New Books

Hello, my name is Becky and I am a bookaholic. I purchased 6 new books this morning before I even got to work:
  • Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
  • Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
  • House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire
  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
Can't wait to read them.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Wicked – where to start? What I expected and what I got are completely different. When I started reading Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I thought I was starting a light-hearted comedy type book. Instead, what I got was a dark, sinister and almost depressing black comedy about the Wicked Witch of the West. 

Even writing about the book now, having read it earlier this year, I am still very confused by this book. By that I don’t mean that I am confused about the plot or the occurrences, I’m confused about my reaction to the book. I was totally depressed by this book. Not only whilst I was reading it, but between reads. 

Obviously feeling depressed is not a good feeling, but at the same time I appreciate this feeling because it’s not very often that you read a book that has so deep an effect upon you. I’m not sure I could say that I have such a strong reaction of any kind to any other book I’ve read. 

There’s a lot I could talk about this book, but I really only want to talk about the politics contained in the story, and the theme of evil and what evil really is. Politics and the concept of evil are closely entwined in this story.

I have to admit that I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing this review, partly because of my reaction to the book and partly because of its complexities. I say this because I’m sure that whatever I write will not do justice to the book.

A brief plot summary is probably necessary; I’ll try not to spoil it too much. The book is about Elphaba (who comes Wicked Witch of the West and her childhood growing up the eldest daughter (and only green child) of a fundamentalist preacher. She has a sister Nessarose who is born without arms (who becomes the Wicked Witch of the East and a fundamentalist religious political leader). The story follows Elphaba through her years at the University of Shiz where she forms an unlikely and somewhat reluctant friendship with Galinda (who becomes the Wicked Witch of the North and Glinda). As a result of university experiences and a changing Oz, Elphaba becomes a leftist activist, revolutionary or freedom fighter and takes part in an underground campaign to destabilise/overthrow the evil despot, the Wizard of Oz, who rules Oz with an iron fist. Elphaba finds true love, loses it and is eventually destroyed by Dorothy.

Politics and religions of Oz are complicated. Oz has 4 states, North South East and West. The Wizard of Oz is a despot who tries to isolate the lower forms of society (Animals). He used Gale Force Troopers to quell uprisings and violence is the standard response of his regime. The religions of Oz are also complicated, there are the followers of the Un-named God, the Pleasure Seekers, the followers of the Time Dragon and so on. The Wizard of Oz is evil and all powerful. In the book he is a distant figure, to me he felt a bit removed from all the action.

I think the main theme of the book is that of evil - What is evil? Who makes a person evil? Maguire seems to suggest that evil isn’t a black and white concept, certainly in the book it’s not as simple as Dorothy = good and Elphaba =evil. The characters are all complex.

I think that perhaps Maguire is also trying to suggest that some people do bad things, but are not necessarily bad people. Elphaba wants to harm Dorothy for taking her sister’s shoes. Yet Elphaba wants those shoes so badly because in some respects they represent her desire to be closer to her father and a longing for the relationship Nessarose had with their father that Elphaba did not. Elphaba’s actions in her attempt to claim this family heirloom which Dorothy has acquired, can be viewed as evil or immoral, but her intentions are entirely understandable and human.

What makes a person evil? Is it intent or action that makes a person evil? Elphaba wouldn’t consider her own actions evil and Dorothy wouldn’t consider her own actions as evil – normal human desires are behind the actions of each.

Was Elphaba evil or was she forced to act in an evil manner because she believed Dorothy was coming to kill her? On the other hand, is it dangerous to suggest that because her intent wasn’t evil she’s not evil? I doubt that Hitler thought was he was doing wrong.

Its seems sometimes that its not about who the characters are that makes then evil or good, it’s how others see them. Maybe Maguire is trying to suggest that evil and good are matters of perspective? For example, Elphaba becomes the Wicked Witch of the West but who is she? From the viewpoint of modern society she is a revolutionary fighting for social equality, something some people would idealise and applaud, and others deplore. Certainly in “Wicked” she is a wicked witch, although perhaps more so for her later behaviours.

But then, is it important that Elphaba doesn’t start as the Wicked Witch of the West – she becomes her? “That’s why I call myself a witch now: The Wicked Witch of the West if you want the full glory of it. As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention”. Does Elphaba choose to become evil and what significance does this have?

I know that a lot of this is questions rather than answers – but it’s a very confusing book that although I said is very black, I also recommend you read it.

Star Rating

6.5 / 8

Couldn't put it down. Really enjoyable and well written. I would recommend it. 

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

I started reading Robinson Crusoe mainly because I saw it on my mother’s bookshelf and thought to myself “I haven’t read that before”. Turns out it was a good idea. Since reading the book I’ve discovered that Robinson Crusoe (which I think was written in 1716) is sometimes considered to be the first ever English novel. Quite a claim to fame.

I don’t what I expected when I read it. I knew it was a story about someone stranded on a deserted island and that’s where my knowledge ended. I didn’t realise that it had been written so long ago, and the language was a bit of a barrier for me. It was necessarily difficult to understand, but it did manage to make what otherwise could have been an exciting story a somewhat dry one.

