie is nearly 9 when the book opens, but he has a different mix of adult and childlike traits, as children in the 1930s and ’40s had very different responsibilities and restrictions than they do now.

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 Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

I haven’t read #92 The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel since I was about 14 or 16, when it was one of my favourite books. My dad recommended it, and I remember being really pleased when I got a copy of Shelters of Stone (the fifth book in the series) for him, before he knew it was out. I wish I could remember what he thought of the books, beyond liking them. He told me he had suggested them to my 6th grade teacher, as we were studying the period. Mrs H apparently agreed that they were a good topic match, ‘apart from all the sex’, so he decided to wait a few years before handing them over!

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set around 25,000 years BC. Ice covers northern Europe, and woolly mammoths, aurochs and the giant cave bears roam the land. The stone age homo sapiens share their world with Neanderthals, not always peacefully. When an earthquake destroys the home of 5-year-old Ayla, a homo sapien girl, and the cave of a Neanderthal tribe, their paths cross. The Neanderthal group take Ayla into their clan, and she tries to become a good clan woman. But her differences are more than skin deep, and as she grows up both Ayla and the Clan wonder if she can truly become one of them.

Not as good as I remember
I enjoyed revisiting Ayla and the people of the Clan, but honestly, the book isn’t very good. It’s one of those sweeping epic stories where impossible things happen regularly and million-to-one chances come through nine times out of ten. This first book is about 500 pages long, and there are six in the series. Ayla is the main character, and she changes and grows (quite literally: she grows up) but I don’t feel like the other characters developed much.

Ayla is boringly perfect and lucky. I complained about the convenient back story issue when I reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Ayla suffers from the same affliction. She has just the right background to make sure she shines in any situation, and the author struggles to find someone who isn’t won over by her charms. However, it’s important to add a bit of strife, so one person resists, and conflict ensues.

I probably wouldn’t mind the clumsy narrative devices, such as how many discoveries Ayla makes (approximately 10,000 years worth, over the next few books, if I remember correctly) if the book was internally consistent. It isn’t. There’s a lot of detail to remember, but in a couple of places the story was definitely revised as it went along, so something happened for the first time at least twice. I found it jarring, but other people may not notice these details.

Fake pre-history
The blurb for the book says it was praised by scientists and paleontologists. Although my understanding of the period is severely limited, I can’t imagine that praise was unambivalent. As I’ve said, I’m no expert, but I’d be highly surprised to discover that the prevailing understanding of Neanderthals is that they were telepathic, with a race memory that extended back to the primordial seas.

The characters are also very well equipped with accurate and effective herbal remedies. Medical training is a recurring theme, and the characters involved seem to have a surprisingly modern understanding of illness and health. They have a few blind spots, where narritively convenient.

All the sex
I would give a content warning for the sex, and not because of erotic or pornographic descriptions. The sex is strange, and uncomfortable. It’s not described in much detail in Cave Bear (although I have a feeling that there’s a more graphic and steamy account of consensual sex in Valley of the Horses), but the sex is primarily non-consensual, and exists in a culture where meaningful consent is impossible. In Clan society, any male can demand sex from any female, and it’s culturally impossible for a female to refuse. Most females wouldn’t even consider refusing.

A culture where refusing sex is impossible is something I find weird and creepy as it is. That most of the characters are under 16, adds an extra dimension of weird uncomfortableness, even though Auel establishes that lifespans are abbreviated and adulthood comes earlier. As if wrapping one’s head around the idea of a 10-year-old being an adult and a 20-year-old being a senior citizen wasn’t hard enough, sex in Auel’s Clan society starts in childhood. Children apparently imitate what they see their parents doing, the games getting more realistic as the children age. But, she clarifies, there’s no prohibition on adult males having intercourse with female children, it’s just less common.

