Saturday, 31 January 2015

'A Short History of England' by Simon Jenkins (2011)

Simon Jenkins is the chairman of the National Trust, a journalist, and an author. This particular book of his does exactly what it says on the tin. It summaries 1500 years of English history in just over 300 pages. The focus of the book is almost entirely on English history with Jenkins only occasionally referring to the history of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the Empire. Jenkins starts his book off with the Romans pulling out of Britain in 410 AD and goes right up to 2011. All of the major historical events in English history are mentioned in this book: Alfred the Great's victory over the Vikings, the Norman conquest of 1066, the Magna Carta, Agincourt, the War of the Roses, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the Restoration, Trafalgar, Waterloo, World Wars I and II, the creation of the Welfare State, etc. The early chapters in this book are focused on monarchs and their reigns but as Parliament becomes more powerful and monarchs less so the focus shifts to prime ministers and important politicians. At the end of the book there's a list of 100 key dates in English history, a timeline of prime ministers, and a timeline of all of the English monarchs from William the Conqueror onwards.

This book has been on my shelf for a couple of years. Soon after I bought it I read it and got about halfway through but for some reason I never finished it. All in all this book was a solid and engaging read but 1500 years of English history in 300 pages is a lot to take in. When the book covered eras that I didn't already know very much about (the Norman kings, the late Stuarts) I found it difficult to follow. Although I appreciate the enormous effort that must have gone into making such a concise summary I think I would have enjoyed the book far more had it been about 100-200 pages longer. The extra length would have allowed for a slower pace and Jenkins would have been able to write far more about the cultural changes in England. I also wish that the book had started off at an earlier point because I would have loved to have learned more about life in Britain under Roman rule. This book is great for what it is and I definitely learned some interesting facts but I would have preferred it if the book had had more depth.

Rating: 3/5

P.S. I've just learned from Wikipedia that Simon Jenkins' ex-wife is Gayle Hunnicutt who played Irene Adler in the ITV Granada Sherlock Holmes series. If you're a Holmesian like me then that might be of some interest to you.

Friday, 23 January 2015

'A Room with a View' by E.M. Forster (1908)

Synopsis: A Room with a View is divided into two halves. The first half of the novel is set in Italy and the second half is set in England. Lucy Honeychurch is a young upper-middle class Englishwoman who is travelling around Italy with her uptight older cousin and chaperon Charlotte Bartlett. When they arrive in Florence they discover that their hotel hasn't given them the "room with a view" that they were promised. When they complain about this a man called Mr Emerson overhears them and offers to swap rooms. Lucy meets several eccentric characters during their stay in Florence: including the hotel's owner Signora Bertolini (who is really a lower-class cockney woman), a romance novelist called Miss Lavish, a witty Reverend called Mr Beebe who will soon be the rector of Lucy's home parish, and also Mr Emerson and his son George. Mr Emerson isn't much liked by the other guests at the hotel because of his tactless, opinionated manners and socialist views. However Lucy finds Mr Emerson very interesting - and his son George even more so. When Lucy then witnesses a murder in a piazza she faints and wakes up to find herself in George's arms. Lucy is then changed forever. Confused and overwhelmed by her thoughts and feelings about George, Lucy flees with Charlotte to Rome. The second half of the novel is set in the Surrey countryside. Lucy has returned home and is now engaged to a wealthy, intelligent and respectable man called Cecil Vyse. Cecil is pretentious and snobbish and views Lucy not as his equal but as a work of art for him to admire and protect. Then, much to Lucy's dismay, the Emersons move into a house which is just down the road from her family's. All of Lucy's feelings for George are then re-awakened. Lucy is then torn between the man that society thinks she should marry and the man that she loves and desires.

Well, what a surprise this book turned out to be! A few years ago a friend of mine mentioned that she'd read the book and hadn't liked it and since our tastes are very similar I automatically assumed that I wouldn't think very much of it either. Recently though I've happened to come across some really positive reviews for this book and I became interested in it all over again. But even then I certainly wasn't expecting to enjoy the book as much as I did. I had no idea that I was going to find A Room with a View so funny! This book made me smile and laugh on so many occasions. The humour and tone of this book is very reminiscent of Jane Austen. Jane Austen was in fact E.M. Forster's favourite author. There's a great deal of Austen-esque social satire in the book and the book has a surprising amount of depth. The characters are all memorable, funny and well-developed. Well, there is one exception but I'll get to them later. A lot of the characters in this book could have been incredibly unlikeable in the hands of another author but Forster is like Austen in that he's able to make even his more annoying characters fun to read about. Even Cecil is allowed some humanity and depth! Technically Forster's writing is very beautiful too and there are some wonderful quotes in this story.

“It isn't possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.” 

"The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions. Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom.”

