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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Victims by Shaun Hutson

I seem to remember getting this when I was, at most, mid-teens and likely at a flea market when visiting my grandparents. As such, I kind of forgot that I had it for a surprisingly long time. When I picked it up again, I had to laugh a bit because the blurb sounded uncannily like the novel version of the song "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" by The Adverts. It gave me the impression that it would be a goofy sort of pulp horror novel. It lied.

Victims follows Frank Miller, a special effects technician who is blinded in a freak on the set of his latest film. Terrified at the idea that his career could be over so quickly, he jumps at the chance for a transplant that could be his only chance to regain his sight. What he doesn't know is that his new eye was donated by a murderer, and he discovers that he can now see an aura around people who are destined to be murdered. Coincidentally, there also happens to be a serial killer going around, imitating the killing styles of infamous murderers. So, when the inevitable confrontation occurs, will Frank be able to put a stop to the carnage?
I thought that I was going to like this a lot more than I did. Maybe this was due to starting Victims under the assumption that it would be a lot more kitsch than it actually was. There's a quote on the cover that was a lot more prophetic than I would have ever given it credit for. It reads as such: "You can't read Shaun Hutson for more than a minute or two without starting to squirm." It's about the most accurate thing that could ever be said about this book and it will be instrumental in deciding whether this book is for you. For me, it was too much. I very much regretted reading this during my pre-work breakfast and lunch break at times, because there were some days where I started feeling genuinely queasy as a result. The majority of the queasiness came from either the murder scenes, which were so detailed as to be almost pornographic and not quite over-the-top gory enough to start being silly, or the occasional male gaze scene that delved into levels of obsessiveness that was toe-curlingly awful to read. But I can handle being uncomfortable. I got used to it after a few of these kinds of scenes. What I couldn't really look past was the fact that I couldn't actually bring myself to like the main protagonist at all.
Those of you who read my review of Out will likely be wondering why this is such a big issue here, and not there. In Out, the characters weren't really what you could term as good, but at the very least it was easy enough to understand why they did the things that they did. In Victims, I couldn't help but think of Frank as having an entirely alien way of thinking. At the beginning, I figured that his irritability and obvious dislike of basically anyone who doesn't think along the same lines as him was a reaction to being in a horrific accident and trying to reconcile with the fact that he might never be able to work in his chosen profession again. It was only afterwards, when he had his sight back, that it became clear just how creepy he really is. The part that sticks in my mind is a section where he has a disagreement with one of the actresses on-set. He's gone to fetch her for a make-up session, as the next part she's in requires near total coverage, but she refuses to go because she doesn't want to work under a load of latex and in the process she insults his work. Fine, I can understand getting mad because she's being both unprofessional and unnecessarily personal. What I don't get is the reaction that he has; in addition to getting angry, he hurls a chair at her and then later sends her an uncannily realistic facsimile of her boyfriend's decapitated head. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Sending people to hospital for shock because they didn't want to work in heavy make-up, with no regrets at all upon hearing about it. I don't know about you, but I am significantly less inclined to like this guy when he's just as dangerous as the bad guy. Especially when the implication that he uses genuine human body parts in his work crops up, a baby in a microwave being a particularly graphic moment of this. I wanted him dead, so badly that it's almost untrue.
And the other thing that bothers me is that the whole being able to see people predestined to be murder victims thing was less than fantastically portrayed. Firstly, not a fan of actual murder victims being mentioned in the section where he "proves" that he can see this aura; it might just be me, but I think that victims of serial killers, in particular the child victims of the Moors Murders, deserve more respect than that. Secondly, it just sort of vanishes after a little while after it's served its purpose. Frank mentions it to his police colleague working on the serial killer case, gets understandably dismissed, then mentions the ability as a way of speaking to a journalist following the case, predicts one murder not even related to the case, then it just never turns up again. After he's proved to one person that he can see these auras, it's never brought up again as a main plot detail again. His getting involved more closely in the case isn't actually because of the eye, it's because of his relationship with the journalist. So really, it could have been replaced by anything else. I'd have personally gone for "the murderer is imitating scenes from horror movies you've worked on" as a tie to it, as it at least gives him more reason to be in contact with the killer and the police.

