Book review: Animal Farm

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)Animal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: ★★★★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a striking little novel which fuses an easy to follow short story with a savage political satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by the darker elements of human nature. It charts a farm’s descent from the early hope of a better future, after its animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords, to the encroaching and increasingly perverse rule of the all powerful Napoleon in an unnervingly calm, step-by-step plot. With it’s benefit of (unstated) historical hindsight, alongside the artistic use of animals to represent historical individuals, Orwell’s writing demonstrates a brooding authority which marks the self-serving and tragic implications of each plot development as both frighteningly stark and desperately out of the reader’s control.

Many of the animals represent different social institutions, groups or individuals; Mr Jones is the careless, cruel and often drunk man who initially owns the farm who represents the bourgeois enemy of the suffering proletariat that is the animals; Moses, the tamed raven of Mr Jones, represents the Church, with his persuasive, comforting and distracting tale of a country called “Sugarcandy Mountain” in the sky where all animals go to when they die and live in eternal bliss. Two other characters who stand out are Boxer; an immensely strong and unquestioning horse committed wholeheartedly to following his revolutionary leaders, and Squealer; a clever pig who has such a talented way with words that he “could turn black into white,” who acts as the emergent regime’s mouthpiece spewing its increasingly contradictory propaganda.

After overthrowing Mr Jones the animals, led by the pigs who learn to read and write, decree the seven commandments of the ideology of Animalism on the barn wall to which all agree. Attention is then quickly turned to the labour of the hay harvest but it is just before this when the first tangible chink in the armour of what Orwell calls a ‘fairy story’ appears. Before the hard labour of harvest is carried out by the animals, the cows are milked by the pigs which produces buckets full of creamy, tasty looking milk to which the animals eyes lustily fall aware that all farm produce now belongs to all animals equally. However Napoleon, one of the cleverest pigs, tells the animals to forget the milk for now and to concentrate on the vital work of the harvest. However, “when they came back in the evening it was noticed that the milk had disappeared.”

From this dark hint at the future the animals, led by the naturally more intelligent pigs, proceed to run the farm on their terms rather than under the whim of man. However a rivalry between two of the more intelligent pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, rapidly emerges. This is largely based on their very different natures; Napoleon is used to get his own way and adept at quietly gathering support, whilst Snowball is more expressive of his ideas and a great public speaker who is able to eloquently persuade the other animals at public debates. The two also constantly oppose each other’s ideas.

This rivalry undoubtedly represents an analogy of the great power struggle in post revolution, post-Lenin USSR between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One particularly powerful parallel which stood out to me was the debate around the defence of the farm. Napoleon suggests the animals should be trained in the use of weapons to strengthen their own farm against any human attackers, compared to Snowball’s preference to send pigeon messengers to other farms to spread the word of Animalism to help create unrest and possible rebellion, thereby reducing the amount of enemies. This broadly follows the rival ideas of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country policy which prioritised the internal strengthening of the Soviet Union compared with Trotsky’s ideas of continual international revolution.

Snowball is chased and banished from the farm with Napoleon seizing control and quickly installing fear into the animals. The maxim that Napoleon can never be wrong is adopted and the collective history of the farm’s rebellion is also changed to reduce the prominence of Snowball. Orwell then depicts every stage of the Farm’s descent into a paranoid, violent dictatorship led by the all powerful Napoleon. There are false propaganda campaigns, absurdly fabricated production statistics but yet still famine, show trial purges of former animal allies and blatant compromises of the previous principles of Animalism. Primarily all of these principles are broken but the most obvious are the killing of animals by other animals as well as the emergence of an unequal allocation of labour. This is between most animals having to work like slaves whilst starving and the pigs who very do little other than feast and increasingly live like their former human masters.

The book ends in dramatic and tragic fashion. The remaining ‘lower animals’ take a peek into the former home of Mr Jones where the pigs now live. After inviting the neighbouring human farm owners around to feast the animals outside overhear the pigs discuss their joint interests. Animalism is truly dead with the interests of the privileged few reinforced and the pigs; who sit, talk and drink like their former human enemies, and in fact rule more harshly; are impossible to tell apart from the humans during their heated final words during drunken a card game.

Best Quote: It may be a cliché but it’s hard to look beyond the infamous: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Have you ever read Animal Farm or any other novels by George Orwell? If so, please leave your comments below.

Advertisements

Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again

250px-BatmanDK2Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Basics: Frank Miller’s sequel to his seminal The Dark Knight Returns series sees Bruce Wayne set his sights on liberating a decadent America ruled by a shadowy dictatorship led by Lex Luthor.

In-depth: After recently finishing the excellent and inspiring The Dark Knight Returns (DKR), of which you can read my review here, I naively rushed into purchasing this sequel. However soon after I became aware of the universal disappointment with which this graphic novel is held, which appears to have been constant since its release in 2001, and I definitely share it.

