Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Epic (page 1 of 2)

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

I feel oddly guilty about picking up an abridged version of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. I know I shouldn’t, but I do! I would’ve preferred, of course, to read and review the full text (I’m a dirty completionist at heart), but they’re surprisingly hard to come by. I’m getting to the pointy end of my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list now – there’s no time left to waste searching further afield! Plus, Clarissa is literally one of the longest books in the history of the English language, over one million words long! Even my “abridged” copy runs to 500+ pages. So, I grit my teeth, and went ahead with it. This is Clarissa, as abridged by George Sherburn.

I mention Sherburn specifically to acknowledge his fine work, but also because, as he mentions in his note on the text, no two versions of Clarissa – abridged or otherwise – are exactly the same. The original edition (Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady) was first published in 1747-48. Each subsequent edition has introduced its own errors, oversights, changes, and mis-prints. So, don’t hate on me for any discrepancies between what I say here and what you’ve read for yourself!

Clarissa is an epistolary novel, but Richardson said that he intended it for it to be read as an instructional text, not merely as entertainment. Because I don’t give a shit about spoilers, I’m going to give you the key lessons right up front: parents, don’t meddle in your kids marriages. And girls, pick better husbands. That’s the tl;dr version.

It all starts with the Harlowes, a family of new money who are completely obsessed with improving their social standing. Their eldest daughter, Arabella, catches the eye of Captain Lovelace, a rich but roguish bachelor. Arabella is flattered, but she rebuffs his advances. Then, for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear (to me, anyway), Lovelace and Arabella’s brother, James, end up in a duel. James comes off second-best, and Lovelace is promptly made persona non grata at Casa de Harlowe.

Lovelace gives no fucks at all. He sets his sights on the younger Harlowe sister, our girl Clarissa. He makes her repeated offers of marriage. The family should have been falling all over themselves for her to accept, given that they want to better their position and all, but they’re kind of hung up on how he stabbed James that one time, so they tell her to tell him to fuck off. They arrange for a different bloke – Mr Holmes – to marry Clarissa instead.

And how does Clarissa feel about all this? She’s not that fussed on either of them, to be honest. She’d be happy enough to stay at home, being a dutiful daughter and writing long letters to her BFF Miss Howe. She refuses to marry Holmes, and she’s all “I’m not going to marry Lovelace either, but what’s so bad about him? I could do worse!”.

Daddy Harlowe is not pleased. Not at all. In fact, he locks Clarissa in her room until she agrees to do as he says. He also fires her favourite servant, just to show her he means business.

Important note: ALL OF THIS happens in the first seventy pages! Clarissa might be a long book, even in its abridged form, but DAMN! It builds up to a rollicking pace, very quickly!



Anyway, poor Clarissa ends up locked in her room for weeks on end. Her family insist that she must secretly have the hots for Lovelace if she won’t marry Holmes, and she’s all “Umm, no? I just think I should be able to choose my own husband, ya dig?”. They don’t dig.

Meanwhile, Lovelace keeps finding ways to send Clarissa secret love notes. He begs her to run away with him, which – to be fair – looks like a more and more attractive prospect, the longer this locked-in-her-room business carries on.

The thing is, when we finally start to hear a bit more about Lovelace’s side of the story, we learn that he is a TOTAL NARCISSISTIC PSYCHOPATH. He’s hell bent on getting exactly what he wants, whatever the cost. He concocts a scheme to trick Clarissa into running away with him, and the bastard actually pulls it off. Never mind that it does irreparable damage to her relationship with her family, and causes a huge scandal – Lovelace is just happy to have “won” his “prize”. Ugh.

“You are all too rich to be happy.”

Page 19

Clarissa’s “freedom” is short-lived, and she becomes Lovelace’s prisoner in effect. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for our girl. Her family refuse her requests for forgiveness. They won’t let her come home, or even send over her stuff. Lovelace drags her up and down the country to various “safe” houses. He even hides her in a brothel at one point; that might not sound so bad to contemporary readers, but at the time, living in a house of “ill repute” meant saying buh-bye to any chance you had for a good reputation and a good life. Poor Clarissa!

Our girl isn’t backing down, though. She still refuses to marry Lovelace, and it drives him bonkers. She manages to escape at one point, but alas, he catches her and cons her into coming back.

By every standard we hold today, Lovelace was an abuser. Let’s be clear about that. He’s not a “romantic lead”. He cuts Clarissa off from her family. He controls her finances. He emotionally manipulates her within an inch of her life. And, of course, support systems for victims of domestic violence back then weren’t what they are today (ahem). All Clarissa has going for her is her friend, Miss Howe, and her advice pretty much amounts to “marry Lovelace to shut him up, and fingers crossed he dies young”. Not helpful!

