Paper Plane Reviews

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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey

I vaguely remember picking this up as part of a sale on Wordsworth Classics, along with Wings of the Dove. After the disappointment that I had with my last classic pick, I was hoping that the unusual subject matter of opium would hook me better than Henry James would.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is an account of Thomas de Quincey’s experiences with opium. Addicted after he treated himself with laudanum as a painkiller, he decided to recount the surreal visions that it caused him.
I was actually looking forward to reading Confessions of an English Opium-Eater because what’s a more stereotypically Victorian drug than opium? I figured it would be interesting or at least a laugh. That is if it ever got there. I got through the updated introduction and part way through his explanation of how he got hooked on opium, and I had to stop because I was literally falling asleep at my desk trying to read it. He’d start talking on a point and go on a completely unrelated tangent that is of absolutely no interest to the reader. Like when he stated that he was first introduced to opium as a painkiller, he wraps that bit up nice and quickly, only to whinge for several pages about how another author slandered him and his opium usage. And it just wasn’t a fair representation. And it’s not like the other guy can talk, considering that he also uses opium. Stuff like that, that would just drag the pace to a complete snail’s crawl. I know that my pledge when I started this blog was to complete books if at all possible, but there comes a point where it just isn’t worth it.

I wanted to like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but the only thing I find myself able to recommend it for is as a sleeping aid. 1/5

Next review: Sorcerous Rivalry by Kayleigh Nicol

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

I’ve had The Wings of the Dove on my shelf for quite some time now, and it seemed a good time to have a read of it now. I seem to remember that about this time last year, I had just finished Lady Audley’s Secret, and judging by the blurb, this looks to have the same sort of scandal and tragedy. Hopefully without the sharp veer into unnecessary happy ending territory.

The Wings of the Dove follows American heiress Milly Theale, as she travels Europe in what she believes are her last days to live. Along the way, she befriends a pair of lovers, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, who start conspiring to get their hands on her fortune so that they can be married.
I wanted so badly to like The Wings of the Dove, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I’m sure that the plot and characters are stellar, but there were two things that infuriated me and caused me to not finish. The first was the writing style, which was a mess of overworked vocabulary and sentences overstuffed with clauses. During my attempt to read this, it would be a fairly regular occurrence to reach the end of a sentence and have only the slightest idea of what I’d just read. It’s more than a little aggravating having to continually parse what you’re reading, just so that you have an idea of what the hell is going on.
The second thing that put me off was the pacing. I stopped at around the 1/3 part, because nothing of interest had actually happened. That book summary that I gave was taken from book blurbs that I’ve read. None of that had actually happened by the time I quit. When it takes you over a third of your novel to get past the set-up and into the main meat of the story, then you have done something terribly wrong.

A disappointing time all round really. The story and the characters could be very well-constructed, but the whole endeavour is sabotaged by a writing style that is overly complicated and overstuffed with unnecessary clauses. Combine that with a pace that is utterly glacial in speed, and I was close to throwing the book out the window in frustration. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. 1/5

Next review: Battle Spire by Michael R. Miller

Signing off,
Nisa.

True Grit by Charles Portis

I’d mainly heard of True Grit from my dad. See, he’s a big fan of both John Wayne and the Coen Brothers, so he was quite keen on both movie adaptations. When I got this as part of a bundle, I wasn’t sure how I’d find it, as until recently I hadn’t really read any westerns before Blood Meridian last month. I had heard good things about True Grit though, so I went in hopeful.