Auel switches between dry, almost academic detachment and in-character view points. She doesn’t really give us an in-character view of what a healthy, normal sexual life in the Clan would be like. An abnormal one is portrayed, and we’re given a little lecture on how sex occurs in this society, but there’s little emotional information. It’s not a big part of the book, but it’s not handled well, and it does stand out.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read the book again, as it made me think about my dad, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I’m unlikely to hunt down the other books, even though I don’t think I ever read book six, Land of Painted Caves. I got Clan of the Cave Bear out of the library, as I couldn’t find Dad’s copy – he tended to lend books he liked out, and didn’t worry too much about getting them back. His rule was ‘when you lend, mentally give’, which is a sound one, even if it leaves a few gaps on the book shelf.

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.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I enjoyed rereading #142 Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson was one of my favourite authors when I was at uni, and Behind the Scenes is set in York, where I studied. I haven’t picked up her books much in the last few years, but now I’ve read both this and Life After Life n the last couple of months; both were good.

The story starts at conception, and the narrator, Ruby, tells the story of her life from that point on. With flashbacks to earlier generations, Ruby builds up a clear picture of an ordinary family living through extraordinary times.

 Voyeuristic 
Ruby’s narrative gives the reader insight into her family. She shares the details of their lives, of their loves and losses, dreams and depressions. The book answers the sort of question you can’t ask your neighbours: who fathered the baby? what did you really think of your parents? why did so-and-so get married? Atkinson goes into a useful level of detail, without getting bogged down so the book moves along at a good clip.

The novel has the plot of the family saga about it, but uses literary motifs and techniques which elevate it from the fast-paced gossipy style to something more contemplative. It’s a clever book. As an example, it quickly becomes clear that Ruby isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator, giving the story extra levels. As well as trying to puzzle out what she’s hiding, I also wondered about what she was reporting. Was Ruby, the character, making it all up, just as Atkinson, the novelist was?

A good book, but no longer popular
If the Big Read survey was redone today, I don’t think Behind the Scenes would make the cut. That’s not because I don’t like the book or think it’s not worthy, I just feel its wider appeal was fleeting. I think people would now choose Life After Life, or something else entirely.

I suspect that Behind the Scenes will last though, be passed around second hand, and recommended by word-of-mouth through the decades. It’s a good mix of literary and readable, plus the historical setting makes it date less and be more nostalgic. So I think it has a good chance of being in print in 50 years (particularly as it has already been transformed into an e-book), although I don’t think it’ll ever be more popular than when it was the big new thing.

I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it. I don’t have any detailed content notes, all though I will say that the story spans three or four generations, and a period where infant mortality was higher.

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 Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’d never heard of #33 The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, which is a shame as I went through a phase of loving books like this. It’s not my usual fodder now, but I still rather enjoyed it and got through its 940 pages rather more quickly than I expected.

As the book opens, it’s 1123 and somewhere in southern England, Tom Builder is working on a new house for the lord’s son. His dream, however, is to build a cathedral and when the project ends, he and his family take to the road. In the mean time, a young monk has become the leader of his chapter, and is looking for ways to do more good in the world…

A very short summary
I didn’t have many preconceptions about the book, and I found that the way it unraveled was one of my chief pleasures, so I won’t say much more. Follett mentions in his author’s note that his agent described it as ‘a series of linked melodramas’, and that’s a good description. The book is at once very personal, following just a few families, and epic. By tracking these imaginary people, Follett can describe the whole process of building a cathedral in a level of detail that would be hard to sit through or absorb otherwise.

I don’t think it’s giving much away to say that the great European cathedrals lie at the heart of the book. It’s clear from the text that Follett has a great reverence for these buildings and is fascinated by them. They are astonishing buildings, and only get more interesting as you realise that they were built with very rudimentary tools. And it’s not just the physical tools that were basic – the intellectual and design tools available to the builders were very limited, too. With little more than a strong arm and a lever, they built these towering monuments that still exist a thousand years later.

Real history, fake history
Clearly, Pillars is historical fiction and it’s set in a period that’s far enough back that modern readers would struggle to understand the writings of the time, never mind the common speech. I believe that it’s impossible to write perfect historical fiction. I believe that anachronisms are inevitable and I don’t think authors necessarily need to try to avoid every one. However, I think they should be fair to the reader, and make it clear how authentic they have tried to make the book. Typically,a brief author’s note is enough for this: just to say if they’ve monkeyed with recorded facts particularly or done any extraordinary research.