In between proposals, Lovelace keeps trying to get into Clarissa’s pants – and (hopefully) I don’t need to explain why pre-marital hanky-panky was a big no-no back then. She turns him down every time. Fed up with rejection, the abhorrent creep drugs and rapes her, and this has (to say the least) a severe impact on Clarissa’s physical and mental health.

Like all abusers, Lovelace comes to her with the I’m-so-sorrys and the I’ll-do-betters and the please-marry-me-anyways. He just WILL. NOT. STOP. PROPOSING. (mostly because, it would seem, he’d rather bone a more enthusiastic participant). Our amazing girl, even in the death-grip of PTSD, still tells him to go directly to hell.



After a couple more failed attempts, Clarissa FINALLY manages to escape for good. She finds sanctuary with a nice married couple who live above a shop, but she lives in constant fear that Lovelace will find her. He sends his friend, John Belford, to try and lure her back, but that plan totally backfires when Belford takes pity on Clarissa and they become friends.

Clarissa is dangerously ill at this point – mostly due to stress – and she starts preparing for her death. She appoints Belford the executor of her will, and he’s super-impressed by how mature she’s being about the whole thing. That’s when Richardson throws in a lot of Christian God talk; it’s up to you whether that’s fine or bothersome.

Clarissa’s cousin, Morden, shows up, just in time to see her before she shuffles off the coil. The rest of her family have a change of heart about the whole ostracising-her-for-eternity thing, but they’re about a minute too late. Clarissa dies before anyone can make amends. In an iconic act of passive-aggression, she leaves them a bunch of really good stuff in her will, so they feel extra-bad about how they treated her.

Lovelace is apparently super-bummed about his victim’s death (yeah, boohoo). Belford convinces him that it would be an opportune time to take a holiday, because Cousin Morden wants to beat the shit out of him. He takes off, but Morden tracks him down anyway, and Lovelace comes a cropper. The End.

Richardson concludes with a summary of what happens to all the other characters afterwards (along the lines of that awful Harry Potter epilogue), and throws in a little more moralising to round things out. Just to reiterate, the take-home messages are: parents, don’t interfere in your kids’ plans (or otherwise) for marriage. Ladies, friends don’t let friends marry arseholes. And fellas, no means no. You got that?

Clarissa was well-received upon publication, but a lot of readers got all mad that Clarissa and Lovelace didn’t get a happily-ever-after (seriously!). Some even wrote their own alternative endings, which I guess would constitute the original fan-fic. Richarson worried, with all the brouhaha, that his actual message, the morals of it all, hadn’t cut through. All his readers were too hung up on this supposed “love story”. So, in later editions, he made changes to paint the Clarissa character in a “purer” (more sympathetic) light, while making Lovelace more sinister and evil.

I was really impressed with how Sherburn handled the abridgement. It would seem, from his notes, that he only omitted one noticeable plot point (the death of a minor character); and, even then, he gave enough of an explanation in-text that I didn’t feel like I missed much.

On the whole, Clarissa wasn’t as difficult a read as I was expecting. It had a Pride And Prejudice vibe to it, but written in the epistolary fashion of Dracula and a bit long-winded like Tristram Shandy. In fact, I reckon if Austen, Stoker, and Sterne had a creative three-way, Clarissa would be the resultant love-child. If two out of three of those appeal, this is the book for you!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Clarissa:

  • “Longer than “War and Peace”, this account of virtue chased and trashed is the novel’s version of continuous cricket: mad in detail, slow in execution, passionately related. Told in letters, the correspondents spend what seems a year recalling a year but a crowded year. Take this book to a desert island; it will endure and also make a crackling blaze.” – Peter Jakobsen
  • “Well, it took me two years to read it, but Miss Harlowe did change my life for the better. The book can be quite psychological and gripping, but my favorite parts are the communiques, in turns sweet and chastising, between Clarissa and her BFF, Miss Howe. Of course, the ending’s a bummer.” – A. Johnson
  • “What a group of despicable characters! By page 500, I was hoping every character would be put to the rack. By page 1000, I was hoping for a mass hanging. By page 1500, I was willing to grant clemency to a few.

    Dozens of times I nearly relegated this book to the pile of books to be sent to an enemy – BUT – each time would pick it up again because I had to know if my hopes would be realized.

    Should you read Clarissa? By all means; if for no other reason than to serve as penance for all past sins of omission or commission wreaked on others.” – Tanstaafl
  • “I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far this is one of the best books ever. I just know things will turn out well for Clarissa. She’s the best. I bet she’ll get married to some foreign king and live in a Swedish castle with him. Lovelace is okay, but she can do better. I bet you she dumps him at the end of the book. I can see it now. She’ll probably say: “Don’t go there Lovelace” and walk out the door. I can’t wait to see what this book has in store for Clarissa Harlowe. Best character ever! Best book ever!” – misterb1020
  • “Okay, the book came in tip-top shape, and the story is a masterpiece, totally five stars. By the way, if you’ve read it, I must congratulate you…it’s one of the longest novels ever written in the world.

