The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Previous in the series: A Study in Scarlet.

Once before I’ve attempted to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories in order — though I don’t think I got to the end. It was just before I started logging all my books on goodreads.com and I suspect I tried to do them all in a row, with nothing else in between, and just got tired of them.

If my future were black, it was better surely to face it like a man than to attempt to brighten it by mere will-o’-the wisps if the imagination.

The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four was never one of my favourites, standing out mostly for introducing Mary Morstan. The structure is strikingly similar to A Study in Scarlet, both trundling along as Sherlock investigates the case until they find their prime suspect and inflict on him a long and slightly rambling interview to uncover the origins of the crime.

Interestingly, as happened when I read A Study in Scarlet, my empathy for characters outside of Sherlock and Dr Watson seems to have increased. In this case, I couldn’t help feeling that Mary’s claim on the treasure was pretty tenuous. There were reasons beyond Dr Watson’s marital ambitions to hope that she might not get her hands on it. The depiction of Tonga is also unfortunate at best, as I’m sure more educated people than me have adequately expounded.

The two Sikhs closed in upon him on each side, and the giant walked behind, while they marched in through the dark gate-way. Never was a man so compassed round with death.

The Sign of Four, Arthur Conan Doyle

Nothing about The Sign of Four struck me as particularly clever, so I’d go so far as to say it’s only required reading for the most die-hard Sherlock Holmes fans. It did include the scene where Sherlock performs his science of deduction on Dr Watson’s pocket watch, though, which prompted me to visit and enjoy the scene in Sherlock which it inspires.

(As much as I love this scene, I can’t give the book extra points because of it!)

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Next in the series: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The Bone Ships by R J Barker — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

I was excited about The Bone Ships from the moment our book club organiser mentioned it. I love books set on ships — The Liveship Traders series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I even have a whole shelf on my Goodreads for books with boats. A tweet placing The Bone Ships on a ‘Robin Hobb’ scale made me anticipate it even more, since she’s one of my favourite authors in fantasy. While I wouldn’t put The Bone Ships quite on that level myself, I did really enjoy it!

R J Barker’s writing made me wish I were better at visualising things; the imagery he presents is clearly well thought out, and very different from standard fantasy. The woods are pink, purple and blue; the clothes are flamboyantly adorned with feathers; the dragon swims under water, the ships are literally made of bone. I’d love to see some colour illustrations, or an adaption to a visual medium. For those who feel fantasy sometimes overuses a medieval European setting, I’d say The Bone Ships is a must-read!

And thought there was plenty of noise and industry at the beak of Tide Child, the job remained undone, and the disapproval of Meas at the rump of the ship began to loom over him like storm-clouds at the rim of the world.

The Bone Ships, RJ Barker

It did take me a little while to get swept up in the plot, though that may just have been that I was having a bad day when I started reading. The use of fantasy words probably didn’t help, as there are quite a lot of them. Some, obviously, feel necessary: these ships are different to real-world ships, and so naturally use different terms. It was pointed out in book club that the power structures of R J Barker’s world are structured with a lot of careful consideration, and so, again, it makes sense that words for authority figures would be different. What I’m not sure of is why there needed to be a different word for ‘sister’ (but not ‘brother’) and ‘sun’. It doesn’t detract from the book as a whole, but perhaps contributes to it taking a little while for the story to get flowing.

Once Joron starts to learn people’s names, and there’s more going on than just him feeling sorry for himself and clashing with Meas, though, things really pick up. Who doesn’t love a story of a gang of misfits coming together, providing a semi-safe space for one another and learning to overcome their differences? Not only that, but Joron was growing as a person at the same time, slowly realising how hasty his prejudices against the Gaunt Islanders and the guiilame were. The Bone Ships delivered character development on multiple fronts and I loved it! It’s not all plain sailing, though. There’s conflict right up until the end, leaving me with delicious questions about how interpersonal relationships are going to resolve and change in future books.

They were not tidy — their clothes were mixed and matched and poorly dyed — but despite this they presented a strangely uniform appearance, and if they did indeed eat children, Joron thought this crew the smartest group of child eaters he had ever seen.

The Bone Ships, R J Barker

R J Barker clearly knows how to use repetition of phrasings to powerful effect. It reminded me of sea shanties and the poetry of John Masefield, both very appropriate cultural contexts. That said, I found the actual songs/poems included to be underwhelming. There were also points where weird mistakes had slipped through the editorial net — a character called Jion in one chapter, and Rion in another, for example. Again, it didn’t detract from the overall work, but it did pull me out of the book just a little.

Nonetheless, this was an excellent book! I’m going to mark it down very slightly for the slow beginning, but it still ranks as one of my favourite books that I’ve discovered through book club, and I definitely intend to read the rest of the series.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace — Reread Review

After reading Yes Man at an impressionable age — and loving it enough to still give it four stars a decade later, I fell into the habit of buying any Danny Wallace book I happened to come across. Charlotte Street is very much in the same style: man who has lately ended a relationship and lost some of his verve for life embarks on a weird quest which, intentionally or otherwise, helps bring it back. Granted, Charlotte Street is fiction, rather than autobiography, but the bones are still the same.

