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.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. One of my favourite films is the adaptation made of it in 2006, which is both beautiful and heartbreaking. For years, however, I’ve been under the impression that I would really dislike the novel. The film has a sort of slow, ponderous beauty to it which I thought might be stodgy and dry when written down.

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Like, this level of awkwardness, written down

Oh, how wrong I was.

But to get to the matter of the story. It is the tale of a youngish woman in the 1920s who, realising that she is running out of time to make a successful marriage, marries a government bacteriologist who works in Hong Kong. He loves her, but is incredibly awkward and shy, and we never really get to grips with what he is thinking.

Being bored, she has an affair with a far more attractive man. Her husband finds out and makes her a deal: either he will divorce her (which would have been a massive disgrace in those days), or she can come with him to Mei-tan-fu, a part of mainland China which is suffering from cholera. She chooses to go with him.

At this stage the film and novel somewhat get away from each other: in the first, she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* falls in love with her husband, in the second she undertakes work with the local nuns and *SPOILERS* begins to find a sense of herself which is independent from men and from what her mother has told her. She also does not fall back in love with her husband, seeing him until the end as somewhat malevollant.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I've put on this blog.

I think Maugham might be the grimmest-looking author I’ve put on this blog.

Maugham (who, by the way, seems to have had an amazing life, being first a doctor, then a novelist, an ambulance driver in WWI, and a spy), writes at the beginning of the book that the story is based on another story which he learned from a young woman called Ersilia who was teaching him Italian. There are some lines in Dante’s Purgatorio which Ersilia told him related to Pia, a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband suspected her of adultery and who took her to his castle in the Maremma where he was sure she would die of the noxious vapours (when she did not, he threw her out of a window). Sometimes the inspiration which authors get for their stories is really fascinating, and while it seems that Maugham’s book fits more closely with his original inspiration I think that the film is still well worth watching. Nevertheless, and surprisingly to me, I think I prefer the novel to the film.

The Castle in Transylvania, by Jules Verne

I found this delightful little book when I was wandering aimlessly around the Forum library in Norwich. The Forum is fantastic, by the way, and if you live in the East of England (or are visiting) it is well worth going to.

It kind of looks like a glass aircraft hangar

It kind of looks like a glass aircraft hangar

In any case, the book confused me at first. I haven’t read any Jules Verne before, but I was pretty convinced that he wrote science fiction. And yet, here was I, reading a book with a title that sounds like gothic horror, with a plot that reads like gothic horror, and with characters who could only belong in a gothic horror story.

To be fair, most of what I know about Verne comes from Hark! A Vagrant

To be fair, most of what I know about Verne comes from Hark! A Vagrant

The Castle in Transylvania is very short, and I will try not to give too much of the plot away. It takes place in a village in Transylvania, which is near to an abandoned castle. The villagers maintain all of their superstitions, which include a deeply-rooted fear of the castle. None of the villagers would dare to go near it.

Also, it takes six hours to get there.

Also, it takes six hours to get there.

That is, until the local shepherd notices that there is smoke coming from inside the castle. He becomes convinced that the castle is inabited by spirits. A forester and the local doctor (who has always pretended to be immune from the villagers’ superstitions) go to find out what is going on – with dire consequences.

I really loved this book. It’s a fairly easy and quick read, with some pretty standard gothic themes. However, the twist at the end makes it all rather wonderful. If you can find a copy, definitely go for it.

Also *SPOILERS* it’s not actually a gothic horror story. It’s science fiction. I knew I could depend on Verne.

Yay for Jules Verne!

Yay for Jules Verne!

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is one of the great science fiction writers of the last century, and it is easy to see why. He created loads of different worlds, both futuristic and contemporary, for readers to enjoy, which (like all good science fiction) reflect back on our society. At least two of his books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly have been made into films. Today’s review, The Man in the High Castle, won a Hugo award in 1963 for best novel. I want to stress from the outset that I admire Philip K. Dick and his work a great deal. But for some reason The Man in the High Castle  just was not for me.

The Man in the High Castle
The premise of the novel is very interesting. It is set in an alternate universe in which the Axis powers won WWII. America has been divided between the Germans and the Japanese, with a small buffer zone in the mountains. There are several different plotlines going on: more political ones including a German man who is attempting to give German secrets to the Japanese, and very everyday ones such as an antiques dealer who realises that many of the antiques he has been sold are fakes. In addition, many of the characters refer to a book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen. This novel is supposed to be about an alternate reality to the one in the novel, in which the Allies won the war, but in a different way to that which actually happened. Meta.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

You can tell a lot of people like this book by the work that has gone into mapping it out.

I found a lot of things about the novel interesting. For one, the majority of the action happens in the Japanese section of America, rather than the nazi-occupied section. This was quite interesting to me partly because in the UK we tend to learn a lot more about the European aspects of the war and partly because it is a culture which I am just starting to learn things about, and would very much like to know more. Philip K. Dick also places a lot of emphasis on the I Ching’s ability to tell the future. In this universe, it works, and the characters who use it have absolute confidence in it.

However, I had some problems with the novel. It follows the tendency of some science fiction to make all reality quite bleak: none of the characters seem to have actual relationships with one another, instead using one another to obtain their own desires. I would suggest this is due to the cultural differences which are being imposed upon the characters, but it is no different with Julia Frink, a character set in the US zone, and it is a style which the author has also used in the other book of his I have read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This makes it quite hard for me to have empathy for the characters; they feel more like chess pieces than people.

