Posted in Books, Classic Literature, Reviews

A Tale of Two Cities: A Book Review and Some Melancholy Musings

It was the best of times and it was the worst of times

My love affair with Dickens started when I read Great Expectations five years ago. It was the first piece of classic literature I’ve read that was not written by Jane Austen. I’m almost ashamed to say that I was only driven to read it after watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars where a character was quoting a line from the book.

Up until that point I’ve only ever associated Dickens with Scrooge and A Christmas Carol. So I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading his extensive catalog of works to find that Mr. Dickens is not only observant, witty and blessed with a superb sense of comedic timing, he is also – in my opinion – the most underrated romance writer ever known to man.

Every book of his, including the one I’m reviewing now, is a love story in one form or another. First of all, his book is very clearly a love letter for the city of London – he describes the city so faithfully and evocatively that you can almost see the fog over St Paul, feel the spattering of rain, and smell the odours coming from both the river Thames and the sea of London’s inhabitants.

Every book is a story of a loving family: in this one, the history of the French Revolution is distilled to its most basic component as Dickens tells it through the eyes of the Manette family. With them we feel the dangers of the Reign of Terror and the ominous presence of La Guillotine, and through their experiences, we see the effects of years and years of oppression and how it can bring out the worst in people.

The best thing about a Dickens book, though, is that always, ALWAYS, it is a celebratory tale of unrequited love, two words that I never thought I would ever put together in one sentence. There is no reason to celebrate loving someone knowing all the while that that love can never be returned. But in every book, Dickens manages to turn something so utterly pathetic into something so triumphant, and never is that more true than in the character of Sydney Carlton.

Almost like a foreshadowing of future events, Dickens made Sydney Carlton an almost inconspicuous character for most of the book, weaving in and out of scenes like a side note, like a bit player waiting in the wings before he has to take center stage in life’s pivotal scene.

His love for the married Lucie is so all-encompassing that he willingly makes the ultimate sacrifice for her sake. In doing so, he takes the meaning of the words friend zone to a whole new level. HONESTLY.

He is a dissolute character who’s never done anything useful in his life but I promise you, you will find yourself cherishing this character long after you read the last couple of lines in this book, which comprises the most haunting words I’ve ever read in my life.

Finally, I just want to say this. I struggled all this week to find a reason for doing the things that I do. I’ve felt discouraged about people in general to the point where I ask myself why I should even bother. In a weird way, finishing this book gave me the answers I so badly needed.

It is not a failing to care too much for other people, to want to help them out to the best of your ability: it is a STRENGTH. And you do these things knowing they won’t always be appreciated and nor can you expect they’ll do the same for you; the point is to do them anyway.

A Tale of Two Cities is proof positive that even in the worst of times, there are still people capable of the best of things. And therein lies the hope.

4 out of 5 stars!

Posted in Books, Classic Literature, Reviews, Uncategorized

Blast From The Past: Book Review – And Then There Were None 

People use the term “classic” to refer to something that transcends generations, a piece of work that remains relevant no matter what decade it is.

 This crime novel from Dame Agatha Christie is a classic in every sense of the word.
The plot is simple. 10 strangers are lured into a secluded island off the coast of Devon by the myseterious U.N. Owen. They started off thinking that it’ll be a nice weekend getaway. Then things take a more sinister turn when, after dinner, a pre-recorded gramophone thingy (I have no idea how a gramophone works) accused them all of being guilty of murder.

All of them denied it of course. There was a plausible explanation behind each accusation. They thought someone was just playing a practical joke…until one of them dies. And then one after the other each member of the party is killed, and the murder method is based on an old nursery rhyme called “Ten Little Soldier Boys.” 

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late; one overslept himself and then there were eight.

The remaining guests soon figured out that because of the seclusion of the island and the inability of the boats from the mainland to come across, the murderer could only be one of them. The author did such a great job of creating the atmosphere; one can almost feel the paranoia mounting. Who can you turn to? Who can you trust?

I was amazed that Agatha Christie was able to cram this much action in so few pages. One would think that the characters wouldn’t be as fleshed out because its such a short novel but this actually proves that you don’t need to waste chapters and chapters just to provide someone’s backstory. And this author had 10 characters to contend with! 10 characters represented by 10 figurines of soldier boys in a mantelpiece, each figurine disappearing after one dies. 

