Reviews: 13 books from Jan/Feb! (Heyer, Zusak, Dickens, Nietzsche, McEwan, Rushdie, Tolkien, Austen, etc)

I started my little bookfest in late January, and didn’t think it would go far—until, a week and five books later, I realised that hey, I can read books for funfunfun! In an attempt to have some sort of structure in these reviews, I’ll be organising my thoughts about fiction into four categories, which is essentially adapted from Aristotle’s take on tragedy in his Poetics (yes, I’m boring and completely unoriginal—thank goodness for the basics!).

So, here’s a list of the books I read in Jan/Feb (with finishing dates):

1. Georgette Heyer – Arabella (30 Jan)
2. Julian Short – An Intelligent Life (1 Feb)
3. Georgette Heyer – Cotillion (2 Feb)
4. Markus Zusak – The Book Thief (3 Feb)
5. Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities (Penguin Classics, ed. Richard Maxwell) (7 Feb)
6. Mark Haddon – A Spot of Bother (10 Feb)
7. Friedrich Nietzsche – Ecce Homo (Penguin Classics, trans. R. J. Hollingdale) (11 Feb)
8. Ian McEwan – Solar (13 Feb)
9. Sarah Rees Brennan – Unspoken (14 Feb)
10. J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (21 Feb)
11. Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children (24 Feb)
12. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit (24 Feb)
13. Jane Austen – Persuasion (Penguin Classics, ed. Gillian Beer) (27 Feb)

And, my thoughts on them (with the cover images corresponding to those of my copies):

1. Georgette Heyer – Arabella (30 Jan)

This was my first Georgette Heyer—I know, it’s rather shameful, considering I wrote Regency Love—and it was a great deal of fun! This was sent to me by a dear friend, Costy, and it was awesome of her because I probably wouldn’t have ventured into Heyer otherwise.

01 - Arabella

Blurb: An enchanting debutante and the eldest daughter of an impoverished country parson, Arabella embarks on her first London season. Armed with beauty, virtue and a benevolent godmother (as well as a notoriously impetuous temper) she quickly runs afoul of Robert Beaumaris, the most eligible Nonpareil of the day. When he accuses her of being yet another pretty female after his wealth, Arabella allows herself to be provoked—into a deceitful charade that might have quite unexpected consequences…

Plot: Pretty straightforward and predictable, the novel follows the general trajectory of a rags-to-riches story. The book is very much driven by several misunderstandings between the main couple, the perpetuation of those misunderstandings, and their eventual resolution and reconciliation. But what I really enjoyed were the little titbits of Arabella’s adventures (and misadventures) in London, where she interacts with a range of people beneath her social class. And there’s a dog, too!

Characters: The two main characters are delightful, and though there’s a bit of a “redeemed rake” quality to him, Mr Beaumaris is very much the idealised Regency gentleman found in romance novels. Arabella herself is suitably strong-willed, has quite a social conscience, and is very aware of her financial shortcomings. For the most part, she holds her own and remains assertive when interacting with Mr Beaumaris, except for a moment at the end when she concedes to him on a matter and in a manner that made me a little uncomfortable.

Themes: A major theme is money—there are many detailed descriptions of how much things cost for Arabella, and a real sense of poverty on all levels, ranging from the working class to the lower gentry (from which Arabella hails). I really enjoyed the constant preoccupation with finances in a society where presentation and appearances are paramount for a woman to secure a good husband.

Language: As this was my first Georgette Heyer, I wasn’t sure if she had already established a distinct personal style, or if she was still experimenting with a Regency imitation. In any case, the language is pretty straightforward, and has quite a few linguistic markers of the early nineteenth century—nothing swoon-worthy, but nothing to complain about, either.

Overall: A lovely, light read, which served its purposes well—Heyer provided me with a nice meander through the Regency, which was much appreciated.

For those who like numbers: 3/5


2. Julian Short – An Intelligent Life (1 Feb)

This was my first “self-help” book, and I had no idea what to expect going in. My shrink recommended it, so I gave it a go. (Okay, so my shrink also wrote it, which is kinda awesome because I got a whole bunch of additional bits and pieces after finishing the book!)

