The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a book that was loaned to me by one of my very best friends and other than the fact that she had recommended it to me as a book that was good, I knew absolutely nothing about it apart from the title. I hadn’t even read anything else by Kazuo Ishiguro before.

When I started it, I initially thought that it was a piece of historic fiction – set during a period when the Britons and the Saxons were finding it hard to accept one another, it tells the story of a older married couple who want to head out to visit their son. The problem is that they don’t really remember their son and, indeed, everyone seems to be having trouble remembering things because of a strange fog that erases memories.

The fog was the first hint that this novel wasn’t entirely set within the confines of reality, but as it went on, I thought it felt a little more like a folktale, and even ended up tying into Arthurian legend in a pretty significant way. In the end, it felt like it was making some pretty profound comments about the behaviours of great nations and the things done in the name of war and peace.

I’ll admit that the writing style felt perhaps a little bit too dry for me – never quite going very deep into the emotions of its characters, just giving you a very surface level look, like you’d get with characters in folktales. At first, I thought this was pretty interesting, but by the middle it was starting to drag quite a bit – fortunately, it had such an interesting ending that I didn’t feel bored of it for long.

The two main characters, Axl and Beatrice, are kind of funny at times, the Axl prompted more than a few eye rolls from me. Throughout the book he almost exclusively refers to Beatrice as “princess” which might lead you to believe that he is a really loving and supportive husband, but then every time she’s worried about something, he tells her it’s fine and she doesn’t need to worry, but she’s right pretty much every time. It’s almost certainly intentional, but I found myself thinking that she could do better throughout. One of my favourite characters meanwhile, was Sir Gawain, who’s a shifty little old man – it’s probably the most interesting interpretation of the character that I’ve ever seen.

All in all, I thought it was quite an interesting and unique read. Blending fantasy, history, folklore, and legend, I can’t think of any novel that feels even a little similar. The pacing could definitely be better, and there were some chapters that didn’t really do much for me, but all things considered, I really like what the author was doing with this book.

Rating: 8/10

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A Diplomat’s Diary by Julia Cruger

This another book to receive a new digital edition as part of the Reclaim Her Name campaign, which sees books by female authors which had to be published under male names originally, finally published under the author’s actual name. All of the books vary significantly in style, genre, tone, and quality – A Diplomat’s Diary is one that I enjoyed, but also found lacking in some areas.

The novel is all about a Russian diplomat who keeps a diary, but who intentionally doesn’t write about his political work in case it falls into the wrong hands. Instead, he writes about the people that he meets and, ultimately, about the romances in which he becomes untangled. Something that immediately struck me about this book, was that it was so atmospheric. I was so drawn into the ice cold Russian world of the past, that I just wanted to read more and more.

Unfortunately, I felt that the story never really felt like it lived up to the high standard set by that initial impression. Don’t get me wrong, the author is obviously a very good writer, and it was their writing style that kept me interested throughout. It’s just the actual story never really felt like it was especially interesting or exciting. Even as I read each new chapter, I found I sometimes hadn’t really retained what happened before, because I wasn’t so deeply enticed.

Overall, reading A Diplomat’s Diary was still a positive experience for me. Some actors are good enough that they can make you enjoy even a bad film, and some writers are good enough to make you enjoy even a dull story. It’s not especially long, so it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but let’s just say that I’m glad I got this book for free via Reclaim Her Name, rather than actually paying for it.

Rating: 5.8/10

Buy it here.

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Opening Time Capsule 2

In 2014, I wrote a blog post called Time Capsule, then in 2019 wrote Opening the Time Capsule where I read what my past self had written and answered the questions they’d left for me. Following on from that, I wrote Time Capsule 2 and, gosh, now it’s time to keep the chain going and see what I asked myself five years ago:

Same first question as last time: is everyone still alive? That’s the most important thing!
Sadly not – at your Bath Christmas meal in 2022 you received the news that Jon had died. Only in retrospect, do I realise that this is quite a melancholic question to open with.

Hopefully I’m still alive too. Does my phone still work though? I’m setting a reminder to do this in my current phone, so I hope I still have it in 2024 – it will only be eight years old, so I feel like it should be fine.
Yes, I am alive and well – although COVID-19, a terrible mutation of a virus that barely anyone knew of in March 2019, almost killed me in 2021. So did a case of urinary constriction in 2020. They were a pretty unlucky couple of years, and yes, even my phone broke in that window of time, but with the magic of modern technology, the next phone (kindly given to you by Chloe and Liam in exchange for a Nando’s) managed to retain the reminder.

