I ordered The Railway Man a few months ago on Amazon’s three paperbacks for £10 offer because I’d seen the movie trailer and thought the book would be an interesting read. I’ve not read anything from the point of view of a British prisoner of war overseas so I thought it would be interesting to hear a war story from a different perspective.
Eric Lomax’s book is a true story – a chronological recounting of his life growing up in Scotland, his fascination with trains, joining the army and ending up as a Japanese prisoner of war working on the Burma-Siam railway. At the start of the book I found the descriptions of trains a little slow going but it was an important build up of his character and allows the earlier part of his life to stand in stark contrast to what happens later.
Lomax writes in a very matter-of-fact way which I found surprising – I thought it would be a more emotive account about the way he felt about his treatment as a PoW – but it was quite factual and tied to details of what happened rather than his reactions to them. But it doesn’t make what happened to him seem any less horrible. I thought he had reached the peak of his suffering when he was imprisoned in a tiny cage and tortured for information, but then he was transferred to a prison with terrible conditions where he suffered beatings, starvation and skin diseases. There seemed to be many points where he was near death and could have given up but he kept on going.
I think the most difficult bit was when he described going home and no one realised or understood what had happened to him and expected him to step back into normal life. He did, to some degree; he got married and carried on with his working life, but there was obviously still a lot of underlying trauma, which he admits affected his relationship with his wife and children. He was withdrawn and suffered terrible nightmares, unable to talk about what had happened to him. In his seventies he finally began to get help, with the support of his second wife Patti, and eventually met face to face with one of his torturers who was filled with regret, and they became good friends after time.
I watched the movie version halfway through reading the book and there are some differences – the movie focuses a lot more on the psychological impact of Lomax’s torture in his later years and doesn’t include details of his months in prison, or his first wife and children (just his second wife, Patti, who he meets when he’s 61). You also get more of a sense in the book of the other soldiers who suffered alongside Lomax – he’s a bit of a lone figure in the movie.
Overall I think it’s an important book and one that I was glad to have read. Because of the factual way Lomax writes it’s not an unbearable read, though what happens is awful, and by the end of it you do really get a feel for how honest he has been in writing it and his strength of character in having survived so much.
This week I am writing about The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg which was our book group choice for February (contains a few spoilers). I also ended up reading the other two books in the trilogy after this – The Glass Magician and The Master Magician. I have mixed feelings about this series. For the most part I enjoyed reading them – in fact I finished the series in four short days – but there some aspects I found frustrating.
The bits I enjoyed
– I loved the premise of The Paper Magician – an apprentice named Ceony Twill goes to study the art of paper magic (folding, spells, animation) under a quirky magician named Emery Thane. In this world, magicians choose a specialism in one element such as paper, glass, metal, plastic which they bond to for life and are able to manipulate. It’s a wonderful idea – I was hoping for lots of spells and ideas to be described in the book and they were.
– I liked the two main characters. For a Young Adult novel they perhaps aren’t as well defined as other protagonist in that genre but they were likeable and you cared about them.
– There’s a romance element to the story which is probably what I enjoyed the most. I like books that make you feel, and when you want the characters to fall in love and you’re rooting for them, it’s a good thing!
– The plot was pretty well paced – I didn’t get bored or impatient and it was rather a page turner – I found myself wanting to drop whatever I was doing and just go back to reading it.
The bits I didn’t enjoy
– The books are supposedly set in late Victorian/Edwardian London but it was a real struggle to accept this throughout all the books. They are littered with anachronisms and Americanisms which are too hard to ignore. The central premise of the plot – a young female apprentice going to live with and study under a young male magician – would surely never have been acceptable in society at that time. Even trying to take into account that this is a magical world with different rules and conventions, it just doesn’t work. There would have been no issues with setting the story in modern day America as there’s nothing in the plot that relies on its historical placement in the 1900s, and it would avoid the reader starting at every odd description. Some of the most distracting elements included clothing (short skirts, tight skirts, jackets with hoods), transportation (I didn’t realise ‘buggy’ is what the Americans call a horse and carriage) and food (pasta? rice and tuna? I’m not sure these were typical meals).
– Some of the elements seemed a little clichéd (the baddie is a wicked woman with dark hair and dark eyes who likes to rip people’s hearts out with little explanation as to why) and some were just odd (Ceony gets trapped inside Magician Thane’s heart and has to squeeze through its bloody chambers, reliving his memories, til she finds a way out). Plus some of the action was rather unlikely. A brand new apprentice suddenly defeats a terrifying killer than no one’s been able to catch for years?
– Some of the writing wasn’t great – there were some odd metaphors (car headlights sliding over the ground like butter on hot toast?) and places where more imaginative/vibrant descriptions were needed to really bring the world to life.
