Book Review: Kim

I chose to read Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the “Classic With a Name in the Title” category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. I was not (and am still not really) all that familiar with Kipling’s work. I knew, of course, that he wrote The Jungle Book (which I have not read), and that he had spent some time in India. I had also watched the movie, My Boy Jack, about the loss of Kipling’s son in WWI, mostly because that son was played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe.

The Plot

Kimball O’Hara is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier and a maid who lived and worked in colonial-era India. After their deaths he was raised in Lahore by a local woman who sold opium. He has learned to blend in so well that with the help of a little walnut juice and a change of clothing he can pass for any one of a number of castes or religions. This ability is made use of by Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse-trader who sometimes employs Kim as a messenger passing top secret information to his British government contacts.

Kim longs for freedom and adventure, so he jumps at the opportunity to go on a spiritual quest with a Tibetan lama. While the two are travelling south, Kim stumbles across his father’s former regiment. The two spiritual advisers of the regiment, one a Catholic priest and the other from the Church of England, insist on adopting the boy and sending him to a school for European boys in Lucknow, where he will be taught to be a “Sahib”.

This new lifestyle of regimented discipline is galling to Kim, and he accepts it only after he is sponsored by Mahbub Ali’s government handlers, and assured that when he is old enough he will be invited to play “The Great Game” for himself.

I chose to read this book because several years ago I saw a few minutes of an old movie adaption and thought it looked like it might be an interesting story. It was… eventually.

I struggled with the beginning of the book, especially with the first chapter or so where Kipling was describing Kim’s early life and his first meeting with Teshoo Lama. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right head-space to truly appreciate it, and in the back of my mind I was vaguely aware of someone once warning me off reading The Jungle Book because I would find it very different from the Disney movie.

Bearing that in mind, I found the opening of Kim a little confusing as Kipling presented a lot of backstory in a very short time. Leaping into an unfamiliar setting and introducing a number of characters in quick succession took some time and mental agility to interpret.

Once the story really got going I found it quite enjoyable, although I’m not sure where I stand on the moral implications of this, as the story is set at the height of the British “Raj”. Was I uncomfortable with the occasional racial stereotyping? Yes, but I was not surprised by it, as the book was obviously a product of its time. Could I forget that the actions of the British agents might have eventually contributed to the violence and trauma that accompanied the withdrawal of the British from India and Partition? Not entirely, although Kipling could hardly have been aware of it, since it was still almost 50 years in the future when the book was published.

Would I recommend it to others? The jury’s still out.

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Book Review: A Little Princess

I chose to read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett for the “Classic by a Woman Author” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. This one has been on my TBR for a long time, probably since I saw the 1995 movie adaption. I have also read and loved another of Burnett’s works, The Secret Garden.

The Plot

A wealthy student at “Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies”, seven-year-old Sara Crewe expects to spend only a few years studying in London before returning to India to live with her beloved father. While Sara eventually becomes quite popular with most of the other girls, the headmistress takes an instant dislike to her, jealous of the effortless way she speaks French, and considering her lavish wardrobe to be ridiculous for a child.

Sara’s life takes a sudden turn when on her 11th birthday news is received that her father has died after losing all of his fortune speculating in a diamond mine. As she has no living relatives to take her in, Sara is reduced to working as a servant in the school. In spite of the sudden change in her lifestyle she maintains her former sweet and amiable personality, willing herself always to behave as a princess would.

Sara is too good to be true, and there are a number of elements to this story which were a shade far-fetched for me. For example, at seven years old Sara is fluent in French and devours books that the teachers wouldn’t even set for the older students. We learn later in the book that Sara is also fairly fluent in Hindi, despite having not heard or spoken it for at least six years at that point.

Many of the incidents in the story also happen with astonishing rapidity. Walking in the mud on a cold, wet afternoon and longing for a hot currant bun, Sara finds herself standing in front of a bakery with a four-pence piece lying in the gutter at her feet. The ending, too, is the result of an astonishing and completely unrealistic coincidence. What I think I am saying is that the story was too obviously a story – real life so rarely works out in the way that A Little Princess does.