True Grit follows Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who travels to Fort Ross upon hearing that her father has been shot and killed by his hired hand, Tom Chaney. Determined to avenge her father’s death, she hires Rooster Cogburn, a deputy marshal known for his meanness and quick trigger finger, to help her find Tom Chaney and bring him to justice, either by the hangman’s noose or at the end of a gun.
True Grit would be a fairly straightforward revenge story if it weren’t for the fact that Mattie has such a distinct and interesting voice. For a 14-year-old, she is strong-willed and no-nonsense, with a particularly good mind for business. It’s refreshing to see a character that in any other book set in the era would be meek and timid, and they’re powering on ahead, taking absolutely no shit from anyone. It gets her in trouble, because of course it does, but she’s all the more interesting for taking this strength/weakness to its logical conclusion.
The setting is definitely less bleak than the one presented by Blood Meridian, but the violence depicted stands out a lot more comparatively. It comes as more of a surprise when it does come, highlighted in particular by Mattie’s comparative naivety. It ends up being a mid-point between the sort of heroic cowboy narrative that my dad grew up with and the unrelenting “humanity is scum” viewpoint that Blood Meridian settles on. There are clear distinctions between who is “good” and who is “bad”, but there’s a definite moral flexibility that can be seen in the characters, especially Mattie’s reluctant travelling companions.

Despite my initial concerns, I found myself falling almost instantly in love with Mattie and her no-nonsense attitude. I would definitely give True Grit a read if you’re looking to try out the Western genre, as it seems to be a nice middle ground between unrelentingly bleak and entirely ignoring the negative aspects of Reconstruction America. 4.5/5

Next review: K-ON! Volume 2 by kakifly

Signing off,
Nisa.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

So Blood Meridian took me longer to get through that I was hoping. Evidently audiobooks are not something that I get on with. I’ve been looking to read some of Cormac McCarthy’s ever since seeing the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, cliche as that may be. It was such an odd film that I was curious to see how much of that was the Coen Brothers’ direction and how much was from the original source material. But I got my hands on Blood Meridian first, so that will have to be my introduction to his works. 

Blood Meridian follows a runaway known as the Kid during his violent coming-of-age as a member of a group of scalp-hunters, headed by the infamous John Joel Glanton and the eerie and erudite Judge Holden. As part of the Glanton Gang, he is tasked with collecting the scalps of natives attacking settlements at the Mexico-USA border. 
Right, so something quick to start the review off: if violence is not your thing, then Blood Meridian is not for you, as it comes up startlingly often and usually in a great deal of detail. If I were to guess, I would say that the majority of the narrative can be filed into one of three things: an act of mass and/or out-of-proportion violence, travelling in some truly wonderful descriptions of the landscape, or sitting around the camp-fire listening to the Judge preach about the world. 
Weirdly enough though, I found that the violence wasn’t all that shocking. I have read that many readers who have gotten through to the end experience desensitisation, but it probably says something about me that, while the violence is vivid and utterly brutal, I just had a weird sense of dissociation. There was something about the stark nature of the writing style and the bleak, lawless setting that meant that when the violence did come along, it just felt like a natural extension. It didn’t feel as shocking to me as, for example, Chuck Palahniuk’s violent scenes, which stick out because they’re meant to be set in modern day and contrast with mundanity. 
The thing that really stuck out for me was the Judge’s speeches, just because he’s such a well-written Devil figure. He is an unusual figure in pretty much every way compared to the company that he keeps, from his huge stature and arresting lack of hair, to the eloquence with which he completely runs circles around his uneducated travelling companions, to the obvious enjoyment that he takes in the violence that he inflicts as opposed to killing from necessity or for money. In addition to his unusual features, he seems to get a lot more spotlight than the nominal protagonist, the Kid, which gives the reader a better idea of his nature, if not his true origins. For me, I couldn’t shake the idea that he was meant to be Satan, considering some of his actions appear to have no physical explanation at times, which gave the whole book a weird kind of Biblical parable feel to it. It felt like if new chapters of the Old Testament were written, but God never interjects as a guide, leaving the world to descend further and further into evil in their absence. 
A fascinatingly grim book, Blood Meridian is definitely not for those who can’t stomach violence. Personally I found the Judge’s speeches to be the far more disturbing part of the narrative, but I can understand it would be a deciding factor. I had this as an audiobook, but I would be really interested in re-reading it as a print or e-book at some later date. 4/5 
Next review: K-ON! Volume 1 by kakifly 
Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Junky by William S. Burroughs