Overall it’s stayed in my mind and I did enjoy reading it so I would recommend it to anyone that enjoys YA novels and is looking for a light read. If the author had spent more time thoroughly researching her time period this could have been a much better series with a more authentic, grounded feel to it.
If you’re looking for a novel with a decent depiction of Victorian London try Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet or Affinity by Sarah Waters. Want something a little later? The Paying Guests is set in the twenties, or The Night Watch is set during the Second World War.
I have been out of touch for rather a long time, mostly because I’ve been working on my craft blog www.stickerkitten.co.uk. But welcome to BookFluff, my new literature blog! I’ve migrated over old posts from literaturekitty.co.uk (now gone) and will try to do a better job of keeping this blog up to date!
I have still been reading – perhaps not as much as I used to –but our book club at work ensures I get through at least one book a month. One particular novel I’ve enjoyed is The Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. It’s about a man who is reborn every time he dies. He is reborn in the same time and place and his memories of his previous lives return at around age four. It’s a fascinating book full of interesting ideas, adventures and drama. I also liked the cover. Though we’re told not to judge a book by its cover I think it sets the tone for the novel and invites the reader in with certain expectations. This one seemed to have it quite right – a little quirky and strange, but fascinating the deeper you look.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that makes a good novel for me is one I feel I can come back to and get more from. With The Fifteen Lives of Harry August I think I could read it another couple of times and find new connections, ideas and things to think about each time (including the question of what I myself would do if I got to live my life over and over again). Plus it makes you think about the nature of time and cause and effect – the influence that one person or action or discovery can have on the entire world and technological progress of the human race. Having said that it’s not too intellectual a read though and you can enjoy the story and characters without thinking too much about their mind-boggling effects on the space–time continuum.
By the end of the book I really wanted more! I wanted to know more about the content of each of Harry’s lives – even the mundane aspects – and more about his relationships. The book seems more of a ‘highlights of’ and it is well paced, but I would also have been happy to read a tome of a book with just more. I never quite felt that I got to know Harry himself. We see a lot of his actions, decisions and thought processes but perhaps not a great deal of his feelings behind everything.
I’ve also liked reading the Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey, which is a post-apocalyptic series about a group of people living in a massive underground silo to stay safe from the now toxic earth and air outside. Each novel in the trilogy has quite a different feel to it as we move to viewpoints of different characters at different points in time, but by the end of Dust, the last in the trilogy, I felt there were still things that had been left unanswered or not quite clearly explained. I was waiting for a big reveal – the answer to the question ‘why?’ but it never came. For anyone that’s finished the books and thought the same there’s an article on Howey’s site here where he answers some of the questions I’d been asking myself. He has also done a few AMAs on Reddit which I’ve yet to read. The lack of answers though does in part make me want to go back and read all the books again now that I know how everything turns out so I suppose that’s a good thing.
I’ve been reading sci fi/dystopian/post-apocalyptic type novels as I really enjoy the genre, and a lot of young adult novels fall into that category at the moment – The Hunger Games, the Divergent trilogy, The Maze Runner series, and so on, most of which have been made into a series of movies too. I’ve yet to read The Maze Runner but I have seen both the movies that are out, and there’s still a lot that doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m hoping that’ll clear up when I get round to reading them… Of those I have read I’ve really enjoyed The Hunger Games, the Divergent books and the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. Delirium is set in a world where people have found a ‘cure’ for love – to rid the world of pain, heartbreak, anger and jealousy – but there are of course those who rebel against the system. I think I enjoy YA novels so much because the authors are forced to focus on plot and character and the strength of their ideas. Their audience is not (generally) reading for the beauty of the language. I think some of the most successful novels are those where you can really get to know and love the characters and the world they live in – Harry Potter is the best example! I’ve read the Harry Potter books more times than any others.
Non-fictionwise I have been working on a few really fascinating books at work. The first of these is the second edition of Work by Lars Svendsen – a philosophy book about why we work and the meaning of work. It’s short, accessible, easy to read and fascinating in terms of subject matter. Svendsen hits the nail with a lot of his observations, especially when discussing the fact that nowadays our leisure time can often be harder work than our jobs! It can certainly take a lot of organisation to fit everything in. Svendsen’s other books include A Philosophy of Boredom, Fashion: A Philosophy and A Philosophy of Fear, all of which sound fascinating and I really want to read them!
The second book I’ve found really interesting is The Anthropology of Obesity in the United States by Anna Bellisari. Bellisari talks about obesity from the perspectives of history and evolution as well as society and culture, showing that it is caused by many complex factors and not necessarily just down to an individual.