Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Fantasy (page 1 of 2)

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown (but the trope itself has existed far longer). Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the King and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind. We all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

I had a devil of a time finding a copy of The Colour Of Magic in my usual secondhand bookstore haunts. Most Terry Pratchett books are like hen’s teeth, even though he was pretty prolific (he wrote and contributed to over 70 books over the course of his life). It would seem that he’s, well, rather popular. I ended up finding this copy at a probably-illegal lonely market stall, run from the side of the road in Newtown. A hippie bloke was selling off what appeared to be his entire personal library, bless his cotton socks. I didn’t realise until I got home and opened the book that this edition also includes the sequel, The Light Fantastic – it doesn’t mention it on the cover at all. Weird, eh?

The Colour Of Magic is a comic fantasy novel, the first in Pratchett’s Discworld series, published in 1983. The first print run of the British edition produced just 506 copies; I can only imagine the panic at the printers when they realised just how many more they’d need, because it achieved instant popularity. All I knew about the book going in, though, was that a friend of mine from university loved Pratchett, and his shelves were stuffed with books from this series. We’ve since lost touch, but if he’s out there and he stumbles upon this little blog, I hope he’s happy I finally got around to picking up his favourite 😉

The blurb opens with the tagline: “The funniest and most unorthodox fantasy in this or any other galaxy”, which sounded like a very deliberate and unsubtle dig at Douglas Adams. Indeed, The Colour Of Magic read very much like fantasy’s answer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and they’d probably make good companion reads if you’re into that kind of thing. This book, and the whole series after it, is set in a world that takes the form of a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle (the Great A’Tuin), floating through space. The inhabitants of the Discworld include wizards, dwarves, soldiers, beggars, vampires, witches, and all other manner of ghosties and ghoulies. The blurb hastened to reassure me, the reader, that the series can be read in any order, but it’s really best to start at the beginning, and enjoy them in the chronology that Pratchett originally intended. And so, I did…!



The Colour Of Magic follows the adventures of a failed wizard, and a wealthy (but rather naive) tourist, as they travel together through the Discworld. The story is split into “sections”, rather than chapters, so it reads almost like a group of short stories or novellas, as opposed to continuous novel-length prose. In the first, Rincewind (the wizard) is paid handsomely to guide Twoflower (the tourist) around the biggest city in the realm, his home of Ankh-Morpork. My first literal lol came when Rincewind described Twoflower thus:

“Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour shouting ‘All Gods are bastards’.”

The Colour of Magic

Initially, Rincewind accepts payment for his services in advance and tries to do a runner, but the leader of Ankh-Morpork stops him. The leadership team fears that if Twoflower gets lost or dies on his watch, the resulting PR disaster would cause his rich and vengeful hometown to invade. Of course, Twoflower is promptly kidnapped by a gang of thieves, and, with his leader’s warnings ringing in his ears, Rincewind has to stage a rescue, so their adventures begin…

Oh, and Twoflower has with him The Luggage, an apparently-indestructible enchanted sentient(!) chest. It’s the R2-D2 to their Luke and C3PO, really.



An important note: my reluctance to read fantasy novels mostly stems from my fear of not being able to keep all the names of people and places straight (as I said in my review of A Game Of Thrones). There were a few murky moments in The Colour Of Magic, but on the whole I realise now, writing it, that my summary will sound a lot more confusing than the book itself. So, if you’re of the same mind, take heart – any confusion you’re currently feeling can be attributed right back to me, because Pratchett did a very good job of making everything clear. The only thing I would highlight as a potential issue is that the whole book reads like it’s on fast forward, and you need to be prepared to jump from place to place and crisis to crisis very quickly. In fact, The Colour Of Magic is pretty much one long series of quick accidents that rocket Twoflower and Rincewind around the Discworld, so that Pratchett can show off his universe as quickly as possible. As long as you’re prepared to keep pace, you’ll be just fine.

