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).

 

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.

Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey – a review

I listened to Elizabeth is Missing on Audible, which in retrospect may not have been the best idea. The narrator, Maude, is suffering from dementia, and listening her repeatedly forget things and ask the same questions over and over again was somewhat catching. Over the last few days I have found myself concentrating extremely hard on small details like tube stops, and forgetting the names of things. This is, of course, a sign of how excellent this novel is.

Elizabeth is MissingThe plot of Elizabeth is Missing is quite sparse – Maude’s friend Elizabeth isn’t at home, and hasn’t called. Maude knows this because she make notes to remind herself that Elizabeth hasn’t called, as she notes everything she thinks might be important. She tries to go and find Elizabeth, but nobody seems to find it concerning that Elizabeth’s missing. Maude can’t remember the present very well at all, but she can remember her childhood from 1946, when her sister Sukey also went missing. Flashbacks to the months after Sukey vanished are interspersed with Maude’s hunt for Elizabeth, and she often gets confused between what she’s remembering and where she is now.

This was an excellent book. Maude is an incredibly well developed character (a lot of the time she reminded me a great deal of my grandma, who holds a number of the same opinions). She is one of the rare characters with whom you have feel incredibly sympathetic, while at the same time feeling frustrated – when she says for the tenth time that she might like a slice of toast when you know she’s not meant to eat so much – she overeats bread because she forgets she isn’t hungry – it is easy to get annoyed at her for something that’s obviously not her fault. Maude is surrounded by people who get annoyed at her for forgetting things, and she forgets why they are annoyed.

I highly recommend this book: it has a firm grasp on the nature of growing old, and of forgetfulness in particular. I also recommend that you either read it all in one day, or in a non-immersive way. While this is a book I feel everyone should read, prolonged exposure may be dangerous to the mind.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Firstly, my apologies if anything I say in this review makes no logical sense. I have a cold, and it tends to mess with my ability to say what I am thinking.

So, to business! I reread Catch 22 recently, and realised that I had forgotten quite how excellent it is. This may sound strange, since I had always considered it to be one of the best books I have ever read. But it was better than I remembered.

The reason for this was that I had forgotten how well it is written. It is possibly one of the cleverest books I have read, simply because its style is so interesting. For those who don’t know it, Catch 22 is about a group of pilots and bombardiers stationed on an Italian island during WWII. They are all going slightly insane from the stupidity that is war, and this is reflected in the style of writing a great deal. An example of this can be seen in one instance of the catch after which the book is written, Catch-22:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Catch 22 is possibly one of the bleakest books I have ever read, as well. People keep dying, and nobody really sees them die. They die at the end of chapters in one sentence, or fly into clouds and are never seen again. One character, Major Major Major Major, appears to go missing after he demands that nobody come to his office except when he is not in it. It’s a world of complete confusion, and it is amazing. I highly recommend it, although possibly not when one is feeling sad or confused with the world.

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!