I had such hopes for this. I know that I came in expecting it to be a lot cornier than it was, but I didn't expect it to leave such a bad taste in my mouth. The gore and male gaze stuff is very uncomfortable to read, but that is at least obvious and easy to make a judgement on. You either can't stand it or you can, and I trust that most readers will instinctively have a feel for that. I just felt that the main character was too similar to the main villain for me to make a connection with. There was nothing about him that I could empathise with, and it just removed whatever stakes there were because nothing good could come of either of them "winning". The fact that the part of the main premise that I was really looking forward to was largely superfluous is just the cherry on top of my disappointment. I guess I'd recommend this if you like your horror gory and in bad taste, but quite honestly I'd give it a miss. 2/5

Next review: The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa

Signing off,

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Out by Natsuo Kirino

I can't even remember when it was that I actually got Out. Looking at the condition of my copy, most likely it was something that looked interesting when I was browsing a charity shop. Despite this, it has been fairly prominent in my mind due to the fact that before now I had tried to read Out three times without success. While a lot of this was to do with conflicts with my university work in my first year, I was still somewhat reticent going into this one.

Out primarily follows four Japanese women who are stuck in dead-end night shift jobs working at a boxed lunch factory, all of them dissatisfied with their lives in some way. The status quo is violently upset when one of them, a young mother named Yayoi, snaps and kills her husband after finding that he's spent all of their savings on prostitutes and gambling. Terrified of being caught, she confides in the closest thing she has to a friend at work, Masako, who unexpectedly agrees to help get rid of the body. To do this she recruits Yoshie, a diligent and overworked widow working to look after her bedridden mother-in-law, and Kuniko, a feckless woman with more debts than she could ever hope to pay off. When some of the body parts are discovered, they have to deal not only with the police asking questions, but also with some shadier characters including the nightclub owner that the police are convinced committed the crime.
I have mixed feelings about this book. First, the positive aspects. It is incredibly well-written, with great atmosphere and some fantastic twists that I didn't see coming at all. The characters are all well-fleshed out, with understandable, if very frustrating on occasion, motivations and behaviours. Keep in mind that there aren't really any "good" characters and you'll be in for a treat; I think one of the problems that I had in my previous attempts was that I wanted someone to throw my lot in with, and that's really not possible here. Certainly I had "favourites", but I still didn't really like any of them. All in all, a really solid thriller that I would almost recommend wholeheartedly for those who like their thrillers and crime fiction extra gritty. There are just a couple of things that don't quite gel with me. The first element that doesn't quite work for me is Masako's intuition. From the perspective of other characters, she comes across as a very no-nonsense, logical sort of person, and very cautious in her assessment of things. But then at the same time, she will also get these strange intuitive moments where she will just know things that would require some pretty big leaps of logic from her perspective. It took me a while to notice this one, because the steps that she takes are largely the same ones that I did while reading: the main issue that I have with that is that I had the benefit of seeing the actions and inner thoughts of other characters, gaining information that Masako has no access to. For example, about three quarters of the way through the book, another murder is committed and Masako just happens to get a bad feeling about the situation at the time and then miraculously guesses the identity of the victim before she can even see their face. I had read the murder scene previously, so I knew that something would be going wrong, but what possible reason could she have had for knowing? The second part that didn't sit right with me was the climax of the book. It just got really weird and uncomfortable. Around the two thirds mark, the focus starts to shift from hiding the husband's murder and dismemberment to this weird rapey sort of contest between Masako and the main antagonist. While I could sort of see how the situation as a whole had come about, I got to the final couple of chapters and it just went too far with it. I don't really know how to describe it without spoilers, but there's just this completely out-of-left-field change of heart in the final two chapters followed by an ending that just sort of stops. It really put a dampener on what had been an otherwise fantastic novel, and it's just so disappointing.

Overall, Out is definitely a novel that I would recommend to any crime or thriller fans who like their books to be gritty and gory. For me though, a novel that could have easily gotten full marks from me around the middle mark was spoiled by some occasional leaps of internal logic and an ending that just did not feel right. A pretty solid recommendation nonetheless. 4/5

Next review: Victims by Shaun Hutson.

Signing off,

Sunday, 29 March 2015

All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

I got All You Need is Kill so many years ago that it's actually quite shameful that it took me this long to actually read it properly. Hell, there's even been a film adaptation in the meantime, not that I was especially impressed with the look of Edge of Tomorrow. In any case, I thought that I should finally get round to reading this and seeing if I've kept it so long for good reason. 

