reviews
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - Book review
29, Jan

“He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”

 

The Song of Achilles was a unique, thoroughly enjoyable take on the story of Troy and in particular, that of Achilles. I have always loved Greek Mythology, the tales of Greece, of both fantasy and history. The Song of Achilles combines both, presenting a gritty realistic world, and then introduces a great dose of magic and mythology.

 

The story is told solely from the perspective of Patroclus, a noble who is raised by the father of Achilles. It is here he meets the legend we know today as a young teenager.

 

Madeline Miller, in a similar book to her other novel, Circe, masterfully crafts her world, slowly and carefully dripping information to the reader in a bearable manner that still pushes plot forward. There was not a single moment that I noticed was just exposition, and this was not in detriment to the story, as I found myself to have a complete visualisation of the world Patroclus was living in. The prose is not particularly incredible, and I would say not as fluid as in Circe, as Miller has obviously perfected her style, but it is simple and effective.

 

“Odysseus inclines his head. "True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another." He spread his broad hands. "We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?" He smiles. "Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”

 

It would have been easy to rely too much on the dramatic irony that we as the reader know much of the story, or to spend less time on characterisation as many readers would be familiar with the heroic figures, But Madeline Miller took those great elements and the familiarity of the topic, and added her own spin to keep the story equally as interesting as if it was completely new.

 

“There are no bargains between lion and men”

 

Perhaps one of my only criticisms would be that what is preventing this being an all-out 5-star read for me was that the beginning third was just a bit too slow. I felt that there was a bit of space where characterisation and plot had been cemented enough to advance the pace, but it continued to plateau, until the second phase began. This is not to say it was not enjoyable. It is just that I thought the rest of the story was brilliant, and the beginning in comparison was a bit weaker.

 

I listened to Song of Achilles on Audiobook, narrated by David Thorpe. It was a good experience, and definitely a story you can listen to without being confused. I thought that the performance by David Thorpe was solid, and enjoyable, being above the norm, but not perhaps brilliant in my opinion. He is very good at slowly building tension and narrating moments of calm, whereas I felt at times a but more passion or urgency would have improved the experience during some of the action scenes.

 

“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.” 

 

Overall, The Song of Achilles was a great experience. It was about Greek Mythology, which I love, specifically about Troy, from the Iliad, arguably one of the greatest stories of all time, and was formed into a well-crafted story with fantastic characters by Madeline Miller. The story was given an interesting new spin that I thoroughly enjoyed.

 

 

4.25/5 STARS

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - Book Review
25, Jan

‘Adults follow paths. Children explore’

 

I listened to The Ocean at the End of the Lane on Audible, narrated by Neil Gaiman himself. A story about childhood struggles, growing up, coming to terms with the world, and of course, magic. It was beautiful and sometimes brutal. It is Neil Gaiman's melancholic tone that emanated from his every word wonderfully brought the pages to life in what a found to be a great read.

 

This is a short novel, which revolves around a nameless central narrator, who returns to the house they grew up in as an adult. On walking along long forgotten paths, memories start to flood back, and he reminisces and contemplates times he thought long forgotten. This is a retrospective tale that sensitively shows memories that are vague, but realistically highlights traumatic moments in visceral detail in a way that really ties you to the story and central character.

 

“Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

 

As always, Neil Gaiman’s prose can only be praised. He has somehow unlocked a mythic quality to his writing that just exudes the very tone and sense he seems to be striving for. That mix of childhood naivety with the regrets of adulthood are conveyed perfectly, and this was made even better somehow through his own narration. As I have already said, Neil Gaiman narrated The Ocean at the End of the Lane as if the world really did weigh on his shoulders, as it seems to do so with the narrator. Having listened to him reading other books, I know that he adapted his tone for this purpose, and that makes it even more impressive.

 

It is set in Sussex, with a young boy who tackles struggling relationships with parents, and is suddenly faced by the realisation that they are not the flawless idols he previously believed. This throws his entire life out of balance, and is where much of the fantastical element of the story comes in. What is brilliant is that this could easily be argued to be Neil Gaiman presenting the defence mechanism of a child to cope with shocking events, or maybe there are monsters and magical creatures who step in to help and withdraw then they are no longer needed.

