Book Review: Wicked by Gregory Maguire

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I apologise for my prolonged absence, dear readers. I had to complete a lengthy assignment, followed by an internship in London. If you want to know, it went quite well. I also managed to tick an item off my bucket list – well, it means a lot more to me than just a check on some list. I went to see “Les Miserables” live, which was one of the most wonderful experiences. As you know, I love Hugo and I love musical theatre, and Les Miserables (closely followed by “Phantom”) is my favourite musical. Watching it live was quite different from watching the film in the cinema (which I’ve done three times, don’t judge!) or watching the 25th anniversary on DVD (also done numerous times). I won’t lie – I started losing it at the part with the Bishop!

 

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because this post is a review of a book which served as a basis for another wonderful musical, that I have yet to see live. “Wicked” tells a story of The Wicked Witch of the West, or the villain in Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I confess – I have never read that one; however, I was not unfamiliar with the Emerald City. Some of you may have heard of a Russian author called Alexander Volkoff who wrote a series of books taking place within the world surrounding The Yellow Brick Road. Nonetheless, I’ve heard that Baum’s novel is not quite the same, and I’ve never seen the musical, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect from “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”.

 

I’ll say this, however – any preconceived notions I may have had about the story, including the mistaken belief that it was a children’s book, were shattered after the first couple of chapters. Part 1 tells us about the Witch’s, or Elphaba’s birth and family. It wasn’t easy being green in a preacher’s household, especially with a depressed mother. The people of the land, or the Munchkinlanders don’t harm her, however, because her father is respected in the community. We don’t find out much more about the family until the last part, which I’ll get to in a moment.

 

Part 2 introduces the University of Shiz, a prestigious higher education institution that has only just started accepting women, and is one of the remaining few places where Animals can still have jobs. Animals are representatives of Oz’s fauna that can speak and have a human mind. They used to be treated equally, but it’s no longer the case. Elphaba is now a student at Shiz, and she has a roommate – a seemingly air-headed beautiful Galinda. The two are initially annoyed and repulsed by each other, but the animosity soon grows into a beautiful friendship. Elphaba also reunites with her childhood buddy Boq and together, they work with an Animal, Dr Dillamond, who is a Professor at Shiz. Elphie and Boq aspire to make Animals equal again. Their research is put to an end, however, when Dr Dillamond is brutally murdered. The Head of Shiz, Madame Morrible, hushes it up, however, which triggers Elphaba’s path towards “Wickedness”. Together with Glinda, Boq, his arrogant friend Avaric and the dark-skinned Fiyero who is from another part of Oz, they try to solve the murder, but no such luck. Elphie and Glinda, who begins to call herself that in memory of Dr Dillamond who couldn’t pronounce her full name, then go see The Great and Terrible Wizard in the Emerald City in the hope that he can bring the murderer to justice and help Animals gain their equal rights back. They are met with disappointment however, and part ways in a heartbreaking farewell.

 

In part 3, our characters have been separated from each other for almost seven years. Glinda is a prim and proper high society wife, whereas Elphaba is part of a mysterious underground movement. She, however, has her own reasons for being a part of it, which, as you can guess, relate to Dr Dillamond and Animals. The not-so-brainless Fiyero finds her and they start what is arguably one of the most epic and heartbreaking love affairs in paranormal literature. We know, however, that Elphaba’s wickedness did not stem from being happy. Fiyero’s tragic end is one of the last straws that will eventually break the back of her good nature. That is, if she ever had any in the first place.

 

The last two parts talk about her life with Fiyero’s family. She goes to seek forgiveness from them, for the role she allegedly played in his death. As one can figure out, she never obtains it, thanks to the Great and Terrible Wizard’s brutality and cunning. Her misfortunes don’t end there, however. The death of her crippled sister, Nessarose, caused by Dorothy Gale’s house, are arguably what pushes Elphaba over the edge and allows evil to completely consume her.

 

I finished “Wicked” two days ago and I’m still reeling from the emotions.

I hated the novel.

I hated how much I loved it.

I hated how immersed I became in Elphaba’s character and I hate how much I cried at Fiyero’s demise.

I hated how skilfully Gregory Maguire makes parallels between our world and Oz.

I hated how much Elphaba reminded me of young people who are doing their best to make an impact on human rights.

I hated her beautiful complexity and I hated how Maguire made all the tragedies in her life turn her into a Wicked Witch.

 

But seriously, this book is – well – Great and Terrible. And so is Elphaba’s journey. From Munchkinland to Shiz to the Emerald City, from the convent to the land of the Vinkus, and back to Munchkinland – she has met her fair share of wicked things.