All You Need is Kill follows Keiji Kiriya, a new recruit in the fight against alien invaders known as Mimics. As is possibly expected for someone who's only had six months of training, he is killed in his first battle, but not before taking out one final Mimic before dying. The fact that he wakes up again, safe and alive in his barracks before the battle even starts, is something of a surprise. After dying a second time, he realises that he's stuck in an eternal loop until he can find a way of breaking out forever. It is only several iterations in that he finds out that the ace female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch may know a way out of his predicament. 
I was not expecting this to be quite so readable, especially since my last experience within the military science fiction genre was The Forever War, which I was not overly struck by. In comparison, All You Need is Kill seemed a lot tighter and more focused, without any of the weird world-building elements that bothered me in Haldeman's book. Instead it's very much focused on the main characters and how they are gradually worn down by the futility of reliving the same battle over and over. The characters themselves aren't hugely detailed, but there's enough there to get attached to and create an impression of. It might well be the popcorn reading version of military science fiction, but it is an infinitely better starting place for a beginner. The alien race is pretty interesting too, although the audience only ever knows as much as the characters do. So if you were looking for an enemy that has nuance and subtlety, then you may want to look elsewhere. 

Overall, definitely a book that I would recommend if you're a fan of war fiction or science fiction, and in particular if you're looking for a quick read. The narrative is focused on the brutality and futility of war and emphasised by the time loops. Maybe look elsewhere if you want something more complex. 4/5 

Next review: Out by Natsuo Kirino 

Signing off, 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by James Anderson

I knew that I had to read The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy when I saw a quote of the author's above the blurb, which read as such: "I prefer villains to be nice, refined people, the sort who quote Shakespeare and knock off their nearest and dearest between rubbers of bridge." There's something quite quaint about genteel murder mystery and I haven't read any Agatha Christie in a while, so this seemed like the perfect choice.

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy takes place at your typical Golden-era detective mystery style aristocratic home by the name of Alderley, where an informal party goes horribly wrong. In attendance are politicians and diplomats attempting to carry out top secret negotiations, an American millionaire who has come to Alderley to view the resident earl's gun collection, along with his wife who has brought her thief-temptingly expensive diamond necklace with her. Add to this an unexpected guest who is hiding more than she's telling, and things can only escalate from there. Unsurprisingly, one of them turns up in the nearby lake in the same night as several thefts and a lot of chaos, at which point the self-deprecating Inspector Wilkins makes an entrance.
I feel kind of conflicted about this one. On the one hand, it is competently written and is very readable. On the other, it is riddled with things that feel utterly wrong in a murder mystery. The first thing that comes to mind is the pacing. When you have 37 chapters and a prologue, it should not take until Chapter 16 for something in any way criminal to happen. It sort of felt like there was a lot of focus on interactions that could have been condensed or cut altogether, especially with some of the stuff about the gun collection. It also means that Inspector Wilkins, the only character to be named on the blurb, has very little time to actually be characterised in. About the only thing I can really say about him by the end is that he constantly underplays his own abilities and grumbles quite a lot about how he'd rather be working traffic. Not especially impressive character building. The same could be said about the other characters: they're given enough personality to create an archetype of sorts, but nothing to really give them flavour. And that's a real problem when it comes to trying to solve the mystery. When all the big twists came up, I could see the logic behind them, but felt cheated because there wasn't really any way to predict them coming. Often, reasoning would stem from certain lines and odd slips of behaviour noticed by more perceptive characters, but there's nothing in the text itself to really highlight them as being important enough to be clues in the first place. The biggest example of this is the final revelation of the killer's identity, as it reworks an established bit of character backstory that I had no reason to consider at all after it had been mentioned, let alone question. It felt kind of entirely out of left field and I still don't know how anyone was supposed to have guessed it.

There are a lot of things that don't work for me, and it can be primarily boiled down to a lack of detail in the clues and the extent to which the audience's knowledge is undermined by poor characterisation. At the same time though, it is still an enjoyable read. If you're a fan of the cosy mystery, then this should make a harmless enough addition to your reading list. Just don't pick it up if you want an equal chance of solving it at the same time as the detective. 3/5

Next review: All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Signing off,

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I've been put off reading Jane Austen's books for a long time, because I tried reading Pride and Prejudice when I was probably too young. But, as I've grown older, I've heard nothing but praise for her work, and so my university self couldn't help but pick up Persuasion. Why this one in particular? I had heard very good things about it, and I found myself warming to the idea of a shy and ignored heroine.

