Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkein

I have completed my Lord of the Rings re-read, and it didn't take me a year between volumes this time!  In The Return of the King, the battle for Middle Earth is finally played out.  As Frodo and Sam journey into Mordor with the aim of destroying the ring, Aragorn attempts to distract Sauron with a series of battles, each more desperate than the last.    Dark forces are massing outside the city of Gondor, ruled by the steward Denethor, who is becoming increasingly pessimistic and unwilling to take the steps needed to muster a response, especially after the death of his son Boromir.  Can Aragorn step up and prove himself to be a leader as the war reaches its final days?

Although Fellowship of the Ring remains my favourite of the trilogy, I enjoyed Return of the King more than The Two Towers.  As we are at the end of the story, the pace becomes much brisker and there is a sense that now all of the pieces are in place, the main events can begin.  There's less of Frodo and Sam wandering aimlessly around Middle Earth, and more battles and strategy.  I enjoyed visiting Gondor and I especially enjoyed the character of Faramir, who has to choose whether to do the right thing, regardless of the instructions from his father.  It can be hard to do the right thing, but even more so when you receive nothing but scorn for doing it.

In this volume, the main characters continue to develop. Gandalf increasingly takes a back-seat, so that Aragorn and the hobbits can solve things for themselves.   On this read, I really related to this theme of growing up.  At the beginning of the trilogy, Gandalf was the person with all the answers, and we saw how lost the Fellowship was without him.  But by the time we reach the very end, everyone has been through so much and the issues are so complex that Gandalf no longer has the metaphorical magic wand that can fix everything.  And this perfectly captures the bitter-sweet feeling of growing up.  I loved that a high fantasy novel can still make you reflect on your own life, and how you have grown;

"Do you not yet understand?  My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk do so.  And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help.  You are grown up now.  Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I no longer have any fear for any of you."

On the whole, reading The Return of the King was definitely a positive reading experience, mainly due to the wide cast of characters and the fact that too much page time wasn't devoted to Frodo and Sam.  I must admit that I did get a bit frustrated with the end of the novel, as there were still many pages after the destruction of Sauron.  There were too many goodbyes, too many visits to old friends, and the final events in the Shire seemed a bit unnecessary, as Tolkein had already shown that the hobbits had matured.  It felt as though Tolkein had grown so attached to his characters that he couldn't bear to leave them without explaining what happened to everyone in great detail, and it did get a bit tedious.

On this second read of The Lord of the Rings, I think I can finally appreciate why the books are classics in the fantasy genre.  The world building is just so good, and the story itself so engaging.  I'm not sure if I'll read them again, but I'm glad I took the time too revisit them.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1955
Edition Read: Harper Collins, 1999
Score:  4 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 22/72
My full list of titles is here.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sam Sunday #45: Oxford

This last week was the half term break here in the UK, and my husband and I went on a short break to Oxford for part of it.  I've already shared the amazing books I bought, so in this post I thought I would share some photos of our trip.  I really loved Oxford; there's lots to do but it still feels like a quiet town that you could just wander in for hours.  We're close enough for day trips, so I'm sure I'll return in the not too distant future.

Someone wanted to come with us!

Part of the new Bodleian library.  Visiting the Bodleian was the highlight of my trip, it's well worth paying to go on the tour as you get to go inside the original reading room and see lots of seriously old books and some beautiful architecture.

The School of Divinity.

In the hotel - my bump is just starting to make an appearance now!

Ashmolean Museum, we loved it here.

On the way to the Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

Overall, it was a great trip, and a good way to spend part of a week off.  I have to admit that I'm not really looking forward to going back to work tomorrow, and am already looking forward to the Easter holidays!

Hope everyone had a good week.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride is a historical fantasy novel set in a Malaya ruled by the British Empire.  Li Lan is a member of the Chinese community there, the daughter of a once prosperous and respected man, who has become bankrupt following the death of his wife.  Life seems to hold few opportunities for Li Lan until she learns of an offer to become a ghost bride, the wife of the dead son of the wealthy Lim family.  At first she is horrified, but the more she learns about the family and the circumstances surrounding the death of Lim Tian Ching, the more she is drawn into the mystery of the household. Soon she finds herself exploring the spirit world of Malaya, guided by the enigmatic Er Lang, in a quest to find out what really happened and why she has been selected as a ghost bride, before she is trapped forever in the shadowy after-life.