I would also like to say something about Miss Minchin, the hard-hearted proprietor of the school. I couldn’t understand why she kept Sara on at all after her reversal of fortune. She hated the girl, and it was clearly only the enormous fees she was receiving that reconciled her to having Sara in the school in the first place. It was not until the author explained (through a conversation with the lawyer who brought the news of Captain Crewe’s death) that I understood. Miss Minchin would have to keep Sara at her own expense, but it would cost her a great deal of lost revenue if the parents of other students found out she had thrown a pupil out on the street at the first sign of adversity. She is a mercenary of the worst kind, and her fawning behaviour whenever she was in the company of those with whom she wished to keep up the pretence of respectability was sickening.

Overall, A Little Princess was a nice easy read. I would recommend it if you’re looking for something that’s not too taxing, but be prepared to suspend your disbelief!

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Book Review: The Story Girl

I chose to read The Story Girl for the “abandoned classic” category in Karen K’s “Back to the Classics 2020” challenge.

Let me say first that I absolutely love L. M. Montgomery’s best-known works, the Anne of Green Gables series. Even so, I found it hard going the first time I attempted to read them. As a pre-teen in the 1990s who had been given the first book as a birthday present, I struggled to maintain interest. It wasn’t until after I watched the film adaptation starring Megan Follows that I was able to appreciate the rather sweet story of an 11-year-old orphan adopted by a middle-aged brother and sister. Once I was familiar with the characters I found the following books in the series much easier, and I read and reread them as a teenager and young adult.

At some point – I’m not sure exactly when – I learned that the “Anne books” were not the only ones Montgomery had written, and copies of Pat of Silver Bush and The Story Girl soon found their place on my bookshelves. I never got more than a chapter or so into either of them. I suspect that as before, the reason for this was that I wasn’t invested enough in the characters to persevere when there were so many other books out there I could be spending my time on.

The plot:

Brothers Beverley and Felix King are sent from their home in Toronto to stay with extended family on Prince Edward Island while their father travels to Rio De Janeiro to take up a promotion. They spend the summer exploring the farm and surrounds where their father was raised, alongside an assortment of cousins and neighbours.

The novel is narrated by Beverley, now an older man reminiscing about the pleasures of his youth. This is essentially a framing device, as each adventure or mishap the group experiences provides an excuse for the “Story Girl” of the title, the boys’ cousin Sara Stanley, to tell one or more short stories. The stories themselves are a mixed bag, ranging from retellings of classic myths to anecdotes about long-dead King relatives.

For those familiar with Montgomery’s other works, The Story Girl is most similar to Rainbow Valley, in that the action centres on a group of young teenagers with very little reference to or intervention from the adult characters with whom they live. Readers might also feel a sense of deja vu as some of the incidents described in The Story Girl bear a striking resemblance to episodes in the later “Anne books”. (For reference, The Story Girl was published after Anne of Avonlea, but before the novels following Anne’s early adulthood.)

Thanks to a few days of limited mobility courtesy of a recurring knee injury, I was able to finish The Story Girl relatively quickly. While not quite as charming as some of Montgomery’s works, I am going to look for the sequel, The Golden Road at some point in the future.

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2020 Back to the Classics

So I guess it’s been a while… and to be honest, I’m only really back here because I thought it might be fun to do the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. The last time I attempted one was probably three or four years ago? I remember that it was a bit of a disaster because I just ran out of time, but I’ve decided it might be time to try again.

