Search This Blog


Friday, 20 November 2015

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

This was a book that I had sort of attempted before. Back when I was in high school, I used to read to my mum while she did the ironing. We got through all sorts like that, and I had picked up The Secret of Crickley Hall in the hopes that I could read it to her. We read a couple chapters and then put it down because she thought it would be too scary for me. Now I picked this book up because there is a part of me that really likes the haunted house genre of horror. Problem is that it's quite difficult to get good examples of it these days. Is this yet another disappointment?

The plot follows the Caleigh family as they move temporarily to the remote Devonshire village of Hollow Bay. It is coming up to the first anniversary of the disappearance of their middle child, Cam, and the husband hopes that a change of scenery will be good for himself and his two daughters, but especially for his wife who has been blaming herself for her child's disappearance. But the house that they are renting, the eponymous Crickley Hall, has a dark past that refuses to stay quiet. There is something wrong with the house and if they don't figure out what it is in time, then evil from the past may well repeat itself. I'm somewhat torn on whether I think this is well written or not. On the one hand, the plot is well constructed and it does manage to be incredibly tense and uncomfortable for a good chunk of the book. Additionally, the awful events that unfolded in the Hall during the Second World War are genuinely traumatic enough to warrant multiple spirits with unfinished business, which is nice after some haunted house stories where the past trauma really isn't all that exciting. On the other hand, Herbert has a tendency to repeat himself quite a bit, often echoing certain phrases over and over despite the fact that different people are saying or thinking it each time. One of the main examples is the married couple, Gabe and Eve, and their contrasting ways of coping with their son's disappearance. Eve is on the verge of a nervous breakdown but keeps it at bay by refusing to believe that her little boy could be dead, while Gabe just locks it all away and puts on a brave face. When in their respective viewpoints, they consider their own coping strategies, which is fine if a little wordy. But then they consider their partner's coping method and come up with almost identical thinking processes. I don't need to know that Eve knows that Gabe is putting on a brave face for her, I've already had confirmation from him. It makes it feel like there were whole chunks of narrative that went unchanged during the editing process because they sound amateur, quite frankly. Additionally, I just don't think that the Caleigh family are all that interesting. They also seem to have a weird habit of continuing their domestic dramas even when the hauntings become increasingly more unnerving. I can understand that characters will have their own personal concerns, but when they seem to practically forget the fact that their house is full of unexplained phenomena in favour of the eldest daughter's troubles with a school bully, then it seems a little like their priorities are wildly out of sync with the reader's. So a bit of a mixed bag, but when Herbert knuckles down to the actual creepy stuff, then boy does he get it right.

One of the better haunted house stories I've read in a while, but far from perfect. When the focus is on the house, it's tight and tense and everything you could possibly ask for in a horror book. When the focus is on the protagonists, I just lost interest fast. Plus the ending can perhaps be as bit on the saccharine side. 3.5/5

Next review: The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Signing off,

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Ah, we meet again Mr Dickens. I'm pretty sure this is the last Dickens currently in my collection that I had yet to read, and I was curious to see what end of the scale it would fall for me. Would I love it like I did Our Mutual Friend or would it be another drag like The Pickwick Papers?

Bleak House is something of a difficult novel to summarise, but I'll be giving it a damn good go. The novel ultimately centres around two major plot elements. The first is an ongoing lawsuit named Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, a will dispute that has been carrying on for so long that no-one has any idea what the actual case involves anymore, and the people who are sucked into the whole grim process. The second is a secret kept by one Lady Honoria Dedlock and the attempts that are made to uncover it. Other smaller plots are related at certain points during the novel, but those are the two that inform most of the motivations for other characters and the other plot lines would take so much setting up that I might just as well copy and paste the entire novel into this review. Which would be cumbersome at best. The story is told via two narrators: Esther Summerson, a ward of the chief suitor involved in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, and an anonymous narrator who takes a largely pessimistic viewpoint to contrast Esther's overall optimism. Like Our Mutual Friend, the novel takes a look at corrupting influences within society, with Bleak House concentrating on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Law and the harmful effects of misplaced or self-serving charity.
To hear some people talk, you would think that this is a novel so dense and complex with its interweaving plotlines that it would be impossible to follow. And while I will grant that it is very dense and complex, it is told in such a way that I at least managed to follow the narrative with relative ease. A large part of this is down to the cast, which is vast and the majority of them are important several times over because of the surprising number of connections that there are between characters of all social backgrounds. I was personally rather mixed about these connections. On the one hand, it does mean that the plot is richer and more layered because one character can embody several different roles depending on who the viewpoint character of the moment is. On the other hand, it is awfully convenient that this character just so happens to be, for example, another character's long lost mother and will be key in getting him re-established in the world. Sometimes these connections will just sort of pop up without much in the way of prior establishment and it does sort of drag you out of the narrative because of the obvious nature of it. On balance, the good outweighs the bad points, but it can be quite distracting at times.
Many of the good points that I can recommend this for will be quite familiar if you've already read my review of Our Mutual Friend: Dickens seems far more comfortable as a writer when he is tackling social issues, which in this case is largely failings of the law. More interesting to me though was the examples of bad charity, as it were. It's interesting to contrast what I termed above as misplaced and self-serving charity. In regards to the former, it is presented as a flaw, but an understandable one: if you're a good-hearted person who wants to help someone, it can be hard to see when you're doing more harm than good because the person you're helping just isn't or can't learn to change their self-harming ways. The latter is presented more curiously, as it is seen solely in characters who could be seen as full-time philanthropists. These are characters who have devoted themselves to a cause, and in pursuing that cause they inadvertently cause more harm than good. An example of this is when one of these philanthropists, Mrs Pardiggle, visits a brickmaker's house whilst accompanied by her sullen, downtrodden children. She essentially marches into their house at will, leaves leaflets that none of the people there can read, preaches at them for longer than anyone would wish, and then leaves, completely missing the traumatised woman holding her stillborn child in the process. It was a passage that really stuck with me, as it reflects a tactic that a lot of people will still use today. The tactic argues that "charity is good, so if I am seen to be charitable then I am a good person". It doesn't take into account either how that contribution to charity is implemented in the real world context or how the charitable person acts to people in direct proximity to them. You don't tend to see much critical analysis of our culture of charity and the perception that we as a society has of charity, so quite frankly I would recommend Bleak House just for that dialogue.

