Friday 19 October 2012

REVIEW: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne (3.5*)

(Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)

'Is the Master out of his mind?' she asked me.
I nodded.
'And he's taking you with him?'
I nodded again.
'Where?' she asked.
I pointed towards the centre of the earth.
'Into the cellar?' exclaimed the old servant.
'No,' I said, 'farther down than that.'

Everyone knows the basic premise of Journey to the Centre of the Earth - but like so many novels that have made their way into the public consciousness (Frankenstein, anyone?) it's still well worth reading the original, because they're never quite what you think!  Like a game of Chinese Whispers, things get so distorted and simplified along the way that nothing beats going back to the source...

I had tremendously high hopes for this book, because as a little girl I had a mini square illustrated children's edition which I read cover to cover several times over.  I still remember the images of some of the most dramatic moments - Axel collapsed in a tunnel, all alone; Gretchen (simplified from the original Graüben) weeping over her beloved's departure; superhero Hans drawn in clean black and white ink...  Needless to say, I've been very much looking forward to reading the all-grown-up version these 20 or so years down the line!

As most of you will already know, the novel pretty much does what it says on the tin; it begins with Professor Lidenbrock, a geologist, scientist and all-round intellectual (the book calls him a savant)*, finding an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed in code, left in a book by the Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussemm.  When he finally deciphers the code, he is astonished to find that the parchment contains the precise location of the starting point of a journey to the centre of the earth.  His interest piqued, the eccentric professor immediately sets out for Iceland, dragging his long-suffering nephew with him.  There he hires a guide, ascends Mount Sneffels, and determinedly follows Saknessumm's footsteps down into the bowels of the earth...

I made that sound like the start of the story, right?  Indeed, the blurb of my Penguin Popular Classics edition states that "Their journey... begins on the summit of a volcano..."  Well, yes, but what it DOESN'T mention is that 100 pages into the 250-page book, they are only just reaching the crater that marks the real start of their adventure.  This is not a novel that plunges you head-first into action and excitement; it takes a LONG time to get going, and nearly half the book is taken up by the description of the trip to - and across - Iceland.  I couldn't help but think that if this was a modern novel, it would probably have been returned to the author with 'PACING!!!' scrawled across it in red ink...

Fortunately the pace soon picks up once the descent begins, and from that point onwards, the novel becomes a rip-roaring tale, crammed with drama and peril, excitement and discovery, all narrated by young Axel and sprinkled with scientific intrigue.  It must be said that Verne doesn't always wear his science lightly - at times his novel reads more like a scientific-minded vintage travelogue - but then another dramatic event will occur, or another wonder will be uncovered, and the reader is captivated all over again.  Not that the scientific elements are dull, particularly - in fact, Axel can become quite poetic about his pet subject, and some of the historical details are fascinating - but there is a liberal sprinkling of Latin names and geological jargon that requires a little care and concentration to grasp.

I think it was probably the three main characters themselves that made the novel for me (that, and the incredible prehistoric cavern with its glowing light and subterranean sea).  While Axel is probably the weakest of the characters - he reminded me rather unfortunately of Fanny Price, constantly keeling over or going into a blind panic even as his middle-aged uncle strode calmly on - he has a gently wry sense of humour and describes his companions very astutely.  He paints a wonderful picture of his uncle as the archetypal eccentric genius: determined, short-tempered, single-minded and completely ignorant of his own flaws.  Their hulking guide Hans, in contrast, is always calm, extremely skilled and capable, strong and unshakeable; he is their rock and their saviour on many occasions, like some kind of Nordic Superman.  It made me smile when Axel described his eyes as 'dreamy blue' - the hero-worship, the sheer awe with which he reveres him definitely borders on a man-crush at times!

Would I recommend reading this book?  Well, yes, of course - it is a classic adventure story, and as I said before, it has worked its way into the public consciousness to such an extent that it really deserves to be enjoyed in its own right.  It is not a fast-paced thriller, but it is one of the most famous fictional journeys in literature; it occasionally wears its scientific background heavily, but read in the right spirit is crammed with interesting nuggets of information; its narrating character is not the most witty or memorable of men, but he describes his surroundings beautifully.  I'm not sure yet whether it's going to be a keeper for me, but I AM glad to have honoured my childhood love for Verne's imagination and read the original at last!

