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J. Willis (London)

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The Red Badge of Courage & Other Stories (Wordsworth Classics)
The Red Badge of Courage & Other Stories (Wordsworth Classics)
by Stephen Crane
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ground breaking but not an easy read, 28 Nov. 2011
The novel follows Henry, a new recruit to the Army who at first is subject to endless marching around and the boredom that accompanies it. While the soldiers sit around waiting for rumours that fighting will eventually begin, Henry has time to reflect on his situation and he wonders how he will react once he actually sees battle: will he stand and fight, or turn and run. This psychological battle in his head continues even when he is engaged in battle as he tries to overcome his fears.

"Well, I wanta do some fighting anyway," interrupted the other. "I didn't come here to walk. I could 'ave walked to home-'round an' 'round the barn, if I jest wanted to walk."

The novel is quite an intense read as Henry goes through a wide range of emotions from bravery, pride, wishing for a wound (his own read badge of courage) to sheer cowardice. These emotions along with the men's contempt for their superiors make this one of the most interesting depictions of war I have ever read.

Unfortunately the writing is very heavy going and quite difficult to read. At times, especially during the battle scenes I had trouble working out what was going on and if Henry was observing or participating. This meant that I did not get emotionally involved with the story or with Henry which is a great shame as the ideas and concept is very interesting.

At times he regarded the wounded solders in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

There are more modern novels which deal with similar themes which are easier to read and have more of an emotional impact so I wouldn't recommend this one unless you had a particular interest in novels of this period or you wanted to understand why this novel is so influential.

On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics)
On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Jack Kerouac
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy read but its one that stays with you, 28 Nov. 2011
On the Road was first published in 1957 and is a largely autobiographical account of Jack Kerouac's various road trips taken with his friends during the 1940s. All names were changed (to protect the not so innocent) and the story mostly features the characters Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (based on real life person Neal Cassady) along with various other real life characters occurring throughout.

The novel overall has a fresh feel and I think this is because the idea of youth searching for more than the conformity of the society they are in is an idea which is being constantly being explored. This does not mean that the book is cliqued however as although the subject matter might not be original, the descriptions of their methods, ideas and the people they encounter is. Crossing the American continent is exhausting enough (I know, I did it) and Kerouac does not hide from the reader the exhaustion, the dirty aspects, the arguments along the way.

One of the stronger aspects of the novel are the people that Sal and Dean encounter along the way. They have various conversations with drunks, travellers, drug addicts and poor immigrant workers all of whom often add more insight than Sal and his friends can provide. The friendship between Sal and Dean is also interesting and goes through many changes throughout as they spilt then meet up again.

A lot has been said on the bad behaviour of the characters and yes they take drugs, have wild parties, visit Mexican brothels and steal cars. This might not seem so shocking now but when you consider these guys were born before my grandmother it just goes to show that despite the fact that each generation thinks they invented teenage bad behaviour, they really didn't.

There is no plot really, just the endless travels around which I think is the point. The book starts off as a celebration of youth while all the characters are young and free but as the novel progresses and the characters become older a sadness descends on the overall feel of the book. While their drug infused last adventure in Mexico might have been fun for the characters, I was left wondering why the character Dean was doing this while he had a wife who was pregnant and three other children in various states. I'm afraid I became a boring square and wondered when they were going to go home and face up to their responsibilities that THEY had created.

There was an even bigger sadness to come though after I finished the book and looked up what eventually happened to some of the characters long after the book was set. Kerouac died at 47 from cirrhosis caused by years of heavy drinking and his friend Neal Cassady died at 41 from exposure after passing out in the street in Mexico after a party. Perhaps these fates were inevitable when part of a generation collides with the society they live in, but really, was it worth it?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 20, 2013 12:22 PM GMT

Lolita (Penguin Classics)
Lolita (Penguin Classics)
by Craig Raine
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written disturbing book, 28 Nov. 2011
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From the very first line the narrator of Lolita, Humbert drags the reader into his world. Due to the subject matter of this book I was initially unsure how to begin reading this. I wondered if the subject of Paedophilia would be taken as seriously in Lolita as it is today. I wondered if Nabokov was going to manipulate the reader into sympathising with a Paedophile or if the relationship between a Paedophile and a 12 year old girl was going to somehow be presented as a legitimate love story. More puzzlingly I wondered how on earth people how had read this could describe it as a page turner given the disturbing subject matter.

So it was with curiosity and interpretation that I began to read Lolita and as soon as I did I couldn't put it down and I began to indeed find it a `page turner'.