    Anyway, Clarissa’s character at first was lovely. I enjoyed her, but after awhile, I started to hate her. I really did. Granted, I know she went through that ordeal and all, but then hundreds and hundreds of pages following that ordeal, I got soooo sick of her self-pity and, “I’m a poor creature” this, and “I’m a poor creature,” that, and, “I’m the most abandoned person in the world, poor creature me, me, me,” and I very literally wished she would just shut the hell up and die already. She was as much of a narcissist, in my opinion, as Lovelace. I mean, she just kept wallowing, with her stupid uplifted hands and eyes, her kerchief perpetually to her face, whimpering about herself and lousy life when there were so many opportunities for a happy ending. She was always talking about her fame and what a great person she was, and how could such a famous, pious creature as herself be brought so low? She literally committed suicide by starvation, and just LOVED talking about how ill she was and the way she was dying. I mean, she really loved talking about her pending death, and made such a huge display of it among her new acquaintances. And excepting her immediate family, she she had so many friends around her willing to help: Anna, Mr. Belford, Mr. Hickman, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Smith, etc., yet, she kept lamenting how alone she was, that she was friendless and abandoned. It’s like, she enjoyed this negativity. Instead of becoming a strong, powerful character after her experience, she became a self-pitying, egomaniac. Ugh. I do love this story because it really got a reaction out of me! If a story can do that, then the author did something right.” – Stimpy

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

There are a handful of really chunky books on my original reading list, and this is one of them: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It seems like an age since I tackled any book even close to this long (David Copperfield was probably the only one that came close). I made sure to allot plenty of time and brain space for these 982 pages (plus introductory essays and notes). And I’m glad I did; it felt really good to immerse myself properly in Cervantes’ world, and stick with the one story for a while.

Don Quixote (original title: “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”) was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, with the first English translations appearing in 1612 and 1620, respectively. That makes it one of the oldest books in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, as well as one of the longest. It’s widely considered to be one of the most influential works of the literary canon, a foundational piece of modern Western literature. Don Quixote was officially deemed the Greatest Book Of All Time by the Nobel Institute, the various editions have sold in excess of 500 million copies worldwide, and this particular translation from John Rutherford won the 2002 Premio Valle Inclán Prize for Translation. Not bad, given that Cervantes was basically unknown before the first part was published, and spent much of his life on the run (he escaped prison – not once, not twice, but four times total).

The premise is this: a member of the lesser Spanish nobility (a “hidalgo”), Alonso Quixano, becomes unhealthily obsessed with chivalric romances. He takes it into his head to become a “knight-errant”, roaming the country performing acts of chivalry under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He ropes in Sancho Panza, a simple farmer with champagne dreams and a beer budget, to work as his squire. The book forms an interesting bridge between the early medieval romances, which were episodic and strung together a series of adventures with the same characters, and later modern novels, which focused more on the psychological evolution of its characters and their internal worlds. In Don Quixote, Cervantes managed to do both.



It all feels surprisingly familiar. Even the chapter titles sound like episodes of Friends: “Chapter III which relates the amusing way in which Don Quixote had himself knighted”, and so on. Cervantes certainly didn’t have any designs on founding the Western literary canon or anything of the sort. He just wanted to write a fun story that would give people a laugh or two, which is probably why his story is still so widely accessible and enjoyable for today’s readers. Of course, our understanding of it has changed over time; at first, we read it as a comic novel, as Cervantes intended, but then we started to read it as a tragic statement on disillusionment in society after the French Revolution. Later, we came to appreciate Don Quixote as a critical social commentary, but now we’ve circled around to finding it funny again. That said, I must say I’m stuck in the 20th century as far as literary critique of this one goes; critics in that era came to view the story as a tragedy, where Don Quixote’s simple idealism is rendered useless by a harsh reality. Sure, there are plenty of quick quips and slapstick encounters, but really, the truth at the heart of the story is a real bummer.

As I read it, Don Quixote seemed to be suffering from a debilitating delusional disorder, and yet everyone in his world just humoured him as he lived out his imaginary life. He was a danger to himself and others, and in today’s world we’d almost certainly subject him to some kind of psychiatric hold and get him treatment. What’s worse, he pulled Sancho Panza down with him, in a heart-breaking foile à deux that sees them repeatedly beaten, half-starved, and living in itinerant poverty for most of the book. The humour, in my view, was particularly dark, given that this ageing man’s poor mental health was the butt of most of the jokes. I found it all horribly sad.