Its clear early on that the motive for the murders is related to some form of justice being metted out. But justice for whom? Is the murderer related to one of the purported victims? Is there a common thread to all the victims that would eventually lead to the identity of the killer? These were some of the thoughts running through my head. It felt a little bit like watching the tv show Lost, which tells you how far ahead of its time this novel was. 

My boss told me that the stage adaptation of this book is also quite good. I can see how this would be great as a play; I sometimes felt while reading it that it comes across as a screenplay more than an actual novel. It still doesn’t take away from the genius of it. I was left completely confounded and guessing until the very end. I went so far as to postulate the theory that these people were really all one person, like they were part of “UN Owen”‘s dissociative personality just like in that film with John Cusack called Identity (spoiler alert: they’re not. There really is a murderer!)

I would recommend this book to all lovers of mystery, especially for those who want to have a good read but get bored with long, drawn-out stories. This is for you! 

Posted in Books, Classic Literature, Reviews

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

If I cannot inspire love, then I shall cause fear.

Thus spoke Frankenstein’s monster, one of the most well-known “villains” of our time. This story has been adapted for television and the big screen so many times and has become such a big part of popular culture that I think the essence of what Mary Shelley intended the story to be about has been lost.

I have to admit that I always thought of Frankenstein as a comedic horror story but that’s maybe because in my head I get the monster confused with Lurch from the Addams Family (you raaannngggg?). 

But its actually a story about accepting your place in the world and being careful about tampering with the natural order of things.

Victor Frankenstein led a relatively happy life in Switzerland, where the story is set, and was on course to have a life of love and contentment. He had a lover in the form of his cousin, a doting father, two brothers, good friends, anything a man could wish for to be settled and happy. As fate would have it, he was sent to Ingolstadt to study and it was there that his curiosity (and later all-consuming passion) for science was developed. He began his experiments based on the theories he read about in books and made a breakthrough when he managed to galvanise a “being” that he constructed from bits and pieces of human parts. When he actually beheld the fruits of his labours, he was filled with so much horror at the monster he created that he ran away and turned his back on this being.

The monster, feeling rejected and all alone, developed a hatred for all of mankind. There was a chapter or two devoted to his side of the story. He relates how he first learned to separate his senses, his first observations of humans and their complex relationships, his desire to be part of a wider community, the pains he took to learn the language so that he can express his desire to be loved despite the barrier created by his monstrous appearance; and then he relates how each rejection served to turn his love into hatred and then finally the need to inflict pain and have his revenge.

There is a subtext here about judging people by their appearances. The tale can be interpreted as  a rebuke for all those who don’t look beyond the surface or the superficial and as such, miss a person’s true character. Its almost as if Mary Shelley is suggesting that society, by shunning this “monster” and not giving him a chance is the ultimate cause in making him a monster in the first place. The old nature vs nurture argument can be rehashed here: was he truly evil or did the lack of guidance and companionship perpetuate that evil? If he had been accepted into society, if Victor had taken part in his “upbringing” would things have turned out differently? We’ll never know. 

The book is tragic. There is no happy ending here and I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler, but seriously, this is a miserable cautionary tale about what happens when man overreaches. 

How much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow

I am a product of the 21st century and I am grateful for everything that scientific discoveries have allowed us to enjoy: advances in communication so that I can regularly talk to my mother when she’s half a world away, the internet, medicine, all the daily conveniences that we take for granted- we have all this  because some men aspired to greatness. However, I can’t help but agree that everything is happening too fast and the world is developing at such a rapid pace that we never really stopped to think about the repurcussions. Or the price we’ve paid in the name of science.

Ultimately, as our friendly neigbourhood Spider-Man would say, with great power comes great responsibility. Anything can be destructive if used in excess and if used for evil instead of good. The same technology that gives fuel to the world can also be used to annihilate it. It all comes to down to the will of man, and that’s a scary thought because I don’t think we’re ready for that kind of responsibility. You don’t need to look any further than North Korea for proof of that. Victor Frankenstien warns us of the same; he destroyed his work because no one is ready for that kind of knowledge. He’s seen what it can do and would rather not be the cause of any suffering. 

The book was engaging, well-written and appropriately paced. It dragged a little bit in the middle but that’s my own personal taste talking because I’ve never been one to appreciate extensive descriptions of nature. I prefer dialogue more than scenery, to be honest. Overall though, I’m glad I was finally able to read this story in its entirety. Four stars!