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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Velocity by Dean Koontz

I seem to remember that Velocity was another of those book that I bought whilst at my grandparents' house over the summer. I'm beginning to notice that an alarming number of my murder mystery books have been purchased there and I am a little worried that that pattern in particular should even emerge. In any case, I purchased this largely because the premise was simple, but really intriguing. Having now read some of Dean Koontz's work before now, I was pretty sure that I was going to like Velocity, but my instincts have been proved terribly wrong before.

Velocity follows a reclusive bartender named Billy Wiles as he leaves work one night to find a troubling note stuck to the windscreen of his car. The note reads as such:
"If you don't take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County. If you do take this note to the police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work, You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours."
At first, he assumes that the note is just a sick joke, but when he hears the next day that a teacher has indeed been brutally killed, he finds himself caught in a contest of wills as more notes come in, with the deadlines and conditions only becoming more dire as time goes on.
This was nothing if not a page turner. The situation that Billy finds himself in is fascinating in a morbid way, like watching a car crash unfold. The killer that he faces is devious, consistently several steps ahead of Billy and utterly ruthless. The situation is only compounded by the fact that Billy's unconscious withdrawal from the world ever since his fiancee fell into a coma means that he has almost no friends to rely on and an uncomfortably long list of people that he now wishes he could definitively rule out as a suspect. Occasionally there were plot holes that gave me pause for thought, and a fair few of them aren't really addressed by the end. But really, when the plot goes by at such a breakneck pace that you don't really have time to consider them in great detail. It's mainly through hindsight that they became more apparent. I only have two main issues with Velocity. The first is that there is obviously a lot of suspense built up towards the final meeting between Billy and the killer that has spent several days tormenting him non-stop, and the actual ending felt a bit underwhelming in comparison to the tense events that have gone on before. Admittedly there are still some nice twists in there and it does make sense as an ending, but it still felt a little disappointing. The second thing that bothered me is that some of the quieter moments felt out of place. For example, there's a point where Billy visits a co-worker, to find out why she's been visiting his comatose fiancee. Having explained why she was there, they have this really weird conversation where events briefly threaten to turn occult, only for him to leave and there is never any hint of the supernatural thrown about again. Additionally, Koontz feels the need to sometimes overwork the clues that are gathered during these quiet moments; there are only so many times that you can contemplate the murders as a performance before the line begins to get stale.

Overall, a very competent thriller that is fast-paced enough that its flaws are, for the most part, easily ignored, If you like the sound of the premise, then there is a pretty good chance that you will enjoy this. There are some plot holes that still niggle with me, but they're minor enough that I'm willing to overlook them. 4/5

Next review: The Portrait by Iain Pears

Signing off,

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

This book was something of an oddity for me to pick up. I knew that I had read The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets before, I knew that I had finished it in a matter of days and I knew that I had enjoyed it. Could I remember a bloody thing about it? Not on your life. And that really puzzled me. I know that I tend to have a better memory of things after I've written about them, but even so, to forget so completely what the book was like was a feat of some magnitude matched only by my patchy recollection of my dad reading The Hobbit to me when I was very young. I picked this up mainly to find out what on earth my memory was playing at.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets follows Penelope Wallace, a young woman in the mid-1950s, as she tries to navigate her life with some semblance of decorum and just a little bit of daring. At home, she must contend with her pop-music obsessed younger brother and her incredibly beautiful and petulant widow of a mother on top of increasing debts that threaten to evict them from their ancestral home. But things start to change after she meets and, on a whim, decides to share a taxi with the chaotic Charlotte. She is in turn introduced to Charlotte's flamboyant aunt and her cousin Harry, who enlists Penelope's help in trying to win back the American woman he was previously wooing.
I think there are two main reasons why this book failed to stand out in my head. First, it's very much a slice of life sort of book. I have nothing against this style of narrative, but I personally find them a bit difficult to keep straight in my head. With the majority of plots, there's a clear progression of events and tangents tend to be few and far between, so it's easy to keep them neat and segmented in my mind. Slice of life narratives tend to lack these a little, so the story becomes fuzzier and vaguer in my head as time goes on; I'll remember little bits, especially as I approached them in the narrative, but the whole picture is patchy at best. It also makes plot summary paragraphs really difficult to write, so thanks for that.
The second reason that The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was almost entirely forgotten was because it was, for lack of a better word, safe. There wasn't really anything that stood out as daring or exciting or really felt like it would have consequences. Instead it seemed to take place in a magical rose-tinted version of the 1950s, where youth and beauty is all you need to get ahead in life, where all the people that Penelope meets are utterly fabulous in some manner, and where all our aristocratic main leads aren't quite impoverished enough for surprisingly regular trips to Harrods to be out of the question. It has no real bite to it, but I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing. I have used the term "popcorn book" before, and this is a prime example of that. It's not a book that you have to try particularly hard to read and can be perhaps inconsequential. It is a vital part of being a reader though, because it can get immensely tiring to always be reading intense, challenging books. And this one? As inconsequential as they come, but fun and charming enough that it doesn't matter at all when you're reading it.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a gentle, charming book that will work perfectly for you if you're looking for a quick read to switch your brain off for. There's no real bite or staying power with it, but it's a nice experience while it lasts. If you're a fan of romance or the aesthetics of the 1950s, then you're likely to enjoy this, if not remember it afterwards. 3.5/5