The plot leaves plenty to be desired which I will get to below. What really stands out, even to a amateur admirer of graphic novels such as I, is the shockingly poor quality of the artwork. The sharp and glorious frames of the DKR are long gone; replaced with heavy, over-cartoonish and what appeared to be very rushed drawings which do not make you want to continue reading. Many pages are simply wasted on over futuristic streaks of colour and massively over-sized simplistic characters.

There is also a troubling streak of sexism evident in this novel series. Carrie Kelley, the former Robin in Dark Knight Returns, is now Batgirl in a skin tight lycra suit with accompanying roller skates whilst uttering a weird reference to “swallowing.” This theme continues with largely irrelevant and bizarre TV sex themed news channels filling much of the novel’s narration, in stark contrast to the news readers which were hilariously and mercilessly mocked in the DKR. Wonder Woman is also depicted in perhaps one of the worst frames in the novel.

Regarding the plot; Bruce Wayne, known to the world as Batman but believed dead after his faked death at the end of the DKR, has completed training his army of Batboys, who were the former members of the Mutants gang. Aided by Catgirl and the Batboys, Batman breaks into a number of government buildings to break out imprisoned superheros. The DC universe is fully mined with appearances from many including Atom, Flash, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Green Arrow and Elongated Man; the worst of this sad series of unrealistic and second rate characters who merely flood the pages and take vital space away from the cover character who is simply not in this enough, make up the ranks. Superman and Wonder Woman are relegated by their blackmailing into upholding Luthor’s rule.

After a fierce battle and the successful neutralising of the Government stooge Superman, who is motivated solely by the threatened destruction of his home city of Kandor, Batman unites all of the other heros to overthrow Luthor’s rule which is fronted by the US administration of President Rickard, who is merely a hologram hiding Luthor and his ally Brainiac. This produces an end times battle which consumes the cities of Gotham and Metropolis. Little care is produced by this clunky plot that is so large it is difficult and tiresome to follow at times. It may sound a strange criticism to say of a Batman graphic novel but the story is far too unrealistic and all encompassing, as is the futuristic and undeveloped artwork, and only goes to reinforce an unwelcome contrast to the gritty realism of the DKR. It really is genuinely difficult to believe this series came from the same Frank Miller who also produced the DKR and Batman: Year One.

The one saving grace for me is the interesting, but crowbarred, ending where the former Robin, Dick Grayson, suddenly returns to emulate the Joker with a mad killing spree of Batman’s allies. Grayson then attacks Batman’s closet friend Carrie and nearly kills her before Batman returns. This idea of a former ally driven insane through Wayne’s harsh and abusive training regime is a worthy one, particularly when that former ally then aims to copy and become the Batman’s greatest rival, however it is a late addition to the plot and feels deserving of more attention.

In conclusion Batman battles Grayson but quickly realises that his newly acquired supernatural self healing powers means he will need to take himself down with Grayson into the lava filled void underneath the Batcave. At this point it is Superman; Batman’s external rival in Miller’s universe, now freed after Luther’s overthrow, who comes to Wayne’s rescue, leaving Grayson to his fall into oblivion.

Have you read this graphic novel? Were you as disappointed with it as I was? Were there any saving graces in it? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Moriarty

512HpY4OGZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: ★★★☆☆

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A private detective from an American agency, Frederick Chase, arrives in London to investigate the brutal murder of his former coworker in a quiet London suburb. Chase’s investigation, taking place in the immediate aftermath of the death of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, brings him into contact with the Scotland Yard Inspector, Athelney Jones, a keen student of Holmes’ famous detecting skills. Their pairing leads them into a dangerous investigation into the shady underworld of a new wave of American crime sweeping London.

In depth: Firstly I must admit this book was an impulse buy. Firstly for its title: Moriarty is a character who greatly interests me and this is mainly down to the marvellous depiction by Andrew Scott in the BBC hit series Sherlock. Secondly, the simple but alluring cover art of a Victorian London with St. Pauls Cathedral towering over a smoke filled London skyline.

I was also not aware of the prequel to this novel also by Anthony Horowitz, interestingly the only author to have ever been granted permission by the family of Conan Arthur Doyle to add to the Holmes canon. However, although a novel with a almighty plot twist, which I genuinely did not see coming, I found this book underwhelming and at best rather average.

The narrator, Frederick Chase, arrives in Switzerland at the body of the criminal mastermind Moriarty who had supposedly fell to his death alongside his arch nemesis Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls. Here Chase meets the other main character, Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a keen student knowledgeable of the many wondrous ways of the great detective. The pair quickly spark up an investigative relationship which is obviously meant to mirror that of Holmes and Watson.

However the pair’s investigations centre not on the mystery of Moriarty’s and Holmes’ deaths, but on finding an unseen American criminal mastermind, known as Clarence Devereux, who they suspect is attempting to replace Moriarty and make London his own. Although central to the later plot twist, most of the plot actually fills like a second rate version of a Holmes/Watson tale with characters with little backstory and, frankly, of little interest. Even the murder teased at on the back cover of the novel, of a former coworker of Chase’s from the American private investigatory firm, receives scant attention.