As with Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House is one of Dickens' stronger works because of its focus on social issues and the cutting insights that he makes about them. The characters are well-written and vivid, although the fact that all the characters in the cast are connected in some way regardless of class can be a bit distracting. 4/5

Next review: The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

Signing off,

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French

I picked up Catch Me When I Fall because I had been discussing mystery novels with an online friend, and they absolutely gushed about the books by Nicci French, a husband and wife writing team. I looked up a couple of their books and, curious to see how the whole writing team thing would pan out, picked up this one and promptly left it on a shelf, as is my wont. But, got to it eventually, and it wasn't at all what I was expecting it to be.

Catch Me When I Fall follows Holly Krauss, a woman who seemingly has everything: a loving marriage, a small business at the peak of success and what seems like an almost innate ability to charm those around her. But when she gets the opportunity to let loose, she has a tendency for recklessness and making decisions that she never would otherwise. One night, having had far too much to drink, she has a one-night stand, not realising that it will spark off an avalanche of successive mistakes that could threaten her entire life as she knows it.
When I read the blurb, part of me thought that this would be a tense, edgy sort of thriller, very gritty in tone. What I got was a surprisingly in-depth analysis of a person having a mental breakdown and crimes that were, in comparison to most entries in the genre, almost ploddingly pedestrian in execution. It was quite refreshing really. Instead of having one huge villain character who creates tension through the sheer outrageousness of their crimes, there's a focus on one victim's life and how lots of smaller incidents can build up and potentially destroy them from the inside out. There's as much tension created through Holly's reckless actions and her poorly thought out ways of righting the consequences of those actions as there is from the genuine threat that other people in her life start to pose to her, if not more. I guess it's just interesting to me to see a novel marketed as crime where the protagonist might well be the biggest cause of their own suffering. It's really fascinating for that reason alone.
There is another large factor in why I like this novel, but it is a pretty big spoiler from about halfway into the book, so if you want to avoid any, then skip to the end of the spoiler notices.
I liked that Holly's bipolar disorder was handled in an unexpectedly sensitive way. While I personally object to the fact that the moniker of "madness" is thrown around occasionally in what I can only interpret as an unironic usage, the actual depiction of her mental illness is surprisingly well balanced. She's not so extreme in her mood swings that she becomes unrecognisable as a person or unsympathetic enough that the audience has no choice but to abandon the book in disgust. The mental illness itself isn't romanticised, with the people around her increasingly concerned with regards to her well-being as it progresses, and the negative effects on other people is made abundantly clear. But at the same time, it isn't demonised. When Holly starts regularly taking medication to treat it, there is a part of her that misses the intense highs and lows that it brought into her life. She misses the intensity of it all, and wonders whether that means that she is denying an integral part of her personality. For me, while I didn't wholly relate with her experiences, there were two parts that really warmed me to her as a character. Firstly, there was the description of coming into a diagnosis of a mental illness/condition as an adult, that process of looking back at previously unexplainable behaviour with a sense of clarity and being able to work around limitations that you were unaware of before. Secondly, much as I would prefer otherwise, there was something that struck a chord in the description of Holly's down days, where it would be an effort of Herculean proportions to even get out of bed and get washed. I have never been diagnosed with depression or any of its related conditions, but those scenes seemed somehow universal in scope.