Next review: Velocity by Dean Koontz

Signing off,

Friday, 15 May 2015

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

I got Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at around the same time as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, for largely the same reasons. In comparison to the book that I reviewed earlier though, this has taken off in a big way, to the point where there's actually a film adaptation coming out soon. I guess I decided to read this now because I wanted to see if there was any reason for the difference in general reception.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies follows the Bennet sisters, a group of young ladies who are as proficient in the deadly arts of zombie slaying as they are in more traditionally feminine pursuits. The second sister, Elizabeth, is a particularly skilled warrior and as such derives great pride from her duty to slay hordes of unmentionables. She derives an equal amount of annoyance from her mother's constant attempts to marry off her and her sisters. In their mother's latest attempt, they are obliged to meet with their new neighbour, Mr Bingley. Whilst there, Elizabeth is insulted by one of their new acquaintances by name of Mr Darcy. While her warrior's sense of pride demands that she rend his head from his shoulders and crush his still-beating heart in his chest, she refrains out of respect for her older sister's new affection for their new neighbour. In the course of her association with Mr Darcy, Elizabeth may find that first impressions can be deceiving.
I wasn't as fond of this one as I was of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. In my previous review, I stated that if you like the concept then you will probably like the book. While I still think that that point is relevant to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there are a couple of things that I thought were done significantly better in the sea monster version. Firstly, the zombie addition was kinda poorly implemented. While saying that it could be taken out entirely is something of a redundant statement, I think that the zombies could have been used in a more interesting way. In Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the monster attacks were used to underscore moments of emotional conflict and contrasted nicely with the characters' more frivolous concerns. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the zombies just sort of turn up whenever and don't really pose much of a challenge. I guess I'm so used to seeing zombies used as a metaphor for some fear of humanity's that I was expecting something a little smarter. It screams of a first attempt really badly. Secondly, some of the humour is a bit off-colour for my tastes, mainly the parts involving vomiting. It might fit with the zombie thing, but it wasn't funny at all, just kind of crude and distracting.

Overall, while I enjoyed reading this, I think the parts that I enjoyed most of all were largely from the original Pride and Prejudice. The zombies could have been really fun, but ended up not really lending themselves to the plot well. Additionally there was some humour that wasn't really to my taste. A bit of a disappointment really. 3.5/5

Next review: The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Signing off,

Friday, 8 May 2015

Ring by Koji Suzuki

This is not the first time that I've read Ring. The first time I read it, I was in my early to mid teenage years, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Since I'm not terribly keen on actually watching horror movies due to the fact that jump scares trigger my sensory issues, that meant reading the book instead. I remembered the ending more than anything, so my experience re-reading it was odd to say the least.