The new supervillian Clarence Devereux turns out to be an American disguised as a diplomat hiding behind the jurisdictional protection of the American Embassy in London. His is a character not revealed to late, and of no major interest, and his lesser American criminal allies who make up most of the novel are of even less interest.

To the authors credit there are a number of things this book does well. Horowitz’s Victorian London is a wonderful setting, particularly its dark and dangerous docks in the East End the perfect scene for a number of pursuits by Chase and Jones. There are also one or two familiar characters from the Holmes canon such as Lestrade from Scotland Yard and the choice of Anthenly Jones as a central character is a neat one as he actually appears as a minor character, depicted as a useless policeman, in an original Sherlock story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.”

However the characters of Holmes and Moriarty (both said to be dead) or even Dr. Watson are hardly mentioned until a late plot twist. Although no doubt a surprise and logically astute, the book’s narrator Chase is revealed to be Professor Moriarty, who has used Scotland Yard and Jones to find his elusive rival Devereux. The books most interesting passages are when the narrator briefly retells the plot through this new scope, a murder investigated in the book was actually carried out by the narrator. The author then actually candidly challenges the reader as to why this makes sense as the name which adorns the book is of course Moriarty and it should be no surprise that it is his story contained within.

Although undoubtedly clever, this plot twist, as well as the conclusion of the story, which sees Moriarty murder Jones, kidnap Devereux and concludes by deciding to travel back to the USA to take over his criminal network there, are ultimately underwhelming. It may seem harsh but they do not feel worth the slog that is the preceding investigations of second rate American villains by Chase/Jones.

The book is then strangely concluded by a separate short story which does actually in fact centre on Holmes and Watson. This is, I think, unrelated to the preceding story and probably the best part of Horowitz’s strange and underwhelming book. Maybe another sequel with the return of Holmes and Watson in the same universe as Moriarty is in order.

Have you read this book? Do you agree with my review or did you have a different take on it? Do you think that modern authors can productively add to famous old stories? Please your comments below.

Book review: Our Kind of Traitor

9780241975015

Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: Whilst on holiday, a young British couple meet a charismatic Russian and quickly befriend him and his family. However his intention to reach out to British intelligence leads them into a dark world of industrial scale money laundering involving the Russian mob, Swiss banks and prominent members of the British establishment.

In-depth: Another month passes and another big screen production of a work of the prolific author John le Carré has come. Upon the recent cinematic release of Our Kind Of Traitor, and being another post Cold War book of his I hadn’t come across, I was keen to see how this story from le Carré set in current times holds up. (I have recently read and reviewed his excellent The Night Manager).

This book is set in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the recent great financial crash, a topic which not only indirectly influences the plot but also springs up in conversations throughout the novel.

The story is made up of four acts. First a young British couple; Perry, a restless 30 year old professor at the University of Oxford; and Gail, a high flying and beautiful lawyer at a prestigious London law Inn; are on a luxury holiday in Antigua. Through an impromptu game of tennis they meet the wealthy, charming and outspoken Russian called Dima. Dima quickly builds a bond with the young couple, particularly by introducing them to his slightly bizarre family, which includes his religious mute of a wife, Tamara, and among others, his sad, but beautiful young daughter, Natasha, who is constantly hiding in her books.

Dima’s intentions in befriending Perry and Gail have clear intentions from the start however. He wrongly assumes the young couple as British spies and asks them to contact their masters to help him move to safety in London. Describing himself as”the world’s number one money launderer,” Dima believes his secrets will secure him the safety of the protection of the British intelligence services.

Here begin the second act. Shocked, but equally intrigued, by Dima’s assumption of him as a British spy, Perry returns to Oxford and meticulously draws up a document of all Dima has told him. He then seeks out an talent spotting Oxford colleague for a doorway to British intelligence. Suddenly Perry, and Gail, are in the basement of a Bloomsbury town house explaining Dima’s words to two agents.

Their minder and interrogator, Luke, is a young agent with a not so distinguished past. Married with a young son, he feels he is rapidly growing apart from this young family due to past infidelities and the emotional distancing his career has brought. Keen to repair and rebuild his life, and field record, Luke takes Dima’s story to his superior, Hector. With Hector’s arrival an operation to meet and fully hear out what Dima has to offer is hastily arranged through Perry and, at Hector’s insistence, Gail.

This operation is the book’s third act, and takes place at the 2009 Roland Garros tennis final in France. Meeting at the final, which Roger Federer runs away with, Perry and Gail rekindle their friendship with Dima. A tennis rematch between Perry and Dima is arranged for the next day, with Dima being secretly introduced to Hector in the massage rooms. Hidden within the steam, Hector learns of Dima’s reasons to flee and what exactly he has to offer.

This is that Dima has fallen from the favour of a man called the Prince, the head of his Russian mob (the vory). Fearing for his life, after his close friend was murdered in proxy by the Prince, Dima is being strong armed into signing over his substantial banking assets to the Prince and his likely murder. These assets reveal information on money laundering on an industrial scale, involving the vory, Swiss banks and members of the British establishment including the fast rising Audley Longgrigg MP.