Here are my selections for this year’s categories, taken entirely from my extremely large Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf:

1. 19th Century Classic. Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities, 1859.
2. 20th Century Classic. Aldous Huxley – Brave New World, 1932.
3. Classic by a Woman Author. Frances Hodgson Burnett – A Little Princess, 1905.
4. Classic in Translation. Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844.
5. Classic by a Person of Color. V. S. Naipaul – A House for Mr Biswas, 1961.
6. A Genre Classic. H. G. Wells – The Island of Dr Moreau, 1896.
7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Rudyard Kipling – Kim, 1901.
8. Classic with a Place in the Title. E. M. Forster – A Passage to India, 1924.
9. Classic with Nature in the Title. Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea, 1952.
10. Classic About a Family. Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited, 1945.
11. Abandoned Classic. L. M. Montgomery – The Story Girl, 1911.
12. Classic Adaptation. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina, 1877.
I will be aiming for one review a month… but no promises. Some of these I have in my personal library already (but where I’ve stored them might need some thinking about!) Some are in my local library, but I don’t think any of them will be hard to get my hands on. Finding the time to read and review them might be the challenge…
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Countdown to Craziness

I’m not going to say much right now, just that in 2 hours and 20 minutes, NaNoWriMo officially starts in my timezone. Going in without as much prep as I’ve had the past two years – this could be interesting, or a complete disaster!

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Book Review: Great Expectations

BackToTheClassics2016So it’s back to ‘Back to the Classics’. I had no difficulty choosing what book I wanted to read for the ‘re-read a classic from school’ category. I could only think of one book that met the guidelines of the challenge, that I hadn’t re-read since school. I’m counting Great Expectations – even though it wasn’t a set text, it was the book I chose for a free choice assignment in year 12 literature.

I have always had trouble with Dickens… I’m not sure why. At this point I think it must be some sort of mental block, because once I got going on Great Expectations I finished it relatively quickly (I won’t mention the three weeks it took me to get through the first 200 pages, the last 200 only took me a couple of days). I remembered very little of the book from the first read (which was 15 years ago). I don’t remember either loving or hating it, but merely forcing myself to finish it because I had to. This time around it was much the same.

The Plot:

Philip Pirrip junior, known as Pip, spent his childhood as an orphan living with his shrewish sister and her dull, blacksmith husband, Joe. Living near a river where some prison hulks are moored, he has several uncomfortable encounters with escaped convicts. For a time before he is due to be apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Pip is employed to entertain Miss Havisham, a wealthy recluse who lives in the nearby village with her adopted daughter, Estella. One day Pip is visited by a London lawyer, who informs him that a mystery benefactor has named him heir to substantial property. Pip is whisked away to London to learn the ways of a gentleman in preparation to receive these great expectations…

That’s it, really. The rest of the story is taken up with Pip’s life in London, and the eventual discovery of his benefactor. While the story has all of Dicken’s usual biting social commentary, I wouldn’t say that it was particularly eventful or memorable. It is unlikely I’ll be reading this a third time – at least, not for another 15 years!

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Book Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

BackToTheClassics2016This will be a quick review, as befits a quick read. Was it an easy read? Well there I’m not so sure.

I read this book to fulfill the requirements of the ‘classic fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopia’ category of the ‘back to the classics’ challenge. It is most certainly ‘science fiction’, but in some ways I felt that the science was more evident than the fiction. Clearly the premise is unlikely: a young man – the narrator, Axel – accompanies his uncle on an expedition to follow the footsteps of an early alchemist who had claimed to have visited the centre of the earth. Most of the novel is taken up with these two arguing about the feasibility of the journey, each relying on various scientific principles to back up their opposing opinions. The remainder of the novel is dotted with Axel’s complex descriptions of the various geology, flora, fauna and atmospheric phenomena that they encounter.

I don’t think I’ll be reading this again. The pacing was probably fine for a story originally published in serial form, but didn’t translate well to a single novel. I can’t decide whether I was more annoyed by Axel’s whinging or his uncle’s pig-headed determination, but I certainly didn’t care enough about either of them to be moved by the perils they faced. If you want to read Jules Verne, I’d suggest Around the World in 80 Days.