The ending also felt very rushed and a little confusing. It is difficult to tell whether, by the end of the novel, anything is actually achieved, or whether the author merely intended to give his readers a glimpse into this world.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowleged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There is something about a really beautiful beginning to a book which just makes me smile. Same goes for The Odessey. And the wonderful thing about the beginning of Pride and Prejudice is that it is one of those quotes that everyone knows, or at least recognises. Type it into Google, incidentally, and it links to the Wikipedia post on Irony.

It’s going to be hard for me to write about Pride and Prejudice and say anything bad about it, because it’s been almost an ever-present novel for me ever since I was eleven years old and watched the BBC miniseries.

Yes, this adaptation.

Yes, this adaptation.

Soon after that I read the book for the first time, watched the miniseries a lot more times, was bombarded by references in popular culture (a Lot in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice), and was baffled at the speed with which Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen got through their lines in the 2005 film adaptation.

Needless to say, I like it. A lot.

The basic plots of Jane Austen novels are more or less identical. I say this lovingly – she took one basic formula and added on characters and situations which make a massive difference so that you can’t easily confuse her novels. The formula goes like this: a middle-class, Regency-era young woman meets, or is already friends with, a man. She gets a crush on another man, who turns out to be horrible in some way, or lying to her. The first man saves the day, she realises she has loved him all the time, and they marry. Then the dramas of additional characters are added on.

In Pride and Prejudice, our young woman is Elizabeth Bennett, who is one of five daughters. Her father is not wealthy enough to give them all dowries (money to recompense their husbands for the expense, basically), and because of what is basically the Will of an ancestor, they are not going to inherit their father’s estate after his death, because they are all female. Her First Man is Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has a large estate in Derbyshire and is very rich, but is also a bit rude. Darcy has a wonderful character – he is rude, but in part it seems it is because he is shy, or things come out the wrong way sometimes. Elizabeth casts her eye instead on Mr Wickham, who claims to have been wronged by Mr Darcy. Mr Wickham turns out to be a nasty piece of work, who seduces 15 and 16 year old girls to get their dowries.

But he's not as seductive as this...

But he’s not as seductive as this…

Mr Wickham proceeds to seduce Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia. In those days, and for the middle class, this meant that a woman was shamed for ever – and her chances of marriage would be gone. Luckily Mr Darcy saves the day by paying a dowry for Lydia and forcing Mr Wickham to do the right thing and marry her. He proposes to Elizabeth, who accepts (he also did this earlier, but was a bit of an arse and she turned him down).

Jane Austen was a very witty and cynical woman, and this is really shown to its best in Pride and Prejudice. From the very beginning we are shown her sarcasm in the form of Mr Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, her ability to create ridiculous yet realistic characters in Mrs Bennett, and one of her strongest heroines in Elizabeth.

To continue Jane Austen month, next week’s review will be on Emma.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

Have another Mr Darcy in a wet shirt.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey is one of those works of fiction which I think might really intimidate people. I was put off the idea of reading it when I first tried – probably because my version was translated from a French translation and was the dullest thing in existence. But really, there is no need for it to be dull; the translation by Robert Fagles is really good and makes reading it enjoyable, the way it was intended to be.

It’s also a good idea to read it aloud, which gives you a feel for the poetry of it as well has having the benefit of helping you not to lose your place. If you really don’t want to read epic poetry, I would finally advise watching the excellent O Brother Where Art Thou, by Joel and Ethan Cohen, which is The Odyssey set in the Deep South in the 1930s. It is really well done and it’s also surprisingly fun to watch if you’ve just read the book.

The 1930’s version of Athena. Really.

The tale of The Odyssey is that of its namesake, Odysseus. After participating in the seige at Troy (which he didn’t want to do) for ten years, Odysseus wants to go home to Ithaca, where he is king. However, he upsets the god Poseidon, who controls the seas, by blinding his cyclops son and consequently gets held up at a number of places and encounters a great deal of dangers. These include sirens, the island of Calypso (who seems to keep him as some kind of sex slave) and the isle of the lotus-eaters, who live in a perpetual, lazy bliss.

These are sirens. Sirens are not mermaids. They’re a lot scarier than that!

It’s told in some really interesting ways. It begins with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, getting fed up with the suitors who court his mother Penelope and setting off to find his father. We hear most of what happens to Odysseus when he is washed up on an island and invited to tell a story, so actually a great deal of the poem is people telling their stories in a similar way to the way Homer is telling the story to us, the readers or listening.

Finally, the characters are really interesting. Odysseus is no hero – he is a bit of a coward and more of a cheat. He gets into his trouble with the Cyclops partly because he doesn’t act as a good guest (there is a great deal about the correct forms of hospitality in the Odyssey) and partly because he uses cunning. Also he kills a lot of fairly innocent women when he gets home, which I’m not sure was acceptable at that time. Penelope also deserves a mention. Everyone knows about Penelope’s loom; how she was a really patient wife who refused to give up on her husband. But that is really not all there is to her – she is also cunning. When Odysseus returns home, she refuses to believe that he is her husband, and also tests him. She is fantastic. That is all.

The Odyssey might take you a while to get through, but it is certainly worth it. Just make sure you have a good translation. It is fun and interesting, and shouldn’t be too hard going.

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.