Review: The Various Haunts of Men

The Various Haunts of Men
The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I generally enjoy murder mysteries, but it has been many years since I read one. This was definitely a good one to get back into the genre with.

As it is the first in a series of Simon Serrailler novels, I was somewhat surprised to find he was rather absent from the book – in many ways he was just an incidental character. But nevertheless I think it served as a good introduction to his character, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second novel to learn more about him, and hopefully to enjoy a tale as engaging as this one.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t perfect. The central character, a detective sergeant called Freya, was really well written, and I liked her a lot. So I’m a little disappointed that she isn’t the main protagonist of the series. I also found certain things about her to be hard to swallow – such as her sudden and overwhelming infatuation with another character. But, in the end, I couldn’t help but forgive it, as I think the story was ultimately richer for it.

I was also impressed with Susan Hill’s evocative descriptions. Sometimes I struggle to form a mental image of what I am reading about, which can pull me out of the story. That was not a problem here. I found myself repeatedly drawn in and completely immersed in the world that was created for me, no matter how often my husband interrupted me for silly things like wanting to eat.

I think this isn’t necessarily a novel for everyone. The narrative perspective kept shifting, and that is something I like, and is part of what kept me interested, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I also liked the slow and gradual reveal, allowing me to correctly guess the identity of the killer relatively early in the novel, and not having to wait too long to find my suspicion confirmed. Others might consider that too obvious, and think there weren’t enough red herrings. It was just right for my tastes however.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read that left me wanting more, so it gets an easy 5 stars from me. Roll on book #2!

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Expanding my dystopian horizons

I’ve long been a fan of the dystopian genre, and several dystopian novels make it into my all time favourites list (or would do, if I bothered to keep such a list).  Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale all spring to mind as excellent examples of the genre which I would highly recommend.

Recently I have read two well known dystopian tales, both of which are very notable works in their own ways.  Firstly, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which is widely credited as being the first dystopian novel, and Anthem, a novella by Ayn Rand, whose work reflected her philosophy of objectivism and is still considered relevant and influential amongst libertarians.

There is some speculation as to whether Rand was inspired by We, perhaps having read a manuscript whilst she was still in Russia (long before it was published there; We was first published in 1924 in New York, having been banned in the Soviet Union).  Whilst it is tempting to believe that We was a direct influence for Anthem, and there are definite similarities between the two works, it seems very unlikely that this was the case, and there is little evidence to support the idea.  Both reject collectivism in favour of individualism, and this is probably the most fundamental similarity.  However, other similarities, such as the use of numbers for names, are more superficial and strike me as something likely to crop up within this genre, rather than being a notable connection between different works.   I prefer to suppose that these two stories were simply inspired by similar cultural influences.

Anyway, on to my thoughts about the two stories individually:

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The main criticism I have of this book isn’t actually a criticism at all, merely an unfortunate consequence of me being already familiar with 1984, a novel heavily influenced by We.  However, despite the familiarity of the basic concept and plot, it was a very enjoyable read.  The world Zamyatin describes through the eyes of the central character, D-503, is vividly and beautifully drawn.  As the story progresses D-503’s perception of himself and the world he inhabits begins to change, generating a great deal of internal conflict, to the point where he regards himself as insane and unwell.  It is in this conflict that we find the real heart of the story.  D-503’s strong desire to conform, to do what he has always been taught is right, combating with his sense of self and his own desires and needs, is central to the narrative.  We see his half-finished thoughts and sentences and contradictions.  For me, it is this personal struggle that held my attention more than anything else.  The wider narrative didn’t engage me as much because, ironically, it felt like it was treading old ground.  I suppose it was inevitable I would feel that given so much of the dystopian literature I have read owes such a lot to this original work.  However, despite that self-inflicted impairment to my appreciation of this book, I still found it a very worthwhile read and enjoyed it immensely.  I heartily recommend reading it.