Anyway, back to the story: along the way, they’re joined by a large, violent, and mostly-monosyllabic barbarian named Hrun, who carries a magical sword. He doesn’t hang around long, though. They visit the upside-down mountain of Wyrmberg, home of the dragon riders, and Hrun catches the eye of the potential-heiress Liessa. He’s roped into marrying her so that she may ascend to the throne, and Rincewind and Twoflower carry on without him. They don’t even stick around for the bachelor party!

Before long, disaster strikes again: they’re taken to the edge of the Discworld by ocean currents (every Flat Earther’s worst nightmare!), and nearly topple over the edge. They’re caught by the Circumfence (definitely Pratchett’s cleverest pun in the whole book), a huge net that was installed to catch anything that washed off the Discworld. A sea troll finds them and takes them in, before promptly handing them over to the Krullians. This new group is seeking to discover the sex of the Great A’Tuin (the turtle on whose back the whole Discworld rests, remember?). They’re very concerned about the possibility of the Great A’Tuin running into another giant space turtle, naturally, so they want to assess what the reaction of the turtle might be based on its sex (if it’s a boy turtle and it runs into another boy turtle, for instance, they might fight, spelling certain doom for everyone in the Discworld).



The Krullians are planning to launch a two-person capsule over the edge of the disc, and they decide to offer Rincewind and Twoflower to the God of Fate in sacrifice, to ensure the voyage’s success. In the end, however, Twoflower ends up joining the mission in the capsule, and Rincewind escapes… only to fall right over the edge, anyway.

The story quite neatly segues into the beginning of The Light Fantastic, so they can be read as a single novel, but I didn’t continue on with it – I’ve had enough fun for the moment! Nonetheless, I can definitely appreciate how well The Colour Of Magic sets up the Discworld series; Pratchett left a lot of interesting threads dangling, and I can understand the reader’s desperation to tug at them a little and see what happens. The series reached thirty-two installments, and sold over 20 million copies around the world, leading it to become one of the most popular and celebrated series in English literature. But what’s weird is that most die-hard Pratchett fans insist that The Colour Of Magic isn’t his finest work, and claim that it really undersells his talent. Perhaps I did myself a disservice by not reading on, but hey – there’s only so many hours in a day, and this gal has a whole list of great books to get through!

Pratchett said that The Colour Of Magic was “written in protest”, and he intended to satirise earlier fantasy novels. He loved fantasy, but found pre-1990s work contained “too many dark lords, too much lack of thought”. I’d say he was pretty successful in that endeavour; he made a lot of sharp jabs at cliches and tropes of the genre, like the stereotypical revealing outfits worn by female characters, the ridiculousness of attempting to ride a dragon, and – in a style quite reminiscent of Don Quixote – the unbelievable baseless “quests” of protagonists and their sidekicks. This has led some critics to argue that you really need to be a fan of fantasy to understand and fully appreciate The Colour Of Magic (while, in his later books, Pratchett satirised the real world, which was more accessible for readers outside the usual genre market). I would argue the opposite is true. I think The Colour Of Magic is perfect for people who are normally skeptical of fantasy, because it pokes fun of all the cliches that scare or annoy us. It’s like Pratchett is saying to us: “See? It’s not all bad!”.



Naturally, given its popularity, there’s a screen adaptation: a two-parter made for television that combines The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. A few of the stars will be very familiar to fantasy fans, with Sean Austin (Samwise Gamgee from Lord Of The Rings) playing Twoflower, and Christopher Lee playing Death. Off-screen, the Discworld books have also been adapted into graphic novels and computer games, the perfect formats to capture a new generation of interested readers.