02 - An Intelligent LifeDescription: “Don’t worry, be happy” is easy to say but hard to do, because we have so little direct control over our feelings. Positive thinking is not enough; living intelligently is about positive action.

An Intelligent Life is a practical instruction book to help you make your life happier. It is a book about love, individuality, relationships and self-respect and is the result of Julian Short’s thirty years of clinical practice as a psychiatrist.

Looking after ourselves means looking after our relationships. To feel good we need to act well. We see ourselves in the mirror of other people’s reactions and if we want to like the person we see, we need the skills to give and get as much love as we can. Dr Short offers specific techniques for managing relationships with lovers, friends, parents and children.

Living intelligently is not about winning, because the real measures of human worth are kindness and dignity, not success or status. An Intelligent Life is designed to show that we can lose and still like ourselves, liberating us to be hopeless at things, but sensational as people.

Overall thoughts: A simple but insightful and articulate book about self-esteem, happiness, relationships, and how to manage one’s emotional behaviour so that none of those three things suffer. I found it particularly useful that the book begins with an overview of our emotional responses from a biological and evolutionary point of view, which were more or less aligned with what I’d learnt as part of my Psychology degree. Dr Short’s theories about how to handle those responses in “civilised” society make a great deal of sense, and he gives some great suggestions about how to put those ideas into practice.

A lot of what he says is quite repetitive, but it only drives home his point that feeling crappy is okay, but in order not to feel even crappier, one has to behave in a way that is productive, kind, and dignified (even if one feels anything but). And there are some great analogies (and diagrams!), which really support his explanations. Not a book I’d typically read, but I can see myself returning to it when in a sticky situation.

For those who like numbers: 4/5


 

3. Georgette Heyer – Cotillion (2 Feb)

My second Georgette Heyer! Also handpicked and sent to me by Costy!

03 - CotillionBlurb: The three great-nephews of the cantankerous Mr Penicuik know better than to ignore his summons, especially when it concerns the bestowal of his fortune. The wily old gentleman has hatched an outrageous plan for his stepdaughter’s future and his own amusement: his fortune will be Kitty’s dowry. But while the beaux are scrambling for her hand, Kitty counters with her own inventive, if daring, scheme: a sham engagement that should help keep wedlock at bay…

Plot: I really enjoyed the pacing, which is nice and steady, and I thought the ending exceptionally sweet. The titular cotillion refers to a Regency dance that requires four couples in a square formation (and is a great deal of fun, because you get to interact and dance with all four sets of partners!), and in this case, the novel resolves with the formation of four romantic relationships. This makes the overall story so much richer and more dynamic, which I found more delightful than a typical romance plot.

Characters: Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about male character with whom Kitty is paired (I shan’t reveal his name, in the interests of keeping this relatively spoiler-free). The two main characters are continually deluded about their own feelings for each other, which would’ve been enjoyable if not for the fact that I just didn’t like the gentleman. Don’t get me wrong—he’s quite adorable and has some very good qualities, but he just wasn’t for me. I was actually really fond of Mr Penicuik, the super cranky foster father, and found him infinitely more interesting. The supporting characters are great, and I really liked all the great-nephews.

Themes: Uh, I’m skipping this because the book was very much light-hearted, and didn’t bring any pertinent themes to mind.

Language: Playful and straightforward—a bit lighter than Heyer’s writing in Arabella, and more enjoyable.

Overall: Even though I was indifferent to the main male character, I was fond of the supporting characters and the various pairs that formed the “cotillion”. I certainly thought of it as an ensemble piece, and enjoyed it as such.

For those who like numbers: 3.5/5


4. Markus Zusak – The Book Thief (3 Feb)

I’ve heard so many wonderful things about this book when it first came out, I immediately got myself a copy. Of course, I didn’t manage to get around to it till recently—took me long enough!

