Redwall – Brian Jacques

Yet another book I wish I had known about when I was a child. I’m absolutely thrilled to know there are more in the series – I just need to find the time to read them!

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This is the first in a series of wonderful children’s books about a peaceful community of field mice who live within the quiet confines of Redwall Abbey. The brotherhood slumbers quietly on the edge of the Moss Wood, providing a place of humble solitude and unquestioned refuge for any who seek it. They live a simple wholesome life enjoying the good things nature has to offer – like goat’s milk, honey and nut brown ale. I feel warm inside just thinking about it.

Of course, it takes conflict to make a story, and so be prepared, once you open this book, for the lives of the Redwall mice to be thrown into turmoil. Not a day is given over to the lives within the Abbey before Cluny the Scourge, a vicious, one-eyed rodent, whose nightmarish existence is the stuff of legends, rolls in from the wild woods beyond the horizon. The noisome creature sets his sights on Redwall Abbey, determined to turn the warm stone walls into a fetid nesting ground for himself and his band of vile vagabonds. This is the beginning of an epic battle, the likes of which the peaceful brotherhood of Redwall has not seen for hundreds of years.

Our unlikely hero is a small, clumsy field mouse named Matthias, a new addition to the Abbey, who has a lot to learn about the complex history of his new home as he fights to defend its boundaries from Cluny’s deadly crew. It will take more than just the mice to defend the Abbey, but enlisting help from their neighbours is not as easy as just asking for it. The Moss Woods are rife with historical conflicts, and the mice, though peaceful, have a rather unsettling past. Beyond tribal feuds, though, are two evils more sinister than the sins of every benign entity combined, and only communal action can ensure that these dark presences do not forever disrupt the quiet equilibrium of the forest.

This book has a lot to offer to different readers. On one level it provides a fantastic amount of action for children’s literature – I was inadvertently clenching my teeth while reading about the battle between the mice and Cluny, and was filled with genuine terror at the idea of ‘old poison teeth’. On a personal level, though, I could have happily read all about the mice of Redwall without there being any kind of altercation. Redwall is the kind of community that one feeds on hearing about. Like the woodland animals in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – specifically Mr and Mrs Badger – or any one of Beatrix Potter’s books. I am in love with the life that the mice live – it is so wholesome and wonderful; a simple, healthy life full of good things. The Abbey stands as a natural organ of the forest and the mice and the other creature that live within the walls keep it running like a well oiled bicycle – what more could I ask for in a book? A quiet life makes for content reading.

I was really taken by the complexity of Jacques’ characters. My personal favourite is Basil Stag Hare, whose ghost-like reflexes, mildly misquoted malapropisms and insatiable appetite are nothing short of genius. When it comes to characters that are also hares, Basil Stag is easily one of the most excellent I have ever come across*. He is joined by a whole host of unforgettable faces, Ambrose Spike the greedy hedgehog, Constance the formidable badger, and Warbeak, a sparrow who is much too big for her tiny, tiny boots.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first dip into the realms of Redwall Abbey. Jacques has crammed so much into this first book, and I have no doubt the rest will not disappoint. I would strongly recommend giving Redwall a try if you are a fan of young adult literature, tales of idyllic livelihoods interrupted, or anything containing anthropomorphic mice.

*This may sound oddly specific, but as a lifelong fan of Harriet’s Hare it is no mean feat

Asteronymes – Claire Trévien

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Asteronyme is the word for a sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password. I wonder what this book of poetry is hiding.

Poetry is a like a window into a person’s soul, but not all windows are clear. Words can paint the desires and emotions often left hidden in the depths of the unconscious mind but it is not always apparent what emotions the words are hiding, just as you can never been sure of the meaning behind the asterisk in any given password.

In some ways I find that poetry is the most personal form of literary expression. There is always passion in writing – even the most terrible novel, or simplest anecdote can tell you something about a person – but delve into the world of the poetical and you have something more. Sometimes the simplest method of expression is in poetical thought, but to express doesn’t mean to be understood.