*Okay, HOW MUCH did I want to write "defender of the innocent, protector of the weak, and all-around good guy... George of the Jungle" right there?  *coughs and grins*

Notable Quotables:
  • "On our old icy island people are fond of study.  There isn't a single farmer or fisherman who can't read and doesn't read.  We believe that books, instead of mouldering behind an iron grating, far from inquisitive gazes, should be worn out under the eyes of a great many readers."
  • "The rector did not seem to go in for traditional hospitality - far from it.  Before the day was over, I saw that we were dealing with a blacksmith, a fisherman, a hunter, a joiner, but not in any respect with a minister of the Lord.  Admittedly it was a weekday, and perhaps he was different on Sunday."
  • "On earth, even on the darkest night, light never entirely abdicates its rights.  It may be subtle and diffuse, but however little there may be the eye finally perceives it.  Here there was none.  The total darkness made me a blind man in the full meaning of the word."
  • "Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth."

Source:  I bought this book years and years ago - I have no idea where!

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Top Ten Literary Names I'd Totally Give My Non-Existent Kids

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, this week's Top Ten Tuesday is a rewind!  Looking back over all the TTTs I've missed, I picked this one from February 2011: 
Top Ten Characters (Or Literary Figures) You'd Name Your Kids After

Because who DOESN'T occasionally sit pondering what they'd call their completely hypothetical and (thankfully) non-existent children?  And when you're a book fiend there are so many brilliant names to choose from!  Not only that, but a beautiful edition of a namesake book would make a fantastic gift for, say, a 16th birthday.  See, I THINK about these things...  Some of the names could obviously be strung together into a first AND middle name, so really, the combinations are endless.  I have a feeling this might be harder than I thought...

Lorna Doone -  This one's been set in stone for years!  My first daughter (should I ever have one) will be Lorna Rose, after Blackmore's beautiful and feisty young heroine.  I fell in love with the book - and the characters - as a young teenager, and with the BBC's gorgeous adaptation as well, and that was that!

Lord Byron - I LOVE the name Byron for a boy, and always had it in mind for my first son.  Not only was he a passionate, witty and brooding poet who cast his shadow over large swathes of my teen years, but She Walks in Beauty remains my all-time favourite poem.  Now I just need a middle name...

Dorian Gray - Okay, so like Byron, he's not the most morally sound of namesakes - but I love him anyway.  The Picture of Dorian Gray was the first classic I ever bought myself and it's been my favourite book ever since.  I'm a sucker for a tormented bad boy, and I always secretly hope Dorian will be redeemed before it's too late...  Also, it's a bloody awesome name!

Edmond Dantes - Or as he is perhaps better known, The Count of Monte Cristo.  I actually like both Edmond AND Dante, so either would work.  The epic story of a humble man wronged and imprisoned, only to rise again as a strong, intelligent and wordly avenger, this book absolutely blew me away.  Incidentally, it was also my very first review on this blog!  Yes, the Count is occasionally a bit scary - and very dangerous - but at his heart he is still Edmond Dantes, the hard-working sailor deeply in love with the beautiful Mercedes...  That's got to be worth naming someone after, right?

Isabella - This has become seriously clichéd in recent years thanks to the number of breeding TwiHards who couldn't come up with a less obvious tribute, but it is a beautiful name.  Not only is there the vampilicious Miss Swan, but Bella was the name of the title character in one of my favourite books as a child, The Enchanted Horse by Magdalen Nabb.  She was a wooden horse who came to life at night under the tender care of a little girl, and the book always made me cry.  Bonus point: Bella was also my great-grandmother's name.

Jolyon Forsyte - That's pronounced Joe-lee-un, by the way.  Like Lorna Doone, I fell in love with the book AND adaptation of The Forsyte Saga in my early teens.  There are three generations of Jolyon Forsytes across the trilogy, all of them generous and kind-hearted; like the youngest, I'd probably shorten it to Jon.  The alternative, of course, would be to go for good old John - perhaps as a middle name - which immediately brings to mind steadfast John Ridd (Lorna Doone), loyal John Watson (Sherlock Holmes) AND hard-working John Thornton (North and South)...

