Saturday, 24 May 2014

Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf / The Mysteries Of Mithra by Franz Cumont / Witness The Dead by Craig Robertson

Orlando by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I deliberately didn't read up about Orlando before I started listening to my Audible download because I didn't want to be be distracted by trying to fit facts of Woolf's life with Vita Sackville-West into whatever the story would bring. I think I made the right decision - and probably wouldn't have got the references anyway! Orlando is written as the biography of an Elizabethan boy who ages only twenty-odd years while the rest of the world advances by several hundred years. Oh, and Orlando also becomes a woman. As you do.

I absolutely adored Woolf's descriptions of Elizabethan England. Her prose when she allows it to run away with her is sublime and many times I felt as if I were really there. My audio was narrated by Clare Higgins who does a fantastic job throughout, especially during such passages. Other highlights for me were the encroachment of the damp and the sudden sweep of the Victorians. However, I wasn't convinced by the Turkish Gypsy episodes and felt they lacked the same immediacy, and the writing seemed to lose structure towards the very end, probably deliberately, but I thought this made the conclusions tough to follow.

Recurring characters made it seem perfectly natural that Orlando aged so slowly and the story never came across as contrived which, having just reread my two line synopsis, is pretty amazing! The poet Nicholas Greene and his Groundhog Day pronouncements showed just how far people haven't come in so many years. And the same is true of Orlando's androgynous outlook which Woolf uses to great effect to show the restrictions placed on women by societies that revere and patronise concurrently.

I enjoyed listening to Orlando and would even wish that it had been longer. There is a lot of humour, which I hadn't expected, and it didn't seem to matter that I didn't recognise the real people behind many of the characters. The story can be appreciated on its own terms with further layers of understanding added by Googling later.

The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I was intrigued by the title of this book as I had seen Mithra mentioned on a QI repeat and knew nothing about him. When The Mysteries of Mithra popped up as the free Book of the Day on Forgotten Books I tapped download immediately.

The book is quite short at 239 pages and spends a fair bit of its space describing what is not known - which isn't helpful. The initial chapter examining the history of the religions from which Mithraism came is dry with lots of dates and names I'd not read before. I nearly gave up but am glad I persevered as the remaining text covering the actual beliefs, spread through the Roman Empire, practices and art, is interesting.

I had the impression that Mithraism pre-dated Christianity, but the two seem to have begun concurrently and, despite their differences, have much in common - the 25th December nativity date being one such curious 'coincidence'. Also, apparently, our enthusiasm for astrology can be traced back to the followers of Mithra!

I am pleased to have read this book and have enjoyed Googling lots of new long words to discover their meanings. The phrasing and style is dated, which is excusable in a text of more than a century old, but once I got past that, it was a very educational few hours' study.

Witness the Dead by Craig Robertson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Well, I've finally finished Witness The Dead despite there being a few moments when I wasn't sure whether I could be bothered. The long book is apparently the fourth in its series of police procedural thrillers. The earlier books might be better - I haven't read them - but this one is so formulaic and meandering that I just found it dull.

The best character is the city of Glasgow which comes across as dark and threatening or vibrant and youthful, depending on the scene and time of day. Many buildings and streets are attractively described and, if it weren't for the violent undercurrents, I'd suggest the tourist office sell copies. I recognised places we visited and am inspired to travel there again.

The human characters however are sadly two-dimensional and almost cartoonish in their actions and speech. Theres Shouty Policeman and Spiteful Policeman, Bland Hero, Competent Yet Also Attractive Woman Scientist and Hannibal Lecter Clone. You get the idea? And we also get Ridiculously Close Family Involvement which is one of my real pet hates in this genre as the subtext that cops will only really leap into action if their wife/daughter/sister is at risk is laughable, if not a tad insulting.

Final verdict: A glossy big budget cover that promises a lot but masks disappointing content.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

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