A simple review of Lolita is not going to give the book justice in anyway and will not demonstrate the beauty of the writing, the clever wordplay or that at points the reader has to look beyond parts of the narrative which are sometimes an illusion and try to see what the actual words are telling you.

Lolita has an unreliable narrator, a VERY unreliable narrator. The way Humbert is describes Lolita anyone would imagine that the object of his affection is some long limbed goddess. But of course Lolita is not. If you or I saw Lolita walking down the street all we would see is a normal looking 12 year old girl, but as the book is told through Humbert's eyes so the reader sees Lolita as seen by him. While Humbert (because of how his Paedophile mind works) might perceive that Lolita is often a willing participant in their relationship and will sometimes narrate the story this way, the reader is left with clues as to how Lolita really feels or how certain scenarios really did play out. Not everything is quite as it seems and what you are reading did not necessarily happen in quite the way you are being told.

Lolita is a difficult character to pinpoint as she is only seen through Humbert's eyes, but at various points in the narrative I felt her voice came through very strongly. When her voice does come through I saw a very unhappy girl with no where else to go. Humbert does go into detail on how he has to manipulate, lie and threaten Lolita to get her to stay with him on the crazy road trip they embark on; I was not given the impression at any point that Lolita was a willing participant in all of this.

'At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.'

There are no `sex scenes' but the narrative surrounding these events and the odd comment from both Humbert and Lolita have given me the illusion of thinking I have read more in this regard than I actually have.

'And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey.......was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night - every night, every night - the moment I feigned sleep.'

I am sure many people will disagree with me but I think the point of the beautiful prose was to keep me reading and turning the pages rather then to get me to `sympathise' with Humbert. If the book had been written with a sparse realistic narrative I am sure I would have stopped reading within a couple of chapters.

This is not a story of redemption. Although Humbert acknowledges at the end that he `destroyed something' in Lolita he is never really sorry. Do not read this expecting a moral tale.

'I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mas je t'aimais. Je t'aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller'.

The above are my garbled thoughts and the parts which I think I will take away from it. It's the kind of book which demands a re-read as I am sure that many parts of it went right over my head. If I was going to criticise I would say that towards the end, the book did linger quite a bit and became drawn out.

Wise Blood
Wise Blood
by Flannery O'Connor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Full of interesting ideas, 28 Nov. 2011
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This review is from: Wise Blood (Paperback)
The story opens with Hazel Motes, a man recently discharged from the Army, on the train to the fictional town of Taulkinham, Tennessee, where he's "...going to do some things I never have done before." Hazel has never been to Taulkinham and once he does get there and has sorted out his lodging, he goes about trying to start `the church without Christ' by street preaching.

Hazel believes that he can be saved from evil by believing in nothing. If he has no soul to save then there is no such thing as sin and therefore he can do whatever the hell he likes. By avoiding sin this way he will get to meet Jesus (or something like that).Of course in doing this, Hazel just proves himself as a believer and other characters are used to argue different aspects of theology.

Other characters in the book include a preacher who may or may not have blinded himself with acid, his daughter who only believes in self-gratification and Hazel's follower Enoch who is trying to find the new physical Jesus. It's a strange strange book which brings in one grotesque character in after another and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it all.

I am glad I read it, the characters were all thought provoking and there was a large amount of black comedy throughout. However I don't think I really connected at all with the story and found the narrative quite strange and out of place in parts.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Nicely written but prefer his novels, 28 Nov. 2011
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is a collection of short stories with music as a major theme running throughout. Each story features musicians who are unable to reach their full potential due to life's niggling obstacles like looks, money or relationships.

Each of the stories reads like a snapshot of a bigger picture and there is even a reoccurring character who appears in two of the stories. The other reoccurring themes within the stories are relationships at breaking point and the unease of fame.

The book therefore benefits from being read as you would a novel rather than dipping in and out as you might with traditional short stories. I did fill a little unfulfilled however and I would have liked to have seen a couple of the stories expanded a lot more. They were very well written in a similar dreamy style to Never Let Me Go but I'm not sure this style suited the short story format as much as the novel one.

In The Miso Soup
In The Miso Soup
by Ryu Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange but a page turner, 28 Nov. 2011
This review is from: In The Miso Soup (Paperback)
What a roller-coaster this book was.

Kenji is a taxi driver/tour guide for the sex district in Tokyo. If your visiting the city and you want someone to show you the best sex clubs/prostitutes etc. with a translator then Kenji is your man. When an overweight American called Frank hires Kenji for three nights over new years eve, it soon becomes obvious that Frank has murderous desires on his mind. What follows is a descent into evil and murder.

