Book Review: Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is a structurally unique, profoundly, ceaselessly engaging, cleverly written piece of literature, that is, to paraphrase all that is to follow, an exceptional piece of fiction utterly deserving of every bit of the praise that has been lavished upon it.

Cloud Atlas is a narrative comprised of six interconnecting stories. Six stories of six individuals spread across time and space, living wildly different lives, and yet connected to one another, linked across the seemingly endless spread of the ambitious, insightful narrative. From dystopian future to travel journal, and all the stops between the two, Cloud Atlas soars, sometimes entertaining, sometimes devastating, but always, unavoidably, wonderfully, clever.

Plot

Cloud Atlas is structurally unique because it is not the story of one person – or a group of people – and a particular chain of events in which they are firmly – often significantly – involved. Instead, Cloud Atlas is comprised of several stories and can, arguably, be regarded to be a thematic enterprise rather than a story-telling one, concerned primarily with the boundaries of time, location, and genre, and how best to undermine them.

But it does not lack plot. Rather, it has several plots. Some of them are entertaining – such as the first few letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith – and some less so, but they are all distinct plots, with characters, and a sequence of events, and each takes place in a well-defined universe, whether of the past or of the future. This is a piece of fiction, albeit an unusual one, not to mention extraordinarily well crafted, and in the structure of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell both adheres to and defies the expected conventions.

Characters

Another benefit of the structure of Cloud Atlas – and I am well aware that this review has been entirely about the benefits thus far – is that there is no singular character upon which the reader must pin the entirety of their varied hopes. Rather, there are several, and because they appear in differentiated segments – not entirely isolated, but they can, arguably, be read as such – it is entirely possible to identify with any or all of them. They are all deeply layered and well defined, and so strongly established that the reader is drawn quite thoroughly into their worlds.

Negatives

However, Cloud Atlas’s unusual structure deprives it of a central plot, and although I have argued above that this is beneficial for a number of reasons, it does, on the other hand, mean that there can be no central issue for the reader to set their teeth into. There is no problem to be solved, no issue to be overcome, and no murder to pin onto a particular perp. While this ensures that the multiplicity of characters works in the absence of a singular main character – Cloud Atlas is, after all, a text that challenges boundaries – it also, arguably, means that it is significantly harder to empathise entirely with the characters, given how short a time the reader gets to spend with them.

To conclude, this is in every sense of the word a remarkable book. It’s insightful, entertaining, devastating, and undeniably clever. It’s a masterful achievement, written by a talented, dedicated author arguably interested not only in telling a story, but also in how that story is told. This may have ramifications in regards to the characters and the reader’s ability to connect with them, but that’s only a ‘maybe’ because this is, truly, an exceptional book.

The reviews speak for themselves.

TV Review: The Flash – 1×18 “All Star Team Up”

The Flash 1x18

In this episode, Felicity and Ray’s visit to Central City coincides nicely with the doomed rise of Brie Larvan, formerly a mechanical engineer at Mercury Labs. Brie turned nasty when her robotics project was shut down for ethical reasons, and subsequently became a super-villain. (Arguably, not the wisest career choice). Naturally, Felicity and Ray take part in the dismantling of Brie’s robotics empire, thus explaining the name of the episode – “All Star Time Up” – and replicating the ensemble feel that the previous crossover employed to such success.

It was a strong episode that delivered both on humour – The Flash is, notably, a lighter variant on its counterpart, Arrow – and on genuinely emotional drama, and that managed to take advantage of the extra characters without allowing them to overwhelm its own regulars. It was clever and entertaining, but the stakes are getting steadily higher, and that, too, was clear.

Plot:

Although there were a few subplots – Barry’s determination to discover everything he can about Wells, and Iris and Eddie’s relationship issues, for example – the majority of the episode was concerned with the villain of the week, and it enabled the whole range of characters, guests and regulars, to, well, team up, to glorious effect. It was almost ridiculously cheerful in that respect, and even the momentary danger to Barry’s life felt inconsequential, possibly because it was so momentary. It was not devoid of serious moments, but retained enough good humour and entertaining scenes to ensure it delivered on all fronts, and retained, also, the light-hearted personality The Flash has had from the start.