The story was bigger than I expected. I thought it would be about Robinson on the island, but its actually his entire journey from first leaving England on a boat, to his island home, then to Brazil and some final adventures through Europe. I suppose this was useful to give Robinson’s entire story some context, and I liked the adventures leading up to his ending up on the island, but I have to admit I became a bit bored and confused with his post-island adventures if I can call them that.

Robinson Crusoe is stranded on the island for 28 years, but I found the story didn’t seem to reflect this. It’s hard to believe from what you are reading that you are passing through such large chunks of time. Maybe it was done deliberately to reflect the type of person Robinson was and how his time actually passed on the island, but I found it somehow disturbing that all this time was passing and yet I didn’t have a sense of it from reading the book.

For me the most interesting parts of the story were when he was stranded on the island by himself. I didn’t realise this until Friday and the Spaniard etc all started progressively turning up. Somehow it seemed to me to be more likely that someone would end up stranded on a desert island than someone finding themselves in the same position and then having company join them. Maybe that’s just me.

I think it had a lot of interesting themes that are worth essays in themselves (which I don’t propose to do). Examples include coping with hardship, race and religion. I don’t really want to talk about the race issue – I think that a lot of what happens between Robinson, Friday and the other ‘savages’ reflects the time in which the book was written. What struck me most about the story was that it was a story about someone coming to terms with their own reality – whatever befalls Robinson; he does what he can to cope with the reality that he is. Perhaps that’s why he is saved when all the other sailors are lost at sea – Robinson has the power and ability to adapt.

Robinson turns to religion to help him come to terms with his reality; probably not a hard thing to do given the only thing he has to read is the bible. Robinson talks about having learnt his position in God’s creation, and knowing that he is man, not an angel. He then makes the conscious decision to stop producing more than he has to produce to care for himself – sort of an old-fashioned anti-consumerist comment I think. On the other hand, when he has guests on his island, he then seems to enjoy being considered the King of the island, and being referred to as Governor. When he returns to the island at the conclusion of the book, it has become his colony. I like the contrast between his religious and ‘anti-consumerist’ (if you will) ideals on the one hand and his sense of self-importance and need to be in absolute control on the other. He enjoys having people owe their life to him because of this benefit this brings to him. He’s a complicated character.

Re-reading this you would think that I didn’t enjoy the book. I enjoyed the book and I would recommend it, but don’t read it thinking it will thrill you.

Star Rating
5 / 8

Good and worth reading if you have the opportunity, but there's no need to prioritise it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

I have to admit to loving this sort of book. More specifically, I love a good series I can get into and keep reading till the end. Harry Potter has been a great series and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been my favourite of the lot. The series itself isn't a new story really. It’s friends on a quest to save the world, by overcoming evil. There's the main character Harry, his arch nemesis Voldemort, and the various other side kicks and other characters that go along for the ride.

What I loved about the Deathly Hallows compared to the other books was how much faster paced it was and how much more sinister. This made it even more exciting than the others. The complexity of the entire story became so much clearer with the final book. JK Rowling did a good job of including all the characters we've met throughout the series and giving them all some role to play in the final instalment of Harry Potter. I was surprised by the introduction of the deathly hallows themselves into the story, sometimes it seemed a little distracting from the main story, but then I think this was the point - Harry was distracted by the Hallows from his task of destroying the Horcrux's.

We know that Harry was always going to triumph, but I was sad to see some of my favourite characters die along the way (don't worry, I won't say who). I particularly liked the pause before the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. I was glad that JK Rowling gave Harry the opportunity to reflect on his life and Voldemort's and Dumbledore's before he killed Voldemort. Im not necessarily convinced by the location this took place in - a random train station? It might have been nice for Harry to have this opportunity in a more familiar or meaningful place perhaps. However, the final confrontation with Voldemort itself was more meaningful and convincing because Harry had had his chance to know his story before he bought a significant part of it to an end.

The only part of the book I didn't really enjoy was the Epilogue. It felt very forced, and the characters weren't really recognisable as themselves. It just felt as though it had been written in a hurry, and the name's Harry had given his children were so corny I could barely stand it. I don't blame JK Rowling for trying to keep her options open with a follow up series, and I do feel like the Epilogue gave the story a satisfying ending overall, I just don't think it was thought through as well as it could have been.

I think overall, JK Rowling did a skilled job in dealing with Harry's growth from child to late teenager. The book for me where his increasing age was most apparent was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry, Ron and Hermione were clearly older in the Deathly Hallows, but I think at times JK Rowling was trying to make them seem a bit older than they actually were. Ron and Hermione changed in some respects over time as well, but I think that they are relatively one dimensional characters - Ron as the comic sidekick and Hermione as the brains. Mind you, I'm glad they finally got together; the sexual tension was killing me!

What I love most about the Harry Potter series is how it appeals to children and adults alike. It allows adults and children to enter into an imagined world and participate in the lives of the characters contained therein. I imagine it's difficult to write a book that appeals to all age groups and Harry Potter did this perfectly. 

Star Rating
8 / 8

One of the best books I have ever read. Everyone should read it - it is totally amazing. I am in love.