The Man Who Laughs – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

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This was a tough find, and stayed on my shelf for quite some time beforehand due to my editions tiny font; but it’s finally read:

Raised by Ursus, philosopher and entertainer, Gwynplaine is the Laughing Man. Found at age 10 when abandoned in southern England, caryying a blind child in his arms, Gwynplaine’s face is disfigured into a constant laugh.

As Gwynplaine’s fame grows among the commoners of London, he is found by the police and his true identity revealed to him – peer of England.

Ultimately the novel is a love story between Gwynplaine, the man whose face has been intentionally mutilated into a laugh, and Dea, the beautiful blind girl he rescued whilst she was still a baby.

Replete with Hugo’s typical use of language, the novel is a pleasure to read, though I did it find moments where essentially the same paragraph was repeated multiple times, as though Hugo couldn’t quite decide who to describe the scene.

The novel is set in 17th century England and draws a strong distinction between those in the aristocracy, and the commoners of the land. Gwynplaine transcends both in some ways, raised a commoner, and ascending to aristocracy in an instant.

This creates problems for him however, as aware of the struggle for the common man, he finds it difficult to settle in to this new life of luxury which is thrown upon him.

This is a tragic story of conflicts between social classes and love, and the values which battle when success is suddenly presented to someone. The manipulation of the common people for the comfort of the aristocracy is apparent though when Gwynplaine joins them in the high seats, but tough for him to stomach.

Hugo’s views on social reform are very clear throughout. Like his books, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, execution is shot in such a gruesome light that at times it felt as though the corpses of the convicts where feet away from the reader. The need for equality across social classes perpetuated throughout, and the values of each struck constantly in every chapter.

Overall though this wasn’t an easy read, and I found myself finishing it just because I had started by the time the last 100 pages were in sight. Recommended for fans of Hugo, but not as first – unrepresentative, perhaps, of his other work…

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Mort – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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The fourth in the Discworld series which I began earlier in the year:

It is known as the Discworld. It is a flat planet, supported on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims majestically through space. And it is quite possibly the funniest place in all of creation…

Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job.

After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death’s apprentice.

The book centers around a young man named Mort who has found that he has little to recommend him in many professions often undertook by people of his age. After unsuccessfully waiting in the market to be offered an apprenticeship, Death arrives at midnight and invites him to work in his unique profession – ushering people into the afterlife.

Mort accepts and begins learning the profession, and exploring much of what lies beyond mortal understanding in the afterlife.

Death, finding himself with some free time, also begins exploring new avenues, and finding himself quite apt at being a chef, begins working in a kitchen in Ankh Morpork

The book contains much of the comedy as the other books but feels a lot more structured, which is a good thing. That being said, the storyline is still very simplistic, and though identifiable, it isn’t particularly captivating.

Another positive though is that the comedy in this book feels a little bit less forced than it does in the previous one: the jokes seem to fit the context a lot better, and often simply wordplay on the situation is employed.

I will continue to read the series, however, finding them a good “light” read in-between other books. They are certainly worth a read for fantasy fans looking for something other than the typical high fantasy doorstop books.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

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This has my to read list for a little while:

One of Hugo’s shorter works, The Last Day of a Condemned Man follows the journaling of a man sentence to death for an unspecified crime.

Given six weeks until the day he faces the guillotine, the man reflects on his life and his inescapable end.

The story is an intentional writing on Hugo’s behalf – a strong opponent to capital punishment in his day. Reading his other works, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, you get this impression throughout.

Faced with his inevitable and dated death, the condemned man describes the mental torment he goes through, knowing the hour of his end.

Longing for his family and freedom, or at least a quick death rather than a wait, the man describes how he feels no capacity for repentance now all his thoughts are occupied with his approaching doom, which people will watch for fun.

Dostoevsky, in his book The Idiot, reflects similar ideas – describing being hit by a horse-drawn cart as preferable to awaiting a hanging. Dostoevsky himself having been in a similar situation himself in his youth (only being pardoned minutes before his hanging) he is quite a significant sympathizer to the thoughts of the condemned man.

Capital punishment is clearly different nowadays: for one it is now very uncommon for a country to still practice it frequently. Another perhaps is that its no longer publically viewable – the Romans loved it and crucifixion drew crowds, but more recently hangings in the 19th century drew similar crowds too.

Reading this led to interesting discussions on a topic which goes deeper than I initially thought.

If you are a fan of Victor Hugo, it’s certainly worth exploring his ideas on a topic he was clearly passionate about.

 

 

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (Book Review)

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Read based on a recommendation. I haven’t really delved into a lot of science fiction, especially not seriously:

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.

The story is written as a series of Progress Reports by Charlie for the lead experimenters in the study. Beginning pre-operation, Charlie struggles to write coherently and spell correctly. He explains about his job and his friends there, and how he longs to become smart and join in the serious conversations people are always having around him.

The experiment is a success, and it’s not long before Charlie begins realising that his ‘friends’ were always mocking him, and that the conversations about politics and religion he often heard were misinformed, and even that the lecturers at the university knew little in their own area.

As he begins to struggle with his new life, he begins to lift the veil of his past, especially in regards to his family, and in particular, his mother.

