Just read The Man Who was Thursday, GK Chesterton

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I made a mistake of picking The Man Who was Thursday up to read in bed and kept falling asleep after every 2-3 pages. As a result, it took longer to get into it than I would have liked. It actually took me a long while to read it and it’s a pretty short book. It is very funny though, surprising and unexpected. I didn’t know anything about it beforehand other than that it being a classic that perhaps defied easy classification – Beloved actually picked it up in a second hand bookshop, not me but, being on The Guardian’s 1,000 books list, which I follow on and off, I knew I wanted to read it at some point. It was classified under sci fi and fantasy, a broad catch-all. I may have also read a Father Brown novel and a bit about Chesterton when I worked to promote a publishing company reissuing certain old authors many moons ago. This was at the start of digital printing and I found that nobody really seemed to care about old authors, which was a bit sad.

Anyway, back to The Man Who was Thursday, once I moved it from the bedroom and started reading it during the day, it was a very quick read. I think ‘metaphysical thriller’, the label that springs up on googling, suits the book better. It is funny but also questioning. Chesterton’s subtitle was ‘A Nightmare’, and this made sense although there isn’t anything really nightmarish about it. It is satyrical and allegorical too so it’s really all sorts of things. Difficult to name any in particular without giving away the plot, which I don’t want to do other than to say that involves poets, police, anarchists, false identities, chases, elephants and religion among other things. And a very cutting remark or two about class society. Even though it was written in 1908 it is pretty timeless. It’s a very good, quick read and while it won’t appeal to everyone, I certainly enjoyed it.

It’s also provided me with a much needed diversion and respite from both super busy work and intense study. Work’s always busy at this time of the year but ‘school’ is busier than usual as this new course I’m doing on twentieth century history has so much reading – it’s fantastic but I can’t help myself from wanting to read everything. Not that this is necessary but there is so much fascinating stuff available that I’m finding it really difficult to stop and move on. Intense, in a good way.

Just read, Darkmans by Nicola Barker

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Oh dear, I think this is one of the most irritating books I’ve read in a very long time. I don’t think myself lucky to be alive at the same time as her, sorry Ali Smith. It’s not a terrible book by any means, there are some great ideas, themes and characters  but the book lacked cohesion as if everything was just taken for a stroll in the park then left to fend for itself. Too many characters, no plot to speak of, no central idea other than characters being loosely linked by the ‘darkmans’ of the title but not really because the whole ‘darkmans’ idea didn’t feel properly developed either. Some other ideas, notably about the language, I liked but this became very repetitive and again, not taken anywhere. Repetition almost seemed to be a theme and it got a bit boring. Love, loss and grief feature but not to a degree that you could say this is what the book is about, there are some history bits that feel a bit far fetched (the life of John Scogin, the supposed court jester who may or may not have existed in real life and, according to the book, seems to have lived for well over a 100 years). I think the worst thing for me is that this book was over 800 pages long and relentless. I didn’t find it funny enough to sustain my interest, I found the repetition unnecessary, the structure too – as if someone was screaming on a loop inside my head and I wanted to tell them to just pause and take a breath. It’s as if Barker tried to cram everything she could think of then she went away, thought of a few more things and threw them in too. Then just left them all there and sort of attempted to tie it all up with one bit of a speech/ message at the end, this in itself was actually quite good but by then I just didn’t really care anymore and wanted the whole thing over and done with. So glad I only had this book on kindle and not in actual paperback. Carrying that about would have driven me mad. Well, at least it’s done now.

Just read, Dune by Frank Herbert

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I’ve a bit of a sci fi/ dystopia/ fantasy/ YA reading obsession at the moment, which shows no signs of abating. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read some quite bad-to-average novels in the style of The Hunger Games, none of which came close to it (Mortal Instruments, The Bone Season and Divergent, which was a little more enjoyable as far as these types of books go) and also The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence, which I enjoyed a lot. Then it dawned on me that I should probably have a look at The Guardian’s 1,000 novels list and pick out some good sci fi books as I got all YA’d out.  If I’d only looked at the list first, I would have saved myself a lot of time… I wander now why I’d never read Dune before, it’s exactly the type of book I love reading and getting lost in: a complex universe with amazingly well realised worlds, great mythology, strong characters, good story. It was written nearly 50 years ago and these ladies writing today’s dystopian fantasies (not that Dune is a dystopian fantasy) should really read a classic or two before attempting to emulate the success of The Hunger Games or reaching anything like the complexity of His Dark Materials. I guess complexity is of little interest. What surprises me is that Hollywood seems to be throwing money at them because they sell – the reason I read Mortal Instruments in the first place was seeing the trailer for the film and thinking it could be fun. Yet I wander how many younger people would read Dune? While it usually features on sci fi classics lists, I wander how many people buy it nowadays. The main character is of a similar age but I suppose that’s where the similarities stop. A quick look at Goodreads.com shows both Mortal Instruments and Divergent having higher scores than Dune, which is a bit sad. Perhaps I should blame Kyle MacLachlan but my memory of the film (it has been a while) is that it wasn’t too bad. Beloved informs me that we have it so I’d like to watch it again, having read the book.  Anyway, glad I finally read Dune, I devoured it really and enjoyed it very much.

