Saturday, 13 August 2016

Review: 'The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet' by Bernie Su, Kate Rorick

You know that moment when you realise you actually own a book you've been wanting to read forever but that you just... sort of... forgot about it? It makes me want to hit myself violently with said book, but it happens too often for me to be able to attempt that without causing permanent brain damage. In this latest case I am talking about The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet which I requested actual years ago and only ever read the first few chapters of before being distracted. Yes, I can't believe it either that I managed to get distracted from anything Pride & Prejudice either. I am deeply ashamed!

Pub. Date: 24/06/2014
Publisher: Touchstone

Based on the Emmy Award–winning YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
Twenty‑four‑year‑old grad student Lizzie Bennet is saddled with student loan debt and still living at home along with her two sisters—beautiful Jane and reckless Lydia. When she records her reflections on life for her thesis project and posts them on YouTube, she has no idea The Lizzie Bennet Diaries will soon take on a life of their own, turning the Bennet sisters into internet celebrities seemingly overnight.
When rich and handsome Bing Lee comes to town, along with his stuck‑up friend William Darcy, things really start to get interesting for the Bennets—and for Lizzie’s viewers. But not everything happens on‑screen. Lucky for us, Lizzie has a secret diary.
The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet takes readers deep inside Lizzie’s world and well beyond the confines of her camera—from the wedding where she first meets William Darcy to the local hangout of Carter’s bar, and much more. Lizzie’s private musings are filled with revealing details about the Bennet household, including her growing suspicions about her parents’ unstable financial situation, her sister’s budding relationship with Bing Lee, the perils of her unexpected fame, and her uncertainty over her future—and whom she wants to share it with.
Featuring plenty of fresh twists to delight fans and new readers alike, The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet expands on the web series phenomenon that captivated a generation and reimagines the Pride and Prejudice story like never before.
After shamefully forgetting about The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden remembering of me owning it while watching the 2005 Pride & Prejudice adaptation last week. That's when I remembered the Youtube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and how funny and clever it was! And then came the recollection of the novel waiting patiently on my Kindle. So I got straight to reading it. First, some background which is quite crucial. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is based upon the above mentioned Youtube series which was crazy popular when it was going. It was a modern reworking of Jane Austen's famous Pride & Prejudice, making the most of Youtube as a creative medium and of Austen's novel. It made P&P fun for those who thought it was stuffy and boring (those are the worst type of people), and made Youtube fun for me. Turning this into a novel could have gone horribly wrong since it is one more step down the adaptation ladder. Make a novel out of a Youtube series based on a novel? Although I still wouldn't recommend this for any other Youtube series, it did work for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Adaptations of my favourite novel are always sketchy for me. Loving the original so much means that any adaptation has to meet a very high standard, one which is practically impossible to meet. (Aside from that I am also one of those "heathens" who prefers the 2005 film over the BBC adaptation.) Whereas some recent adaptations didn't entirely work for me, The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet does absolute justice to what lies at the heart of Jane Austen's novel: the Bennet family. Austen was brilliant at showing the different family relationships in all their highs and lows, especially the relationship between the sisters, and this is something that also comes across in Su and Rorick's adaptation. They remain true to how relatable all of Austen's characters, to their humanity, something that always strikes me anew when I read her books. It updates and changes things, changing characters and places etc., but stays true to itself throughout which makes all of these changes feel logical. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is also fun, laugh out loud fun at times, and it will be one of those reads you finish before you even realize it. It is of course also utterly re-readable.

One of the only potentially negative points about The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is that, being something of a tie-in to the Youtube show, it does feel necessary to watch the show as well. The two compliment each other very well, with the novel expanding enormously on things only mentioned casually in the videos, and in reverse the videos giving you a great visual to go with the novel. Thankfully the Youtube series is great so watching it will be no hardship to those who enjoyed the novel, but I did at times feel like I had to abandon the novel at times to rewatch the series and remind myself of things, especially at the beginning. However, the novel is very well-written. This could have been a very lazy writing job, with Su and Rorick depending on readers loving the series and therefore not attempting anything new or appreciating the different medium they're working with. This is not the case, however, and the writing is delightful. Although it doesn't touch Austen's quick wit or biting criticism, it is one of the best re-working of P&P I have ever read.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is enormous fun and is a very easy and quick read. Su and Rorick have their way with Austen in a way Austen herself would have loved, which makes this something of a must for anyone who loves Lizzie Bennet and Pride & Prejudice. I'd also recommend this of fans who like Romance and YA Fiction.