I have full faith in you, my future self, to still be writing this blog, so, tell me, what’s the best blog post I wrote in the last five years?
Ironically, while I asked myself in 2014 if I still updated the blog in 2019, I didn’t ask back then if I would in 2024. I do still update this blog, of course, but not on any regular schedule, just as and when I have something to say, with the rest of the posts just being book reviews. The best post in that window of time was Emotional Ambience, where I wrote about one particularly amazing moment I experienced during my trip to Portugal in 2023 – my first visit overseas and honestly some of the best days of my life.

What’s happening with your Finger Puppet Show? I trust that the hiatus will be over.
Gosh, it is, but only just. The hiatus you refer to came to an end a short time after the blog post you wrote, but then it was on hiatus again when I was unable to access my puppets in the pandemic. I did very, very irregular updates for a few years, but now I update weekly again.

When was the last time you saw: Amy, Ben, Chloe, Christian, Dalfino, Davey, Egan, Edward, George, Hayley, Kat, Liam, Mairi, Rory, Sarah, Sophie, Stacey, Stephanie or Tasha? Make sure to reach out to anyone you’ve not seen in a while!
Good news. You see, or speak online, with all of these people at least semi-regularly.

How is your mental health doing? I worry that if a lot of your friends go away, you will become sad and depressed – but right now you feel good and happy: don’t forget, if you are depressed, that you’ll always become happy again. Friends always come back eventually and there are always new friends to make!
My mental health is pretty much the best it’s ever been. I’m living in the golden age of life. In fact, I don’t really worry about how it will effect my if friends move away anymore. I don’t think the effect on me would be too negative these days.

Are there any people who are important to you, but who I don’t know yet?
There certainly are!

  • Lydia: I guess she doesn’t technically count, since you already knew her when you wrote the Time Capsule, except back then, she was just someone you met once and barely knew, and now she’s one of your closest friends. In fact, just a few months after you wrote this post, she reached out and got back in touch, and you’ve seen a lot of each other over the last five years.
  • Neus: Neus is Rory’s partner, who you met in 2021 and have become good friends with since, to the extent that she invited you to come on the holiday to Portugal mentioned above, and of course, I’m always going to think highly of the person who helped facilitate one of the highlights of my life!
  • Malena: You meet Malena in 2022, through Rory and Neus. When we first met, I remember thinking “Gosh, she’s really cool, I hope we become friends one day” and that’s exactly what happened, with the trip to Portugal as the catalyst. The two of us just get on very, very well
  • Laura: Davey’s now wife. This is another one that might not strictly count, because you knew Laura when you wrote the 2019 time capsule, but it’s only over the last couple of years where you’ve grown to count her among your own friends, rather than just a friendly acquaintance. Lately, you’ve had quite a few nice dinners out with Davey and Laura, and they’ve each been an absolute delight.
  • They’re not the only ones either – Lorena, Lorette, Isabella, Emilie, Lin, and Lauren are all people who have come into your life and enhanced it for the better too. I continue to be very lucky when it comes to encountering the very best of humanity

Where are you working these days? Have you had many changes of job since 2019?
Gosh, loads of them. In fact, you’ve gone through four since you wrote the original blog post. Although my current job, which involves writing about video games for a business called Network-N is easily my best yet and I’ve stayed for over two years (my longest lasting job so far).

Have you had a chance to visit any other countries yet?
Yes! My trip to Portugal was my first time overseas. I never would have guessed that that would be where I go first, but it was such a perfect holiday that I wouldn’t change anything about it.

What’s a particularly rewarding experience you’ve had in the last five years?
Well, you know, it’s funny because one of the questions in the first time capsule was “Where do you live now?” and I didn’t include it in the second one because I assumed I’d still be in Corsham – little did I know, less than four months after writing this, I’d be moving to Bath to live with the friend now known as Eilidh. Funnily enough, this time capsule popped into my head shortly after we started living together and I imagined that the entirety of our time together when be encapsulated within the period before the time came to “open” the capsule. As it happens, I was wrong, and I hope we can live together for many years yet. Nothing is more enriching than living with a fun-loving person who shares many of the same interests and with whom you can chat with long into the night on just about any subject.

Of course, there have been many rewarding experiences of the last five years, but getting to live with Eilidh is definitely the one with the largest positive impact.

What do you know in 2024 which would be the most exciting piece of information for me to know in 2019?
Again, it’s funny because in the first time capsule I asked “Has there been anything new, Waltons-wise?” and then I just didn’t think it was very likely that there’d be anything before the next one so I didn’t ask again, and I was wrong – there have been two new Waltons movies and they were both amazing. They even had Richard Thomas.