I also really loved that the first half of the book was set in Florence. It's one of my favourite cities and Italy is one of my favourite countries. I've been to Italy twice. The first time I went on a trip to Rome and on my second visit I went to Florence and Rome. That last visit was about 3.5 years ago. Florence is an amazing city. The art and architecture is incredibly beautiful and the history is extraordinary. I'd love to go back there and this book brought back a lot of fond memories :)

I have to say I didn't completely love this book though. I loved the humour, the writing, most of the characters, the setting and the social commentary but there was this one area in which I found the book lacking - the romance between the main characters. I wouldn't class Lucy as being one of my favourite heroines but I liked her. On the other hand George didn't do anything for me at all. It's not that he's unlikeable. It's just that he's so underdeveloped! I couldn't understand Lucy's love for him. Well, towards the end I think I understood it but I wish that they'd been more scenes between them in the book. I still loved A Room with a View but I can't quite give it a full five stars. When I compare this book to other romantic comedy-of-manners type stories like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion or Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing it does fall short. I think this book would have been even better had it been longer. If this book had been longer and had contained more interactions between Lucy and George then I don't think I'd have anything to criticise. In spite of that aggravating flaw I had so much fun reading A Room with a View though and I'm sure I'll read it again. I'll probably read some of Forster's other works as well although they all sound a lot more gloomy than this one!

Rating: 4.5/5

P.S. I've also seen the two screen adaptations of the book: the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film and the 2007 ITV film which was written by Andrew Davies. I can't see myself writing any in-depth reviews about these two adaptations any time soon so I thought I might as well give my quick-ish views on them here. The 1985 film is the most famous and beloved of the two adaptations and it deserves to be because it's the much, much better of the two. It's very faithful to the book and it's a beautiful movie in its own right. The music is beautiful and it includes two Puccini arias sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. The cinematography is gorgeous and colourful and there are breathtaking location shots of Florence and the Italian and English countryside. Despite the fact that the film came out 30 years ago I don't think it looks at all dated. It's aged incredibly well! The cast for the film is stellar too. It features Maggie Smith as Charlotte, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish, Simon Callow as Mr Beebe, Denholm Elliott as Mr Emerson, Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil, Julian Sands as George, and a very young Helena Bonham Carter and Rupert Graves making their film debuts as Lucy and Freddy Honeychurch. The acting in the film is wonderful. Helena Bonham Carter is beautiful and gives an excellent debut as Lucy. I'm not a Julian Sands fan and I'm not a huge fan of George but Sands is good-looking enough for the role and he has chemistry with Helena Bonham Carter. Denholm Elliot gives a very touching performance as Mr Emerson. I actually liked Mr Emerson a bit more in this film than I did in the book. Rupert Graves is absolutely adorable as Lucy's brother Freddy and since I'm a massive Sherlock fan I got a huge kick out of seeing Lestrade looking so young! It was sweet to see Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in their scenes together. The two of them met while making this film and are still great friends to this day. My favourite performance in this film though came from Daniel Day Lewis. He gives a hilarious performance and almost stole the film for me! He should have got an Oscar nomination for his role like Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliott did for theirs. I loved this film almost as much as the book. Just a word of warning though for any readers who are unaware: there's a scene where three of the male characters go swimming and there's some full-frontal nudity in it. I didn't find the nudity offensive. It takes place in the book and it is a pretty funny and innocent scene. But since the film has a PG rating I can see it being quite a shock to a lot of people. If it was a modern film this scene would surely land it with a 15 or an 18 rating.

The reviews that I'd read for the 2007 adaptation were terrible so I had very low expectations for it. I was expecting to hate it just as much as ITV's adaptation of Persuasion. In the end I didn't dislike the film quite as much as that but still, this film is pretty bad. It's only 90 minutes long so it feels very rushed and the production is too dark - both literally and figuratively. It's more serious and sombre than the book and the 1985 film. And whereas the cinematography in the 1985 film is vibrant and full of colour the 2007 version is mostly beige. There's barely any colour in this production at all. They even managed to make Florence look nondescript! This version's cast is good on paper. It features Elaine Cassidy as Lucy, Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, Sinead Cusack as Miss Lavish, Mark Williams as Mr Beebe, Laurence Fox as Cecil, Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs Honeychurch, Timothy West as Mr Eager, and the real-life father and son Timothy and Rafe Spall as Mr Emerson and George. Overall the acting is much weaker than in the 1985 version though. I did really like Sinead Cusack and Elaine Cassidy in this production but the cast from the 1985 film is so much better. I wouldn't say that this version is any more family-friendly than the 1985 film either. The swimming scene in this version is quicker and shows less nudity but it still throws in a couple of unnecessary sex scenes between Lucy and George at the end. And the ending for this version is atrocious! E.M. Forster wrote an appendix to his book for its 50th anniversary and Andrew Davies decided to base his ending on it. The appendix isn't popular with fans of the book because it reveals that George cheated on Lucy during WWII. But Davies didn't even get the appendix right! In this version George dies in WWI - in the appendix George was a conscientious objector - and it's heavily implied that Lucy is going to end up with the Italian cab driver who was fondling his "sister" earlier in the story! It's an astonishingly depressing ending and it left fans of the book furious. What was Andrew Davies thinking?! I guess he tried far too hard to make his adaptation different from the 1985 version. 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

Synopsis: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the third book in the Sherlock Holmes series and is a collection of 12 short stories that were originally published in The Strand magazine between July 1891 and July 1892. The stories were then put together into a book in October 1892. The 12 stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, A Case of Identity, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Five Orange Pips, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb, The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.