Beth March - When I was younger I, like every other wannabe-writer book-loving kid out there, always thought of myself as a 'Jo'.  But over the years I've come to appreciate quiet Beth far more than her rowdier sister.  Sweet, innocent and selfless, she's the one the other girls depend on without knowing it, the one they turn to for comfort and balance and a kind word.  If you wanted to name your little girl after a literary character, you couldn't choose one much lovelier! 

Daphne du Maurier - Daphne is a beautiful name, and I love her novels (Rebecca is one of my favourite books), so this one's a bit of a no-brainer really.  Not only is du Maurier a bit of a literary legend, but Daphne is also the name of one of the characters come good in Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series, AND it was the name of my stepdad's witty and wonderful mother.  I didn't know her very well but she was a sweetheart, and sharp as a thumbtack!

Harry - Include Henry in this bunch, and you've got a hat trick of characters to choose from as a namesake: the dashing Sir Henry Curtis in King Solomon's Mines, the incorrigible Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and of course, the boy wizard himself.  Plus Prince Harry was always my favourite...   ;)

Charlie - I know I only read The Perks of Being a Wallflower recently, but I completely fell in love with Charlie.  It's a lovely name, and if I had a son who was even half as sweet, thoughtful and bookish as the blossoming young wallflower he was named after, I'd be a very lucky woman!

Come on then, fess up - if you had to name a child after a literary figure, who would it be?  Perhaps you already have?  And if you're a TTT participant, feel free to leave the link to your Top Ten Rewind in the comments so I can come a-visiting and check it out!

Wednesday 3 October 2012

REVIEW: Wedding Babylon, by Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous (4*)

(Bantam Press, 2009)

Another hit from the guilty pleasure that is the Babylon series, in which Imogen Edwards-Jones teams up with a bunch of top players in a given industry, extracts their best tips, tricks, behind-the-scenes secrets and scandalous stories, then packages them all up in a neat week-in-the-life semi-fictional demi-novel for our entertainment.  Oh, how I love 'em...

This installment, as the name suggests, is all about the wedding industry, as seen from the perspective of a top London wedding planner.  Babylon enthusiasts can probably already guess the rest - the helter-skelter pitch through dress fittings and flowers, bridezillas and warring relatives, celebrity nuptials and wedding day mishaps.  Alongside the day-to-day running of the business and the memorable weddings the planner has survived (or heard about through the grapevine), there are also plenty of interesting details that go beyond the obvious: How finely tuned do even the most dull and practical of details have to be?  How does a planner network with all the other companies that make up the wedding industry?  Which readings are guaranteed to bore your vicar to tears?  And what the hell is a bridal potty?  As always, this book gave me a renewed respect for the hard work going on behind the scenes in the service industry, showing the reader all of the lovely highs but also the stressful lows, the egos and the tantrums, deftly demonstrating just how far these professionals have to go to serve the ridiculous demands and passing whims of their high-maintenance clients.  

For me, it seems like Edwards-Jones is becoming better and better at this formula, streamlining her books with each new release.  I find that the newer books (like this one, and Beach Babylon, which I read last year) seem to feature more likeable narrators, and offer more detail and genuine insight into their chosen industries to balance against the gleeful gossip and outrageous horror stories.  I think I'd be torn between wanting to read this book before my wedding (for the tips) and wanting to stay the hell away in case I had nightmares!  Great literature it ain't - it's very easy reading and some of the dialogue, in particular, is horrendously clunky - but it's super-fun, extra-frothy and an absolute pleasure to come back to at the end of a long day at work!

Notable Quotables:
  • "As I sit there, listening and nodding away, I can feel my hangover creeping up the back of my neck, giving me a thumping great headache.  I start to frown hard, trying to concentrate.  I look across at Bill, who is slowly sliding down in his chair.  There really are only so many photographs of fancies a bloke can look at without losing the will to live."
  • "Whatever happened to a quiet dinner and a few drinks for a wedding?  Or even a bit of cake and a drink, like in the olden days?"
  • "The number of extremely pretty girls I have seen done up like Polish prostitutes on their wedding day does not bear thinking about.  No matter how many times you impress upon the bride that she shouldn't have a tan for her wedding, and that her hair and make-up should not be too dramatic or different from usual, they all still make the mistake of shoving on the slap and crimping their hair, teasing it into curls so they end up looking like some Best in Breed at Crufts."

Source:  I have no idea.  I think I stole it from the shop when I spotted it in a bag of incoming books! 

