Monday, 30 March 2015

'City of Thieves' by David Benioff (2008)

Synopsis: City of Thieves is set in WWII during the German siege of Leningrad (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Lev Beniov is a shy, 17 year old Jew who is arrested for looting the corpse of a German paratrooper. Later that night, a handsome and self-confident army deserter called Kolya is thrown into Lev's prison cell. Lev is terrified of being executed but Kolya seems completely calm about the situation. When the dawn arrives the two of them are then presented to Colonel Grechko of the NKVD who offers them a near impossible challenge. If the two of them can find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake within five days they'll be given a full pardon and will obtain their freedom. If they fail, Grechko will have them hunted down and shot. Lev and Kolya must then embark on a desperate quest in a city that's been cut off from all supplies for months and where people are suffering from starvation - and it's the coldest winter in Russian history. Along the way the two of them encounter Soviet resistance fighters, victims of war, and a Nazi death squad.

These days David Benioff is probably best known for being one of the co-creators and executive producers of HBO's Game of Thrones but he's also a Hollywood screenwriter and a novelist. I found out about this particular book of his through my friend Lianne's blog Eclectic Tales. Now that I've finished City of Thieves I'm not exactly sure what rating I should give it. There were a lot of things about this book that I loved but there were other things about the book that I found frustrating. This is going to be a difficult one to review for sure and to help me organise my thoughts I'm going to write this review in bullet-point.

The things that I loved about the book:
  • The setting - The Siege of Leningrad lasted for almost three years, is one of the longest sieges in history, and is by far the most devastating in terms of deaths. The estimates about the number of people who died from the siege vary but it's believed that it could have killed up to 1.5 million people. As a British reader I was fascinated to learn more about Russia's involvement in WWII, and more specifically how the war affected the lives of the people of Leningrad and its surrounding countryside. Benioff clearly did his research for the book and the atmosphere and setting felt very accurate and convincing.
  • The story - There's a slight touch of magical realism to City of Thieves - as the plot is kind of bizarre - but in all other respects the story is very gritty and visceral. There are some beautiful descriptions in the book and Benioff's pacing is superb. His screenwriting background really shines through as the writing is highly cinematic and there are some brilliant action scenes that would be thrilling to watch on screen. This book could make for a great film! I imagine David Benioff could quite easily convince HBO to make an adaptation of his book if he really wanted to but I actually think this book would be better suited to the big screen. 
  • The occasional lightness of tone - WWII stories have a tendency to be unrelentingly miserable but thankfully this one wasn't all doom and gloom. That's not to say that there aren't sad and harrowing scenes in the book because there are. The most horrific part is a scene where Lev and Kolya find some girls who are being forced to work as sex slaves for some Nazi soldiers. The girls then tell them about a 14 year old girl called Zoya who tried to escape from the soldiers and what then happened to her when she was caught. I had to give the book a rest at that point and if the book had been as brutal as that the whole through then there's no way I'd have been able to finish it. But thankfully there are some genuinely funny scenes in the book. Kolya gets some hilarious one-liners!

And now for the things that I didn't like about the book:
  • The framing device - For some reason Benioff chose to use a framing device with his book. City of Thieves starts off with a prologue in which Benioff claims that he's telling the story of his own grandfather but the prologue is completely fictitious because all of Benioff's grandparents were born in America. He admits to this in interviews. So why did he do it then? There are certain books (like The Princess Bride or Wuthering Heights) where framing devices manage to enhance the stories. They provide an additional layer of intrigue and interest. With this book the framing device felt very odd and unnecessary :S It took away from the book instead of adding to it.
  • The OTT crassness - In many of Lev and Kolya's conversations there was swearing, sex-talk and talk about bodily functions and I really wish that Benioff could have toned it down. 
  • Lev - I wasn't all that keen on his character. If City of Thieves ever gets adapted I think a great actor could really make something out of his character but when I read the book I never really felt as though I was feeling the full extent of Lev's emotions and he was unnecessarily surly and bad-tempered towards Kolya at times. To be fair I did like Lev more as the story progressed but I much preferred Kolya out of the two. I didn't like Kolya's womanising but he was the much funnier and more interesting character. He was always very affectionate and kind towards Lev as well and I thought that was really sweet.