Being quoted in the trailer of two games published by Playtonic is something that would have excited me endlessly, had I known it back then.

Finally, just as I said in my last time capsule, make sure to create a new one to be opened in 2029! You’ll be approaching 40 by then. Oh my.

I will absolutely be writing a new time capsule for myself to open in 2029. The process of going back and answering the questions of my past self has been a very positive one both times, because it has helped me to appreciate all that I have gained in the years that followed. I can only hope that the next five year period will be as positive as the last two.

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On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This is the fourth book in the Little House series of novels, and it’s one of my favourites so far. I thought it was a big step up over both the second and the third books, but I didn’t think it was quite as magical as the first – though to be fair, that’s a pretty high bar.

While Little House on the Prairie featured a not-so-good portrayal of the indigenous people living in the area that the Ingalls moved to, On the Banks of Plum Creek manages to avoid that problem all together. This is about the Ingalls coming to a new area, building a new home, and contending with nature and the elements. It was actually quite similar to the first book in that regard, but perhaps a little more grown up.

One aspect of the book which I’m sure some reader will find particularly unnerving is its focus on a swarm of locusts that infested the area. I’ve known for years that things like this can and do happen, but I’d never really thought too much about how something like that would actually feel. You can tell the author actually lived through this experience, because it’s described in harrowing detail. If you’re afraid of bugs, I suspect this will be a very difficult read.

I also enjoyed all the detail it provided about how they dealt with the snow and extreme colds during in the depths of winter. It’s the kind of thing that helps you to appreciate all of our modern conveniences, and which highlights how really inhospitable the world can be. They were living in something called a dugout during the period of their lives detailed in this book – I’d never even really heard of this before, but it was fascinating to me.

Speaking of the winter, this book contains a really beautiful chapter about Christmas. They all go to the church for a Christmas service and, gosh, it captured the spirit of the festive season perfectly. It was one of the cosiest, most heart-warming things I’ve ever read and easily my favourite part of the book. I think I’d go so far as to say that I think that chapter is the best thing Laura Ingalls Wilder ever wrote (or, at least, of what I’ve read by her so far).

Essentially, I think what I liked about this was that it was a return to the series roots – it’s about a pioneer family out braving the wilderness and trying to survive. The first book was that too, but reading it was a very different experience, due to it being through more of a child’s perspective. The second was about the her husband’s rougher time growing up, and lacked the element of nostalgia present in the others (as she never lived through it herself), and the politics of the third didn’t age so well. This book is why I love Little House, and I hope to see more like this in the later books.

Rating: 8.5/10

Buy it here.

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Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

One of Shakespeare’s comedy plays, ironically I thought that the humour in some of the more serious plays was much better. Much Ado About Nothing is by no-means bad though, it’s loosely entertaining enough, and doesn’t overstay its welcome (being quite short). There have been some Shakepeare plays I just found quite boring, and while this one wasn’t quite boring, it also didn’t really have anything that particularly excited me.

The story is mostly about two couples, Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice. There’s a lot of the usual Shakespeare innuendo, people misunderstanding things, and just a lot of light fluff really. A lot of fuss about nothing, you could say, to read the title with the interpretation taught in schools (though I know that the “nothing” more likely refers to the “nothing” women have between their legs – gee, good one, Will).

It does pick up a little more towards the end where, without spoiling it, characters receive news of somebody’s death. Considering the circumstances, and the fact that most of the play is just a bunch of nonsense, this is quite a shocking development and it certainly piqued my interest. Meanwhile, it serves as a valuable historic record on the ridiculous amount of significance that people used to place on a woman’s virginity (just as some still do today) – although I am fairly confident that Shakespeare was not condemning anything.

That insight into historic misogyny is probably one of the best things about it, since it doesn’t tell a particularly profound story, nor is it tied into any interesting historic or mythological events. But like I said, I was never bored, just kind of mildly enjoying myself the whole time, and a little bit more at the end.

Rating: 5.6/10

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The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I decided a while ago that I was going to read all of the Agatha Christie novels in order. I read and enjoyed the first one, but then for whatever reason didn’t get around to reading the second for a long time. Now that I’ve finally read it, I wish I’d done it sooner, because it was a really enjoyable read.

While you might associate Agatha Christie with murder mystery stories, and with characters like Poirot and Miss Marple, this one is much more of a spy thriller, and it stars the characters Tommy and Tuppence. Tommy and Tuppence are an absolutely delight – they’re two old friends who come together after the end of the First World War, both in need of new work. Together, they decide it would be fun to become detectives and share adventures together. Not only do I enjoy having a female detective in Tuppence (which feels progressive for the time), I loved that the pair of them are a sort of comedic duo – they joke around just like real friends, and they’re just adorable, really.