The picture of Tokyo that the author paints is a vivid one and he uses the guide Kenji to great effect as he also 'guides' the reader around the sex district and how large parts of it operate. The conversations between Kenji and Frank are quite compelling and its interesting to see sometimes how Frank knows more about Japanese culture than Kenji and Kenji knows more about some aspects of American culture. There is a lot of commentary on modern travel and life and Kenji muses on the loneliness among the American business travellers he guides (although it has to be said that the kind of Americans Kenji comes into contact with are going to be lonely to a certain extent.)

There is some quite shocking violence in the book but sometimes I found the violence a little too over the top to have realistic impact. The majority of the book follows Kenji as he become more suspicious of Frank who is an unnerving character. Unfortunately the book loses a little momentum during the second part but at only 180 pages it manages to fit a lot in there.

Black Boy: A Record of Youth and Childhood (Vintage Classics)
Black Boy: A Record of Youth and Childhood (Vintage Classics)
by Richard Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.55

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read, 28 Nov. 2011
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Published in 1945, the autobiography of Richard Wright Black Boy was originally going to be told in two parts. The first part chronicled Richards upbringing in Mississippi and his eventual realisation that in order to make something of himself he needed to leave the south. The second part of the book followed Richard in Chicago as he establishes himself as a writer.

Just when Black Boy was going to be published, the book was picked up by the Book of the Month club (which was the equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey book club today.) But the Book Club would only accept the first part of the book and this is how the book was originally published. Today you can buy the full version of Richards life in the south and the north but for some reason my copy only contains the first part of his life in the south.

Born in 1908 I am sure you can imagine the kind of life that a black boy born in Mississippi at that time had.. The book starts in a very dramatic way when Richard accidentally burns down his family home and then we follow his childhood as he deals with his father leaving, poverty, racial hatred and his family forcing their religion on him.

Wright is an incredibility talented writer and he attempts to explain how he has turned out the way he has and why he ultimately had to leave the south in order to pursue his dreams as a writer. He explains how the culture in the south at that time among black people forced him to behave in a certain way in order to avoid being noticed or lynched and how attitudes and nervousness towards white people were ingrained from a very early age (with good reason). All this meant was that he was unable to truly be himself within the communities that he lived in.

"Although they lived in America where in theory there existed equality of opportunity, they knew unerringly what to aspire to and what not to aspire to. Had a black boy announced that he aspired to be a writer, he would have been unhesitatingly called crazy by his pals."

This is a brutal book in places but it is also incredibility compelling, warm and funny and of course this doesn't make the south at that time look good. Even when Richard does meet a non racist white man, he is still suspicious and nervous and cannot wait to get away from the man purely because of the way that he has been conditioned. His own family constantly give him beatings in what they see as his own good and in an attempt to make him learn to adapt to a white-dominant black-subservient society.

Its a beautifully written book and I think this passage perfectly demonstrates this as well as showing how Richard explains why he had to leave.

"Not only had the southern whites not known me, but more important still, as I had lived in the South I had not had the chance to learn who I was. The pressure of southern living kept me from being the kind of person that I might have been. I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family - conforming to the dictates of the whites above them had exacted of me, and what the whites had said that I must be. Never being fully able to be myself, I had slowly learned that the south could recognize but a part of a man, could accept but a fragment of his personality, and all the rest - the best and deepest things of heart and mind - were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate".

The Custom of the Country (Oxford World's Classics)
The Custom of the Country (Oxford World's Classics)
by Edith Wharton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A different sometimes funny direction for Wharton, 28 Nov. 2011
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The Custom of the Country was originally published in 1913 and tells the story of Undine Spragg, a girl who uses her beauty and ruthlessness to attempt to ascend New York's social ladder before she moves to Paris and paves her way there.

Undine Spragg is a fascinating character, she only has one ambition in life which is to get to the top of whichever society she happens to find herself in. She is so fixated on this desire that she is completely oblivious to everything else around her. In order to achieve her rise to the top she spends a lot of time trying to marry the right man. If the 'right' man turns out to be the 'wrong' man or she has gone as far as she can using her current husband, well she can always get a divorce.

Undine one is one of the most despicable and selfish characters I have ever read about. She does not have her own opinions or views but rather she adapts to the opinions of which ever social crowd she is attached to which leads to some quite witty moments in the book.

Near the beginning of the book, Undine receives her first New York dinner invitation and she then spends a good page and a half pondering how she should reply and what paper she should reply on..

"She had read in the Boudoir Chat ....that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink.. It was a disappointment, therefore to find that Mrs Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs Fairford's social standing".