It must be said that fighting for equal rights can almost never be an evil pursuit. What Elphaba was initially doing for Animals is admirable. However, once she was consumed by revenge, the noble pursuit ceased to be so. One of the biggest themes in “Wicked” is the issue of evil. There is a fascinating discussion between Elphaba, Avaric and his family at the end of the book about what constitutes evil. Some called it a mere absence of good, while others referred to it as an attribute. Elphaba, however, has very different ideas. She says that the real thing about evil is what stays in the shadows of one’s personality, that the nature of evil is to be secret. If one follows that logic, however, it cannot be said that she is Wicked, for her pursuit of revenge/justice is something she wanted to be known. She wanted to die, with the world knowing that she was a murderer of the person who killed Dr Dillamond. What she has kept secret even from herself, however, is Liir. Liir was a young boy who travelled with her to Fiyero’s home. She tells her Nanny that she did not remember anything during the two years at the convent following Fiyero’s demise, and that Liir might well be her and Fiyero’s son. The fact that Maguire never reveals it explicitly, coupled with what Elphaba said about evil, tells us that she herself considers Liir’s existence. to not be a good thing. If she was sure that he was Fiyero’s son, it can almost certainly be said that she would have loved him. The secret of his background is one of the evils in Elphaba’s head.

 

The other thing, from which Elphaba’s belief in relation to evil stems, is an event that had happened to her at Shiz. Madame Morrible attemps to recruit her and Glinda for the government’s secret service and bewitches them so that if they say no, they can neither remember or talk to each other about it. Elphaba eventually remembers the situation and tries to get to the bottom of it. It can be suggested that her never finding the answers is another stepping stone to her transformation to a villain.

 

The most significant factors in Elphaba’s development can be suggested to be:

1) Animals’ mistreatment and murder of Dr Dillamond. While the former was widely known across Oz, the murder was proclaimed an accident, and the mystery haunts Elphie for the rest of the novel

2) Fiyero’s death (I still get tears in my eyes just thinking about it). One doesn’t realise that he is dead until later in the chapter – it is only said initially that he sees his own blood. Elphaba doesn’t find out until the end why he was murdered, and, while that mystery is not the main thing on her mind, it can be argued to have played a role in her downfall.

3) Inability to receive forgiveness from Fiyero’s wife. She is imprisoned and murdered before Elphaba can tell her of the role she has played in his death, and it is not something she can ever get past.

4) Nessarose’s demise. Despite what Elphaba may have said, family has always been important to her. Her sister’s death was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

5) Lack of Elphaba’s belief in a soul. While I do not wish to get involved in any metaphysics debate, the idea of a soul is significant in the novel. What Elphaba does not like about the concept is its close ties with religion. The Unnamed God is worshipped by most of Oz, including Elphaba’s own family. She is, however, an atheist and believes that a person who doesn’t believe in anything, can’t believe in a soul. That’s another mystery she could never understand, and one that she never wished to.

 

There are many things one may argue about in relation to “Wicked”. What I discussed above doesn’t cover a quarter of the themes and issues in the book. I don’t think, however, that I’ll be reading the rest of the series – mainly because Elphaba won’t be in any of them! I urge all of you to go pick up “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, so that you all could get to know Elphie and consider – is she really as wicked as they say. 9/10 is my rating for the novel.

 

Favourite character

You know that in this section, I normally write about a character that I liked the most. Usually I judge them by likeability and/or complexity. Here, however, I have come to a halt. I think I’ll say this, though – in terms of likeability, I would have to go with Fiyero. Yes, I am not ashamed to say that, after listening to his songs from the musical, I have developed a slight crush (which totally has nothing to do with Aaron Tveit). “As Long as You’re Mine” gives me chills every time.

Perhaps my choice stems from the fact that I have not cried at a character’s death like that for a while. I don’t know if he dies in the musical, or if he’s even dead at all, but it was devastating to read about.

 

Favourite character development

Here, however, I have no hesitation in writing about Elphaba. While Glinda’s transformation at Shiz is something one can easily relate to, Elphie’s character journey is the driving force behind the plot of the book, and Maguire writes it really well.

 

Favourite quotes

“I never use the words humanist or humanitarian, as it seems to me that to be human is to be capable of the most heinous crimes in nature”. 

“Oh, I forgot the size of the human imagination. How very large it is, after all.”

“As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention.”

 

Dreamcast

The Original Broadway Cast has gotten it right the first time – I can’t really add to that!