Review: 'The House Between Tides' by Sarah Maine

The House Between TidesI keep repeating this point but it is a crucial point: blurbs are so important. They are what draws you to a book, truly draws you in, not just attracts you like the cover does. The House Between Tides brought together some stunning things: mystery, ancestral homes, a body, and the Outer Hebrides. Nothing more was needed to make me want to read Sarah Maine's debut novel. Thanks t Netgalley and Atria Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/08/2016
Publisher: Atria Books
Fans of Kate Morton will love this atmospheric and immersive debut novel of a woman who returns to her ancestral home in Scotland and discovers a century-old secret buried in the basement.
Following the deaths of her last living relatives, Hetty Deveraux leaves her strained marriage behind in London and returns to her ancestral home, a crumbling estate in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, with the intention of renovating and reselling it as a hotel, much to the dismay of the locals. As she dives headfirst into the repairs, she discovers human remains beneath a rotting floorboard in the basement, with few physical clues to identify the body. Who was this person? And why the makeshift grave?
Hungry for answers, Hetty sets out to unravel the estate’s secret—and those of its former inhabitants, including Beatrice Blake, a woman who moved there a century ago with her husband Theo, a famous painter who seemed to be more interested in Cameron, a young local man, than his own wife.
Following whispered rumors and a handful of leads, Hetty soon discovers that no one knows exactly what happened to Beatrice, only that her actions have reverberated throughout history, affecting Hetty’s present in startling ways.
As some of you may know, I currently still live in Scotland so I love novels set here. The Scottish landscape is incredibly emotive, stunningly wild and expressive, beautiful and dangerous at the same time. It is the kind of landscape that becomes an extra character, it changes where the story goes, affects the feel of the book overall. Maine's descriptions of the Outer Hebrides are beautiful and are a part of some of the best moments in the book. There is an environmental awareness to this book which is triggered by the role of the landscape. This goes hand in hand with Maine's awareness of the importance of class in the United Kingdom. Although discussions of feminism and race have taken precedence over the discussion of class in recent years, it is becoming a topic again due to how latent class difference is affecting modern day politics. Maine works out the 19th-century tension between the upper class which struggles with its entitlement and the lower class which struggles with their disenfranchisement and shows its repercussions in the modern day. It makes for really interesting reading and is one of the few contemporary novels I've read lately which addresses these topics.

A novel split into two different stories always runs the danger that one of them is more interesting than the other, leaving the reader to dread shifting between them, rushing through one story just to get back to the other. This isn't entirely the case with The House Between Tides. Both Hetty's story in the present and Beatrice Blake story in the past are well-written and interesting, with different things going for them. But it is the latter where the emphasis seems to lie. Beatrice feels realer, more fleshed out, and her part of the novel is also where most of the action and most of the revelations take place. At times Hetty isn't as interesting, too easily swayed by other characters to the point where you want to shout at her. But her story does function very well as a framework for Beatrice's. In a brilliant way, Maine informs her "present day story" with what she reveals in her "past story", which brings out almost thriller-like elements in The House Between Tides. Combining history and mystery together always makes for a fast and engrossing read, and Maine makes sure to keep the reader enticed with little twists and turns.

As said above, Maine's nature descriptions are absolutely stunning. Her writing paints beautiful pictures which are recognisable to anyone who has seen even pictures of the Outer Hebrides, let alone been there. For a debut novel, Maine's writing style is very strong. Her characterisations are on point, dialogue believable and there are some really great moments in which she keeps the tension going very well. It's historic elements are well-researched and don't read as antiquated and irrelevant, which is unfortunately frequently the case with historical novels. Although perhaps not quite as intriguing as Rebecca, to which Maine's novel is being compared, The House Between Tides does keep its reader going. It's set up as a puzzle, which means the reader can race through the novel very easily. Although the conclusion isn't a major surprise, but the way there is major fun.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

The House Between Tides is a great historical novel which explores different time lines and class tensions. Maine's writing is beautiful and intriguing, even if at times the narrative flags a little bit. I'd recommend this book to fans of Historical Fiction and Suspense!