Convinced of Dima’s worth as a asset, Hector returns to his masters in London to win the support to move Dima and, as promised by Perry, his entire family to the UK. In the meantime Hector authorises the lifting of Dima, and his family, to a safehouse in the Swiss mountains until his passage to London can be secured. Perry and Gail’s skills in managing Dima and his family become crucial here as tensions rise as London stalls.

Finally Hector succeeds, although not after upsetting a number of interests in politics and high finance. London wants Dima, but at first only him. To tease out his information and story, before granting the leverage of his family safe haven. Struggling to convince Dima, and himself, that this is how British Intelligence services work, Perry escorts Dima to the airport, and leaves him with Luke, boarding an empty, chartered plane.

Here the book dark conclusion arrives. The plane explodes in the sky, killing Luke, Dima and the pilots. Who instigated this remains unexplained, as does the fate of the rest of the stories characters, which is a troubling but effective end to the story.

Overall Our Kind of Traitor is a harsh tale full of growing tension with the feel of an impending and dark conclusion. However I was not expecting such an abrupt one. Le Carré’s earlier masterpieces of course depict the Cold War, but it is refreshing to read a story such as this which doesn’t require this setting. Dipping his toes into the recesses of modern financial crime, the Russian mob and of course, Roger Federer’s backhand, this is a welcome departure from what you’d expect from le Carré.

Have you seen the new film of this novel? Or what is your favourite John le Carré novel? Please leave your comments below.

Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

*Warning this review contains potential plot spoilers*

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: In one of the most famous graphic novels of the 20th century an ageing Bruce Wayne returns as the Caped Crusader to save a Gotham overrun by a murderous new gang called the Mutants. His renewed crusade against crime soon attracts all sorts of attention including from past foes, a new police commissioner and even the US Government backed Man of Steel himself.

In-depth: I’ve felt very underwhelmed by the negative reviews of the recently released Batman vs Superman film. Several friends have also complained of its near meaningless as it descends into a massive CGI fest with the only positive outcome, for its makers, being it’s high takings at the box office. I instead decided to purchase the recently published 30th Anniversary edition of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller et al.

I had heard before hand that this four part series formed the basis of the modern, darker and gritty version of Batman (by far my own personal preference) that we have grown accustomed to largely due to the excellent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight films. During reading, this is clear to see in the wonderful, highly self conscious internal thoughts of the characters which make up most of the dialogue.

The story is built up from the crime and violence infested ground of Gotham City. The first part, which gave it’s name to the whole collection, sees an aged, slightly unhinged Bruce Wayne internally fighting the urge to put the Batsuit back on and clear up the city.

From this basis the collection covers much ground and narrative depth; Batman’s origins; Commissioner Gordon’s eventual retirement; the failed rehabilitation of Harvey Dent and his relapse into Two-Face; a first woman commissioner, Yendel, zealously obsessed with bringing the Bat to justice; the recruitment of a new Robin; the return (and gruesome death) of the Joker; a wide array of new technological weapons and the general descent of Gotham into savagery. Even over four issues this is a lot and it offers any Batman fan or newcomer plenty to sink their teeth into.

The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps most famous for its capturing of the Zeitgeist of the time when it was published in 1986. The United States, which here includes Gotham and Metropolis, is racked by Cold War paranoia represented by an escalating crisis firmly within the American sphere of influence on a fictional South American island.

This is coupled with the almost provocatively modern insights which hint at the weakness of civil society. Be that theorists of criminal psychology, represented by psychiatrists defending the Joker and Harvey Dent and instead attributing all blame for their crimes to the Batman. Or the defeatist City Mayor willing to negotiate with the ruthless Mutants gang leader who is instantly slain as soon as he tries to do so. Or the well off lawyer, who of course has never lived in the crime ridden City of Gotham, but defends his clients civil rights against the violence of Batman’s vigilantism.

All these attitudes and characters are satirised and juxtaposed with the reassuringly simple crusade of the Batman. This harks back to the America of the Second World War which was convinced of its role and worth in the world. One can imagine how effective, but also controversial, these reactionary themes were in the 1980s and remain so today.

Batman, like many other superheros, initially served as a form of escapism from everyday life. However Frank Miller’s work dragged Batman, and superheros as a whole, back toward the realities of the real world allowing them to satirise and make cutting political statements whilst entertaining readers.

This underlying ambition is best demonstrated through Superman, here a stooge of the US Government. He is eventually called in to take down Batman after the Government’s disapproval of his vigilantism and its results. However when he is distracted by a nuclear missle launched from the USSR, heroically diverting it from hitting the US, Gotham is thrown into darkness and chaos. My favourite frames are in-fact those after Superman denonates the nuclear missile and is half dead due to his lack of access to the sun.

