Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham

This was a christmas present from my grandad who first read this book in 1960 and, knowing that I wasn't a big reader of this genre,still thought that it was definitely one I'd like. He was right.

Written in 1951 this book follows Bill Masen as he wakes up in a hospital, eyes covered in bandages, with no street sounds coming in from outside and no nurses coming to answer his calls, only the answer of moans and terrified screams. After taking off the bandages himself he walks through an almost deserted hospital, only coming across a few people who have all been blinded after watching a meteor shower the night before, and out into an empty London as society tries to come to terms with their new condition.

On top of this it seems that the new, alien-like plants are flourishing in this new situation. Having created a new form of fuel from the use of plant oils harvested from the bioengineered Triffids, these plants became a common sight in nurseries, plantations and even in parks and private gardens. With nobody to tend their stakes or ensure that their stings are kept under control they soon break free and start to multiply, creating a second problem for the now blind humans. The Triffids feed on decomposing flesh and their stings are filled with enough poison to kill a person, thus making the wandering blind people an easy target for the plants.

This leads to a fight for a survival with Bill finding groups of sighted people who, for one reason or another, didn't see the meteor shower, and who all have their own ideas of what should be done next. This brings up many moral dilemmas that aren't entirely answered but left for the reader to wonder what they'd do if left in that situation.

Now, whilst these two catastrophic occurences (meteor shower & Triffid escapes) are totally unrelated on the surface, if we take a depeer look we can see a theme behind the two; that of man being turned upon & punished by his own creations (it's later mentioned that the meteor shower may have been down to a malfunctioning weapons satellite). This theme is just as relevant today as it was over 6o years, perhaps even more so with our almost complete reliance on technology and our fight for cheaper ways to make more money through fuel, power etc.

What we see is a world trying to come to grips with it's sudden loss of what we now take for granted - technology, an endless supply of electricity & power and a formed society with upheld laws and conventions. As such they must now start looking at how to support themselves in the long run, protect themselves from the new top predators - the triffids - and create a society from scratch.

I found this book to be an incredibly thought-provoking read. I'm not usually one for reading books based on a breakdown of society but I'm afraid that now, if I do decide to read any more of this genre, they have a high bench mark to hit. Wyndham made his characters and their reactions to the situation realistic and believable. There weren't any gung-ho, 'I can do anything' people who actually lived up to their self-beliefs. Instead you had the feeling of reading about real people making real decisions with real consequences and the book was better for it.

I highly recommend that you read this book. It has stood the test of time and I'd happily call it a 'modern classic' that should be on everyone's book list. You don't need to be a fan of this genre to enjoy this book, I wasn't. Enjoyable, direct and very well written - a great christmas present!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I will first state that this is a reread for me. The first time I read this book I believe I was about 12 and, whilst I did forget most of the content, it remained as one of my favourite books ever since. My reason for wanting to reread this (apart from it being a part of the challenge I was participating in) was that I wanted to remember why it had kept such a special place in my reading heart. Now this could've gone one of two ways and I was well aware of this. I could've read it and realised that it no longer held such an appeal to me or it could've reinforced my reasons for keeping it at the top of my list.

Thankfully for me this time of reading it only reminded why I loved this book! It's written in the form of letters & diary entries from different points of view. This is a very good form if done well, sticks to the timeline - as jumping around can get confusing in this form - and usually works best if it's a longer novel as it doesn't need to be too rushed to get all the facts out. The review that follows will be as non-gushy & spoiler free as possible, considering my love for this book, I apologise for any biased, gushy feelings that may crop up.

Written in 1897 this book is a true gothic horror novel that follows the travels of Jonathan Harker as he has to go see a client in Transylvania to provide legal support to Count Dracula, who has recently purchased some real estate over in England that was overseen by Harker's employer. We the reader, eagerly read through his diary entries as what Harker encounters are images from the worst nightmare as he realises that, not only has he been made a prisoner in the Count's castle, but also that the Count is not as he seems. As Harker slowly comes to the realisation that he must escape the castle or die we leave him, unknowing, to go back to England where we are introduced to his fiancee Mina Murray and her friend Lucy Westenra, who has just become engaged herself.

What follows is a series of dreadful events that occur once the Count has arrived in England (in a rather dramatic way), that center around Lucy. With Lucy becoming a target of the Count, the book brings in someone who has now become as well known as being Dracula's foe as Dracula himself.

With more people becoming aware of Count Dracula's true presence what follows is a battle of wits and survival. All played out through diary entries & letters we see the human spirit jump to the fore as it is threatened with something so darkly evil & never before known that threatens the existence of themselves and, more importantly, those they love. The book takes you from the cities and small beach towns of England to mad, dashing journeys through Europe by any means of transport possible.

The description of Dracula and his powers have lived down through the centuries, although it is probable that Stoker used earlier vampire novels as sources for inspiration, and many (but not all) modern views on vampires still refer back to these 'rules'.

I adored reading this book, Stoker's use of the epistolary format makes it that more suspense ridden and helps to put across each of the characters very well. Through them we get a real feel of how each person views the events in their own, individual way. I found that this was very well done, each entry flowed on from the other and stuck to the correct timeline in a way that didn't allow the reader to get lost in the story.

I suggest this as a read for anyone who enjoys gothic literature or is currently still on the 'vampire kick', it will help give you some classic reading background. This book is full of action and blood-sucking and really gives that dark, tense feeling that is so prevalent in gothic novels (hence the name). Definitely staying on my shelf to read again & again.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard

This is pretty much an Indiana Jones style book before Indie was even thought about. A young boy's adventure book set in Africa this is obviously written in 1885, as evidenced by the views and words used throughout.

The story follows the writings of our intrepid big-game hunter, Allan Quartermain, as he is asked to guide Sir Henry Curtis and his friend and ex-Naval officer Captain Good to the legendary King Solomon's Mines in search for Sir Henry's brother. These fabled mines are said to be found in a land that lies across a desert and over two mountains, from which it is rumoured no one has ever managed to survive the journey - either on the way there or the way back.

Quartermain has already managed to get his hands on a roughly drawn map that claims to show the way to the mines but, up until he met the two men, he'd not paid any attention to it, merely kept it for amusement. Quartermain only agrees to go when he has their promise that he will get a large sum of the treasure, if they find it and if they don't, the promise that his son will be well cared for. As an elephant hunter he has already lived  longer than most are expected to and he doesn't expect that he'll live through this adventure, but sees it as something he should do, a 'last adventure' if you must.

This book mainly follows their travels and focuses less on the mines and treasure than it does the adventures and hardships they encounter. This is definitely to it's advantage. The book was purportedly written as a wager between Haggard and his brother as to whether or not he could write a novel as good as Treasure Island, I think he did rather well to be honest!

The late 19th Century saw the rise in explorers uncovering evidence of ancient civilisations around the world, such as ancient Egypt, but most of Africa was still rather unknown - hence why this became such a bestseller when it was first released as it captured the public's imagination. Haggard's experiences when travelling Africa, first during the Anglo-Zulu war and secondly during the first Boer War, helped to make the surroundings more credible. Unfortunately, for the modern reader, it still shows up the thoughts of the time towards those who lived in Africa and, as with many of these Victorian  books, it's a case of just bite your tongue and remember that it was sadly acceptable back then.

Despite this I found this book to be rather enjoyable and kept me reading through it. there were some rather predictable instances and you can see why it's now considered a 'children's classic' (though released for adults at the time) as it's definitely for the boys who enjoy a bit of action and fighting and good guy vs bad guy (or mother nature).

This book has been quoted as being an inspiration for Edgard Rice Burroughs' 'A Land That Time Forgot' and was even said to have been the first (and even the creation of) the new 'Lost World' genre. Whilst this isn't the greatest of the genre this is definitely a good first book to have in said genre and a good benchmark for it's followers to aim for (and surpass in many cases).

For a quick, short, adventure read this is a good one to pick up. It's a lovely idea that somewhere in Africa there's a mine full of treasure waiting for someone to discover it (although it may have been done by now) and the imagery used is definitely like a tourism advert for the country. It isn't a long read and worth taking a day out of your life to pick it up.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne

I'm still on the victorian classics here (thanks to a Goodreads bookclub challenge) and have at least two more to go!

This book is written in the first person narrative of Professor Arronax as it follows the journey that he and his two friends Conseil (his manservant) and Ned Land (a Canadian harpooner) take as captive guests on board the fearsome Captain Nemo's 'Nautilus'.

The book starts in 1866 when something, commonly believed to be a creature of the deep, terrorising the shipping world. The professor is invited to join a ship setting off to hunt down this creature and there makes the acquaintance of the fiery harpoonist. What follows is a struggle between boat and creature that is actually a highly sophisticated submarine vessel, whereupon our three characters end up on top of the Nautilus.

The three men are then to become unwilling guests of the captain of this vessel, Captain Nemo, with the promise that he will never let them leave the Nautilus now that they know so much about it. The Captain is a mysterious man of unknown origins who has refused to ever set foot on land or rely on anything that has origins on dry land. This leads to some very interesting sounding meals in the book and a technology that is far ahead of it's time.

In a bid not to spoil this book for anyone who has yet to read it I will say that it takes the reader on a journey around the world, seeing different wonders of the ocean and joining in with the characters at their times of admiration as well as fears at what hides beneath the oceans. Trust me, sometimes you find yourself wanting to take journeys to some of these places just to see if what's said is true!

Written in 1869, Jules Verne's masterpiece was really ahead of  it's time with the idea of the Nautilus having on it a device to create electricity through the power of the sea, not to mention the Nautilus itself with the power of electricity and the means of keeping her supplied wityh oxygen. At the time of it's writing it must have seemed rather intriguing to the common reader.

I enjoyed this book in as much as the idea is a great one that has withstood the test of time and the writing is, at times, absolutely riveting. However, I did find that there were a lot of unnecessary stops in the story to allow paragraph upon paragraph of detail and description. this may have been intriguing to the reader of the time but now it stops the flow and just started to put me off reading.

This is a true classic and I believe everyone should take the time to read it - but be prepared to have to plough on through lots of detailed descriptions and some old-fashioned opinions at certain times.