Friday, 12 August 2016

Friday Memes: '"Keep the Damned Women Out": The Struggle for Coeducation' by Nancy Weiss Malkiel

I love being at university and the last four years have incredibly enriched my life. So the idea that only a generation ago coeducation (the education of men and women together) at university level was still a very contentious topic and that this would've made  my life completely different is quite scary. So when I saw "Keep the Damned Women Out" I knew I wanted to read it.
As the tumultuous decade of the 1960s ended, a number of very traditional, very conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities in the United States and the United Kingdom decided to go coed, seemingly all at once, in a remarkably brief span of time. Coeducation met with fierce resistance. As one alumnus put it in a letter to his alma mater, “Keep the damned women out.” Focusing on the complexities of institutional decision making, this book tells the story of this momentous era in higher education—revealing how coeducation was achieved not by organized efforts of women activists, but through strategic decisions made by powerful men. 
In America, Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth began to admit women; in Britain, several of the men’s colleges at Cambridge and Oxford did the same. What prompted such fundamental change? How was coeducation accomplished in the face of such strong opposition? How well was it implemented? Nancy Weiss Malkiel explains that elite institutions embarked on coeducation not as a moral imperative but as a self-interested means of maintaining a first-rate applicant pool. She explores the challenges of planning for the academic and non-academic lives of newly admitted women, and shows how, with the exception of Mary Ingraham Bunting at Radcliffe, every decision maker leading the charge for coeducation was male. 
Drawing on unprecedented archival research, “Keep the Damned Women Out” is a breathtaking work of scholarship that is certain to be the definitive book on the subject.
Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda over at Freda's Voice.

Book Beginning:
The 1960s marked a major turning point in elite higher education in the United States and the United Kingdom. As the decade opened, colleges and universities closely resembled the institutions they had been in the 1950s and earlier. By end of the 1960s, so much had changed. The familiar contours of college and university life had been upended and reshaped in profoundly important ways: in the composition of student bodies and faculties, structures of governance, ways of doing institutional business, and relationships to he public issues of the day.' p.1
This perhaps isn't the most immediately riveting read, but as some of you may know I'm trying to work my way through university after university, degree after degree, so I was immediately interested in this book. As a woman I was expecting to be able to go to University, as long as I got the grades and scrambled the money together, so I wanted to know more about the decade in which women were officially allowed into "elite higher education".

Friday 56:
''The Yale Daily News welcomed Griswold's denial. "Oh save us!" the paper exclaimed: "Oh save us from the giggling crowds, the domestic lecture, an the home economics classes of a female infiltration... We will not spend our 25th reunion drinking with overweight matrons and their husbands who went to Hofstra."' p.56
Oh God, the fear of women and the not even secret sexism and prejudice that runs through that quote fro the Yale Daily News. It is never easy to change the status quo, but it is a shame that it always has to meet with such resistance.

What are you reading this Friday?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Review: 'Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle 1)' by Jay Kristoff

Jay Kristoff is one of those authors that everyone seems to have read while I am lingering pathetically behind. But here I am, catching up with the blogosphere at the beginning of Kristoff's new series. With assassins. In an Italian Rennaissance setting. YES! I'm also a part of the blog tour for the release of this novel and got to ask Jay Kristoff some questions about Nevernight earlier this week. Hop over to the Q&A to see what he has to say about footnotes! Thanks to HarperCollins and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/08/2016
Publisher: HarperCollins UK