After the gloriously depicted recovery from this, the final scenes are given to a showdown between Batman and Superman which very almost sees the Man of Steel defeated. Wayne then pulls a concluding trick in convincing the world that he, and the Batman, are dead. The novel concludes with Wayne plotting with Robin and other characters from the DC universe for some grand comeback. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I can’t get my hands on the sequel, the Dark Knight Strikes Again, quickly enough.

Have you read this graphic novel or any others which are similar? Please leave your comments below!

Review: Decline and Fall

By Evelyn Waugh. This review contains spoilers of this novel.

My rating: ★★★★★

The Basics: After suddenly being expelled from Oxford University Paul Pennyfeather begins a comedic and increasingly dangerous journey through 1920s British society, high and low.

In-depth: I was made aware of this novel, Evelyn Waugh’s first, by David Mitchell choosing it on his Desert Island Discs episode. I purchased it at Hatchards, a wonderful booksellers in Piccadilly, and I was delighted when this store was actually mentioned in this novel.

Known for his cutting satire and black humour, Waugh’s first novel is as funny as it is layered in it’s targeting of all aspects of inter-war British society. On the surface, and for which it gained most attention upon it’s publication in 1928, it is a riotous and funny journey led by Paul Pennyfeather, whose passivity is typical of male narrators of 1920s social satire à la Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, and whose sympathetic willingness to listen draws out the stories of the characters but also leads him into unseen dangers.

The title is perhaps a reference to Edward Gibbon’s famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire series, which charted Rome’s descent from civilised superpower to savagery. It feels as though Waugh’s novel, which includes Churchmen of no faith, drunken teachers who do very little teaching and a prison governer who give dangerous carpentry equipment to homicidal maniacs, is also observing a demise of a once civilised society.

The story begins with Pennyfeather, a young and unassuming undergraduate at the imaginary Scone College of Oxford University, falling foul to the drunken antics of the highly exclusive Bollinger Club. Discovered walking around the college green with no trousers on, after they were stolen by a privileged fellow undergraduate, Paul is swiftly identified as a trouble maker and expelled for his “indecent behaviour”. Desperate for an income he then somehow ends up as a schoolmaster at a unknown public school in Wales.

Most of the first half of the novel takes place at the school, Llanabba Castle, and introduces a number of the schools “preposterous inhabitants”. There is the anxious churchman of Mr Pendergast who constantly doubts his faith, the pathological liar Philbrick and the headteacher Dr. Fagan whose discriminatory views about the Welsh people is rumoured to have mirrored Waugh’s own prejudices. However it is Mr Grimes, who is constantly “in the soup,” which refers to his alcoholism, who undoubtedly steals the show.

From the school onwards Pennyfeather finds himself thrust into a number of adventures which his somewhat benign nature deem him incapable to realise the dangers of. He is instructed to organise a school sports day for the prestigious visit of Ms Beste-Chetwynde, Waugh’s novels are full of seemingly unpronounceable names, and the snobby Lady Circumference, but things quickly descend into farce and scandal.

A loaded pistol is used to start one of the boy’s races which inevitably leads to a boy being shot in the foot. Waugh’s use of characters is ruthless as the reader is later informed that the boy is actually dead in a throwaway comment which receives no follow up or attention.

One of the most interesting aspects of Waugh’s writing is that it introduces characters in settings which appear believable, deep and permanent but then yanks the reader away from them with sudden and increasingly ridiculous plot twists which refresh the story.

The comedy is kept moving as the reader becomes more aware of the importance of pretence to the story. This is achieved via perceived tragedy at the end of part one, as Mr Grimes escapes an unhappy and rushed marriage to Dr Fagan’s daughter by appearing to kill himself (he later reappears and disappears under different guises) and by love in part two as Pennyfeather quickly stumbles into arranging to marry Margot Beste-Chetwynde.

However, visible throughout many of the character’s conversations, are the underlying tensions and barriers of class, race, sex and nationalism. The characters, largely members of high society which seem to obsess Waugh, are often blissfully unaware of the damaging consequences of these rigid structures as they help form the structure of their gossip, wealth and scandal. The most uncomfortable section for the modern day reader deals with the overt racism  of the time but the satire knows no bounds.  Pennyfeather himself fails to realise the perils of Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s grand incomes via the ‘white slavery’ of trading young women, as he is too busy enjoying the public attention he is afforded for their planned marriage.

The final act centres around another delightful plot twist where Pennyfeather’s wedding day at the Ritz Hotel is cut short by a sudden arrest for the above crime. A prison sentence follows, cut short by the ‘legal death’ of Pennyfeather, elaborately organised by his friends, which enables him to flee to Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s, now married to a Viscount Metroland, grand villa in Corfu. The story ends with a moustached, and thus suitably disguised, Pennyfeather back at Scone College studying Theology once again witnessing, but this time from a safe distance, the antics of the Bollinger Club. Not so much a decline and fall for it’s central character then but more a brief interlude of wild adventure for a man who wandered.