I started The Ghost Bride expecting it to be mainly historical fiction, so the amount of fantasy in the novel surprised me.  But in a good way.  Choo has taken Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and used them to create a fascinating, fully formed fantasy world that is the unreserved star of the show.  I just loved the blending of fantasy with traditional beliefs, it lent an authenticity to the whole book.  I'm always on the look out for fantasy that isn't set in medieval Europe, and with this book I stumbled across a great example of it accidentally.

Another thing I enjoyed about The Ghost Bride was the character of Li Lan herself.  She starts off as quite shy and easily led by both her family and the Lim family, but as the book progresses we get to see some strong character development, culminating in an episode towards the end where she's in quite a sticky situation. Rather than hope for someone to come and save her, she's determined to sort things out herself, which I really liked.  It would have been easy for Choo to write a passive female, especially considering that Er Lang is technically supernatural, so I liked that she made Li Lan stick up for herself as the book went on.

This book does contain a love triangle, but thankfully the romance elements are very light and take a back-seat to the adventure and the exploration of the afterlife itself.  I found The Ghost Bride easy to read but yet unlike anything else I've read, a book that I'm sure will stick with me for some time.  Recommended for anyone who likes fantasy but is after something a bit different.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2013
Score: 4 out of 5

Read Alongside:
If you're after more diverse fantasy, I've enjoyed the following (links to my reviews):
  1. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed - Arabian Nights-esque high fantasy featuring ghuls and dervishes.  Lots of fun.
  2. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin - Proper epic fantasy inspired by Ancient Egypt.  A man trained to enter the dreams of others comes up against the corruption of the government and priestly sects.
  3. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson - The story of a young hacker in an Arabic country who discovers that there's more to reality than just what you can see.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett

The Spirit Level is a non-fiction book that examines the prevalence of what we might think of as social problems in different countries (drug use, violence, obesity, poor educational performance, crime etc.). Wilkinson and Pickett argue that what matters is not how affluent a country is on average, but rather the level of inequality in the country.  All Western nations have reached a point where economic development has led to a comfortable standard of living, but the richest countries are not the happiest, or the ones with fewest social ills.   In fact, health and social problems are instead highly related to the difference in income between the top twenty and lowest twenty percent in that country, with richer countries like the USA and UK doing poorly compared to countries such as Japan and the Scandinavian nations.

This may all sound like common sense, but what Wilkinson and Pickett do in The Spirit Level is provide overwhelming evidence that inequality is damaging for all members of society, not just those at the bottom. Each chapter examines a different societal problem and time and time again, we see that inequality is strongly related to it.  Even things like the amount of trust you have in your community, your chances of developing a mental illness, the prevalence of chronic diseases and the rate of teenage pregnancies are highly correlated. And as Wilkinson and Pickett explained how the link between inequality and each 'problem' might work, the more I found myself nodding my head along with the book.  It just makes sense that the healthier societies are the ones where all members of society feel valued and like they have something to contribute.  Crucially, the authors show that inequality is damaging for the rich as well as the poor.

The sections dealing with the relationship between inequality and the different health and social problems were truly fascinating, and left me with lots to think about.  However, the book then moves on to discussing ways that inequality can be combated by ordinary members of the public, and here I felt it started to lose some steam.  I do agree with lots of their suggestions, especially employees having a stake/shares/voice in the company they work for, but this part of the book felt a bit meandering and at times, a little preachy, compared with the fast paced, factual arguments of the rest of the text.

On the whole, The Spirit Level is a truly thought provoking book that seeks to provide an answer to the question of why the richest countries aren't necessarily the happiest in the world.  It's thoroughly researched, fascinating to read and left me with lots to think about.  Recommended for anyone interested in society or politics.

Source: Personal Copy
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Penguin Books, 2010
Score: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Oxford Book Shopping

I'm back from our half-term break in Oxford, and I had a great time.  I'm planning to share some photos of the things we saw in my regular Sunday post, but for now I can't resist showing off all of the lovely books that came home with me!  Like all university towns, Oxford was simply great for book shopping.  There's some big branches of the main chains (the Blackwell's is especially good), but there's also lots of second hand / charity shops and independent shops too.  I bought twelve books, which is actually quite restrained considering the temptation!  My husband, who used to be a complete non-reader, was excited by all the books too and ended up buying quite a few of his own.