Pillars takes place in the 12th century England which is not a period I’m particularly interested in. I can’t fact check Follett’s work beyond the very obvious. I will say that to me, it seems that he has done a significant amount of research, particularly into the physics, social and financial aspects of building a cathedral. He also gave me a clear understanding of the complex political backdrop to the whole thing. In the early 12th century, the succession to the English throne was in question, and civil war (not The Civil War) reigned.

While the facts seem accurate enough to hang a plot on, the language doesn’t. Everyone speaks much as they would do in a late 20th century novel, and there’s no real effort to reconcile the different languages used by different groups (English, Welsh, French, Latin…). I’d also guess that some of the attitudes and social circumstances are equally anachronistic. And, of course, a surprisingly large number of interesting things happen to a small group of people. It’s all par for the genre, and I can forgive a lot of an author who kept me interested in the challenges of cathedral building for almost a thousand pages.

If you can forgive the historical inaccuracies, I do recommend the book. I thought it was good fun, and a pleasant introduction to 12th century English life and politics. As a content note, apart from the historical issues, I will say that there are scenes of war, cruel violence and torture in the book. They’re not long, frequent or relished, though.

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 Green Mile by Stephen King

The Green Mile by Stephen King

I’d seen the film of #146 The Green Mile by Stephen King before I’d even heard of the book, which rather ruins it, I think. The novel is intended to be suspenseful and unpredictable. In fact, it was published in installments over several months, so its original readers would have had to wait a significant chunk of time before finding out what happened next. It’s nonetheless quite gripping, but I had no particular joy in travelling this story again and don’t think I’ll reread it.

The Green Mile is set in the USA, in the South, in the 1930s. The narrator, Paul Edgecombe, is chief guard in a prison block. His block only handles inmates condemned to death. In 1932, his block gets two new guests: Wild Bill, a white kid of 19, and John Coffey, an enormous black man charged with the death of two little white girls.

It’s Stephen King, but is it horror?
King usually writes horror with a supernatural element, but I’d say this isn’t horror. It’s got a supernatural element, true, and plenty of suspense, but it’s missing something. Perhaps the sense of immediate peril, as half the characters are locked up already, or perhaps its the human scale of the problems. Typically, in King’s horror stories the villain is supported by the supernatural and monstrously strong (physically or mentally). In The Green Mile, the characters are human, and the responses and solutions are human.

Another reason I’d hesitate to class The Green Mile as horror is the relative lack of gore. The last King novel I read was Under the Dome, which I did not enjoy at all. It’s 886 pages long, and most of it is as grim as the news on a really bad day. It’s a good example of how gory King can be when he wants. In The Green Mile, bad things don’t happen – several of the characters are on death row, and not without cause – but King doesn’t dwell on the gore.

Truth, justice and the electric chair
I couldn’t help comparing The Green Mile to To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re both set in the same period and culture, in similar geographical locations and both focus on black men accused of crimes by whites. Despite their similarities, To Kill a Mockingbird is far and away the better book. It’s better in every respect I can think of – tighter, better written, a more interesting story, a more interesting narrator, a more effective social commentary. It’s interesting to see where books I find similar place on the list. In this case, I’d say Mockingbird deserves its top-ten spot (#6) and The Green Mile is better off below the fold.

That said, The Green Mile isn’t a bad book. It’s not a brilliant book, but it’s not dreadful, either. I feel that it doesn’t do enough of any one thing to stand out. As an example, King mentions in the introduction that he didn’t do much research into the period and the place. It shows, sort of. The back story of the book is like a set dressing. It’s convincing enough for the purpose, but I really didn’t feel like I learned anything or could get in there and live.

The book has a supernatural element, which one of my friends argues has religious overtones. I didn’t really see it. Or rather, I saw it, but again, it wasn’t intense enough to matter, like a splash of apple juice in a glass of orange. Actually, that’s a reasonable analogy. I felt that the book was like a fruit juice cocktail. It was totally palatable and went down smoothly, but nothing really stuck out and I doubt I’ll remember much more now I’ve read the book than I did when I’d just seen the film.