The story concerns a draft treaty, written up before the war finished. The details of the treaty are never really revealed, but it is said that if they were to be made public now that the conflict is over, it would almost certainly cause another war to break out – with Britain’s alleys now turned to enemies. The only known copy has gone missing, but there are suspicions of where it might be. As a comedic reflection of the politics of the time, at one point they say something like “Even if it doesn’t cause a war, it’d almost certainly main that we get a Labour government in the next election” and in today’s world, it’s hard to see that as a bad thing.

The novel is fast-paced and filled with lots of cool characters and unexpected twists and turns. From the somewhat bumbling millionaire, Mr Hersheimmer through to the level-headed lawyer, Sir James, everyone stood out and I was often left wanting to read more as I got to the end of each chapter. It’s a light, cosy novel and one that I’m sure will keep you entertained throughout. It left me eager for more Agatha Christie, and more Tommy and Tuppence especially.

Rating: 9.2/10

Buy it here.

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Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

The sixth Wheel of Time novel felt very different to the earlier ones to me, because it features Rand as a major political figure in the world (the titular Lord of Chaos). At this point, I actually found him to be pretty unlikeable, because he’s so exceedingly arrogant, but I think that this was very much intentional on Robert Jordan’s part, because all his hubris seems to come to a head by the end. It’s interesting to see how far he’s come since being the simple, likeable unlikely hero of the first novel. To some extent, I miss his earlier characterisation, but another part of me wonders whether we’re going to see him become an outright force for evil, and that’s quite intriguing.

I did miss Moiraine in this book though. Rand’s arrogance almost seems to be a response to her absence. Of course, he was always a bit arrogant, but nowhere near as often as he is here and it is sad not to have Moiraine challenging him. But it’s not just that. She was pretty much my favourite character in the whole series, and it is a shame to have the story moving on without her. Initially I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much with her gone, but fortunately, I still thought it was pretty good. Partially, I guess, because there’s a lot of Aes Sedai drama here.

The rebel Aes Sedai faction located in Salidar is one of my favourite things about this book. Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne are all finding their way in this growing community that’s finding its feet, and to me it’s a really interesting bit of political nuance to the world. Here they also have a captive Moghedien who’s teaching them more about what they can do by channelling, but who’s identity they have to keep secret, due to the fact that the other Aes Sedai would want her executed, and would punish them for protecting her. It makes for a fun dynamic when contrasted against her as a major antagonist in previous novels.

One small issue I had with the Salidar portion of the story this time (without spoiling anything) was that something fairly major happens, and the characters never really stop to ask why. Instead of thinking “I can’t believe this big thing happened, let’s find out why, because that information will be valuable to us” they’re just like “Oh, wow, that’s cool” and it didn’t quite seem believable to me. Consequently, I thought it made them look pretty dumb. It even kind of ruined my enjoyment of the latter half of the book.

Still, all things considered, I thought this was one of the better Wheel of Time books. I didn’t find myself getting bored, like I did with some of the others, and I was pleased with some of the cool developments.

Rating: 8.1/10

Buy it here.

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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

When I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I thought it was a kind of fun boy’s adventure, but noting really amazing. I didn’t quite understand why it had come to be regarded so highly, and when I stared reading the sequel, I was expecting it to be something very similar. As it happens, I was very wrong. While there is some of the same sense of humour as the first book, it’s a much darker and edgier read overall.

Right at the start, you know it’s going to have a very different tone, because it’s about Huck’s plans to get away from his abusive father. Along the way, he’s joined by a man named Jim, an escaped slave, and the two of them try to avoid the authorities while on the run, getting into all sorts of scrapes along the way. Some of these are slightly more light-hearted encounters, similar to the first book, but amidst it all you’ve got a lot of really intense drama. I felt sorry for Huck, because it’s going to take him a long time to get over all that childhood trauma.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but besides Huck being abused by his father, this book features quite a lot of violence. A few people are killed quite brutally, and in front of Huck too. One part of the story sees Huck caught up in a family feud, which has come to the point of bloodshed. He also watches someone else get gunned down in cold blood too at another point too. It really rattled me at times, and it’s funny to me that this is a book for children. Perhaps I’m just more sensitive as an adult, and if I’d read it when I was younger, I’d have been more nonchalant about the violence.

