Book Review: “Books v. Cigarettes” (2008) by George Orwell

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Books v. Cigarettes is the second volume of essays written by George Orwell in Penguin’s Great Ideas series that I’ve read – the first one being Some Thoughts On the Common Toad (review here). Between the two, Books v. Cigarettes is easily the superior selection. As you would expect of Orwell, there is some talk of politics and totalitarianism, but he also writes about working at a bookstore and his time as a young boy at St Cyprian’s school for boys. …That said, the essay about his school days still ends up being about class differences, snobbery, and indoctrination, because of course it does. Orwell has a lot of feelings about social mobility, you guys.

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Book Review: “Some Thoughts On the Common Toad” (2010) by George Orwell

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Picture credit: Typography for Lawyers.

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This collection is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, which I am steadily working my way through (read my review of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” here). I adore these little publications; the cover designs by David Pearson are some of the best he has ever done, and the full series is a great overview of some of the most influential essays and manifestos in (mostly) Western history.

Some Thoughts On the Common Toad is one of four George Orwell collections included in this project, and contains eight articles written between 1944 and 1947. Spoiler alert: the titular essay is not actually about toads – it’s about capitalism.

…And toads.

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Book Review: “Frenchman’s Creek” (1941) by Daphne du Maurier

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Clara Paget in Black Sails.

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Frenchman’s Creek is a historical novel set during the reign of Charles II that tells the story of a wealthy woman named Dona who moves to an isolated house in Cornwall with her children to get away from her schlubby husband and the judgmental looks of London society. Finally away from prying eyes and spousal demands, she feels like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders; she revels in the solitude and the freedom it provides her. Dona spends her days blissfully exploring her surroundings until she finds a pirate ship hidden in a remote creek near her house. She ends up falling in love with the captain of the crew – brooding, sexy stubble, will draw you like one of his French girls, you know the type – and has to make a decision: does she do what society wants her to do and stay at home with her children or does she leave everything behind for a life of sex love and adventure?

Oh yeah. It’s that kind of book. …Or is it?

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Book Review: “The Price of Salt” (1952) by Patricia Highsmith

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Cate Blanchett in the 2015 movie adaptation, Carol.

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Before the 2015 movie Carol started raking in the Oscar nominations, the general public mostly knew Patricia Highsmith for her psychological thrillers Strangers On A Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), two stories about mystery and murder. In fact, The Price of Salt is the only one of Highsmith’s novels that does not feature a violent crime – but it is still incredibly suspenseful. Yes, Highsmith introduces a gun in the third act, but there is more to it than that; this story about two women falling in love in 1950s New York City is set up like a detective. The protagonist, Therese, sets out to solve a very specific puzzle: does Carol love me back? Is there a chance we can be together? Do I dare to put everything on the line for her?

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Book Review: “Small Gods” (1992) by Terry Pratchett

 

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Cover art by Marc Simonetti.

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After Pyramids (review here), I decided to continue on the “Ancient Civilisations” path and picked up Small Gods as my next Discworld read. In this installment, we follow the formerly great god Om as he and his prophet Brutha as they battle zealotry, discuss the nature of belief, and try to restore Om to his former glory. As a classics nerd with an interest in philosophy and mythology, watching Pratchett throw around references to Archimides, Diogenes, and the Library of Alexandria is a ton of fun as well as a great challenge; every time I could whisper “I see what you did there Pratchett” to my book, I felt a small sense of accomplishment. See that Marcus Aurelius joke there? I caught that! Go me!

However, there is a lot more to this book than Horrible Histories-worthy slapstick. Like all Discworld books, Small Gods has a fundamental question at its core, only barely covered up by a layer of jokes.

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Book Review: “Ross Poldark” (1945) by Winston Graham

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Still from the 2015 TV adaptation.

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I have a confession to make: it’s been three weeks since I finished Ross Poldark (life got the way of my review, my apologies), and even though I’d jotted down some notes at the time, I can already barely remember this book. This is a problem – not just for me and my review, but also for the author, Winston Graham. The plot of his first Poldark novel has potential, but its execution is far from memorable.

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Book Review: “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is one of the quintessential queer coming-of-age novels (well, more like a barely veiled memoir, but okay). It tells the story of a young Jeanette, growing up in a strict religious household in a small English town. Because of her upbringing, she has trouble fitting in both at school and in the general community. Her mother bears this outsider status as a badge of honour, but young Jeanette sometimes feels frustrated that some people don’t understand her. And then she falls in love with another girl.

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Book Review: “The Once and Future King” (1958) by T.H. White

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This summer, my parents and I went on holiday to Cornwall and visited Tintagel Castle, which was supposedly the place where King Arthur was conceived. It’s a popular tourist attraction, surrounded by gift shops where you can buy your kids a toy Excalibur or Merlin’s pointy hat. Since I love to buy books in the place where they are set or were written, I decided to buy a copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (and a beautiful hardcover edition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca). I knew that it told the story of King Arthur, that it was on every single list of best fantasy books, and that my sister-in-law, who is an avid fan of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Goodkind, had been begging me to read it for years. I figured that it would be an epic fantasy story with lots of drama and violence – which it is. It is also nothing like that at all.

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Book Review: “Kiss Kiss” (1960) by Roald Dahl

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Illustration by Elise Stevens.

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If you thought that Roald Dahl’s children’s books were deliciously gruesome (and they are), wait until you see what he has in store for the adults. In Kiss Kiss, Dahl combines horror and comedy to give us eleven memorable short stories. He obviously delights in making his readers feel as uneasy as possible right before pulling the rug out from under them, grinning at the shocked look on our faces. As a teacher, I get to experience some of this joy myself. I am currently teaching this collection to a group of sixteen-year-old students, and every week, I get to watch them as they slowly realise what is going on in each story. One by one, they all suddenly turn to me and go: “Ooohhhhhhh! Oh God, that’s terrible!

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Book Review: “The Bell Jar” (1963) by Sylvia Plath

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“An Education” (2009) still.

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“Sylvia Plath – interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Annie Hall (1977)

That quote is the perfect illustration of why it can be difficult to say that you love Sylvia Plath, especially for young women; her name and the title of her novel have become synonymous with a whole set of implications neither Plath nor the reader ever asked for.

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