04 - The Book ThiefBlurb: It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.

So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down.

Plot: Relatively straightforward, focusing on Liesel growing up in Nazi Germany. The narrator carries out quite a bit of prolepsis and ellipses, so the general narrative action is often interrupted by extra commentary. I loved the details of Liesel’s daily life, the descriptions of frugality, her journey in learning how to read. Max’s arrival is a wonderful moment in the book that takes the story to greater heights, and the resolution is quite touching.

Characters: The characters form the strongest element of the book. Liesel, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, Max, Rudy, the mayor’s wife, and an array of other characters within and without the town—each has personality and dimension, and their reactions to the events around them reveal a wide spectrum of human behaviour. And of course, the narrator, Death, is quite a persona, inserting remarks and observations that strengthen both himself and the other characters.

Themes: Childhood innocence in the face of humanity at its worst—and best; the gradual growth of boys and girls during a time that stripped them of such innocence; the power of literature and the written word. Focusing on that final point, I want to point out a similarity I noticed between The Book Thief and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader: for the most part, both books portray some sort of difference between the Germans and Jews in how they value literacy and education. When Liesel reads aloud, her audience is captivated by the words she transforms from print to sound; Hanna Schmitz in The Reader is subservient to Michael Berg when he reads aloud. I feel I need to know a lot more about both the German and Jewish approach to literature and literacy before I can make any further comments, so I’m just going to leave my observation at that.

Language: The narrative style and structure are very refreshing, but the clipped sentences and dramatic tone became a little irritating after a while. Zusak’s metaphors are good for the most part, but I didn’t find his language particularly exceptional.

Overall: Although I did enjoy the book and it was a very easy read, I was a little disappointed when it didn’t meet my expectations after all the hype surrounding it. There is an abundance of fiction set during World War II, and though I’d grant Zusak his originality in stylistic choices, the overall story didn’t blow me away as some others have.

For those who like numbers: 3.5/5


5. Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities (Penguin Classics, ed. Richard Maxwell) (7 Feb)

I have a feeling this “review” is going to be full of fangirl gushing rather than anything else, but I’m going to try to maintain a basic level of articulateness…

05 - A Tale of Two Cities Blurb: After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

Plot: Wow, what a fantastic plot! Dickens weaves the narratives so skilfully that you don’t realise just how intricately connected everything is until the end… And goodness me, the ending was absolutely breath-taking, and had me sitting there staring into space after the final page, my breath taken away…

Characters: The characters are wonderfully realised, and I loved the way Dickens tests them during the trying times of the late eighteenth century. The Defarges are especially chilling, and there is a real sense of how and why they become revolutionists. I loved the character development, progression, and regression—by the time the novel ended, I had a real sense of how his entire story world is just so intricately woven and interconnected, and the beauty of it all almost had me in tears (but nope, I was staring into space instead).

Themes: Dickens explores many of the forces behind the French Revolution: inequality, social injustice, tradition/innovation. As per his other books, A Tale of Two Cities deals with poverty in great depth, but this time on both the French and English ends. At first, I wasn’t quite convinced with the central pair of lovers, but then the ending happened and…yeah.

Language: Uh, would it be at all helpful to say that the novel is Dickensian? Unfortunately, I don’t think I can do better than that because…well, it’s just Dickensian and kind of wonderful!

Overall: I absolutely loved this book. Since I was first introduced to the different philosophies and literature related to the French Revolution back in 2011 (thank you, Dr O’Connell from Durham University!), I’ve been fascinated with all the different sides of the argument. I think Dickens does a wonderful job in teasing out some of the key issues, and I doubly appreciate this as a piece of historical fiction (because Dickens wrote this about 70 years after the onset of the Revolution).