Despite Mark Twain saying at the start of the novel, that there’s no meaning behind what he writes, it seems pretty obvious that it’s anti-slavery, at very least. Jim is shown to be a sympathetic character and Huck ends up working hard to keep him from being enslaved again. For this, I admire it, but at the same time, Jim feels like he’s a bit of a stereotype, and is often the butt of the joke. My feelings towards it are quite mixed, because it was obviously fairly progressive for its time, but it also hasn’t aged well. There are also a lot of slurs tossed around casually (even by Huck) which might be uncomfortable for some readers, but I think it serves well as an accurate reflection of the attitudes when it was written.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. I never knew what was going to happen next, and because Huck and Jim were always on the move, it means that you get to meet lots of different characters as it goes along. While I do think it’s better than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I do partially think that my enjoyment of this book stems from standing on the shoulders of what preceded it. Huck’s harrowing experiences are more pronounced following the romp of the last book and it works well in the sense that it’s showing life getting harder as he grows older.

Rating: 7.9/10

Buy it here.

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Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

To most people with an interesting in English literature or history (like me) Shakespeare is one of those inherently fascinating historic figures. His work is so endlessly influential, and there’s so much speculation about his life and inspirations. This biography of the man gives us everything that is definitively known, which is relatively little (but still intriguing enough).

Bill Bryson paints a colourful image of Shakespeare and the world in which he lived. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that huge swathes of his life lie in complete mystery. Though what is known is enough to paint a rough picture of his background, how he might have developed an interest in the theatre, and then how his life unfolded in London. Without embellishing things too much, he manages to make it all seem very alluring – and I particularly liked a bit where he speculates about how it might have felt to be in the audience for the first performance of Hamlet, for example.

Outside of laying down the rough structure of Shakespeare’s life, he also looks into areas that have been the subject of much debate and theorising. For example, the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality and why some people think that he may have had romantic or sexual relationships with at least one man, and also why some people think that Shakespeare may not have actually written his plays – it turns out, in the latter case, that it’s pretty much based on nothing but, potentially, classism, but even then it’s not clear why the theories are so widespread, when they’re based on practically no evidence.

As someone who had only a general knowledge of Shakespeare’s writing, but knew next to nothing about his life, I found this book to be engaging and informative. Perhaps if you’re already an expert, it won’t seem so interesting, but I think it was a fantastic introduction to the man’s life written in a charming and occasionally even humorous way. If you’re even a little interested in Shakespeare, I definitely recommend it.

Rating: 8.7/10

Buy it here.

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Monster Be-Gone by Jay Gillies and Michael Hardy

This novel tells the story of two young boys – the quiet, timid, and well behaved Alex, and the scallywag Jay, who’s always getting into trouble. They’re cousins and friends and their lives are turned upside down when, all of a sudden, Alex transforms into a dinosaur-like monster that has a mind and personality of its own. Unfortunately, what it seems to want to do most is eat people.

It’s a cute story. Both the boys are very endearing and I felt invested in their friendship. The tone of the whole piece is kind of like an animated TV show or movie from twenty to thirty years ago. It’s probably a bit darker than you’d see today, and takes itself seriously enough when necessary, but maintains and light and whimsical tone throughout. One that note, the main villain of the novel felt a little bit one dimensional. He’s just absolutely awful and, at first, it was to an extent that felt relatively believable, but by the end it was hard to imagine someone being as bad as that.

In some ways, it felt a bit like a super hero origin story, and the boys’ relationship with the monster (later named Be-Gone) was very interesting to me. I never would have expected the story to go in the direction that it did, but ultimately Be-Gone itself became a big part of the novel’s appeal, and I was as invested in that strange creature as I was with the rest of them. When it goes into the backstory of it, I was a bit disappointed, because there are some really awful things that are kind of written off as not being as bad as they are. It kind of cheapened the wholesome feeling that otherwise ran throughout.

Aside from that, the only thing that really bothered me about this book is that it really felt like it needed a more thorough edit. While the authors clearly have a talent for creating characters and telling stories, the whole novel was riddled with small mistakes and clunky sentences. One of the biggest offenders was a line where a sentence from the monster was followed by “said Be-Gone” even though, by that point in the story, they hadn’t yet named him. I’m not fussy, and it’s easy for me to overlook errors and mistakes, but I don’t think there was a single chapter without multiple instances, which damages the experience somewhat.

All things considered, I still think this book is a lot of fun and I recommend it to anyone who wants a bit of light-hearted fantasy entertainment. It’s not a hugely well known book, so it’s a nice opportunity to give a try to something that might otherwise be overlooked.

Rating: 7.6/10

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