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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Doctor Who and The Invasion from Space by J. L. Morrissey

This novel is something of an historic milestone, because it’s the first ever unique Doctor Who novel. There had been novelisations, comics, and short stories, but this was the first novel – and the first of many too, as there have been literally hundreds of them since. Fans of Doctor Who novels will know that they are often very strange (in the very best of ways) and aren’t the kind of stories you’d see on television. Doctor Who and The Invasion from Space is no exception.

At the start of the novel, the First Doctor is adjusting to life with several new companions: a family of peasants (the Mortimers) that he unwittingly rescued from the Great Fire of London. He’s endlessly bitter about it, and throughout the novel makes it clear that he thinks he’s superior to them, that they, as mere peasants, didn’t ever really matter anyway, and that their lives are insignificant. He’s so awful about it, that I can only imagine that this is set before An Unearthly Child, because after the first few TV stories, he’s never an meanspirited as he is here and there’s no room for this to be set then.

Together they encounter a sort of god-like alien who sees other life forms at inferior, which causes the Doctor to reflect on his actions when he sees that this being looking down on others isn’t too different to he himself looking down on the Mortimers. Although, his revelation comes down to “Maybe I should care if they die” which is pretty mild, really. Quite interestingly, the story very strongly suggests that the Doctor is a human being, which makes this story even more interesting. Back then, I guess so little of Doctor Who was yet fully established, and it’s cool to see the different ways in which the character and the universe were interpreted. As was common for expanded universe stuff at the time, he’s called Dr. Who throughout too.

If you’re a fan of the modern era, it’ll feel like this novel bears almost no resemblance to show that you know and love. However, if you’re a fan of classic Doctor Who, and the First Doctor in particular, this will be a real treat. I’d love to see the Mortimer family revisited some how in future, whether that’s in another book, a comic, audio drama, or whatever else. It’s a delightful curiosity, and not very long either, so give it a go.

Rating: 7.9/10

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Does it Show? by Paul Magrs

This is the second novel in the Phoenix Court series of novels, but other than being set in the same area as Marked for Life, with a few minor appearances from its characters, it’s essentially a completely standalone piece of writing. Just like the first novel, it’s just about the lives of some ordinary working class people, with some great LGBT+ representation, and just a hint of magic realism.

I don’t want to spoil any twists in the storyline, but one of my favourite things about this novel is its very sympathetic representation of a trans character. Written almost 30 years ago, this is a novel that would be dismissed as ‘woke’ if it were published today, but it’s a reminder that the idea of respecting trans people is nothing new. In the novel, the character in question passes as cisgender, and most people don’t know that they are trans. While some characters do use certain words which would not be used today, that is how people would have spoken back then, so it doesn’t really bother me in the slightest – meanwhile, the third-person narrator always uses the correct pronouns for them, and never deadnames them… far ahead of certain people today.

There’s a gay romance at the heart of the novel two, between a young teacher named Vince and a man he’s had an on-again off-again relationship with throughout his life. It felt like it had a lot of depth to it, in that the character reflect on why they want to be together, and the different aspects that drew them back to each other. It’s very introspective and quite difference to any other ‘romance’ that I’ve read before.

Really, there’s not any character in this novel that I wasn’t interested in. The appeal of his writing doesn’t lie in any huge over-arching plot, but merely in the different ways that realistic human characters cross paths with one another. Essentially the story here is that a woman named Liv and her daughter Penny move into Phoenix Court and then this is the story of the friends they make and how they get caught up in the small dramas of those who live there, making friends along the way. I can imagine that some people might find it a bit dull, but I find it fascinating.

As for the magic realism element, there’s a lot less of it in this book than there was in the first one. Notably, Iris Wildthyme is barely in this novel (just two tiny cameos) and it’s a pity, because I adored her in Marked for Life. Of course, there’s not really any way that she could easily be incorporated after what happened in the first book, but I did miss her. Here, the magical stuff is mostly in the background, though it pops up in at least a medium sized way right at the end. It’s done in a fairly strange way too, where nothing is really explained properly. I can see this disappointing some readers too.

Overall though, I think there’s a lot to admire in this book. Paul Magrs gets people and his ability to create characters is fantastic. I think I probably slightly preferred the first book, but I admired this as a progressive piece of writing that was able to switch between comedic and dramatic from chapter to chapter, keeping me engrossed throughout.

