August Classic Challenge: 1984 by George Orwell

“Classic” – a book which people praise and don’t read. – Mark Twain

Welcome to a new monthly feature, where I challenge myself to read a ‘classic’ novel. This is because I, like so many others, haven’t actually read many of the amazing novels that are hailed by many as masterpieces or a defining work of a certain genre.

Dystopic novels have become very popular over the last few years, especially in Young Adult. I have thoroughly enjoyed books like The Hunger Games and Stormdancer, but have also read some not so great ones (Wither and Delirium, to name some). I’ve noticed that most of the time with the dystopic novels I haven’t enjoyed most of the problems stem from issues with the world building, that the society has too many holes to be believable. 1984 has always been known to feature the original dystopian society, and I decided it’s high time to give it a go.

6606279Title: 1984

Author: George Orwell

Publication Date: 1948

Rating:

Intellectual Rating: 4 stars

Emotional Rating: 2 stars

Review:

(Contains spoilers, if you wish to read this unspoilt, look away now!)

The year is 1984, and thirty-nine year old Winston Smith has just committed a thought crime. Hiding from the ever watching and listening telescreen in his home, Winston begins to write in a dairy describing the thoughts that could get him killed by the government: his hatred of Big Brother, the knowledge that news stories and facts are being altered, and that poverty exists despite everything the Party would have people believe. Soon Winston begins looking for the rebellion he desperately hopes is out there, and begins an affair with young woman called Julia, would hates the Party as much as himself and uses sex as an act of defiance. Hiding from the Thought Police, Winston and Julia both know that their days are numbered, before they are discovered and removed from all existence – no-one can hide from the Party forever…

The original dystopia novel, 1984 is a great example of a dictatorship who has taken control so fully they don’t even need to be subtle about their actions against their people. Winston is in the fairly unique position of working for the Party in the Ministry of Truth, thus being able to see how they alter news given to the public, but is not high up enough to be exempt from the hash realities of the country, like rations and living under constant surveillance.  1984 questions the nature of reality through Winston’s struggles to deal with the knowledge of the facts he changes, whilst also pretending that he never saw them and swallow everything the Party says as truth. What exactly is reality? Does your reality differ from other peoples’, especially if they believe in a different past than you? The Party’s motto “he who controls the present controls the past, he who controls the past controls the future” is true, as they use their power to manipulate the public getting them to believe whatever they say, and through this ensure the public’s loyalty to the government. Struggling with questions like this and knowing you can’t think them without being hunted down by your own government, it’s easy to understand why Winston throws himself into his relationship with Julia, even knowing that it would almost certainly get him killed. The character of Julia is also an example of a common stereotype, especially in young people  – the rebel who doesn’t know exactly what they are rebelling against as they can’t be bothered to fully educate themselves. They just know that the government is evil, and believes that everything they say is “bloody rot“.

This novel is excellent in providing a terrifying example of what the world could become. With increases in CCTV cameras and surveillance through technology like GPS in smartphones, it’s easy to see why 1984 is often referenced by people when talking about how much we are being watched by the powers that be. This in itself earns the novel four stars in my eyes. However, upon finishing the novel my first thought was “well, that was depressing!”. After all that Winston goes through, discovering a man he thought was his friend was actually working for the Party, he and Julia being arrested by the Thought Police, Julia betraying him, and being tortured until he “loved Big Brother”, the only options left to Winston were to either become indoctrinated or die. Though indoctrination is the only way for George Orwell to keep his character alive, and to show the absolute power of the government, in the end this message was almost too depressing to read, and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Since this is such a difference in feelings between these two aspects in the novel, I’m cheating with my ratings here. As a comment on the power the government can have over its people and would life could be life if we’re not careful, this novel is excellent. As a novel about characters rebelling and trying to find peace, it is just plain depressing.

Intellectual Rating: 4 stars

Emotional Rating: 2 stars

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July Classic Challenge: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

“Classic” – a book which people praise and don’t read. – Mark Twain

Welcome to a new monthly feature, where I challenge myself to read a ‘classic’ novel. This is because I, like so many others, haven’t actually read many of the amazing novels that are hailed by many as masterpieces or a defining work of a certain genre.

July’s Classic challenge is a series I, like many, have had my eye on after enjoying many different cinematic retellings. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous characters in British literature, and with the recent wave of adaptations (including Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC’s modern day Sherlock, both of which are very entertaining) I decided it was time to read the original story. So we start at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet.

10943536Title: A Study in Scarlet

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle

Publication Date: 1887

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review:

After serving his country in the Afghanistan war, Dr John Watson returns to his beloved London looking for a home. Permanently injured during his service and with little money, John soon realises he’ll need a roommate. By chance, a friend introduces him to the world’s only Consulting Detective, Sherlock Holmes – a man of great intellect and almost terrifyingly accurate observations. Thus begins their many adventures together, starting with the body of a man found in Lauriston Gardens, and the word Rache spelt in blood across the wall. With the police stumped, only Sherlock can solve the puzzle.