I've decided to give City of Thieves a 4/5 rating now because I do think that it's a very good book. It was thrilling, funny, sad, gripping and unique. I didn't enjoy the book as much as I was hoping to but on the whole I still liked it quite a lot.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Classics Tag

I saw this tag on Lianne's blog Eclectic Tales and I knew I'd have fun doing it! Thanks, Lianne! :)

An overhyped classic you didn't really like
I honestly haven't come across many classics that I haven't liked - that's one of the reasons why I love the classics so much! - but Homer's The Iliad really bothered me. About 80% of that book consists of people getting decimated on the battlefield and yet it still manages to be as boring as watching paint dry. And Hector, the one genuinely sympathetic character in the story, gets brutally slaughtered by that despicable Achilles :( URGH! That book really upset me and not in a good way if you know what I mean?

Favourite time period to read about
The 19th century, definitely. I love the Regency era because of Jane Austen but overall I prefer books from the Victorian side of that century.

Favourite fairy tale
Beauty and the Beast. The 1991 adaptation is my favourite Disney film and I'm really excited about the upcoming live-action version as well! :) 

What is the most embarrassing classic you haven't read yet?
Probably L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. I will get round to it at some point though!

Top five classics you'd like to read soon
There are loads of classics that I still want to read but five books that I plan to read this year are:
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Bleak House or Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Les Liasions Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  • The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery 
Favourite modern book/series based on a classic
The BBC's Sherlock is my absolute number one favourite but I'm a huge fan of the webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Nothing Much To Do as well (which are based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing respectively).

Favourite movie version/TV series based on a classic
Oh, there are so many that I love! But my favourite movie version is Les Miserables (2012) which is based on the Victor Hugo novel. I love the stage version as well of course! My favourite TV series is North and South (2004) which is based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

Worst classic to movie adaptation
Erm... the first one that came to mind is the 1998 adaptation of Les Miserables. I'm sure there are far, far worse adaptations out there but it's the first adaptation that came into my head.

Favourite editions you'd like to collect more classics from
Penguin and Vintage Classics usually do beautiful book covers :)

An underhyped classic I'd recommend to everyone
Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. That book has been overshadowed for far too long by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and it's a terrible shame. I think it's better than Wuthering Heights and every bit as good as Jane Eyre. It's a brilliantly-written book and deeply inspiring and passionate :)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

'A Dance with Dragons' by George R.R. Martin (2011)

Synopsis: A Dance with Dragons is the fifth book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. In the North, Stannis Baratheon has based himself at the Wall and is now attempting to win the support of the northmen in his claim for the Iron Throne by ridding the region of House Bolton and the Iron Islanders. Stannis sends his Hand, Ser Davos Seaworth, to negotiate with House Manderly of White Harbour on his behalf. Jon Snow has been elected the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and is now attempting to enlist Wildlings into the Watch. He is also having to deal with unrest within the Watch and Stannis's attempts to use their resources in his war for the Iron Throne. Bran Stark, his servant Hodor, and the Reed siblings have gone beyond the Wall and are in search of the Three-Eyed Crow from Bran's visions. They are receiving aid from a mysterious figure called Coldhands. Bran then encounters the last surviving Children of the Forest and the Three-Eyed Crow, who then begins to teach Bran the "greensight". Theon Greyjoy has been held captive by Ramsay Bolton and has been tortured to the point of insanity. Ramsay then decides to use Theon as a means of defeating the Iron Islanders. Tyrion Lannister has escaped from King's Landing and has been smuggled across the Narrow Sea to the city of Pentos. He meets Varys's ally Illyrio Mopatis who then sends Tyrion out on a journey to the city of Volantis, as Illyrio expects that this will be Daenerys Targaryen's next destination. But along the way Tyrion is kidnapped by Ser Jorah Mormont and is then sold into slavery. Another person who is hoping to find Daenerys Targaryen is Quentyn Martell. In Dorne, Prince Doran is plotting revenge on the Lannisters and has sent his son Quentyn out on a secret mission. Quentyn's task is to bring Daenerys and her dragons to Dorne. Finally, Daenerys Targaryen is now the Queen of Meereen but is struggling to maintain peace in the city. She has many enemies both within and outside of the city, her dragons are growing wilder, and the Meerenese nobility are putting pressure on her to marry.