Rating: 8.6/10

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Doctor Who: The Day She Saved the Doctor

Four female authors write a Doctor Who story each, and each one sees a different female character in the Doctor Who universe stepping up to save the Doctor at some point. Published to mark the occasion of the first female incarnation of the Doctor in 2018, the stories span both the “new” and “classic” eras of the show. While there’s nothing especially revolutionary about any of them, I think they’re all enjoyable enough and sure to put a smile on the face of most fans.

Sarah Jane and the Temple of Eyes by Jacqueline Rayner

As much as I love the classic era, I have to admit that the Doctor is usually not as appreciative of their companions as they are in the modern era. For this reason, it’s nice to see a story with the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane which has him praising how highly he thinks of her, beyond his usual, simple “She’s my best friend.”

In it, you see the two of them landing in Ancient Rome, and the Doctor being kidnapped by an all female cult. The setting is described very vividly and the characters are very true to themselves. I wish there were other classic era stories in this collection, but this is a strong addition and one that tells a nice kind of story that we didn’t get on TV at the time.

Rose and the Snow Window by Jenny T. Colgan

Unfortunately, this was my least favourite story in the collection. It has a window in time connecting 2005 Canada to early 20th century Russia, and has Rose having a loose romantic fling (of sorts) with a historic count. The plot just failed to capture my interest.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Jenny T. Colgan’s writing style, and I appreciate the fact that she chose to do a story with the Ninth Doctor and Rose, because they’re one of my favourite duos and it’s always good to have more of them. The author obviously understands and can write them well – sadly, it just wasn’t for me.

Clara and the Maze of Cui Palta by Susan Calman

Ironically, while the second half of Series 7, with the Eleventh Doctor and Clara travelling together, is one of my least favourite eras of Doctor Who, this is one of my favourite stories in the collection – my second favourite, in fact. In it, the Doctor takes Clara on a day out, and they end up getting lost in a giant, seemingly unescapable alien maze.

While the storyline is a fairly basic one, I think it lends itself well to quite a lot of tension, and even manages to portray the Doctor in quite a vulnerable state. It’s an interesting and unique Doctor Who story and I genuinely wish it could have been a real episode. If it had, it could have been one of the best in Series 7 – if not the best.

Bill and the Three Jackets by Dorothy Koomson

The Twelfth Doctor is my favourite Doctor, so perhaps its not surprising that this was my favourite story in the collection. Although, having said that, the Doctor himself is barely in Bill and the Three Jackets – instead, it’s all about Bill inexplicably swapping bodies with a random person that she meets, then having nobody believe that she is the real Bill.

Not only is it a pretty cool idea for a story, it also leads to Bill learning a lesson about appreciating her body, and realising that she was wrong to judge others based on their appearance. It’s a cool sci-fi story, but it’s also pretty wholesome, and when the Doctor is there, he’s being very kind as well. It’s a definitive high point for the collection to end on.

As Doctor Who books go, I’ve definitely seen others which do some really interesting things with the characters and setting. This doesn’t stray too far from what you’d see on television, and is fairly standard Doctor Who. While that means its not absolutely fantastic, standard Doctor Who is still pretty great, and I think a lot of fans will enjoy it – especially if they just want to dip their toe into the world of the books.

Rating: 7.8/10

Buy it here.

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Reflecting on 2023

It’s time once again to write up my thoughts on the year – it doesn’t seem long ago at all that I wrote Reflecting on 2022, but there you go. Last year, I started by saying I couldn’t help but feel exceedingly luckily because I had everything I ever really wanted from life. Pretty much the whole year had gone perfectly, until, of course, my friend Jon died which put a sombre note on its end. Still, it gave me comfort to look back on a year of happy experiences with good friends that preceded it.

Jon’s funeral was one of the first things I did this year, and to some extent, I feel that that set the tone for the year ahead. Besides that, my housefriend Eilidh has been very unlucky with her health this year, and while I’m not going to go into detail about something that is personal to her, it is hard to see someone you love suffering and missing out on things because of their health. Then my workplace also made a whole bunch of people redundant (though surprisingly, not me), and at home we’ve had ongoing problems with various household appliances which have been rather frustrating to deal with for various reasons. It may sound like a small handful of things, but together they take their toll.