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.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Another one from the top 10. I really loved rereading #6 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I first read the book in school, probably as a GCSE text. It’s one of the few books I remember reading for a class that I really enjoyed. That said, although I remembered I enjoyed it, I found that I didn’t remember the book very well at all. It’s much more clever and subtle than I remembered, and I probably won’t do it justice.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Alabama in the 1930s. Scout Finch, age 6, is spending the summer rattling around the neighbourhood with her brother, Jem, getting into mischief and growing up. When their beloved father, Atticus, takes on a controversial case, Scout and Jem find themselves drawn into the web as the town takes sides.

A beautifully written book
Harper Lee is an exceptional writer, and To Kill a Mockingbird is a joy to read. It flows beautifully and I’d definitely recommend reading it if you’re a writer yourself.  The book is built up in layers, and might seem slow to start but the pay off is worthwhile. The language is lyrical and lovely, deftly descriptive and beautifully clear.

To Kill a Mockingbird covers some very serious topics, and it’s clear what has happened without Lee ever openly describing the gory details. It’s a very clever portrayal. The story is filtered twice, in a narrative sense, as it’s told by an older Scout, reflecting on the things she thought about and knew as a 6-year-old. As a result, the novel is, in my opinion, both less traumatic for the reader and far more moving.

Racism
In case you haven’t heard of To Kill a Mockingbird, I won’t say too much about the plot. The back of the book and all the online descriptions tell you the bare facts of the legal case at the heart of the book: a black man is accused of raping a white girl, and Atticus Finch has been chosen as the lawyer for the defense. In Alabama in the 1930s, the accusation is as good as a death sentence, and it seems that there’s only one way the case can go. But Atticus will fight nonetheless, because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often lauded as one of the best American books written tackling racism, and Lee is seen as a hero for writing it. It’s probably true, if you add the word ‘white’ in there somewhere. To Kill a Mockingbird is a really good book, and it’s probably a great introduction to racism for white people. It’s also a great example of heroic white people taking a stand against racism. I don’t imagine Lee was aiming to write the definitive primer on racism, so I’m not going to treat the book as though it was. It’s great when people who don’t personally experience a particular type of discrimination come to understand the problems and start to combat it, in their own small way. This is all good. However, I do think that lists of great American books on racism should include more books by people of colour and fewer books by well-meaning white people, just as lists of great books should include more books by marginalized groups, including women and people of colour. Dead white dudes are so last century.

I strongly recommend this book. As a content note, I will say that there’s a discussion (not detailed or graphic) of rape and some violence, as well as aggressive questioning of a rape victim on the witness stand. It’s all told through the eyes of Scout, age 6, and is mostly age appropriate, although the book is not aimed at children of this age.

And as we’re talking about racism in the USA after the abolition of slavery, here are five books by black American authors that I recommend, all written or set in the 1930s or earlier. Unsurprisingly, racism is a theme in all of these. In no particular order:

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.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I finished #21 Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell on the plane to Barcelona, after working on it for at least two weeks, on and off. I clearly considered it completely done, as I then promptly forgot about it, which is why this post is so late.

Written in the 1930s, Gone with the Wind is over a thousand pages long. Scarlett O’Hara, belle of the county, turns 16 as the rumblings of the American Civil War start. She lives on Tara, a cotton plantation in Georgia with at least a hundred slaves. As the old society she grew up in is smashed first by war and then by reconstruction, Scarlett must adapt to survive.

Yes, it’s racist
Race is a major theme throughout the novel, and there are several strands to this.There’s racism in both the 1930s text and the 1860s society. There’s racism in the portrayal of people of colour, both enslaved and freed, and the attitudes of white characters. There’s racism in the North/South divide and the stratification of white society, not solely based on wealth but also on family origin. It can all be summed up as ‘Blood Will Out’, and applies to both black and white families, although not with equal consequences. There’s enough in here to write a thesis or three, but I’ll try to be brief.