Anyone who doesn't at least have a concept of the plot of Ring, then they have probably been living under a rock for the last decade or so, but I've set a precedent, so here goes. Ring follows a journalist, Asakawa, who discovers that, seemingly by coincidence, four teenagers all died of sudden heart failure at exactly the same time and with no prior history of heart trouble. The fact that they all died with looks of astonishment and terror on their faces whilst frantically clawing at their hair only makes the similarities more striking. It is only when he finds out where they connect that the situation becomes deathly serious; he finds a video tape that they watched exactly a week before their deaths with the following message at the end:
"Those who have viewed these images are fated to die at this exact hour one week from now. If you do not wish to die, you must follow these instructions exactly..." 
The only problem is that someone taped over the part of the tape with the instructions for survival. Having inadvertently shortened his lifespan quite drastically, he desperately tries to work out what he needs to do to break the curse, dragging his best friend Ryuji into the search in the process.
The first time that I read this, I loved it. The pacing was great, the mystery behind the tape engaging and the horror elements were fantastically eerie and just often enough to keep the appetite whetted. The final twist at the end was the cherry on top, leaving a real sense of dread and a really vivid memory of the reading experience. That twist is also the reason why Ring had little to no re-read value to it. I went into it this time with a pretty vivid recollection of what happened, and boy does it spoil a lot of the fun. When you re-read things, you notice things that were previously little and seemingly unimportant in a whole new light. There are many books that benefit from this and Ring is not one of them precisely because the majority of the suspense is dependent on the reader being ignorant of what the origin and reason for the video tape's existence. When you read it with the full knowledge of what is going to happen to these characters, your attention is drawn to the things that make it unintentionally uncomfortable or distracting. For me, this re-read ended up being an unsatisfactory experience watching two rather unpleasant men on a rather bumbling journey across Japan, as I had no real sense of suspense left. It brought to light that the two protagonists aren't really given many positive features to endear themselves to the audience, and that there are some statements that are uncomfortably sexist in feel if not overt purpose.

I feel conflicted about this. If you are in any way familiar with more plot details than the bare concept of Ring, then the reading experience is less suspense and horror than plodding through a weird sort of manhunt. Not one for repeat reading. 2.5/5

Next review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

Signing off,

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Stand by Stephen King

I think one of the big reasons that I picked up The Stand, at least when I first ever got it, was because Gary Sinise was one of the actors in the mini-series adaptation, and I was deep in my fan-girl phase. Some girls have Leo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt as their celebrity crushes, and Gary Sinise was one of mine, you don't get to judge. Anyway, shallowness aside, I still wanted to read the source material before I sat down in front of the mini-series. The first couple tries ended with me putting The Stand away and resolving to return another time. It's not that I wasn't enjoying it, I like Stephen King as a writer. But King is an author that I am a self-confessed fan of, yet whose novels I rarely finish the first time (not counting short stories); as of yet, Carrie is the only one of his novels that I've completed first try. And I can never figure out why. I guess that was my main motive for picking up The Stand this time: find out what it is that makes me keep faltering. 

The Stand follows a group of survivors after a weaponized strain of the flu is accidentally released into the world, killing 99.4% of the population in a matter of weeks. In the wake of this devastating plague, the survivors are beset with two startlingly similar reoccurring dreams. The first involves the figure that many call the dark man, a figure that simultaneously terrifies them whilst also offering the dreamer the fulfillment of their darkest desires. The second involves an immensely old black woman going by the name Mother Abagail, inviting them to her home. Two communities start to form as people gravitate towards these opposing forces and conflict seems close on the horizon. 
Oh boy, I'm sure I could talk about this book for absolutely hours on end. Partially I guess that's because there's just so much in there to talk about, seeing as it was King's longest novel by quite a margin until Under the Dome was published (if I remember correctly anyway). And, bar a few things that are more niggles than anything, I can't actually think of anything major that I disliked about this novel. The characters are engaging, ranging between the genuinely creepy (Randall Flagg and Trashcan Man), the infuriating (Larry Underwood), the too good for this earth (Nick Andros, be still my beating heart) and everywhere in between. The narrative morphs from a tense account of the last days of humanity in its current form and the way that the government (at least in the United States) tries to brutally suppress any and all information about their mistake leaking out, to a spiritual journey in which the last dregs of society take sides in an honest-to-God conflict between good and evil. In the later stages there are a few deus-ex-machina moments as the plot begins to come to its close, but they are they only ones that I have seen that are simultaneously this blatant and yet completely in keeping with the tone. If I had known quite how strong the religious allegory would get towards the end, I'm not sure what kind of outlook I'd have taken with me; if I'm honest, religious overtones leave me a bit dubious considering how preachy they can get. Overall though, while the action can get seriously Old Testament at times, the actual message seems to be that goodness will get humanity through the hard times despite the additional suffering that happens along the way. 
If I'm perfectly honest though, The Stand won me over by having not one but two fantastically written disabled characters. Nick Andros and Tom Cullen were a breathe of fresh air and I wish that there were more characters like them. I did have a couple issues with their characterisation at times, but honestly I adore those two so much that I couldn't really dwell on them for terribly long. 

I could sing the praises of this for as long as anyone would care to listen, but I can now see why The Stand is so highly regarded amongst Stephen King's works. You need to be in for the long haul, but the result is well worth the effort. I honestly can't think of another reason why it wouldn't appeal to readers, beyond the obvious genre ones. 5/5 

Next review: Ring by Koji Suzuki 

Signing off, 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

I got Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters mainly because it looked just the right amount of silly. With a title like that, it couldn't be anything else, right?