And, of course, it’s hopelessly and irretrievably sexist, a product of its time. Almost every bloke is chasing after some beautiful woman’s virginity, which he calls her “honour” or her “jewel”, treating it as some prize they earn for gross displays of machismo. And there’s a lot of Madonna/whore smack talk. Really, the only man who seems woke in any measure is Sancho Panza, believe it or not. He has no interest in oppressing women, he just wants to get rich and fat. I respect that. Sancho’s long-suffering wife was my favourite character in the whole book, too:

“‘… you do as you please, because that’s the burden we women were born with, obeying our husbands even if they are damn fools.'”

Teresa Cascajo (page 520)

I hope I’m not putting you off, though, because honestly Don Quixote wasn’t bad. I just feel compelled to share the alternative view, like I’m the lone port in a sea of “but it’s so funny!”.

I particularly enjoyed instances of Cervantes breaking the fourth wall; he was way ahead of his time in terms of being meta. His characters were aware that they were being written about, and he often made direct nods and call-outs to the reader. In Part One, he included many back-stories of minor characters, and then in Part Two, he outright apologised for his many digressions and promised the reader to focus on the matter at hand (while simultaneously whingeing that his “narrative muse” had been restrained – and never fear, he still managed to cram plenty of these hilarious digressions into the second party anyway). I heard that several abridged editions actually remove some or all of these extra tales, focusing exclusively on the central narrative. That’s a shame, because some of them are really good – so, if you’re going to read Don Quixote, make sure you go with the OG full-version.

Trying to summarise or explain the full plot of Don Quixote is a fool’s game, and I’m not going to try it here. Over the course of their travels, the dynamic duo meet innkeepers, sex workers, goat herders, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and spurned lovers, and Quixote manages to turn each and every encounter into a chivalric adventure of some kind. As much as he loves to intervene and prevent injustice, he’s also kind of an entitled prick and often refuses to pay his debts, which results in many near-scrapes and public humiliations (with poor Sancho often bearing the brunt). In the end, Quixote is strong-armed into returning home to live out the rest of his life as he really is, Alfonso Quixano, and he dies (essentially of depression) in the final chapter. I told you, it’s a real bummer!



There are a lot of fun facts and trivia in Don Quixote‘s history, particularly when it comes to language and translation. Firstly, its widespread popularity is the main reason modern Spanish exists in its current form, which is no small feat for one humble comic novel. Within the text itself, there are actually two types of Spanish spoken: a contemporary version spoken by most of the characters, which more or less matches today’s language, and Old Castillian, used by Don Quixote. It’s kind of like having the main character of a book speak Shakespearean English, while the rest of them speak like you and me; indeed, that’s how most contemporary English translations tell the story.

We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of his early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase was translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”, meaning something more like “time will tell”. Really, we’ve spent a couple hundred years mistranslating Quixote, and now we’re spending another couple hundred trying to correct all those mistakes. There have been five new English translations published since 2000. Obviously, I can’t speak to all of them, but I think John Rutherford did a cracking job with this one, so I’d highly recommend first-timers pick it up (and, as always, don’t skip the introduction – it’s full of interesting background and context that will help you understand and enjoy the story).

Don Quixote is a great book to read bit-by-bit; you want to sip it like wine, not chug it like beer. I’m really glad I set a lot of time aside to enjoy it properly. I think binge-reading it would make the episodes feel really repetitive, or ridiculous, or both. Plus, through the magic of incremental effort, the 982 pages fly by, and you’ll feel silly for ever having been intimidated by this doorstop book. Give it a go, and hustle back here to reassure me that this tale of an ageing poor man’s mental illness is at least equally as tragic as it is comic (it can’t just be me!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Don Quixote:

  • “I never read it and thought it was about time. Now I know and I’m of the believe that Mr Quixote and President Trump are kissing cousins” – Amazon Customer
  • “IS TO BIG” – Amazon Customer
  • “it is too long and too old. i got into the parts where he was fighting but everything else was a bore” – jeff rack
  • “5 star book, 1 star kindle version. Book stops approximately half way through, like, in mid-sentence. Had to go to the paperback to finish.

    Like the movie “Saving Private Ryan” ending (spoiler alert) just before they actually find Private Ryan.

    Like the movie “The Martian” ending with the dude still on Mars.

    You get the idea.

    Lame.” – Fake Geddy Lee
  • “It is supposedly a great Spanish classic but it is as bad as Shakespear. I got very little out of it.” – George Fox
  • “What an awful book. An old madman cruising the countryside and dragging his poor servant with him. Just an awful book.” – Bruce E. Paris



Kim – Rudyard Kipling

I’d always thought Rudyard Kipling was a poet, but here we are. You’re never too old to learn! He was born in Bombay in 1865, and worked as a journalist in Lahore, until he began writing stories and poems about India. He wound up winning a Nobel Prize for his literature, so it would seem he was pretty damn good at it. He’s probably better known for The Jungle Book and Wee Willie Winkie, but I decided to read Kim, first published in 1901.