On the whole, I had much the same reaction to The Colour Of Magic as I did The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is really not surprising given their similarities in form and tone. It was a fun little romp, a great read to take one’s mind off their troubles and the real world collapsing around our ears, a great moment of escapism with clever parody and satire thrown in to keep it sharp. I’d recommend you give this one a go if you’re not normally into fantasy and you want to give it a try without committing to a doorstop novel that will languish on your bedside table for months.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Colour Of Magic:

  • “When you need to laugh and enjoy the absurd. What better place than the back of a huge turtle? The elephants are also useful.” – Morris C. Johnson
  • “So much fun – it’s what you would get if Douglas Adams wrote Lord Of The Rings.” – Jeremy Parker
  • “I beseech thee. Please release the great Terry Pratchet so that he may delivery us from the stinking, fetid, over commercialized and over politicized, literature which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has become. Please let Rincewind show the way to incompetent hero want-to-be thieves how to survive and escape. Please let the great Captain Sam show those who have aspirations of leading villages to become empires, how to lead people. Please let PreditaX show young teenage upstart witches with intelligence and wisdom years beyond them, the true colour of magic. Thank you for hearing my prayers.” – Reghu
  • “This book had words in it. Some, when in a particular order were very humorous.” – Chester J
  • “I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT COLOR IT WAS!!!!!” – Lord Eagle Death Club
  • “Given that this book has spawned over three dozen sequels, I should have suspected it would be less Tolkien and more Piers Anthony. The stock review is that it’s what might happen if Douglas Adams had written fantasy. Except it’s not very funny, and not very good. Might I have enjoyed this had I read it as a teenager? Maybe. But I’m not. It starts out only slightly dumb, but gets worse with every page. And the ending is just terrible. Boring, unfunny, and utterly pointless. Seriously, seriously awful.” – Don.


The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Keeper-Upperers, I made a whoopsy! Back when I reviewed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I mistakenly labelled it as the only children’s book on my reading list – I forgot entirely about this bad boy! The Wind In The Willows is a children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. Set in a rural part of Edwardian England, it follows the adventures (or misadventures, as it were) of four anthropomorphised animals: Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Having not been totally Disney-fied, it hasn’t quite reached the pervasive popularity of Alice, but I’d say it’s about on par in terms of loveliness.

Now, oddly for such a delightful little tome, The Wind In The Willows was actually born of some pretty miserable circumstances. Kenneth Grahame had a pretty rough trot, on the whole. His mother died when he was five, and his father had a pretty hectic drinking problem, so the kids were dumped with their grandmother. It was all rather shitful, but Grahame made the most of it. His Grandma lived near the Thames and he loved exploring the area, mucking around, as kids do. He survived his rough start, and went on to score a pretty swanky secretary job at the Bank Of England. He married at the age of 40, and the following year his wife had their only child, a sickly boy named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born premature and blind in one eye.

Raising Alastair was tough, and a few years after his birth Grahame decided he was jack of the rat race. He resigned from his position at the bank and moved the whole family back to the country, where he felt most at home. He spent a lot of his time “simply messing about in boats”, and began expanding the bedtime stories he had made up for Alastair into a manuscript. The characters of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger had been fixtures in the Grahame household during Alastair’s childhood; even when Papa Kenneth went off on one of his boating trips, he would write letters home containing tales of their adventures for his son. So, The Wind In The Willows must’ve been a walk-up start, right? Kid tested, and approved?

Well, not really: a number of publishers rejected the manuscript outright. Everyone was expecting books more in the vein of his previous works (he’d already published The Golden Age, and Dream Days, by this point), and they were sorely disappointed. When he finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on his children’s story, the critics panned it… but the public loved it! Bookstores kept selling out, so multiple print-runs were required, in quick succession. Plus, it got a ringing endorsement from President Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to Grahame to say he had “read it and reread it, and [had] come to accept the characters as old friends”. That’s one heck of a blurb, eh?



I’m with Teddy: it’s a brilliant book. And it’s certainly not “just” a children’s story. There’s plenty in there for adults, like this gem:

“The best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”

Page 13, The Wind In The Willows

The story starts with Mole, who decides he can’t be fucked cleaning his messy house, so he abandons it altogether and goes to crash on a mate’s couch (BIG MOOD!). He and his mate, Rat, have a wonderful time boating every day and living together (a more contemporary interpretation of this story offers a queer reading of their relationship, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day). They decide to visit their mate, Toad.