Growing up, my dad was part of Customs and Excise, or Border Force as it is now (though for how long remains to be seen). As such, there was a loudly spoken rule in my house that drugs were bad and that under no circumstances should my sister or I ever partake in them. Considering that we lived in the most bumfuck nowhere type of village whilst still having a bus connection, I’m not sure looking back how they expected me to initiate such a habit, let alone maintain it. In any case, since starting further education my opinions on drug use have somewhat softened, with my perspective shifting more from the criminal to the medical. But I still hadn’t ever read what addiction was like, so when Junky turned up on my shelf, I saw an opportunity to delve into a topic that is somewhat dangerous to look into first-hand.

Junky is the semi-autobiographical tale of Burroughs, under the pseudonym William Lee, and his experiences of opioid addiction. It covers the experience of the drug itself, the process of pushing drugs, run-ins with the law across the United States, and several episodes of withdrawal.
I don’t know quite what I expected, but I hadn’t expected the experience of drug addiction to be so mundane. After the first description of his initial kick, any positives are kind of toned down. It soon becomes just a background element of the narration, the way that you assume that characters in books obviously eat, sleep and clean themselves but don’t need to explicitly say so unless there is something to be implied from this routine. There’s a point where he states that no-one deliberately sets out to be a drug addict, and instead fall into it out of a lack of passion for anything else. It’s kind of a weird realisation, and it makes the scenes of withdrawal all the more intense. You can usually see them coming as they’re signposted by some downturn in personal circumstances, whether that be a lack of funds or increasing pressure from the law, but each is sufficiently different from the previous detox to maintain interest. It’s in these moments where Burroughs describes trying to minimise the symptoms of “junk sickness” that the writing is at its most vivid, where all the visceral processes are drawn out with grotesque, but somehow still clinical, detail.
It’s a strange realisation, but the main thing that I took away from Junky is the feeling that this was just a drawn out musing on the nature of decay. Once a habit is sufficiently established, maintaining the habit is described more in terms of staving off the symptoms of junk sickness rather than for any kick that the addict may get. There doesn’t seem to be any pleasure in it after a while, but just a resigned continuation of a state of self-poisoning in order to avoid the worst of the symptoms. And oftentimes, the attempts at a self-administered cure make the addict worse off than they otherwise would have. Bodies seem to decay at alarming rates, and often at odds with the personalities behind them.

Junky is a strange read, although that may be due in large part to my aggressively anti-drug upbringing. The drug itself sort of fades into the background, fuelling a tone of low-key desperation and disquietude. What stands out most are the episodes of withdrawal, where the body seems to fall apart in the most agonising ways possible. Honestly, I’m not sure why anyone thought that this would encourage people to try drugs, because I come away from this with a sense of sadness more than anything. 3.5/5

Next review: Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Of all the books that I have on my reading list, this was the one that I had most trepidation about starting. There was the inevitable concern that the controversy about it and the possibility that it would eclipse whatever actual merit the book would contain. But, as I had received the book as part of a larger bundle of audiobooks, it seemed a bit of a waste to just leave it languishing on my computer unread. The fact that my attempts to listen to it on my tablet made it sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks were narrating did somewhat mar the experience too.