Characters:

First things first, including Ray and Felicity – the cheerier members of Team Arrow – worked wonderfully. It gave the viewers an opportunity to see Felicity in happier circumstances, not to mention in her element at Star Labs, and the writers an opportunity to work on Ray in a new environment. It worked. The end result was a group of smart, entertaining people all working toward a common goal, and in doing so, inducing that feel-good sensation often associated with The Flash.

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On the other hand, the subplot involving Iris, Eddie, and, to a certain extent, Barry and Joe, has not only become tedious, but felt clumsy. Iris West was portrayed as a strong, confident woman unafraid of pitting herself against significant opposition in order to achieve her dreams, and yet, in the recent few episodes, she, as one of the few important characters still unaware of Barry’s identity, has become the unfortunate Lois Lane of the show, dismissed from the central group of ‘very smart’ people and often the subject of many an awkward conversation.

She’s been kept in the dark for too long, perhaps as a tool to ensure that the viewers are aware that Barry’s identity is still, in the main, a secret, but it’s become tedious, and has subsequently pushed Iris into a particularly unflattering box as she struggles against the pressure of knowing that the people around her – the people she cares about – are lying to her face.

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Equally, the conversations between Eddie, Barry and Joe about Iris, and, in particular, protecting Iris, have become ridiculous. The aim is, apparently, to protect her, but as an excuse for the lengthy deception, it fails to hold wait. Forewarned is forearmed, and surely Iris would be in a far better position to protect herself – for she is actually capable of that, as we saw in some of the earlier episodes – if she was privy to all the facts. But she does not get that choice, as instead the male characters get the deciding ‘vote.’ Quite aside from the fact that this relegates Iris to the position of helpless girlfriend in a show that at first seemed determined not to allow that trope to exist, it’s inconsistent with her earlier characterisation as the tough, no-nonsense friend perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything she sets her mind to.

The only redeeming factor was Iris’s response to that treatment – justified anger – but in the context of the rest of the episode, it came across as anything but justified. She, of course, is being unreasonable, because every other person around her knows better.

Concluding Comment:

When’s the next crossover?

TV Review: iZombie – 1×05 “Flights of the Living Dead”

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This week, the obligatory dead body was that of a girl named Holly, an old friend of Liv’s, and the subsequent case surrounding her death hit much closer to home. Lying on the slab in front of Liv wasn’t some poor stranger who she sympathised with but never really knew. Lying on the slab in front of Liv was the body of a girl that she not only knew, but also talked to and laughed with, and that change in circumstances had a considerable influence on the prevailing mood. It was, essentially, a somber affair, and the various entertaining moments – those involving Ravi and Liv, and Lowell and Liv, respectively – only served to further highlight the less-than-uplifting mood. Not, however, to detrimental effect, as it was a strong episode (if I had a dollar for every single time I’ve said that about this show, I’d have lots of dollars, none of which I’d be able to spend in my current location), and, arguably, its sympathetic representation of grief and the different ways in which it can potentially manifest, was a significant contribution to that.

Plot:

In some respects, iZombie is a crime drama. A dead body turns up, there’s some suspicion over how said body ended up dead, people investigate, and then, to conclude, the mystery is solved and the case is closed, allowing everyone involved to home for dinner and/or booze with hot sauce.

In many other ways, however, it is not, and “Flight of the Living Dead” was a prime example of why that is the case. It was, in short, primarily about people, not crime. Rather than a lengthy discussion of motives and MO’s, it was about the different ways that grief manifests itself. It was about friendship, whether lengthy and enduring or recently discovered, about how people behave when they’re desperate, and, most importantly, about living, even if – especially if – your version of living involves semi-dubious cocktails and hair dye.

This is a clever, unique show that is, ultimately, character-driven but that never fails to deliver multi-layered, engaging plots focusing on very real and very human concerns, and that is a truly impressive combination.

Characters:

Ravi had considerably less screen-time in this episode than he had in 1×04, but his contribution was far from negligible. He continued to provide many of the entertaining scenes, just as he has all series – particularly enjoyable was the way he teased Liv over Lowell – and it is, arguably, refreshing to watch a show that has so many friendships that are just that – friendships. No subtext, no suggestion that a romantic relationship might exist somewhere in the future, when the two characters in question inevitably discover the worth of the other person. Just friendship. Now that so many shows – crime drams included, incidentally – seem to consider romance to have not only more mileage than friendships, but to be of higher importance, it’s nice to have the opportunity to enjoy the latter without having to worry about the sudden interference of the former.