Persuasion follows Anne Elliott, the daughter of a baronet whose vanity and desire for high living far outweigh his finances. As a result, he finds it necessary to move his family to cheaper accommodation in Bath and rent out their ancestral home to bolster their finances. Anne is not consulted in this or anything else, and so it is with dread that she finds out that their new tenants will bring her back into contact with Captain Wentworth, the man that she was persuaded to reject by friends and family who thought he wasn't rich or important for her attention. Eight years have passed and she finds that she hasn't found his equal in all their time apart, but will he have any affection left for her after being so thoroughly rejected? 
The main positive point to be made about Persuasion is undoubtedly our protagonist Anne. She's a refreshingly sensible and perceptive character, surrounded by people who only really listen to her in times of crisis. And while she wants more than that, wants to feel the love and connection that she felt in her youth with Captain Wentworth, and it's something that she most definitely deserves. But it's nice to see a character in a romance story who doesn't seem to feel entitled to their love interest's romantic attentions; in fact, for most of the book she's convinced that the man she loves has his attention turned elsewhere. I also like that she's a character in her late twenties, positively an old maid by the standards of the time it was written. Captain Wentworth is a little harder to comment on, as he's in surprisingly not a lot of the book all things considered. I was kind of expecting him to have a much bigger presence in this, but the biggest impression I got was of how disappointing other people seem to Anne in comparison. Which kind of works. Kind of. I'd have liked to get more certain an impression of him, but what I got was thoroughly likeable and sensible enough to match Anne, though maybe not as perceptive. 
The writing overall was very enjoyable to read and there was a general pleasantness that was refreshing after a fair few books that were either serious or grim in tone. I found myself getting caught up in Anne's slowly repairing relationship with her first love and the scheming of other, older nobles in their intentions for their children's marriage prospects. There are a few other couples getting together that add extra notes of sweetness throughout the plot, which were perhaps a bit predictable, but nonetheless heartwarming. My only real issue is that once the main romantic conflict, that of Anne and Wentworth being aware of one another's rekindled feelings, has been resolved, the other plot threads are neatly summarised in a few pages. Apparently the extended schemings of people who are less than well-intentioned are a pathetic challenge to the power of a couple wanting to get married. Literally, everything is solved by them going up to the people who rejected their match years before and saying, "Hey, still want to get married, and he's rich now." It seems a tad too simple, especially after one character was so hyped up as a villain. But it's far from a deal breaker. 

A very gentle romance that is nothing but a pleasant experience from beginning to end. While I'm not a fan of the very brief ending, I would still readily recommend this to any fan of classic literature who hasn't read this yet and to romance fans looking for something quieter and considered. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by James Anderson 

Signing off, 

Friday, 13 March 2015

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre

It's probably not a good habit to read a book before going to see its screen adaptation, especially when there is mystery involved. But, after I had been refused entry to a screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at my local cinema (because why would my 20-year old self think to take her ID to a certificate 15 film?) I decided that the next best thing would be to get the book, as opposed to watching the Alec Guinness boxset that my parents already owned. It was then promptly forgotten in all the other reading that I had to do at the time. But, after a long time waiting, I've finally read it and does it make me keen to watch either of the screen adaptations? 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows George Smiley, a forcibly retired spy who is asked to investigate the potential of there being a mole in the British Secret Service, after the retrieval of a Russian defector goes wrong in ways too convenient to be chance. After taking possession of what few files he can get his hands on, Smiley must narrow down who the mole is out of a pool of four high-clearance members of the service, and in the process get one step closer to the mysterious Soviet spymaster Karla. 
I had two main reactions to reading this book. First was "How on earth did this manage to get adapted for screen twice?" This is not a reflection on the book's quality: I, in general, rather liked this. It's just that it didn't really feel like it would translate well to a visual medium, simply because quite a bit of the book is people sitting at desks whilst reading files or conducting interviews, and a lot of the information that is needed to piece the mystery together is told through those files and interviews as flashbacks. I'm honestly kind of struggling to see how Smiley cooping himself in a hotel room to read secret files over the space of a week can be adapted to screen. 
My second reaction was "Why don't I like this more?" Because on the surface of things, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is filled with things that I really like, but I don't find myself bouncing around the walls with the excitement of finding a new and interesting thing. So there's a mystery to solve, and the reader is given just as much of an opportunity to guess the mole as Smiley has, since we're privy to the same information: an absolute joy, considering the amount of crime and mystery stories that don't provide this simple courtesy. Perhaps it was this that let me down, because my experience of serious spy novels was largely James Bond-related before picking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy up, so I was going from a crime reader's point of view. The thing with this novel is that Smiley doesn't get a huge deal of information come his way. At every step, he has to contend with the problem that nobody really wants to talk to him, or give him the whole truth when they do want him there. So it becomes a question of how you think a spy should act, and this is really a lot harder than you would think. But then this feels like a weird criticism to give, considering that I also like intrigue and trying to keep track of other characters' manipulations. There is certainly plenty of that, albeit in a more subdued and bureaucratic manner than I'm used to. On top of that, the writing itself is very competent and I like Smiley as a protagonist. I suppose that it might just be the type of book that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is. There is little in the book that is big or flashy, blatantly favouring the understated and subtle instead; even when there are recollections of being shot, it's told in a very subdued manner. So it seems fitting somehow that my feelings are similarly subdued. It's not a book that you gush about, but one that you go to for quiet reflection and a slow burning read. Perhaps a little anti-climactic, but then it never promised a flashy finale. 