The Satanic Verses follows two Indian actors who miraculously survive the explosion of a hijacked plane over the English Channel, and the strange changes that come over them following this. First there is the popular Bollywood star Gibreel Farishta chasing after a lost love, who finds himself taking on the personality and divine powers of the archangel Gibreel. The other is Saladin Chamcha, a long-time resident of London returning from an unsuccessful reunion with his father, who takes on the rather more unfortunate shape of a satyr-like devil. Interspersed in their narratives about their lives after these unusual and distressing changes, are dreams that Farishta has about events in his celestial persona’s past. First is the sequence starting with the episode of the Satanic verses. Second is a sequence focusing on a modern day Imam in exile. Third is a sequence following a seer named Ayesha, who convinces her village to go on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca, claiming that she will invoke God’s will and part the sea for them to reach their destination.
Before I continue onto the review properly, there is something that I feel should tackle, if only briefly, lest it become an elephant in the room. I’ve been able to find out the basics of why The Satanic Verses was so controversial with some Islamic readers, mostly in response to the dream sequence about the Satanic verses themselves. And while I can definitely understand that some of the imagery and allegorical naming would be considered incendiary, I won’t pretend to know enough in the realm of religious scholarship to comment too deeply on them. In addition, I would rather not start up a discussion about free speech here, because it is a complex subject that I would only be able to scratch the surface of. All I suppose I would commit to here is that while I am all for people facing up to the consequences of their proclamations, it is a step too far to try and kill someone for those statements.
Right then, so onto the actual book. The Satanic Verses is an ambitious work focusing primarily on the immigrant experience in Thatcher-era Britain, and the strict divide between white and non-white cultures. Chamcha’s insistence throughout the majority of the book to model himself off of the ideal aristocratic, stiff-upper-lip style of Englishman, only becomes more pathetic and futile as the narrative goes on and he finds that London has retained all of the smugness inherent in conquerors but none of the sophistication. Similarly, Farishta’s increasingly unhinged attempts to mold London to his city of ideals only ends with disillusionment. The book does a lot of clever things to create multiple, interconnecting stories of isolation and the conflict between being unyielding and maintaining one’s cultural identity vs compromise and changing to suit your new culture. It does a lot of interesting things, but still I find myself quite content to never re-read this book. I think I may have a similar reaction to Salman Rushdie that I do to Gabriel Garcia Marquez: the books they write may be very clever and worthy of study, but it does nothing for me emotionally. The Satanic Verses is a book that, were I still in university, I would be quite happy to study and analyse to death, but I very much doubt that I will revisit it for reasons of pleasure. This is a matter of personal taste though, and I do wonder whether I would have been more forgiving if I had been allowed to tackle the text at my own pace instead of in the irregular intervals where it would be appropriate to be anti-social for hours at a time.

A clever and interesting novel about the immigrant experience in Thatcher-era Britain that unfortunately didn’t really do much for me. Definitely more a text for debate and analysis than it is for pleasure. For those readers who are Islamic, then there are definitely elements that could be controversial, but I don’t feel that I am really the person most qualified to discuss how inflammatory the novel is or isn’t. 3/5

Next review: Stolen by Lucy Christopher

Signing off,
Nisa.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It’s been a while since I read a classic, but of the many classics out there, why pick up Lady Audley’s Secret, a book by an author that I had never heard of in my life? Well, the blurb promised all sorts of scandalous acts that shouldn’t come anywhere near the neutered Victorian ideal, so of course my interest was peaked.

After three years spent gold prospecting in Australia, George Talboys is keen to return home to his beautiful wife and young child. Upon his return, he finds that she has just died and, utterly bereft at this turn of events, he stays with an old friend to try and recover. His friend, Robert Audley, suggests a visit to his wealthy uncle in the Essex countryside as a form of distraction and as an excuse to meet his new aunt, a woman renowned in the local area as a great beauty. When the trip ends with George’s disappearance, Robert finds himself driven to discovering what happened. The more he investigates though, the more suspicious his new aunt becomes, and he risks miring his family in scandal.
You probably noticed that I didn’t mention any of the scandalous things that the blurb tempted me in with. Because knowing them in advance kind of ruins any surprise that Lady Audley’s Secret has. Lady Audley, in my read-through, had no real secrets because with a couple of exceptions the twists are pretty clearly signposted if you’ve already been told the spoilers. Despite this though, I found this thoroughly enjoyable. The writing is a bit on the flowery side, but considering the focus on Victorian domestic arrangements it does work quite well. The only thing that truly bothered me was the ending. If you’re interested in actually reading Lady Audley’s Secret, which I really would recommend, then you might want to skip the next paragraph.
So, the ending. Lady Audley has been revealed to be a murderous bigamist who pushed her first husband, George Talboys, down a well after he discovered that she wasn’t dead as he had first believed. In order to save his family’s honour, Robert Audley spirits her away to a madhouse to quietly expire at a safe distance, but can never honour his departed friend by giving him a proper burial for fear that it would go to a criminal court. All well and good so far, and I could have accepted that as an ending. Then it turned out that George Talboys was alive all this time and just doesn’t have any understanding of how this “keeping in contact” thing works. And everyone who isn’t the eponymous Lady Audley has a happy ending. The book ends with a reference to a Bible quote where the righteous shall not be forsaken, and honestly it’s so bloody saccharine after a plot that has been gratifyingly scandalous and treacherous. It was such a disappointment. Not enough to entirely ruin the book, but enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Even having had the majority of the secrets spoiled by the blurb of my edition, I found myself really enjoying myself. That’s probably why I was so disappointed by the abrupt turn into happy ending territory in the last couple of chapters. Still worth a read though. 4/5