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More importantly, Ravi, in the role of ‘friend and co-worker,’ shines. He’s an interesting character in his own right, undeniably funny, clever, and sympathetic. He has his own life, but he’s a good friend to Liv, and their interactions lend a now familiar touch of humour to every episode.

Onto the romance! (So to speak)

In this episode, we are introduced to Lowell Tracey, a mysterious, vaguely pale character who turns out to be – hold the horses – another zombie. After a somewhat rocky beginning, he hit it off with Liv, who not only appreciated the company, but also the opportunity to connect with someone who knows exactly what she’s going through as an inexperienced member of the undead. Their subsequent scenes, while arguably not quite as entertaining as those involving Liv and Ravi, had a genuine softness that the show, with its clever humour and profusion of bodies, occasionally fails to include.

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In short: I liked it. A lot.

Concluding Comment:

This was, again, a good, strong episode, and the profusion of cliffhangers towards the end of the episode ensured that I can’t wait to see what happens next.

TV Review: Gotham – 1×19 “Beasts of Prey”

In this episode, only weeks away from what is probably going to be a particularly exciting finale, the stakes have never been higher. Our favourite Detective Jim Gordon is manipulated into taking a case that could be fatal for the people around him – with Harvey’s initially reluctant help, of course – Fish Mooney makes a particularly desperate and particularly clever play for freedom from the twisted Doctor that holds her captive, Penguin reveals his current endgame – note use of the word ‘current,’ for I hardly believe that that is as high as he intends to travel before the end – and Bruce and Selina stumble into dangerous waters in an attempt to discover the reason Alfred was stabbed. It was an atmospheric episode, practically pulsing with danger and intrigue, thoroughly engaging, and chock-full of action.

Now for a handful of specifics, just for kicks.

Plot:

The episode as a whole worked for me. I didn’t get bored, I found myself thoroughly immersed in each and every aspect, whichever character happened to feature most heavily in it, and I especially enjoyed the way the various storylines fed into each other. If I had to choose a favourite part, however, it would be the scene in which Bruce and Cat accost Reggie. There are a number of reasons as to why I enjoyed it quite as much as I did, none of which are particularly deep and meaningful, but arguably the most relevant one is because it provided the viewer with another hint of the people Bruce and Selina are going to turn into, not to mention a little more of a relationship that can only get more complicated.

Gotham 1x19.2

Fish Mooney’s daring – and arguably quite brilliant – escape was equally enjoyable, as to watch her outsmart her captors despite particularly adverse circumstances, and in possession of little more than her wit, was truly something to behold. She’s easily my favourite character, and it’s obvious from this episode why she remains so very engaging.

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On the other hand, I thought the murder of the week – Gordon and Harvey’s serial killer plot – was a tad lacklustre. By this point, it seems almost as if every other murder has been tied in to internal corruption that will inevitably infuriate Gordon, provide Harvey with an opportunity to tell Gordon to back off, and culminate in both of them investigating regardless. While that set up certainly establishes Gotham the location as the dangerous city full of criminals that we all know and to a certain extent and in a certain way love, the constant reiteration of that fact has become somewhat tedious. Additionally, the serial killer is not nearly creepy enough to stand out in a line-up of Gotham’s worst villains, and his little ‘calling card’ came across as somewhat crass.

Characters:

Harvey’s attitude never fails to be entertaining, and his interactions with Gordon were the perfect way to lighten the otherwise relentless tension in this episode. He’s undoubtedly a product of the city at its best (or worst), but his inability to abandon Jim in his moment of self-inflicted need is lovely to see, and as a crime-fighting duo they complement each other wonderfully.

Gotham 1x19

I also enjoyed Alfred’s appearance, brief as it was, as, again, it hinted at his place in the eventual scheme of things. Alfred is the man that allows Batman to go off and fight crime, makes sarcastic comments in his ear the entire time, and gets increasingly irritated when he comes back injured, and Gotham’s Alfred is certainly that man, as was particularly clearly exhibited in his intention to ‘deal’ with Reggie by himself, despite a crippling injury and his obviously weakened state.