Now, Toad’s a real larrikin; he has a tendency to jump on every fad, and the latest is his growing obsession with motorcars. He’s kind of a garbage person, with his criminal tendencies and blatant fat-phobia and all, but he’s also debonair and charming in his over-the-top way, and anyone who says he isn’t their favourite character is lying.

Mole decides he would also like to meet the elusive Badger, but gets really lost trying to find his house. Rat rescues him from freezing to death in the woods, and on their way home they end up stumbling upon Badger’s abode anyway. He offers them shelter from the snowstorm outside, and winds up joining their growing posse.



Meanwhile, Toad’s obsession with motorcars quickly spirals out of control. While Badger, Ratty, and Mole are sitting around drinking tea like grown-ups, Toad steals and crashes several cars, winds up hospitalised on more than one occasion, and has to pay out big money in fines. The crew holds an intervention for him, but he escapes and steals a convertible for one last joyride (that, of course, lands him in jail). He eventually escapes, and has all kinds of mishaps and misadventures making his way home. When he rejoins his mates, he convinces them to gang up and banish the weasles and stoats that have been squatting in his home during his incarceration absence. Toad learns a few important lessons about humility and friendship, and they all live happily ever after.

I thought The Wind In The Willows was going to be a light, easy read, and it was… but not as light or as easy as I was expecting. It seemed to require a lot more focus than Alice, but (granted) I did have a nasty head cold at the time I was reading it and my brain felt like Swiss cheese, so it might not have been entirely Grahame’s fault. I didn’t have it as bad as some folks: a historian was found tortured and murdered in his home in 2016, because a thief had broken in, intent on finding the rare first edition hidden somewhere in the house. (Seriously, this actually happened!)

The Wind In The Willows would be a great one to read out loud to kids, but that’s not all it’s good for. It’s also a great pick for adults who need a little bit of a break from lofty literature (like I did after last week). And I’m glad Grahame managed to turn his shitty life circumstances into a wonderful and enduring story that has become such a major source of joy in so many childhoods – good on him!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Wind In The Willows:

  • “The plot was awful it was silly and profane. Don’t you dare waste your time on this book please heed me don’t download this horrible awful mean.nasty ugly book!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Shannon
  • “I have no idea how to read or write. Was disappointed when this wasn’t hentai.” – F.T.
  • “This is my very favorite book. Nice Kindle version. The illustrations look good on my iPad.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I am a young reader and I found NO interest in this book.
I think that this should have more drama.” – garcia


The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

I think I’ve seen The Alchemist under the arm of just about every hippie I’ve ever met… and I’ve never once asked any of them about it, for fear that it would “change my life” or “give me a new perspective” or “open my mind to spirituality” or some shit. Maybe that makes me a cynic, but so be it! The point is that, like most of the books on my original reading list, I knew very little about The Alchemist going in, but in service of my aim to Keep Up With The Penguins, I went in regardless.

The cover of this edition promises “a fable about following your dreams”, and I suppose it delivered, technically. Like any fable, it wasn’t a tough read, and I burned through it in just a few hours (the fastest I’ve finished any book for this project, as I recall). The Alchemist reads like a fairytale, with very simple and straightforward language; I wondered if it read the same way in the original Portuguese, but I guess I’ll never know.

Oh, yeah, a bit of background: Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author, and The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese (“O Alquimista”). This version was translated into English by Alan R. Clarke, and it has been translated into some 70 other languages as of 2016.



Anyway, The Alchemist is an allegorical novel. It starts with an Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, having recurring dreams about finding treasure buried under the Egyptian pyramids (haven’t we all?). He stumbles across a Romani fortune-teller, who confirms his suspicion that the dream is prophetic – and believe you me, in my head I’m screaming “BUDDY, THIS IS NOT A GOOD PLAN!”, but he doesn’t hear me. Then he sits down to have a chat with a King disguised as a pauper, who tells him:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”

(So, The Secret totally ripped him off, but that’s not my business.)