The blurb on the back of this edition is hectic, and I had no idea what to make of it:

“Kim, a young Irish orphan, is brought up in the native quarter of Lahore. While he is accompanying a Tibetan lama on his search for the River of Immortality, Kim is picked up by the British and groomed for the Secret Service. His first assignment is to capture the papers of a Russian spy in the Himalayas…”

Kim, Pan Classics edition (1978)

That makes it sound like some kind of mash-up of The Alchemist and The Thirty-Nine Steps, right? Actually, that’s probably not far off…

So, Kim‘s story takes place against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (which I thought meant chess, but apparently not). That’s what we now call the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia, around the time of the Second and Third Afghan Wars (late 1800s, basically). Kipling loved India, his homeland, and right off the bat he gives you gorgeous portraits of the people, and the landscape, with particular focus on the bazaars and life on the road.

Kim is a young orphaned boy, his Irish father and mother having died in abject poverty. He etches out a living for himself running around the streets of Lahore, begging and doing small errands for the local horse traders and other sketchy types. He befriends an old Tibetan lama, who is on a quest to free himself from the “Wheel of Things” (yeah, alright mate) and find the “River of the Arrow” (bloody hippies). Kim thinks that doesn’t sound too bad, and he doesn’t have much else going on, so he ships out with the old guy, becoming his disciple and helping him along the road. He also takes on a secret mission from the local bigwig, to carry a message to the head of the British intelligence in Umballa, but that seems pretty incidental to the road-trip… for now.



Kim carries all of his father’s papers with him, which turns out to be a bad move. A regimental chaplain recognises him as the son of one of their soldiers, and ships him off to boarding school in Lucknow. The lama is pretty bummed to be separated from his only disciple, but agrees to pay for the boy’s education and figures they’ll hook back up again later. Not only does Kim stay in touch with the lama, he also keeps his finger in with all his Secret Service connections, and trains himself in espionage on the sly. Hey, a boy’s got to have a hobby!

The military decides that three years of schooling will suffice, and Kim is appointed to a government position, with a bit of a holiday to get himself ready. He uses that time to catch up with his old mate the lama, and they trek to the Himalayas. Here’s where his worlds collide: the lama unwittingly pisses off the Russian intelligence agents, and Kim uses the opportunity to pick up a bunch of important papers and staff to pass back to the British as he’s rescuing his pal.

And cue an existential crisis: the lama starts wailing about how he has “gone astray”, because he can hardly expect to find this “River of the Arrow” in the mountains, so he orders his travelling companions to take them back. This suits Kim just fine, because it allows him to drop the Russian documents back to his British bosses.



Now, the lama gets his happy ending: he finds his river, achieves Enlightenment, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s up to the reader to decide Kim‘s fate. Either he chooses to stick with his old mate and live the life of an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist, or he sets off again to do more spying. Kipling was very deliberately vague on which way it goes. All Kim had to say to the lama in the closing passage is: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” (Meaning “I am not a master. I am your servant.”) So, that’s about as clear as mud…

If I’m being honest, a lot of this plot went over my head as I was reading. I really only started to connect the dots when I was reading summaries online later. It’s like A Passage To India all over again. I just didn’t get enough of this story to offer any brilliant insights – sorry!

Kim is considered by many to be Kipling’s magnum opus, but that is (of course) hotly debated in some circles. A lot of the controversy seems to center around whether it should be considered children’s literature (I say no: if it went over my head, I don’t know what hope an eight-year-old has). It’s definitely an adventure story, a bildungsroman, and – drawing heavily upon Kipling’s own experiences growing up in India (including the clash of East and West) – it all takes place against this backdrop of politics and military conflict. You could probably spend years studying this book academically, because there’s a lot to look at.

Academics that have given it a gander have spent a lot of time considering Kipling’s depictions of race. The introduction to this edition says: “The once fashionable charge that Kipling was a particularly unpleasant apologist for imperialism, brutal, racist, and jingo, was always a caricature; yet there are parts of his work that give even his admirers pause.” And I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Even though the language seemed more contemporary than I would have otherwise expected, some of the stuff around Kim being a white boy who appeared brown gave me the icks.



I think you need to know what you’re getting in to when you pick up Kim, and you need to be deeply invested in the time period, the setting, the culture, and the politics, in order to fully appreciate the story. For the rest of us, I think you can probably pick up just about everything you need by reading a few summaries online, and scanning some extracts with Kipling’s particularly poetic and beautiful descriptions of India, for which he’s well known. For me, Kim was a pretty book, an interesting book, but probably not one I’ll pick up again.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Kim:

  • “The footnotes of the Kindle Edition don’t work properly. Tapping a word gives the footnote of the next word which is very inconvenient.” – T.O.
  • “The story is good just not the easiest story to read, maybe I had a bad week. I normally love Rudyard Kiplings work. I wish it was an awesome book with my name as the title. It’s not even a girl called Kim lol” – KimBuc2
  • “no written in any language I can fathom.” – 1thru5
  • “quick service good price great writing I didn’t get every reference” – bojangleshiker
  • “It’s old. It’s “racist”. It is an absolutely wonderful book !” – Karen W
  • “I had heart that Kim was one of the best books of all time. Had to wait 2 months for library to acquire it.