The story follows the Dashwood family, comprised of three sisters named Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, and their widowed mother, as they attempt to make their way in a world where an alteration in the world has caused aquatic creatures to become actively aggressive against humanity. After their father is eaten by a hammerhead shark and evicted from their childhood home, the Dashwoods find a new home on Pestilent Isle where they meet both new friends and strange eldritch creatures. While Elinor must face the prospect of being parted from her beloved, Marianne finds herself courted by both the dashing treasure hunter Willoughby and the wise if tentacle-faced Colonel Brandon. Meanwhile, Margaret finds herself drawn into the mysterious goings-on around the island.
As you can probably guess from my summary, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is a very silly combination of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and something very reminiscent of the Cthulhu mythos. It was about as ridiculous as I had initially expected it to be, but also surprisingly cutting and in some ways a lot smarter than I had given it credit for. Still thoroughly stupid though, so if you're in the mood for something a little bit surreal and deliberately uneven in tone then this is definitely going to whet your appetite. I don't know quite how this would read to huge fans of Austen's work, but it didn't have a particularly reverent feel to it. It's odd, but this is quite a difficult book to review. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does exactly what it says on the blurb, and if that concept sounds great to you then you will most probably enjoy the book itself. Personally, I loved it, but I feel like this is very much a love it or hate it sort of book.

In conclusion, I loved this book, but it is the sort of novel that will appeal to some and leave others utterly cold. If you like Regency romance and eldritch abominations of an aquatic nature, then the combination of the two will probably tickle you. If the concept doesn't appeal, then there's not much chance that reading it will change your initial perception of it. 4.5/5

Next review: The Stand by Stephen King

Signing off,

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa

I got The Lord of the Sands of Time at around the same time as All You Need is Kill, when I was really heavily into my anime. This one has been less widely publicised in the meantime, so I had very little impression of what it would be like, as compared to the latter novel which has the Americanised film version that I still cringe at the thought of. I remembered trying to read it when I first got it, but that first impression has been long lost in my memory. So, an essentially blind read, how did it fare?

The Lord of the Sands of Time follows Messenger O, a cyborg that has been sent into the past following a devastating alien attack that has annihilated all life on Earth. The last pockets of mankind that is left on the off-planet settlements give him the mission of going to a time where the aliens have not reached Earth yet and unite humanity in an attempt to stop the alien invasion before it has a chance to begin properly. In doing so, O must face up to not only leaving behind the woman that he loves, but potentially erasing her from time entirely.
This is a simple enough novel to read if you're familiar with time travel in science fiction. The chapters alternate between Messenger O's battles in the Iron Age era of Japan and the other eras that he has previously fought in, with each era reaching back further and further into the past. The year and location of each chapter is clearly stated at the beginning of each chapter, so it's easy enough to keep everything organised as the plot progresses, and yet it also boasts some of the more in-depth looks at time travel problems that usually crop up within this genre. In particular, I liked the fact that the numbers of cyborgs who can fight this threat is constantly changing due to the changes that they make to the timestream that they currently inhabit. When they interfere, certain events happen differently, meaning that different individuals live and die; sometimes an ancestor of some of the cyborgs' creators will die and thus erase the circumstances of their creation, while at other times new cyborgs will be sent back as creations of people whose ancestors had previously never lived to reproduce. It's an interesting dynamic that I haven't ever seen happen in a time travel story before. Additionally, it's nice to see the whole "history repeating itself" thing come up. I hadn't really considered it before, but it really makes sense that the Messengers end up having to travel back so far in time, because in all of the modern eras, humanity essentially dooms itself because of the far-reaching conflicts and endless amounts of red tape that can be thrown down as a barrier to progress. It was an interesting, if somewhat alarming, assessment of our current ability to actually unite effectively against an aggressive outside threat. The one thing that did sit weirdly with me was the ending. The threat keeps mounting in the fight in Japan, until all seems utterly hopeless, only for things to basically come to a stop. I had hoped for a more definite resolution, but instead it just runs out of steam and settles for a stopping point. Disappointing, but far from a game-changer.

A definite recommendation to anyone who likes time travel, especially the ones that present some form of interesting play on the conventions. It is quite grim in tone, if a little detached when it comes to details of battles. The ending is kind of weak, but it doesn't detract too much from a really solid piece of writing. I'd most certainly pick up more of this author's work. 4/5

Next review: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

Signing off,