 

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”

 

What prevents this being proclaimed as a 5-star read is perhaps that I would have liked to have a closer relationship with our central characters, as well perhaps know more about what the narrator did with much of his life when this story of his childhood concluded. Whilst this was not have changed the story, I think they would have just added that bit more depth that would gave moved this story into one of my favourites.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an easy, beautifully written story that beautifully tells the story of the loss of childhood innocence. If you enjoy audiobooks, I would strongly recommend that you go find the version of this narrated by Neil Gaiman. 

 

 4.25/5 STARS

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn - Book Review
24, Nov

Virginia Woolf said Oroonoko was the first novel. What makes the context of this story even more remarkable is that if we agree with this, then the first novelist was a woman, written in the late 17th century. 

“A poet is a painter in his way, he draws to the life, but in another kind; we draw the nobler part, the soul and the mind; the pictures of the pen shall outlast those of the pencil, and even worlds themselves.”

It is a story told in an almost biographical manner about Prince Oroonoko, who lived in the Caribbean Islands, and whom the author was in awe of. Behn forms his character with a sense of realism despite his idealised nature, with the real figure of Prince Oroonoko serving as the direct inspiration and supplier of plot. He is the symbol of honour and deserves respect of all. But unto this he is stripped of his rank and taken as a slave. Yet he maintains his integrity and the impression of his personality on all he meets. 

A particular favourite aspect of mine in this read was the romantic thread, which I do not often say. Unlike so many stories I have read, it appeared natural, despite also being idealised The way Behn implemented this into the story gave the story a humanity that was needed for a connection to be made with Oroonoko.

The prose of Behn does not focus on emotive language, but rather tells the story of what is happening in a factual, fluid and immersive manner, which cleverly presented the setting and culture and characters of all parties so effectively.

But, Oroonoko is a product of its time, especially with the topic of colonialism. Behn appears to show two opinions on slavery. By having slavery as the means in which Oroonoko is tragically stripped from his power, It is projected as barbarous and a tool of injustice, but paradoxically Behn shows support by depicting its importance in sustaining the British Empire that is heralded as a great ideal.

“Where there is no novelty, there can be no curiosity"

The fact that Oroonoko was inspired largely by true facts and then idealised and romanticised added an extra does of realism into this novel, but also made it even more interesting. In this multifaceted novel, we are introduced to an inspiring and evocative story, memorable characters of both a loveable and hatable disposition, and the fluid prose of Aphra Behn. A short, thought-provoking read.

4.5/5 STARS

Normal People by Sally Rooney - Book Review
16, Nov

I was given Normal People as a gift by my parents after they watched the adaptation of this story of Sally Rooney’s. I have never read anything like this, and was not sure what to expect. But I was intrigued, and so I started it. Never did I expect that I would finish it within 48 hours and love it!

Normal People really is true to the title. And that is why it is brilliant. It is a story of Normal People in realistic circumstances who have a relatable life. Marianne and Connell are the two central protagonists, from Ireland. The story begins with their college years, and then advances through their experiences throughout university. And the way their personalities develop and regress and change, making them grow apart and yet simultaneously together. It was an amazing story to read.

“Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn't know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.”

This may perhaps be the most well formed romance I have read in fiction. Many novels suffer from this being forced or rushed or unnatural, which is understandable given the limitations of time to grow a story in a matter of pages. But Normal People really delivered a warming and wrenching relationship that was believable and so realistic, with unexpected peaks and troughs, unique problems separating them and life presenting constant tribulations.

The prose was one of the strong points of this story. As soon as I was a few pages, I was sucked in. The natural energy of the prose was magnetic and allowed me to glide from one page to the next, living the journey with the characters. It really was so easy to read, with an incredible fluid nature, but at the same time made me consciously think about what was occurring. I thought the pacing was just perfect, allowing me to be swept along with the story, but allowing pauses exactly when needed to contemplate the events that had just unraveled. Just brilliant!

“It feels powerful to him to put an experience down in words, like he's trapping it in a jar and it can never fully leave him.”