 

Recommendations

You would like “Wicked” if you liked:

 

“Harry Potter” by JK Rowling – Shiz and Hogwarts aren’t too dissimilar

Anything Oz-related – musical, Baum’s novel, Volkoff’s books, etc.

“Deathless” by Catherynne Valente

Book Review: “The Law and the Lady” by Wilkie Collins

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This is where the title of this blog comes from btw 😀

I’ve been a fan of “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone” for a long time now and I knew that Wilkie Collins had quite a bit of writing experience under his belt; however, I haven’t really looked into his works until now. As most of you know, classic literature is free to buy on Amazon for Kindle, so I have acquired quite a few of his works over the past month. The title of “The Law and the Lady” made me believe it was a great place to start due to my future profession.

The protagonist of the book is a recently married Valeria who is known to be one of the first literary female detectives. She is very much in love with her new husband Eustace who, however, seems to be pulling away from her from the very first week of their marriage. When she decides to investigate the matter, she stumbled upon a terrible secret from his past – he has been suspected and tried for allegedly murdering his first wife. According to the Scottish law of the time, a man could be either held to be guilty or not guilty of his crime; however, there was also a possibility of the third verdict – crime not proven, which does not exist in English law. When Valeria discovers that the latter verdict was the outcome of Eustace’s case, she decides to prove his innocence because she firmly believes that he did not commit the crime. She chooses to start her investigation by talking to the key witness, a crippled misogynystic madman named Misserimus Dexter. With somewhat questionable help from him, her mother-in-law, her husband’s friends and their lawyer, she slowly uncovers the truth.

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Before you tell me that Wilkie Collins is not, in fact, Jane Austen, I would just like to say that I feel that the aforementioned quote is ironically applicable to this wonderful piece of detective fiction. Eustace is a rich man, no doubt about that. However, I feel that he is also in possession of quite a lot of emotional baggage, which is exactly what triggers the plot of the novel. Overall, I’d say that one should be familiar with at least one other work of Wilkie Collins before getting their hands on this one (my personal recommendation is “The Woman in White”), because he has a very distinct style of writing and certain nuances of the law-related parts of the novel may not be as clear to an unenlightened reader. It is an interesting Victorian murder mystery novel, although I must say I figured out the ending halfway through the book. If you like strong, complex characters, Sherlock Holmes and murder mysteries, this little gem is for you. I give it a solid 8/10.

Favourite character and why:

Valeria, and this is why: nowadays, there is a huge debate about what kind of a female character can be considered a “strong female character”. Personally, I wholeheartedly disagree with the term and believe that if a character is well-written and not one-dimensional or reduced to some kind of a “trope”, e.g. damsel in distress, they can be considered a “strong character”, and they don’t necessarily have to be experts at shooting a gun or martial arts. If they are complex and make their own decisions, I consider them strong. Valeria’s actions may be driven by the love she has for her husband, but she makes her own choices during the investigation. Her mother-in-law, her husband’s friends and her lawyer keep telling her to step back and forget all about the “not proven’ verdict; however, she continues to pursue the investigation and eventually, her actions ensure a happy ending for both her and Eustace (I won’t say anything else because I don’t want to spoil the plot too much). She is also one of the most self-deprecatng characters I’ve ever come across; however, it is not annoying and does not feel like she is an attention-seeker, which was one of the many problems I’ve had with a certain infamous novel about vampires that romanticises abusive relationships.

Most relatable character and why:

I felt that due to my life experiences, I could relate to both Valeria and Eustace in several different ways (kudos to Mr Collins’ ability to write multi-dimensional characters). Eustace is an interesting and complex character – some may say that his attitude and behaviour towards his wife at the start of the novel are those of a weak and exasperating man, but I think that they are realistic. I have come across several relationships in which one partner decides to end the relationship because he or she is burdened by something in their past or considers themselves not being worthy of their other half and wants to let them go “for their own good”. I personally strongly disagree with the concept of “deserving someone” or “being worthy of someone”, but unfortunately, this kind of thing prevails in many relationships.
Regarding me being able to relate to Valeria, I feel that I can do so in a way that I like to believe I am also the type of person who is not afraid to back down from a challenge and I very rarely give up on something I set my mind on.

Character who gets the most development:

Eustace

Favourite relationship:

Valeria and her mother-in-law

Favourite quotes; 

“Personally and professionally, I am going to trust you – though I am a Scotchman and a lawyer.”
 