Without further ado, the books:

  • Shirley by Charlotte Bronte - I consider Charlotte Bronte to be one of my favourite authors based on Villette being my favourite book, but I haven't actually read all of her novels.  I got this Penguin English Library edition second hand.
  • The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James  - This is one of the few titles I still had to buy for my Classics Club list.  I loved Daisy Miller, so I'm hoping that this will be a longer exploration of similar themes.  Bought in a 'buy one, get one free' deal with the following:
  • The Italian by Ann Radcliffe - I've been meaning to read something by Radcliffe for the longest time.  I do enjoy a good sensation novel, and this one promises much in the way of melodrama.

  • Empire by Niall Ferguson - A non-fiction book on the history of the British Empire.  I've been reading more non-fiction lately, and this one just took my fancy.  Bought second hand.
  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin - This is one of the first dystopian novels, and it supposedly inspired George Orwell when he was writing 1984.  Bought second hand.
  • Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton - I'm interested in reading more books that are classics in non-Western countries, and this is a classic of South African literature, set against the backdrop of apartheid.  Bought second hand.

  • The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham - Another book that's on my Classics Club list.  This will be my first Maugham, and I'm excited to try it.  Set in colonial Hong Kong, adulterous wife Kitty is forced to accompany her husband as he journeys into a cholera epidemic.  Bought second hand.
  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin - I'm not usually one for these 'cosier' types of classics, the sort published by Virago/Perspehone, but I couldn't pass up this beautiful edition, as it's so rare to find something like it in a second hand bookshop.  It's about four women on a month long retreat in an Italian villa.
  • The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna - I got this one in an amazing book shop, where everything was £2.  I've had my eye on it for a while, so finding it was a stroke of luck.  It's a triple narrative focussing on childbirth through the ages, from a doctor persecuted for suggesting that unwashed hands cause fever in childbirth, to a modern home-birth, to a futuristic breeding farm.  It sounds excellent.

  • A Little Book of Language by David Crystal - Bought in the Ashmolean museum.  I have A Little History of the World from the same series, which was excellent, so I know this one will be equally good.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston - I didn't actually buy this one in Oxford, but it was waiting for me when I returned home.  It's my classics club spin pick, so I'll be starting it soon.
  • Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill by Lara Marks - Also bought in the amazing £2 bookshop.  I've checked this out of the library before, but never got around to it.  It promises to include a lot on the social history of the pill and it's role in feminism, so it should be very interesting.
And a bonus picture.  My unborn son may not have a cot or a pram yet, but he does now have three Roald Dahl prints to go in his nursery, by his bookcase (when we buy one):

Have you read any of the titles above? 
If so, I'd love to know what you thought of them.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sam Sunday #44: Half Term

Half term has arrived here in the UK, which means a whole, wonderful week off work for both me and my husband.  It feels like it's arrived at just the right time as I've been feeling lots more tired lately, and I've had this persistent cold for about four weeks, which I know requires rest to vanish completely.  I'm very much in need of catching up on sleep and putting my feet up, which I will be doing for part of the week.

For the other part of the week, we're heading to Oxford for a bit of a mini-break.  We both wanted to get away, but I'm not keen on travelling long distances at the moment, so Oxford seemed perfect as it's only two hours or so away.  I've been on a few day trips to Oxford before, but never had a chance to explore it properly (I'm much more familiar with Cambridge), so it should be nice to wander around and visit places like the Bodleian library and the Ashmolean Museum.  We haven't actually been away at all since our honeymoon almost three years ago, what with saving to buy a house and then saving towards the baby, so we're both really excited.  We're heading out tomorrow morning and then returning Wednesday evening; hopefully Oxford centre won't suddenly flood over-night with all the rain we've had lately.

For the rest of the week, I'm planning just to relax at home.  Tom is going to start painting what will become the nursery - I might supervise while eating chocolate!  We've decided on a sage green colour and have picked out most of the furniture, it's just a case of starting things off now.  I'm currently 24-ish weeks, so we have just over three months to go.  My bump is definitely 'out there' now but on the whole I'm feeling pretty good, mainly just tired and a bit achy if I've been standing up all day.