The plot wasn’t grand or epic or crazy. It was real life. And that was perfect. With some shocking events that happen to only a few people, but also the norms. The occasions and trials so many people go through. It was the manner in which the plot was delivered that made it brilliant. It wasn’t romanticised or melodramatic. It was perfect for the type of story that it is.

Not only were attachments formed with the two central protagonists, but also with the supporting characters. Sally Rooney really masterfully established characters with such depth just within a manner of scenes that developed a number of layers, as every person really does. One example is Lorraine, who was one of my favourites. She has quite a small amount of time on the page, yet she is so memorable, and understandable, and loveable.

“Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything”

Overall, I cannot do this justice. I hope I have managed to project my love and respect for this story. Along with crafting such a brilliant journey, Rooney also forms one that will linger on the mind for weeks and months to come. Even now, months after finishing, I still think about specific scenes and characters and come to understand the story further. Normal People is essentially a beautifully told story about relationships with those around us.

Even if this is not the usual story you would choose to read, or you don’t feel intrigued by the blurb, please just read this. I felt the same. Do yourself a favour and read this. 

Now I have finished reading Normal People, I will go on to watch the BBC adaptation, which is apparently equally as brilliant.

I RECOMMEND THIS TO EVERYONE

5/5 STARS

Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney - Book Review
12, Nov
“I’ve never known fear; as a youth I fought/ In endless battles. I am old, now,/ But I will fight again, seek fame still,/ If the dragon hiding in his tower dares/ To face me”

This is the first time that I read a translation of the original version of Beowulf. I am very familiar with the story, having read the brilliant children’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s, and also the animated 2007 movie with Ray Winstone (a great film). And this did nothing but strengthen my love for the story.

Beowulf, the epic poem, was an incredibly interesting and enjoyable read. The form as an epic and the prose immersed me into the Norse world and swept me along what is a riveting story infused with fascinating Norse culture and the fantastical idea of Monster VS Man. I know that this edition is not completely authentic to the original, as Heaney put his own poetic spin onto it. This makes Beowulf a more accessible read for any reader. I now loom forward to finding time to read perhaps Tolkien's translation of this epic poem.

“Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what's said and what's done.”

The manner in which fact and fiction, history and mythology, are mixed in this poem is fascinating. On the one side we have the classic gritty Scandinavian world of war and conflict between the clans of the Geats and Jutes and Danes and so on. And then we have monsters such as Grendel, which allow Beowulf to rise to the status of hero that has become so famous.

Beowulf himself as a character is interesting, as he is an incredible warrior who’s skills are exemplified through his bravery. But, despite this poem being written in a culture far different than ours, his honour, dedication to duty and courage are compelling traits that still make us route for his character as opposed to his enemies. 

“I shall gain glory or die.”

I love Norse Mythology and Scandinavian history, hence part of the reason I loved this tale. But that is not all. It is an accessible poem that contains themes of heroism, tragedy and everything in between within its prose, which in itself is smooth and stirring. Anyone who enjoys historical tales, mythology or anything linked to such things, I believe that you will love the epic story of Beowulf, which has resonated through the ages.

5/5 STARS

 

Cold Iron (Masters & Mages #1) by Miles Cameron - Book Review
12, Oct

 

“He could take some extra fencing lessons. He was in love with his sword, purchased in a used clothing market on a whim. With his rent money, because he was a fool.”

 

Shockingly, Cold Iron is the first book I have read by Miles Cameron. I listened to this on Audible, and loved both the narration and the story. Miles Cameron has gained another member of the Gwynne clan as a huge fan.

The Black Hawks (Articles of Faith #1) by David Wragg - Book Review
06, Oct

The Black Hawks by David Wragg is an interesting debut that had entertaining aspects and was altogether a very solid read.

 

“He was prow-faced, his nose a sharp, brutal beak, his dark and heavy features following in its wake.” 

 

It may have been that I was not in the right mood when reading this, so I will perhaps reread this when the sequel is announced. While there was no weakness as such to this book, I didn’t feel any driving force. Like amazing characters, or a shocking plot. It was solid, and interesting, but nothing hooked me. 

