Sunday 4 January 2015

Mini-reviews: It, The Last Englishman, Flowers for Algernon

It - Stephen King

2014 was the Year of Stephen King for me: although I had read his books before, it wasn't until last year that I recognised what a wonderful storyteller he is: not the mere writer of horror stories his reputation suggests - King writes about people, makes you care about them, and then, once you've grown attached, he makes you fear not just whichever monster they face, but fear for his characters. And as such, It really isn't "a horror story about an evil clown" at all. Yes, it is gruesome and unsettling at times, but the novel did not frighten me half as much as the idea of it did - and the clown does not appear nearly as often as I'd been led to believe. I still don't think I'd be up to watching the 1990 TV film adaptation though. I really. Don't. Like. Clowns. (I learned that a young Seth Green - Oz in Buffy - played the younger version of Richie Tozier. YES. Perfect.)

Just as someone once described Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, (a very different book, with similar themes) what happens in It really isn't what it's about. Yes, there is a shape-shifting monster whose favourite disguise is as a murderous clown called Pennywise, but really the book is about the perils unique to childhood, it is about a hostile place, the power of people to ignore what is going on under their noses, it is about the strength in friendship to overcome monsters visible and unseen. At over 1500 pages, It was nearly double the runner-up for longest book read last year, but not a word was wasted, not a page dragged. King has a rich prose, taking his time in building up the town of Derry, inducting the reader into the Losers' Club with Bill, Ben, Richie, Beverly, Eddie, Mike and Stan, and weaving together past and present as our characters' forgotten memories of the summer of '58 slowly return to them as required in the battle against It.

Key quotes: "That's what happened when you got back to your used-to-be, as the song put it. The frosting on the cake was sweet, but the stuff underneath was bitter."

"If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one - probably a child - who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it."

The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome – Roland Chambers.

To most people, the name Arthur Ransome is synonymous with quaint English adventure stories for children, full of decent English children in a time when they were allowed to run free, sail, camp, climb mountains and play at being adventurers, explorers and pirates with no supervision from anyone older than the age of twelve or thirteen. All as jolly and wholesome as anyone can wish for! But before he came to write the Swallows and Amazons books, Ransome lived a very different life as a journalist, witnessing first-hand the Russian revolution and cosying up to many of the biggest names of the Bolshevik movement so well that ultimately, his every motive and movement came under question. In The Last Englishman, Roland Chambers attempts to unravel the mystery of Arthur Ransome, only to find the writer to be a slippery fish indeed!

I have to confess myself very ignorant about such a momentous period in history, and as such I found this biography heavy-going at times, but also fascinating, leaving me wanting to read and understand more about early twentieth-century Russia. As a biographer, Chambers draws Ransome as a curious, enigmatic figure, but shows little admiration for him as a man, showing him to be a far more difficult, sometimes naive or irresponsible, and curmudgeonly figure than his character “Captain Flint” – Nancy and Peggy Blackett’s Uncle Jim – the retired adventurer who might be closer to how Ransome would prefer to be remembered.

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

One of the science fiction classics of the 20th century, Flowers for Algernon is presented as the journal of Charlie Gordon, a young man with learning disabilities, who is eager to be the test subject for an experimental IQ-increasing drug trial. His journals (misspelled at first) chart his progress from "simpleton," working as a janitor in a bakery, to a genius who puts the world's leading scientists to shame. As well as his increasing intellect, Charlie's progress reports portray his emotional development and his new understanding of the world and the people within it. This is a bittersweet experience, when he comes to recognise the cruelty of his "friends'" jokes at his expense, and that intelligence brings as much trouble as it solves.

Flowers for Algernon is an important novel, as important now as at the time when it was written, raising discussions of personhood, and the treatment of the mentally disabled. It asks how far identity comes from one's perception of the world, and raises the question of the ethics of pushing the boundaries of nature through science: is it a miracle or an abomination best left alone?

Key quote: "Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."


  1. I'm so glad you liked "It" for those reasons! Despite my (almost) life-long love for King, it is the most special book to me for its themes of friendship and first love and succeeding against the odds, and it makes me so happy every time some else sees that too :)

    As for the film, my best advice to you is to definitely NOT see it! I'm not particularly scared of clowns and generally find that most King films are pretty crap compared to the book, but Tim Curry as Pennywise is without a doubt one of the most scary things I can imagine even now! That man is PERFECTLY cast to be as scary and creepy and haunting as possible, and I actually think he's more scary in the movie than the character is in the book. So, do not go near it :)

    Btw, I just found your blog recently and have really enjoyed following your writings so far :)

  2. Thanks Camilla! I was the kid who had to be taken out of school assembly and sent home from friends' birthday parties when clowns turned up, and just googling the phrase "can't sleep, clown'll eat me!" (from the Simpsons) brought up some images from the film that made me whimper and curl up into a ball. I'm not that bothered by clowns any more, but psychopathic evil monsters in clown suits are definitely a no-no. At least the book was just black marks on white paper! Actually it was the scenes in the bathrooms that made me feel more unnerved reading the book. I'm really glad I read it. The characters will stay with me a long time, I think.

  3. It is THAT long!? Wow, I had no idea. I also didn't really know that much about it other than the clown thing and some images of the film version in my head, which I haven't even seen. I'm not scared of clowns (unlike a lot of people) but they just didn't interest me. Maybe I'll pick this up now I know it's not all that... clowny.

    Flowers for Algernon has to be the most DEPRESSING book I have ever read in my life. It's interesting and clever, but so, so miserable!

    1. All I knew about It was the clown, which first of all put me off completely, and then ended up being a kind of challenge to myself. Downloaded the free preview on my phone, and then wanted to read more so went straight out and bought my own copy.

      Flowers for Algernon is VERY gloomy, isn't it? Thought-provoking, but yes, it is rather depressing too.


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