The poems nestled within this obscure blue cover relay extremely personal experiences, and linguistic experimentation. Trévien takes the reader with her on a journey through the Scottish Island of Arran, a remote place wrought with contradiction, where ancient rocks and history meet the cruel harsh reality of digital life.

Alongside caves adorned with the mythical carvings of old, where snow-peaked mountains meet coastal palm trees and the post-industrial rush of life, past, present and prelife experiences come together to explore the remote Scottish countryside. Trévien’s voice emerges in an explosion of lyrical, poetic exploration which speaks of the destruction of timeless places by the passing of time itself.

Ruin, neglect and progression come together in an expression that is all at once playful, creative, and explorative, and challenges the boundaries of traditional poetical construction. Trévien’s words are at times humorous and crass, and other mournful and waning, serving as an elegy to destruction and neglect throughout time.

I don’t often take the time to read modern poetry, preferring instead to stay loyal to my grandfather’s dusty edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and a crumbling copy of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but I’m very pleased I decided to pick up this humble little collection up. It really is a breath of fresh air, and I found myself wanting to experiment with some of the new techniques and styles uncovered within the text. To be sure my attempts are nowhere near as eloquent as Trévien’s, but it was lovely to have the desire reawakened within me.

If you are looking for a new collection to revive your senses and inspire your creative spirit you really need look no further than Asteronymes. Trévien is definitely a very exciting new voice to the world of poetry.

Not forgotten – Lesley Ann Anderson

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You have probably wondered what happens to us after we die – is there a heaven or hell? Can we expect to be reincarnated into something very distinct from our human selves? Do we become absorbed into an inky black nothingness, remaining only as memories after the lights turn out? Or maybe there is something different waiting for us after death. In Not Forgotten, author Lesley Ann Anderson explores this final idea. Delving into the complex nature of life after death – not just in the form of what happens to people that die, but of the lives of those left behind. .

The storyline centres on the rather complicated lives of seventeen year old Anna Munro and her dad, Mick. Mick is a bit of an oddball, having been thrown full force into fatherhood by the untimely death of his wife when his daughter was just a toddler. He spends his days indulged in a constant attempt to escape from reality and the hardships of fatherhood and life as a widower, absorbed in walks, books and music. For Anna life is not so simple and escape doesn’t come in the form of nature or the arts. Every night when Anna goes to sleep she feels herself being lifted from her earthly body, or has her semi conscious hours plagued by ghostly figures and incessant whispering.

The teenage years are a difficult time for any young girl, but particularly so for Anna, with new and strange things happening to her body and mind she turns to her father for help only to find out something very new and strange about herself. Assistance comes in the form of Anna’s maternal grandfather, Henryk – a beautiful, old country soul who escaped Poland for the green hills of Scotland during the Second World War. To help Anna understand her new found powers Henryk takes her to Poland, to the ancestral home of her great grandmother Rosalia.

Not Forgotten is a complex and intriguing book, exploring the many avenues of life and death. There is no central character but rather a range of people with conflicting desires and emotions, who have all been scarred by the tragic nature of human mortality. Anderson delves into relationship between love, loss and life, painting a striking picture of life after death, as those left behind struggle with conflicting emotions and grieve for those who have moved on.

Death is not final, and does not only come to us at the end of our lives, rather it is always with us, moulding and shifting our desires, our hopes, and our dreams, and preparing us for the inevitable, from the moment we are born to the day we die.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

It occurred to me yesterday that 2016 was a terrible year for my personal book reviews. I read and reviewed 28 books for E&T – and loved every second of it I might add – but I really did let my personal stuff fall by the wayside. Turns out there are a few I reviewed, and then left the word documents gathering theoretical dust in my hard drive, so I’m dusting them off this week and will be posting them fresh for you all to see.

 

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I’ve had this book for a while, but only decided to pull it down from the shelves in my reading room after David Bowie passed away. As I said, I have let things slip.

