Dodger, by Terry Pratchett – a review

I don’t think I have ever mentioned my love of all things Terry Pratchett on this blog before. The reason, I think, is because I read far too many of his books, and if I started doing reviews of all the Discworld books that is all this blog would contain (and I mostly feel the same way about all of them, so that would get boring really quickly). Dodger, however, is not a Discworld book, and thus I can feel pretty secure in reviewing it without then having  review a thousand others.

Dodger is a young adult novel set in Dickensian London, in the first quarter of Victoria’s reign. Dodger, our hero, is a tosher – someone who roots about in the sewers, searching for lost coins and jewellery. He emphatically does not have a heart of gold, but he doesn’t like to see people getting bullied, and after he saves a young woman’s life he becomes known as a hero.

I loved reading this book, in part because it is one of those lovely historical fantasies where everyone who is interesting in an era will be there (even some people who may not have existed). Dodger quickly meets, for example, Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew – whose work documenting the lives of the Victorian poor seems to have inspired this book – Sweeney Todd and Sir Robert Peel, among others. It might not be historically accurate, but it’s an excellent taster of the era.

Where Terry Pratchett always shines is in showing a social situation and pointing out the flaws in a traditional narrative. In this story, for example, instead of the villainous Fagin we are presented with Dodger’s mentor Solomon Cohen, a Jewish man who has been forced to travel the world as he was pushed out of country after country, and who has learned to live as quietly as possible . At the same time, Charlie (Charles Dickens) is not shown as a fool, or as a person with an agenda – but he explains to Dodger that the public want angelic street boys and ‘orrible murders, and that’s what he will have to give them.

This was, in all, an interesting read, a good introduction to the early Victorian era in London, and definitely a good book for any young person (or older person) you would like to grow into a Terry Pratchett fan.

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A Tale of Two Cities

All the Dickens novels I have reviewed so far can’t really be described as having much in the way of plot. That’s not the point; they are studies, examples of life’s hardships, and thus don’t really need more than a few coincidences to keep moving along. When I did my (minimal) research to get an idea of which Dickens books to write about, most people said that their favourite was A Tale of Two Cities, but that they didn’t think it really counted as a Dicken’s novel – it doesn’t seem like the others they know.

Having looked at it, I think they’re right. A Tale of Two Cities is different. Published between 1860 and 1861, and thus one of Dickens’s later novels, it is actually somewhat exciting. It’s also different because unlike most of Dickens’s novels it’s set in the past (for Dickens as well as us), which means that although we still get a lot of Dickens’s morality towards the poor, it’s more of a theme rather than preaching.

The novel looks at the French Revolution, with the two cities being London and Paris. I have to warn you that I have only the vaguest ideas about what exactly happened during the French Revolution, so Dickens’s interpretation might make the greater history buffs out there cringe. We follow one family as they escape from the cruelties of the French prison system, and eventually become trapped in France following the Revolution. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but it involves literal self-sacrifice, unrequited love, PTSD (probably), plotting, scheming and nearly-identical strangers. The ending is beautiful, involving a change in character which has been foreshadowed since nearly the beginning of the novel.

Vive la Revolution!

This marks the end of our Charles Dickens season, but don’t worry – he’ll be back at Christmas with A Christmas Carol. Next week, I take a break from modern(ish) classics and we’ll look at a Real classic – The Odessey.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield is another of Dickens’ loooooong novels, and at first I thought (after Bleak House) that I would hate it.

Not this David Copperfield

Actually, I rather liked it. The story is not particularly gripping – it is the life of a boy, David Copperfield, whose mother marries a horrible man so that David is thrown into the world too young. Our protagonist later finds prosperity and love. That is really all there is to the main plot, but the subplots in David Copperfield are actually quite interesting. They include: a young girl who is ruined by a wealthier man, a permanent debtor who constantly tries to save his family by trying different professions, and several couples whose loves do not seem to be working out properly. I say no more so as not to give too much away, but it is enough to keep you going.