In all, this is a novel which possesses a comic thrust of ridiculousness and savagery which is at times difficult to associate with the 1920s from which it was produced.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

514Qdz6chmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★★

(Warning this post contains plot spoilers)

The Basics: A tale of childhood in a small town in 1930s Deep South of the United States. Driven by curiosity, particularly of their reclusive neighbours, two children, Jem and Scout, begin to learn more about the world and its workings through a controversial local court case which their father is the defence lawyer in.

In-depth: I was given this book last summer fully aware of its great legacy. Immediately a classic upon publication and now secure as a central part of American literature. However guiltily I do admit that I did not get round to reading it until prompted by the recent sad news of Harper Lee’s passing.

It is safe to say it’s legacy is completely justified. To Kill A Mockingbird is a wonderful tale based around the warmth of childhood innocence and curiosity whilst simultaneously revealing so much more about American society.

Based in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, as seen through the eyes of Scout Finch, the early chapters are a journey through the wonders of long summer holidays from school. Allied with her older brother Jem and their visiting friend Dill, the children take an intrusive interest in their strange, reclusive neighbours, the Radleys, who never appear outside of their home.

However their naturally curious actions are fairly schooled at each stage by their father, Atticus Finch, who is now my favourite character in popular literature. Atticus is a pleasantly reasonable lawyer tasked with the socially difficult task in the 1930s of defending a local black man accused of raping a white woman. Conveying fair and enlightened values of justice and anti racism, which he gently bestows and explains to his children, it is a task which dominates the book.

Perhaps what the book is most famous for is it’s remarkable ability to convey such a depth of events and the ideas behind them through it’s wonderfully readable style. The real beauty of this book is that Lee manages to gently but clearly explain horribly adult concepts such as racism, social class and rape. Managing to do this in what is essentially a children’s book, still regularly taught to school children, is quite something.

Unfortunately I did not read the book when I was at school but it also challenges older readers to consider how crazy everyday concepts or issues which control adult life must appear to children. The tragically predictable verdict, at least to an adult aware of the social context of deep racial divisions, of Tom Robinson’s court case is the biggest shock to Jem and the other young characters. Perhaps these reactions aren’t so child like at all.

In all, one of the easiest and warmest books, exceptional given some of its themes, I’ve read in a long time. Now to watch the film from 1962.

Have you ever read To Kill A Mockingbird? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

You can also follow me on Twitter.

Review: Batman – The Killing Joke

944443

My rating: ★★★★☆

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

The Basics: In one of the most famous Batman graphic novels, which navigates around a twisted past, the Joker launches perhaps his sickest scheme yet to prove to Gotham that even the sanest are just “one bad day” away from his world of madness.

In-depth: To feel the part in New York City last October I equipped myself with a New Yorker Magazine for a princely $8. In the Goings On About Town section I noticed an exhibition entitled ‘Superheros in Gotham’ at the New York Historical Society. Caught up in my moment of serendipity I convinced my friends to give it a try (it didn’t take much) and we walked through Central Park to the Society.

Unfortunately the exhibition wasn’t as good as we were hoping. It was frightfully small with a no photography policy strictly enforced by over keen security guards. The one highlight was seeing the actual Batmobile from the original Batman TV show. Walking back slightly disappointed I spotted some impromptu book stands where I came across The Killing Joke. My mood improved as soon as I started reading it.

At just 46 pages it did not take long and having recently re-read it I decided to review it on this blog. Admittedly it is the first graphic novel I’ve read and it was the perfect choice. “One of the greatest Batman stories” the friendly guy at the stall told me and he was 100% right.

The story is beautifully simple and as quick as it is intense. It centres around perhaps the Joker’s most disturbing scheme. To prove that Gotham can not and should not maintain it’s perverse commitment to law, order and indeed sanity by targeting it’s leading light Commissioner Jim Gordon and by doing this thereby drawing out his arch nemesis: the Batman.

The recently escaped Joker intends to prove a point by driving Gordon mad and show the world that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” It is some bad day for Gordon as the Joker ambushes and shoots his daughter Barbara before his very eyes. Putting a bullet through her spine and having his goons kidnap the distraught Gordon, the Joker then completes what he thinks will be his coup de grâce by undressing the wounded Barbara and photographing her in lurid positions mercifully mostly left to the reader’s imagination by the artist Brian Bolland. It is no surprise that this passage, particularly the use of Barbara as merely a prop to get at her father, caused such a storm after many feminist readers were aghast at its overtly sexist nature.

Having the beaten and stripped Gordon paraded around his new recently acquired fairground, the Joker explains to him his simple choice. He can either suffer the trauma of his memories which through his rationality he still clings to, or choosing the ’emergency exit’ of insanity, flee into the freedom of the chaos which forms the basis of the Joker’s existence and Gotham’s unjust world.

What perhaps makes this novel so famous is it’s revealing of the Joker’s past. Before becoming the Clown Prince of Crime it depicts his failed attempts at being a stand up comedian as well as the crippling anxieties of his fear of failing to support his pregnant wife. That Alan Moore and Bolland are able to present this so deeply in such short spaces shows the intelligence and skill which lies behind every word and sketch in the Killing Joke.

