Monday, June 18, 2018

Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

I had to borrow this as soon as I saw it because it’s supposed to be a new Hercule Poirot and I wanted to know if it could live up to the original (spoiler: not really, but it’s still quite fun).

Closed Casket starts when Lady Playford, a wealthy and famous author, changes her will to disinherit her children and give all to her sick secretary. As invited guests, Poirot and his friend Catchpool see all the drama, and when a murder takes place shortly after, they investigate.

I guess the main question is: is this as good as something Agatha Christie wrote?

The answer for me is: not really. There’s a layer of artifice, of trying a bit too hard, that never really leaves the book. Christie has Poirot and the interesting side characters, but it seems like everyone in this book is A Character. Their foibles are so exaggerated that it’s hard to decide who to focus on.

Even the romance, which I normally don’t understand in Christie’s novels, seem even more unfathomable. It’s almost as though the author saw one of the bickering couples that Christie wrote and decided to take it to extremes.

That said, the book is pretty fun. The plot had a lot of twists and turns and Poirot seemed decent (and a bit more humble than normal). And once the book hit its stride - or I got used to this not being Christie - I found myself enjoying it. I guess the only problem with this book is that Agatha Christie didn’t write it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien

I wanted to try challenging my mind a little so I picked up Tree and Leaf, a collection by Tolkien! It made me miss my literature days because I felt like I missed a lot. This collection consists of;

- On Fairy-Stories: I’ve actually read this essay before but I found it so hard to read the first time round! Shows you how much my mind has rusted. It was much better the second time round and I managed to appreciate it.

This essay explores the definitions and origin of fairy tales in a fairly academic but lyrical style (as odd as that description is). Personally, I prefer Chesterton’s chapter (The Ethics of Elfland) in Orthodoxy even though it looks at fairy tales in a very different (and less academic) way.

- Mythopoeia: This was a lovely poem although I didn’t completely understand it.

- Leaf by Niggle: I really enjoyed this short story about a man named Niggle, who neglects preparing for his eventual journey to paint a leaf. But his painting is always interrupted by his neighbour and though Niggle doesn’t like it, he more often than not helps him out. Apparently Niggle might have been a stand-in for Tolkien himself, which is something interesting to consider!

- The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son: this is apparently a play inspired by a myth and I would normally be into this sort of stuff but I:

a. Tend to be very inept at understanding plays
b. Didn’t really get the three part structure of this

So it was kinda wasted on me.

Like I said at the start, this book made me wish I was still actively studying literature because I think I would have understood it a lot better if I was still using those muscles. Still, it was a good change from what I’ve been reading.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

This is the last book in the Chronicles of Prydain and it is AMAZING! I really loved it and it’s definitely something you should read straight after Taran Wanderer because it’s tied very closely to it and the other books.

In The High King, the story comes full circle and Taran and his friends must once again face Arawn and his Cauldron-born. While the first book dealt with Arawn’s servant, the Horned King, this book deals with the evil lord directly.

In The Book of Three, Taran dreams of being a hero. Now, many adventures and wanderings later, Taran knows more about what being a hero entails and he feels the weight of the quest a lot more acutely. In many ways, this quest is similar to the one in The Book of Three, but the difference lies primarily within Taran. He’s grown from an assistant pig-keeper into a leader, although he won’t admit it out loud.

For a YA fantasy, this series really doesn’t shy away from death. While important characters have died in previous books, the body count for characters I remember and like is probably the highest here. This is where Taran fully suffers the loss that war brings, and that’s where he learns a valuable lesson:
"A grower of turnips or shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king - every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone."
Wise words from Taran.

I really loved this series! It is everything a fantasy series should be - filled with related characters, magical, giving us hope, but at the same time not shying away from the darker side of life. It’s a pity that I didn’t read this earlier, but I am glad that I’ve finally finished it!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Like I mentioned in my review of The Castle of Llyr, I borrowed the remaining books of the Prydain series as soon as I could. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get The Foundling and other Tales of Prydain, but at least I got the last two books of the series!

In Taran Wanderer, Taran decides to leave Caer Dallben and search for this true parentage. Well, the truth is that he’s hoping to find out he’s of noble parentage so that he can ask Eilonwy for her hand in marriage. And so, Taran and Gurgi wander through the land, meeting people and having adventures.

Truth be told, I thought that this was the weakest book in the Chronicles of Prydain series so far. While Taran does have a quest to find out his parentage, much of the book reads like a series of loosely connected adventures rather than a story with an overarching focus.

That said, there are plenty of great moments in the book, especially in the second half of the story. Taran starts to learn about the true value of things and he starts to see that his original goal of hoping for noble blood isn’t what he thought he was. And as he wanders through the land and tries his hand at different skills, he also learns more about who he isn’t - an important lesson for everyone as they try to figure out who they are.

For me, the character that really shone in this book (even more than Taran) was Gurgi. Gurgi was introduced as an odd creature who is cowardly. And though Gurgi retains his old manner of speaking, I’ve noticed that he has really grown in courage and loyalty - it is no small feat to keep following Taran around. I find that this is the book where I really start to appreciate Gurgi as a character.

Overall, while this wasn’t as strong as the other books in the series, it still has a lot to offer. Taran’s journey of trying out different things mimics what a lot of us will do, and I think the lesson of learning to try things that may not work out is a valuable one for everyone reading it.