Legend – David Gemmell

Book #248

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

druss

Aaaaaahhhhh.  That is the sound of me settling into one of my favourite genres, a first for my reads for this blog.  Fantasy, my first and if I am honest,  favourite, reading love.  I was pleasantly surprised to see this book on the list.  I expected Tolkien, but more modern epic fantasy was not and therefore became an easy one for me to tick off the list.  And for all my fantasy adoration, the Drenai Saga, of which this book is the first of thirteen, is not a Gemmell I had read before.  So what more of a push did I need?

The legend of this story is Druss; Deathwalker, Captain of the Axe, a battle scared living legend who is the most beloved of all the heroes in Drenai.  Well into his sixties, Druss is long time widowed and all but retired from the art of war. When he receives a plea from a his close friend, the Earl of Delnoch, to help defend his fort against the invading Nadir tribes, he finds the invitation hard to turn down and journeys to the fort to prepare for what is widely known as a hopeless cause.  The Nadir were once a scattered group of fighting tribes, now united under the brilliant Ulric, creating a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of ambition and hunger for more power and domain.  The weight of the Drenai survival weighs heavily on Fort Delnoch, as it is the last obstacle in the Nadir’s bid to annihilate and then

As is typical of many fantasy novels, there is a large supporting cast of characters.  Joining Druss in this supposedly doomed campaign is Rek, running in the opposite direction of the fighting due to his crippling fear.  Then fate steps in and Rek not only finds himself joining the battle, but also leading it.  Our mystical element is provided by the albino Serbitar; he and his monk-like group known as The Thirty join the battle physically and metaphysically, reading futures, foretelling betrayals and fighting off psychic attacks.  A beautiful serial killer, farm hands who rise to the challenge, pampered officials, all come together in a battle that appears to have been lost before it is even fought.

As I said in the opening, I am truly a fan of fantasy writing and so much of Legend contained a lot of what I enjoy about the genre.  For starters, it is just plain old fun.  The characters are larger than life – they are braver, stronger, more noble.  This may not be to everybody’s tastes, as this does not leave much room for complexity or depth.  There are surprise developments for a couple of the characters, but not too much of a stretch.  In our legendary hero, we have a rousing, inspirational man who is deserving of every bit of praise and hero-worship heaped upon him.  Even in his old age he is near-indestructible and the target of all Nadir.  He is the one that could turn it around for the Drenai, by inspiring with his reputation, his actions and by his words;

Get rid of your doubts. Yesterday is dead.  Past mistakes are like smoke in the breeze.  What counts is tomorrow, and every tomorrow until Woundweaver gets here with reinforcements.  Make no mistake, Orrin. When we survive and the songs are sung, you will be worth your place in them and no one will sneer.  Not a soul. Believe it!

Where Legend is successful, is in the pacing.  There are 13 novels in the Drenai saga, but many can stand alone for they are not one continuous narrative as many other fantasy series.  What this allows for is a fast pace with no need for padding with long speeches or descriptions of surroundings. The second half of the book is all battle and it makes for thrilling reading.  These are not minor skirmishes, but a battle in the truest, grandest sense with the relevant death toll.  The glimpses we get of Ulric and his Nadir help to raise the suspense and anticipation of what could possibly come next.

This is a great introduction to fantasy for those who have yet to try it but always wanted to.  When putting my mind to why this was chosen as the selection above others such as Feist, Jordan or Eddings my opinions is that it succinctly defines much of what the genre has to offer in one book that can stand alone or be a  gateway to more books in the series.  It is not overly complicated, as some of the plots and sub-plots can be in long series (I’m looking at you Mr. Martin; nothing but frustrated adoration for you from me though).  I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be passing it on to my son who has already devoured another of Gemmell’s works and is eager for more.  Highly recommended.

The Plague – Albert Camus

Book #559

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

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Oran is a small town like any other; populated by people who seem to be engaged in a busy nothingness.  Happy in their everyday life, not overly spectacular in one way or another.  Then one day rats start showing up in frightening numbers, dead or dying in a horrific manner.  It isn’t long before this sickness spreads to the human population and soon this town is shut off from the rest of the world, quarantined and left to deal with it on their own.  Our anonymous narrator attempts to report the events in an observational and unbiased manner and is successful in their reporting but is not entirely able to remove the element of human nature; the fear, the desperation to return to normality and absent loves, the despair at death and too, the prevailing nature of humanity itself.