To conclude: this was a strong episode with interesting threads and an engaging plot, so roll on next week!

Book Review: Bad Things – Michael Marshall

Bad Things

I finished Bad Things yesterday morning, after several hours of intense reading interrupted only by occasional trips to replenish my omnipresent mug of coffee and ignore my responsibilities. It was, in a word, excellent. Well written, wonderfully engaging, and equipped with a driving plot and varied, believable characters, this is a book that deserves to be appreciated.

Bad Things is the story of a man named John Henderson. Three years earlier, his son, Scott, died under seriously mysterious circumstances. Now, three years later, he receives a few odd emails suggesting knowledge of those circumstances. Drawn back to the scene and away from the life he had scraped together, John is drawn also into a seething web of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy everything he has left.

Bad Things is structured like a crime novel: ‘bad thing’ happens, main character reacts, and a series of events occur during which the explanation for that ‘bad thing’ comes to light and is more or less resolved. However. The first pivotal event on which the story is hinged is not, at first glance, a clear-cut obvious murder, the main character is not an aged Detective with a fondness for cigars and complaining about bad coffee, and John Henderson spends more time clashing with the law than he does helping it.

Plot:

Bad Things might be a psychological thriller with an emphasis on the weird and not-so-wonderful, but its grounded in the very real grief a father feels for his deceased son, and, in particular, in what it is like to move on from that, to continue living. This book depicts grief, and the effect not only on the individual, but also on the people around that individual, on their lives as a whole, both well and sympathetically, giving voice to an experience that often defies description, all structured in a particularly unique form of the bog-standard crime drama.

Characters:

I liked John Henderson – enough to read an entire book from his perspective without once tiring of it – but Becki is easily my favourite. She’s strong, clever, and self-assured, but she’s not the emotionless one-dimensional character that such women often turn into within crime dramas. She’s layered and interesting, ultimately, impressively strong, and triumphing over adversity, but also, at times, overwhelmed by circumstances beyond her control and her ability to cope. She is, ultimately, a realistic, believable character of considerable complexity, and a joy to read about.

General Comments:

Bad Things is, honestly, a very accomplished book. Marshall’s writing style is not only engaging, but also entertaining and clever, successfully breathing life into a narrative of heartache, grief and the secrets that tear families apart. The plot, too, is self-assured, the crime drama with a thoroughly unique twist to it, and the characters are all well rounded and thoroughly defined, whether they provide the central perspective or not.

This book is definitely worth a read.

TV Review: Game of Thrones – 5×01 “The Wars to Come”

GOT 5x01

After a substantial wait and a number of promotional photos and clips, the ever-increasing phenomenon that is Game of Thrones returned to our screens. There was considerable pomp, of course, and considerable anticipation over the title of the episode – “The Wars to Come” – and thus, when I finally settled down to watch it, lunch in one hand and a large, fortifying mug of coffee in the other, prepared to thoroughly immerse myself in what was to come, I expected a great deal.

Game of Thrones is, after all, a tremendous success. It’s critically acclaimed, is an adaptation of a widely popular, though undoubtedly lengthy series of books, and has a huge fanbase. Although some of the people that watch it occasionally have a few bad things to say about this or that, the problem is that they still watch it. If they don’t, it’s still on their radar. It is, seemingly, on everyone’s radar. Because of this, the premiere of its newest season surely needed to be good.

But I was disappointed. I watched all of it, determined not to miss even the slightest detail – for whatever criticism I may lay against Game of Thrones in this review, I could never honestly claim that it is too simplistic – and yet my attention wandered several times. I cannot remember the last time that happened while I was watching this show.

Why? Well, the answer to that is an easy one, if somewhat unpleasant: because very little actually happened. It felt like nothing more than a filler, an hour to be expended establishing where every single character is and what they are doing before the series can move on to better, brighter things. It did not, to sum up, sit well with me.

On the one hand, though, it does make sense. There are lots of characters, and the wait had been lengthy, so some sort of summing up to ensure the viewers are all on the right page doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, in the name of ascertaining that there would be no confusion leading in to the next couple of episodes, and that there would, instead, be some interest in a multiplicity of storylines.

