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.

Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde (Book Review)

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Though never reading any of his books previously, I am aware of Jasper Fforde. This book was recommended by a friend strongly enough to persuade me to buy it:

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place. Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour.

Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane – a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed.

For Eddie, it’s love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey . . .

This book is a dystopian fututre where society has been divided into classes based upon the individual’s colour perception: from Purples at the top, to greys at the bottom considered little more than savages. Relationships are determined almost exclusively by who will benefit your hue, with strong blues and reds looking to marry for the purpose of a purple child, leading them into a higher social standing.

Eddie is sent with his dad to a small town where corruption is evident in what is known as ‘loopholery’; still adherence to the rules, though a questionably one.

As it becomes clear that not everything people are told is true, Eddie strays dangerously close to Rule-breaking to seek the truth.

This book is bizarre to describe but incredible to read – it is a book that is certainly difficult to put down. With so many hidden secrets and unsolved questions, the reader is lured into the solution as much as the characters – hoping for a more emotive society than what is currently there.

I haven’t read many dystopian future books, and this is certainly a great introduction to them – thankfully it is also a series so I look forward to the release of the next volume!

Highly recommended – the humour is spot-on on the plot fascinating.

The Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Théirault (Book Review)

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I mentioned a little while back in a post titled Five Book Tags that I recommend a book called “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” to everyone – well I found out the author was writing a sequel, and after some waiting, it has arrived!

Twenty-two-year-old Tania has moved to Montreal to study, fine-tune her French and fall in love. Finding work as a waitress in an unpretentious down-town restaurant, she meets Bilodo, a shy postman who spends his days perfecting his calligraphy and writing haiku. The two hit it off. But then one stormy day their lives take a dramatic turn, and as their destinies become entwined Tania and Bilodo are led into a world where nothing is as it seems.

The book is a sequel I never expected with the ending of the previous being so rounded perfectly – so I was a bit curious to how this would fit in:

This sequel fits into the first in an unexpected way, which though works, felt a bit like forcing an almost-correct jigsaw piece next to another.

The characters are almost equally creepy in their approach to romance – Tania taking advantage of Bilodo’s amnesia to trick him into thinking he once lover her is a little bit strange to call a romance – though that’s how many have classified the book.

There is humour throughout too which fits perfectly, and the writing style is indescribably surreal, giving a weird atmosphere to the book so unlike your typical novel.

I’m afraid to say though that following the first one, this one is a bit less perfectly rounded – it leads some unanswered questions that the prequel didn’t, and though it was a good read – it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped!

The ending relied too much on Bilodo being somewhat blind to the obvious, with the haiku of Granpré, the mysterious English professor, being such a giveaway, he’d have to almost never have read them to not see the clues throughout – which frankly, I don’t believe he would have done.

Still, they are both worth reading – and I am glad I have done so.

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

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Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.

The Republic of Thieves – Scott Lynch (Book Review)

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Following on from reading The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, the Republic of Thieves is the third in the Gentleman Bastards series:

Locke and Jean barely escaped with their lives from what should have been the greatest heist of their career, in the port city of Tal Verrar. Now they head north, looking for sanctuary and an alchemist who can cure the poison that is slowly killing Locke. They find neither, but with their luck, money and hope exhausted, they receive an offer from a power that has never had their best interests at heart: The Bondsmagi of Karthain.

In exchange for the chance that Locke might be saved, the Bondsmagi expect the two Gentlemen Bastards to rig an election in their home city of Karthain. They will be opposed. The other side has already hired the services of Sabetha Belacoros, the one person in the world who might match Locke’s criminal skill, and the one person in the world who absolutely rules his heart.

Now it will be con artist against con artist in an election that couldn’t be more crooked, all for the benefit of the mysterious Bondsmagi, who have plans within plans and secrets they’re not telling…

The third book takes part in the city of Karthain, city of the Bondsmagi. Every 5 years, the Bondsmagi battle for power by backing one of the human political groups within the city, selecting an outside “adviser” to the group, and putting the city under a spell to be obedient to these advisers – a sort of game to watch too.

Locke and Jean are chosen to back one side, and their long-missing fellow Gentle(lady) Bastard, Sabetha, is chosen to back the other. As past relationships and new challenges arise incompatibly, the three must serve their masters who will accept no trickery in the elections – the one thing seemingly sacred to Bondsmagi.

We also learn more about the history of the land, past characters, and even some of Lockes origin.

Like the rest of the books in the series, this one continues with the amazing quality of writing, intriguing plot-lines, and unguessable twists caused by the genius of the main characters.

The ending of the book had me disappointed that the next has not yet been released for me to read immediately (here’s to hoping for a soon release!) With the return of old characters and clever explanations for Locke’s interest in Sabetha; the whole thing is left wide open for the fourth!

Overall the series has been a great introduction to fantasy writing for me, and will definitely lead me to read similar books in the genre. The large size of this volume seemed less intimidating due to the previous books in the series being so well written, and I found myself saddened when I neared the end.

Well worth a read if you haven’t done so already, and don’t be put off by the genre or length!

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Book Review)

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I heard about the release of this book at the beginning of the year, and it was my most anticipated to date:

February 1862. The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a strange purgatory – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – invisible to his father, bowed at the tomb. Within this transitional realm, where ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Having read some of Saunders’ short-stories, I was quite eager to see how he would approach writing a full length novel.

The whole story is set over one night in the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln was buried. He joins other spirits in the bardo, each reflecting on the lives they lived before they were left, forgotten in this place.

The characters all now live exaggerated realities of their desires in life, refusing to move on from that which characterised them before they were “sick”.  The book is written from the point of view of many of these characters in a very unique way, characteristic of Saunders. Many pages contain little more than 5 lines, and often these are quotes from sources around when Lincoln buried his son. The contrast between fiction and reality merging seamlessly in the writing.

The book has moments of stark honesty about the nature of life and the denial of death; the unity in suffering and the clinging to dissatisfaction. It was written in a unique way which garners interest in and of itself – I appreciate authors who are willing to take risks with what they write about and how they present it, and Saunders definetely pays off in this regard.

Worth a read if you get a chance, or have read his other stuff before. Otherwise it may seem a bit pricey for the time being until the paperback is released! With the line-spacing and the short chapters, this could easily be read very quickly, despite being around 350 pages long.

Equal Rites – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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The third in the Discworld series, following on from the other two!

The last thing the wizard Drum Billet did, before Death laid a bony hand on his shoulder, was to pass on his staff of power to the eighth son of an eighth son. Unfortunately for his colleagues in the chauvinistic (not to say misogynistic) world of magic, he failed to check on the new-born baby’s sex…

Terry Pratchett turns his acute satirical eye on sexual equality and chauvanism in his hilarious third Discworld novel.

The story centers around Discworlds first female wizard – witches being something quite different and altogether more sensible.

The story essentially follows Esk throughout her life in the village under the guidance of a witch, picking up magic quickly and beyond even the witches capabilities. She then travels to the Unseen University to attempt entry as the first female wizard.

I think I enjoyed this book a little less than the other two, but it still had it’s funny moments and clever dialogue. Worth a read as an introduction to some characters I am told re-appear in the late books however; which I intend on reading!

I guess the obvious is that this book touches on feminism – that on Discworld, it is only tradition that says wizards have to be male, and that it is not “written anywhere”. I was expecting this to be a bit heavy-handed, but it was handled quite well and in a satirical way which perhaps merit mention.

“Mort” next!