     

    Have never been so disappointed in anything. Cults, voodoo, spells, magic, demonic activity, caste system, blasphemy, abuse, violence, superstition, humanism (worship of certain humans), depression,… UGH!!



    WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!! DON’T BOTHER READING THIS.” – DeAnne


Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

How often do you read a book where the main character dies 17 times? I’d wager not often, especially if you rule out any sci-fi or fantasy elements. Here, we have no time machines, no medical miracles, and no religious resurrections. Life After Life tells the life stories of Ursula Todd, a girl born on 11 February 1910. It takes the reader through all the twists and turns that her life could have taken, and shows how differently things could have turned out. Cool, eh?

Now, I was a little disappointed to realise that I had, unintentionally, picked up another fictionalised WWII narrative (how many can there BE on my reading list?). I’ll tell you up-front that I probably would have enjoyed Life After Life and its unique structure more if it had been placed against a different backdrop; I’m starting to get a bit weary with WWII re-tellings. That said, it was still a very interesting read, and it gave me plenty to sink my teeth into. I think the premise is best summed up by the blurb:

“During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of changes to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”

So, in Ursula’s first “life”, she is strangled by her umbilical cord. Next, she survives her birth into a middle-class Buckinghamshire family, but later dies, drowning at sea. Then, she lives a little longer, only to fall to her death from the roof, where she was trying to retrieve a toy.

I’m going to state the bleeding obvious (even though it took an embarrassingly long time for it to dawn on me as I was reading): a 600-page story about a girl who gets to live her life over and over again until she gets it right… well, it gets a bit repetitive. More than a bit, actually: before I was a quarter of the way through, I’d lost track of the Ursula Death Toll. She’d died at least three times from influenza alone. The sequence repeats itself again and again, but Ursula seems mostly unaware (unlike the reader, who is painfully aware). She just gets an odd sense of foreboding now and then, when she approaches a point where she died in a previous life. It’s like playing a video game again and again, but completely forgetting the experience of having played it before; your subconscious tells you “hang on, there might be a bad guy behind that bush”, and you get a little further each time without really knowing it.

Atkinson doesn’t really address the reader’s logical questions about this repetitive cycle, except to hint at it through Usurla’s therapist. In one of her lives, as a child, she pushed her housekeeper down the stairs. This caused her mother to (quite rightly) question her sanity, and send her to a shrink. The good doc weaves in and out of the stories and lives, always spouting wise shit about reincarnation but stopping just short of giving any real answers.



Ursula’s first crack at her adult life, having finally survived her whole childhood, is pretty miserable: she is traumatised by a rape that she experienced in her teens (resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and an illegal abortion), and she finds herself trapped in an oppressive marriage. Her husband kills her when she tries to escape. In her next life, she ends up on a different path by aggressively defending herself and fending off her rapist in the first instance, which I found really gross. It seemed to imply that rape survivors can be “saved” from their trauma if they just try hard enough. Sorry, Atkinson, but you lose points from that.

A somewhat random storyline pops up a few times, in different lives, where Ursula’s neighbour (a young girl called Nancy) is raped and murdered by a child molester. On a couple of occasions, Ursula uses her foreboding former-life Spidey Sense to prevent it from happening, but the threat is never really explored or explained. I’m guessing Atkinson describes it further in the sequel (A God In Ruins, published two years later and focusing on the story of Ursula’s brother). I wasn’t a huge fan of that, either; it seemed like a bit of a ploy to get readers to buy the next book.

Anyway, later iterations of Ursula’s life see her experience WWII from multiple perspectives, mostly the Blitz in London but also once from Hitler’s compound in Germany. Sometimes she’s a blast victim, sometimes she works for the War Office, sometimes she volunteers as a rescuer, sometimes she has a baby with a Nazi. This is where I do give Atkinson credit: it’s certainly not a one-sided book, and Ursula’s fear of the Allied bombings and her love for her daughter is just as emotive when she’s on the “other” side. And I should mention here, I also loved Atkinson’s use of language. She had a real knack for brilliant similes, my favourite being the corpse that was picked up by his arms and legs only to “split apart like a Christmas cracker”.