On the other hand, it made for a somewhat dull episode. Little of consequence occurred – there were a few deaths here and there, but that’s par for the course, and they occurred on a much smaller scale than the show is capable of – and the majority of the plot seemed to be concerned with establishing what could under certain circumstances happen in the future, not what was happening right now. I enjoy the political details and shenanigans as much as the next person, but I was, to phrase it somewhat indelicately, increasingly bored, which was certainly not the way I expected to react to the return of such a high-profile show.

Characters:

Like most fans of the show, a lot of my favourites have died horribly. Usually screaming. But they’re not all gone (yet), and the ones that remain made a good showing in this episode. Varys and Tyrion, for example, were in fine, more or less alcohol-fuelled form, and their conversations, political or otherwise, never fail to be entertaining. They’re well written, deeply layered characters, and even if little occurred in their exchanges either, it’s surely only a matter of time.

I also enjoyed Sansa’s appearance, brief as it was. Now that she is free from the toxic environment of King’s Landing, I hope that she’ll be able to grow if not flourish; finally able to develop the strength she needs to survive. Her story arc is, arguably, the most interesting, given what she was endured and the way she emerged from it at the close of the previous season, and I’m looking forward to seeing where her story will be taken next.

General Comments:

To conclude, I thought this was a weak and mostly uninteresting episode in regards to plot, with the only redeeming features being the characters themselves, and their strong portrayals.

TV Review: Outlander – 1×10

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This week, the viewer is treated to a marked increase in action. Claire’s drama takes something of a back seat (phew) and Jamie’s slides into the fore, but it’s a masterful transition, and it certainly worked for me. The problem of the week appears to be the ongoing issue of Jamie’s outlaw status and what that means for him and Claire – thankfully not quite a romanticised Bonnie and Clyde – but side plots are in clear evidence, and of not insignificant importance, and, arguably, it was those side plots that comprised the most enjoyable aspects of the episode. Claire is an exceptional character and her story is profoundly engaging, but it was the turn of the other characters to take centre stage, even if it was just for a moment, and it was a serious benefit.

Plot:

Among other things, Jamie goes to visit the Duke of Sandringham in the hope of making a formal complaint about Black Jack Randall with the support of the Duke, in the hope of potentially clearing his name via denouncing Randall. This would enable him and Claire not only to live without constant fear of arrest, but to return to his home and live the life he wants for her, something Jamie greatly desires.

To be entirely honest (and I do endeavour to always be entirely honest with you, dear reader), I loved it. Quite aside from the fact that it was a welcome change from Claire’s, well, ‘drama,’ the Duke of Sandringham was a delightful character and the catalyst for many cheerful scenes, not to mention an opportunity for Jamie to display his expertise in an activity that didn’t involve rescuing Claire, just for a change. How could I fail to enjoy it?

Alongside the above, it is revealed that Geillis, as well as being interested in pagan rituals that she apparently prefers to do unclothed – apparently par for the course on this show – has been having an affair with Dougal. There are two hefty obstacles to their future happiness – yes, you’ve guessed it, Geillis’s husband and Dougal’s wife, respectively, but they are both removed as the episode continues, thus seemingly clearing the way for their eventual martial bliss.

Or…not. Instead, Dougal gets exiled and Geillis arrested for witchcraft. Not quite the result they were hoping for.

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Now, let’s get things straight. I love Geillis. She’s intelligent, brave, generally unflinching in the face of bad situations, and one of my favourite characters when the show first started. But this storyline has not endeared itself to me. I liked Geillis because of how different she was, the woman who married someone solely because of the protection it afforded her and who was determined to live life exactly how she wanted to, regardless of the consequences. This Geillis, however, who depends entirely on a man to rescue her, and who is partaking in a relationship there’s been no evidence of prior to the episode, is not one I either recognise or feel obliged to support. Additionally, this seems to lead, unfortunately, quite nicely into the possibility of Jamie once again taking on the role of the dashing hero/saviour, and as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve had enough of that to last me for the rest of my life, thanks.