The first in a new fantasy series from the New York Times bestselling author.
In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.
Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.
Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. 
But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.
Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?
Sometimes all a girl wants is a book about a girl who is an assassin and a sass-master. At over 600 pages Nevernight isn't a short book by any means, and as the first book in a new series it has a lot of work to do. Kristoff introduces Mia Corvere in a brilliant first chapter which I simply have to talk about for a second because it's perhaps one of the best contemporary opening chapters I have ever read. Kristoff combines describing Mia at "work" as assassin and Mia as a normal girl. Woven in at the same time is the set-up of Mia's journey. The first chapter is a pretty good indicator for the rest of the book in which Kristoff never forgets its main character. In a strange twist of fate, Young Adult novels are so full of characters who strike you as neither Young nor Adult. There is either not enough fun or there's so much fun there is no story. Mia is one of the best YA characters I have read in a while, even though her situation is definitely not one most readers will be able to recognise. She is also surrounded by a great set of side-characters, who all develop in a really interesting way. There are some typical Fantasy-tropes which Nevernight engages with but in usually in an interesting way. There is violence, gore, sex (not the 'and then we made love but that's all I'm going to say'-type either), some politics and religion, and loads of moments that made me go 'nice!'. The pages do almost fly by.

What I loved most about Nevernight was the world-building. A Fantasy novel simply can't do without and yet so many seem determined to do so anyway. There was/is something of an epidemic of Tolkien-esque fantasy novels which are basically lacking rehashes of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Too often the landscapes are boringly recognizable and no effort is made to create any kind of culture, history or system of religion. Not so in Nevernight. The footnotes may not be for everyone, but Kristoff clearly has ideas about what it is he wants to see in his world. There is a distinct Italian feel to Mia Corvere's world, from her name to the description of the architecture to the set up of the Republic. There are gods and goddesses, street gangs, familias with country estates, and, of course, a school for assassins. It felt different in a way that was really good. I was completely sucked in by Kristoff's world, by Mia's voice and by the Republic's history. This is how world-building should be done, creating something fun and interesting that readers want to sink into, while always letting the reader know there is more, much more. Especially when starting a new series that is exactly what a good author should be doing.

I really enjoyed Jay Kristoff's writing style, more so than I was perhaps expecting. On the one hand his writing is very descriptive and atmospheric, but on the other hand there is this historic edge to it with footnotes full of background information, random dates, and characters you'll probably never hear about again. It works very well for me but that is because I'm a nerd for world-building. There is a dark moodiness to Nevernight as well which fits perfectly with the book's topic. However, I don't think it will be for everyone. There is a lot of unnecessary information, at times the description is very heavy and the prose a little bit dense. The beginning of the plot, after a great first chapter, takes quite some time to get underway, to get to what most readers want to read about, i.e. the assassin boot camp. However, if you're willing to stick with it then Nevernight definitely rewards your patience and determination.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Nevernight, it was a great introduction to Kristoff for me but also a great beginning to a new series. He creates a fascinating world in this novel, one which at times almost overshadows the story he is telling, which is grittier than what you're usually served in the YA Fantasy genre. I'd recommend this not just to fans of Jay Kristoff but also to Fantasy and even maybe Historical Fiction fans.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Q&A with Jay Kristoff for 'Nevernight'

Yup, you read that right! Not only did I get the chance to devour Nevernight last month, HarperCollins was also fabulous enough to let me ask Jay Kristoff a few questions about his book! My review for Nevernight will be up on the release date, i.e. the 11th, so keep your eyes peeled for that. But for now, let's see what Mr. Kristoff had to say for himself when grilled by adoring me.

Q. In Nevernight you address a lot of common worries teenagers have regarding sex, looks, etc. through some of Mia's experiences. Was it important for you to make Mia feel like a "normal" girl and for the world she lives in to feel recognisable to readers?

Most definitely. Readers fall in love with characters, not worlds. Mia is the heart and soul of NEVERNIGHT, and if she didn’t work as a character, the book simply wouldn’t work. Even though there are some distinctly earth-shattering events going down the pages, even though she’s driven by her quest for revenge, first and foremost, I wanted Mia to be relatable. That’s the real challenge of writing a compelling assassin character—nobody wants to read a story about an inhuman killing machine, and keeping a cold-blooded killer likeable is a tricky dance.

Q. Something that fascinated me about the book were the footnotes, interjecting the narrative withhistorical trivia, and it reminded me a little bit of Ivanhoe and Walter Scott's desire for it to come across as a historical and edited text. Were you going for a similar impression or was it a way for you to bring in extra story material?