There are also some rather lovely characters, and some that are just horrible. Particularly sickly is David’s wife, Dora, who is meant to be a completely innocent character – and is therefore permitted to plead ignorance and stupidity and never learn to do anything useful or realise that she shouldn’t marry a poor man. Really, she screams when David suggests that she learn to cook. (Strangely enough, though, I didn’t mind her so much when she was dying, at which point she seemed rather sweet).

Doubless this would have sent Dora into fits

For once in Dickens there is a strong female presence which seems to go beyond steriotype, from Peggotty, David’s nurse, from David’s aunt and from Miss Mowcher, a fun character who is a dwarf and a makeup artist, and who makes the most of any situation without deserting her morals.

David Copperfield is far easier to read than Bleak House. There is a greater sense of optimism about it, and you get a sense that it is close to Dickens’ heart – since many of the stages in David’s career resemble his own (and since they share the same initials, reversed). Although there are a lot of characters, each one is given time to develop before moving on to the next and the narrator is far less annoying to read than Esther.

Next Week is the conclusion to my Charles Dickens season: A Tale of Two Cities

Bleak House

I am a week late to write this blog post. And there is a reason for that.

Bleak House is long.

Really long.

And I didn’t like it very much.

The main plot of Bleak House focusses on a girl called Esther, who grows up as an orphan, is adopted at a later age by a Mr Jarndyce and makes friends with two of his other wards, cousins of Mr Jarndyce. Esther finds out the truth of her parentage after many, many other people have. In itself it is not incredibly interesting; most discerning readers will figure out who her mother is after about a quarter of the novel, while Esther is a really dull character to read – she is perfect, humble, and everything that Charles Dickens imagined a good woman to be.

There are a huge number of other plots, presumably to make up for the main plot. However, this is not helpful for those who, like me, are forgetful. There are 58 characters in the novel, and many of them appear in unexpected groupings throughout, meaning that you will have to keep flicking back pages to figure out what exactly is going on, and how people know each other.

Don’t read further if you don’t want the story spoiled for you.

As if to make matters worse, Bleak House is depressing. Most of the characters are wrapped up in the business of the court, which seems to take cases and stretch them out to make the participants miserable. One of the characters actually dies as a result of his interest in a case, leaving behind a pregnant wife. There is also an awful lot of sickness, which just adds to the bleakness. Esther gets a disease which may or may not be smallpox, so her skin ends up looking something like this:

She’s not happy about it.

A friend of Esther’s also gives birth to a deaf, blind baby for no reason (when it comes to plot) whatsoever, and two people die of exposure. Finally, one man spontaneously combusts (!) and we don’t even get to see it! Bleak House is, as the title suggests, bleak. The only thing that really perks it up is the mention of an imaginary man called Michael Jackson who wears a sky-blue coat with mother-of-pearl-buttons. I would not advise anyone to read it, unless they have an awful lot of time on their hands.

Next Week: David Copperfield

Great Expectations

Great Expectations is one of my favourite Dickens novels, and also (I think) has had the best adaptations made of it. Look out for the latest BBC mini-series for a very dark version of the novel, or for the South Park adaptation “Pip” which is brilliant, and I think gives the best explanation for Miss Havisham’s attempts to warp Estella’s mind (I don’t want to spoil anything, but it involves using the broken hearts of men to a Dark Purpose).

Also Miss Havisham looks very creepy as a cartoon.

Great Expectations follows Philip Pirrip, also known as Pip, as he grows up, helps an escaped criminal, and falls in love with Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham – a crazy lady who lives in a house where all the clocks have been stopped and she refuses to remove her wedding dress.  He later learns that he is a young gentleman of Great Expectations and goes to London where the knowledge of his expectations makes him become spoiled.

… and pouty.

I said last week that Oliver Twist could hold your attention, but it is by no means as good at it as Great Expectations is. the slightly haunted nature of Miss Havisham, as well as Pip’s flaws, make the novel a good deal more compelling. Estella, at first, comes across as horrible, but Dickens manages to round her nicely and actually give her some psychological reasons for acting as she does.