Like a lot of people, I was introduced to the world of Westeros through the HBO show Game of Thrones and then I started to read the books that the show was based on. The first three books of the A Song of Ice and Fire are great, especially the books A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords. There's a ton of suspense and drama, the writing is atmospheric and engaging, there are some very memorable characters, and Westeros is a complex and interesting world. But I found the fourth book in the series A Feast for Crows underwhelming. Many of my favourite characters were missing and the writing was much more slow-paced than in the previous books. I enjoyed the Cersei, Jaime and Sansa chapters in that book but I found everyone else's chapters downright dreary. I was pretty confident that A Dance with Dragons would be an improvement on A Feast for Crows though so I didn't feel too concerned about the state of the series. Now that I've finished A Dance with Dragons I realise that I was completely wrong and I don't think I'll be reading the ASoIaF series any more. *sighs*

Before I start to complain about the things that wound me up about A Dance with Dragons I should say that there were times when I genuinely enjoyed it. Jon Snow's chapters are excellent in this book. His storyline was by far my favourite and if it hadn't been for his chapters I would have probably given up on the book about halfway through. Jon gets some terrific character development in ADWD and becomes an absolute badass. The scene where he beheads Janos Slynt is ridiculously awesome! :D And Jon shows so much potential as a leader in his chapters too. He's got great ideas, he's commanding and decisive, he has vision and foresight, he's got administrative skills, and he has self-confidence. Okay so he was attacked by some of his own men but that was only because those men were too stupid and narrow-minded to see the sense in Jon's plans. Jon is by far my favourite character in the series now and I loved almost all of his chapters in this book apart from that final one where he got stabbed. Come on now Martin, do you really expect us to believe that Jon could actually be dead??? Couldn't you have come up with a better cliffhanger than that??? I think almost every ASoIaF fan believes that "R + L = J" now and even Sean Bean has pretty much confirmed it. I think we all know that Jon's story is far from over!

After Jon my favourite POV chapters in ADWD came from Davos and Bran but sadly they didn't actually get very much page-time. Up until now I haven't been much of a fan of Davos so I was shocked at how much I enjoyed his two chapters in this book! I loved Davos's interactions with Wyman Manderley and now he's going off on a quest to find Rickon Stark. Rickon's been barely mentioned since A Clash of Kings and it should be pretty interesting to find out what he's been doing for all this time. And I really enjoyed Bran's chapters because they were full of tension and atmosphere and I really felt the presence of the Others. We get quite a bit of information about the Children of the Forest, the Weirwoods and the greensight in his chapters and I loved the scenes where Bran warged and saw glimpses of Ned. I'm really hoping that Game of Thrones will eventually bring Sean Bean back to do some flashback scenes!

