It is probably not at all obvious, but as a devoted book worshipper, I do enjoy being able to read things… Something I like even more than being able to read is having the time to read. So here enters January– a blissful, wholesome, many-chaptered month filled with endless hours of uppermost joy and parchment smelling euphoria… or so I thought. The first of these endless hours caused more than bit of heart ache.
The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive Book 1 Part 1) by Brandon Sanderson
Pain in the back of the eyes, joints or muscles, fatigue, fever, chill, loss of appetite or sweating, headache, skin rash or vomiting. This is a list of symptoms associated with the infection known as the ‘Zika’ virus. They are also the physical ramifications of the reading of this book.
The Way of Kings is a six-hundred-page lump of a novel who decided to invite some very special guests to his dinner table; they are called Poor Dialogue, Inept Characterisation and Nonsensical Plot. It follows three characters in detail; Kaladin—an ex-army slave, Shallan—artist and budding scholar, and Dalinar—a Highprince with a magic sword. Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is one of the finest realised epics written by any fantasy author in the last fifteen years. When I read Steelheart after having read Mistborn, my heart broke so loudly that the chaps at the international space station sent me a transmission saying that they had heard the explosion there. I wanted to recover some of those fragments with his Stormlight Archive series. Unfortunately, this is one of those novels that I am genuinely confused as to how it has achieved a rating of 4.67 stars across over 10,000 reviews on Goodreads.
Apart from the Kaladin perspectives, there are complete swathes of the book that lack concrete scenes. Unlike the Mistborn trilogy (where the magic system is flawed in a way that make its manipulation tangibly interesting), the Shardblades and armour are not so diverse; I feel as if they do not add anything to the characterisation of the wearer. This means that none of the specificity of scene and character are present here, and the emotional complexity of each, is uber-basic. A good portion of the novel is taken up by the politicking of the Highprinces, but their interactions are not dense enough. Not once did I long for one of these characters to interact with any other, and thankfully, there weren’t many scenes where the characters did interact with each other. I’m very much astonished that in so many pages, there are so few genuine dialogues.
When there is dialogue, it is not very clever, and frankly, a little uninspired. There were moments that were intended as a ‘witty remark’, but Sanderson has his characters stick around to explain their meaning, dissolving all potency. I am more than a little disappointed that Sanderson has not trusted in the intelligence of his readers, particularly after throwing us into the deepest learning curve within the first 40 pages of the novel. The character of Wit (whose profession it is to be wit), said nothing close to intelligent throughout the entire course of the novel. I should as soon call Mrs Bennet a wit!
The lasting impression of the book is given to us by the bridge runs. Now, here is a profound image! The fact that Kaladin is underneath, wooden board in front of his face and running blind is such an interesting picture! It is utterly imaginative, devastating and brutally dystopian. Here, the writing is so vivid that I feel as if Sanderson has painted his words with the devil’s own palette.
I tend to over-exaggerate disappointment in my reviews, but I feel a tad lost with Brandon Sanderson and by extension, I feel as if nothing in the world makes sense for me. The one thing I do know however, is that two stars is plenty for this novel.
Forces of Nature by Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen
Professor Cox is the type of person who is optimistic with his physics: he lifts people up to the wonders of the universe rather than pulling the board from beneath and letting you fall into stark realism. This is perhaps due to his English sentiment of not taking anything too serious, whilst also drawing from his great love of the subject and the hundreds of scientists who pioneered some part of it and transformed physics into what it is today.
Forces of Nature is a broad overview of the four fundamental forces of nature: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and the force of gravity. Professor Cox goes on to answer many of the questions that are intrinsic to our universe—a universe created with fixed laws made manifest in a creative amalgamation of numbers. The book is based off of a BBC documentary and Cox makes use of this very visual explanation of things; he describes the physics of symmetry through manatees off the coast of Florida, and the wonders of colour through his diving into the mid-Atlantic ridge in Iceland.
I would be lying if I said that textbooks do not provide the information with the same enthusiasm as Cox does, but Professor Cox’s prose is noticeably beautiful, romantic and kind; he is pleasantly droll, enthusiastic, modest and not at all pejorative. You can tell he has an appreciation for just about every sub-field of physics and not only that, he seems to be greatly appreciative of the arts; Claude Monet and George Orwell appear amongst his quotes and visualisations. People often frown at me when I tell them that Physics and Literature are incredibly similar to one another, but they shouldn’t be shocked at the idea that a lot of physicists turn into writers and communicators; it is not a coincidence that scientists often convey the secrets of the universe in poetic prose. After all, every creation story needs a language—Professor Cox has found a kind and intelligent one.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
If you think Wuthering Heights is soul-crushing and tragic, you’re going to need to purchase travel insurance for your journey down the river Floss. One of your day trips is going to involve a type of extreme emotional bungee jumping in which the water source below you has been cut out of the solid earth by the tears of your own making.
The Mill on the Floss is a prodigious bildungsroman following Maggie and Tom Tulliver. From a very young age, Maggie is presented to us as quicker than her parents—she is very clever, she reads any and all books that come in her way, and she is her father’s favourite. But Maggie is also rash and mercurial and gives an enormous amount of weight to her older brother Tom. Throughout the course of the novel, we see this play out to catastrophic effect. Both Maggie and Tom have been exposed to education, and when they come home to the Mill—a mill that their father has now lost all the money on, Tom is forced to come into his own—he is made to enter work and pay off his father’s debts. Like Wuthering Heights, so many of the prejudices against their closest neighbours are inherited by the next generation, and every justice and injustice is played out close to the forceful river Floss. What’s more, this story asks a very hard and middle-class question—what’s to be done when we return to our parents from education, an education gifted to us through a life time of work, but, now we are seeing with a mind elevated beyond our closest human ties and capable of finding deep and unwavering flaws in their simplicity and ignorance.
