27 February 2023

Review: Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville book cover

I didn't get on with Moby Dick at University. I was far more interested in reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett at the time and found Herman Melville's writing to be inaccessible and a tiresome bore. Melville is a classic American writer though, and 20 years on I thought I'd give him a second chance by reading Bartleby, the Scrivener.

This is a short story narrated by an elderly lawyer about the office politics where he works. Here's a little about him in his own words:
"I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgagees and title deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man." Page 6
Our narrator has a legal firm in an office on Wall Street in New York, and the novella begins with an overview of his two employees. These character studies of Turkey and Nippers were insightful and Bartleby of the title is a new hire and addition to the team that doesn't pan out well.

We learn that Bartleby is very good at his job as a Clerk, but when asked to do a specific task or run a particular errand he doesn't want to do, he responds with "I prefer not to".

The modern reader can immediately relate and no doubt knows someone in their own circle of friends, family or work colleagues just like Bartleby. Bartleby's attitude of passive resistance and the fact that he'd 'prefer not to' do as he is instructed wound me up immediately and was instantly relatable.

Published in 1853, it was surprisingly reassuring to know that people haven't changed that much over the intervening decades and century. The staffing problems faced in the workplace 170 years ago resonate immediately with the modern reader today.

Bartleby soon causes our narrator great tribulation, and while the narrator remains unnamed throughout the novella, his plight is compelling. There are chuckle worthy moments of dialogue and inner reflection as our lawyer attempts to navigate his way out of his problem with varying degrees of success. I wanted to shout out suggestions to him which is a sure sign of evocative writing, however I did wish for a different ending.

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville is a timeless novella about office politics and in 2019 it featured on the BBC News list of the 100 Most Inspiring Novels. I'm not sure I'd agree it's inspiring, but it's certainly an accessible entry point for readers of Herman Melville.

You can access the novella for free on Project Gutenberg

Of course you might 'prefer not to' and that's okay too.

My Rating:

23 February 2023

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow book cover

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a young adult urban fantasy novel about adventure, stories, portals, travel and change. I knew I was going to be in safe hands very early on when our narrator quotes her father on Page 2:
"If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between worlds, that stories happen." Page 2
And that's precisely what happens here. Our narrator is young January Scaller and her life changes forever when she finds a door at the age of seven. January is a difficult child with an absent father, and was given a number of nursemaids, who soon quit their position. Here's a robust character description of a new nursemaid from our narrator:
"The newest one [nursemaid] was a German immigrant named Miss Wilda, who wore heavy black woolen gowns and an expression that said she hadn't seen much of the twentieth century yet but heartily disapproved of it thus far. She liked hymns and freshly folded laundry, and detested fuss, mess, and cheek. We were natural enemies." Page 16-17
Don't you just love that? I can picture Miss Wilda perfectly, and even more, I want to read about all the ways they disagreed. Growing up as the ward of Mr William Cornelius Locke - a self-made almost-billionaire and chairman of the New England Archaeological Society - January lives in a mansion full of antiques and rare collectibles, yet is restless. She doesn't interact with anyone her own age, with the occasional exception of Sam, the son of the local grocer.
"I used my most grown-up voice, as if I had never once chased him across the lawn howling for his surrender or fed him magic potions made of pine needles and lake water." Page 33
This is an historical fiction adventure story, and like many great adventure stories before it, there's a book and on finding it, the reader - along with January - is plunged into the story of young Adelaide:
"Standing beside her grandmother's deathbed, woolen dress still smelling of black logwood dye, Ade had felt the way a sapling might as it watched one of the old forest giants come crashing magnificently to rest: awed, and perhaps a little frightened. But when Mama Larson's final breath rattled from her ribs, Ade discovered the same thing the young sapling would have: in the absence of the old tree, there was a hole in the canopy above her." Pages 97-98
Early on it was difficult to separate the stories of Ade (Adelaide) and January in my mind, and the third person narration was briefly confusing, but thankfully it improved as the novel progressed. Harrow's exquisite writing more than compensated for the flow, and I marvelled at her ability to convey so much in just one sentence:
"She took another gulp from the brown glass bottle and muttered herself into silence, complaining about rich folk, young folk, nosy folk, Yankees, and foreigners." Page 338
The Ten Thousand Doors of January reminded me of Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor a little, in the shared coming of age quest of sorts that leads to danger, adventure and eventually self discovery. The existence of portals that lead to other worlds isn't new in fiction, and I've enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and more recently Fairy Tale by Stephen King.