Anthem by Ayn Rand

I’m actually finding it really difficult to express my thoughts about this novella.  I think my biggest problem with it is that it seemed less like a well thought out story to me, and more like window dressing for her philosophy.  It felt like blatant propaganda rather than something that was truly thought provoking.

Initially I quite liked the use of “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me” to suggest the loss of individualism within society, but it quickly felt contradictory to me, since Equality 7-2521 (the central character and narrator) quite obviously had a clear sense of his own identity and of the individual identity of others, that wasn’t altered by the use of different pronouns.  It’s hard for me to explain, but it just felt to me that it was a narrative device that failed to do what it seemed like the author wanted it do do – a case of trying too hard, maybe.  I don’t know.  It’s just something that I thought was a good idea at first, but it just fell flat for me, and in the end was simply irritating.

There was also something about this story that rubbed me very much the wrong way as a feminist.  In this society where everyone is supposed to be equal, and allocated to different houses according to how they serve society (ie their jobs), women are segregated from men and apparently excluded from the House of Scholars, for example.  In fact the only women we encounter are working the fields, harvesting food.  At first I had thought Rand had been clever in that there was no way to tell from the writing what gender anyone was, until it later became clear that the default was male, and women had their own special category.   Which wouldn’t have been a problem, if that was something that was being criticised, but that’s not the case.

The only thing that is criticised is the concept of collectivism – the loss of individual rights and freedoms and one’s right to make choices.  To be fair, Rand does a good job in that respect.  However, I also think she oversimplifies the argument somewhat and presents us with a flawed premise to which she tells us she has the answer.  I thinks it’s this last point, the tone of “you’re doing it wrong and I know best” that makes this feel like propaganda and not something I can take too seriously.  I’m all for “what if” scenarios, no matter how far fetched, and I’m all for challenging established philosophies and politics and systems of government and what-have-you.  I like to have my preconceptions challenged and to be given food for thought.  Unfortunately Anthem doesn’t really come across that way to me.  It felt like it was trying to tell me what to think, rather than asking me to question.

So, although I understand why some people consider this an important piece of writing, and I think Rand does raise some valid questions – I also think Anthem tries too hard to force its conclusions on me, and for that reason, above all others, I don’t really rate it highly at all.  Am I glad I read it?  Yes.  But I won’t be doing so again.

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In which I start a new blog

I confess, I am a serial blogger.  This is the latest of many, only this time I want to talk about books.

I love books.  I’ve had a love affair with books and reading for as long as I can remember.  Up until now, this has been a very private love affair.  I grew up in a house where I was the only reader, and well into adulthood it remained a private hobby.  I didn’t really talk about books, because… well, because I didn’t really understand that was an actual thing.  I mean, why talk about books when you can disappear off into a corner and actually read one?  I never joined a book club, never went out of my way to find like minded people, and just read what came my way.  The closest I ever really came to meaningful interaction was reading reviews, and then actually writing one or two of my own.

So when I signed up to Goodreads earlier this year, I didn’t really expect what came next.  Initially it was just a way for me to read reviews, get ideas for what books I might want to read next, make recommendations to friends of mine that happen to read.  It quite took me by surprise when it actually started to open up a whole new world to me.  This wasn’t just a place where reviews were written and books recommended, but a place where people really and truly and intelligently discuss books.  Not just making short meaningless comments about liking or disliking it, but having erudite, involved and intricate discussion.  Real analysis, debating of points, considering why this character or that character was so interesting, drawing out of themes and extrapolating to real life.  A place where people believe that books matter, and that books are relevant  – to our lives, our relationships, our society.  This was a new world to me, and a welcome one.

I think I finally understand what some of my reader friends have tried to tell me for years.  Looking back I am pretty sure a number of them tried to engage with me about books.  I just rather spectacularly missed the point.

So now, for the first time in my life I am starting to talk about books.  Really talk.  I’m rereading books I’ve read before and looking at them in a new way, thinking about them in a new way.  I feel like I am falling in love with books and reading all over again.  This blog is part of my expression of that.  I’m on a new journey.  It’s exciting.  I want to share it.

So here we are.

My books and me.

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