Sherlock Holmes is undoubtably the most well known fictional detective in the world, famed for his amazing ability to decipher clues that no-one else can. We are repeatedly told of his genius, through the adoring eyes of Dr John Watson, and the joy of this entire series is the many mysteries and trying to figure out just how Holmes was able to solve them. It is stated by Holmes several times that he is not in fact a genius, but merely able to observe tiny details that other people nearly always miss. The big reveal in A Study in Scarlet shows that it was actually a fairly simple case had the police seen all the details – as Holmes himself says “I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all”.  Since the novel is written from Watson’s point of view, we are unable to notice what Holmes sees, as Watson is not an observant man – or at least, not as observant as Sherlock Holmes. The reader of this series comes to idealise Holmes as capable of solving anything because we see him through Watson’s eyes as an impressive genius beyond all doubt.

In terms of characters, both Watson and Holmes felt a little flat, especially Watson, which is odd considering he is the narrator of this novel. Watson spends most of his time marvelling at Holmes’ amazing abilities, and Holmes showing off said abilities. It seems that Conan Doyle wanted the reader to feel the same love for Holmes as Watson does, and what better way than to have the whole story narrated by a admiring (though not mindless) fan? This appears to be one of those issues with knowing the characters more through adaptations that through the source material itself. The relationship, which plays a huge part in practically all the films/TV shows, felt under developed as we were told, rather than shown, that they had become friends. This relationship is almost certainly expanded during the course of the entire series, but in terms of A Study in Scarlet, it seems to be sacrificed in favour of the mystery.

There were a few other surprises, namely that the story changes in both scenery and characters in the second half, to explain the mystery, and that the author’s political views aren’t exactly subtle1. On the whole, A Study in Scarlet is an enjoyable book, but I can’t help but feel that people’s love of Sherlock Holmes comes both from the entire series and the many different interpretations we have available.

3.5 stars.

1 Conan Doyle seemed to really hates Mormons. I wonder why?

Early Review: Ink by Amanda Sun

17852056Title: Ink

Author: Amanda Sun

Series: The Paper Gods #1

Rating: 3 stars

Review:

After the pain of losing her mother and the huge culture shock moving to Japan to live with her aunt, Katie could be forgiven for suffering from stress and seeing things that aren’t really there; drawings moving, staring at her with blank eyes, or crawling towards her with razor sharp teeth, and ink that pools and oozes like blood. If only Katie could believe it was just stress, but she knows different – this is all somehow linked to Tomohiro Yuu, the good looking senior with amazing artistic skills and a bad attitude. Is he human, or kami – a person with god-like power?

As Katie gets closer to Tomohiro they discover that her being near him causes the ink he uses to act strangely. With her Tomohiro’s power is increasing, and his control is slipping. Soon, Katie isn’t the only one who has discovered what he can do.

Ink had so much potential to be an amazing book, full of monsters and Japanese culture – and whilst it is clear a lot of research has been put into this book, in the end it just doesn’t do enough to break through the typical YA paranormal romance cliches. The setting is very fleshed out (at least to a Westerner who has never visited Japan) and described beautifully, especially the images of the cherry blossoms in bloom. The romance also began rather sweetly – for all its “insta-love” problems, they can be forgiven as they fit with the character of Katie. She is alone in a foreign country, living with an aunt she barely knows, and often struggles with her new life. She has trouble speaking and reading Japanese, she keeps forgetting every-day customs like bowing and when it is acceptable to address someone by their first name, and she is the only white person in her school. For her, falling in love with Tomohiro so fast is about finding someone who also feels like an outsider, and their shared pain over loosing a mother is the beginning of their bond. Throughout the novel we see Katie’s confidence grow until she feels at home in Japan, in a realistic and sweet way.

Unfortunately, the romance soon gets fairly boring, and has practically all the annoying stereotypes of a YA paranormal romance. Insta-love (not even half way through Katie claims she can’t live without him now), not being able to be together because one of them will get hurt, ignoring or dropping friends the moment a guy comes along – these are just a few of the cliches used. The mythology of the Kami was such a unique idea, and the few scenes that depicted Tomohiro’s power (like a dragon coming to life and attacking them) were amazing to read, but they were few and far between, ultimately not enough to save the book. There is also far too much of Katie running around, stalking Tomohiro, and generally being paranoid.

If a standard YA paranormal romance, with a beautifully described setting, is what you are looking for then Ink is perfect – but if, like me, you where hoping for something special and memorable then prepare to be disappointed.

3 stars.

Book Review: Lies Beneath by Anne Greenwood Brown

12681097Title: Lies Beneath

Author: Anne Greenwood Brown

Rating: 3 stars

Cover Comments: I really like the effect of reflection of her red tail on the water, and the light shinning through.