One of my favourite frames is the jump between a tragic past as a failed comedian and husband to the Joker’s scheming at his violently acquired fairground. The (almost)

FullSizeRender
The Joker’s past? Deep. Very Deep.
colourless past reaches out to his beautiful wife who is laughing at an accidental joke of his with the reflection of himself in the mirror behind revealing his inner torment of another day of failure. In the next colour filled frame, savagely jolting the reader back to the present, the Joker is instead, in perhaps a rare lapse of sentimentality, reaching out his gloved hand to a ‘Laughing Clown.’ He is met by a reflection errily similar to the previous frame.

The lack of colour in the scenes from the Joker’s past is also significant. Bolland brilliantly chooses single objects to possess the increasingly rageful red which builds up via fly-trapping sticky tape, shrimps and the red-hood worn during the botched robbery where the scared predecessor to the Joker flees the Batman only to fall into a vat of chemicals which produces the Clown Prince of Crime.

The scenes from the past are also deliciously mixed up by the Joker himself, who confused by the madness which now inhibits him, reels off the various other possible personal histories of what sent him over the edge. Such as his wife being murdered by the Mob (in this she supposedly dies in a once in a million electrical accident) or his brother being carved up by a knife welding mugger. This cleverly buys into the wealth of speculative interpretations which exist about the Joker’s past.

Back to the present and after mentally torturing Gordon and believing he has indeed driven the Commissioner mad the Joker gets what he really wants; the arrival of the Batman. After a desperate fight which involves trap doors to doom, knifes, a hall of mirrors and a pretend pistol the Batman eventually wrestles the Joker under his control.

Pleading with him to not continue their duel down the route which will only lead to one of them dying, Batman attempts to reach out to the Joker, briefly hinting at his own knowledge of suffering due to a tragic past, by offering him rehabilitation.

The Joker’s response is, as ever, a joke. Significantly it is about two men trying to escape a lunatic asylum where one offers the other an escape over a bridge of torch light. The joke being you’d have to be crazy to trust the other prisoner to keep the torch on, as oppose to believing you can walk on light.

The Batman then grabs the Joker with the light of the approaching police cars visible. The Joker’s laughter, then uncharacteristicily joined by the Batman’s, fills the night and the final two panels offering an almost completed bridge of light which in the next panel disappears into darkness. Some have interpreted this as the Batman finally killing the Joker, the incessant laughter does suddenly stop, but this is wonderfully left to the interpretation and imagination of the reader.

Review: The Night Manager

By John le Carré. My rating: ★★★★★

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

night managerThe Basics: Jonathan Pine, a night manger of luxurious hotels, becomes involved in the dangerous underworld of the illegal arms trade and it’s shadowy links to Western intelligence services. After losing the woman he loves, Jonathan is driven into the arms of the British intelligence operative Leonard Burr who designates him the mission of bringing down his obsession of “the worst man in the world,” the fabulously wealthy arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper.

In-depth: I was vaguely aware a couple of weeks ago of a new upcoming BBC adaption of a John le Carré novel. Whilst browsing in a book store in Trafalgar Square it was the front cover of the edition depicted to the left which grabbed my attention. It will surely soon be republished to reflect the upcoming BBC series with its delicious cast of Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. However only after being informed by a member of staff that she was “really glad you are buying that book” and beginning to read it did I realise it was the novel soon to air. Strangely it is only the books of John le Carré which I tend to have read before watching the TV/big screen adaptions of them and this was a happy accident to continue that trend.

The Night Manager was le Carré’s first post Cold War novel published in 1993. It follows the former British soldier Jonathan Pine from his hotel night shifts and his first encounter with Roper, a charismatic but shady British businessman, his beautiful girlfriend Jed and the rest of Roper’s entourage, back through his heartbreak in Cairo after a brief love affair with a Middle-Eastern gun runner’s mistress is cut short by a savage beating and murder. This forces Pine to ‘volunteer’ for recruitment by the British Intelligence services, as much torn apart by intrigue and mistrust as Pine himself, represented by the delightful, Whitehall moulded animals of Leonard Burr and Rex Goodhew. Interestingly in the Beeb’s adaption Burr’s character is to become a woman played by the excellent Olivia Colman.

Informed of his mission to trace Roper down and infiltrate his inner circle, Pine is driven by his natural tendency to fight the good fight but also now by a growing inner rage and need for revenge for the earlier loss of his love Sophie.

The story follows Pine’s development of a ‘shadow’, le Carré/spy talk for a believable cover or back story. This takes him to the quaint but apparently murderous villages of Cornwall, to another brief fling in Quebec whilst deploying his hotelier skills and to working on luxury yachts in the Caribbean where he is crowbarred back into the life of Roper and his crew.