The footnotes really serve three purposes:
  1.      I’m the kind of author who likes to build complex worlds, and I love reading books with ultra-granular settings. But, I understand not everyone enjoys those same kinds of books. So the footnotes are a way for me to delve into some intensive world building without troubling people who don’t like that level of detail—they can just skip the notes.
  2.     Nevernight could have been a really bleak, depressing book if I let it, and so much epic fantasy these days is almost unrelentingly grim. One of the reasons I loved Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora was that it made me laugh. So the notes are a tool I can use to lighten the mood, and hopefully bring a smile to the face of readers who’re delving into what is ultimately a very dark, gory tale.
  3.     Breaking the fourth wall. The narrator is a character, and he’s talking to you, the reader. Footnotes are a handy way to do that without breaking wall in the narrative itself.
Q. The  structure of the Republic has a very medieval Italian feel to it, especially with the familias. What were the historical and literary influences on this new series?

First off, I love Italy. I’ve been there six or seven times. I lived in a restored monastery in Venice (no fear, I didn’t have to take any vows) and and my wife and I also lived in and got married in Rome. I’m also a huge history nerd, and two of my favourite periods are Merchant Prince Venice and the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Caesars. I’ve been studying both those periods for over twenty years, so you could honestly say there’s 20 years of research in this book.

The entire setting really began as a thought experiment for me—trying to imagine what might have happened if Julius Caesar’s march on Rome failed, and the Republic endured until the medieval period. 

Q. Nevernight, as well as your other works, are very much about family bonds, about struggling in order to achieve something and about sacrifice. What about these themes attracts you so much? And do you think Fantasy is the genre that best allows you to write about it?

Sacrifice is essential to victory, imo. Stories where the heroes never lose anything, never fail, never get hurt or even perish bore me to tears. I want my reader to be afraid that the characters they love won’t come through the book alive. As for family, battles against our parents and siblings are really the first true conflicts we fight—we find out who we are and what our limits are by clashing with our families. If we’re lucky, the bonds we form there will endure the rest of our lives, and bonds that strong make a wonderful playground for storytelling. There aren’t many people you can love or hate so much as your own blood.
I’m not sure if fantasy is the best genre for these kinds of stories, but for me, fantasy is always a genre I’ll love. I grew up reading it, so I can’t help but want to write it now that I’m lucky enough to get to do this for a living.
And thank you, by the way, to all you amazing readers who let me do that.

Q. And finally, if you could go back to any historical period, which one would it be?

You know, history seems very romantic and dramatic from behind the safety of a history book. But truth is, even in periods as amazing as the Rome of the Caesars or the courts of the doges, life for regular people was often short and brutal. Imagine a world without penicillin or functional sewers or toothpaste. Imagine a world where slavery was an everyday part of life. Imagine no electricity or running water.
We live in an amazing time. We carry the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets, we send people into space, we unlock the building blocks of the universe.
Still, hanging out in the court of Augustus would be pretty kickass.

Nevernight comes out on the 12th of August and I highly recommend it! Check it out on Goodreads, Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

Friday, 5 August 2016

War and Peace #12: II.x.24 - III.xi.18

Yup, I decided to speed up the process a little bit which was a partly tragic decision since I've been told off by my dissertation supervisor that I need to refocus my attention... but how can I when Napoleon and the French army are at the gates of Moscow and my dissertation only leads to nervous breakdowns in the middle of the night? This isn't the biggest and most complex of posts because I've been busy. Naturally there is quite a lot to get through so let's get started!

Summary of Chapters:
With Pierre having well and truly arrived at the front, Tolstoy takes us into the preparations for the Battle of Borodino. Prince Andrew is frustrated at the constant arguing by generals about positions and plans, when it is not them or their plans which will determine the outcome of the battle. Tolstoy then switches to Napoleon and gives us a fascinating insight into what he imagines his mind to be like. Convinced of his own magnanimity, he cannot imagine anything but a French victory. This allows Tolstoy another chance to talk about how unimportant he thinks a single person, even if that person is Napoleon, is to the course of history. When the actual Battle starts Tolstoy manages to shift perspectives in such ways the reader truly feels they get an understanding of what happens. Pierre's initial amazement turns into slow horror at the bloodshed, Napoleon's initial pride turns into shock, and Prince Andrew is shook out of his reverie by a mortar shell. Wounded, he is carried to a medic tent where he witnesses Anatole Kuragin's leg being amputated. The Battle of Borodino falls onto these characters like a bomb, shaking up how they look at the world and themselves. The Battle ends with a moral victory for Russia but with the certainty that Moscow will still have to be surrendered.