For those who like numbers: 4.7/5


6. Mark Haddon – A Spot of Bother (10 Feb)

06 - A Spot of BotherBlurb: At fifty-seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden, reading historical novels, listening to a bit of light jazz. Then Katie, his unpredictable daughter, announces that she is getting remarried, to Ray. Her family is not pleased—as her brother Jamie observes, Ray has “strangler’s hands”. Katie can’t decide if she loves Ray, or loves the way he cares for her son Jacob, and her mother Jean is a bit put out by the way the wedding planning gets in the way of her affair with one of her husband’s former colleagues. And the tidy and pleasant life Jamie has created crumbles when he fails to invite his lover, Tony, to the dreaded nuptials.

Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind.

Plot: As suggested by the blurb, this book has quite a few subplots running concurrently. I found each of these very engaging, and was never bored during the (relatively quick and easy) read. The pace is pretty fast and well-set, and the shifts amongst the different narratives occur very naturally. Despite the number of focuses and subplots, the stories are all easy to follow, and work alongside the main plot (centred on George and his gradual deterioration), until they culminate in a rather dramatic fashion.

Characters: I could relate to almost all the characters, which is saying a lot as they vary in age and life experience. I think my favourite was Jamie, who spends a great deal of the novel working through both his personal and parental issues, making some enormous mistakes along the way. His eventual redemption is a little hard to believe, but hey, I’m all for a happy ending as long as it suits the tone and events set out in the rest of the book. I was also rather fond of George, whose downward spiral made me quite sympathetic, and whose actions are understandable, even though it becomes quite obvious he was going bonkers. As with Jamie, I didn’t like the way Haddon resolved George’s plot, where his miraculous “recovery” felt a bit like a cop-out.

Themes: For a book with such a light, comical tone, A Spot of Bother certainly deals with some pretty serious and prevailing issues! I really liked that Haddon explores the concerns and experiences with mental health, but I didn’t fully agree with his delivery—everything seems a touch too hyperbolic to be taken seriously (though I must say again that this isn’t meant to be a “serious” book). Love and fidelity are two other themes that feature prominently, and although he’s on the more idealistic side, I think Haddon does a good job of unravelling some common 21st century relationship difficulties. But by far my favourite of the book’s themes (if it even is one) is the English preference for maintaining outward appearances and not to become a bother. Downright fantastic—and those English characteristics reminded me of my super English friends!

Language: Haddon’s writing style is pretty simple, and from what I remember of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this book is quite linguistically similar to its predecessor. The omniscient narrator does a great job of revealing each character’s fears and misgivings, which are presented in a logical—if irrational—way.

Overall: I gobbled this up in a day or two, and found it light and entertaining, but with enough substance to keep it from being utterly brainless. I certainly enjoyed this as I was reading it, and its echoes did stay with me for a day or two afterwards, but that’s about as far as it went. This would probably make for some good bedtime reading for those who want to unwind a little but not lose their cognitive functions entirely.

For those who like numbers: 4/5


7. Friedrich Nietzsche – Ecce Homo (Penguin Classics, trans. R. J. Hollingdale) (11 Feb)

07 - Ecce HomoDescription: In late 1888, only weeks before his final collapse into madness, Nietzsche (1844-1900) set out to compose his autobiography, and Ecce Homo remains one of the most intriguing yet bizarre examples of the genre ever written. In this extraordinary work Nietzsche traces his life, work and development as a philosopher, examines the heroes he has identified with, struggled against and then overcome—Schopenhauer, Wagner, Socrates, Christ—and predicts the cataclysmic impact of his “forthcoming revelation of all values”. Both self-celebrating and self-mocking, penetrating and strange, Ecce Homo gives the final, definitive expression to Nietzsche’s main beliefs and is in every way his last testament.

Overall thoughts: This is the first Nietzsche prose work I’ve read in full, and I found it extremely thought provoking. The man is a force of nature, and every sentence of this autobiography is replete with his genius and intensity. Not having read any of his other major works, I wasn’t able to appreciate the chapters where he discusses his writings. Nonetheless, many passages resonated deeply with me, and were the cause for much self-reflection. The book is rather short (around 100 pages), but full of insights and inspiration.

For those who like numbers: 4.5/5


8. Ian McEwan – Solar (13 Feb)

08 - SolarBlurb: Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering. But this time it is different: his wife is having the affair, and he is still in love with her.