The Duke of Sandringham

On a more positive note, including the Duke of Sandringham in this week’s episode was a masterstroke. Quite aside from the fact that he offered a fresh perspective on Jamie’s situation and an insight into the politics of the story, he was entertaining, enjoyable, and wonderfully portrayed, not to mention a dramatic contrast to the rough-and-ready Scotsmen that comprise the majority of the cast. A fop, certainly, who folded almost as soon as Claire showed her teeth, but a fop with political savvy, the right kind of name, and an understanding of how to wield his particular kind of power. He might lack bravery, but he more than makes up for it in intelligence, and it was in his company that Claire once again showed a hint of that steel she used to such great effect earlier in the show, and that, too, was a welcome sight.

General Comments

The only other issue – this is me, after all, there’ll always be an issue or two – that I had with this episode was the somewhat startling shift back into Claire’s perspective. Granted, Outlander is her story, but I had expected, apparently without basis, that the transition to Jamie’s perspective would last longer than a solitary episode. Now that it is clear that it will not, the change makes little sense. Why switch, for such a short period of time? It seemed to add little to the plot – the cliffhanger was just as much a cliffhanger, regardless of perspective – and the sudden transaction back to where we started was a trifle jarring. I’d actually hoped for more from Jamie – his perspective was a breath of fresh air.

In the main, however, this was a strong, interesting episode, multi-faceted and layered enough to be thoroughly engaging.

Book Review: White Fang – Jack London

White Fang

I’ve never understood why Jack London’s books aren’t more widely discussed. They’re insightful, intelligently written, and, if this is to be the alliteration I intended it to be, really rather intuitive. And that’s without even considering just how many of them there are. (Have you seen just how many? That list is long.

“White Fang” is a particularly strong example of London’s work. Arguably one of the most well known of his books – depending upon one’s perspective – it’s short enough to read in a reasonable length of time and to look about as intimidating as a small goldfish, but is, once opened and delved into, an astonishingly clever account of one animal’s journey from the depths of the Wild to an almost-quiet life in rural England.

White Fang, a wolf, is born into the Wild. From an early age, he must learn to cope independently, and learn he does, flourishing in an environment that kills many and cares little for the survivors. Gradually, throughout many hardships, he leaves that life behind, switching hands constantly until he finally ends up as the property of a man that truly cares for him. White Fang is a fighter and a survivor who learns to combine deadly instinct with even deadlier ability to stunning effect, and who must also adapt constantly to new, unknown environments. He does, wonderfully, but not without injury and difficulty, and although “White Fang” culminates in a happy ending, it is far from a cheerful romp.

Often tragic and moving, and always engaging, “White Fang” is a story that I was able to thoroughly immerse myself in. I’ve read it before, but some time ago, and in this return to the narrative, I enjoyed it much more. “White Fang” is a story about a wolf’s journey from one world to another, certainly, but it is also a story of the Wild and the frontier it represented, of hardship and bravery, and of the often cruel world that is the unexplored wilderness. Most of all, it’s a story about the division between the world we know and the world we do not, and how hard it is to move between the two. The central character of “White Fang” may be a wolf, but I don’t believe it is much of a stretch to consider that the sense of isolation experienced by White Fang is not dissimilar to that experienced by a human being who moves far away from their home and from what is familiar, to find themselves entering into an entirely new culture of which they have only little knowledge.

Make no mistake, “White Fang” is not written for children. The language, while accessible, is weighted with words and phrases that could, potentially, prove to be somewhat elusive to a younger audience, and although it features the life of an animal, it does so in an extraordinarily clever manner. London manages to give White Fang personality without anthropomorphising him to the extent that he becomes human, describing basic thought processes and the influence of instinct in a manner that appears, at least to me, to be exceptionally intuitive.

It is also a profoundly accessible read, as the chapters are short enough to prevent the reader from losing themselves within them, and feature one main event, thus succeeding in their ability to organise and divide without interrupting the story, and are frequent enough to keep the reader interested. If the narrative is somewhat simplistic in this arrangement, with little happening beyond each transition to a different stage of White Fang’s life, it nonetheless makes for an enjoyable read. I like a multi-faceted, complex book as much as anybody, but it is refreshing to read a piece of fiction that knows exactly what it is and does exactly that. The complexity is not in its structure, but in its themes and the writing, and that makes it increasingly enjoyable.

To conclude: “White Fang” is certainly worth a read, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. It’s intelligent, wonderfully written, and engaging, and it is so much more than your standard ‘animal story’ written for an older audience, but it does that pretty well too.