We had a rocky start where maybe I was a bit grumpy, but you know I had my reasons, and a lot of the time that was down to the Jezynowka, and now, just as we’re starting to properly click, I end up on a bench with an exciting girl and I get to the bit where I know you’re not going to like me any more.

Charlotte Street, Danny Wallace

I would say that Charlotte Street isn’t as funny. I actually found recently-heartbroken Jason quite annoying to begin with. Fortunately, the book acknowledges this, and it definitely picks up as the minor characters surrounding Jason get fleshed out with their own hopes and dreams and problems. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Jason and his former pupil, Matt.

The people around you are you. They share your history. They can even write it with you. And when you lose one, there’s no doubt you lose some of yourself, however they’re lost.

Charlotte Street, Danny Wallace

The quest at the heart of Charlotte Street (to use a set of photographs to track down their owner), bears some resemblance to The Lost Letters of William Woolf. Both main characters fantasises about what the mystery woman they’ve never properly met will be like. Jason, though, at least acknowledges these as fantasies. He outright says that the woman in the photographs could be a nazi, for all he actually knows about her. This self-awareness made me much more sympathetic to him than I was to William, who never seems to consider that the woman he imagines might not be real.

Once I got past the difficult beginning, I enjoyed Charlotte Street. It didn’t make me laugh out loud like Yes Man does, but I did chuckle once or twice, and I appreciated the more fictionalised narrative.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison — Reread Review

One of my university modules was on Toni Morrison, so I read quite a few of her novels over the course of a single semester, which has meant that — apart from Beloved, which I read first — they’ve kind of blurred into an amorphous mass in my memory. I wanted to revisit them, more slowly, so that I’d have a more distinct understanding of which book was which. With Song of Solomon, all I really remembered was that it had something to do with flying and that I liked it better than some of the others.

What stood out to me the most about Song of Solomon was how complete it felt — it’s hard to know how to break it down into characters and plot and setting for a review. Even though I couldn’t pinpoint the structure of the story, it flowed naturally from one thing to another, even the events that might feel weird in another novel.

And Guitar, the one sane and constant person he knew had flipped, had ripped open and was spilling blood and foolishness instead of conversation.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

The characters are particularly strong, to the extent that I’m surprised I didn’t remember more about them. Milkman and Pilate are the primary focus, but Guitar and Corinthians and Macon are all interesting in their own way. Guitar’s subplot with the Seven Days is compelling by itself, let alone when it weaves into the main narrative.

Milkman fished for another cigarette and watched dawn eclipse the electric light over the sink.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s language isn’t difficult — it fits that adage that good prose should be transparent, letting you see the action without getting in your way. There weren’t any lines that stood out to me as particularly beautiful, but perhaps I was just too swept away in experiencing the story as it came.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — Reread Review

I really want to love Dumplin‘. I’ve been eyeing it on my StoryGraph TBR for weeks, hoping that I’d enjoy it more a second time around. It’s the kind of story I’m often drawn to: a young woman who has a difficult relationship with her family finds a group of friends who empower her and who she can empower in turn. Dumplin‘ definitely has elements of that, but I just can’t love it as much as I want to.

“I am happy,” I said, every syllable perfectly even. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I can’t imagine that fifteen or even fifty pounds would change how much I miss Lucy, how confused I am by Bo, or the growing distance between me and El.

Dumplin’, Julie Murphy

Willowdean is a character I have a lot in common with. For a start, her fights with her mum are every fight I ever had with my mum — from the greeting the comes with an appearance-based criticism to the ‘I just want you to be happy’. Beyond that, I also related to certain ways Will thinks throughout the novel. I think that’s why I want to like Dumplin‘, because I rarely see myself reflected in characters.

I wish there were some kind of magic words that could bridge the gap between the person I am and the one I wish I could be.

Dumplin’, Julie Murphy

My main problem is that Will’s character arc left me unconvinced. She kept saying she wasn’t body conscious, that she had bags of confidence to be herself, but that never came across. Maybe I was supposed to read into it that she was lying to herself, but, in that case, the ending where she finally believes in her own worth would come from nowhere. She makes a point about being all things, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, which is another thing that I relate to — but at no prior point did that seem to be something she was struggling with! It’s not so much a character arc as a character meander, and that might be realistic, but it’s not very satisfying.

That said, the side characters, who have more straightforward arcs, work really well. I love Millie the most, there’s something wonderful about how sweet she is, and yet still willing to go after what she wants. Hannah is great, too, and Amanda, they all have well-deserved moments of triumph. Perhaps if this were more of an ensemble story, it would work better, but it really is All About Will for most of the book, which makes her a little less likeable.

Sadly, I won’t be bumping this up from my previous two-star review.

Rating: 2 out of 5.