I believe that the text itself is racist, and on that basis that Margaret Mitchell was racist, and a supporter of institutional racism. At the start of the novel, I was noticing the difference in the descriptions of black and white characters. The descriptions of black characters are brutish and childish – pouting, rolling eyes, stupid, slow, childlike. They’re described only in relation to the white people, never as separate individuals with their own wills and agendas. They’re either devoted or disobedient (‘uppity’). The white characters get more detailed descriptions and more positive words, even for their faults. White characters are angry, black characters are sullen. White characters are quick or smart, black characters are sly. This, to me, indicates a racism in the author’s work as well as in the historical record. But if further proof were needed, Mitchell applauds the actions of the Klan lynch mobs after the war in a way that I feel shows a fundamental lack of respect for human life, when it’s housed in a black skin.

After the North has won the Civil War, there are ‘Yankee’ ladies in Atlanta, and here Mitchell’s views on race get more scope for expression. The characters and, it seems, the author, hates northerners with a passion. They’re represented perhaps even more negatively than the black characters – black characters can have positive traits if they’re good servants, Yankees are simply thieves. At this point, Mitchell uses the Yankees to showcase her views on race further. The northern women, whose husbands are largely soldiers who’ve fought for the north and freedom for the slaves, are shown as being either so ignorant (in Mitchell’s view) that they’ll either try to treat the black people like human adults (instead of unruly children) or be so disgusted they refuse to have them near them or their children at all. For me, this was particularly interesting as, although I’d expected both the novel and the society it depicts to be racist, I hadn’t expected Mitchell to single out one type of racism and hold it up as wrong.

The glamour of a bygone age
I think the attraction of this novel is the elegance, and the ways in which that life is preserved and broken. It’s much like the appeal of watching Downton Abbey (which I do). The film version, with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in the title roles and a number of the more complex plot lines stripped out emphasizes the glamour over the grimness even further. The antibellum society Scarlett lives in glitters because no one that ‘counts’ has to do any work. As the shine rubs off, Mitchell invites us to mourn what was lost, without ever discussing whether life had improved for people lower down the scale. Even the slaves are, if the book is to be believed, worse off.

The story itself has an immense amount of passion and fire. Scarlett is astonishingly self-centred, and right from the opening pages the book revolves around her like the planets around the sun. I couldn’t easily dislike her, as she had to go through so many troubles, but I couldn’t easily like her, either. She’s an odd character to have as the centrepiece of a novel celebrating the lost aristocratic age as she has none of the makings of a great lady, being, as Mitchell points out, fundamentally vulgar, selfish and money-hungry.

For me, one of the most shocking moments of the book for me was when Scarlett told someone her age and I realised just how much had happened to her in a short span of years, and remembered just how young she was (16) when she started out. Remembering myself at 16, I can’t say I would have made better decisions. Being suddenly able to calculate Scarlett’s age, and thus the age of her compatriots at various points, I did think they had all done well to survive at all.

I found myself reading the book as though it were an artifact of social history, rather than a novel I could lose myself in. It’s over a thousand pages, and they didn’t go past quickly. They didn’t drag as much as Great Expectations but neither did they flutter past in a breeze of scandals like The Shell Seekers. Gone with the Wind is a big book with one central story, and it takes an awfully long route to get to the end of that story. The ending, having slogged a thousand pages to reach it, is not particularly satisfying although perhaps more realistic than the alternatives. Overall, I’d say it’s a book of its time and one best let fade away.

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.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

I’m drifting with my reviews – even when I finish a book on or by Friday, as I did with #149 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, it’s not always possible to review it straight away. I got ahead for the posts while we were travelling, and then gave up when we got back to the UK, like we aren’t still living in the van. Really, life isn’t much different in Oxford than it was in Stockholm, apart from the weather, so I need to shape up. That said, I’m thinking of reading a bit of Ulysses while I’m in Ireland this week, so whatever you get next Friday, it’s unlikely to be a full review. Particularly since I haven’t even got a complete copy yet – mine had all the poetry and some of the speech missing, making it unnecessarily confusing.

Master and Commander is a carefully researched historical adventure story. It’s set in the Royal Navy and this, the first book in a long series, opens in 1800. Britain is at war with France (and Spain, and several other countries) and Jack Aubrey, lieutenant, is shipless. He encounters Stephen Maturin, and the two become friends and eventually take ship again, this time together, fighting for king and country.

