Monkey King: Journey to the West

By Wu Cheng'en

Rating: 4 stars

Unlike others around my age, I never encountered the Monkey TV show, when it was shown on British TV. My only knowledge of Journey to the West before reading this was the Netflix TV show The New Legends of Monkey, but it intrigued me enough to look for some of the source material. Serendipitously, at around this same time, something about this new translation scrolled past my Twitter feed, so I grabbed it.

It’s obvious that it’s something that was part of the oral tradition, with the over-arching quest narrative, and lots of individual adventures in between, so that the storyteller/bard could pick and choose what to tell on any given evening, depending on their audience’s taste or mood. I think it was probably wise of the translator to cut some of those out – she says in the introduction that she tried to ensure that the stories that she kept retained the essence of the characters and how they develop throughout.

The style is interesting, as it’s pretty irreverent, with religion(s), rulers and bureaucracy all being lampooned at different times. Given that, it surprised me that the book has made it through the various purges and political changes that have taken place in China over the centuries since its publication.

The translation is very clear and easy to read. I’ve not read any other versions, but this has a very modern feel to it. Maybe too modern for my tastes. While I don’t want language to be difficult for the sake of it, this is an epic quest, and I would have liked to see that reflected a little in the language. Mostly it’s fine, but there was one joke riffing on “Human Resources” that made me raise an eyebrow. But then I love the language in Lord of the Rings and its ilk, so that sort of slightly old-fashioned “epic” language just fits this sort of story for me.

It’s an interesting and fun book though, and one that made me laugh out loud several times. I’m glad that I’ve read it, since I know so little of Chinese literature, especially classic Chinese literature.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141393445
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 2021

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)

By C.S. Lewis

Rating: 4 stars

I read and enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe several times as a child, but it wasn’t until I went to university, that I heard about its religious subtext, which surprised me (not growing up in a Christian household). This was the first time that I’ve re-read it as an adult and the religious subtext is pretty blatant coming to it now (I especially liked the mention of Jadis as being a Daughter of Lilith, rather than Eve), but it’s still a very enjoyable read. Despite the allegory, I still felt the pain of the temptation of Edmund and the humiliation and death of Aslan just as much as I did as a child.

It reads very much of its time, in terms of language and assumptions, not to mention style. I pretty much grew up on Lewis and Enid Blyton, so it was all very familiar to me, and comforting, in a way, but it does make assumptions about gender, class and status that would be more challenged today. The voice of the narrator talking directly to the reader is also something that has fallen out of favour in modern writing. It definitely feels, not exactly ‘dated’, but recognisable as not being a modern story (even setting aside the contents).

Even so, I still think it holds up well as a children’s book that draws the reader in and holds their attention well. Characters such as Mr Tumnus, the beavers and, of course, Aslan will live long in the memory and affection of readers for a long time to come.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006716631
Publisher: Fontana Lions
Year of publication: 1980

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

By John Cleland

Rating: 3 stars

I must confess that when I picked this up (on the basis purely of a positive review I’d read), I knew it was supposed to be risqué but I was convinced that a book written in the middle 1700s couldn’t be that risqué. I was wrong. Fanny has a homosexual experience within the first dozen pages and goes on to meet and enjoy men in pretty graphic fashion fairly soon afterwards.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, it’s not that people haven’t been having, thinking, drawing, talking and writing about sex since the start of our species, I just wasn’t expecting it in written and published form in this period.

The book is in epistolary format and can be quite frustrating at times, with lots of long, run-on sentences and nested clauses (not helped by the Gutenberg text I was reading having quite a lot of typos). I sometimes found it difficult to tease out meaning from them. But if you can work through that, it’s enjoyable enough. While not explicitly naming genitals or acts, your euphemism vocabulary will certainly grow, and it can be quite fun spotting the more outrageous metaphors.

I also like that although there’s a moral at the end where Fanny disclaims her past, it’s not a moralistic book in that nothing bad happens to her. She’s allowed to enjoy sex and still get her happy ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 1748


By Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

Matilda was always one of my favourite Roald Dahl books as a child, and after seeing the musical recently (which is rather marvellous, by the way, and if you get the chance, you should go and see it), I was inspired to re-read the book. I’m very pleased that it holds up very well to adult reading, and still made me laugh as much as it did when I was young. It’s got the trademark Roald Dahl darkness as well, which is just delicious, most obviously in the character of Miss Trunchbull, but also in Matilda’s neglectful parents, who think that books are pointless and who fail to see anything special in Matilda herself.