When Beard’s professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environment disaster. Ranging from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of New Mexico, this is a story of one man’s greed and self-deception; a darkly satirical novel showing human frailty struggling with the most pressing and complex problem of our time.

Plot: A typical McEwan plot: a slow build-up, a pause in the current events as backstories and motivations are leisurely explored, a continuation of the slow build-up, a small climax, flash forward a few years, another build-up (though not as slow), a re-establishment of the protagonist’s mind-set and motivations based on events from the missing years, more build-up (this time a little faster), and a second, long, satisfying climax.

Uh, back to Solar… Yeah, the plot is good, though I had issues with some of the parts set in the Arctic. The main conflict became evident to me halfway through, but I still enjoyed the whole experience of getting there.

Characters: Beard is an awful, awful man, but an absolutely fantastic character. His emotions, rationalisations, justifications—it all made perfect sense to me, and makes him so flawed and human and utterly believable. I don’t know many physicists and I don’t know any Nobel laureates, but in Beard, I felt that I’ve gotten to know a Nobel-winning physicist. Of course, I’m not saying I’m going to run around thinking that all Nobel-winning physicists are exactly like Beard (especially since he has such a distinct personality that deviates from many different types of norms), but rather, I can see how Beard, in all his flaws and failings, can very much be a brilliant physicist, and a Nobel-winning one at that. (I don’t think I’ve ever talked or written about Nobel-winning physicists as much as I just have, which is possibly a clear sign I should end this paragraph…)

Themes: Fidelity, responsibility (both on a personal and societal level), honesty, dignity—all very much coloured by our current times of modernity and decline, all wonderfully explored.

Language: For the most part, McEwan writes with the same amazingness that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. His insights, metaphors, allusions—love love love. I’ve always adored how McEwan uses his literary prowess to describe professions and professionals outside the humanities, and Solar was a real treat because he uses words to give a sexy edge to physics, which I’ve previously only found sexy through its equations.

Overall: Oh, Ian McEwan, you’ve done it again. I love the way the man writes and explores all the nuances of human behaviour and humanity in the 20th-21st centuries. Although Solar doesn’t rank in my McEwan Top 5, it was still a wonderful read. (Also, the fact that I even have a McEwan Top 5? Yeah, I kinda love the man…)

For those who like numbers: 4.2/5


9. Sarah Rees Brennan – Unspoken (14 Feb)

This was another gift from Costy, who wanted to share some of her favourite YA books with me—and apparently the main character reminded her of me! Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it, so this review’s going to be quite lacklustre…

09 - UnspokenBlurb: Sorry-in-the-Vale has a mysterious past. The Lynburn family has owned the manor overlooking the sleepy English village for centuries, and though they’ve disappeared, people still don’t like to talk about them.

Kami hates secrets. She runs the school newspaper and has never met a story she couldn’t scoop. But Kami has a secret of her own: she loves a boy she’s never met…a boy she’s talked to in her head since before she can remember.

And then the Lynburns return. With them are their two teenage sons, Jared and Ash. The voice in Kami’s head is suddenly a very real boy. Does she still love him? Can she trust him? As dark deeds begin to come to light, Kami isn’t sure of anything anymore.

Plot: Apart from the specifics of the revelation itself (which is to do with magic and things), everything was predictable and uninteresting to me. Even the “climactic” moments didn’t manage to hold my interest—I guess I’m just not into this type of melodramatic YA fantasy.

Characters: I didn’t like any of the characters—they were all too immature, superficial, and exaggerated (perhaps due to an attempt on the author to break them out of their archetypal YA moulds?).

Themes: I don’t even know. Sorcerers? Magic? Teenagers? Something about young adults and…unspeaking?