 

The characters were varied all with believable personalities and an interesting morally grey code that was executed in an intriguing manner. But there are none that have remained in my head that I loved or felt incredibly attracted to, and this is perhaps why I did not fall in love with this book. To be a favourite of mine, I must click with the characters, with either hatred or love, but I just did not get this. There is potential that I will with the sequel though. 

 

I did begin to become more immersed towards the later part of the book when the pace began to increase and twists started to occur. The last fifty pages was action-packed and ended in a great manner that has interested me in any sequel that Wragg will write. In my mind, this was definitely the strongest part of the book, which is great as endings are often underwhelming and the weakest part of a novel.

 

Wragg’s prose is smooth and progresses well, not allowing itself to become bogged down by info dumps, as it easily could have. He slowly trickles information about the world and characters that results in a thorough vivid image of the world that was enjoyable to experience.

 

So overall, as I have said, The Black Hawks was a strong read, and I am sure that most people will thoroughly enjoy this. I look forward to the sequel, which I shall definitely continue with.

 

 

4/5 STARS

 

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King - Book Review
29, Sep

“Turn off your television - in fact why don’t you turn off all the lights except the one by your favourite chair? - and we’ll talk about vampires in the dim. I think I can make you believe in them, because while I was working on this book, I believed in them myself.”

That is Stephen King's foreword, and oh does it set the tone!

'Salem's Lot is a genuinely scary read that kept me up night after night.

This is my first read of a Stephen King book. And I learnt why he is one of the bestselling authors of all time. I would argue that making a reader feel genuine fear is one of the hardest things to accomplish. Yet King does this with consistent ease.

One of the incredible parts of this story is how King does not only establish and build on his core characters, but he manages to form almost an entire town of people, with their own unique personalities that are subtly implemented in just a few sentences. This really brought the story to life and is the only book I have read that has succeeded in this.

“Talk did no good with bullies. Hurting was the only language that the bullies of the world seemed to understand, and he supposed that was why the world always had such a hard time getting along.” 

The prose of Stephen King is wonderfully accessible to all. It is smooth, inviting and subtly yet effectively relays all the information and tension that King desired. The natural progression of the hurting manages to form so much fear and tension in the reader. It is simply put, masterful.

“For the small children, bedtime is come. Time for the babies to be packed into their beds and cribs by parents who smile at their cries to be let up a little longer, to leave the light on. The indulgently open closet doors to show there is nothing in there. 
And all around them, the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings. The vampires time has come.”

As well as brilliantly forming a wide cast, the core group were brilliant. Susan, Ben, Matt, Mark (brilliant), Father Callahan and Jimmy. Together they were so great, with their interactions and dialogue so true to their characters. They each had their own flaws, and you loved them in their moments of strength and bravery.

The singular weakness I can think of this story his that while the ending was good, I personally did not think it was on par with the rest of this wonderfully told story. Still a great conclusion though! By no means at all does the ending make the book of a lesser quality. It just guides it away from perfection.

Overall, 'Salem’s Lot has made certain that I will be reading plenty more of King, probably starting with his short story collection, Different Seasons, which has The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption within. This is not a story for the fainthearted. A brilliant story of vampires and the terrors of the night.

4.75/5 STARS

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - Book Review
17, Sep
‘This is a story of death rather than defeat. The certainty of death is examined’

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a brilliant story inspired from true events during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Of the guerrilla warfare between the fascist leader Franco and the Republican resistance. A story that bluntly accepts the horrors of life and one that sheds light on the sheer obstacles that people can overcome with purpose. It is a book that not only delivers a thrilling read, but also has an intense moral code that one can aspire to follow.

“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

As the quote above expresses, For Whom the Bells Tolls maintains a tone that delivers simultaneously an inevitability of death, but also hope in the acts of kindness and humanity that is shown throughout.