A fantastic book, that well deserves its place in the canon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140327595
Publisher: Puffin Books
Year of publication: 1988

Leave it to Psmith

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

As fond as I am of Wodehouse, I’ve managed to never encounter Psmith (the P is silent) before. However, he’s quickly introduced as a dapper young man, in need of employment (anything but fish) but with impeccable dress sense and a can-do attitude. It’s the usual Wodehouse froth, but with an extra layer of action on top. Involving a “borrowed” umbrella, impersonating poets, diamond necklaces and even a pair of crooks, Psmith gets stuck right into the middle of things, all while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the Efficient Baxter.

Wodehouse characters are charming caricatures. This book doesn’t change that at all, but it doesn’t need to. I already know and love the inhabitants of Blandings (yes, even Rupert Baxter) and Psmith fits right in, as he tries to woo the library cataloguer whilst trying to bring a happy ending for his old pal Jackson (with a little light theft thrown in for good measure).

As always, there are double-crossings, misunderstandings and improbably complex plots, all with lashings of Wodehouse’s trademark whimsy and humour. I know what I want from a Wodehouse book, and they invariably deliver. I’d happily leave my problems to Psmith.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841591254
Publisher: Everyman
Year of publication: 1923

Summer Lightning (Blandings Castle, #4)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

It’s always a pleasure to spend more time at Blandings Castle, with its, er, eccentric inhabitants and hangers on. This time round, the Empress of Blandings has been kidpignapped and the Earl of Emsworth is distraught. Meanwhile, his brother is writing his memoirs which will upset the gentry in a dozen counties and there are not one but two pairs of star-crossed lovers whose relationships need straightened out. Add to this the return of the Efficient Baxter and even the imperturbable Beach being perturbed and you’ve got a perfect storm.

While I had some trouble getting into this book, that’s more to do with circumstance than the book itself (I wasn’t in the best frame of mind, and I’d hoped a bit of Wodehouse would help. In the event, it probably wasn’t the best choice). Once I put it down for a bit and came back to it, the old Wodehouse magic worked its charm and I was hooked again. I love the outrageous characters, the Mild Peril™ and, of course, the happy endings. Huge amounts of fun, as always.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513827
Publisher: Arrow Random House
Year of publication: 1929

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Rating: 5 stars

This is an old favourite and one that I come back to every few years. Jane is a character very dear to my heart, very different to Lizzie Bennett, yet I put them in the same place in my head. Jane may be poor, plain and friendless, but she is a strong character. Although she plays the part of subservient, demure governess, the relationship between her and Mr Rochester is anything but.

I always find the start and end of the book a bit difficult. The start because I empathise with Jane immensely, and her cry of “unjust” rings through my head as I follow her, first through the trials of Gateshead, from “master” John to the Red Room, then through Lowood school and the heartbreakingly good Helen Burns. The tail end, after she’s left Thornwood, I find hard for a different reason: the character of St John Rivers. He’s dizzyingly stern and uncompromising as a rod, but more than that, I find him intensely creepy. His domination of Jane is very different to her relationship with Rochester. It’s not just the lack of love, but the fact that he knows what he’s proposing will kill Jane quickly and it doesn’t move him. This time round, I also realised that he’s a windbag, as well as being sanctimonious. All praise to Brontë for an incredible character.

I love the various set pieces throughout the book, from the first meeting with Rochester on Hay Lane, through the bedroom fire, “portrait of a governess”, the fortune teller, the wedding right through to “Pilot knows me” and, of course, “Reader, I married him.” These are just the scenes that come to mind off the top of my head, there’s very little of the book that I dislike at all. Even the opening and tail end sections I talk about above are marvellous to enjoy and I mention them specially only because of the intense emotions they invoke: the true sign of a master storyteller.

I’ve not mentioned Bertha Mason in this review. She’s a problematic character to modern sentiments but fits the gothic and dramatic tone of the book. I believe various books have been written to tell her story and paint her more sympathetically, although I’ve not read any. I just ned to put my “product of its time” filter firmly in place (something I’ve had practice with, as a fan of Golden Age SF).

(Aside: I happened to be rereading this book when a touring theatre production of Jane Eyre came to my city. It was incredible: intense, modern, touching on all the highlights of the book, condensed into a stage play. If you have the chance, do go and see it.)

Book details

ISBN: 9780142437209
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1847


By Daphne du Maurier

Rating: 3 stars

While working as a paid companion to a wealthy American woman in Monte Carlo, the never named protagonist of this novel meets the somewhat mysterious widower Maxim de Winter, is swept up and very shortly married and taken back to his ancestral mansion, Manderley, in England. There she finds echoes of his first wife, Rebecca, all around and must struggle with herself and the ghost of Rebecca.

I came to this after having enjoyed other gothic novels, particularly those of Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte. But I found the protagonist of this book very frustrating; she’s certainly no Jane Eyre! It’s not just that she’s incredibly shy and awkward, unable to stand up to the servants at Manderley and hating the ritual of visiting and receiving, but that she’s self-aware enough to be ashamed of her failings, but seemingly unable to correct them. When she relates how she hides her underwear from her maid and mends it itself or how she runs away from the formidable housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and hides in the servants’ corridor, I found myself torn between intense sympathy and just wanting to shake her and tell her to pull herself together.

She’s desperately in love with Maxim but feels the aura of Rebecca all around and can’t help feeling that he is still in love with his first wife. In fact, she’s got a bad habit (which we all have to some degree, but Mrs de Winter takes it to extremes) of starting with one bad thought and spinning an entire future from it, which then makes her feel worse and worse. It’s an awful thing to witness, but top marks to de Maurier for writing and creating such a protagonist.

It’s over half way in, after the Big Revelation, before I started being drawn into the novel properly and it became compelling. The end was signposted from the first chapter, as Mrs de Winter dreams of being back at Manderley only to find it in ruins (not a spoiler, as I say, this is in the first chapter) but is still compelling despite this.

So an interesting novel with well-drawn characters – Mrs Danvers, in particular, is excellent – but probably not one that I’d read again.

Book details

ISBN: 9781844080380
Publisher: Virago Press (UK)
Year of publication: 1938


By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not really sure what to say about this book, to be honest. It’s a classic for a reason, as Vonnegut writes a fictionalised account of his war, climaxing with with firebombing of Germany, using his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, to talk about the horror of war and its aftermath, as Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is abducted by aliens, both of which can be read as metaphors for PTSD and ways to escape the middle of war.

Billy is a passive character, allowing whatever happens to happen to him, secure in his belief that you can always focus on the more pleasant moments of your life, and with his catchphrase, “so it goes” always to hand.

The book is short and easy to read, or would be if it weren’t for the brutal nature of the subject. Vonnegut describes it clear and without sentiment, leaving the reader to make up their own mind, although even without polemic, it’s fairly clear what his point of view is.

Book details

Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1969

Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book

By Washington Irving

Rating: 2 stars

This is an odd little book. It starts off with an essay describing why Christmas was better in the Old Days and then proceeds to a travelogue in which the narrator runs into an old friend while travelling the country at Christmas and is invited to the family homestead where he encounters all sorts of quaint old traditions in the old school.

I don’t really grok this book. I’m not sure if it’s parodying the sort of nostalgia which Britain has been famed for these last centuries or whether it’s actually indulging in such nostalgia. The one thing that I did admire about the book is the illustrations. Apparently Randolph Caldecott was a well-regarded artist in his day, and the illustrations are lush, from the full-page ones to the smaller ones that adorn almost every page, they’re very definitely beautiful.

I mostly picked the book up because the edition that I found was very old, and I love old books. This particular one was from 1903 and has a handwritten inscription from 1905 on the inside and another one below that to the original writer’s granddaughter, and I loved that. The book itself failed to grab me though. If nothing else, at least it’s short.

Book details

ISBN: 9781603550789
Publisher: Juniper Grove
Year of publication: 1820

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