In this particular portal fantasy novel, the doors represent change and characters very quickly decide whether that change is good or not. The doors create an inevitable 'leakage between worlds' (the author's words, not mine) which includes people and objects travelling between them. My mind was racing at this point, imagining how this theory could apply to some of the mysteries in our own world as we know it. Perhaps the Voynich manuscript came from one of these worlds, who knows?

Naturally, this gives rise to themes of ethnicity and multiculturalism, as does the idea of preserving each world in its current state and slowing or preventing the use of doorways to freely travel. Younger readers will take this at face value, while mature readers will see how these attitudes and prejudices are reflected in our history and in our present.

I'll leave you with one last quote I hope you might like:
"Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books - those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles - understand that page riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book. .. It might smell expensive and well bound, or it might smell of tissue-thin paper and blurred two-color prints, or of fifty years unread in the home of a tobacco-smoking old man. Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries. 
This one smelled unlike any book I'd ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noontimes beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes." Pages 22-23
I just love that quote! I recently learned that bildungsroman is a term used to describe a coming of age story; thanks to Sam for that little pearl. This book was a gift for Christmas and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a bildungsroman for those who prefer their reading material to be full of adventure and fantasy with a touch of historical fiction. 

Highly recommended. 

My Rating:

08 February 2023

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover

I enjoyed The Remains of the Day, the story of an ageing butler reminiscing about serving Lord Darlington between WWI and WWII, while Klara and the Sun was an interesting science fiction novel about artificial intelligence. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro was published in 2015, however it was a disappointing read for me. Australian author Ben Hobson recently shared his love for this book but wondered why so many readers didn't enjoy it. Here's why.

This is the story of Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple in a fictional post-Arthurian Britain where people across the land suffer from forgetfulness and a type of collective amnesia. The pair set off on a quest to find their son and discuss the mist causing the memory loss with others they meet along the way. What I found instantly irritating and relentlessly repetitive was the overkill with regard to the characters using each other's names ALL the time. Axl calls Beatrice princess and it drove me up the wall. I've flipped to a random page to share an example with you:
"It can wait till the morning, Axl. It's not even a pain I notice till we're speaking of it." "Even so, princess, now we're here, why not go and see the wise woman?" Page 55
Stilted dialogue aside, The Buried Giant is a post-Roman fantasy with touches of Tolkien complete with pixies, ogres and even a dragon. Intergenerational conflict is an important topic in the novel with the hatred and distrust between the Saxons and the Britons sure to resurface if the memory dampening mist is dispersed. Axl and Beatrice contemplate whether it's better not to remember at all if there's a risk the traumatic memories of war and genocide could come tumbling back with the years of separation, love and loss.

I might have cared for all of this - the vicious cycle of hate and violence and the hopelessness of war - but the overarching narrative was unclear. I was unable to decipher the meaning of the ogres or the purpose of the pixies; if indeed there was any. Did they represent foreign powers? The mixed tense was often confusing and what was that about the black birdlike hags/women? Is the boatman death? Or does the island represent death? Or am I wrong on both counts? The mysteriously omniscient narrator who revealed themselves at the end (I think?) as part of a frustratingly ambiguous ending only served to increase my ire.

It would seem I don't belong to the literary 'in crowd' for whom this was written, but in my opinion, there was too much expectation on the reader to pick up on the hidden meanings, subtext and literary devices that must be holding this up. If I have to work hard in order to figure a book out, then it needs to deliver, otherwise the reading joy ebbs away and that's what happened here.

If you've been following Carpe Librum for any length of time, you'll know I'm not a fan of an ambiguous ending, and boy do we have a doozy here. Published in 2015, and with many of you having no doubt read this before me, I think I can safely ask... What do you think happened at the very end? After being questioned, did they stay together or not? Did Axl? Or didn't he? Someone put me out of my misery, quick!

After reading The Buried Giant, I think Ishiguro and I are done for now.