Now we're talking! The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a massive improvement on A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. The short story format forced Arthur Conan Doyle to use a faster pace and to significantly cut down on the lengthy flashbacks. With this book Arthur Conan Doyle really began to hit his stride. The only story in this book that I'm not particularly fond of is A Case of Identity because the villain doesn't get punished at the end and isn't even very remorseful for what he did to his poor stepdaughter. That one made me really sad actually. But the rest of the stories in this book? They're fantastic! The stories are all well-plotted, suspenseful and atmospheric - and Holmes and Watson are always very much present in them. If someone asked me which Sherlock Holmes book they should start off with I wouldn't advise them to read A Study in Scarlet. I'd tell them to start off with this book or The Hound of the Baskervilles.

On this re-read of the book I was particularly struck by Arthur Conan Doyle's female characters. Doyle sometimes gets a lot of criticism from modern feminists because of his anti-suffragette views but nevertheless he had a concern for women's rights. He was an advocate for divorce law reform and as two of his sisters worked as governesses he had a great deal of sympathy for the profession. There are several stories in this book that feature women being cheated out of their inheritances by greedy male relatives and there are some great female characters. Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia is of course the most famous female character that Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote but my personal favourite of his female characters has to be Violet Hunter from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. Helen Stoner and Mrs Toller are pretty cool as well.

My top three favourite stories in this book are:

The Adventure of the Red-Headed League
This story is sooo much fun and I love that it's about a bank robbery! I do love a great bank robbing/heist story. And John Clay is such an underrated and badass villain! He's managed to evade Holmes before and his scheme in this story is incredibly clever and creative. I find it really interesting that he's a young, well-educated, rich boy who turned to crime just for fun and is dialogue when he gets caught is extremely amusing. Mark Gatiss is a huge fan of The Red-Headed League and has said that he'd love to adapt it some day. Yes, I would love for BBC Sherlock to adapt it! The story would be really interesting to see in our age of computers and I think it would make for an interesting change of pace from the other stories that Sherlock has adapted. The fact that it's got a gang of villains tunnelling under a bank is really cool and it isn't even that unrealistic. Plenty of criminals have done it in real-life.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Speckled Band is both Arthur Conan Doyle and Steven Moffat's favourite Sherlock Holmes story. Edgar Allan Poe's influence on Arthur Conan Doyle is very apparent in this one. Don't let Holmes' disparaging comments about Dupin in A Study in Scarlet fool you. Arthur Conan Doyle was a huge fan of Dupin and Edgar Allan Poe. Speckled Band has a deliciously dark and gothic atmosphere and it's also a locked-room mystery. A locked-room mystery is a subgenre of crime fiction in which a crime gets committed in a locked room under almost impossible circumstances. Poe is credited with inventing the subgenre with his story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Speckled Band is full of tension and creepiness but at the same time I also find it one of the funniest stories in this book. There's this extremely funny moment where the villain turns up at Baker Street and starts shouting and ranting at Holmes. But Holmes ignores him and keeps talking about the weather because he's kind of awesome like that. Then the villain gets really, really mad at Holmes and bends a fire-poker as a way of saying "Look how strong and dangerous I am!" Then he storms out and Holmes bends it back : D

The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
This is another deliciously dark and gothic story where you can really see Edgar Allan Poe's influence on Arthur Conan Doyle. The Copper Beeches is quite possibly my favourite story in this entire book. Partly because of its gothic atmosphere and partly because Violet Hunter is so awesome. Violet is a terrific character and she isn't anywhere near as famous as she should be. Okay, I believe Violet is well-loved within the Sherlock Holmes fandom but she's nowhere near as famous to the general public as Irene Adler. Why?! I like Irene but she doesn't live up to Violet Hunter's level of awesomeness! Violet is independent, clever, inquisitive, practical, observant, resourceful and incredibly brave. Just consider her reaction when Holmes asks her to lock Mrs Toller up in the wine cellar. She basically says "Sure! No problem!" And this is coming from a girl who's in a house where someone is being kept prisoner and where there are people who could quite easily kill her with no questions asked because Violet has no family. And there's a dangerous dog roaming around. Even Holmes is deeply impressed by Violet, to the point where Watson even begins to think that Holmes has romantic feelings for her. But despite the fact that Violet has so many great qualities she doesn't strike me as being too perfect. This is another story that I would love for BBC Sherlock to adapt! I don't think Sherlock managed to get A Scandal in Bohemia or Irene Adler right but with all of its creepiness and suspense The Copper Beeches would be great to see on screen and I'm sure it could work brilliantly in the modern-day. And it would be so funny and cute to see fans who haven't read the books suddenly start to ship "Hunterlock".

Honourable Mentions: The Adventure of the Blue CarbuncleThe Boscombe Valley Mystery and A Scandal in Bohemia

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Jukebox Post

Some songs that I loved from 2014 :)

BBC Music - God Only Knows
To celebrate the launch of BBC Music, the BBC did a terrific cover of The Beach Boys' God Only Knows. The video is beautiful too.

George Ezra - Budapest
I love George Ezra's voice. Right from his very first note I knew I was going to love this song.

George Ezra - Listen to the Man
Another George Ezra song. This one gets bonus points for its Ian McKellen cameo appearance :)

Clean Bandit (featuring Jess Glynne) - Rather Be
I love this song and I love that the video was filmed in Japan. It gives me major wanderlust!

Ben Howard - Conrad
Is Ben Howard even capable of doing a song that isn't hauntingly beautiful?