I kept hoping/waiting for a big “twist” that never really came. I’m not sure if that’s my fault as a reader (I love plot twists that knock me on my arse, like this one!), or whether Atkinson kept setting things up that never quite came to fruition. I thought Ursula’s long-lost cousin (born to her aunt and adopted in Germany) would turn out to be Hitler. Or perhaps Ursula’s father was actually the murderous child molester. There seemed to be a lot of those types of loose ends that could have been turned into something really interesting, but alas. If you’re a fan of the shock-twist-ending, this isn’t the book for you – none of that shit happens, I’m afraid.

Towards the end of Life After Life, Ursula’s Spidey Sense has grown much stronger, and she starts to recall more definite details from previous lives. She uses this knowledge to try and prevent WWII by (of course) killing Hitler. The whole book builds up to this moment, and yet we never actually find out what happens! Ursula shoots Hitler, but his posse retaliates quickly, and she dies almost immediately after firing the gun. Every time Ursula dies, Atkinson tells us “darkness falls” (ahem*CLICHE*ahem), and the reader’s experience of the timeline stops with her death. So, maybe killing Hitler worked, maybe it didn’t – only Atkinson knows.



So, on the whole, Life After Life is murky. It’s full of plot-lines that aren’t completely resolved, and kind of appear and disappear at Atkinson’s will. The philosophical questions raised by Ursula’s endless Sliding Doors moments aren’t really answered. We don’t even know why or how her life happens over and over again. It’s not fantasy, it’s not science-fiction… it’s a really hard one to classify. I guess I’d say it straddles historical and speculative fiction, right in the middle of the Venn diagram between them. I think Life After Life is a good one for book clubs, because it will undoubtedly spark a lot of debate. It’s hard not to start thinking about your own life in a butterfly-effect-y kind of way (“maybe it’s a good thing I’m running 20 minutes late because in another punctual life I’d get hit by a bus!”, and that kind of thing). Still, there was enough in this book that didn’t sit right with me, and I won’t be seeking out the sequel.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Life After Life:

  • “What a mess. One of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. Writer needed to pick a story and stick with it.” – Carol J. Tady
  • “TOO MUCH.” – Kathryn J. Byerly
  • “This book has all the makings of a fabulous alternative fiction or something, but ultimately all the wonderful vignettes of a life endlessly repeated (and truly the writing and imagery are superb!), got tedious because there was never a real resolution. Something always went wrong until suddenly it didn’t, but by then the book is over and we have no clue what went right and what actually happened.

    This book was either far too long or far too short, I’m not sure which.” – Kindle Customer

  • “The author actually knows English. Imagine that! She is funny and holds the readers attention even though there is a real story.” – Clint
  • “repetitive by nature, boring by design” – Sophia
  • “We tried to do a book club and this was the first book…. This book was so bad, the book club died. This book single handedly killed our book club. And darkness fell.
    Deaths were tedious, ending each chapter with “darkness fell” made a very good inside joke among the cancelled book club but a terrible way to get your readers to take you seriously, I tried to read the book three times and just couldn’t get passed all the deaths of the main character to get to anything substantial…actually the worst book I have ever tried to read.” – Carly Stewart



A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Fantasy is not my first choice for genre fiction. I really struggle to keep track when there are eight hundred different characters, who all seem to have similar names, spread across a huge world that is completely unfamiliar to me… so I was pretty hesitant cracking open A Game of Thrones. I don’t live under a rock, so of course I’m already familiar with the HBO series, and I hoped that having watched it (a couple times over, no less) would help me keep track of what was going on. And, on that note, if you’re one of those people that completely pooh-poohs the television adaptation, we’re on completely different levels. I went so far as to make a solemn vow before I started reading that I would never become one of those arseholes that interrupts every GoT conversation by saying “Have you read the books, though?”, and I fully intend to stick to that. I like the series, and I’m no elitist. So, proceed with this review at your own peril.

And a note on the title: the original publication was, indeed, called “A Game of Thrones”. It wasn’t until after the HBO series premiered in 2011, and the book soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List, that the publisher released this paperback tie-in edition that excluded the indefinite article. Better brand recognition, and all of that…

Anyway: A Game of Thrones is the first in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I was pretty surprised to learn that he first started writing it back in 1991, and the debut wasn’t published until 1996. I had no idea it was that old! I know everyone bitches about how long it’s taking him to finish the sixth and seventh books in the series, but when you look at the timeline of releases so far, and how long it took him to write each one, the long delay is hardly out of character for him, so maybe we should all just back off. Whoops!

So I start reading. Before I’m fifty pages in, I’m already thinking “Yep, I’m very glad I watched the show first!”. I would have had a devil of a time following what was going on if I hadn’t. There are several points of view, and Martin switches back and forth between them super-fast, telling three different storylines simultaneously.