I've been really into reading at the moment but haven't had much time for it, so I'm looking forward to getting in some solid reading hours in the week ahead.  I'm currently about two thirds of the way through Return of the King, so I'm hoping to finish that tonight.  Then I'll probably be picking something on my kindle, as I've been having a bit of a kindle spring clean this weekend and I've unearthed some hidden treasures that I can't wait to start.

Reviews posted since my last update:

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Beach by Alex Garland

I very rarely copy the summary from the back of a book, but this one is simply perfect and I can think of no way to better it:

The Khao San Road, Bangkok - first stop on the backpacker trail.  On Richard's first night there a fellow traveller slits his wrists, leaving Richard a map to 'The Beach'.  The Beach is a legend among young travellers in Asia; white sands circling a lagoon hidden from the sea, coral gardens and freshwater falls surrounded by jungle.  In this earthly paradise, it is rumoured, a select community lives in blissful ignorance.  For Richard, haunted by the glamour of Vietnam war movies, a trek into unknown Thai territory is irresistible. He was looking for an adventure.  Now he's found it.

Reading older books from my shelves has completely influenced my reading habits; now I'm starting to pick up books that weren't even on my planned TBR list, and long may it continue!  I remember the film of The Beach coming out back in 2000, but was too young to see it, and have had vague plans of reading the book ever since.  And I'm glad that I finally picked it up.  The Beach is a genuinely thrilling, page-turner of a book that kept me up past my bedtime several nights in a row.

The great thing about The Beach is that it is a slow burn kind of book.  Things start off very dramatically with the suicide of a traveller in Bangkok but then slow down again as Richard attempts to find and then live on The Beach.  The whole time, there is a sense that something isn't quite right, a sense of foreboding, and this gradually builds and builds until you're simply desperate to find out what happens at the end.  I was worried the ending would be disappointing given all of the build up, but it was actually more gripping than I thought it would be.  I've since watched the film too, and the film ending is just awful compared to the book, such a cop out.

The Beach is really about what happens when a group of people isolate themselves completely from the outside world.  Moral codes start to slip and patterns of dominance start to emerge.  As Richard lives on The Beach, his sense of belonging and identity with the world as a whole slowly starts to fade and his whole personality becomes based on his new group identity.  And if things are accepted by the group, who are you to challenge them?  I thought Garland portrayed this change in Richard very subtly and effectively, up to the point where he couldn't recognise himself any more.

The only minor issue I had with The Beach was that it was pretty pretentious at times.  There was all this stuff about travelling only being important if it is 'off the beaten track' and away from other tourists, always looking for the next unspoiled destination.  Richard and his friends look down their noses at everyone constantly.  I know that Garland is only portraying people who do feel like this, but it did get irritating at times.

Still, I would recommend The Beach if you're after a page-turner or thriller, or curious about what happens to humanity when it's left completely to it's own devices.  I couldn't put it down.

Source: Personal copy
Published: 1996
Score: 4 out of 5

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Spin is In...


The spin number has been posted over at the Classics Club blog.  The lucky number was 20, which means I am going to be reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I'm so excited!  I originally added it to my list as I wanted to read more African-American literature, and I still want to read it as much now as I did then.

The only slight disappointment is that I don't actually own a copy yet.  I've ordered one, but I will have to wait a few days before diving in.

If you took part, what book will you be reading for the spin, and are you happy about it?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

Cut Me Loose is a memoir of a girl who grew up in a strictly Orthodox Jewish household, who was forbidden to speak to boys, learned to suspect anything modern, had to cover up completely, wasn't allowed to be friends with non-Jewish girls, and who had focused her whole life on the ideal of getting married and having children in her late teens.  Although Vincent sometimes struggled against these restraints, she believed in her community and desperately wanted the approval of her father.  So, when she is cast out of the community for exchanging innocent letters with an Orthodox Jewish boy whilst staying with family in England, and later for wearing a sweater that was too tight, she is devastated.  As her family continue to ignore her, Leah engages in riskier and riskier behaviour as a way to gain their attention and love, before finally coming to terms with her sexuality and the choices she can make for her own life.