Sia - Diamonds (Demo)
Rihanna's Diamonds was written by Sia and I finally got to hear Sia's demo of the song this year. It's so much better than the Rihanna version! It's far more emotional and raw, not to mention that Sia is the much better singer. I actually think that Diamonds features one of Rihanna's better vocal performances but when you compare her version to Sia's, well, there's no competition!

Paloma Faith - Only Love Can Hurt Like This
Paloma Faith is massively underrated. She has such a great voice!

OneRepublic - Love Runs Out
I already mentioned this song in a post earlier in the year and of course I had to mention it again in this one. I can't listen to this one without wanting to dance, Ryan Tedder's voice is great, the lyrics are are great, and the video is gorgeous. I love how eye-catching and artistic it is!

Lorde - Yellow Flicker Beat
This one was recorded for Mockingjay: Part One. The lyrics fit the film so well - and it's a great song! It certainly makes me want to take part in a revolution!

Bastille - Sleepsong
This song came out two years ago but I'm including it it in this post because I didn't get to hear it until this year. I love almost all of the songs off Bastille's album but there's something very haunting about this one.

Billy Boyd - The Last Goodbye
Asking Billy Boyd to write and sing the song for the final Hobbit film was such a touching thing to do. Thank you, Peter Jackson! And the song itself is just lovely :)

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

'Regency Buck' by Georgette Heyer (1935)

Synopsis: The recently orphaned Judith Taverner and her younger brother Peregrine have left their countryside home in Yorkshire and are travelling down to London. Peregrine isn't yet old enough to inherit and the pair of them intend to seek out their new legal guardian whom they have never met - Julian St John Audley, the Earl of Worth. Along the way the Taverners stop at a boxing match and get into an argument with an insufferably arrogant gentleman who insults them. When the Taverners arrive in London they discover that their guardian is far from being the elderly gentleman that they were expecting. The Earl is handsome and fashionable, is only a few years older than they are, and is good friends with Beau Brummell. He is also the very same man who insulted them at the boxing match. The Taverners are furious but try to make the best of the situation. Judith's beauty and wealth soon makes her a sensation in London and she receives several offers of marriage but Worth refuses all of her suitors. Judith bristles at this lack of independence and has many clashes with her guardian. However, when it looks as though someone is trying to murder Peregrine, Judith begins to see Worth in a different light.

Regency Buck seems to be one of Georgette Heyer's more polarising novels but my feelings towards it are fairly indifferent. It was a decent read for me but nothing special. I'm sure I would probably enjoyed it a lot more than I did though if it hadn't been for the main couple. Judith is independent and spirited but she's also irrational, immature and sulky. Worth is sarcastic, intelligent, dry-humoured and handsome and yet he has none of the warmth and charm of Lord Damerel or the Duke of Avon. It's so frustrating but there are still some really good things about this book. I enjoyed Peregrine and Judith's race from London to Brighton and I really liked some of the book's secondary characters. Worth's younger brother Captain Charles Audley is very likeable and I'm glad that Heyer gave him his own sequel (An Infamous Army). The book also features Beau Brummell. I believe Mr Brummell's name is mentioned in a number of Heyer books but in Regency Buck he shows up as an actual character. I loved Mr Brummell and his first meeting with Judith was my favourite scene in the book.

Regency Buck is also notable for being Georgette Heyer's first Regency novel. I already knew that fact before I read the book but even if I hadn't I think I might have been able to guess since it has a slightly different feel to all of the other Georgette Heyer novels that I've read so far. Unlike her other novels, real-life historical characters appear and there are references to Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Heyer's descriptions of Regency life are also more detailed than usual. Usually I love the attention to detail in Heyer's writing but in this book there was such a lavish and extensive description of the Royal Pavilion that I began to feel as though Heyer was beating me around the head with a text book. This book certainly isn't one of my favourites by Heyer but it isn't the worst Heyer novel that I've read either.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Batch of Mini-Book Reviews

Last month I read a few books that I didn't around to reviewing at the time. Rather than reviewing them all separately I thought I'd do a few mini-reviews for these books. The books are:
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) RE-READ
  • The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890) RE-READ
  • William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher (2014)

Synopsis: The Wind in the Willows tells the story of four anthropomorphised animals who live by the banks of the River Thames. Spring has arrived, the weather is fine, and the shy and friendly Mole has lost all patience with spring cleaning. Mole leaves his underground home and goes out to do some exploring. He ends up at the bank of a great river that he's never been to before and meets a brave and lively water vole called Ratty. The two become fast friends and spend a great deal of time together. Mole moves in with Ratty and they spend most of their days rowing on the river. Mole also meets a number of Ratty's friends. He meets a reclusive but kind Badger who lives in the dangerous Wild Wood and a flamboyant and vain Toad who lives at a grand estate called Toad Hall. As the year passes, the four friends have many adventures together and learn about the importance of friendship and loyalty.

The Wind in the Willows is absolutely one of the best children's books that I've ever read. I didn't even read it until I was 21 but as soon as I did it became an instant favourite. If I'd read the book as a child then I'm sure I'd have been more entertained by Toad's various adventures but as an adult what I love the most about The Wind in the Willows is Kenneth Grahame's absolutely wonderful writing. His descriptions of nature are filled with so much wonder and awe and joy. I wasn't at all surprised when I found out that the book was a favourite of J.R.R. Tolkien's because Grahame's descriptions of the River Bank are so idyllic and dreamy that they give me very strong Shire vibes! :) The Wind in the Willows is a gorgeous novel. The writing is beautiful. The story is warm and funny and full of heart. The pacing is perfect. The characters are sweet and endearing and the book has lovely moral messages. Yes, I really love this one! Oh, and am I the only one who would love a Studio Ghibli adaptation?

Rating: 5/5

Synopsis: The Sign of Four is the second book in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock Holmes hasn't had a case in months and is bored out of his mind. With nothing to do, Holmes is now taking morphine and cocaine every day which is much to the alarm of his best friend and flatmate John Watson. However, it's not long before Holmes and Watson are approached by a beautiful young governess called Mary Morstan. Watson is immediately smitten with Mary and she has not one but two mysteries for Holmes to solve. The first is the disappearance of her father. Mary's father mysteriously vanished ten years ago and despite all of her best efforts no trace of him has ever been found. The second mystery is that for the past six years Mary has been receiving large pearls - one a year - from an anonymous benefactor. Mary has recently received another pearl but on this occasion it's come with a message, a letter which claims that Mary is a wronged woman and that if she wants to seek justice she must meet her unknown benefactor and bring two companions with her. Holmes and Watson both agree to accompany Mary but by the end of the evening the case has become even more complicated and a murder has been committed.

In my opinion Arthur Conan Doyle didn't really hit his stride until he got to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I can't think of very much that I can say about this book. The Sign of Four has some really enjoyable moments - like the boat race down the Thames - and it's an important story in the canon. Watson meets his wife, Holmes' drug issues are mentioned for the first time, and we find out about Holmes' skills in boxing and disguise. But just like A Study in Scarlet the murderer gets a tedious and interminable backstory that leaves me completely bored - and Mary is very underdeveloped. I started off reading some of the later Sherlock Holmes stories in which Mary is barely mentioned so I was really hoping that this novel would shed some light on her character but no, it doesn't. This is my second read of The Sign of the Four and I still don't feel as though I know Mary at all.

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis: The Empire Striketh Back is written in the style of William Shakespeare and is a retelling of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Three years have passed since the destruction of the Death Star but the civil war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance is far from over. Lord Darth Vader is also becoming increasingly obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker. Luke is now in hiding and is living in the rebellion's secret base on the remote ice planet of Hoth - along with his friends Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO. When the base is then attacked by the Imperial Fleet, the friends are forced into making a hasty escape. Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO escape on the Millennium Falcon and set a course for the Cloud City - a floating gas mine colony on the planet of Bespin which is being run by Han's old friend Lando Calrissian. They are unaware that Darth Vader has summoned several bounty hunters, including Boba Fett, to pursue the Millennium Falcon. Meanwhile, Luke and R2-D2 travel to a swamp planet in the Dagobah system after the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi instructs Luke to seek out the Jedi Master Yoda. Luke then begins to receive intensive training in the Force.

Ian Doescher's Verily, a New Hope was one of the funniest books that I'd read in years so I knew I had to read his retellings of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi sooner rather than later! I must admit that I didn't enjoy The Empire Striketh Back as much as I did Verily, a New Hope. One of my absolute favourite things about Verily, a New Hope were all of R2-D2's asides. R2-D2 still gets some asides in this book but nowhere near as much as in Verily, a New Hope. Leia was also much too lovey-dovey in her asides for my liking. I've never imagined Leia being as conscious of her feelings for Han as she seemed to be in this. But still, this book was a delightful read and it has some wonderful comic moments. I loved that Doescher gave the Wampa and the Exogorth soliloquies and that he continued to incorporate famous Shakespearean quotes into the story. Doescher also brings in more Shakespearean literary devices into his series which I appreciated. This time around he relies less on the chorus to explain the action scenes and has the characters describe the action for themselves more. He puts a few songs into the story and he breaks away from the iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets in places. Boba Fett speaks in prose rather than verse. In his afterword Doescher writes that this is because Shakespeare would often have his lower-class characters speak in prose as a means of distinguishing them from the higher-class verse-speaking characters. He also has Yoda speaking in haiku! Doescher acknowledges that Shakespeare never used haiku but explains that he needed to find a way of making Yoda sound sufficiently different from the other characters and figured that since Yoda has a little bit of an eastern sensei sensibility to him that the use of haiku would be fitting for the character. William Shakespeare's Star Wars is a great series and it really is a must-read if you love both Shakespeare and Star Wars. I'm looking forward to The Jedi Doth Return. I'm very interested in finding out what Doescher does with the Ewoks!

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Persuasion Read-Along (Chapters 2-3)

A Summary
In Chapter Two, Lady Russell consults with Anne and comes up with a sensible new budget for the Elliot family that will get them out of their debt within seven years. However, Sir Walter is disgusted. He decides to rent Kellynch out and move somewhere else instead of bearing the "degradation" of a lower budget. Anne hopes that Sir Walter won't consider a move to Bath because she loves the countryside around Kellynch and dislikes the city. Anne has bad memories of Bath. She spent three years at boarding school there following the death of her mother and on the second time she visited the city she was "not in perfectly good spirits". But Sir Walter decides to move to Bath. Lady Russell is pleased about this though because she often visits the city and will still be able to visit Anne. Lady Russell has another reason for being happy about the move too. Elizabeth has become good friends with Mr Shepherd's daughter - a woman called Mrs Clay. Lady Russell thinks Mrs Clay is a very unsuitable companion for Elizabeth and is pleased that Elizabeth's departure from the neighbourhood will end their intimacy.