Meanwhile Helene in Petersburg has decided she can do better and converses to Catholicism and plans to remarry. Pierre makes his way back to Moscow, still shocked, and has once again been told that Prince Andrew is presumed dead. It's becoming a habit with that man. In Moscow the Rostovs are finally packing up their possessions for an escape to the countryside, while wounded soldiers start streaming into the city, the French army hot on their heels. Still adorably self-involved, they don't seem to notice until it awakens something in Natasha who has recovered from her illness, post-Anatole. She reorganises the packing, until she decides to fill the carriages with the wounded rather than the china. One of these happens to be Prince Andrew, who is in fact not dead, but the two don't meet. Pierre meanwhile needs an escape from the world and hides at the house of his deceased Masonry-tutor.

Feel of the Chapters:
Most of the chapters for this week centre around the Battle of Borodino. Tolstoy definitely has a knack for describing battle scenes. By switching between different characters' perspectives the reader definitely gets a more complete view of the Battle and how it can affect different types of people. While those in charge get to walk around and make decisions without actually putting themselves in danger, Tolstoy also shows us how the soldiers themselves actually cope with the fighting. There is real humanity in those chapters as well as some beautiful moments of camaraderie.

The switch from the Battle to Moscow at times felt a bit jarring but I think that was the purpose as well. To see the upper classes taking their casual time fleeing when people are dying only a few miles away is off-putting but that is exactly the point.

General Points:

  • Natasha has slowly become a really interesting character. On the one hand she feels very child-like and easily excited, but she has an incredibly good heart. Easily distracted, but usually dedicated to the right cause.
  • It's so interesting how important Napoleon is to European narratives. He had a major impact on European culture, from a sense of nationality to seemingly random yet crucial things like registration of civilians. 
  • Pierre still rubs me the wrong way. His insistence at being at the Battle and his subsequent lack of, well, action just doesn't work for me. On the one hand he provides an amateur window into the Battle, but he is also so full of prejudices from his own class that I can't accept his opinions.
'War is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. It all lies in that: get rid of falsehood and let war be war and not a game.' 64%
I very much agreed with Prince Andrew's opinions about war, his annoyance at those in charge as well as the concept of heroism.
'But Helene, like a really great man who can do whatever he pleases, at once assumed her own position to be correct, as she sincerely believed it to be, and that everyone else was to blame.' 69%
After so long of Tolstoy talking down about Helene I was very pleased to see him sort of crediting her as well as pointing out the double standard regarding genders.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Review: 'Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel' by Alan Sillitoe

As some of you may know, I absolutely love travelling. And although I love travelling to faraway places, there is simply something about travelling around Europe which I simply love. Perhaps because the cultures feel so close to home and yet so different, the beautiful architectures and landscapes which, as a European, feel like they were made for me... basically I'm a Europhile. And as a non-Brit living in Britain I've grown increasingly intrigued at how us Europeans are viewed by the islanders. So when I saw Alan Sillitoe's Leading the Blind I was immediately interested. Thanks to Netgalley and Open Road Media for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 12/07/2016
Publisher: Open Road Media