Nonetheless, there have also been lots of positive experiences this year, and I’m sure that in years to come, it will be these memories that I most strongly associate with the year 2023 – in particular, this year has seen my first trip overseas. In June, I went to Portugal with my friends Rory, Neus, Malena, Lorena, Lorette, Isabella, and Victoria. Although, the twist is, that they mostly weren’t my friends before then. Rory is one of my oldest and very best friends, Neus is his partner who I had met and got on well with a handful of times before going, and Malena is a friend of there’s I had met twice before and thought “Gosh, she’s cool, I hope we can become friends” but the rest were people I’d never met or heard of in any capacity before and the thought of spending so much time in close quarters with people I didn’t know was slightly daunting.

In the end, I decided to go because I’ve never had a bad time when Rory is in the mix, and it turns out I had absolutely nothing to be concerned about. I’ll make new friends most years, but it’s rare to get the opportunity to befriend so many new people in such a lovely way and not only was this trip easily the highlight of the year, but one of the highlights of my entire life. I wrote a blog post about the emotional peak of that trip, and gosh, that’s a memory that’s only going to get more magical as time goes by and I become more and more nostalgic for it.

Also, while not everything has been perfect with my work, two aspects have been particularly pleasing. After going most of 2022 without a manager, I finally got one towards the start of this year and she has been a delight to work with. While I did want a manager again, I was wary of it – someone awful could have ruined the whole job for me. Fortunately, she made the job even better and I have a very friendly relationship with her which is quite different to what I’ve had with other managers. I also got a promotion, which is cool. Oh, and I was quoted in the trailer for Lil Gator Game, which was surreal.

Aside from going overseas and the plethora of things that I did in Portugal (including losing a pair of glasses to the sea for the first time), this year has also had a number of milestones for me – I went bowling for the first time, I got called up on stage and asked to make speech to a group of people for the first time, I went axe-throwing for the first time, and I even watched a live orchestra perform for the first time (thanks to Eilidh treating me to a special screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol – what a beautiful and kind soul she is).

What also marks the passage of time for me is that my friends Sarah and Edward will soon be having a baby. It’s curious because they aren’t the first of my friends to have a baby, but it somehow feels a lot more emotional for me this time. I’m very happy for them, and it feels very moving for me to see them moving through the different stages of life. I also believe whole-heartedly that the two of them would make absolutely fantastic parents. Perhaps I’ve just become more emphatic since the last time I someone I know had a child, I don’t know, but I do know that the news moved me very deeply.

There have been lots of lovely occurrences throughout the year – I’ve had a couple of visits to Thermae Bath Spa (once with Ben, once with my friends Hayley and Tasha), taken a fun-filled trip to a board game cafe with Kat and Leo, had a mini cinema-like viewing of The Room with Ben, Chloe, Liam, Tom, Sarah, Edward, and Kristen (which was a fantastic birthday treat from Ben), had a trip round an art gallery with Edward, and had countless other dinners and visits with people, visited an exciting Bristol market with Eilidh, had a special birthday trip to Bournemouth with Chloe and Liam, and there’s probably more I’ve forgotten too – countless dinners with people to be sure.

While it could have been a rubbish year, it wasn’t thanks to all of the following people: Eilidh, Rory, Stacey, Sarah, Edward, Chloe, Liam, Tom, Neus, Malena, Lorena, Lorette, Isabella, Victoria, Lauren, Ben, Hayley, Tasha, Richard, Davey, Laura, George, Emilie, Nick, Christian, Jess, Amy, Stephanie, Kat, Leo, Elissa, Mairi, Oscar, Elliott, Christy, Lydia, Tonicha, Lin, Dalfino, Helen, David, Christopher, Jane, Steve, Sam, Kristen, and my mother. At some point or another, you’ve all made me happy this year, and what more could a person want? So as much as I would call this a harder year, I still count myself very lucky to have so many good people in my life.

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The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern

This book’s title isn’t one that’s going to stand out to most people, and the author’s name is also one that’s fallen into relative obscurity. However, if I were to say that this is the story upon which the Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life was based, I’m sure you’d recognise that.

Admittedly, this is a rare case where you could say that the movie is better than the book. This ‘book’ was just printed as a pamphlet originally and you can easily read the whole thing within just 30 minutes or so. It’s a quick read, for sure, but at the same time, in such a short space of time it manages to do something pretty amazing – it gives us the concept of a suicidal man who is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like without him in it.

Although the movie did a much better job of fleshing out the characters and exploring the reasons that he wants to end his life, the credit for such a fascinating idea goes to The Greatest Gift. It’s a very well written story, that paints a very vivid picture of a town on a dark Christmas night, and which does a good job of endearing you to the main character, George, and his mysterious guardian angel who grants his wish to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.