Next review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Signing off,
Nisa.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

I’ll admit, I wasn’t actually intending to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I first picked up my edition. Having tried and failed to read it when I was younger, I wasn’t all that interested in the actual novel itself. But, as you can see from the below cover, this looked like it would be a manga adaptation, which I was interested in purely because I like that whole Wonderland aesthetic. When I got it home and out of the shrink-wrap, however, I found that rather than an adaptation, I had picked up an illustrated version of the original novels, which was a tad confusing considering it was a comic shop. Either way, it seemed a shame to waste a perfectly nice edition of a book, especially when the art looked so pretty.

The reader follows Alice, a young girl who finds herself in another world after following a white rabbit dressed in a waistcoat down a rabbit hole. There she meets a series of strange characters and must navigate an assortment of situations in which logic appears to have disappeared entirely.
I went into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass expecting to absolutely hate it. As I mentioned above, I couldn’t get into it when I was younger, so I wasn’t really expecting a huge deal. As it was, I was pleasantly surprised to find it thoroughly average. In a weird way, I think it is both too universally well-known and also too hopelessly old-fashioned to really speak to people in the way that they expect it will.
Firstly, the too well-known part. There isn’t much of either book that the general public isn’t familiar with in some fashion. Off the top of my head, the only parts that were unfamiliar to me were the Duchess’ pig-baby and the giant puppy from Adventures in Wonderland and the battle between the lion and the unicorn from Through the Looking-Glass. As for the rest of it, it’s all pretty familiar. Even some of the more minor parts have become part of everyday pop culture. “What’s the difference between a raven and a writing desk?” has been so over-analysed that the riddle has gone from having no answer to too many. Hell, I remember being told “Time for bed the Walrus said” when it was getting too late, which is unintentionally sinister now that I think about it. It’s so ubiquitous now that public consciousness of the property is probably influenced as much by modern reinterpretations as it is by the original.
This mention of modern reinterpretations leads me to my second point, which is the hopelessly old-fashioned part. You can kind of tell from some of the poetry that Carroll is playing on rhymes of the time, but it’s hard to appreciate the cleverness of it when the original rhymes aren’t well-known anymore. Without that context, the book has to rely on its plot, and if you have any concept of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland then you can already tell what the problem with that statement is. Without the contemporary context, the book is left to rely on events that only barely have continuity with one another and don’t have any stakes to speak of. It feels like a story that a child would make up and honestly it just strikes me as bizarre that it would last so long in cultural memory.

I think the only thing that really surprised me coming out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is how little the books actually hold up. The rhymes that it plays with haven’t survived the test of time, and it means that the reader is left with a plot that is disjointed at best. The writing itself is okay but there’s not much content to work with. It only really works on an aesthetic level these days. 2.5/5

Next review: Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Signing off,
Nisa.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

After the disappointment that was The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, I was in the mood for something familiar. I hadn’t read Treasure Island in years, and remembered really enjoying it when I was younger, so it seemed like the perfect book to revisit.