As with Oliver Twist, the plot revolves around coincidences. These coincidences actually do make some sense, however, as they are all linked to Jarrold the lawyer and his connection to the characters is explained and, again, makes sense. So I will forgive Dickens this time; the coincidences are at least reasonable.

And some parts of the plot are pretty horrible. Like the hulks…

There are also some fun bits of writing in Great Expectations. The novel is written from Pip’s perspective, and so in the beginning it is written with the same kind of notions which children can get. Pip has been “brought up by hand” by his sister, which he assumes refers to the amount she hits him. Because his sister is not good-looking but his brother-in-law is really nice, he also assumes that his sister made him marry her “by hand”. I have said before that I enoy Dickens’s writing style, and in Great Expectations it has become a great deal smoother.

Great Expectations is well worth reading. It is a comparitively easy read and the storyline helps keep you going. There is also Dickens’s wit and humour, and a whole cast of interesting and fun characters. Occasionally the descriptions can get a bit long, but otherwise there is little to complain about.

Next Week: Bleak House – one of Dickens’ loooong novels.

Oliver Twist

As you may notice, the theme of my blog has changed. This is partly because I’ve decided that I want to read more classical novels (I study literature and sometimes it’s difficult to make myself read things for fun) and partly because I think that if you want to make yourself seem more cultured, there are few ways easier than reading literature. However, classical novels are basically the ones that have managed to stick around for fifty years – this does not necessarily mean that they are any good. If this is your problem, I am here for you – I hope to make these reviews as helpful as possible to let you know which classical works of fiction are enjoyable, which are simple to read and which are just plain boring.

He has a fantastic beard.

Charles Dickens

This year is the second century since Charles Dickens’ birth, and as you may have noticed it’s something of a big deal. Dickens is one of the great writers here in the UK, and I believe he also got big in America. However, he’s a bit of a diverse author, so I’m going to kickstart this blog with five of Dickens’ most famous novels. This week: Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist was Dickens’ first proper novel, and it really shows. This is not to say that it’s a bad novel, just that there are a few glaring problems with it which Dickens manages to tone down a lot in his later works. But more on those later.

Let’s start with the positives. Oliver Twist is definitely an easy read. It’s also got a fairly gripping plot, although some of the descriptive scenes can bog it down a little. Although you’ll probably know the basics (Oliver is an orphan, expelled from the Workhouse for asking for more, goes to London and falls in with thieves etc), there are aspects to it that, even though I have read the book before, I forgot. Elements such as the mystery of Oliver’s origins should keep you pretty much engaged in the story.

I bet you remember this scene…

We also get treated to Dickens’ descriptive humour, which I for one really enjoy. For example, see this description of Mr Fang: “His face was stern, and much flushed. If he were really not in the habit of drinking rather more than was exactly good for him, he might have brought an action against his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavy damages.” Maybe it won’t make you laugh out loud, but it deserves a small chuckle.

The two major problems I had with Oliver were those of cheesiness and serious coincidences. The coincidences seem to recur in Dickens’s work, and there is no avoiding them. In Oliver, some of them are truly pointless. For example, a boy Oliver was bullied by in his home town comes to London and falls in with Fagin, the man who tried to turn Oliver a thief. Is there a point to him being the same boy from before? No. There is also a pretty major coincidence when, at the end, all is revealed, but you judge that for yourselves. Maybe it is just meant to touch the hearts of the Victorian public.

And talking of the Victorian public: why oh why did they seem to love it so much when the poor and unloved expressed their feelings in the sickliest terms possible? My main issue here comes with a young boy called Dick, who was baby farmed with Oliver. The boy, when he sees Oliver leaving, speaks of how he longs to die so that he can see God and the angels. This perspective is really not explained, given how the baby farmer is pretty violent and never taught the children about God, and really is just one of many examples in the novel of Dickens projecting his own thoughts on poverty onto a character.

Oliver Twist is a fairly good read. If you want something relatively light, with some truly evil villains and some of Dickens’ general feelings about the poor, this novel is for you. However, if you want something a little more nuanced, you’d be better off trying another one of his books.

Next Week: Great Expectations.