I'm absolutely fascinated by what life must be like in strictly religious communities.  I grew up in a completely non-religious household, and have never thought about religion as a factor when making decisions about my life, so I'm interested in those that do, as it seems so alien to me.  As such, I found the beginning sections of Cut Me Loose, detailing Leah's childhood and expectations for the future, to be the most interesting.  She had built her life around a very strict set of rules and marriage market (in which even being seen standing next to a boy would downgrade your prospects) and I was amazed at the extent to which she accepted them, even now when writing her memoir.  Cut Me Loose reminded me just how much impact our childhood experiences have on us, and how hard it can be to break away from them.

Once Leah is unwelcome in her community, she finds herself alone in a big city, living on the poverty line.  As she wasn't allowed to make friends with non-Jewish people, she is completely without a support network and feels desperately lonely.  Eventually she decides that she might as well 'live up' to being exiled from her family, and starts to have a lot of sex with men who do  not respect her.  Having been bought up in a society where women defer to men and expect lower status, she has no clue how to negotiate modern relationships and lacks the confidence to say no; going along with what the men want in order to feel needed in some way. As you can imagine, this doesn't lead to happiness, and the rest of the book deals with Leah building a life for herself on her own terms, and learning to negotiate the world.

I breezed through Cut Me Loose in a few days, as it's well written and fast paced.  Vincent's story is interesting and she captures all of the emotions she felt vividly.  I felt as though the ending of the book was a bit rushed, as Leah goes from desperately despressed to a functioning adult in a happy relationship within what seems like a few pages.  I'm sure that part of her journey would have been interesting to read about too.  Still it's an interesting memoir to pick up if you're interested in religious communities or coming of age stories.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Published: January 2014
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

In the late nineteenth century, Celia and Marco are protégés of magicians capable of wonderful feats.  Both have been raised with the knowledge that one day they will face an opponent in a competition testing their skills in every way.  That competition takes the form of a circus that opens only at night, and that contains a dazzling array of tents and performances; from ice gardens to a cloud maze and a wishing tree.  The circus is hugely popular with the public, who attend in droves, not quite understanding that magic is the basis of everything around them.  But as the years pass, the performers and circus workers start to notice something unusual, and the pressure of maintaining such a complex competition arena starts to tell on Celia and Marco.  Matters are further complicated when their feelings for each other start to intrude on their desire to win.

I've owned The Night Circus ever since it came out in hardback, because I am a sucker for hype.  I tend to buy hyped books when they are hyped (and this one is a beautiful hardback) but then wait a few years to read them, when I can approach the book with a clear head.  Despite having read many glowing reviews of The Night Circus in the past, I tried to approach it as I would any other novel.

And The Night Circus is a very good book.  I wouldn't say it's as strong as it has been made out to be, but it's distinctive and unique.  Morgenstern's writing is extremely visual and the circus just came to life in my imagination, with little effort on my part.  I adored the style of the circus, and the way all of the little details, like the clock and the red scarves, were described fully.  I longed to visit the circus and see the tents for myself.  The magical atmosphere matched the historical setting perfectly, and I can not fault Morgenstern's 'vision' for the novel at all.

As well as this, the plot was interesting and the competition element kept things moving along at a brisk pace; the story never dragged.  Celia and Marco were both well developed characters and although their romance was a little intense and overdone at times, it fit with the magical elements of the story.  The secondary characters were perhaps more interesting than the main ones, especially Celia's father and the twins, Poppet and Widget.  All the characters were described in the same visual way as the circus itself, and this made them really come to life.

Actually, there's not much I didn't like about the The Night Circus.  I think the only reason I didn't love it in a 5-out-of-5 star way is that I couldn't help but compare it to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  Both are stories of magic rooted in nineteenth century England, and The Night Circus just falls a bit flat by comparison.  It doesn't have the depth or mythology of Jonathan Strange, and comes across as more style over substance.  It's still an excellent book and one I would highly recommend, it's just not quite up there with my absolute favourites.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Classics Club Spin #5

Time for another Classics Club Spin!  So far I have participated in two, which has led to me readind Rebecca (awesome) and Les Miserables (at least it is out of the way).  I am crazily indecisive about what to read at the moment (I blame the pregnancy hormones), so I'm looking forward to the decision being taken out of my hands.  Of the twenty books I've listed below, one will be selected for me on Monday by a random number posted on the Classics Club blog.

Like last time, I've used to select twenty books off my list.  This time I'm including rereads, by which I mean books I already planned to reread for the Classics Club, not books I've read since joining.