The scene, and the intrigue behind it, which achieves this crowbarring is a wonder. I can only imagine the fun and credit to be done to it by the BBC and Hiddlestone. A staged robbery and kidnapping of Roper’s young son leads to the chance for Pine, now working quietly under board in the kitchen with his shadowed alias, to spring to action and save the day. The inner rage built up from a lifetime of trying to do the ‘right’ thing but often having the opposite effect bursts with Pine giving an overly convincing but violent performance which saves the day, the boy and most importantly Roper’s trust.

The book then turns to the Bahamas, Roper’s glorious island home and the world of selling “toys” or advanced grade weaponry to the highest bidder. Pine’s mission leads him around the dangers of Roper’s wonderfully suspicious lieutenant Corcoran and his seemingly blissfully ignorant girlfriend Jed. This ignorance is not all that it first appears.

Aided by an American planted lawyer called Apostoll who manages to convince Roper that his chief lieutenant, Corcoran, may not be as trustworthy as he seems, Pine is instead recruited into helping pull off the biggest arms and drug exchange Roper has ever attempted with a powerful Columbian drug cartel. Reporting back to Burr the details of the deal and Roper’s world, not including his stealing of Jed’s love, Pine’s operation appears briefly to be going as smoothly as Roper’s luxurious daily life seems to.

However corrupt elements within the political and intelligence classes in America and the UK, who profit off illegal arms sales threaten the operation against Roper. After the Cartel lawyer Apostoll ends up with a Columbian neck tie, Pine’s real intentions and loyalties are betrayed to Roper.

A period of imprisonment and torture within Roper’s superyacht for Pine runs parallel to battles of survival, operative and personal, fought by Burr and Goodhew in the equally dangerous world of Whitehall.

This novel revolves around the fight by people who are presented as genuinely good, Pine, Jed, Burr and Goodhew etc, struggling in a world turn asunder from the apparent moral certainties of the Cold War and the opportunities this new world was affording to individuals with more flexible morals.

Pine’s determination not to betray his mission and Jed, driven by his endless love for Sophie who did not betray him in Cairo even when faced with violence, is eventually rewarded. He and Jed retire to a quiet life in England. However the ending is more ambiguous for the other players. Roper’s Columbian deal appears to succeed thereby rendering Burr’s operation and reputation seemingly in tatters.

Now all there is to do is wait for the first episode to air on BBC 2 on 21st Feb. If past BBC adaptions of le Carré’s works and the cast are anything to go by it is going to be a belter. You can watch the trailer here.

Review: Dominion

By C. J. Samson. My rating: ★★★★☆

51lPEtvacBL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Basics: The year is 1952. After surrendering in 1940 Britain is now a subservient Vichy-like ally to the victorious Nazi Germany which dominates all of Europe and most of Russia. David Fitzgerald, a Civil Servant in the Dominions Office, suffers the tragedy of losing his young son which leads to him reconsider his surroundings and begin a dangerous journey into what remains of the British ‘Resistance.’ Learning that an old university friend of David’s bears a potentially world changing secret, the Resistance acts quickly to learn this before the Nazi regime does, whose search is lead by the ageing Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Hoth.

In-depth: Counter-factual historical fiction is most definitely ‘in’ at the moment. The current TV series based on the Philip K Dick book ‘The Man in the High Castle,’ which depicts an early 1960s North America co-ruled by seemingly victorious Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes, is the most glossy and visible representation of this trend. However Samson’s ‘Dominion’ from 2012, somehow written and published in the midst of his brilliant and continuing Shardlake series, is a fantastic, gritty and British alternative.

Samson turns history from 1940 onwards on it’s head and teasingly reveals the many intricate details of his imagination through off the cuff conversations. The characters are easy to relate too, include quite worryingly even some of the Nazi’s, due to the immense back stories Samson dedicates to each of them. The most tragic is of Frank Muncaster via his brutal school days of bullying, then his even darker days in a mental asylum and his final opening up whilst on the run with the resistance.

The central couple of David and his wife Sarah form the basis of the book, particularly their transformation into ‘criminals’ who resist the Fascist leaning British Government (Newspaper Tycoon Lord Beaverbrook as PM, Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary alongside faint rumours of Winston Churchill still on the run and heading the Resistance).

Finally another of the main characters is a Scottish Communist called Ben. Not only is his speech spelt out how it’s spoken through his thick Glaswegian working class accent, which can bring joy to the reader in deciphering what at first appears a foreign language, but his character and views seem to represent something close to what could be the authors view of Scottish nationalism today.

Before reading this book I noticed a news story about Sansom being a passionate and financial backer of the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. In a revealing section late in the book Ben lays into the Scottish National Party and their wider attachment to the small minded nationalism that grips Europe in this dark vision of 1950s Europe abandoned by an isolationist USA. It appears a dig at the current Scottish National Party and what to Sansom seems to be the insidious opportunism of valuing the nation as a whole above the people that actually make up nations.

This offers an interesting insight into the current politics of Scottish nationalism today but is merely a hidden nugget in what is an exciting thriller within a remarkably well estimated and entertaining guess at what the world could have looked like if Britain had surrendered in 1940.