Virginia Woolf says Middlemarch was the only novel written for grown up people. For this to be true, the remainder of Eliot’s fiction cannot be written for grown up people… I am not able to explain the origin of the force to this statement, but I am certain it is there—I can feel the truth of it washing over all other fiction like some elaborate ocean dance. The Mill on the Floss is a drastically different novel to Middlemarch but again, Eliot’s characterisation is so masterful that these people appear in your mind as vivid apparitions—Tom Tulliver is a bigger solipsist than Fred Vincy and Maggie conflates her love for him with a wrong belief in his innate morality. It is as if these two characters have travelled time and space to tell you their story, and Eliot’s celestial prose makes each devastation epic and incredibly close to heart.
Phillip Wakem is perhaps one of these devastations, born with a hunch—Eliot describes him as a ‘darling feebleness’ and marks him with a feminine sensibility. He has the ‘delicate’ talents of music and painting. Maggie holds a strong empathy with him because each are held responsible for the crime of their birth state—Maggie is a woman and Phillip has a disfigurement, both are marked by society as implicitly impaired.
The ending is the most intense ending I have ever read in a novel. In truth, I didn’t know that I would have to endure it. I don’t think anyone else has ever stirred that amount of emotion in me. I was moved beyond words have the power of telling. I feel as if George Eliot took a gross liberty within me and resurrected the heat of the tragedies that have burned me up throughout the entire course of my existence. I never imagined an author and an artist having that amount of power over their readers. It is a topic worth considering—how far should artists be allowed to take their medium in order to exert some primal change over us? In some ways, I feel violated by her genius.
I am now convinced that George Eliot is some kind of all-knowing omnipotent nymph. She has a hand so delicate and wieldy that she is able to weave the entirety of humanity into each of her characters. I am sure she is sitting in a comfortable leather chair and enacting all of our movements from some heavenly control board. The Mill on the Floss is a stunning and violent depiction of all the diseases that can cast their curse over us. It is simply beautiful.
A Brief History of Time by Dr. Stephen Hawking
Wonderfully succinct, no nonsense and not at all flowery, A Brief History of Time is for anyone who wants to barrel through the topics of some of the universe’s most complex physical processes but at the speed of Einstein riding on his thought-experiment-ray-of-light. Hawking really doesn’t leave you many pauses to contemplate the gravity of existence.
The book is not exactly a brief history of time—he talks about Galileo and Newton, then Einstein a considerable amount more, laying particular emphasis on the disagreement between the General Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. But most of the book is about black holes, because this is Hawking’s field of study, and he wants you to know it—his research was presented with a strange hubris that I couldn’t quite shake. He relates any topic in physics to his work with black holes and a lot of the time, it doesn’t fit organically. It’s like asking Hawking to answer an essay question but he already has an answer prepared and doesn’t comment on the one asked of him until the last line in the paragraph.
He also makes certain jabs at the notion of God and Creator that are quite grating—it’s the type of stuff that you would take him to task for if he was in the room with you. Being a product of the eighties, it’s humour is a little dated, and the way he presents his material is a little pejorative and isolating.
You should read A Brief History of Time because it is a cultural staple of our time. You should also read it if you are interested in physics (the physics is eye-wateringly spectacular, and Hawking is undoubtedly one of the greatest figureheads of physics today!) I disagree that the simpleness in Hawking’s prose is what makes it accessible to the ‘lay person’; I think everyone who wants to read this book is intelligent enough to be able to engage in a poetically profound relationship with nature and nature’s laws, just as Brian Cox does in Forces of Nature.
Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison
It is probably a good sign that your interests are a little too varied when you start reading books about rain, and walks in rain. But here we are!Rain is pretty much what it says it is on the tin and I am thankful to have spotted it at my local bookstore. Melissa Harrison embarks on four walks across the year, first in Wicken Fen, then in Shropshire, The Darent Valley and Dartmoor. All of her walks preach ‘toss’ to fine weather and are footed in the rain. The reading feels just a little bit sacred and mythical; part of me believed in the possibility that she would come across a whole other universe— I mean, who has ever seen the countryside in the rain?
Melissa Harrison is beautifully intuiting and quietly compelling. The enormity of her knowledge is very modestly cast into being and she forms an entirely acute picture of her surroundings. Her insights on nature, biology and the perennial make even the silence of the country after a storm feel like a profundity. She has a very English voice and sentiment, she even brings up that idiosyncrasy which I believe is held by all British people: to describe where a place is by telling you what motor way you went down to get to it. The M25 just sounds like a Messier object!
Rain is a wonderful coffee table book and it will certainly keep all your anglophile friends at bay for birthdays and at Christmas. I loved being able to read it whilst flogging it out in my January mid-summer-Dante-inferno heat.
Have you read any of these books? I would love to know what you thought of them! You can talk to me down on the comments or you can catch me here on Instagram and Twitter! Click the links to activate the Port Key!