Albert Camus was a  Nobel laureate, philosopher and contemporary of that other famous literary philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.  This allegorical tale is a platform on which Camus is able to present his main philosophical ideals, key of which is that of man seeking to find meaning and significance in his life and finding none.  That is not to say that a life without meaning is all for nothing, but that being happy in your life and the way that you live it should be reward enough and does not need any further significance attributed to it.  These ideas are laid out clearly.  In fact many of Camus’ philosophies are put directly into our narrator’s mouth:

But the narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over-importance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worst side of human nature.  For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule.  The narrator does not share that view.  The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding   On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point.  But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill .  The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.

The allegory of The Plague is that of Nazi Germany’s invasion of France, Oran being France and the plague itself being the Nazi occupation that effectively cut France off from the rest of the world for a time, of which Camus lived through.  This is an interesting premise to set, that of isolation in terror, because Camus is able to use it to demonstrate his philosophies, those developed based on his own observation.  It is an interesting setting to observe just what men and women do to cope and continue on.  There is almost a dismissive tone in describing the residents of Oran before the plague hit, almost condescendingly stating that their happiness is mundane and based on ignorance of anything better.  But what comes out of their ordeal is an acceptance of what has happened, that there is nothing or no one to blame and that death is unavoidable for everyone.  They may survive the plague but in the end everyone dies.  That it is the idea of community, finding comfort in those suffering along side you and doing what you can to comfort them in return.

The enjoyment I got from this book was actually reading it alongside reading of Camus’ ideas and philosophies.  From here it would be good to move onto some of Sartre’s work and others from our more modern philosophers. At a very basic level, this is an interesting story, relevant even now with flu pandemics being touted every cold season.  A reader would be hard-pressed not to come away with food for thought, which in my personal opinion, is what a great book should do.

A Severed Head – Iris Murdoch

Book #446

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

Martin Gibbon-Lynch is a 4o-ish wine seller, who is married to ageing beauty Antonia.  While not entirely overjoyed in the marriage, Martin is content and assumes Antonia is as well.  Despite having his own mistress on the side, Martin is destroyed when Antonia announces that she is leaving him for their psychoanalyst friend, Palmer Anderson.   This move sets of a chain of a bed-hopping, partner-swapping search for happiness and sense of self.

This satirical novel written in 1961 came at a time when Britain was moving into a period of sexual freedom.  Our characters are well educated and seemingly well moneyed as well.  They are trying to shake off  their society’s moral dictates in pursuit of what they think will make them happy.  This is not as successful as they would hope as they love then leave and swap a number of times.  I wish I could draw a diagram for you all, without completely spoiling the story.  It was this aspect that kept the story highly entertaining, particularly as a lot of the “moves” came as a complete surprise for me.  This became more important as the characters became  more unlikeable and my sympathy for them waned.  Martin in particular, displays old-fashioned attitudes towards having a wife and a mistress and then becomes enthralled with his wife again only after finding out she is leaving him. Even when Antonia and Palmer out their relationship, Martin doesn’t disclose his relationship with Georgie, his mistress, only for it to be discovered later on.  As Martin himself says;

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship.

A forward thinking and brave novel for its time, Murdoch was not afraid to ramp it up with incest and abortion thrown in for measure.  Yet there is still a lightness, a humour about it all.  As if to say, look at these people, so silly in their machinations.  Because in their attempt to live their own lives, to live more freely and truthfully to their own instincts,  it all becomes apparent that this is just a contrivance for justifying bad behaviour.  Perhaps that these people are able to give so much effort and thought to these problems because they have no other concerns.  They are wealthy, they are educated, they are healthy and attractive.

This being my first Murdoch, I am happy to not make it my last. Very witty and bitingly insightful wrapped in an entertaining and fun story, Iris Murdoch has a new fan in me.

Unless – Carol Shields

Book #27

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

I too am aware of being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing …  We may pretend otherwise, but to many writers this is the richest territory we can imagine… This matters, the remaking of an untenable world through the nib of a pen; it matters so much I can’t stop doing it.

Unless is the last novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Shields, written shortly before her death in 2003, and is often claimed as her most personal.  Reta Winters is a writer,  living a charmed life of moderate professional success, loving family life and a full and supportive circle of friends.  When her eldest daughter decides to abandon her studies, family and friends for life on a street corner, holding up a sign saying only “goodness”, Reta brings her writerly contemplation to bear on the situation and its repercussions on her life.