Anyway, the rest of the book is pretty much Coelho reinforcing that rather trite philosophy, over and over again. Santiago’s journey to Egypt is a total shit-fight. He gets robbed, and has to work in a jewellery store for a year to make his money back. Then he makes his way through the desert, encountering mortal peril every step of the way and buddying up with a bloke who really wants to become an alchemist (don’t get excited, he’s not the titular character). They find an oasis, and there Santiago falls in love with a girl (conveniently forgetting all about the merchant’s daughter who he also “loved” back in Spain). He leaves her hanging to travel the rest of the way through the desert, and en route he meats The Actual Alchemist(TM), who teaches him to “listen to his heart” (very insight, much wise).

The two of them come within a bee’s dick of becoming collateral damage in a tribal war, and when Santiago finally makes it to the bloody pyramids, he gets the living shit beat out of him by a local gang. Then – awesome timing! – he has another “prophetic”  dream that tells him the stinking treasure is actually buried under a tree in his hometown. I swore, loudly, when I read that part.



I know, I know: it’s a beautiful story about overcoming obstacles and faith and persistence and all of that… but let’s be real, sometimes you’re better off just calling it a day and heading back to your sheep and the merchant’s daughter. Maybe that means you miss out on the treasure, but you get beaten and robbed and taken prisoner far less frequently.

Coelho wrote the book almost as quickly as I read it; it took him just two weeks, in 1987. He later explained that he was able to spew it out so quickly because the book was “already written in [his] soul”. And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Coelho.

Maybe there’s something in his whole faith and persistence shtick, because The Alchemist’s success came from pretty humble beginnings. It was not an instant best-seller, by any stretch. Coelho first sold it to a small publishing house, who gave it a small print run in Brazil, but they ended up handing him back the rights because they figured they’d backed the wrong horse.

via GIPHY

But Coelho kept the hustle alive: he self-published, and fought the good fight, until finally – finally – his book took off in France, and became an “unexpected” best-seller in the mid ’90s. It’s a great testament to the power of word-of-mouth marketing, because this was pre-Facebook and (until he hit the big time) Coelho had no budget for any other publicity.

Given The Alchemist’s enduring (eventual) popularity, you might be surprised to learn it’s not yet been adapted for the big screen. Coelho was reluctant to sell the rights, believing that “a book has life of its own inside the reader’s mind” (or some hippie shit like that), and film adaptations rarely live up to the book. But, over time, he “opened his mind” to the possibility (and, I’d imagine, the piles of money offered that got bigger and bigger – even hippies can’t resist the lure of fat stacks). Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but the project stalled for several years. Then, in 2008, Harvey Weinstein announced that he had bought the rights and would produce the film himself. By 2015, he’d secured a director, and a lead actor, but then… well, yeah. Weinstein had some other shit going on. He ain’t going to be producing anything for a while. So, Coelho keeps the money, and he doesn’t have to see his magnum opus butchered on the big screen by a notorious sexual predator. Everyone’s a winner!

I can see why hippies love The Alchemist. I was right in my suspicion: there’s a lot of spirituality and listening to your heart and all that guff. I’m definitely too cynical for this book – or maybe the book is too earnest, whichever you prefer. As the New York Times said, it’s more self-help than literature. I’d describe it as The Secret meets The Divine Comedy. The main tick in its column is that it’s an all-ages read, as far as I can tell, so if you’re looking to cheer up a stressed-out kid this would be a good one to read out loud to them. If you’re reading it alone… well, at least it’ll be over quickly. And maybe you’re not dead inside like me, so you might even enjoy it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Alchemist:

  • “Really was expecting something life altering. My dog chewed up the book when I was 18 pages in and I should have let her finish….” – jane
  • “Too much words like all his books!” – george raven
  • “Meh. I’m going to finish it, but only because they said It couldn’t be done.” – Andy Robertson
  • “Follow Your Dreams. That’s it. Save your money for your dreams – nothing wrong with this book but no more uplifting than the Facebook posts your friends send for free.” – West Coast Dreamer
  • “Apparently, if you are a man, the world will arrange itself to make sure you are happy. If you are a woman, your job is to sit yourself at home and wait for your main to come back and fulfil you, no matter how long that takes, because that’s your job. You don’t get your own destiny, you get to deal with his….” – Alison
  • “My personal legend is complete and the sun is setting on the mountains to the north. My treasure is having been able to complete this stupid book and put it away forever.” – Laura WG
  • “What a sappy story. If you want to drink syrup, by all means read this book.” – Dixie Dome
  • “A novel for stoners. What a regrettable purchase.” – NJ