My list:
  1. 1984 by George Orwell (reread)
  2. Villette by Charlotte Bronte (reread)
  3. Othello by William Shakespeare
  4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (reread)
  5. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  6. Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
  7. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  8. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
  9. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  11. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
  12. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  13. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  14. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (reread)
  15. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  16. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (reread)
  17. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
  18. The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (reread)
  19. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkein (reread, and I'm up to this point in the series).
  20. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Initial thoughts - anything but Moby Dick!  I'll be genuinely excited to read any of the others, but I don't know if I'm up for the whale after Les Miserables in December.  I'm especially hoping for Tenant of Wildfell Hall or any of the rereads.

Are you taking part in the spin?  If so, link me to your list, as I'd love to see what your options are.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

"Murder kills only an individual.  And what is an indiviudal when we can make a new one with the greatest ease?  Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself."

In this dystopian classic, humans are bred rather than born.  Using eggs harvested from a small proportion of women allowed to be fertile, embryos are created and then conditioned according to which class they will join; from Alpha-Pluses, who are allowed some amount of intelligence, to Epsilon-Minuses, who are cloned and subjected to oxygen deprivation to stunt their development.  Emotions are viewed as suspect and the experience of emotional pain has been completely removed from human experience through conditioning and the availability of soma pills.  When everything you want is freely available and your wants and desires have been carefully controlled to reflect your circumstances, feelings become irrelevant.

But Bernard Marx does feel unhappy.  Slightly different from his Alpha peers (perhaps due to an accident during the embryo development process), he longs for more than mechanically induced pleasure.  He desires solitude, meaningful relationships and for a way to express his soul.  When he takes Lenina Crowe on a trip to a Savage reservation, where humans have been left to their own devices, he begins to question everything he knows even more.  Is a life with pain in it more inherently valuable than a manufactured one without it?

I enjoyed Brave New World. It contains a lot of themes that you see explored in later dystopian novels, but at the time it really was a trail-blazer.  Huxley's rather depressing vision of the future is well thought out, and you can't fault his world building skills.  I enjoyed the philosophical questions about the role of emotions and pain bought up in the later sections of the book, and I appreciated that Huxley didn't present a clear answer.  It's easy to say that human life had lost it's value in Huxley's dystopia, that pain is at the heart of what makes us grow and develop as humans, but at the same time even Bernard began to long for soma when faced with an actual experience of emotional pain.  Reading Brave New World made me think about what it is to be human, and how unpleasant experiences can shape us just as much as pleasant ones.

At times, Brave New World felt a little dated, very much a twentieth century novel.  The whole process of conditioning was based on behaviourist psychology, which was cutting edge in the 1930s, but it no longer seems like a plausible base for world building now.  There is much fretting about big society, and Communism hangs over the text like a 'big bad wolf'.  It's also not a book to pick up if you are after a strong plot; Huxley's strength is very much his ideas and the way he makes you think.

Despite this, Brave New World was always enjoyable to read.  I sped through it in a matter of days and can certainly see why it is a classic of the genre.  It's an important book that is truly thought provoking.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1932
Score: 4 out of 5

Classics Club: Book 21/72

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Sam Sunday #43: So Long, January!

So the first month of 2014 is over, and I'm pleased to report that I managed to stick to most of my bookish goals.  My main goal was to read only books from my shelves, as opposed to accumulating library books, buying new books or using my kindle, which I managed to do.  I finished six books:



It was actually very nice to just read exclusively from my shelves, it felt more like how I used to read before starting this blog, before all of the review copies and masses of recommendations that had me heading to the library at least once a week!  It's not something I'm going to keep doing, as I'm already missing my kindle, but I can see myself having another month like this at some point later in the year.

I also managed to stick to my goals of reading at least one book for Jazz Age January (The Paris Wife) and one book from my TBR 2014 pile, The Glass Palace. As well as this, I was pleased to read one book for the Classics Club, Brave New World, and one non-fiction title, as my non-fiction reading really suffered last year.

Looking ahead to February, I'm going to be relaxing my reading rules a bit, but I'm still going to remain focused on reading books that I already own, rather than acquiring more.  I think I'm going to give the library a pass for another month but add my kindle into the mix, so I have kindle books and physical books to choose from.  As always, I'm hoping to read one Classics Club book and one TBR 2014 book.

How was your reading month in January?  Any goals for February?