First, there’s Ned Stark, a Lord from the North, who is called to King’s Landing to serve as Hand of the King (the King being an old war buddy of his, if you went through what they did you’d understand). When he arrives in the southern city, he discovers that the King’s children are actually the product of an incestuous FWB thing going on between the Queen and her twin brother. (And don’t bother saying “ewww”, being disgusted by Queen Cersei and Jamie Lannister’s all-family fuck-fest is so 2011.) When Ned threatens to reveal the Queen’s secret, the King is mysteriously “killed by a boar” while hunting (read: low-key murdered), and Ned is executed as a traitor. His family arcs up, and declares war on the whole Kingdom. (Yes, this is the Land of the Great Overreaction.)

Meanwhile, further north, Ned’s bastard son has joined the league of the Night’s Watch, who protect The Wall (a giant block of ice that separates the Kingdom from the Northern wilderness). They’re there to keep out The Others, a kind of Zombie army (i.e., the “bad guys”). The Wall serves as a default penal colony, and all the undesirables from the Kingdom end up there, so it’s a pretty motley crew and not at all what the bastard expected.

And then there’s everything that’s going on Across The Narrow Sea. The Targaryens are the former royal family, ousted by now-King Robert Baratheon (the one that got boar-ed). Generations of in-breeding sent them a bit bonkers, but the two remaining kids – Viserys and Daenerys – seem to be holding up alright. Well, except that Viserys sells Daenerys in marriage, hoping that her new Dothraki (read: savage) husband will give him an army that he plans to use to re-take his throne. He’s a right prick, actually, in case you hadn’t guessed… and an impatient one, as it turns out. Daenerys’s savage husband brutally murders Viserys (is it wrong to have a “favourite murder”? I hope not, because this is mine!) because he keeps nagging him about the whole army thing. Daenerys thinks she’s home and hosed, but she has a bit of a rough trot; her husband dies, her kid dies, and she goes full bad-ass bitch and takes over the whole situation. She marshals her remaining followers and figures out how to hatch three live dragons – the throne is gon’ be hers, make no mistake. The story ends there (gasp!), with the lingering threat of a burgeoning dragon queen.



So, yes, A Game of Thrones has a really intricate and complex plot, but that’s not exactly uncommon for fantasy. The unique circumstances for this book, though, is that you’d pretty much have to be dead not to have at least some idea of what it’s all about, given the popularity of the TV show. I liked picking up on some of the interesting details that I missed in the show (like the symbolism of the stag killing the direwolf in the opening scenes). It was just enough to hold it all together for me, but – like I said – I’m damn glad I watched the show first, and I would have really struggled reading A Game of Thrones if I hadn’t.

The main recurring themes are (1) choosing between stuff (usually the people you love and some kind of honour/duty), and (2) the fuzzy distinction between good and evil. Martin himself has said:

“Having multiple viewpoints is crucial to the grayness of the characters. You have to be able to see the struggle from both sides, because real human beings in a war have all these processes of self-justification, telling ourselves why what we’re doing is the right thing.”

A Game of Thrones hardly revolutionises the fantasy genre in that regard, so I can see why die-hard fantasy fans roll their eyes at it a bit. I’m not really here for the fantasy, though, so it didn’t bother me enough to write it off entirely. And on the other side of it, you’ve got the ones that turn their noses up at anything with a popular adaptation, so you’d think that would really limit its market… but Martin seems to be doing okay regardless, so my heart doesn’t exactly break for him. In the end, I’m here for the politics, the underhanded wheeling and dealing, and he absolutely nails that aspect. If that’s not your style, there’s also a lot of internal conflict and character development to keep you entertained.

I did notice a few typos in this edition, especially towards the end – I guess the editor just got tired? It’s hard to blame him, this bad boy is several hundred pages long…

In the end, it was quite comforting to read a storyline with which I was already familiar (that doesn’t happen often with my reading list, given that every book is one I’ve never read before and I rarely take the time to watch TV or film adaptations). I really enjoyed A Game of Thrones… but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who hasn’t already seen (and loved) the show. If you didn’t enjoy the show, you definitely shouldn’t bother with the book – what you see is what you get.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Game of Thrones:

  • “3 of the books are printed upside down from the cover. Very disapointed.” – Alex M.
  • “I enjoyed reading the book and it made the library happy also as the replacement for a book me and my puppy damaged. The price of the book was well worth the purchase. So no complaints.” – “Ichi
  • “Not thrilled at how small they were for real other than that they are books” – Curtis G.
  • “I have had these books and still have not read them but I feel great just having them.  10/10Why did I buy these” – Alex G.
  • “After 3 pages of reading I remembered I don’t actually like reading. Love the show though.” – Stewart S. Smith
  • “Swords and Knives are cool. Liked the book.” – Richard Beck
  • “What can I say, Winter is Coming! Excellent read with the spattering of sex. (More then I like but George didn’t ask my opinion before he started writing the books)” – Hope


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