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Book Review: The Pink Fairy Book

BackToTheClassics2016Published in 1897, The Pink Fairy Book was my choice for the Classic Short Story Collection in the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2016.

The Pink Fairy Book is the 5th in a series of twelve collections edited by Andrew Lang, and follows on from the Blue, Red, Green and Yellow Fairy Books. Each of the twelve books contains about 40 stories collected from various oral traditions around the world. The 41 stories in the Pink Fairy Book are primarily drawn from Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy, however there are also several stories from Japan, Africa, France, and Spain. (Previous volumes in the series have also included stories from – among others – the Middle East, China, and Russia.)

Most of the stories follow the classic fairy tale template of ‘young person goes out to seek their fortune, and through showing kindness to disguised fairies or enchanted animals enlists their aid against corrupt monarchs or wicked witches’. *Spoiler alert* the good characters end up living happily ever after, while the evil characters end up being suitably punished.

You won’t find any of your favourite Disney princesses in this one, (most of them can be found in the Blue and Red Fairy Books) but some of the stories here are very similar to those that appeared in the previous coloured fairy books – as Lang freely admits in his preface. The series as a whole is amazing, and beautifully illustrated, but, perhaps as a result of the repetitions, the Pink Fairy Book doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the previous volumes.


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Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

BackToTheClassics2016In 1931, Ngaio Marsh spent a rainy afternoon reading a detective story. She wondered to herself whether she could write a novel in the style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, and aimed to create a detective without the stereotypical eccentricities of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

She certainly proved her ability in the genre, as A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934 and spawned over 30 sequels.

Plot: Sir Hubert Handesley invites a group of bright young things to a weekend party at his country house. The main attraction is to be a ‘murder’, a game that is currently all the rage in fashionable society. One of the guests will be secretly handed a token denoting them the ‘murderer’ – they in turn will attempt to get one of the other guests alone and inform them they are the ‘victim’. The remaining guests then hold a ‘trial’ to see if they can unmask the villain.

Shortly before dinner on the second evening, the agreed upon signal that the murder has occurred is given, but when the guests assemble around what they assume is a fake corpse, the antique knife sticking out of his back turns out to be all too real. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn…

On the plus side, A Man Lay Dead was a short and entertaining read. It followed the formula of a typical 1930s whodunit, with a number of suspects who all had reason to want the victim dead.

On the negative side…

  • Alleyn’s investigations are methodical, but he really doesn’t find any useful clues
  • Some of the forensic details are laughable (for example, rather than asking all the suspects to give their fingerprints for comparison, the police choose to assume that fingerprints found in bathrooms belong to the occupants of the adjoining rooms – even though it is stated quite clearly that the bathrooms are being shared by multiple guests)
  • A good half of the narrative is taken up with a sub-plot which basically goes nowhere – while it exonerates a couple of the suspects it provides no insight into who the actual murderer might be.

These aren’t really fatal flaws, and I’m not saying don’t read it. I’m just saying the ending of A Man Lay Dead probably won’t come as a surprise. Since I read this in an anthology edition with the next two books in the series, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder, I’ll be rolling on and reading those two next. Hopefully I’ll find them a little harder to crack.

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When writing sucks

Remember that tangled mess of a short story I wrote about about six weeks ago? I fixed it. I was really proud of it. I submitted it to a competition…

It wasn’t even shortlisted. Finding this out has pretty much ruined my day. The rejection an author faces can tear your heart out if you let it.

I know I shouldn’t take it personally.  I keep reminding myself that there were over 200 entries, and the longlist was the decision of a single judge. (The longlist wasn’t published, so I don’t know whether I made it that far or not.)

I haven’t read the winning entry yet, but the way the judges described it makes it sound amazing. I wish people would talk about my stories with so much enthusiasm.

I’m submitting another story to another competition today. I’m really proud of it – at least I was. Now I’m secretly wondering if it’s worth the cost of printing and postage…and the dejection I might feel when I hear the results.

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