The storyline becomes very moving as Charlie begins to understand more about himself and his past, and begins to explore new relationships. The novel challenges many views on people with learning difficulties, and pushes to humanise those we don’t understand due to their disabilities. Echoing throughout the novel is the fact that Charlie existed long before he become intelligent: the researchers didn’t create him.

It’s written in a very unique way, and is certainly memorable; it is unlike any novel I have read previously. The book is also not very long, but felt like the storyline was full and complete, and I struggle to think of any unanswered questions. I certainly felt melancholy once it ended though, but it ended well.

A must read for sci-fi fans!

How Saints Die – Carmen Marcus (Book Review)

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Discovering the release of this book was happy accident – the cover caught my attention, followed by the plot, followed by the discovery that the author and I share a hometown(!):

Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It’s the 1980s and her mother’s breakdown is discussed only in whispers, with the promise ‘better by Christmas’ and no further explanation.

Steering by the light of her dad’s sea-myths, her mum’s memories of home across the water, and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn – in these sudden, strange circumstances – who she is and what she can become. By the time the first snowdrops show, her innocence has been shed, but at great cost.

The story is set in a quickly changing fishing village on the coast of the North Sea. Peter, a fisherman suffering from vertigo, makes a living mending nets and supporting fishermen to support his small family – his wife who is now in hospital, and his young daughter, Ellie.

Ellie is unaware what the state of her mother is, but the whole school know her mum is ‘mad’. As Robin, a new boy joins, a friendship sparks despite the current against them.

The story is interesting in the sense of it’s atmosphere – it all seems very dimly lit, but captivating. My curiosity kept me reading, despite aspects that often put me off – namely magical realism (though granted allowing for metaphor).

Allowing for the time the novel is set, I would have expected further consequences for the actions of some characters, though perhaps, not being born then, I am interpreting past situational circumstances in the light of modern time.

The characters are certainly intriguing and I quickly felt strongly about them when the novel began, and this developed well throughout.

It was great to read a book set in a location I am familiar with, and will certainly encourage me to read more ‘local’ fiction in the future.

1984 – George Orwell (Book Review)

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After much delay I finally got around to reading the famous “1984” – perhaps it following so closely after Shades of Grey is somewhat telling, but nonetheless it had been on my reading list far too long:

Nineteen Eighty-Four revealed George Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest mythmakers. While the totalitarian system that provoked him into writing it has since passed into oblivion, his harrowing cautionary tale of a man trapped in a political nightmare has had the opposite fate: its relevance and power to disturb our complacency seem to grow decade by decade. In Winston Smith’s desperate struggle to free himself from an all-encompassing, malevolent state, Orwell zeroed in on tendencies apparent in every modern society, and made vivid the universal predicament of the individual.

It is likely that you have heard of this book: in a dystopian reality, there are now 3 major world powers – one of these being Oceania, ruled by The Party and their political head: Big Brother.

Within this state, people believe what they are told and think only what the party allow, or else face punishment from the Thought Police. Winston secretly has anti-Party thoughts, however, and with the similar thinking Julia, begins seeking revolution.

The story is sometimes a difficult one, and I read one person describe it as “an essay”, which I get – many chapters feel like the characters are decoration to something Orwell really wants you to understand. That being said, there certainly is a plot, the conclusion of which will have you squirming.

What is interesting about this book, and is surely intentional, is that it reflects much of society as it began changing and certainly some ideologies held highly now. Not least among this we would recognise as the post-modern thought that somehow we should no longer fight for the reconciliation of subjective thought and external truth, but that we decide what truth is – if we all agree that 2+2=5, then it must. This is something Winston argues against vehemently, and I with him – we don’t determine our external reality, simply because we don’t like it.

As news is fabricated and reports constructed in order for the thoughtless mass to believe anything, the struggle in the society where “Big Brother is watching” is surely a terrifying one. The ending left me feeling a little defeated, and it certainly had an impact.

If this is a classic you have been delaying reading, it may be worth your time. Be prepared though as it isn’t particularly light reading!

Beren and Luthien – J.R.R. Tolkien (Book Review)

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I’ve been following this books release since early 2017, with the prospect of reading more Tolkien, and furthermore illustrated by Alan Lee, being a hopeful one:

Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Lúthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was an immortal Elf. Her father, a great Elvish lord, in deep opposition to Beren, imposed on him an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lúthien. This is the kernel of the legend; and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Lúthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.

The book is essentially a collection of writings from Tolkien showing the story of Beren and Luthien, a story which foreshadows Aragorn and Arwen’s love in Lord of the Rings: a mortal man and an immortal elf.

This is done through a mixture of poetry and narrative, all illustrated by Alan Lee; the original illustrator of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Overall the tale is well written and very high fantasy – I would say that anyone who has not read Tolkien, however, may find themselves a it lost as to what is happening.

I try not to sound harsh when saying this, but I feel like I would have enjoyed this book more with less interruptions by Christopher Tolkien talking about the text – to some this is likely very interesting, but to myself it meant I could barely keep immersed for long enough.

Necessary for any Tolkien fan to add to their collection, and something which was clearly very dear to the authors heart. As an introduction though perhaps stick with The Hobbit for a more narrative structure than curious one.