I was so upset by his death, so much more so than any other person that I cannot claim to ‘know’ in any real sense. Perhaps it was the very public way that he decided to go, to give it all up with one final hurrah, but it had a very real effect on me, and I spent many nights listening to Black Star and Lazerus while quietly sobbing.

Anyway, shortly after his death I was in Waterstones and saw a copy of The Night Circus with ‘DAVID BOWIE’S FAVOURITE BOOK’ emblazoned across the front. Now don’t get me wrong, this wouldn’t have been enough to make me actually buy the book – I’m still not sure how I feel about this marketing tactic – but it did make me go home and start reading the copy that I already had.

It was the beginning of a week spent reading in the bath until my skin was grey and clammy and the water temperature had dropped a little below tepid. I was absolutely enamoured by this book, a book I had had on my shelf for months – David Bowie’s favourite book.

Imagine you are a small boy, who doesn’t yet know his place among friends or family and is striving to find meaning is his life. One day, as if from nowhere, a mysterious circus tent appears in your home town, and it calls to you.

The Night Circus – or Cirque to Reves – is different to other circuses – there are no sad looking clowns with oversized button holes, or dusty, skinny elephants tied to chairs, rather, it is a place of true magic. At the heart of the circus as some of the most incredible people you will ever meet, wonderful sorcerers, incredible contortionists, talented acrobats and marvellous mystics, all of whom are enamoured by the magic around them. It is beautiful, and captivating, but underneath the black and white façade, something far more sinister is going on.

The Night Circus is not a circus; it is a game of chess, the black and white squares on the board coming to life, twisting and turning into a stunning array of blacks and whites, each pattern striking out against the other. At either side of the board, hidden by their army, stand the two kings. The Night Circus is their pawn; it is a war, a vicious war fought by fame and glory – a war of magic, and fame, and destruction, fought between two competing shadows.

Erin Morgenstern has one of the most beautiful writing styles I have ever come across. The words flow across the page driven by rippling monochromic imagery, made of more than just the ink which paints the page. Even the simplest of phrases or gestures, are given a beautiful, flourishing turn – the opening of umbrellas after the rain becomes the ‘popping’ up of toadstools, lovers hold one another in an ‘emerald embrace’, and a ‘single perfect diamond’ stands out amongst a ‘sack of flawed stones.’

I really, really enjoyed this book. It is mysterious and intricate, filled with stories within stories and lives hidden behind the scenes, and there is so much waiting to be discovered. It struck me that Morgenstern constructed the book as if it is circus itself; with each page the reader is drawn closer and closer to the centre while glimpsing hidden corners and secret passageways that could unfold with the slightest touch. Along the way there is imagery within metaphors, magic overlapping magic and so much more than I could ever give credit to in such a short review.

I get the impression that there will always be more to this story than first meets the eye. There are hints and stories hidden within the text that may only emerge at a second, or maybe even a third reading. It is up to the reader to decide why the book was written and to think about the true meaning behind the circus. This in itself is beautiful; just like the fans of the circus I feel enamoured but ultimately clueless.

Fans of David Bowies, lovers of the obscure, seekers of magic or beauty – read The Night Circus. I implore you.

 

 

 

The Return of the Young Prince – A.G. Roemmers

A few months ago I came into work to see a news story left on my desk. It was inconspicuous, a small sheet of thin paper roughly torn out of a little pamphlet, and it told me they The Little Prince was coming back. The little golden-haired boy whose story opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking had touched another author enough to be brought back to life.

Then, one evening this October as the weather was just starting to turn, I was walking out from South Kensington tube station when I passed small, independent book shop, lit up against the coming dark with the most wonderful display of hardback books – he had arrived.

28957290Those of you who have read my blog a lot might know of my love affair with The Little Prince. I love French translations, and this one was so wonderfully magical and childish that it took me back to innocent place in the very far reaches on my memory. The golden-haired boy of Exupery’s tale holds a firm spot in my heart, and the idea of seeing him again filled me with so much joy.