Just read, The Riddle of The Sands, Erskine Childers

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An enjoyable read, this and a good example of why it’s often really worth going back to beginnings and basics. I’d a vague memory that I may have seen the film adaptation of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of The Sands when I was little but then I thought the story had something to do with WW2. I clearly haven’t seen it. It was published in 1903, an early spy novel. While I’m not particularly well read in that genre, I can see why it was influential and also why it was immensely popular pre WW1 as it suggests a German invasion of England and pinpoints England’s defence weaknesses. The Riddle of The Sands is well structured, with a slow beginning and a real sense of adventure and pluck in that old fashioned sense, which many people now probably find quite hard to read or boring and this is a real shame. I like to read ‘the firsts’ because you can then see how a particular genre developed over the coming decades although now I’m thinking of Le Carre and of the Smiley novels which I haven’t yet read. These will have to wait. The Riddle of The Sands was also a very quick read despite nautical and yachting terminology and frequent referrals to tiny maps. I’m very bad on nautical terminology but I do love a map, no matter how tiny. Anyway, a good pick from The Guardian‘s 1,000 novels list, I seem to be sailing through it at the moment, thanks to recent Yorkshire second hand bookshop finds. I will give it a little break however and tackle some new books next.

Just read, Samarkand, Amin Maalouf

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A little puzzled by this book. I’ve had it for a while and started reading it a year or so ago, rather enjoying it at first and then not so much so I left it. I picked it up again the other week and started from the beginning again. Exactly the same thing happened, I  was enjoying it then not so much only this time, I decided to continue reading. It took me a while even though it is a fairly slim book with only just over 300 pages. Finally finished it yesterday and am still puzzling over what it is exactly that I didn’t enjoy. Amin Maalouf published Samarkand in French 25 years ago, it is historical fiction, which I like and it weaves a narrative around real historical characters, which I also like. The first half takes place in Persia in the 11th and 12th centuries and this I found mostly a fascinating read. I wanted to read about Omar Khayam, the main protagonist and his relationships with Nizam al Malk, the powerful grand vizier and Hassan Sabbah the founder of the assassins and I wanted to continue reading about these characters, their ideas, actions and legends that have sprung up about them since. I wanted to read about Persia pre Mongol invasions, I know next to nothing of this period other than there was an efflorescence of arts and sciences including poetry, astronomy, mathematics. This is what interested me. Then the narrative moved to the late 19th century and involved an American searching for Khayam’s manuscript of poems across Persia while the Western powers fought to spread their influence and ‘spheres of interest’. This part would have possibly worked better as a book in its own right, it is a fascinating story, well told but this part of the story was much less character driven, the story of the search for the manuscript seemed a little trivial when compared to the awakening of the Persian people and their attempts to establish a state independent of Western influence. The latter period drew parallels with the earlier in the conflict of beliefs and ideas between the old and the new but the American narrator was a much weaker character than those who came before and this, I feel, let the book down somewhat. Having said that, Samarkand is beautifully written and the historical characters truly fascinating. I’ve read elsewhere that Borges wrote a story about their friendship too, a reminder for me to look up the big collection of his stories I’ve been dipping in and out of for a while and see if I can find the story.

I came across Samarkand and Amin Maalouf through The Guardian‘s 1,000 novels list and will look up Maalouf’s other works once I’ve cleared a few more titles from the ‘pile of shame’, which is currently somewhat inflated following recent additions. Continuing to work hard at getting it to a healthier size.

Just read, Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Braddon

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I love a good Victorian novel and Lady Audley’s Secret seems to have been the first Victorian scandal novel too (another reason to read it). Immensely popular, running into 8 editions in its first year of publication. Publishers and journalists should really bear that in mind when talking  about today’s publishing ‘phenomenons’. Nothing new there, which also seems apt as Mary Braddon herself lamented that everything had been written, there was nothing new, while writing Lady Audley’s Secret, according to Jenny Uglow who wrote the introduction to the above, 1985 Virago Classics edition. I enjoyed this book a lot, it seemed an appropriate yarn to take on a brief family visit and I had to stop myself from becoming antisocial as I got into it – this did not take long. At times I thought it was a little overegged but very enjoyable nevertheless. I liked the pacing in particular and Braddon’s need to get into the psyche of Lady Audley, I can imagine the shocked faces of Victorian ladies while reading this. And I also liked the little cliffhangers which you get in novels that were first serialised. A good, if not quite brilliant read.

Just read Catch 22, Joseph Heller

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Oh what an utterly brilliant book. How very stupid of me not to have read it before. I picked up Catch 22 a couple of weeks ago and have been reading and enjoying it daily on way to and from work, then left it at home while walking in North Yorkshire last weekend, taking Gone Girl instead and disliking it very much. I only went back to Catch 22 when I finished Gone Girl the other day but, in retrospect, maybe it was a good thing because it made me appreciate Joseph Heller’s book all that much more. A bit baffled at how good people on goodreads gave both books the same score, think some people need to be reading better books…  Can’t quite decide what I loved about Catch 22 the most: the rhythm, I loved the rhythm and the repetition first. Kept thinking of Hot Chip’s Over and over as I was reading it. I loved the absurdity of it all, the seeming nonsense. I loved the humour Major Major Major Major. I loved the humanity most of all. Or maybe I love this elated feeling I still have from the ending most of all (have only just read it and can’t contain all this love for the genius of it). Oh, and I really liked Howard Jacobson’s afterword in this edition.