And now for everything else in this book. Well, I don't think I have the words to describe how painfully, painfully boring Dany and Tyrion's chapters were! They were just... awful! And Dany and Tyrion used to be two of my favourite characters! Dany's storyline was the more frustrating out of the two. I used to think that Dany didn't really mean her "I'm only a young girl and know little about the ways of war and politics" speeches and that they were lies to get her enemies to underestimate her. Now I've finished ADwD I think Dany actually meant them! Her chapters in this book were infuriating and have firmly convinced me that she's very far from being the best person to rule over Westeros. Dany doesn't do anything useful or productive in her time in Meereen. She's passive and indecisive and we get pages and pages and pages of her whining about the city and lusting after Daario Naharis. She acts just like an immature teenage girl! And yes, I know that Dany is a lot younger in the books than she is in Game of Thrones but Jon Snow is still a teenager in the books as well and he shows far more leadership qualities than Dany does! Unlike Jon, Dany just comes across as a naive and incompetent fool. I think it's pretty clear that she's in desperate need of Tyrion showing up and telling her what to do. That brings me to Tyrion who is a very different character in this book than in the previous books of the ASoIaF. In the previous books Tyrion is funny and charming but in ADwD all of this charm and humour has practically gone and he's a much darker character. I suppose that's kind of understandable considering everything that Tyrion went through in A Storm of Swords but I still think it's a shame. Having said that I did find Tyrion's early chapters quite interesting but then he got sold into slavery and his chapters became a mind-numbing snoozefest.

Some other things that bothered me about this book were that...
  • the chapters spent on Quentyn Martell were completely unnecessary. In the end Quentyn's sole contribution to the story was to set Dany's dragons loose on Meereen and die - so why did he get so many chapters?! It would have made far more sense if he had just shown up at the very end and then released Dany's dragons. The chapter could have been told from Ser Barristan Selmy's POV.
  • nothing remotely interesting happened in the one Jaime chapter until literally the final page.
  • the one Dorne chapter was actually pretty good but it was quite jarring and would have felt more natural in A Feast for Crows or The Winds of Winter.
  • the two Cersei chapters were compelling but, again, the chapters would have felt more natural in A Feast for Crows or The Winds of Winter.
  • I really missed Sansa and Littlefinger - but if Sansa had gotten POV chapters in this book then I suppose that they could have felt jarring as well.
  • I can't really comment on the Greyjoy chapters in this book because I skim-read/skipped them all. The Asha and Victarion Greyjoy chapters bored me beyond belief in A Feast for Crows so there was no way that I was going to read them in any kind of depth in this book, and the few parts of the Theon Greyjoy chapters that I read in ADwD made me feel ill. They were far too brutal and violent for my liking. 
  • So Prince Aegon Targaryen has been alive for all this time?! What??? If Young Griff really is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell then that makes him an extremely important character and it's far too late in the series to be introducing such an important character and plot development now!

Apparently, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were originally supposed to be one book and I think that's what we should have ended up with. With some self-control from George R.R. Martin, plus some skilled editing, I think AFFC and ADWD could have been easily combined into one novel. That book would have been the longest in the series and possibly the weakest but nevertheless it would have been a far more readable experience. There's some genuinely great stuff in both AFFC and ADWD but there are too many unnecessary POV characters and the pacing is far too slow. The story has barely moved since A Storm of Swords.

I still care about the fates of some of the characters in the series (e.g. Jon and Sansa) and I do want to know how the series will end. Who'll end up on the Iron Throne? Who's Azor Ahai? Who are the three heads of the dragon? How will the Others be defeated? Who's Cersei's valonqar? And yet the thought of reading two more massive books of tedium is filling me with absolute dread so I'll probably just stick with Game of Thrones from now on. It's becoming increasingly likely that the TV show will end before Martin will finish his books anyway. I think Martin might just about manage to get The Winds of Winter out before season six but it's going to take a miracle if he manages to get A Dream of Spring out before the end of the show.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

'An Old-Fashioned Girl' by Louisa May Alcott (1870)