Language: Um. It’s in English. Except for the parts where it’s in faux Japanese, which just made me shudder…

Overall: I can see how this kind of YA can be appealing to many readers, but it’s just not my thing—especially with the love triangles. Please, no more love triangles in YA! A lot of the humour also seemed forced and a little try-hard, while the melodrama with the sorcerers and sources irritated me more than anything else. I won’t be reading the rest of the series, but I am glad I gave Unspoken a go, if only to re-affirm the kinds of books and stories I do prefer. I did, however, love the book’s soft binding and its rather unique smell—I may have continued reading just so I could keep sniffing the book!

For those who like numbers: 1/5


10. J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (21 Feb)

The massive gap in my reading consists of “modern classics”/20th century literature (especially American), and so, although I’ve had a copy since forever, I hadn’t read The Catcher in the Rye till now. I went in without any expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.

10 - The CatcherBlurb: My copy had no blurb!

Plot: Simple and fast-paced, though at times a little unbelievable, I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative. I felt a little detached from the action at times, but was happy to go along with the ride.

Characters: For the most part, Holden behaves like a spoilt, rich kid who thinks he’s too smart for the world and believes he can distance himself from the status quo—so he’s more or less a typical middle-class teenager. But what really stood out for me is his fondness for his younger siblings, and especially for Phoebe—his desire to protect and champion her innocence really moved me. Phoebe is also a wonderful character, and the reversal of the protector-protected roles at the book’s end makes for a satisfying conclusion.

Themes: Belonging, identity, family, masculinity, sexuality, a thirst for independence—what more is there to say? (A lot more, but I’ll let the essayists and students dissect the novel…)

Language: Teenage vernacular ahoy! I got a real sense of the American boarding school in the ‘40s/’50s, and later of New York City. I actually found it quite refreshing and easy to slip into Holden’s world, and Salinger’s language allows for that.

Overall: I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it, and was unable to fully relate to the characters. The novel is accessible enough that I’d most likely recommend it to teenagers who aren’t big on reading, and they might get a lot more out of it than I did. And although I liked it, frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about—but then, I nerdgasm over Shakespeare, so each to their own.

For those who like numbers: 4/5


11. Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children (24 Feb)

Confession: this is my first Rushdie. I’ve had it in my book collection for years, but hey, better later than never!

11 - Midnight's ChildrenBlurb: Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, at the precise moment of India’s independence, the infant Saleem Sinai is celebrated in the press and welcome by Prime Minister Nehru himself. But this coincidence of birth has consequences Saleem is not prepared for: telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other “midnight’s children”—all born in the initial hour of India’s independence—and an uncanny sense of smell that allows him to sniff out dangers others cannot perceive. Inextricably linked to his nation, Saleem’s biography is a whirlwind of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious.

Plot: Well, there’s certainly a lot of plot, a lot of complexity, and a lot of digression! I saw quite a few similarities between this novel and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—the pacing and digressions, the questionable parentage, the highly self-conscious narration, the constant preoccupation with noses. With the protagonist being born on the day of India’s independence, his upbringing parallels the “maturation” of his country, and his struggles are a small part of India’s larger strife and turmoil. The allegory is well-handled, and the reflective approach in Saleem’s story-telling (who is writing his autobiography) brings forth both humorous and heart-wrenching moments. Strangely enough, I was more interested in the stories of Saleem’s parents and grandparents than in Saleem himself, and the events leading up to his birth were my favourite part of the book.

Characters: Unfortunately, Saleem just didn’t appeal to me, and in this kind of novel where the protagonist is also the narrator, he or she is pretty much the deal-breaker. I did feel some sympathy for him during numerous stages of his life, but for the most part, I found him bland and even a little irritating. However, I really enjoyed Padma’s character, and loved her looming presence as she listened to Saleem’s life account. I wanted a lot more of her, and her appearance within Saleem’s narrative was excellent. Padma has character—the type I longed to see in Saleem but didn’t quite get—and she made the book worthwhile for me. There is also a massive cast of other characters, making Midnight’s Children one of the most complex books I’ve read.

