About slightlyshortsighted

I am a writer, writing all sorts of things! This is the blog where I write about (more or less) everything I have been reading.

A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster

Every once in a while, I turn back to a book that I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy at all) in my  early teenage years, only to find that my experience of the book has completely changed.

So it was with A Room With a View. While I didn’t read the book until I was about 16, I believe I must have first watched the film when I was about 10 (and this is one of those instances where the film is astonishingly loyal to the book).

A Room With a View

This was the first film I saw Helena Bonham-Carter in, which has made her subsequent films quite startling.

When I first watched and read A Room with a View, it was in the same sort of way that I generally read classic romances (a dreadful habit I need to get out of): as a character study with a love story in it. I think that A Room with a View  can still definitely be read in this way – after all, there are so  many interesting characters in this novel.

However, this is the first time I have read the book, and felt something deeper in it – understood a sort of moral standing within it, I mean, which can definitely be applied to one’s own life. In this instance, the novel suggests a way of living that is true to yourself, and true to decency, while disregarding the niceties of society.

The View

The story follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman who is travelling in Europe with her poor older cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two of them are shocked to meet two men in their Pensione in Florence who not only come from the working class, but also disregard tact – when they mention dissatisfaction with the room they’ve been given, the men (Mr Emerson and his son George), immediately offer them their own room in exchange. Note: this is considered inappropriate because it leaves the two women beholden to strange men.

While they are in Florence, Lucy finds herself in a number of situations which challenge her ideas of how to behave; she is separated from her chaperone while exploring the city, witnesses a murder, and finally finds herself being kissed by George, in a field above Florence. Charlotte convinces her that George views this as an exploit, and they leave.

In the second part of the book, Lucy returns home with her new fiance Cecil (in the film, played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Cecil

This was also the first film I saw Daniel Day Lewis in – which made all his other film roles even more of a shock than those of Helena Bonham-Carter.

Cecil is a bit of a snob – he looks down on her friends and family as being too middle-class, closed-off, and not interested enough in the higher things of life (such as art and music). He is actually a fascinating character: he doesn’t become a villain at any point, when it would be very easy to make him one. Nor is he particularly ridiculous. His one fault is that he is a restraining influence on Lucy, wanting her to fit into a particular mould, mix with particular people and live in a particular way.

I will leave the ending to you to discover, but I will say that this is a wonderful book, both as a character study of Edwardian society, and as a way of understanding a radical lifestyle lived in an unobtrusive manner. It is well worth reading, and also very short. Also, the film is lovely.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Neuromancer is an interesting book – I had to go through most of it twice before I cottoned on to what the plot was.

Neuromancer

Normally, this would be a major issue for me. After all, shouldn’t it be fairly obvious what a book’s plot is? But actually, the novel’s randomness and its refusal to answer questions works well with its themes: just as the main character can sometimes not distinguish between reality and what is happening in his own head, so it takes you, as a reader, a while to understand what is going on. And, by a while, I mean most of the book.

The novel is set in a future world in which virtual reality has grown to become a much more immersive experience. It follows Case, a young ex-computer hacker  who had his central nervous system (which is essential for working in the matrix), damaged by some previous employers he had robbed. He is searching for a way to repair that damage so that he can return to the matrix, but this seems to be an impossible feat.

MatrixCode

Not *that* Matrix! (a little bit that Matrix)

Luckily for him, he is hired by an ex-army man who wants him for “a job” (exactly what the job is is, I think, never really specified at the time). The man in question is incredibly wealthy and has the resources to fix his broken systems, as well as take him around the world, and into orbit, in order to complete the job he’s been chosen for.

Gibson’s imagination, in creating the various cities and space habitats that litter his universe, is admirable and intricate, and the book is worth reading for his descriptions of future styles and mores. The novel’s characters have the strange, slightly disconnected feel to them that I have often noticed  in high science-fiction, and which can be a bit of a turn-off (if you’re looking for people to have feelings of happiness, love, or motivations beyond themselves, this is not the novel for you).

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a Plantagenets binge lately, and no mistake!

As you might remember from my glowing review of Blondel’s Song, I am a massive fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart. She’s just incredibly interesting. And so it was with some excitement that I turned to Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England. After all, Blondel’s Song only featured Eleanor tangentially – here was a whole book on the subject!

Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover

Unfortunately, I was… a bit disappointed.

Alison Weir certainly did her research for this book, and there’s a great deal of information on Eleanor’s life and the lives of her children and husbands. And, since Eleanor’s life and times were so interesting and over-the-top (have you ever ridden dressed as an Amazon on crusade? Because it seems Eleanor did), there is still a lot to interest an amateur historian here.