In Chapter Three, Mr Shepherd suggests to Sir Walter that an admiral would be his ideal tenant as the war is over and there are plenty of naval officers who are coming ashore and looking to settle down. Sir Walter isn't at all impressed. Mrs Clay assures Sir Walter that a naval officer would take good care of his house and might even do some gardening but Sir Walter isn't at all pleased with the idea of his tenants venturing into his shrubberies. Anne stands up for the navy here and points out how deserving they are which prompts Sir Walter to explain why he dislikes the profession. Firstly, because it makes men wealthy through their own success - Gasp! Shock! Horror! - and secondly because they're all old and ugly. Apparently. At this point Mrs Clay defends the navy here too, pointing out that no-one can be expected to look young and healthy forever if they aren't rich enough not to work. Mr Shepherd then announces that a man called Admiral Croft is interested in renting out Kellynch and even Sir Walter isn't opposed to the idea when he learns that the Admiral comes from a gentlemanly family and isn't ugly. Mr Shepherd also points out that Admiral Croft is willing to pay high rent and has a sensible wife whose brother used to be a curate in the area. No-one can remember the curate's name though - apart from Anne who says that his name was Mr Wentworth. Sir Walter then remembers that Mr Wentworth didn't come with a gentlemanly family and so the subject is quickly dropped. Sir Walter then decides that an Admiral wouldn't be such a bad tenant after all, because the title sounds impressive but is still inferior to Sir Walter's own. Anne then goes out into the garden alone to calm herself down and makes a cryptic remark: that soon "he" may be walking down these garden paths.

Some Thoughts:
  • Sir Walter is Jane Austen's Mike Jeffries. How can anyone be so vain? So ungrateful to men who served his own country during the war?! His comment about keeping his shrubberies out of bounds to his tenants makes me smirk though. What are you going to do to prevent it then, Sir? Put up a big honking "KEEP OUT!" sign?!
  • Lady Russell is really quite an interesting and complex character. She's very loving and affectionate towards Anne and Austen makes it clear that she has many good qualities, and yet she's so snobbish and blind. Sure, she's nowhere near as bad as Sir Walter but it's still a major character flaw. A fellow blogger suggested that Lady Russell is like an older version of Emma Woodhouse in my last post and I agree. 
  • On the previous occasions when I've read Persuasion I've never been able to grasp why Mrs Clay is supposed to be such a bad companion for Elizabeth but after reading some comments on Heidi's read-along I finally understand why. I've always assumed that Mrs Clay must be a widow but actually, all that Austen says is that Mrs Clay has "returned from an unprosperous marriage" (pg.17). In fact Mrs Clay is probably divorced. We know that Lady Russell is a very traditional sort so she obviously wouldn't approve of this but the fact that Austen also describes Mrs Clay as being "clever" and understanding "the art of pleasing" suggests that she's manipulative and cunning - and that Lady Russell can see it. 
  • Yay! Anne is really starting to come into her own now! Chapter two shows us how principled Anne is with her insistence that all Sir Walter's debts must be paid off and in chapter three Austen starts to give her dialogue. Her final sentence is really quite a cliffhanger! :) I love it! It's mysterious, it's romantic, and it's even a little bit funny. If you didn't know any better you could be forgiven that Anne was in love with Mr Wentworth!

Favourite Quotes

“She (Lady Russell) drew up plans of economy, she made exact calculations, and she did, what nobody else thought of doing, she consulted Anne, who never seemed considered by the others as having any interest in the question. (pg. 13)
Another occasion when I want to hug Lady Russell or at least give her a high-five :)

"And with regard to Anne's dislike of Bath, she [Lady Russell] considered it as a prejudice and a mistake, arising first from the circumstance of her having been three years at school there, after her mother's death, and, secondly, from her happening to not be in particularly good spirits there the only winter which she had afterwards spent there with herself" (pg. 16)
I love how Austen is hinting at Anne's past. Anne's second visit to Bath probably occurred soon after her engagement to Captain Wentworth was broken off.

'The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must all allow'. (pg. 21)
Anne's first line of dialogue.

"Mr Shepherd was completely empowered to act; and no sooner had such an end been reached, than Anne, who had been a most attentive listener to the whole, left the room, to seek the comfort of cool air for her flushed cheeks; and as she walked along a favourite grove, said with a gentle sigh, a 'few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here" (pg. 28)
Again, this is quite a cliffhanger! And it's really quite a romantic thought :)

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Classics Club

I've finally decided to join the Classics Club! The club's aim is to encourage bloggers to read at least 50 classics within five years. For my list all of the books that I've picked are going to be new reads. Today it's the 9th of January 2015 so I'm aiming to have read everything on this list by the 9th of January 2020. The books that I'm aiming to read within this time are:

Louisa May Alcott
1. An Old Fashioned Girl FINISHED 10/03/2015 REVIEW

Ray Bradbury
2. Fahrenheit 451 FINISHED 24/07/2015 REVIEW

Miguel de Cervantes
3. Don Quixote

G.K. Chesterton
4. The Man Who Was Thursday

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
5. Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Wilkie Collins
6. Armadale
7. No Name