Themes: Golly, I feel my friend-doing-a-PhD-on-Rushdie should write this paragraph…! I really enjoyed the historical significance and allegorical nature of Saleem’s existence, and the various things for which he stands: sociocultural and religious divides, the hopes of a newly liberated nation, the disappointment and eventual disbanding of independent movements.

Language: I was mostly ambivalent about the writing style. The narration captures Saleem’s character quite well and contains the occasional trope and figure, but for the most part, it just didn’t resonate with me. In fact, writing this more than a month after finishing the book, I realise that I don’t remember much of the writing itself—it just didn’t stay with me.

Overall: This took me more than a week to go through, and boy, was it worth it at the end when I emerged victorious! I wasn’t too impressed with the book at first (and at times near the middle), but some parts were quite brilliant (the grandfather’s backstory, Saleem’s years in the slums, the revelation of Padma and her relation to Mary Pereira). Still, I have mixed feelings about the novel, and it’s a book I’m glad to have read rather than one I’ve actually enjoyed reading. For such a highly acclaimed work, I’m afraid it doesn’t rank highly for me personally—mostly because postcolonial Indian literature doesn’t particularly interest me (cue rotten vegetables and online riots in response to the political incorrectness of my honesty). That said, I can certainly appreciate Midnight’s Children’s literary significance, and the reasons for which it has won two Bookers of the Bookers (plus the original Booker—that’s three Bookers for the price of one!).

For those who like numbers: 3.7/5


12. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit (24 Feb)

When it comes to books that have been adapted to the screen, I’ve made it a point to watch first and read later, just so I can go from less to more rather than vice versa. However, I thought the second Hobbit film was so awful that I just had to read the book, which I managed to do on a bus trip from Canberra to Sydney. (And, uh, this was refreshingly easy after the Rushdie, which I’d finished in Canberra.)

12 - The HobbitBlurb: (Um, I just realised that I’ve lent my copy to one of my English students, so I don’t have a blurb right now! I might edit this once he’s returned it…)

Plot: Wonderfully paced, with the chapters short enough not to become a drag, but long enough to contain a substantial amount of action and development. Nothing is drawn out or unnecessary, and the story of Bilbo’s adventure from start to finish is exciting and enjoyable.

Characters: I adored Bilbo’s characterisation and development—he just felt so real and three-dimensional. I particularly liked that he was not a “hero” or even “good guy” in the traditional sense—he is sensible, knows his limits, has his reasons for doing what he does, is hardly sentimental, and is not afraid of behaving in a slightly unscrupulous way to get what he thinks is his due. Thorin, on the other hand, seemed a little weak—his motivations are unclear, and his direction lacking in some instances. I didn’t really mind, seeing as this is chiefly Bilbo’s story (which is carried out so well), but the supporting characters really don’t have much substance in the novel.

Themes: Adventure! Burglary! Dragons! Dwarves! Hobbits! Apart from these, the main thing I picked out was how very English hobbits are. No, really—all the manners, the serving of tea, the misgivings about adventures, the comforts of home with familiar furniture and handkerchiefs… Hobbits are basically Englishmen with really hairy feet.

Language: Despite what others have said, I’ve never thought Tolkien’s writing dry or boring. The Hobbit made me laugh out loud on several occasions, and it made me smile softly on several more. I loved everything about the style, dialogue, and descriptions—it all felt very right, perfectly suited to the type of story Tolkien tells.

Overall: When I finished The Hobbit, I had a desire to re-read The Lord of the Rings—I guess that says something about the magnificent world Tolkien has created. By itself, The Hobbit is definitely a children’s book, and stands strongly on its own. I’m really glad I decided to read it before the final film, and it certainly made for a great bus ride!

For those who like numbers: 4/5


13. Jane Austen – Persuasion (Penguin Classics, ed. Gillian Beer) (27 Feb)

This will be a gushfest. You have been warned.

13 - PersuasionBlurb: At twenty-seven, Anne Elliot is no longer young and has few romantic prospects. Eight years earlier, she had been persuaded by her friend Lady Russell to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a handsome naval captain with neither fortune nor rank. What happens when they encounter each other again is movingly told in Jane Austen’s last completed novel. Set in the fashionable societies of Lyme Regis and Bath, Persuasion is a brilliant satire of vanity and pretension, but, above all, it is a love story tinged with the heartache of missed opportunities.

Plot: Love love love! The plot is just…wonderful. Yeah.

Characters: Anne Elliot is just such a good person—she’s patient, good-natured, sensible, disciplined, compassionate, virtuous, not prone to fits and frenzies. Her character development is wonderful, where the main transformation lies in her ability to stand her own ground, to prioritise her own selfhood, to embrace what she knows to be true and good.

Themes: The past and the present, the changing and unchanging natures of the human heart, the vanity and pretensions of some, the constancy and pure goodness of others—love love love.

Language: As with her other novels, the narration in Persuasion is rife with Austen’s moral judgement of her characters, which I’ve always found both insightful and delightful. I don’t think her writing is as tight as it is in Emma, my absolute favourite Austen of all time ever (pardon the tautology), but it’s still wonderful.

Overall: Such a small book, with such pleasures. Austen is just such love love love!

For those who like numbers: 4.7/5


And that’s all for Jan/Feb! (Goodness, I’ve just realised I’m quite rubbish at writing reviews—I’m okay with academic essays and creative writing, but when I’m “reviewing” books, my mind just goes blank… I think all this practice will be good for me!) I’ll try to have the batch of March reviews up in a week or so.

Have you read any of these books? If so, I’d love to know what you thought about them. If you’re thinking about trying any of these, I’d love to know as well. In any case, please drop us a comment, even if it’s just to say hihihihiiii and yayayayayay books!

7 thoughts on “Reviews: 13 books from Jan/Feb! (Heyer, Zusak, Dickens, Nietzsche, McEwan, Rushdie, Tolkien, Austen, etc)

  1. Pingback: 2014 Reading Extravaganza and Challenges | Samantha Lin

  2. I absolutely adore ‘Catcher in The Rye’. I first read it when I was in high school and still kind of confused about my place in the world which pretty much made Holden a much more relatable character. Of all the books I’ve read, this is the only one I try to read again every year.

    • I guess you really do have to be in the right time and place to fully appreciate some books, and I’m glad to hear you’ve had such a connection with “The Catcher in the Rye”!

  3. Hey Sam, Love the variety of books you included!

    Midnight’s Children got me very curious though I think it’ll be pretty hard for me to get into. I’m a slow reader and a big chicken when it comes to picking books (always sticking to genres that I already know I’ll enjoy XD). We’ll see how long it takes for me to check this one out.

    Thanks for sharing! Are you planning to review any more books by international authors? (Shameless request from a lazy reader)

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Mel! Midnight’s Children had my curiosity for many years as well, and although I didn’t end up liking it as much as I’d hope, I am really glad to have tackled, persevered, and finished it. And of course, you’re always welcome to borrow my copy!

      I guess that depends on what you mean by “international authors”. ;) But I’ve been reading really widely, and there’ll definitely be quite a few more…non-Englandland writers. XD

  4. I’m so glad to see you blogging again! (I’m in the process of restarting my blog as well. ^_^)

    I’m currently in the middle of The Book Thief and completely in love with it. Mostly because I’m in love with Zusak’s language and writing style. But what appeals to some people doesn’t work for others. :)

    I’ve been thinking about trying some Heyer but keep putting it off. Do you think I’d enjoy her books from what you’ve read of her?

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Sam! I know what you mean about Zusak’s language–it’s what I’ve heard most about his book–but at the end of the day, I just didn’t think his kind of writing style worked for me during an extended period of time. Would love to know if your thoughts about The Book Thief will have changed by the time you’ve finished it!

      Hmm, I’m not sure about the Heyer… I liked her books, but didn’t love them–I’d much rather read Austen or Edgeworth, if I’m looking for the Regency. But if you’d like to give Heyer a go, I’d be happy to lend you Arabella and Cotillion.

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