Told in the wonderfully slick prose that employs both a refreshing authenticity in dialogue and also a realistic depiction of the human mind. Unlike so many other books I have read, For Whom the Bell Tolls projects the actual human beings caught in conflict. The characters face significant challenges and are faced with tribulations I can hardly imagine, yet the daily struggles and moments of joy and laughter are shown as well. It was this incorporation of even the most trivial of things that brought the story to life for me, and somehow made the story more tragic, depicting the continuity and normalisation of living always with the possibility of death lurking beyond.

The range of characters that Hemingway created was incredible. With many authors, you find that they have a specific type of character who stands above anyone else. Silk in The Belgariad, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on. But in this, Robert Jordon is the typical driven military man who won't allow himself to feel emotion, then encounters love. But the exploration of his mental tenacity take this common archetype, and makes him a brilliant protagonist. His willingness to sacrifice anything for what he believes to be a great cause is presented in such a humble manner that is just incredible. He is a character that will go down in my list of favourites perspectives ever. Alongside this, you have Pilar, the ageing woman, wise and fiery, brutal and loving. I expected the female characters to fit into stereotypes because of the context this was written and the little I know about Hemingway himself, but it was radical in that Pilar is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in fiction in any genre. Again, her motivations and limitations were constructed so realistically, and that is what sets them apart from most other novels. I could go through a long list of the unique characters, but my point is that if you read this, you will come away feeling an intense connection with each and every person. That is Hemingway's quality as a writer.

“For what are we born if not to aid one another?”

Alongside the wonderful prose and characterisation, the plot was also brilliant. A series of twists and turns, of big and small events that expertly drove the pace forward at what I felt to be almost perfection. There were scenes that slow the pace down and really make you think as a reader, and then heart pounding moments that immersed me into the chaos taking place on page, from the skirmishes to moments of clarity and the times when all seems to have descended into failure.

Overall, I think you can tell, I loved this book. As with so much I have been reading recently, it is a completely new style and subject to what I am comfortable with. Yet it was easy to adapt to and something I will searching for far more of in the future. Hemingway presents ideas of love, anger, hatred, discrimination and determination in such nuanced ways that was genuinely moving. It inspired both heartwarming moments and those of anger from myself. As a reader, there isn't much more you can ask for.

“How little we know of what there is to know. I wish that I were going to live a long time instead of going to die today because I have learned much about life in these four days; more, I think than in all other time. I'd like to be an old man to really know. I wonder if you keep on learning or if there is only a certain amount each man can understand. I thought I knew so many things that I know nothing of. I wish there was more time.”

5/5 STARS

 

The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2) by Philip Pullman
31, Aug

The Secret Commonwealth jumps about two decades from the ending of its predecessor. I said with La Belle Sauvage that you did not have to read His Dark Materials, but that is not the case with The Secret Commonwealth.

 

I was really excited for this, especially after really enjoying the first of this series. Bu other than the prose, each element of this story was weaker and less intriguing. But it is still a book that fans of this world will enjoy.

 

The main protagonist is Lyra once again, now a few years older. A major theme of the novel is her arguing with her daemon, which was heartbreaking, but jarred horribly with their personalties. It seemed forced and only to drive the plot further, making no real sense.

 

“You're in a world full of colour and you want to see it in black and white.”

 

The main character of the former book, Malcolm, is also in this, now a professor. I loved his naive determination and moral code in the first book, but was put-off in this one. He makes a few….questionable decisions that really distanced me from the character and took me out of the story. I’m sure those who have read The Secret Commonwealth will know what I am referring to.

 

A disheartening aspect to this book is that the events of the previous series appear to have been for nothing. The world and its evils have not been suppressed or altered in any way, making His Dark Materials basically useless.

 

Of course Pullman’s prose will never be a weakness. It is lyrical as always and immersive. Narrated by the wonderful Michael Sheen, the style convinced me to plough on through this massive book! My two favourite aspects of the experience.

 

“You won’t understand anything about the imagination until you realise that it’s not about making things up, it’s about perception.”

 

 

Overall, The Secret Commonwealth was a disappointment on all levels, with the exception of prose. And also the narration on Audible was brilliant, which is not down to Phillip Pullman himself. Characters developed in unnatural ways, plot seemed forced, and it was very different from the usual experiences I have had regarding Pullman’s works.

 

3/5 STARS