Told from Reta’s perspective, the story of daughter Norah and her withdrawal from society is a vehicle in which Shields is able to voice her opinions on being a female, particularly a female writer.  Incestuous waters indeed.  There is a ongoing comment about female literature, how it is compartmentalised and trivialised, Reta often writing imaginary letters to convey her strong opinions on the subject.  But what does this have to do with a daughter who does nothing but hold up her sign of “goodness”?  The link is of her removal being Norah’s giving over the power in a sense of helplessness does relate to Reta’s musings on the subject, but her role in this story itself is trivialised.  The catalyst itself that feels rendered secondary to what feels like what Shields is trying to say rather than what it has evoked in the character of Reta.

This is important stuff, not only to Reta or even to Shields.  I did not find out that this was the author’s last book, written so close to her time of death until I had finished the book but there is the feeling that this is something that she really felt needed to be said about her profession and her role as a female writer in it.  The feeling of personal really is the correct description for this book.  At times I felt that this message of dismissing the power of feminine literature uncomfortable, the message too unflinching.  But learning more about Shields has leant a lot of credibility to it as well.  She was a noted Jane Austen fan and also wrote a biography before her death.  As a Pulitzer Prize winning female author, and a student and fan of one of the most visible female authors ever, these thoughts were obviously something she needed to say before she died, something she had to say on behalf of herself and those female writers who came before and to those who have and will come after.

I almost dismissed this novel as one of a display of great writing but one where the story was lost for the main agenda of its author.  I was reading to find out about Norah, what caused her self-exile and what would happen to her eventually.  And the reader is given these things albeit as a secondary to the main message.  But the message is powerful, so-much-so that this inexperienced part-time blogger feels too inadequate to properly convey.  One of the most important things I have read in a long time.

The Pigeon – Patrick Süskind

Book #215

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

Jonathan Noel is a bank guard.   A tragic childhood followed by a disappointing marriage results in a risk-adverse Noel who takes great pleasure in the uniformity and predictability of the life he has created.  He has lived in the same bed sit and stayed at the same job for over thirty years, happy with his bachelorhood, his routine and life in general.  Until one morning, on his way to the communal bathroom he is stopped in his tracks by a rogue pigeon that has made its way into the building.  The effect that this pigeon has on Noel is immediate and immense and what follows is a day where all routine is thrown off, where everything he depends on is shaken.

In a few weeks I will be “celebrating” my ten year anniversary at my place of employment.  When I started, it was only ever going to be a short term measure.  My eldest child had turned three, I was going to go back and finish my University degree and then move onto something brighter and better.  But I didn’t and suddenly it is ten years later.  There are many aspects of my life that are fulfilling and I am very lucky to have the life I do, but as this anniversary approaches I have been thinking about the drudgery of my job, the monotony and repetition and just how quickly this ten years has come up and kicked me in the butt.  So when I picked this book up and started reading on a certain level there was something about this kooky and unsettling story that resonated with me.  Noel settled on his life and quickly enough for him, thirty years passed quickly.  For him though, the repetitiveness and monotony is comforting and when that comfort is shattered by the random appearance and perceived menacing  of a pigeon, this is enough to set off in him a violent reaction.

No human being can go on living in the same house with a pigeon, a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably, that sets it’s claws in you, picks at your eyes…

So how comfortable can he be in his self-imposed bubble that he has placed around himself when it can be destroyed  by the appearance of one, solitary pigeon?  But what a pigeon.  The Pigeon is what I refer to as a bite-size book, a novella that allows you to fully appreciate and absorb the story in one sitting and does in no way suffer for its brevity.  Süskind is masterful at fully immersing the reader into the mind of this seemingly mild bank guard and fully understanding how the appearance of a bird can upset his life and then go on to force him to look at everything around him in a new way.  We understand why Noel is the way he is, we get enough of a taste of his life to feel the apprehension and menace and the subsequent unravelling and then progression to lesson learnt.

This is the second Süskind book on the list, and perhaps less known then the popular Perfume.  Having cheated and seen the movie and not yet having read Perfume (although very eager) the same psychological element is clear and is obviously a strength.  Many have likened his style to Kafka, which I am unable to confirm having not read any of the later (for shame, I know) due to a question of it going a bit over my head.  But what is wonderful about this novella is that it is so clear and accessible without sacrificing anything in terms of writing and language.  And it has made me a bit less apprehensive at tackling Kafka also.  A great read that has made me quite desperate to get my hands on Perfume.