The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 3 stars

Taran is an assistant pig-keeper in Caer Dallben, which he doesn’t find very interesting, even if the (singular) pig he looks after is oracular (it’s completely unrelated, but I couldn’t help comparing Hen-Wen to the Empress of Blandings, and the various scrapes the latter gets into). Soon enough, Taran gets his wish to go adventuring and, as you’d expect, finds it less pleasant than he’d expected. He soon gathers a little group around him (although, frankly, I still don’t really understand why the others followed such an inexperienced youth, other than for Plot Reasons) and tries to take news of the coming of the evil Horned King to the ruler.

I’ve owned The Black Cauldron since I was a child, but had never read it. On a recent visit to my parents, I pulled the book down, intending to read it when I got home, before I realised that it wasn’t the first in the series, which led me to picking up this so that I could read the series in order.

It feels very Hero’s Journey, and you can all but tick off the stages of Taran’s development. To be honest, Taran isn’t a hugely interesting character, and can be oblivious and arrogant. His companions are interesting and more fun: the king turned bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp strings snap when he lies, and the princess Eilonwy, not to mention the marvellous Gurgi, with his crunchings and munchings and other rhyming.

It’s impossible to read this without comparing it to Tolkien. At times, it does feel quite “Lord of the Rings for children”, with many of the same tropes emerging, including a Dark Lord with powerful supernatural minions, a fellowship on a quest and a mentor who falls into darkness. But, at least, the Welsh-inspired setting gives it a distinctive flavour.

It’s an entertaining book though and the language is evocative. I’ll definitely read the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006705925
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1973

The Incredible Journey

By Sheila Burnford

Rating: 4 stars

I found this old, quite fragile copy of this book while rummaging around my favourite second hand bookstore (Voltaire and Rousseau, in Glasgow, thanks for asking). I’ve never actually read it before, nor have I seen the film, although I do know the basic plot. I enjoyed this story of two dogs and a rather dog-like cat who make a journey of several hundred miles from the person who’s looking after them while their actual family are are away in Europe, back to their home.

I hadn’t realised that Burnford didn’t fully anthropomorphise the animals – rather than talking to each other, she refers to their instincts and love of each other to guide us through the story. Some of the episodes on their travels are mundane, like passing park rangers, while others are just odd, and a little sad – like the elderly gent living by himself who invites them in for dinner, but we slowly realise that he’s got dementia.

Now, as much as I love Labradors, the young Lab who led the trio was stubborn and maybe not the best at leading. The old, good natured bull terrier was my favourite of the trio, and the firm friendship between him and the cat was beautiful – leading to a joyous final paragraph, to leave the book on a high.

A fairly quick read, and the prose is lovely, both in describing the landscape that the trio travel through and their actions and relationships. The illustrations, by Carl Burger, are also delightful – full page sized and detailed. It was just a shame I couldn’t view them as clearly as I wanted to, for fear the opening the book too wide would cause it to fall apart (I mentioned it was an old, fragile copy, right?).

Book details

Publisher: Bantam Pathfinder
Year of publication: 1965

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

By Robert C. O'Brien

Rating: 4 stars

This was a book that I’d loved as a child, and read several times, so it was with a little trepidation that I approached it as an adult, but my fears were mostly groundless. It’s been so long since I last read it that I couldn’t remember much of the plot, but the story of the widowed mouse Mrs Frisby and how she comes to associate with the rats that live in the farmer’s rosebush still holds up pretty well.

Reading as an adult in the 21st century, you do notice things: like how Mrs Frisby is the only major female character (yes, two of her children are girls, but they’re barely in it and their characterisations are limited to pretty much a single line: Teresa is the oldest and most responsible, Cynthia is the youngest and “over-fond of dancing”). The rats presumably have females amongst them, but other than Isabella, we never see any of them – they’re just described as “mothers” and it’s implied that they’re fond of the good things in life.

The story of the rats is still very exciting, though, from Nicodemus’ capture, to the experimentation in NIMH to their escape and finding the Toy Tinker. In between, we learn why the rats are willing to help Mrs Frisby in the first place and some of their philosophy. Personally, I’m leaning more towards Jenner’s side of the argument than Nicodemus – or, at least, I wouldn’t want to throw away everything and start completely from scratch.

Philosophical arguments notwithstanding, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s a story of kindness, of comradeship and of community. Recommended for children and adults alike.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141354927
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 2014

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

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