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Mythago-WoodStephen Huxley and his brother Christian grew up in England near a forest, Ryhope Wood. During they childhood the strange people that sometimes passed by their home were dismissed as “travelling gypsies” by their parents. But in 1946 Stephen returns home from service, after healing his war wounds, to find Christian obsessed by the creatures from Ryhope Wood, the mythagos – mythical/legendary characters come true by the Wood. Their recently deceased father seemed to have suffered from the same obsession and eventually Christian also vanishes into the Wood himself. Later Stephen meets the mythago girl Guiwenneth, starting his involvement with the Wood’s mysteries.

Robert Holdstock’s writing is almost poetic in its descriptions, but unsentimental and rather matter-of-fact. The storyline moves at its own speed, which means that it is rather slow and relatively uneventful most of the book. The characters are plainly drawn and their actions are sometimes hard to understand (for instance, why it is so easy for the characters to believe in the Wood’s phenomenon and to have such an accepting behaviour towards the mythagos), but that gives them a charming simplicity and innocence in its own way. The phenomenon of the Wood is described (or undescribed) in a very natural way that seems like the magic of an ununderstood natural phenomenon, like a thunderstorm to a prehistoric man.

Holdstock_Mythago_Wood_Geoff_Taylor

As a traditional novel Mythago Wood has its flaws. Maybe the concerns over the aesthetics and philosophical features of the writing overcome the credibility of some other essential details (the characters, for instance). Also some aspects are a bit dated. The novel was first published in 1984 and the action takes place in 1946-1948, and the author approaches some aspects of the new view of women’s place in society brought by the 2nd World War. Even though the author seems to be approving of equality of rights, the descriptions of women’s characteristics are laughable in today’s standards – a bit like Robert Heinlein when considering equality. However, Mythago Wood is in its own way a dazzlingly beautiful piece of literature, and as soon as I finished it I couldn’t resist getting the two following books of the Ryhope Wood Series. Mythago Wood is followed by Lavondyss but hold very well as a standalone novel. It won the BSFA Award for Best Novel in 1984 and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1985, among others.

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To your scattered bodies goOne day all humanity wakes up in a river, naked and hairless, remembering all their lives to the day of their death on Earth. Bound to each individual is a recipient nicknamed “grail”, in which food and other resources appear when the “grailstones”, stuctures in the riverbanks, are activated. Whenever someone dies is immediately resurrected somewhere else along the river. The length of the river is beyond imagination. The novel follows Richard Francis Burton, a Victorian adventurer who was mysteriously given some “backstage” view of the resurrection miracle. He attracts a small group of companions which include Kazz (a Neanderthal), Peter Frigate (a 21st century science fiction writer), Alice Liddell (yes, the Victorian lady who inspired Alice in Wonderland) and Monat Grrautut (an alien who disastrously contacted Earth on the 21st century). Burton also creates a nemesis to whom he seems to be attached to, Hermann Goring (leading member of the Nazi Party and founder of the Gestapo, among other delightful activities).

To your scattered bodies go2The exotic premise led to 2 movie adaptations, in 2003 and 2010. The novel, even if published in 1971, is surprisingly fresh. The characters are edgy and three-dimensional, showing incredibly complex personalities, each of them with bleak characteristics as well as very touching moments. The religious, cultural and ethical references are interestingly managed, keeping the reader as expectant as the characters themselves. During Burton’s journey through the Riverworld trying to solve the mystery behind the Resurrection Day, all hints of an answer originate a thousand more questions, a characteristic that usually generates love or hate in readers – similarly to the series “Lost”, I guess. Even though I found it satisfying as an isolated read, the end is left (widely) open.

This is the first book of the Riverworld series, won Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1972, and is followed by The Fabulous Riverboat.

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Maggie Tulliver’s father owned a mill by the river Floss, in England, 1820s. Maggie grew up in this rural setting with her parents and her brother, Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s father was ignorant and narrow minded, her mother was a submissive wife and her brother was considered a “slow-minded” child.

But Maggie had an intellect far superior to what was expected of a small landlord’s daughter.  She had an impulsiveness and desire of independence that were not suited for a young woman.

All the privileges went to her brother Tom, among them the privilege of having an education, which was a torment for Tom, but a strong desire to Maggie.

One day the Tulliver economic (and social) status falls abruptly, and so the difference between Maggie and her family becomes even deeper.

The Mill on the Floss is about Maggie’s thirst for freedom and knowledge in a world that condemns her, because it is too narrow minded and attached to old values to understand her actions or recognize the justice of her claims.

Not only Maggie’s family, but all other characters are very well explored.

Maggie’s aunts, together with her mother, make the proud well-married Dodson sisters: her mother is the dimwit, aunt Pullet the hypochondriac, and aunt Glegg the control-freak. Lucy Deane, Maggie’s cousin, is the perfect girl: pretty, well behaved but not very clever. Philip Wakem, son of Maggie’s father worst enemy, is physically deficient but his mind is a perfect match to Maggie’s. Stephen Guest is the handsome socialite who is engaged to Lucy.

The Mill on the Floss has its moments of drama, irony, and even comedy. The main subject is very strong and it surprised me for the crude way it is treated, especially if we regard the time when it was written. The story also takes many unexpected turns. Till the last page I was expecting a Jane Austen-like ending and it really surprised me…

The Mill on the Floss was recommended by a great friend of mine (yes, Barbara, that’s you!) and I also recommend it as an extraordinary work.

The Mill on the Floss is available at Project Gutenberg.

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La Bete Humaine Zola

The action is set around the railway between Paris and Le Havre, in the 19th century. The main characters are:

 

Roubaud, the deputy station master at Le Havre, who lives a calm and easy life with his beautiful wife Séverine. He loves his serene life, and he is deeply protective and jealous about his wife.

 

Séverine, the beautiful wife of Roubaud, is ambitious and makes sure about keeping a calm and easy life with her husband. She ensures her husband’s position in the company, her husband’s salary and privileges by letting her husband’s boss have sex with her.

 

Jaques Lantier, the driver of the engine “la Lison”. He is regarded as a “nice guy”, just and friendly. He just has a small secret: an impulse to kill women. But, as he is a good guy, he tries to control it by having a deep, almost sexual, attachment to the engine he drives.

 

These characters compose a story that could be a pinkish soap opera about passion, ambition and jealousy. However, as the story was written by Zola, it turns into a brutal, twisted, psychotic and morbid thriller. All characters are intrinsically rotten normal people.

 

As an example of Zola’s characters: Lantier’s angelical cousin, Flore, falls in love with him. He also starts falling in love with her, but, as he starts feeling the urge to stab her to death, he runs away (he is a good guy, right?). She was hurt by his leaving and her fury leads her to hurt him. He managed to escape alive, but, in the process, dozens of people get sanguinarilly killed. (Death descriptions in Zola’s romances tend to be stomach-revolting.)

 

Zola’s naturalism is mostly present in the character of Lantier, who would be the most candid human being, if he didn’t suffer of hereditary destructive madness. He is also the link of La Bête Humaine to the Les Rougon-Macquart series. Jaques Lantier is son of Gervaise (L’Assommoir), brother of Étienne Lantier (Germinal) and Claude Lantier (L’Oevre), and half-brother of Nana (Nana). All a nice good family…

La Bête Humaine can be found in Project Guntenberg (original French).

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