A journey into nineteenth-century travel guides to the UK, Europe, and Soviet Union as researched and written by one of England’s most distinguished authors.
In this quirky and illuminating social history, bestselling British author Alan Sillitoe culls fascinating details from Victorian-era guidebooks and travelogues in order to recount the pleasures, dangers, traps, and delights of travel in the century leading up to World War I. For instance, in Switzerland, an English officer once fell into a bears’ den and was “torn in pieces.” In Paris, the outdoor seating at cafés was in “unpleasant proximity to the gutters.” In Germany and the Rhine, the denominations marked on coins did not necessarily indicate their value. And in Northern Italy, a traveler could look forward to a paradise of citron and myrtle, palms and cyclamen.
For the armchair traveler journeying into a bygone era, Sillitoe begins with the essential practicalities relevant to any tourist: the price of passports and visas, how best to clear customs, and how many bags to pack. He includes timeless advice, such as: Board a boat on an empty stomach if you are prone to seasickness, and always break in your boots before embarking on a trip. Anachronistic recommendations abound as well: It is best to leave your servant at home, carry your milk with you when traveling to small Italian villages, and not pay children and “donkey women” for flowers.
From convalescent hotels in the South of France to malaria-ridden marshes between Rome and Naples, and from the chaos of Sicily and southern Italy to the dazzling bullfights and rampant thieves of sunny Spain, Sillitoe guides readers through the minutiae of the Mediterranean with wit and historical insight. Then he takes an anecdote-filled road east into Greece, Egypt, the Holy Lands, Turkey, and Russia. Of course, the Grand Tour would not be complete without a thorough account of his home turf of England, with her idiosyncratic hamlets, smoke-filled skies, and working-class townsfolk in high-buckled shoes.
At once a fascinating history of travel books from 1815 to 1914 and an entertaining ode to wanderlust, Leading the Blind brings to life the absurd and profound wonders of Victorian globetrotting. With simple but captivating prose, Sillitoe also shows how the way we view foreign lands can reveal a lot about what is happening at home.
Travel has been a crucial part of British culture, for the upper classes that is, since the Napoleonic wars. Once relative peace arrived in Europe, the Brits started venturing out. And for that, they needed guide books. Some of the most famous British novels, such as A Room with a View for example, not only show protagonists on these travels but even make reference to such famous guide books as Baedeker's ones. Initially this took the form of the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuury, during which young heirs, and sometimes heiresses, were let loose on the Continent to soak up as much culture and learning before settling down in their country manors. Sillitoe gives his readers access to a more commercialised type of travelling, sharing excerpts from different types of guidebooks which he humorously surrounds with his own thoughts, bringing together the process of going travelling as well as different locations. I loved reading some of the thoughts Victorian Brits had about France and Spain, or how different European countries were compared.

The UK and Europe have a fascinating history, one that has been trademarked by a slight hesitation on one side and a slight apprehension on the other. Naturallly what interested me the most about Leading the Blind, and what makes it also quite a contemporary and important novel, is, to bring it up again, the relationship between the UK and the rest of the world, but especially Europe. Leading the Blind contains both interesting trivia as well as space for contemplation. For example, I did not know passports and visas were already required in the 19th century, and am slightly mad over how cheap they were. At the same time Sillitoe pays attention to the British idea that they improved the continent through its attention, the proud fact that their money spawned so many guesthouses for the specific British presence, and that of course this could only be good. There is a sense of superiority in these excerpts which feels almost awkward, as if it is at least partially forced. Also interesting was the growth of the middle class which has made possible the society we currently try to enjoy.

Sillitoe makes Leading the Blind a very entertaining book when it could have been a very boring one. Social history doesn't exactly scream excitement to most readers, but there is something beautifully innocent about these guidebooks and how much they reveal. Whether it's astonishment over the behaviour of some Brits abroad or the constant reminders that of course some areas simply were not suited for women's sentiments, the guidebook excerpts chosen by Sillitoe reveal an incredibly amount of information about British sentiments and how they have changed. Because that's an added factor of interest as well. Leading the Blind covers guide books from the Victorian Era to the First World War, covering one of the calmest and yet most revolutionary centuries in European history. The world changed a lot between 1815 and 1914, and I enjoyed seeing this century through different glasses. I wasn't familiar with Alan Sillitoe or his writing before Leading the Blind. His writing is incredibly enjoyable and I will definitely be looking out for more of his work. Apparently he was one of the "angry young men" of the 50s, which is something I'm immediately going to investigate.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Leading the Blind is an incredibly fun and interesting read. Those two things don't often fit together as nicely as Sillitoe makes them fit in Leading the Blind. It's a perfect holiday read, especially if you're visiting Europe, but also great for those of us who have to remain at home. I'd recommend this to people interested in social history.