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).

 

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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.

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.

 

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I have finally read the much-talked-about Go Set a Watchman, which has been creating a good deal of controversy on my twitter feed. The novel is definitely a strange one. It was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but set afterwards, following a grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Scout) as she visits her home town of Maycomb, Alabama.

The novel is an odd one to read. Since it was written in the 1950’s but not published until this year, it reads like a classic novel without the benefit of being old. It is also written in the third person, while To Kill a Mockingbird was written in the first person. This has the odd result of an impartial narrator saying things in a distinctly old-fashioned way, which becomes harder to dismiss when you consider the book as a new one. For example, on the first page we find:

She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

It’s a little disquieting to find outdated racial terms in a modern book, and I am not sure how to react to them.

Also strange about reading this book is that you constantly have to remind yourself that it’s not intended to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; rather, the ideas from Watchman influenced Mockingbird. This leads to some weird discrepancies. For example (spoiler?) the court case in Mockingbird ends with Tom Robinson being found guilty, while the passing mention to the case in Watchman states that he was acquitted. Atticus also comes across as… strange. While his position and views do not completely change from book to book (rather, Jean Louise becomes aware of his different views), he still seems less completely sensible and gentleman-like than he was in Mockingbird. I feel that his character definitely matured and improved between the two books.

There’s also this totally weird bit where Jean Louise decides to leave town because she’s had enough of all the racism, and her uncle punches her in the face to calm her down.

All that aside, I have to say I started the book absolutely loving it. Lee’s style and abilities are obvious even from this early draft, and Part I of the book in particular feels like returning to a place from your childhood.

I suppose this book would be worth reading if you are interested in the novel-writing and editing processes. It is interesting to see how the ideas from Watchman developed into Mockingbird, and which little excerpts Lee kept hold of. There are a number of paragraphs that she literally copied over, for example, such as the difference between the Cunninghams and the Coninghams, who are all related in any case and can’t necessarily spell. As a book in itself – and especially if you have never read To Kill a Mockingbird – I would say give this one a miss, unless you are especially fond of racist rants (of which there are several).

Fifty Shades of Grey and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (again!)

I hate Fifty Shades of Grey. This, I think, is not an unusual sentiment. Many writers and other sorts of bloggers have published their opinions on it, showing how silly it is, how it’s just a success of internet marketing, and most importantly how it provides women with yet another abusive relationship as though it were romantic.

The reason I hate Fifty Shades of Grey is all of those things, and it is also a reason peculiarly my own.

It’s made me appreciate Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Frequent readers may recall my disgust at Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence’s novel on the importance of (heterosexual) sex to both men and women on a primal level. I don’t consider myself a prude but I also think that the sex offered is not all it’s cracked up to be. To say this briefly – sex with Mellors, the groundskeeper, is quick and animalistic, and he says annoying things like “we came off at the same time… it’s good when it’s like that.”

So, in my typical anti-Lawrentian stance I decided that it would be funny to publish a post comparing the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley with those in Fifty Shades. The main problem was that I had never actually read past chapter three of the latter novel.

Well now I have. And without further ado, I present for your viewing pleasure: the reasons why Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an enduring classic, and Fifty Shades of Grey should hopefully slide into obscurity as soon as the film trilogy is concluded.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was doing something new

While I don’t think literary history is any reason, by itself, to read a book, it has to be said in this instance that at least Lawrence was writing to an audience who were unused to reading about sex. This is why the book was banned, and it made a historic change in terms of the censorship in the UK. This means that Lady Chatterley wins! It has undoubtedly changed the way people view and write books, and allowed people to write about real experiences even if they might be lewd or upsetting.

Some of the hype over Fifty Shades seems to suggest that the trilogy’s achievements are something quite new as well, but that’s blatantly not true. There’s been a section of Mills and Boon (or Harlequin, for American readers) especially devoted to erotica for years! There are also tonnes of BDSM erotica novels readily available on Amazon, not just as a result of Fifty Shades hype. While Fifty Shades has managed to be more successful than its competitors, reasonable success in the world of BDSM fiction is nothing new – Secretary, a film about a BDSM relationship between a secretary and her boss, comes to mind, as does Story of O, which is far more shocking in its content, and was published as long ago as 1954.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has an interesting female character.

As I mentioned in my previous review, Connie (Lady Chatterley) is quite interesting, at least in the beginning of the book before she gets it on with Mellors and starts to see everything as tacky and money-chasing. She’s had experiences, and is interested in having more. We never really find out, on the other hand, what Anastasia wants. She likes Classic British Literature but only ever references Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre (and, in my opinion, she totally misreads Jane Eyre as a character). She wants a job in publishing, and not to have to interact with other people at all because it’s embarrassing. Lady Chatterley is held back from experiences because of her disabled husband and the role that she is expected to take as a woman of that era. Anastasia is not held back at all (except maybe by Christian’s tie); anything she wants is hers in an instant. Connie, therefore, is interesting and has development, however annoying. Anastasia… who can say?

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is also notable since its primary focus is on a woman who is interested in sex, even if it’s not lived up to her standards so far, and we are told that Lady Chatterley had already had sex many times before her marriage (as well as an affair with someone other than Mellors!). Interestingly, Anastasia, the protagonist of Fifty Shades of Grey, is a twenty-one year old virgin who is completely set against the lifestyle she is introduced to by Grey. While there is nothing at all wrong with being a twenty-one year old virgin, you would think that our books about sex should have progressed rather than regressed in this regard.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has a philosophy.

Yes, I’ll admit it. However much I dislike Mellor’s take on the world, at least he had one. The sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is all about a return to nature and humankind’s animal ways, and is set against a background of the industrialisation of the North and mankind sinking into a sort of sterile, robotic existence. To illustrate this, the main characters frequently have sex outside, and weave flowers into their pubic hair. Yes, it’s weird, but at least it’s interesting and reflects someone’s take on the world.

So, what’s the message of the sex in Fifty Shades? Well, it seems to be that the only healthy sex is vanilla sex, and that people with messed up childhoods (or prostitutes!) practice BDSM. Why? Because they need control over people because they’re monsters. (Sidenote: this is not my point of view at all!) Grey gradually goes over to the ways of vanilla through Anastasia’s influence, and enjoys it, while Ana hates being spanked but he does it anyway.

I suppose the thing to take from this, annoyingly, is that the most interesting way of reading Fifty Shades of Grey is to consider that maybe Mellors was right. Grey has a massive level of control over all his sexual encounters, which all take place indoors and some of them with the use of additional, man-made toys. The type of sex he enjoys is bound up with his frustration at life and his need to control absolutely everything. In other words, Grey is the anti-Mellors.

What can I say? Clearly Christian and Ana just needed to go for a walk in the fresh air.