To really demonstrate how Undine's mind works however was summed up in one line for me. Undine is in Paris when she receives frantic letters from her husband begging her to come home as the doctors bills for her sons illness was larger than expected and they cannot afford her lifestyle in Paris, after pondering "Was it her fault that she and the boy had been ill?" She comes out with this corker,

......"and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress she should wear."

Moments like these made me chuckle but as the book went on, Undine became more and more loathsome and the people ruined or hurt in her wake (including her own little boy) became too numerous and almost became tragic.

I think the book is pointing the finger at people like her who only care for money, status and beauty, yet will always chase what they can't have. It's also a sharp look at the changing fortunes of people with money at that time.

I found this an enjoyable read with a main character that was so despicable I couldn't look away. However if you have not read Edith Wharton before then her books The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are better so you might want to start with them.

Ghost Light
Ghost Light
by Joseph O'Connor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars O'Conner raises his own bar here, 28 Nov. 2011
This review is from: Ghost Light (Paperback)
The novel follows Molly Allgood a once acclaimed star of the Irish stage who was engaged to the Irish playwright John Synge at the time of his death. Although these were real characters, the story has taken many liberties with the facts so I read this as I would a fictional book (which I believe is the intent).

Molly in the present is in a sorry state. She is an alcoholic, living in poverty in London and she dwells on her love affair with Synge and her fall from grace. The novel gives flashbacks to her time with Synge which is written in a way that provides flashes of bitter-sweet moments which mean so much to Molly rather than a straightforward dialogue. Couple this with the 2nd person narrative and this becomes difficult book to get into. One of the chapters is written in the form of a letter to a newspaper from a man complaining about an Irish drunk he saw in central London who the reader knows is Molly, and another chapter is written in the form of a humours Irish play.

Despite humour radiating sometimes from Molly, this book as a general atmosphere of despair and sadness especially when this is contrasted to her younger days as a young women in Dublin with her whole life ahead of her. The character of Synge himself is seen through Molly's eyes and we see a man who is ill, aloof, capable of tenderness and yet evades the question of marriage. The parts where his staunchly religious family deny her access to her funeral and make her 'sell' his letters to them are truly heartbreaking and yet Molly has survived.

I read this book quite slowly and despite being under 300 pages it took me much longer to read than I normally do but it is superbly written and I liked where the book took me.

This is not a fast paced plot based book and not what I would describe as an 'easy' read, but if you want to read a beautifully written book at a measured pace then I would highly recommend this.

I'm the King of the Castle
I'm the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shocking and thought provoking, 28 Nov. 2011
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This book looks at the cruelty that other children can inflict on each other and goes against the adult thought that if you put two children of the same age together they will always `get along'. Of course similar themes were explored in Lord of the Flies, but I'm the King of the Castle takes place under less strenuous circumstances within the confines of the family home.

Edmund is an 11 year old boy who lives alone with his father after the death of his mother some years previous. Because his father is lonely himself and because he worries about his son becoming isolated, he arranges for a live in housekeeper and her 11 year old son Charles to live with them. Edmund is not happy with this arrangement and greets Charles with a note on his arrival stating `I didn't want you to come here'. What follows is nothing short of systematic bulling which quickly starts spiralling out of control.

The author has managed to quite accurately describe the feeling of claustrophobia and the menace of the house in which the boys live. The British countryside that surrounds it becomes sinister as the mist rolls in and the only birds around seem to be big black crows. The isolation and fear that Charles's experiences are felt and you despair of his situation just as he does.

Of course you may well be wondering where on earth the parents are in all this and it's a good question. Well both parents are too busy wrapped up in their own lives and are too busy making eyes at each other to really see what's going on. If this sounds a little far fetched to you then I'll refer you to the passage below between Charles and his mother;

'There are plenty of things of things for you to do, I know, plenty of games to play.'
'I want to go out'
'That isn't very thoughtful, is it? Edmund cannot go out. I wonder if you really are so selfish as to forget that?'
'He doesn't want me to stay with him all the time. He doesn't want me at all.'
Don't argue Charles dear, I'm sure you would want some would want to see a friend.'
'He isn't my friend.'
'Perhaps you would like to take up Edmund's drink dear.' For she had decided simply to ignore it, this silly, persistent talk about their not being friends. That was the way boys behaved, it was a phase.

You see how Charles's mother is just not listening to her own child. I'm sure we can all as kids remember moments when our parents `didn't listen' and throughout the book this is done in a realistic way that you begin to feel Charles's anger and frustration at his situation.

The ending is shocking but I cannot see how it could have ended any other way. Sometimes things like this don't just `blow over' as the parents in this book seem to think it will.

This is not for the faint hearted and it certainly won't cheer you up but it's chilling and frighteningly realistic.

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