However, I’m just not sure who the book is designed for. It seems to be giving information too basic for someone with prior knowledge of the era, but too detailed for someone reading out of general interest. There is, in fact, too much information, and it is quite densely written. Take this paragraph, for example:

The House of Capet had ruled the country (France) since 987, when the feudal lord Hugh Capet had been elected king after the death of Louis V, the last monarch of the Carolingian dynasty, which descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. The surname Capet, which probably means ‘cap-wearer’ or ‘cape-wearer’, was not used for Hugh until the thirteenth century, and the dynasty he founded was not referred to as Capetian until the eighteenth century.

The paragraph comes from a chapter on the relationship between Aquitaine and France. There is just so much going on here: the name of the dynasty of French kings, the establishment of said dynasty, information on the previous dynasty, the meaning of the name… And, in my opinion, we don’t really gain from knowing all of it, since what we really want to know is how this relates to Eleanor’s life.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor, and possibly her children and grandson.

I did get some things from reading this; it covers the entirety of her life very well, so I now know a lot more about her activities following the death of Richard. However, for a basic level of interest in the topic, I would say: go for Blondel’s Song, or just watch The Lion in Winter.

The Monk, by Matthew Lewis

I have, in the past, been disappointed in Gothic novels. This is not due to any failing on their part, but rather to a belief in mine about what a Gothic novel ought to be. I had it in mind that there should be terrifying imagery, and acts of complete carnage. When I read Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I came to it expecting the levels of evil that you see of Hyde in television shows and films. Instead, Mr Hyde’s greatest fault seems to be that he kicks over an old man (which is certainly not a nice thing to do, but hardly murderous levels of evil).

I first heard of The Monk through reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey is a novel that satirises the  Gothic novels at the time, through a young female character (Isabella), who has read too many of them. She has taken these novels so much to heart that she begins to believe that someone she knows must have committed a dreadful murder. One of the books she reads is The Monk, which by this time seems to have gained some notariety.

And what notariety that was! Matthew Lewis, who was also an MP, was personally branded as being, if not evil, then in some way perverted due to the events of the novel. So much so, that an attack on his character was made posthumously in the Courier:

He was a reckless defiler of the public mind; a profligate, he cared not how many were to be undone when he drew back the curtain of his profligacy; he had infected his reason with the insolent belief that the power to corrupt made the right, and that conscience might be laughed, so long as he could evade law. The Monk was an eloquent evil; but the man who compounded it knew in his soul that he was compounding poison for the multitude, and in that knowledge he sent it into the world.

Nonetheless, I was unconvinced that this novel would fulfill my belief that Gothic novels should be horror stories, filled with gore, violence, and ghosts. After all, we keep being told that nowadays we are shown too much sex and violence, and are becoming dulled to what was, in the old days, shocking.

Well, that’s definitely not the case. The Monk is completely chock-full of murders, rape, incest, kidnapping, ghosts, demons and the literal devil. It follows several storylines, including a number of stories within the main story (and sometimes there is a story within a story within a story). The main plot follows a monk called Ambrosio, who is so pure that he never leaves the monastery. However, Ambrosio suffers from a certain amount of vanity, and when a young novitiate reveals himself to be a woman (and not only a woman, but one who perfectly resembles the image of the Virgin Mary that Ambrosio worships daily), and in love with him, he quickly breaks his vows. He then becomes bored of his lover, and strives to violate another girl who is completely innocent in every way. Things only get worse from here.

Interestingly, the novel does not seem to be entirely sex-negative. One character, a girl called Agnes, was promised as a nun by her parents against her will. She breaks her vows after falling in love with a young man, and becomes pregnant with his child. While later novelists, like Dickens, would have Agnes “punished” for her actions with death at the end of the novel, Lewis has her not only live, but also she is rescued from the Convent and manages to live happily ever after with the man she fell in love with.

There is something almost like a Telenovella about this book. There is a massive host of characters, and so many twists (which happen incredibly suddenly) that you could almost get neckache from trying to follow it all. Matilda, Ambrosio’s seductress, admits that she is a woman, tells Ambrosio that she has loved him, begs him not to make her leave the monastery, and when he tells her she must, she asks him for a rose. He tries to pick one, is bitten by a serpent, and swoons. All of this happens in a few pages.

The novel is totally ridiculous. But it is excellent fun to read, and particularly gruesome for a novel of the late 1700s. I thoroughly recommend it, so long as you are happy to be shocked and thrilled.

A Brief Note on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I went to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies last night, as my Valentines Day treat. I expected it to be ridiculous, silly, action-y fun.

It wasn’t.

It was actually really good.

The film maintains the mannerisms of Jane Austen’s characters the whole way through, adding new touches that come about with the zombie apocalypse (for example, it is now fashionable to travel to the far east in order to study martial arts; the most fashionable people go to Japan, while the less fashionable go to China – so there is some snobbery about Eliza being unable to speak Japanese).

It makes friendly digs at the original text, as well as at the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (Mr Darcy dives into the lake!). However, it does not go too far in parodying the source material, and strays from making the very obvious jokes.

The costume design is also fantastic. The filmmakers have put real thought into how Regency ladies might fight zombies (there’s a sentence you don’t see every day!) without simply updating their clothing  – and there was surprisingly little sexing-up of the main characters.

The plot can be a little confusing at times, but it all makes sense in the end. Even if it wasn’t, though, anything can be forgiven when you introduce Lena Headey as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a famous zombie slayer.

Lady Catherine du Bourgh

We first see her standing on a mound of corpses.

If you are a fan of Pride and Prejudice, go and see it. It is brilliant, and deserves a lot of recognition.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

When Thaniel, a Victorian telegraphist for the Home Office, finds a mysterious watch in his apartment, he becomes a little nervous. When the watch’s alarm sounds moments before a bomb explodes – saving his life when he goes outside to silence it – he realises that not only was he right to be nervous, but now he might be in deep trouble.

In his attempts to find out where the watch came from, and why the alarm sounded moments before the bomb exploded, he meets Mori, a Japanese watchmaker. Mori is an extraordinary man: not only is he so gifted with clockwork that he has created an entirely lifelike clockwork octopus, but he is also strangely good at knowing exactly what Thaniel is about to say…

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

This was an excellent read (or should I say “listen”, as again I have been lazy and listened to it on Audible while doing the washing up). It combines an interesting blend of history and science fiction, without sacrificing one for the other. In addition, the “science” in it, which is based on a real, although now disproven, theory, is something that I’ve not seen explored in this way before. Sadly, the novel does not always stick solidly to its own scientific rules, but this is only in a couple of small remarks which can easily be ignored. The rest of the time, it’s an incredibly interesting idea.

The friendship between Thaniel or Mori (or is it friendship?) is absolutely wonderful, as well. Pulley places a lot of emphasis on the little things which allow the two to show affection for each other, such as their drinking tea together or checking that the other is all right. The writer of this review makes an excellent point when he says that male friendship is rare in literature; I’m not sure I have read such an excellent male relationship since Lord of the Rings.

feb19_frodo_and_sam_leaving_shire

It’s like this, but if Sam didn’t work for Frodo.

The book does take a little while to get into. Thaniel’s character, before he meets Mori, is quite dull, while Grace, the main female character, is completely obnoxious. I spent the first few chapters worrying that I would have to spend all my time with these people, but rest assured that they become a great deal better and more interesting once the plot kicks in.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street comes highly recommended. It is interesting in both a philosophical and a historical sense. Also, it has made me really, really want a clockwork octopus.

Blue-Ringed-Octopus-Pictures

Preferably a cute one.

Blondel’s Song, by David Boyle

It’s been more than a year since I finished university, and I’ve found myself missing the learning part of education (I am not yet missing the essays, and I doubt that’s ever going to happen). It so happened that, when I was going about my local Medieval Festival, I made my way into a tent that was selling books, and there I found a rather lovely-looking volume called “Blondel’s Song”.

Blondel

“Blondel?” I thought to myself. “Who, or what, is that?”

Closer inspection revealed the book to be about “The capture, imprisonment and ransom of Richard the Lionheart”.

I needed no further persuasion.

It turned out that I had already heard of Blondel, albeit vaguely. You might have heard the story as well: when Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner in a German castle, his troubadour Blondel went in search of him. He found him when he sang a song that the king and he had composed together, and he heard Richard singing the song back down to him.

Now, the story of Blondel’s song is somewhat legendary and, as with many things in the Middle Ages, might be completely or at least partially fictional. In Blondel’s Song, Boyle argues that the events are more partially than completely fictional. He also goes into a great deal of detail about the events of the crusade itself, and how Richard came to be imprisoned in Germany.

This was a delightful read. This might be, in part, because I’ve been a huge fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since watching The Lion in Winter, and Blondel’s Song describes a lot of her history that I was previously unaware of (particularly her old age after the death of Henry II). Boyle is also quite a funny writer, and seems to take delight in adding little irrelevant details, as well as personal musings, in his footnotes. So, while this book is quite thick and  reading it takes a while, it never feels like an effort to read.

plantagenetsmall

Angevin Family Portrait, from Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant

The one complaint I have about Blondel’s Song is its lack of focus on Blondel’s song. This is probably the fault of a lack of documentation on Blondel, but it seems unfortunate to have a book named after a particular event, which only spends about a tenth of its time (if that) on the event itself.

Nevertheless, it is a  lovely book – excellent if you are interested in a history of the Third crusade from a particularly English perspective, and pretty glorious in giving an understanding of the massive impact Richard’s ransom had on Medieval society.