It’s whimsical and mysterious in just the right way and manages to capture all the emotions I want in a Christmas story. While it is hard to find the time to sit down and watch all three hours of It’s A Wonderful Life, The Greatest Gift is ideal for anyone who’s looking for a cosy little read for the night of Christmas Eve.

Rating: 8/10

Buy it here.

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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Based on the title, I expected this to be something like A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells, which offers a complete world history in a piece of writing the length of a novel. Though I was disappointed that this isn’t what this is, I was equally pleased by what it actually was – which is a history of science. It goes into many areas of scientific knowledge, and does so in such a way that somebody with next to no knowledge can appreciate and understand what’s being explained.

My favourite parts dealt with the creation of the Earth in space, and the creation of the universe before it. Bill Bryson talks about the Creationist theories from a couple of hundred years ago, and explained how they slowly evolved into current ideas of evolution, and offers examples of different historic beliefs, such as the person who was sure that the Earth was created in late October, some several thousand years B. C. and that the even happened around midday.

As much as it is fascinating to learn about what we now know about the early days of the universe and of our planet, I found it even more interesting to learn about what we don’t know – which is a lot. The universe is a very mysterious place, and this book does a wonderful job of highlighting that.

The universe is also a very bleak place, which this book also highlights well. If you are quite an anxious person, then you might want to avoid reading this, because the author goes over several ways in which our species, or at very least our civilisation, could be wiped out relatively easily. He also really highlights how miniscule we are in occupying such a tiny amount of space and time. I could imagine somebody becoming quite low-spirited after read those parts.

On the flip-side of that, it’s quite a funny book sometimes. It goes into a lot of detail about things that scientists just happened to name after their home town, or people they know, that we take for granted as the name for certain scientific terms. It also explains many of the petty rivalries and disputes that they had which each other throughout history, with many of these scientists having eccentric personalities. The human drama element was often quite entertaining.

So if you’ve ever wanted to know more about the history of science, to find out what we know so far, and where that knowledge came from, I definitely recommend this book. Bill Bryson’s light and conversational tone is highly accessible and I think most people will learn a thing or two from it.

Rating: 8.8/10

Buy it here.

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The Pact by Jodi Picoult

This is a novel about young love, and how obsessive, and even dangerous, it can be. It tells the tale of a young woman (Emily) who died suddenly – seemingly as the result of a suicide pact that she had with her boyfriend (Chris), though he is alive and (for the most part) well. It’s an emotionally intense piece of literature, and one that gives a look into the hearts and minds of lots of well developed characters.

The character I felt most strongly for throughout this was Emily. While she dies right at the start of the novel, you afterwards get to see her life up until that point through a series of flashbacks. Although the ultimate reason for her death felt a bit off to me (for reasons not fully addressed), what I admired about her story was that it perfectly highlights the risk of not having the right support network in place for somebody. The lack of respect and understanding for her needs from everyone in her life felt so true to things I’ve seen happen to people I know.

Chris, meanwhile, is a typical teenage boy – and I don’t mean that he’s a negative stereotype of a teenage boy, but that he feels very believable. He’s a well-intentioned person and I felt very sorry for him because of the situation he’s been thrust into – but equally, I sometimes got very frustrated with him. Like most teenagers, he doesn’t make the right decisions in emotionally intense situations and he’s far too driven by sex. By the end of it, I wasn’t sure what to think of him, but I could totally believe him as a character.

Though those two characters are the ones at the heart of the novel, there’s also Chris’s mother, Gus, who I loved for being so endlessly devoted to her son, Emily’s father, Michael, who has a kind and thoughtful sort of nature, even after the loss of his daughter, and Jordan McAfee, Chris’s no-nonsense lawyer. There are others too, but these were my favourites, and one of the big strengths of this novel was that it is essentially built upon the interactions between lots of very interesting and likeable characters.

It did have its issues, for sure, and while the ending was very thought-provoking, my interpretation of events was never really properly acknowledged – I don’t know if it was an interpretation that the author intended, or if I’m just reading it in a strange way, but I would have liked to have seen that (and I can’t say more without spoiling it). Though I felt one aspect of the backstory could have been handled a little better, I was still very impressed overall, and recommended it to anyone who likes very human dramas that deal with very complex situations.

Rating: 9.2/10

Buy it here.

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