“I don’t scruple to say that I was thoroughly disgusted with her. When a woman sells herself to a man, that vile bargain is none the less infamous (to my mind) because it happens to be made under the sanction of the Church and the Law”

Dreamcast

Valeria – Anne Hathaway
Eustace – Tom Hiddleston
Dexter – Anthony Hopkins
Mr Playmore – Gabriel Macht
Catherine McCallan – Kathy Bates

Recommendations

You might like “The Law and the Lady” if you liked:
“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte;
“Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy;
“Castle”

Book Review: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith

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(Guys, I opened an Etsy charity shop! Check it out and help stop human trafficking!)

I am sure all of you book lovers know the feeling I am about to describe.

I have not heard of this book prior to purchasing it; therefore I had no intention of buying it that day. My shopping list consisted of “Ready Player One”, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Book Thief”. However, as I was walking past the “S” shelf in Waterstone’s, my gaze fell upon an orange copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and something pulled me towards it. The last time I experienced that feeling was when I found “The Angel’s Game” which is now one of my favourite books. I flipped through the pages and saw that the main character liked to write, so of course I had to add it to my cart!

This is a coming of age novel set in pre-WWI New York. The protagonist is Francie Nolan, a child from a poor family who falls in love with words. Throughout Francie’s eyes, we observe the fascinating and diverse lifestyle and personalities of the Brooklyn inhabitants at the time. The flashbacks to the early days of the Nolan family make up the first half of the book and tell the story of Katie and Johnny and their siblings before Francie was born. The second half of this masterpiece tells the tale of Francie’s childhood and teenage years, filled with many struggles the poor face on the daily basis, as well as traditional struggles of a young person. Francie’s observant and optimistic nature sets a positive tone for the novel – although their lives are very humble, they are written in a way that makes us believe that they are happy.

Personally, I think that writing from a child’s point of view is both difficult and rewarding; Betty Smith does a remarkable job of capturing Francie’s POV and makes the reader love her and relate to her a lot. The first half of the book focuses on the history of the Nolan family, which some may consider to be daunting, but Betty Smith’s narrative did not make me think that for a second. Not only is it essential to the plot, but it is also written in a way that makes us relate to the characters and understand them really well. The second part of the novel, which focuses more on Francie’s character development, is raw with honesty and is subtly interwoven with the typical issues of the time. One particular issue I would like to talk about is the character of Sissy and the shaming she endures. She is written as a good and loving person; however, she faces a lot of disdain for sleeping around and basically being who she is – the only way of life Sissy strives for is being a wife and a mother. She and Johnny are similar characters – they both have a weakness, in Johnny’s case it’s alcohol and in Sissy’s, it’s love. What illustrates the issues of sexism of the time the most in this book (besides the numerous conversations about not allowing the women to vote), is the minor characters’ attitude towards both Sissy and Johnny. Both of these characters have redeeming qualities; however, the aforementioned minor characters only acknowledge Johnny. Betty Smith seems to understand the issue really well because Sissy’s character development – her transformation from a promiscuous woman to a wife and a mother with a stable life is not written as “redeeming” or “demoralising” – Smith does not value the latter version of Sissy over the former. Like I said above, Francie’s personality and attitudes set the tone for the whole novel, and she loves both versions of Sissy’s; however, she prefers the earlier, more “promiscuous” version of hers; in case of Johnny, the situation is the same – Francie loves her father dearly, despite his faults. Once again, the social attitudes towards Sissy and Johnny are different – their flaws are just that – flaws, and they do not define their personalities; however, Sissy is shamed for hers whereas Johnny hardly ever is. To conclude, Smith arguably acknowledged the issue of misogyny being prevalent at the time and wrote “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, with the help of Francie’s character establishing the positive tone of the novel, challenging that attitude and showing how ridiculous it is. I believe this is one of the things that makes this book so relevant nowadays. My rating is 10/10.

Favourite character and why;

Katie Nolan (nee Rommelly). This woman is seriously one of the most underappreciated strong female characters in literature. She is not perfect of course, but strong female characters aren’t supposed to be (unless you’re writing a Mary Sue type of character, which is absolutely fine). Katie is, for the lack of another term, a badass. Smith describes her as “made of thin invisible steel”. She could have been considered a romantic before her marriage, but even then, she was a survivor – a trait that has only strengthened throughout the years of her marriage and motherhood.

Most relatable character and why;

Francie – she is so amazingly well-written! You can watch her grow up into a smart, observing child and later a young woman who, despite everything she learns, whether good or bad, still loves her home and her family; and despite everything she goes through, she remains true to herself. Also, she loves reading and writing, although unlike Liesel Meminger, she pursues this passion using the slightly more… traditional means!