I approached the book with a certain amount of caution, aware that it could so easily fall short of my rather high expectations – The Little Prince is a rather hard act to follow. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a few reservations while I was reading the book – there were the invariable comparisons to the original – but while I found it difficult at first after some time I realised that the book needed to be different. After all the original book is not just the story of The Little Prince himself, it is the story of the Aviator – that is, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – and how his life was touched by The Little Prince. In the same way, The Return of the Young Prince is a tale of how The Little Prince touched A.G. Roemmers.

“I think this planet would be a lovely place if everyone on it greeted each other with a smile when they met”

In The Return of the Young Prince, a solo driver, setting out on an expedition across the mystical land of Patagonia, finds a young, starving teenager asleep at the side of the road – none other than The Little Prince, now grown, who has returned to earth in search of his friend the Aviator. The pair embark upon a journey of a lifetime, the man with a destination in mind, and The Young Prince, as he is now known, hoping that along the way he will find what he is looking for. The Young Prince and the driver speak, they are philosophical, quizzical, educational and at times humorous, the conversations passing between the pair serving to highlight, as in the original, the wonderful difference between the adult and juvenile brain, and that there are things in life that you cannot put a price on.

“I can tell you with certainty that your friend gave you the loveliest sheep in the world – the one that you imagined in your fantasy, the only one you could look after and that could go with you to your little planet. Didn’t you enjoy his company as you watched the sunsets? Didn’t you go to him in the night so that he wouldn’t feel alone and that you too wouldn’t feel so alone? Didn’t you think that he belong to you because you had tames him and that you belonged to him? There’s no doubt that he was more real, more alive, than the one you saw in the photograph, because that one was just a sheep, whereas the one inside the box was your sheep.”

There is so much I could say about this book, so many anecdotes I would love to pick apart and ponder over the hidden metaphors and morals. There are so many messages one could take from the story, though, that it would be unfair of me to do so and to taint your own experience of the book. Assuming of course that you are willing to give the book the time of day – I thoroughly recommend it.

It’s important to approach the book with an open mind. Do I prefer it to the original? Of course not. It’s a very different book, but while it changes some of the themes of the original, it does not detract from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work. This is a book which speaks of how The Little Prince touched the life of the author, a man who has dedicated years of his life into researching and studying Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book does not try to pick up where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry left off. Rather, just like The Little Prince, it serves as a tale told by a man whose life was changed by his encounter with the golden-haired child of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s past.

 

The Power – Naomi Alderman

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Equality, prosperity and power are just some of the aims of feminists past and present – but what would a world controlled by women actually look like? In her fourth novel, author Naomi Alderman inverts traditional gender roles to create a world where women quite literally hold all the power and men tremble at their feet.

Love it or hate it, utopian and dystopian fiction has a lot to say about how people live their lives and the desires, dreams and fears that lurk under the covers of society. Dystopic works throughout the 20th century have explored totalitarian states, brainwashing, societal complacency and overpopulation. They reflect societal fears of a future in which too much power has been lost to the state, through the wonderful world of science fiction.

This genre suits feminist complaints by questioning the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, often delving into frustrations of women in a patriarchal society. Previous works explored the prospect of women-led civilisations in which gender roles are reversed or worlds where women live alone, having somehow discovered the secret to asexual reproduction.

There is a reason you don’t get many all-male utopias, but I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more novels that explore what a world would be like where women not only ruled, but ruled with power. So many science-fiction novels strived to illuminate societal inequality through exaggeration and role reversal, or the creation of purer, softer societies where women rule each other with soft hands, but I have yet to come across a book which inverts the status to devastating effect.

‘The Power’ is just such a novel.

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is a manuscript written 5,000 years in the future, documenting the rising power of a female elite. The story begins with the ‘Day of the Girls’, when teenage girls across the world wake with a strange new power. It starts as a subtle throbbing sensation between the collarbones and crackles across the skin, filling the air with electrostatic discharge and the smell of rain and rotten fruit, before emerging as a spark of light from the tips of the fingers.

