Book Review: Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. It is about a voyage up the Congo River, in the heart of Africa, by the narrator Charles Marlow, who tells of his obsession with the ivory trader Kurtz.

I only read this because it’s a set text on my university course. I really didn’t like it.

Conrad’s writing style didn’t engage me at all.

I got the impression, presumably helped by the fact it is a set text for me, that I knew what the book was about whilst failing to follow the story. The themes of imperial rule, racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, colonialism and madness were particularly noticeable; I’m sure these will be useful in an essay question, but they made the narrative unlikeable.

‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’

There was one exciting scene – an attack on the boat – that used exciting and violent imagery. Then it was back to more of Marlow’s boring narration.

I tried to read Heart of Darkness on two separate occasions. The first time, I gave up after a few pages. The second time, I read just over half, and skipped to the ending. I normally don’t like to give up on a book, but I just couldn’t struggle through it any longer.

If you don’t have to read it, don’t.

– Judith

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Book Review: How To Train Your Dragon

My boyfriend introduced me to How To Train Your Dragon, the animated fantasy film, and I loved it. We then watched the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2 (creative) and I loved it more. We’ve re-watched them several times. I didn’t even know there were books. So, at his suggestion, I read How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

Hmm.

Spoiler Warning: There will be some.

How To Train Your Dragon is the first in a series of twelve children’s books about Hiccup, the son of a Viking chief, as he overcomes great obstacles on his journey to become Heroic.

Visually, it’s a nice little book. It has childlike My Image [How To Train Your Dragon Book] handwriting and drawings throughout, so it’s perfect for Cowell’s target audience; the idea is that the book was genuinely  written by Hiccup – hence his illustrations and annotations – and she was just his Old Norse translator. A nice touch.

The descriptions are as vivid and not complicated – as you’d expect in a children’s book, and there are also some witty moments.

The key plot points are clearly identifiable:

  • Hiccup is a below average Viking boy who wants to achieve but struggles under the pressure of being the Chief’s son
  • Snoutlout is Hiccup’s cousin, eager for Hiccup to fail so he can become chief instead
  • Hiccup is concerned about not fulfilling his father’s Viking expectations
  • It is only when Berk is placed in danger, Hiccup’s usefulness and value is recognised

These are (no surprises here) “obvious” for an adult reader, but this the sort of good narrative structure a children’s book should have, so I wanted to point it out.

However, it is very different to the films. An enlightening comment, I know.

The characters are different – without seeing them frequently “onscreen” like you would in a film, I felt forced to rely on a few, infrequent small illustrations and their initial descriptions at the start of the book to remember who they are; it was hard to keep track of the long-winded Viking names.

My Image [How To Train Your Dragon 1]

Another striking difference between the book and the film is that in the film, Berk is an island scared of, and enraged by, dragons because they believe they are violent creatures that need to be destroyed. The community is only persuaded to think otherwise following Hiccup’s discovery of, and his blossoming friendship with, Toothless the Night Fury, one of the most legendary and fearful dragons in existence. However, in the book, Berk is an island that already believes that dragons can be, and should be, domesticated pets. It is only once the Viking boys in training are given the useless handbook How To Train Your Dragon, Hiccup must create his own, personalised, methods to tame his dragon Toothless.

 A second significant difference is that in the book, the dragons can talk. This creates a new layer of characterisation because they can communicate thoughts and feelings with each other, and their owners. This means that, instead of the smiling but silent Toothless from the film, he is whiny and always back-chatting. It’s very difficult to see him as the loveable, heart-warming, protective but powerful and incredibly rare Night Fury from the film – the Toothless I love.

I’m so clearly biased – sorry – and I preferred the films to the book. I can see exactly why kids would love this sort of book though: it’s funny, it’s adventurous, it’s easy to read and it’s imaginative.

I won’t read the rest of the series, but at least I now have a flavour of the writing which inspired two films I greatly enjoy.

How To Train Your Dragon 3 is in production and is due to be released in 2019.

– Judith

Book Review: Into The Water

Warning: Into The Water contains depictions of teenage suicide and sexual abuse, so if you would find these topics upsetting to read about, this is not the book for you.

‘Fans of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train rejoice: her second novel Into the Water is even better’

Good Housekeeping (Book of the Month)

Excuse me?

Into The Water is the second novel by Paula Hawkins, another thriller / mystery which follows Jules Abbott as she tries to work out how and why her sister Nel drowned. Did she jump, or was she pushed?

I found it incredibly difficult to form opinions on Into The Water without making direct comparisons to The Girl On The Train. You can read my book review of The Girl On The Train here.

When your debut novel sells over 1 million copies, spends 20 weeks as the number one hardback in the UK and is adapted into a film, I suppose the pressure to write another bestseller is on.

For example, there are lots of narrators – this book contains a lot more perspectives than The Girl On The Train. Yet I am tempted to say Hawkins may have bitten off more than she could chew here. Working out who characters were, and how they were all linked wasn’t straightforward. In some cases, characters felt underdeveloped and I couldn’t remember much about them at all.

‘What happened to the Paula Hawkins who structured “The Girl on the Train” so ingeniously?’

(Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

Into The Water was also a much quicker read than The Girl On The Train.

Arguably, this was a favourable quality – I finished it in a day and I was consistently keen to find out what happened. However, the pacing also made me acutely aware of how, in whizzing through the narrative at such speed, meant I may not have absorbed all of the character and plot details.

I guess people did really like Into The Water. It won the award for Best Mystery & Thriller in the Goodreads Choice Awards, and there are lots of positive reviews online. So, time for some positivity.

In terms of story telling, there was a good hook, and I think the setting was better developed than the characters. It was clear the town of Beckford was odd, with links to superstition about witches and a mysterious history of suicide, secrets and heartbreak.

Hawkin’s writing is also interesting in that every perspective offered is always skewed in some way – always unreliable.

In a mystery novel, this is great at shrouding the facts and allowing the reader to work things out themselves. However, the extent of unreliable narration used in this novel made it difficult to understand exactly what happened and why it happened – even by the end. Whilst this may have been the intended effect, I wasn’t a fan.

I did enjoy the story of Into The Water. Honestly. Unfortunately, I just think Hawkins’ writing techniques weren’t as effective this time around. Sorry.

Into The Water will be released in paperback on the 17th of May 2018.

– Judith