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

If I was all hung up on being technically correct (pfft, you guys wouldn’t believe it was me), this post would be called “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver”. That was the title Jonathan Swift chose for this novel, published under a pseudonym in 1729. He chose to use a pen name because his work was full of political commentary and satire, and his real name was closely associated with the Tories (who had fallen into disrepute, imagine that). He said he wrote the world to “vex the world rather than divert it”. But as time went on, more and more people referred to it as simply Gulliver’s Travels, and here we are.

Gulliver’s Travels reads like the travel blog of a bloke who gallivanted around the world in the 1700s, when atlases were woefully incomplete. The story kicks off with his first voyage, which he dates as occurring in 1699. His ship is wrecked (oh, yeah, you need to know right from the outset that Gulliver is super unlucky), and he washes ashore in the strange land of Lilliput. It is inhabited by a race of tiny people, all less than six inches tall. At first, they’re totally cool with this random giant (Gulliver) showing up in their ‘hood, but they’re (understandably) fucking terrified of the power he wields over them with his size. He learns that they’re kind of loopy, on the whole, and they focus on trivial things. Prime example: they’ve long been engaged in out-and-out military warfare with a neighbouring society of equally-tiny people, because they crack open their eggs at the opposite end. All things considered, Gulliver doesn’t really fit in with the Lilliputians, and he gets the fuck out of Dodge.

Not one to be put-off (oh, yeah, old mate Gulliver is also quite slow on the uptake), he sets out on another voyage in 1702. This time, his fellow sailors abandon him on a peninsula in North Africa. This is pretty much Opposite Land after Lilliput, because the farmer that finds him is 72ft tall and the grass seems as high as the trees back in England. Gulliver – now teeny-tiny, in relative terms – is treated as a side-show curiosity by the giants that take him in, and he is eventually sold as a pet to the Queen of their realm. After a few more adventures (including – and I’m not kidding, I swear – a fight with a gargantuan wasp and an escapade with a monkey), the box that Gulliver’s been living in is picked up by a seagull and dropped out to sea. There, he is rescued by some sailors, regular-sized ones, who return him safely to England once more.


Remember how I said Gulliver is slow on the uptake? Yeah, well, his travels don’t end there. In 1706, he sets off again, and this time his ship is attacked by pirates. This dude must’ve been cursed! He finds himself marooned on a rocky island near India, in a kingdom of people obsessed with music, mathematics, and astronomy… in theory. They’re all book-smart, he quickly finds, but not so good with the practical living. He helpfully points out to the reader that they taught him an important lesson about the blind pursuit of science and art without practical results (and, yes, this was Swift making one of those political points of his about bureaucracy, and the Royal Society’s controversial experiments), before making his way home…

… but not for long. Full of impractical wanderlust-bravado, Gulliver heads back out, this time as the captain of a ship, only to have his crew commit mutiny and abandon him on the first lump of sand they find. That’s where he finds a race of deformed savage human-esque creatures (the “Yahoos”), and he’s rescued by a race of talking horses (the “Houyhnhnms”). I don’t think I need to point out the metaphor here, because Swift hits you over the head with it repeatedly until the end of the book. It’s basically Planet of the Apes, but with horsies. Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms (even though they’re highly suspicious of him, with the resemblance he bears to their Yahoo mortal enemies, of course), and he hangs around for a long, long time. Eventually, they kick him out for being too Yahoo-y, and he gets home only to find that he is now repulsed by his own kind. He lives out the rest of his days in his stables, ignoring his wife and chit-chatting to the horses about life and philosophy and whatever. The end.