What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being frightened of men?

A slight warning, while not fully divulged in this review, the book contains one or two themes that some readers might find disturbing.

Through the guise of a fictional future researcher, Alderman follows the stories of four characters and how they are affected as the world begins to change. We meet Roxy, a tough, foul-mouthed daughter of a London crime lord who is out to seek revenge; Allie, a dual-heritage girl from Jacksonville who, having suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her foster father, rebrands herself as charismatic faith-leader Mother Eve; Margot, the aspiring New England Governor along with her confused daughter Jocelyn; and Tunde, a plucky Nigerian journalist who strives to uncover the ugly truth behind the rising female power.

‘Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

A few videos emerge across social media platforms showing girls seemingly electrocuting men with their hands. The initial reaction is one of disbelief, but as more and more begin to appear, society is forced to attempt to address this strange new phenomenon. As childish tussles give way to deadly brawls and schools are forced to begin gender segregation, the very fabric of society unravels and young women are recruited to fight a bitter battle between the sexes that ravages Eastern Europe.

In Alderman’s present, electricity is no longer a thing of convenience, but a power to be held within the hands of women, to throw off the shackles of oppression. The future, however, is anything but bright, and all thoughts of equality are thrown to the wind. Ideas of a softer, more maternal society give way to hordes of women who rule with iron fists, as men are assigned their place on the bottom rungs of the ladder, forced into submission as slaves to the female race.

The storyline is complex and multi-layered, presenting a future where women have forgotten the male-dominated times of the past – the systems overthrown within the main body of text – and men are thought to be the fairer sex. This book is so much more than the latest attempt at a feminist dystopia. It is refreshing and insightful, combining a gripping storyline alongside an interesting analysis of societal ideas about equality and fairness within gender roles.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction – David J. Hand

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Measurement may not sound like the most exciting topic to sink your teeth into as it takes a certain type of person to become excited by a ruler. Yet this book has much more to offer than just a history of centimetres (cm) and inches. Rather, it serves as a brief, but comprehensive glimpse into a social construct that boasts a history that is inextricably bound with the many great leaps forward of civilisation. In Measurement A very Short Introduction, author David Hand traces the origins of measurement back to the beginning of civilised human society, with the birth of agricultural production.

Original units – which relied largely on basic physical objects to quantify length and weight – were of course hugely variable, depending as they did on physical objects. Of course, if there is nothing fundamental leading to the choice of object, other systems of measurement can be adopted. It’s hardly surprising then that a huge number of different systems have been adopted – today we have grams and kilos, pounds and ounces and the dreaded American ‘cup’.

When you take into account the history of units of measurements, measurement itself seems like a fairly vague thing – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is a cm? You could say that it is 10mm, or 1/100th of a metre, but how can it be defined on its own? The history is complicated and points toward the need for a unified method of measurement. This became especially important with the rise of scientific experimentation in the 20th century. It’s been a long time coming, but with the birth of the metric system we are getting close, although there are a few stubborn nations who insist on holding on to their outdated ways.

Of course, measurement is not a purely scientific thing, but can also be used to understand social aspects of society. Far from a scientific concept, it spans the entire range of human society, from the purely physical to the wholly abstract. Economic progress can be measured, but it requires a much different system measuring milk or grain – it is something that cannot be conceived with a basic unit of inflation. This, Hand says, is the difference between representative measurement and pragmatic measurement, a wholly different and complex school of thought which is becoming more important to our understanding of society.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction offers the reader a wonderfully accessible route into a hugely complex subject that spans the fields of science, sociology, history and anthropology. From the simple grains and fathoms of old, to GDP, GNI and the modern-day World Happiness Index – the history of measurement has a lot to say about the development of society. Hand has taken a topic that spans almost the whole of human existence and condensed it into a book which the avid reader could easily conquer in an afternoon.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine