Book Review: Swallowdale

Swallowdale is the second book in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.

John, Susan, Titty and Roger return for another summer adventure, camping in the hills and sailing in the Lake District. However, when the explorers are shipwrecked; the Swallows and Amazons are left in a new place, to make a new camp and new expeditions.

I really enjoyed Swallows and Amazons but, unfortunately, Swallowdale took a little longer to engross me. I’m not sure why this was – perhaps my attention was initially lacking, or the story didn’t gather pace in a way I expected.

The style of Ransome’s writing is as witty and wholesome as it was in the first book – the rather random “voodoo” scene midway through Swallowdale is particularly ridiculous, but incredibly amusing.

I liked the settings of Swallowdale more than those of Swallows and Amazons. I think, given the shipwreck, the fact the child spent more time exploring on land as opposed to sailing helped me visualise surroundings more easily.

The descriptions were wonderfully vivid, and poetic in places too, reminding me (again) of the children’s adventure series The Famous Five – right down to the inclusion of both a “cave for a larder” and “bracken for bedding” (convenient).

I liked the introduction of new characters, as well as cameos of characters from the first book.

The conflict of Nancy and Peggy versus their Great Aunt, a woman averse to the idea of young girls with rough-and-tumble natures, touches upon the theme of gender I raised in my last review. Nancy and Peggy’s determinedness to have adventures with their friends, “despite” the fact they’re girls, is a great challenge to stereotypical expectations of girls at the time.

Whilst on the topic of characters, my love for Roger has increased enormously after reading Swallowdale. He is the smallest, sweetest, most boisterous (and most accident-prone) and I loved both seeing what he got up to, and watching Susan and the others keep a careful eye on him. I can’t wait to see him grow and develop throughout the rest of the series.

To echo thoughts from my first review, I think Swallowdale is a great sequel – it’s a fun, light, heart-warming read and I look forward to getting stuck into the next book in the series.

If you didn’t read this book as a child, I encourage you to read it.

If you did read this book as a child, I encourage you to read it again.

 – Judith

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Book Review: War of the Worlds

“Haven’t you heard of the men from Mars?” said I. “The creatures from Mars?”

War of the Worlds, page 36

War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by H.G. Wells that tells the tale of a Martian invasion of Earth, when a supposed meteor lands in Surrey. The narrator discovers that the meteor is not in fact a meteor, but an artificial cylinder, containing alien life forms. It is not long before these Martians adapt to the environment of Earth and wreak unimaginable havoc.

War of the Worlds is quite possibly one of the most exciting 19th century books I’ve read.

It’s narrated by an anonymous first-person narrator, which, although my preference is for third-person narration, didn’t affect me in the slightest because the focus of this book is not on character development, but retelling the shocking events of an alien invasion.

The descriptions are vivid and imaginative, making the entire story more exciting and fun to read because it clashes so obviously with the stereotypical context and style of most literature I’ve read from this time.

Short chapters kept the pace moving, and there were plenty of action-packed scenes to keep the tension and drama throughout.

According to Wikipedia, ‘The novel has been variously interpreted as a commentary on evolutionary theory, British imperialism, and generally Victorian superstitions, fears and prejudices.’

I noticed this ‘evolutionary theory’ theme in the book, as there are clear references to scientific subjects such as natural selection and human biology, as well as raising the question ‘is there life on other planets?’ and if so, how do humans compete with alien life: will we be wiped out?

As clarification, I don’t believe in aliens – but that didn’t stop me from enjoying pondering on the questions War of the Worlds raises anyway.

It’s a short, exciting read and I strongly recommend it!

– Judith

Book Review: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera, a story perhaps best known through the stage adaptation, was originally a Gothic horror novel by Gaston Leroux. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is the name given to a man living secretly below the Paris Opera House. One is not entirely sure if he is man or ghost – or something much worse. He becomes captivated by the sound of Christine Daaé’s beautiful singing, develops an obsessive love for her, and kidnaps her, leading to a series of horrific events.

My Photo [The Phantom of the Opera]

I liked reading this book; it was genuinely thrilling and had some truly scary moments, which I hadn’t anticipated because of how tame the kidnapping plot in the 2004 film adaptation is. There is palpable danger and tension throughout, due to the Phantom’s cruel and malignant hold over the Opera House.

My favourite character is – and probably always will be – Raoul simply because I liked him in the film adaptation.

In the novel however, what I enjoyed was the development of his and Christine’s romance from childhood sweethearts to adults in love. I shared in his frustration and upset that Christine was already ‘pledged’ away to the ‘Phantom’ and there was not much he could do to rescue her from this. Raoul’s helplessness as the heroic figure was especially emphasised in the torture scenes, where he and Christine are separated and suffering separately in different ways. This was a nice subversion of the “damsel in distress” convention.

Whilst on the subject of torture, I liked how Leroux unashamedly introduced taboo subjects such as death, torture, violence, and suicide because this added to the Gothic and horrific tone of the book.

Yet for me, where The Phantom of the Opera fell slightly in my esteem was its use of both a prologue and an epilogue.

I didn’t read the prologue, so as to leave the plot as mysterious as possible for myself (which worked well!). On skim-reading it in preparation for this review however, my issue with the prologue is the same as the epilogue; it ties up questions about the ‘Phantom’ instantly – who he really is, what he really is, and where he came from.

I much preferred seeing the ‘Phantom’ as a liminal figure who could be both man or ghost – once his presence is rationalised and his true self revealed, I felt this removed some of the horror*.

**It’s rather like seeing a magic trick performed behind the scenes, then watching the same trick being performed; something has been lost.

Furthermore, because of the prologue and epilogue, the book is written as if a true account by Leroux and thus there are a few passages of letter-reading and the inclusion of administrative documents, which is not the most dynamic way of introducing new information.

All in all, I much enjoyed reading The Phantom of the Opera, and it was nice to finally read the story on which many musicals and films have been based.

– Judith