Synopsis: Polly Milton is a 14 year old girl from the countryside who goes to visit her friend Fanny Shaw for six weeks. Fanny lives in Boston and the two girls met during the previous summer when Fanny paid a visit to her cousin. Polly is soon troubled by the Shaw's behaviour. The Shaws have become distracted by worldly, fashionable things and have forgotten the importance of family. Fanny is vain and selfish and is embarrassed of Polly's simple clothes and "old-fashioned" tastes. Her brother Tom is running wild and her sister Maud is whiny and spoiled. Mr Shaw is a workaholic, Mrs Shaw is a hypochondriac, and Grandma Shaw is lonely and overlooked. But over the course of Polly's visit the Shaws begin to recognise Polly's virtues and become a happier family under her influence. They all become extremely fond of Polly and are sad to see her go. Six years later, 20 year old Polly comes back to Boston and finds a job as a music teacher so she can financially support her younger brother through university. She rents a room in a boarding house and continues to visit the Shaws. When Polly then discovers that the once wealthy Shaws now have serious financial problems and are in danger of going bankrupt she does her best to help the family.

Despite Little Women being a childhood favourite of mine I've never actually read any of Louisa May Alcott's other novels up until now. I was pretty excited to read something else by her!

An Old-Fashioned Girl didn't really live up to my expectations though. Apart from Polly I didn't find the characters as likeable and well-developed as the characters from Little Women and I found Alcott's narrative quite draggy and preachy at times - much more so than Little Women! That being said it has a sweet story and I did really like Polly. She's quiet, sensible, kind, gentle and sensitive but not at all sickly-sweet or too good to be true. She has her flaws and makes mistakes just like the March sisters. The book touches on early feminism as well. In one chapter Polly takes Fanny to see some of her friends, who are all working women, and a famous author called Kate King happens to be present. The author seems to be based on Louisa May Alcott herself and there's an interesting discussion about the "modern woman" in the chapter. It's concluded that the modern woman doesn't need a husband or children but must have the right to vote - which was actually very progressive for the time.

I can't see An Old-Fashioned Girl becoming a favourite of mine but I'm glad I read it and I do plan on reading more of Louisa May Alcott's works. I'm especially interested in the Rose Campbell books.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, 2 March 2015

'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking' by Susan Cain (2012)

Emma Watson: "It’s interesting, because people say things to me like, “It’s really cool that you don’t go out and get drunk all the time and go to clubs,” and I'm just like, I mean, I appreciate that, but I'm kind of an introverted kind of person just by nature, it’s not like a conscious choice that I'm making necessarily. It’s genuinely who I am. Have you seen Quiet by Susan Cain? It discusses how extroverts in our society are bigged up so much, and if you’re anything other than an extrovert you’re made to think there’s something wrong with you. That’s like the story of my life. Coming to realise that about myself was very empowering, because I had felt like Oh my god, there must be something wrong with me, because I don’t want to go out and do what all my friends want to do."

I actually finished this book a while ago but I haven't been very well during the past couple of weeks. That's the reason why my blog has been unusually quiet (no pun intended!)

Quiet is an extremely well-written and researched book. There's a huge amount of psychological information about the brains of introverts and extroverts - which I found absolutely fascinating! - but Cain's writing is still very accessible and engaging. Sadly Western society is very much biased towards extroverts and Cain does a fantastic job in dispelling many of the common myths about introverts: that they're weird, rude, antisocial, unfriendly, slow, inarticulate, cowardly, boring, less virtuous than extroverts, etc. Cain never once bashes extroverts but she highlights all of the positive things about being an introvert and gives some great advice on how introverts can take advantage of their strengths. I also loved Cain's profiling on some of the most famous introverts in history and her chapter about East Asian society (where introverts make up the majority of the population).

Quiet isn't quite a five star read for me. Not everything that Cain wrote about was of particular interest or relevance to me so there were one or two chapters that I found a bit dull. I've also read some reviews of this book from other British readers who felt that the book was too US-centric and I can see where these readers are coming from. I don't think Cain did enough to explain why extroversion is prized in almost all of the Western world and not just America. But nevertheless* this book definitely made me understand myself better and I would highly recommend it: both to introverts and to extroverts who want to understand their introverted loved ones.

Rating: 4.5/5

* I know it's not really necessary to put a "but" before "nevertheless" but I always want to because I think it sounds better!