Charles Dickens
8. Bleak House
9. Little Dorrit
10. Our Mutual Friend

Fyodor Dostoevsky
11. The Brothers Karamazov
12. The Idiot

Arthur Conan Doyle
13. The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories FINISHED 01/10/2015 REVIEWS: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9

Lord Dunsany
14. The King of Elfland's Daughter

George Eliot
15. Daniel Deronda

F. Scott Fitzgerald
16. Tender is the Night

E.M. Forster
17. A Room with a View FINISHED 23/01/2015 REVIEW

Elizabeth Gaskell
18. Cranford
19. Ruth
20. Wives and Daughters

Frank Herbert
21. Dune

Patricia Highsmith
22. Carol

Aldous Huxley
23. Brave New World

Henry James
24. The Portrait of a Lady

Rudyard Kipling
25. Kim FINISHED 24/04/2016 REVIEW

C.S. Lewis
26. Till We Have Faces

Richard Llewellyn
27. How Green Was My Valley

George MacDonald
28. At the Back of the North Wind

W. Somerset Maugham
29. The Painted Veil FINISHED 04/07/2016 REVIEW

Guy Maupassant
30. Bel-Ami

L.M. Montgomery
31. Anne of Green Gables FINISHED 20/01/2016 REVIEW
32. The Blue Castle FINISHED 27/08/2015 REVIEW
33. Emily of New Moon
34. Jane of Lantern Hill

George Orwell
35. 1984
36. Animal Farm

Alan Paton
37. Cry the Beloved Country

Edgar Allan Poe
38. The Collected Stories and Poems

Alexander Pushkin
39. Eugene Onegin

Rafael Sabatini
40. Captain Blood

Anya Seton
41. Katherine

Elizabeth George Speare
42. The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Robert Louis Stevenson
43. Kidnapped
44. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

William Makepeace Thackery
45. Vanity Fair

Anthony Trollope
46. He Knew He Was Right

Jules Verne
47. Around the World in Eighty Days

Edith Wharton
48. The Age of Innocence FINISHED 06/04/2015 REVIEW

T.H. White
49. The Once and Future King

Oscar Wilde
50. The Importance of Being Earnest

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A 'North and South' Vlog!

Guys, guys, guys! Do you know that North and South is one of my favourite things ever?! Both the Elizabeth Gaskell novel and the 2004 BBC miniseries?! Now someone has done a vlog adaptation and the first 3 episodes are really promising! The actress playing Margaret is really good and they've made Margaret a Richard Armitage fan which delights me exceedingly! :) In this adaptation Margaret ("Maggie") has moved to Canada so the web series is called East & West. I'm trying not to get too excited but *shriek!* There are certain things in North and South that might be really hard to adapt to the modern day (the riot, the mutiny) so I'm really hoping that they'll get these things right. Oh, I so want this to be good!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Happy Birthday, Sherlock Holmes!

It's the 6th of January and today we celebrate the birthday of Sherlock Holmes! To celebrate this wonderful occasion my friend Hamlette has made a little tag which I've answered below. I've done a few of Hamlette's blog events in the past and they've always been great fun. This time it was no different so thank you Hamlette! Click here to read Hamlette's link-up post.

1.  When and how did you first encounter Sherlock Holmes?
The Great Mouse Detective was one of my absolute favourite Disney films when I was growing up and it's still in my Disney top three. It was a big favourite of my dad's too and I'm very surprised that we didn't wear out the VHS because we used to watch it so often! I would class that film as my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. When I was about 12 I then read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I remember loving that story but, honestly, I've only become a true Holmesian/Sherlockian in the past few years.

2.  Please share a fact or two about yourself related to Holmes.  (You've read the whole canon, you've been to Baker Street, you're an official BSI member, etc.)

- I'm currently going through the whole canon and I've given myself twelve months to do it. So far I've read A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four and I'm currently reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

- I've been to Baker Street!

3.  What are three of your favourite Holmes adventures?
The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Red-Headed League and The Musgrave Ritual.

4.  What draws you to the Sherlock Holmes stories?
The characters (especially Holmes himself), their atmosphere and mystery, how clever they are, and their humour. I also love Arthur Conan Doyle's writing. As an actual writer Doyle is hugely underrated!

5.  If you were going to give Sherlock Holmes a birthday present, what would it be?
I'd buy him a load of detective novels. I'd love to know what Sherlock Holmes would make of some of the other famous, literary detectives out there! We know his feelings on Dupin but what would his opinion be of, say, Poirot or Miss Marple? I'd love to know!

6.  If you could climb into a Holmes story and replace any one character for a day, who would you like to be?
I'm sure a lot of people will name her but probably Violet Hunter from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. She's pretty awesome!

7.  Please share some of your favourite Holmes-related quotes!

“Holmes: "I followed you."
Sterndale: "I saw no one."
Holmes: "That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.” 
I haven't even read The Adventure of the Devil's Foot yet and I know this quote!

“Anderson, don’t talk out loud. You lower the IQ of the whole street.”
A Study in Pink, BBC Sherlock

And finally this joke...
“Holmes and Watson are on a camping trip. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes up and gives Dr. Watson a nudge. "Watson" he says, "look up in the sky and tell me what you see."