Treasure Island follows a young boy named Jim Hawkins. Helping his parents run their inn, the Admiral Benbow, he meets a cantankerous old sailor who is rather keen on avoiding other seamen. When he dies after his old crewmates turn up to harass him, Jim gets his hands on the old man’s sea-chest, with a treasure map inside. Joined by Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney, they embark on a journey to retrieve the treasure, gathered initially by the infamous Captain Flint. But all is not well, as their crew of honest hands has been infiltrated by former members of Flint’s crew, most notably the one-legged Long John Silver.
It might just be the innumerable film adaptations overriding my memories of the book, but I do not remember there being quite as much malaria in Treasure Island. I’d also managed to forget a whole chunk of the book in which Jim manages to steal back their ship, the Hispaniola, which is probably more worrying. Regardless, I still enjoyed it about as much as I did when I was a kid. There was a small part of my brain making things weird by thinking of my two favourite adaptations (the Muppet version and Disney’s weird but somehow still coherent Victoriana Space Opera version), but it does definitely still stand up by itself.
One thing that I will mention for those of you who haven’t read Treasure Island, but have seen a bunch of the adaptations is that Hollywood has a weird obsession with trying to make Long John Silver into a kind of weird father-figure for Jim. There isn’t really much of that in the actual book, with Silver being more or less a child-friendly depiction of a psychopath. Sure he switches sides towards the end, but not out of any genuine affection for Jim; considering that the alternative is dying on a malaria-ridden island with three former comrades who really aren’t satisfied with the way that his grand voyage has panned out, it’s a purely pragmatic decision. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something that would stand out if you’ve only ever seen film versions before.

Treasure Island is a classic for a reason. The characters are great, the action is gripping and who doesn’t love pirates? If you’ve only ever seen the film versions before though, you might want to prepare yourself for a significantly less likeable Long John Silver. 4.5/5

Next review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers is one of those classics that is so culturally prevalent that I felt almost duty-bound to look into it. So when I found that it was one of the free ebooks when I fired up Google Books, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to take a look at a much-beloved classic.

The reader follows D’Artagnan, a young and hot-tempered noble who sets out for Paris seeking glory and fortune. Upon arriving in Paris, his attempts to gain acceptance into the elite musketeer company are initially hindered when his haste to avenge a slight causes him to anger three musketeers: the quiet and stoic Athos, the boisterous and vain Porthos, and the womanising would-be priest Aramis. And having befriended his would-be opponents, he finds himself getting involved in the private affairs of several august personages.
I went into The Three Musketeers expecting adventure and maybe a bit of intrigue. I hadn’t realised just how much modern adaptations remove some of the more unsavoury aspects of our heroes’ behaviour. I mean, I was kind of expecting some dissonance with regards to values, considering when it was written. But at the same time there is a surprising amount that adaptations leave out, such as the utterly shameless way that they seduce married women in order to get funds that is almost immediately squandered on high-living, or the servant girl that D’Artagnan uses and casually abandons to avenge himself on her mistress. While they are undoubtedly the lesser of two evils compared with the duplicity of Milady de Winter, it does feel a bit more grey than was perhaps intended by the author.
The unexpected underhandedness of the eponymous heroes aside, The Three Musketeers is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, with a fair bit more depth than I had expected at first. And while I do have some reservations about some of his misogynistic tendencies, I did end up developing a bit of a soft spot for Athos. That may well be because he seemed to be the most competent and collected of the four protagonists though.

Overall, The Three Musketeers was an enjoyable read. The heroes are perhaps less likeable than adaptations would have you expecting, but they still have their good points to them. It has a lot more depth than I was expecting with regards the whole political powerplay aspects, and a surprisingly bittersweet ending. 3.5/5

Next review: The Mammoth Book of Body Horror edited by Paul Kane & Marie O’Regan

Signing off,
Nisa.

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