Review:

There have always been legends about monsters living in Lake Superior, but no-one really believes them. People still take boats out and swim in the water. For some that will be the last mistake they’ll ever make, for that is where Calder White and his sister live. Their beauty and charm will draw you close as they pull you under until the bubbles stop.

Calder has never fully felt a part of his mermaid family, but he cannot resist their mental connection. He struggles as the killing to survive and yearly migrations to Lake Superior take their toll. This year his sister, Maris, the head of the family, has offered him a deal he can’t refuse: seduce Lily Hancock, and use her to lure her father out into the lake where his sister can kill him. Calder agrees as his desire for revenge on the man responsible for his mother’s death has consumed him for years, but he didn’t expect to come to care for Lily so much. Now he must choose between love and revenge, and fast because his sisters refuse to wait forever.

The mermaids in Lies Beneath are easily the best part of this book: beautiful and chillingly lethal. The murder scenes are exciting and creepy, and the descriptions of their appearance and their journey through the lake is alluring. This was an area that should have been further explored, as the mythology was limited to Calder’s family and his own personal knowledge, and even he confesses that there is much he doesn’t know.

The romance, however, was fairly lacklustre. Before Calder reveals what he is, Lily seems a little too accepting of the very few answers she is given. This is a troupe that has been over-used in Young Adult novels: one character acts very strangely, but the other ignores it because it severs the plot to have them oblivious until the “big reveal” scene. Lily does ask a few questions, but acts in an unrealistically trusting way towards Calder. As characters, both Lily and Calder are non-offensive but slightly dull. Lily seems to be slightly quirky and weird to make her seem more interesting, but it doesn’t really work. There is an almost love-triangle that feels kind of pointless as it dies off fairly quickly.

The ending was a pleasant surprise: it was not the typical neat and happy ending that is often used in Young Adult books. It leaves the story open for further books, where hopefully the idea of the mermaids themselves will be explored in greater detail. Still, the book as a whole was pleasant but bland; it was interesting whilst being read but ultimately fairly forgettable.

3 stars.

June Classic Challenge: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“Classic” – a book which people praise and don’t read. – Mark Twain

Welcome to a new monthly feature, where I challenge myself to read a ‘classic’ novel. This is because I, like so many others, haven’t actually read many of the amazing novels that are hailed by many as masterpieces or a defining work of a certain genre.

Since this is my first classic challenge, I thought I’d ease myself in with a book that is both classic and a genre I already enjoy. Having read other books based around this, including the brilliant This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel, and seen many movies who borrow characters from this work, June’s Classic Challenge is Frankenstein.

3328742Title: Frankenstein

Author: Mary Shelley

Publication Date: 1818

Rating: 3 stars

Review:

After a childhood of indulging his scientific curiosities, Victor Frankenstein has realised his purpose: to create life from death. But despite succeeding, once he lays eye upon the creature his has created Victor knows he has made a grave mistake. He has created a monster, one which torments his soul and preys upon his family. No-one is safe, and now Victor must travel and destroy his work before anyone else is hurt.

Frankenstein is a novel that explores the nature of playing God and questions the limits of science. Through its melodramatic prose and horrific descriptions, it is a masterwork of the Gothic and Horror genres. The idea of an arrogant young man who believes he can defeat death only to have it go terribly wrong is one that has been used many times since this novel’s publication. Victor tries to play God, only to regret his actions and detest his own creation, which in turn causes the Creature to hate him in turn, blaming Victor for his wretched existence. The novel challenges the idea of power between man and God: Victor is the creator thus the Creature believes him to be the cause of his suffering, and the only one able to relieve it, yet the Creature is far superior in strength and ability to survive in the wild. He haunts Victor’s every move, striking down those he loves one by one despite all efforts to stop him; the Creature’s free will gives him power over his God. The Creature also blames his murderous intent on Victor, insisting that he was inherently virtuous before the misery of rejection caused him to seek vengeance, whereas Victor believes him to be monstrous through and through. Mary Shelley questions the nature of mankind: are we born to good, or is this just a human ideal? After all, animals have no sense of evil, just survival. Is Frankenstein’s creature man or beast? As in real life, there are no solid conclusions drawn.

Within this novel’s style it is possible to see the origins of the Gothic genre. Whilst the questions asked are intriguing and it reads well, it is written in an almost painfully melodramatic way. Victor is often found weeping at mere thoughts and worries, whilst his creature laments his fortunes over and over to anyone listening: “When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.1” This reads as awfully heavy-handed, and soon becomes fairly boring.

It is easy to see why Frankenstein is considered a classic: its deep questions into human nature and the tormented journey of both Victor and his creature are fascinating to read. However, it is hindered by the overly dramatic writing style and self-serving soliloquies, which causes the novel to become repetitive.

3 stars.

1 All you need to do is add an “O” to the beginning of this quote and you have yourself a Shakespearian monologue!