Character who gets the most development; 

Francie

Favourite relationship; 

Francie and writing/books – they are such a big part of her character, and I can relate to that really well.

Favourite quotes:

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived”.

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

Dreamcast

Francie: Emilia Jones/Kerry Ingram and later, Sophie Nelisse

Katie: Holly Marie Combes

Johnny: James Stewart circa “Rear Window”

Sissy: Lisa Kudrow

Recommendations. 

You might like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” if you liked:

– “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak;

– “Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon;

– Gilmore Girls

(Source of the photo: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/843126.A_Tree_Grows_in_Brooklyn)

Book review: The Man Who Laughs, by Victor Hugo

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Of course, being a Hugo fan, I’ve known of this work for a long time. However, I knew how much commitment Hugo’s books require and therefore I was unable to read it until now, due to my excruciatingly busy schedule last year.

This is, primarily, a work of historical fiction. However, to generalise it and to put it on the same shelf as other such works of the time would be an insult to Hugo, who is, in my opinion, one of the best writers of all time. The protagonist of the book can, at first, be considered to be an archetypal romantic hero. The main features of his character are the result of social injustice, particularly a certain group of people to whom Hugo refers as “comprachicos”. They are, according to him, the vilest people society has to offer. The main source of their income is kidnapping children, disfiguring them, turning them into freaks of nature and then selling them to circuses and the like. Gwynplaine, the protagonist, is one of those children – he is the man whose face shall bear the mask of a laughing man forever. He is abandoned by a gang of comprachicos and, despite almost freezing and starving to death, rescues an infant girl whose mother has actually frozen to death. They are both then rescued by an elderly street performer named Ursus who travels with a pet wolf named Homo (Hugo does love his puns). Meanwhile, a complex subplot unveils in the home of English royalty and the House of Lords. Several years later, Gwynplaine inadvertently becomes involved with this subplot and discovers the actual circumstances of his birth and learns about his background with devastating consequences. His face is a fantastically tragic plot device that leaves the reader enraged, devastated and awed at Hugo’s writing.

My dear Hugo, you are my favourite writer but you really do like putting people through emotional torture don’t you? You did the same to me with “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. However, I am not ashamed to admit that I enjoy every single minute of it. Everybody who loves the written word and appreciates well-written, multi-dimensional characters, as well as fabulous puns and sass, has got to get their hands on any novel of Hugo’s. This particular work of fiction does not disappoint in that respect either. It’s wordy, it’s full of fantastically interwoven plot points and detailed descriptions, snappy sassy dialogues and characters who are so multi-dimensional you can’t help but relate to them all in one respect or another. I have no hesitation in rating this book 10/10.

Favourite character and why:

Ursus – he is just brilliantly written, hilariously sassy and doesn’t take crap from anyone, despite being a simple street performer. However, he is also a caring and compassionate individual and a wonderful father figure.

Most relatable character and why:

All of them. Seriously.

Character who gets the most development: 

Gwynplaine – although again, they all do.

Least favourite character:

That one’s obvious – Barkilphedro. Hugo has very few characters that are completely and utterly evil and repulsive (Thenardier, I’m looking at you), and Barkilphedro is one of them. You can’t help but hate him.

Favourite relationship: 

Hugo really did love to write about relationships and feelings didn’t he? I honestly cannot say which relationship is my favourite.

Ursus/Gwynplaine and Gwynplaine/Dea. The latter has destroyed me by the end of the book – I’ve cried for ages! Won’t spoil anything for you, but this is one of those things that will initially make you all happy and hopeful, then drag you through misery and make you sob your heart out.

Favourite quote:

“I am come to warn you. I am come to impeach your happiness. It is fashioned out of the misery of your neighbour. You have everything, and that is composed of the nothing of others… As for me, I am but a voice. Mankind is a mouth, of which I am the cry. You shall hear me!” 

Dreamcast

Gwynplaine: Marc-Andre Grondin

Ursus: Gerard Depardieu

Dea: Katie Hall

Josiana: Bridgette Wilson-Sampras

David: Nikolaj Coster Waldau

Barkilphedro: Сhristian Clavier

Recommendations:

You might like “The Man Who Laughs” if you liked:

– “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo;

– “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George RR Martin;

– “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens. 

– “The Dark Knight” – the character of The Joker was actually heavily influened by the protagonist!

(Source of the photo: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/63038.The_Man_Who_Laughs