By now, a lot of the structural elements of Gulliver’s Travels have become stock-standard, but at the time they were downright revolutionary. There’s a clear downward spiral, as the causes of Gulliver’s “travels” become more and more malignant: shipwrecked, abandoned, boarded by pirates, mutinied by his own crew. As that plays out, Gulliver himself devolves from a cheery optimist to a pompous misanthrope. And each section of the novel forms the equal but opposite of the previous part: the Lilliputians are tiny, but then Gulliver finds himself in a society where he’s the tiny one, and so on and so forth.


I can’t say I liked Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because I got increasingly pissed off at the fact that Gulliver seems to completely forget all about his wife and family. Mrs Gulliver is the most sympathetic character in the whole story, no shit. Even though he comes home in the end, he’s spent too much time on Planet Of The Horses and he decides that she’s an “odious Yahoo”, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Sometimes, if he feels particularly benevolent, he’ll “permit” her to sit with him at dinner, as long as she stays at the opposite end of the table and he can stuff his nose with “rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves” to mask her human stench. Oh, and he commands her to answer any questions with the “utmost brevity”, so he doesn’t have to put up with her yammering on. What a guy!

I wondered why more of the book didn’t feel familiar, because I’d watched a film adaptation (on VHS! remember those?) about a hundred times when I was a kid. Then, I looked it up and worked out that it only covered two of the “several remote nations” to which Gulliver travelled. Apparently a lot of film adaptations do that, because the first couple of “travels” are the easiest to film and communicate on-screen; plus, they’re the most kid-friendly, and Gulliver’s Travels is widely regarded as a children’s book, even though there’s a lot of political commentary and allegory behind the childish imagery. I suppose that makes it an old-timey version of Shrek, really.

Don’t be fooled, though: Gulliver’s Travels has had a considerable impact on literature, and indeed the English language on the whole. In this book, we can find the origins of science fiction, and the structure of the modern novel. Even the term “yahoo” (meaning “a rude, noisy, or violent person” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is drawn from Swift’s work – another English word that has its roots in classic literature! It’s just a shame I couldn’t enjoy it properly because the main character was such an unremitting arsehole.



My favourite part (not that I felt spoiled for choice) was where Gulliver meets a King, who moonlights as psychic medium John Edward. He can recall people from the dead, but only for 24 hours at a time, and only once every three months. Gulliver talks him into bringing back Aristotle, assorted Roman emperors, dead Kings, and so forth. There’s a really touching passage where he laments the fact that history is written by the victors, and all these dickheads (who he’d been taught all his life were “great men”) were basically the Donald Trumps of their day. All the people who’d stood up to them and fought the good fight had either been forgotten or had their names dragged through the mud. Gulliver declares that he’s fed up with fake news, and he’s calling bullshit on it all – surprisingly poignant, eh?

My tl;dr summary of Gulliver’s Travels: Gulliver leaves his wife and kids at home to gallivant around the world, four times over, even though he constantly meets with disaster and winds up a prisoner in some foreign land or another. He becomes such a twisted misanthrope that he gives up on humanity and lives out his days ankle-deep in horse shit. Sure, the academics will say that it’s an ever-relevant critique of corruption and religion and government… but I can’t get past the wife-abandonment. Gulliver pretty much got what he deserved, is what I’m saying, and his wife could have done so much better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gulliver’s Travels:

  • “This was the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. My whole family hates it too. Honestly, I could barley read it for 10 minutes without it putting me to sleep from Gulliver dragging on about garbage no one cares about. I would rather drink a gallon of mayonnaise then read this, actually I would BATHE in mayonnaise for a MONTh then read this book. And don’t even think about saying “oh I bet its not THAT bad,” because it IS THAT BAD! I wish I didn’t have to read this book for my class, but by the time i’m done, I might as well burn the book.” – AmazonShoper
  • “Useless as a book.” – Flordelis
  • “Sucked.” – Morgan
  • “Mostly good stories.” – John H. Long

« Older posts