Monday 1 October 2012

Top Ten Books I Want To Stay In The Spotlight

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, this week's Top Ten Tuesday prompt is as follows: 
Top Ten 'Older' Books You Don't Want People To Forget About
(You can define older however you wish.  Basically just backlisted books you think are great.   The point is to share books that could be forgotten about in the midst of all the new releases...)
Time to consult my trusty LibraryThing catalogue, methinks...  Here's my ten, in no particular order!
The Secret History by Donna Tartt - If you haven't already read this book, then get on it.  Really.  It's a bit gothic (check), the characters are part of a strange academic clique studying the classics (double check), there's a mysterious death (check, check, check) and the writing is wonderful.  I read it for a book club, and would never have picked it up myself otherwise - now it's one of my favourite books.  I've read it twice, am well due another reread, and heartily recommend it to my customers on a regular basis - now it's your turn!

The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr - Published in 2010, I think this book is going to get ever more relevant as more and more people switch to e-readers, and more schools and libraries throw out swathes of their physical books in favour of computers, e-books and online learning.  I identified with much of what Carr says about changing concentration levels and comprehension styles, and his research is fascinating.  It's a balanced book that will have different implications for different readers; for me, it convinced me to stay firmly in the 'paper and ink' camp for the time being... (My review)
Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore - In the sea of classics, certain names stand out as being the most popular: Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Hardy... their novels sell by the bagload, particularly as the cold weather draws in.  Sadly, Lorna Doone seems to be regularly overlooked - and it's such a shame, because it's a wonderful novel!  A plucky heroine, a swoonworthy love interest, land war, family betrayal, lies and love and violence, all done with a broad Exmoor accent.  Oh, and the BBC's adaptation is fantastic too!
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks - People rave about March and People of the Book - but what about Brooks' first novel?  It's a fictional version of events in a Derbyshire village very close to me, Eyam, which went into voluntary quarantine during the plague of the 1660s in an attempt to stop the disease spreading any further.  It was an incredible act of courage, and the book is so compelling - I've read it three times and I'm not tired of it yet!

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. by Jeremy Mercer - Yes, yes, this book appears on every bookish list I've ever made - but seriously, every book lover should read it!  Shakespeare and Company!  Modern bohemian literary life in Paris!  Living in a bookshop!  Storytelling and wine, pancakes and poetry, pretty girls and eccentric occupants, it's all here!  READ IT ALREADY!  Oh, and watch this video too.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella - Most of Kinsella's books come through the shop regularly, but we rarely see a copy of this one.  It's about a lawyer who makes a serious mistake in her professional life and runs away to the country, where she accidentally falls into a job as a housekeeper for a 'nouveau rich' couple, despite her complete lack of domestic skills.  Oh, and she falls in love, of course...  Funny, clever and very uplifting!

Plague by Malcolm Rose - As a teenager I read this multiple times, but it seems to have been completely eclipsed by his two popular mystery series since then.  It's a YA thriller about a mysterious ebola outbreak, a town in panic, and a medical team's attempt to find a cure.  It's fantastic and terrifying and hit the spot way before zombie and dystopian novels took over the 'plague fiction' theme...  I'd love to find a copy again!

Deric Longden's cat books - These days cat memoirs are everywhere, from Dewey to A Street Cat Named Bob, but for me the original and very British best are still Deric Longden's books.  His tales of life with his blind wife (writer Aileen Armitage) and their evolving feline family (especially Thermal, the small white kitten) are warm, wryly observed and very funny - they've been my comfort reads since I was about eleven and I love 'em!  Start with The Cat Who Came In From the Cold...  :)

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison - Misery memoirs are all the rage these days - but what about a book about surviving mental illness that ISN'T all doom and gloom?  Jamison's account of her life with bipolar disorder is emotive and compelling, but never drifts into mawkish sensationalism.  She is a clinical psychologist so her book is underscored by her professional interest, and her books are fuelled by hope and insight.  I'm certainly not letting my copy go anytime soon!

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli - I adored this book when I was at school, and rightly so!  It is a love song to individuality, a quirky story about a spirited girl who follows her heart and a young boy who finds himself falling under her spell.  Stargirl is such a unique character (she taught me what a ukulele was long before Amanda Palmer zoomed onto my radar) and reminds girls that it's okay to be themselves, however unusual their interests and ideas may be!