Messing about in boats
I’m starting to feel I should have a tag for this, given the number of boating books I’ve read for this challenge. Master and Commander takes messing about in boats to a whole new level. The novel is set just after the French Revolution, during the Revolutionary Wars, which started in 1793, and just before they turned into the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. This is the era of grand sea battles, of Nelson and Trafalgar, of Wellington and Waterloo, although both are a few years in the future for these characters. It’s also the era of Jane Austen, who was writing at this time, and it’s worth remembering that although her novels and Regency romances are a sharp contrast to Master and Commander, their worlds would have coexisted.

One aspect of M&C that is strongly reminiscent of Austen’s work is the etiquette. The details differ but the rules behind the rules are strikingly similar. Hierarchy is as important on a naval vessel as in the drawing room, it transpires, and transgressions are punished brutally in both cases. In addition, the social worlds do overlap. Aubrey and Maturin meet at an elegant musical soiree, only rather than getting it from the woman’s point of view, as in Austen, we see it from the men’s.

The Irish Connection
Part of the reason I picked up M&C again this week was that Maturin is Irish-Catalan, and was part of the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. I know very little about Irish history – I tend to focus on wherever I am, and I’ve spent a total of about 4 days in Ireland, ever, which isn’t enough to scratch the surface. As with the Austen / O’Brian parallels, it was interesting to read about this other contemporary issue, and the effect it has on the characters. Maturin has to hide his past, now the rebellion has failed, and Aubrey can, therefore, easily give offense, being quite a John Bull, gung-ho English protestant.

All at sea
Honestly, most of this book went rather over my head. I believe that O’Brien has described things accurately, and he certainly makes an effort to explain new or technical terms – something a lot of period authors don’t do, throwing slang and archaic terms in like badges of honour. However I still didn’t always understand what was going on. I quite often couldn’t picture a scene, even – or perhaps especially – when things were explained at length. I found myself waiting for a character to react, so I’d know if something was good, bad or business as usual. I need labelled diagrams, I think, before I’ll really start to get it in my head. I could probably do better with another reading, but it was too long and not exciting enough to make that likely.

I broadly enjoyed the book, although I struggled. I think it’s a novel where it would help to watch the film, if it’s accurate, as it would give me a picture of what’s going on. I’ve seen plenty of old ships, from the Cutty Sark to Viking lonships, but I just haven’t enough of a clue. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada – I had to see the film to understand the clothes references as the author just can’t keep going ‘and just to be clear that’s from last season’s collection/ a breach of regulations/dangerously unsafe/immoral so it means that s/he’s due a whipping’.

Overall, I’d say this is a good book, and goes particularly well with trips to see the grand old ships. I didn’t find the book disturbing, but it doesn’t pull punches and there is a fair amount of gore, both during the battle scenes and the mishaps and cruelties of ordinary life.

There aren’t many women in the book – two, perhaps three – and they are shown purely in relation to the male characters. However, in this case I’m not complaining: it’s history, not the far flung future. I also thought the women were plausible and as rounded as minor male characters.

There were sailors of several nationalities and races on the ships, but it would take a closer reading than I managed to say anything useful about this. There were dozens of named characters, and most of the time I was unaware of who was what race or nationality, so perhaps that says enough. Or perhaps the characters of colour where whited up, or largely invisible – I could only keep track of about 5 characters so I don’t know.

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.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes

The winner of my you choose what I read poll, #13 Birdsong is clearly enormously popular. Checking on Amazon, it’s still getting fresh reviews every week or so, even 20 years after its publication. I didn’t love it.

My copy – and I should really stop reading the back of books, I hadn’t realised this was an advantage to ebooks – says: “A brilliant, harrowing tale of love and war” which is immediately followed by “…among the most stirringly erotic I have read for years”. As a combination, those two sentences are quite off-putting. Fortunately, perhaps, the novel isn’t erotic (to my mind) and the sections are quite distinct – the ‘erotic’ section is entirely separate from the war section.

Birdsong is a harrowing tale of war – it’s mostly set in northern France, in the trenches of the First World War. It’s not for the faint of heart – the descriptions are necessarily gruesome and both characters and circumstance can be brutal. However, I feel like the book was well researched and well-written – I’d prefer to read All Quiet on the Western Front, but Birdsong isn’t bad.

War
The largest part of the book deals with soldiers on the front line, in the trenches, during the First World War. The whole war is covered, from 1914 to peace in 1918, and the book does an excellent job of describing shifts in attitude and tactics, the arcs of emotion and events which shaped the internal and external worlds of the soldiers at the front.

It’s grim – it’s nearly impossible to write a book on this topic and not be grim. Death is so prevalent in the books that you start to wonder how anyone could survive, not just physically but mentally, how soldiers could go through months and years of this, of watching everyone and everything around them be destroyed, and still be able to crack a joke, visit a pub or scrounge some brandy.

That they did is historical fact, and Faulkes makes the whole thing very plausible. The emotional narrative of the soldiers at war is convincing and understandable. Even the characters I didn’t care for – most of them – I wanted to survive. And yet, you know it’s impossible, so even as a reader you can find yourself detaching, deciding not to care about these characters and not quite daring to hope that these others will be OK.

The ups and downs were plausible too – one of the most memorable moments in the book, for me, was a letter from home, bringing bad news. It seemed that all the ills in the world must be concentrated on this front line, that the carnage must have sucked up all the disaster lying around, and everywhere else must be safe – and yet that’s never the case. Things can always get worse, and there’s no natural justice balancing things out so that no one gets more than a certain quota of grief.

The rest
Where the book falls down, I feel, is the bits which aren’t about war. The novel starts in 1910, in the Somme area of norther France which saw such heavy fighting only a few years later. It’s a really interesting idea – to show the ordinary before the war, the calm before the storm, and Faulkes writes well. Unfortunately, the entire section didn’t interest me. It centers around a young man and a love affair. This is the allegedly erotic bit and frankly, it wasn’t. I read a lot of romance novels, and I’ve read some absolutely awful purple prose. Faulkes isn’t the worst offender, but this really isn’t good either. The love story seems so arbitrary, every character seemed unsympathetic, and I didn’t really believe that any of them would act the way they did.

The resolution to the section – and the whole love story – was unsatisfactory. I almost thought that the characters need never have spoken to each other at all, as they spent so much time not bothering to tell each other things and going on significant glances and repressed sighs.

In addition to the 1910 section, there’s another arc, set in 1978. I didn’t like that, either. It didn’t really do its job of giving the reader the benefit of hindsight and the plot of that section is deplorably pot-boilery. It reads like a cut scene from a 1980s romance, like The Shell Seekers and is best forgotten quickly.

It’s hard to summarize my feelings about Birdsong. I didn’t love it, I don’t particularly recommend it, but bits of it were good so I wouldn’t stop you reading it either. It’s a book which, while I didn’t love it myself, I can see other people enjoying. I don’t think I’d read another Faulkes, but I don’t regret reading this one.

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.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I’m late reading Dodger – it came out last September, and typically I finish a new Pratchett book within a couple days of getting my hands on a copy. Dodger has been sitting on my shelf for months, for two reasons:

  1. There was a lot going on
  2. I started it, and didn’t immediately love it

It’s easy to explain why I turned away from Dodger, despite being rather enamoured of Terry Pratchett’s novels – it’s that Charles Dickens again.

Dodger, for those who haven’t spent as much time with Dickens as I have recently, is named for the boy thief with the laughing face and the quick fingers in Oliver Twist. It’s a speculative rewriting of history, mixing actual historical figures with a completely fictional story, deliberately changing actual events to get a better plot.

Pratchett’s Dodger is a quick, canny young reprobate, who saves a girl from a beating an in doing so gets drawn into a world of wider intrigue where he needs to use every trick and twist he’s learned in the poor parts of London to stay alive and out of the reach of those who would snuff him out like a candle.

Too much Dickens, not enough Pratchett
Dodger isn’t like Pratchett’s other books. It’s not set on the Discworld, but it a somewhat alternate-universe version of the 19th century, perhaps the same universe as Nation (which I very much enjoyed, incidentally). It’s being marketed at children, judging by the suggested reading at the end, and certainly looks like it’s going to be a Pratchett retelling of parts of Oliver Twist. It isn’t. Dodger is an entirely separate and unique story, which has more to do with Dickens’ actual life than the contents of Oliver Twist.

Dodger is something of an odd mix, I found – I think it’s like a mash up of Pratchett and Dickens, like a writing excercise taken full length. Pratchett has an extra 170 years of writing conventions and tropes to deal with, so in writing a historical novel he’s had to abandon many of his enjoyable fantastic elements but can’t really replace them with Dickens’ tricks as they’ve become cliched in the interim – particularly what I think of as ‘is it really you?’ where a chance encounter or a detail mentioned in passing causes someone to start up and cry ‘is it really you?’ as they discover that the book only has 6 characters, and therefore their missing brother, aunt, benefactor, mother and pet dog are all in the room with them already.

I’m very fond of Pratchett’s Discworld novels and not very fond of Dickens, so it’s not surprising that I was disappointed at first reading. Beyond my personal taste though, I felt that there was something a bit off about this one – a lot of the characters sounded the same to me when they spoke. I think – although I can’t tell for sure – that it’s the Vimes Does A Speech voice, which crops up in the Vimes books when he starts to lecture. Perhaps everyone was lecturing Dodger, but it did seem odd to me that so many of the secondary charcters had this same tone when Pratchett’s minor characters are usually so memorable.

The plot didn’t immediately grab me either, although I did get into it towards the middle, and finished the book in a couple of days this time round.

Too much Pratchett, not enough Dickens
Pratchett is not – to state the obvious – an on-the-spot period writer like Dickens was, and he’s had to bend history quite a bit to get his story to fit in. I’m not fond of historical changes unless they’re either clearly marked (I’d like footnotes, please, with references and suggestions for further reading) or so big that and obvious that you can’t possibly take them as fact (like dragons fighting Napoleon, for example). Pratchett’s book drags so many well-known names (like that Dickens) into the story that you hope no one would take it for direct reporting, but it’s still not always clear. I don’t quite know whether to call the changes inaccuracies, as the end notes make clear that at least some of them are deliberate, but there are quite a few things which don’t ring true, even to my untrained eye.

One thing which bothered me – and this is possibly only because I’ve just finished Oliver Twist – is that Pratchett throws Dickens into the story, but as a solidly Victorian character. And he seems like he should be, being heavily associated with the reign of that Queen, which, in fairness went on an awful long time. In Dodger, Dickens reads like a young, hungry journalist of about 20. Even allowing for the fact that gents at this period seemed to carry that phase on into their 30s and possibly longer (see Dickens’ own Pickwick Papers for an example), by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, Dickens was 25 and married, a character formed in the pre-Victorian era.

There’s no mention of a wife in Dodger, and it’s written as though Pratchett’s Dodger is the inspiration for the character in Oliver Twist but it seems like Dickens in this story encounters the Dodger some time after he would have written the fictional Dodger. The Dodger first appears in Chapter 8 of Oliver Twist, a chapter first published in May 1837, according to Wikipedia. In Dodger, Queen Victoria is mentioned as not only being securely on the the throne (accession June 1837, coronation 1838) but married to Albert (1840).

All in all, I think this was probably a good book (if you like Dickens, which I don’t) but it wasn’t a book you’d recommend to someone because they told you they loved Colour of Magic or my own favourite, Small Gods. It’s very different from Pratchett’s Discworld books. I imagine Pratchett enjoyed writing it, and did it for the love of the thing, and that’s a good enough reason to do it.

He has written so many books I’ve loved to bits that I can hardly complain that I haven’t had enough – although I do always want more. It’s like someone inviting you round for dinner regularly and putting your favourite foods on the table every week – it might take months before you realise they were serving their favourite foods and it’s all been a happy coincidence. For me, the discovery that Pratchett wasn’t writing to my exact tastes has been so long in coming that I really can’t do more than grouse, looking back at all the wonderful books I’ve had, that this one was merely acceptable.