"I see millions of stars, Holmes," says Watson.

"And what do you conclude from that, Watson?"

Watson thinks for a moment. "Well," he says, "astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meterologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and we are small and insignficant. Uh, what does it tell you, Holmes?"

"Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!” 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Persuasion Read-Along (Chapter One)

What a lovely way to start off 2015! I'm participating in a read-along blog event which is being hosted by Heidi of Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine and the book that we're all reading for this event is Jane Austen's Persuasion. It's a captivating and deeply emotional novel about a love that transcends space, time and war and it's my favourite Jane Austen novel :) This is a very, very recent development though. Pride and Prejudice was my first Jane Austen novel and it was my favourite for almost 10 years but I happened to re-read Persuasion over the Christmas holidays. I've always thought very highly of Persuasion but on this occasion I managed to connect with the book in a way that I hadn't fully managed to before. I love, love, love this book! For this post I'm going to summarise Chapter One, talk about some of the things that struck me about it, and provide some of my favourite quotes. I'll be following that format for all of my posts on this book. The aim for this read-along is to do three chapters a week. For this read-along I'm using my brand-new Vintage Classics edition of the book so all of the page numbers that I'll be referring to are going to be from that. If your edition is different to mine then the quotes will probably be on different pages.

In Chapter One, Jane Austen basically sets the scene. The chapter begins with Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall, Somersetshire re-reading his favourite passage in the Baronetage. We quickly learn that Sir Walter is a 54 year old widower and that he has three daughters called Elizabeth (aged 29), Anne (27) and Mary (25). Elizabeth and Anne are both unmarried and still love at home but Mary is married to a man called Charles Musgrove and lives in a village called Uppercross. We then find out that the Elliots are an ancient and noble family who were originally from the north of England (Cheshire) before they settled down south. We also learn that Sir Walter's heir is his nephew Mr Elliot and that Kellynch will be entailed over to Mr Elliot when Sir Walter dies. Austen then provides some information about Elizabeth and tells us that, 10 years previously, Elizabeth courted Mr Elliot in London for a while. He then spurned her for another woman and is rumoured to have said lots of mean things about her and her father. Elizabeth still feels bitter and resentful about this. After that Austen brings us back to the present. Sir Walter's extravagant spending has led to huge debts and if he doesn't retrench soon there's a risk that the family will go bankrupt. The chapter ends with Anne's godmother Lady Russell and Sir Walter's lawyer Mr Shepherd being called out to Kellynch to give some advice on the situation.

The heroine in Persuasion is Anne but that isn't very obvious from this chapter. She doesn't appear yet and Austen only provides a brief but tantalising description of her. Austen tells us that Anne has an "elegance of mind and sweetness of character" and that she was once "very pretty" but lost her bloom early (pg.6). But why did Anne lose her bloom early? Did something happen to her? Is that foreshadowing I detect? :) It's interesting that Austen doesn't give us much information about Anne yet. It's probably because Austen wanted to show us how little regarded Anne is but then Pride and Prejudice starts off in a similar way too. That book begins with that famous conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet about how Netherfield Park is to be let at last. It's really not obvious which of the Bennet girls is going to be the heroine of that story.

Chapter one of Persuasion is mostly focused on Sir Walter and Elizabeth and they're horrible. They're vain, self-obsessed snobs who have no affection for Anne or Mary at all. I think Austen depicts them brilliantly. There are times in the book when I just want to slap them for their lack of love and consideration for Anne but then there are some other occasions when they're both so ridiculous that I can't help but smirk. Take this sentence about Sir Walter: "the rapid increase of the crow's foot about Lady Russell's temples had long been a distress to him" (pg.7). Am I the only one who finds that kind of funny?

One thing that struck me about this chapter was the information that we're given about Anne's mother. To be fair it might not have struck me unless another blogger hadn't pointed out. We're told that Anne's mother was an "excellent woman" (pg.5) and that she was very similar to Anne in terms of personality. We're told that she was lovely and sensible - apart from that youthful folly that led her into her marrying Sir Walter. We're told that she curbed Sir Walter's spending and arrogance and that she loved both her friends and her children dearly. And yet she didn't seem to be happy. We're told that she was "not the very happiest being in the world" (pg.5). There's a hint of some melancholy there. But why did Mrs Elliot feel this way? We'll never know...

There's a passage in this chapter where I want to hug Lady Russell. Some Persuasion fans absolutely hate Lady Russell and I can kind of understand why but at least Lady Russell truly loves Anne and has her best interests at heart - which is a lot more than can be said for Sir Walter and Elizabeth.

Favourite Quotes

"That Lady Russell, of steady age and character, and extremely well provided for, should have no thought of a second marriage, needs no apology to the public, which is rather apt to be unreasonably discontented when a woman does marry again, than when she does not..." (pg.5-6)
I can feel Austen's contempt here. "How dare you people be disappointed when a woman finds happiness in a new love instead of mourning her husband for the whole of her life!"

"To Lady Russell, indeed, she was a most dear and highly valued god-daughter, favourite and friend. Lady Russell loved them all: but it was only in Anne that she could fancy her mother to revive again" (pg.6).
Lady Russell's feelings towards Anne. I find this passage so sweet.

"It sometimes happens, that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before (pg.7)
This line gives me hope! :D