A very well-written novel that definitely stands the test of time. I'm not sure how it's been adapted for the screen twice, but that's just made me more interested in seeing them now. Definitely recommended for mystery and thriller fans who haven't read this and are willing to read something that's a lot quieter and considered. If you're looking for debonair men in suits and lots of flash, go elsewhere. 4/5 

Next review: Persuasion by Jane Austen 

Signing off, 

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Complete Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm

Grimm's fairy tales have been the source of a fair bit of fascination for me ever since I was a teenager. That was around the point where I found out that the stories that I was told as a child were really quite sanitised and comparably tame to their original sources. And the source for quite a lot of these tales, at least in their written forms, was the Brothers Grimm. So, when I saw a book touted as the complete works, I picked it up mainly to see what I missed as a child.

I can't really say that many of the tales in there were new to me. As there were 279 noted in the contents, I was hoping that there would be a lot of new tales that would surprise me. Admittedly there were some new tales, but it seemed to be that a lot of them were more the result of mixing and matching elements used in other tales. Possibly this is a result of them being passed down by word of mouth, but when there are at least four different stories where the princess wins back her unfaithful/enchanted betrothed by bribing his new bride with pretty dresses and weeping outside his bedroom, then there seems little point in listing every single one of them within the collection. Really though, I think this is as much my own heightened expectations interfering with my reading of it. While there were some tales that seemed so similar that they might as well be the same thing, there was enough variety to keep my interest up.
One of the things that was really noticeable was the weird mix of themes. I was always taught that fairy tales were a method of teaching children moral lessons, so the fact that there seemed to be two main lessons that were taught and conflicted with one another. The first was that if you are hard-working and virtuous then God will send good fortune your way, and if you are likewise mean-spirited and lazy then your cruelty will come back to hurt you later. The second was that if you want to get ahead in life, you should rely on your wits and a little bit of luck. While the two lessons needn't be mutually exclusive, more often than not the protagonists from the second type of story wouldn't necessarily be the sort of sweet, good hero or heroine that you would necessarily want to see succeed. I'm not even going to get into the stories that seemed to have neither moral nor point; these are few and far between, but very confusing when they do occur.
The main thing that I can see putting people off is the anti-Semitism. Fortunately it doesn't turn up all that often, but when it does appear in stories like “The Jew in the Thornbush” it hits you like a Glasgow kiss. It really isn't subtle. I had an inkling that there might be some attitudes present that aren't so well tolerated now and my basic knowledge of German history gives me a bit of contextual background, but that really doesn't make it any easier to read. I would say that if you're really bothered by this particular brand of discrimination, then you may wish to be very careful when reading this. If a Jew appears, the likelihood is that things won't go well for him, so it's at least easy enough to avoid if you're truly determined to read this collection.

Overall, a bit of a patchy collection, but still something that I would take a look at if you're interested in fairy tales or other traditional stories. I maybe wouldn't advise reading it more or less uninterrupted like I did, instead dipping in and out occasionally. Maybe avoid if you have triggers involving anti-Semitism. 3/5

Next review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

Signing off,