My Rating:

06 February 2023

Confluence Giveaway Winners Announced

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway last week to win 1 of 2 signed copies of Confluence by Gemma Chilton. It's true, Gemma is from Southern Tasmania and everyone answered correctly. Entries closed at midnight last night and the lucky winners were drawn today. Congratulations to:

Lindsay & Pam Swain

You've both won a signed copy of Confluence valued at $24.99AUD thanks to the author. You will receive an email from me shortly and will have 7 days to provide your postal address and preferred inscription from Gemma. You'll then receive your prize direct from the author so I hope you enjoy! 

02 February 2023

Review: The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson

The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson book cover

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

Snake Island by Ben Hobson was a ripper read in August 2019 and it made it onto my Top 5 Books of 2019 list. I had the pleasure of interviewing the author as well, which you can check out here.

Ben Hobson is back with his new book called The Death of John Lacey which will always be special to me, because guess what? I'm mentioned in the praise section with an excerpt from my Snake Island review! It's so exciting when this happens and I predict I'll never tire of the thrill. What an honour! Now, onto the book.

The Death of John Lacey is set in the Ballarat goldfields of colonial Australia and Hobson cleverly avoids any flack for the inherent racism some of his characters possess. The author is clear at the beginning that his writing is true to the period but understands readers might find the views of his characters abhorrent and unacceptable by our contemporary standards. It's a shame authors need to stipulate that they don't share the views of their characters, but better safe than sorry.

The book is set in 1847, 1853 and 1870 but begins in 1847 with Ernst James Montague and later his brother Joe Montague. These early pages reminded me of the last half of Devotion by Hannah Kent, although on reflection, I guess that shouldn't come as a shock. Both books were written by Australian authors and set in 1800s Australia for a start. Furthermore, the interactions between the new settlers and the indigenous population were interesting, engaging and sensitively handled and the landscape was incredibly evocative in both novels.

I would happily have dwelt here in Ernst's entire life story and I was deeply invested in the life he was living with his father as they tried to eke out a living from the land. Meanwhile, Ernst's mother was bitterly homesick and longed to return to her homeland. Unfortunately things don't go to plan but that's where we leave them.
We're then introduced to the Lacey brothers in 1853, but I couldn't make space for them as I was left wondering what happened to Ernst and Joe. We join them again later, but having been robbed of the aftermath of their earlier circumstances the connection to them as characters was lost.

When we meet him, John Lacey - of the title - is a formidable man on a power trip and not a character the reader is likely to care too much about. John has a brother Gray and while we spend some time in their story, I was indifferent to their plight.

The Death of John Lacey is divided into seven parts, during which time we get a glimpse of the lives of brothers Ernst and Joe Montague, brothers Gray and John Lacey and Father Gilbert Delaney. While Hobson brings all of the plot threads together in the conclusion, I found myself not caring too much about any of the characters; their demise or their salvation. But perhaps that was the point. It was a deplorable time in history and Hobson has given us some pretty heartless characters to despise.

John Lacey isn't an important or compelling character in the novel and his death didn't seem to be the focus of the book. As a result, I found myself puzzling over the title and wondering at its significance other than providing a logical starting and finish point for the overall narrative.

Historical fiction is my favourite genre, although I'll admit reading very few books set in colonial Australia. This is just a personal reading preference and I wouldn't have picked this up if it wasn't for the fact that Hobson absolutely blew me away with Snake Island. The Death of John Lacey is completely different and props to the author for his ability to write two completely different books and deploy a different writing style for each. I know it's a minor point, but I don't enjoy it when authors, editors or publishers decide to do away with punctuation for dialogue, but such is the case here and it definitely diminished my reading pleasure.

Covering themes of race, faith, greed, violence, ambition, law and order and the value of human life, there is much here to get stuck into. The writing is distinctly Australian, the landscape evocative and there were some great character insights, like this one from Father Gilbert:
"Gilbert understood that all death was like this, having presided over so many. There was always great wailing and sorrow, but in the end, after the dying had been done, there was pragmatism, and great relief in the work it required. Even so, he could not help but picture Joe's face as each nail was struck and the thought of Christ crucified on the cross and how those nails might sink into flesh." Page 242
The Death of John Lacey by Ben Hobson is recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction set in the goldfields of Australia, fans of Ned Kelly or bushranger fiction and readers who love a good western but won't get snooty when there is no dialogue punctuation. Ben Hobson is clearly an Aussie talent to watch and I can't wait to see what he turns his pen to next. Guaranteed I'll be there to be an early reader.

My Rating: