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Sunday, 19 March 2017

An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

I first heard about the character Arsene Lupin when I was reading the manga detective series Case Closed. Included in the back of each volume was a recommendation from the author of other detectives that readers might be interested in. And amongst some of the first to be recommended was Arsene Lupin, a charismatic master thief and sometime detective, created in response to the success of Sherlock Holmes. Suitably intrigued, I tried finding whatever had been translated from the original French, only to discover that there doesn't seem to be much available regardless of what Wikipedia says has been translated. As such, I've been rather looking forward to reading something complete, beyond the few scattered stories that I've managed to find previously.


An Arsene Lupin Omnibus collects four of the volumes written by LeBlanc. Instead of going over plot and character aspects as I would normally would, I will instead focus on each volume individually.
First up is Arsene Lupin versus Holmlock Shears. This is the weakest of the four for me, for one reason that is perhaps more personal to me. As you can probably tell, this is a short novel detailing the intellectual battle between Lupin and a poorly disguised version of Sherlock Holmes, whose name couldn't be used at the time of writing due to copyright infringement. The mystery is actually fairly solid, I didn't really manage to guess anything before the big finales. My problem is that this is such a mean-spirited rendition of Holmes, and let's not pretend that this Holmlock Shears is meant to be a character in his own right. While I have loved books with one abhorrent character, rarely was the narrative from their perspective and never was it using the character that I will probably always carry closest to my heart. To see him treating his Watson substitute with such callousness is galling. As I said though, the mystery is good enough and Lupin charming enough that I could tough it through.
The second volume in the omnibus is The Confessions of Arsene Lupin, a collection of short stories mostly focusing on Lupin as a master thief. This is one of the stronger collections in my opinion, because Lupin's adventures are not long enough that they have time to grow old. An issue that the previous volume had as well was that as two longer cases, it does start to feel a bit like a waiting game as Lupin sets more and more obstacles in an investigation's way until no more avenues of pursuit are available. With the short stories, it's more succinct and punchy. They feel more fun when there isn't the knowledge that your main character is running in circles. It's much more interesting to see how carefully laid defences are circumvented when it isn't the point of view character's defences.
The third volume is another novel-length adventure, The Golden Triangle. In this volume, a dashing injured army captain and the beautiful nurse who tended to his injuries must defend against an unknown assailant whilst trying to figure out both where the nurse's evil husband hid several tons of gold bullion and who has been aiming to bring the two of them together in matrimony since early childhood. This one works significantly better than the first of the long-form adventures, as it provides more meat with regards to its adventure. I won't say mystery, because there's one rather big spoiler, only revealed in the penultimate chapter, that I managed to guess by the halfway point. Hint, characters don't do a 180 turn in allegiance during the course of a day, so it's not hard to surmise from there. Aside from that, it's great fun, with a lot of "lovers in peril" moments that I probably like a bit too much.
Last of all is The Eight Strokes of the Clock. This is kind of an interesting volume, as it's in some ways both a novel and a collection of short stories. Posing as a gentleman by the name of Prince Serge Renine, Lupin approaches a woman by the name of Hortense Daniel, and manages to restore her financial independence. As payment, he offers that she become his companion in seven further adventures, thus providing the reader with a series of interlinked short stories. I had actually read a couple of the chapters before getting the omnibus, as a part of a "best of" collection, and I must say that their inclusion was spot on. While the introduction essentially asks the reader to think of Lupin as a French equivalent to Sherlock Holmes, nowhere in this omnibus does it fit as well as The Eight Strokes of the Clock, as here we have the consistency of an established partnership combined with the stand-alone nature of the short stories themselves. Honestly, it's the best part of the omnibus, and had everything been of this standard I would have been supremely happy to give this a perfect score.

A thoroughly enjoyable collection, worth a look for The Eight Strokes of the Clock alone. As a Holmes fan I can't quite bring myself to like Arsene Lupin versus Holmlock Shears, but I can appreciate a decent mystery when I see one; not necessarily enough to recommend it by itself though. The Golden Triangle is where long-form starts to suit Lupin, though it works more as an adventure than as a particularly airtight mystery. And The Confessions of Arsene Lupin are a decent starting point for some of the character's less law-abiding adventures, with a lot of charm and action. 4.5/5

Next review: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Continuing with Fitzgerald, I could only hope that The Beautiful and Damned would be a somewhat more satisfactory read than his debut novel. Seeing as the blurb given for the second novel in this collection had at least a modicum of plot mentioned beyond "here's this guy's life-story", I had a bit of hope that it would be less tiresome.


The Beautiful and Damned follows Anthony Patch, a romantic young man who is due to come into an inheritance of millions when his grandfather passes, if only he can live with some measure of respectability. But this will turn out to be much harder than he imagines, with his marriage to the beautiful and indolent Gloria marking the beginning of an existence typified by living beyond his means.
This novel is almost everything I want in a story set in the 1910s and 20s. It is a bleak but beautiful picture of a society that cannot sustain itself under its own hard and fast living. Anthony is not much different in character from Fitzgerald's previous protagonist Amory Blaine initially, but the thing that made The Beautiful and Damned work with a protagonist of this type is that Anthony actually seemed to suffer for his poor choices. Whereas Amory's slide into poverty is accompanied with a surprisingly blase attitude, Anthony doesn't cope in the slightest with being unable to live as he was accustomed to. Throwing himself into weekend-long parties that he can't afford, but can't bear to go without, it's not long before he's sucked into a self-destructive spiral of debt. To have an actual character arc to follow is so refreshing after the meandering that hampered This Side of Paradise. The Beautiful and Damned is not a perfect novel though, as there are points where it feels more than a little padded and it's still a bit meandering at points. But it captures that self-destructive undertone that fascinates me about the early 20th century perfectly and I would happily recommend this novel to those interested in Fitzgerald's work or that particular era in history.

A fascinating portrayal of a man's downward spiral into drink and debt, it is thoroughly entertaining. Still a little bloated in places, but nowhere near as meandering as This Side of Paradise. 4/5

Next review: An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 20 February 2017

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Like many people, I read The Great Gatsby as a set text for my classes in English. And while it didn't have the impact on me that books like The Outsider, I did still thoroughly enjoy it. So, while browsing the shelves at the independent bookshop that has parted me from more of my money than I would like to admit, I noticed a book that combined F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, it seemed like a good way to look into more of his works. Plus, I have a fondness for the Roaring Twenties, so what could go wrong?


This Side of Paradise follows Amory Blaine, the only son of wealthy parents, from his early adolescence to young adulthood, a period of time that covers his time at Princeton, fighting in the First World War, and several love affairs with beautiful but unattainable women.
If you're a dedicated reader of any kind, it sometimes occurs that you are hit with the unassailable certainty that you are reading the first piece of long-form writing that the author has published. Oftentimes this is due to some part of the construction being noticeably unpolished, and after a lot of practice I have found that the feeling is very rarely wrong. It was certainly on the money with This Side of Paradise.
Normally I would split the critique of plot and character, but since there is no plot beyond "How is Amory developing as a character?" it feels redundant splitting the two elements, as I would ultimately be parroting back the same issues with both. My issues with Amory then. Despite reading about almost nothing but him and his personality for over 200 pages, I don't think that there is much to actually pin down about him besides the impressively hard-wired traits intellectual arrogance and fay selfishness. The narrative desperately wants you to think that he is brilliant but flawed, but quite honestly there is so little human warmth in him that all of his poetic ambitions seem hilariously out-of-touch considering that you need to be able to feel things in order to express them. Honestly, it feels kind of embarrassing having Amory as a lead character, as he doesn't seem to have either the drive to do the great things that he sort of assumes that he will inevitably achieve or the emotional range to be quite the ladykiller that he proves to be. The nagging feeling that Amory was based on Fitzgerald himself somehow just makes this worse. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think that I've found an author stand-in character that actually works.
So, despite the emotional lack of depth and the plot that gets less and less defined the more Amory puts off making actual adult decisions, I would say that there is something that prevents This Side of Paradise from being a complete waste. The actual writing itself. While there are long stretches where it does little more than adequately depict the events of the book, you do get flashes of really interesting writing that makes you realise why people really loved this book when it was first published. It's things like changing the format from prose to script for certain romantic sections, or a particularly striking line of prose, and you get that whoever wrote This Side of Paradise is going places, even if he isn't there yet.

This Side of Paradise is quite obvious as a first novel as you read it. The act of following Amory Blaine is an effort that doesn't really pay off, as the plot can only be interesting when he actually has some kind of direction in life, which is seldom. There are moments of brilliance in the writing though, so some definite promise to save it from being a totally wasted effort. 3/5

Next review: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Around the Moon by Jules Verne

So last time I was looking at From the Earth to the Moon and found myself pleasantly surprised despite the dodgy 19th century science. Presumably then I would be similarly taken with its direct sequel, Around the Moon, right? Yeah, about that.... 


Around the Moon follows Barbicane, Nicholl and Ardan as they journey to the moon in their projectile. All seems well, until they realise that they have been knocked off course and may miss the moon entirely. 
As a lot of my previous review covers suspension of disbelief, I will quickly address how Around the Moon compares in that regard. It is so much worse. While I could kind of wave away a lot of the previous installment with the sentiment that the principle is more or less sound, when almost the entire plot focuses around the characters noting down their observations of the moon, or what the 19th century thought the moon would be like, it is extremely difficult to ignore or wave all the ways that this is wrong. Like the point where they open a window in order to dispose of an animal carcass into the vacuum of space. It is points like that that make the suspension of disbelief so much more difficult this time around. If you can deal with imaginative departures from fact, then you may find this less distracting than I did. 
Now to the part that is special to Around the Moon when compared to its predecessor. The action, bar the last few chapters, all takes place within the confines of the projectile fired at the end of the previous installment. Now, when you have a story occur in entirely one place, your writing skills are pushed to the limit, especially if none of the characters can leave said place. There are two things that need to work near enough perfectly for such a situation to work: the pacing and the characters. To say that Verne dropped the ball may be an understatement. In regards to the pacing, it kind of settles on a slow trudge due to most of the action being the observation of the moon and space. There are a couple of points where the projectile is almost hit by asteroids, but there's nothing that the protagonists can do in the face of it, so it doesn't really stop the monotony of watching a huge deal. As such, the characters become even more important, and it couldn't have been a bigger catastrophe if it tried. Of the three main characters, two are flat caricatures of the practical American stereotype that Verne seems to love, and even their supposed intelligence is put to question considering that they only consider how they are meant to get back to Earth once they are well past the Earth's atmosphere. They are nothing compared to the irritation that is Ardan though. You know in some series you get those characters that are meant to be charmingly whimsical but end up being a vacant ninny infatuated with their own stupidity? Michel Ardan is that character. He keeps suggesting things that are blatantly ridiculous or dangerous for them to do whilst on the journey, only to moan that his travel companions are too practical and boring when they inevitably poke holes in his ideas. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that he would ignore them at the point where he wondered what it would be like to float along in the wake of the projectile. By all means Ardan, throw yourself into the icy vacuum of space, it will be the most use you've been all trip, especially after sneaking a flock of chickens on board for no real reason. 

While From the Earth to the Moon was a fun thought exercise where human ingenuity causes something amazing, Around the Moon was the space equivalent of setting out on a journey only to realise you only have fuel for a one-way trip and everyone left their money at home. Sorely disappointing. 1.5/5 

Next review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

When you have a fondness for steampunk as I have, two authors above all others are cited as influences on the sub-genre: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The former brings the influence of technology as a springboard for great advancement and adventure, whilst the latter brings the more socially aware aspect of science fiction to the genre. As such, it's a little embarrassing that until now, I had read neither of their works. Seeking to fix that for at least half of these important writers, I picked up a collection of From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon by Jules Verne. And at the halfway point, how does the writing stand? 


From the Earth to the Moon follows the Baltimore Gun Club, a collection of men known and respected throughout the United States for their innovations in the field of firearms and artillery. But, with the American Civil War over, their golden era appears to be coming to an end, as there is no need for overpowered cannons until war breaks out again. At their lowest point though, the club president, Barbicane, presents an idea for an experiment that will test the Gun Club's credentials: they will attempt to build a cannon powerful enough that you could send a projectile to the surface of the moon. And with that announcement, a furore spreads across America and the world. 
This is a rather strange book to read, for several reasons. The first thing that I will mention though is the focus of the narrative. It isn't the firing of the projectile to the moon, which happens less than 20 pages before the end of the book. The actual narrative focuses on the process of making the cannon and the projectile in the first place, with the moon-based shenanigans presumably taking place in Around the Moon. As such, it does feel weirdly paced, as this is the sort of prep work that books usually condense down to a paragraph or two at most. In From the Earth to the Moon, that prep work is pretty much the whole story, with chapters dedicated to steps such as: consulting with astronomers when the best time to fire said projectile would be when dealing with the moon's elliptical orbit, appealing for funding from overseas, and the process by which the cannon is forged, to name but a few. It's bizarre to read, but not necessarily a bad thing. You don't usually get into the world-building in quite such detail, and it is an interesting change from the norm. 
The problem with going into details is that from the perspective of the modern reader, whose concept of space travel is probably vastly different to that of a contemporary reader of Verne's, is that when the dodgy science turns up, it's a heck of a lot more noticeable. This isn't necessarily so obvious in the first half or so, where the intent is more or less to just shoot the moon to see if they can. When the French adventurer Ardan comes along insisting to be part of the experiment though, it becomes an attempt to send people onto the moon via the projectile. At that point, the suspension of disbelief becomes significantly harder, sometimes to the point of unintentional humour. They pack a year's worth of food rations but only enough water to last them a little more than the journey's expected length, because of course the moon has water on the surface. At some points it becomes a struggle to stop trying to figure out which part of their ridiculous plan will kill them first. In addition, there are some non-scientific points where the narrative takes a turn for the weirdly funny, again probably not intentionally. My personal favourite is where the three adventurers have to break it to the overly excitable secretary of the Gun Club that they won't have room for a fourth person on the voyage, only for the narrator to mention that the three men will be accompanied by a Setter and a Newfoundland. A Newfoundland is pretty much a tame bear, and Setters aren't that much smaller. 
But, while it is difficult to take seriously at times, I still couldn't help but enjoy reading it. Ignoring the unintentional laughs, it was nice to read some science fiction that wasn't about someone attempting to undo some great evil wrought through maliciously-applied science or some new technology going terribly wrong. Here, it was the process by which someone took a concept that seemed far-fetched at best, and by applying the best of what science understood at the time, achieved something fantastic. The science may be out-of-date, but the boundless enthusiasm for the endeavours of the human spirit is something of a breath of fresh air. 

The science behind the project is absolutely ludicrous at times, but considering that From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865, over a century before a moon landing was even remotely successful, then you can forgive it somewhat. If you can overlook the massive holes in logic and physics, then you have a book that documents a group of people trying to do what no-one has attempted before, and the concept of their failing is never even considered. There's something about that positivity that makes this endearing, where normally the plot-holes would annoy me more. 3.5/5 

Next review: Around the Moon by Jules Verne. 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

After a good dose of depressing Russian literature, I was in the mood for something a bit more comforting. As such, here comes another Discworld review! It was going to happen eventually, especially with my husband encouraging me to pick up the series again. 


As a young boy, the prince of Djel is sent to Ankh-Morpork in order to learn how to be an assassin, and possibly earn back some of the money that their ancestors spent on building pyramids. Upon completing his assassin training, the prince Teppic is called back to his home country to take on the role of King. In attempting to be a good and progressive monarch though, he is foiled at every turn by the traditional High Priest Dios. And in the necropolis, the pyramid that is being built for his father's mummified body is starting to cause strange, possibly quantum, phenomena. 
I found Pyramids to be kind of average actually. Now don't get me wrong, Pratchett is his usual very funny self, with some truly awful names cropping up and barely a page going by without the writing eliciting a laugh or a smile of some kind. And there is a lot about it that is quite clever and interesting in regards to the world-building. I just can't get excited by the main character. I really wanted to like Teppic, and in the first part of the book I honestly thought that he could be a quirky main character who would be a joy to follow. I mean, his first appearance is him getting ready for the final exam that will allow him to join the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork; having strapped on everything that he can think of to help him, he falls over from the sheer weight of it. The parts where Teppic gets to show off his assassin skills are by far the best part of it, but for maybe two thirds of the narrative he doesn't get to use it. Instead he sits around while his country is run without him even being necessary, which, while frustrating in-character for him as well, isn't exactly what I was hoping for out of a main character. In addition, it means that when he clashes with Dios, to the point where the High Priest is actively threatening to kill him, the fact that Teppic doesn't automatically go to kill his obstacle is kind of bizarre. I suppose that there may be some Assassin Guild code that I'm missing involving only inhuming people under certain circumstances, but even so. What's the point of making the main character an assassin if he never actually inhumes anyone directly? 

Overall, kind of average for Pratchett, but that's still quite a bit better than most other people's average. It's a stand-alone novel within the wider Discworld series, so possibly a good one to start with or see if you like Pratchett's style. And of course, if you're looking to read all of the Discworld series, then you can hardly leave this one out. 3.5/5 

Next review: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

So my last experience with Dostoyevsky was not brilliant to say the least. But I still had just under half of the book left to go, so there seemed little reason to abandon The Gambler just yet. In any case, the subject matter of gambling looked to be less dry than The House of the Dead, so I was hoping that it wouldn't be a total waste.


The Gambler follows a tutor by the name of Alexey Ivanovitch as he accompanies the family that he works for to a German spa town. Whilst there, he is witness to the damage that roulette can do to a family, eventually falling prey to it himself. Combined with his unhealthy passion for his employer's beautiful but cruel step-daughter, Alexey finds himself succumbing to a mania that overrules all other interests.
If there had been no names listed with these novels, I would never have guessed that The House of the Dead and The Gambler were written by the same person. Whereas the former was dry and poorly constructed, The Gambler is clear and engaging. The fact that the majority of the plot is the kind of social backstabbing that I love was a real bonus. It's not quite the quality that you can find in books like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it's still entertaining to watch everyone desperately making plans around money that might or might not be available. The protagonist Alexey isn't really likeable or unlikeable, but that's not such a huge problem in this kind of plot. The only thing that I would criticise is that the plot itself is a bit on the simple side, but that's made up for by the characters, the scheming and the engaging description of gambling addiction.

The far superior novel in this collection, The Gambler is a fascinating look at the dangers of gambling, as well as the kind of social scheming that I'm a great fan of. Perhaps a bit simple at times, but well constructed and engaging. 4/5

Next review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.