Overall a really interesting book that is unexpectedly relatable and thought-provoking. Definitely one to recommend to someone after a crime or thriller with a bit of a difference. 4.5/5

Next review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation was another book that had been languishing on my shelves for more years than is good for a book. I know the exact length of time I've had it to, since there's a nice little inscription on the bookplate wishing me a happy 17th birthday. I'm 24. I really could've gotten to this one quicker. Also managed to really confuse my fiance, who was stunned that my next read from Terry Pratchett wouldn't be a Discworld novel.

Nation follows two children who must overcome tremendous challenges in the wake of a tsunami that hits a small group of islands in the South Pelagic Ocean. There is Mau, an aboriginal boy who was in the middle of his rite of adulthood when the tsunami washed away his village, leaving him with a lot of unanswered, or unanswerable, questions and possibly without a soul. He soon discovers Ermintrude, a British girl who is determined that Standards will be upheld, even if that means serving scones that taste like rotting lobster. Together they must try and rebuild what is left of a proud nation.
I wasn't sure what this was going to be like since my fiance, an ardent Terry Pratchett fan, had confessed that he was never particularly fond of this one. Might not have even finished it, now that I think about it. Having finished it though, I would say that this is definitely worth your time. Admittedly, it does have a bit of a slow start largely brought about by the two main leads' language and cultural differences, but if you stick with it, I think it has a lot to offer. While it may not have as much of the sharp satirical edge or outright ridiculous comedy that Pratchett's work is known for, it does have some really interesting themes that it delves into. There's the constant questioning of humanity's place in the universe (especially in a religious context), with questions like "Why did unintelligent creatures like birds know how to escape the wave, but not us?" used as a starting point. Linked to this is an examination of traditions and how the strict adherence to them can be more harmful than helpful; it's a trait seen both in the aboriginal and colonial British characters to begin with, as both societies are so rigidly drawn, especially in terms of gender roles, that the individual parts played are soon revealed as useless without the rest of society to work around them. It's a surprisingly thoughtful novel, once you get past the necessary awkwardness that culture clash brings about. There's a large part of me that would actually argue that Nation is one of those books that should be part of a child's basic literary education, because it perfectly encapsulates an exploration of acceptance and constant questioning ourselves and our world. And really, that's one of the most important things that you could instill in someone.

A bit of a slow start, but more than worth the effort for the thoughtful themes that it examines. A must-read book for children of all ages. 4/5

Next review: Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French

Signing off,

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

I've had Kai-Ro on my shelves for years now, probably about 6/7 if I'm remembering this right. Quite frankly, that is embarrassing, so I decided to bite the bullet and give it a read. I didn't really have much in the way of expectations, as it was a book that I got as a stocking filler, although the synopsis seemed interesting enough.

Kai-Ro follows a young boy named Stretch Wilson, who has just lost his father to slave traders and must now fend for himself in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Whilst scavenging for valuable scraps of technology from before the apocalypse, he falls through the rubbish and finds a door, beyond which he can see a tantalising glimpse of what just might be gold. What he doesn't know is that by exploring the space beyond that door, he will be involving himself in an epic battle between two resurrected gods.
In theory, this book has a lot that interests me. There's a focus on the Ancient Egyptian religion and some of its history, which appealed to the nostalgic part of me that remembers wanting to be an archaeologist because of Egyptian history. There's an interesting angle in looking at the classic good vs evil story by making it a conflict based on strength of faith; the idea that in order to triumph, the heroes need to create enough faith in their deity that it can combat the faith generated by the opposition is really quite fascinating. And the post-apocalyptic setting is written with some really interesting details that makes me want to explore it more. I just wish that there was more of it. The base of what could be a really fantastic epic, but there's not enough space for it. The book spends all of its time building up to the final confrontation between these gods. And then it just sort of ends. None of the subplots get resolved, because hey, the main fight is over. Why would you want to see if Stretch finds his dad again? Why would we want to know what persuaded Ty, the most initially reluctant of his companions, to join his mad escapade? Why would we want to give Stretch any more time to actually react to the casualties of this final conflict than the measly paragraph before the story screeches to a halt? It just frustrates me so much, because I liked this, but it just rushed at so many key points. This really should have been longer, to give the story room to grow naturally.

A good story at its core, but it rushes so much that a lot of the really interesting stuff is only skimmed over. Proceed with caution. 3/5

Next review: Nation by Terry Pratchett.

Signing off,

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking

This is a bit of a departure for me, having not read a book of essays since I was in university, and even then never in their entirety. But Loud Hands is something of an exception: both a birthday present from my younger sibling and a subject that is very close to my heart, it is a collection of essays concerning self-advocacy in the autistic community. As such, it was with only a smidgen of guilt that I bumped it up my reading list.

Loud Hands is a collection of autism self-advocacy essays, written exclusively by autistic writers. They span a range of topics within the spectrum of self-advocacy, from the origins of the larger autistic community, to the injustices suffered at the hands of our more ignorant neurotypical peers, to the language used in the disability rights movement.
I kind of knew from the start that I would like Loud Hands, as it's pretty much preaching to the choir. Essays riffing on the idea that autistic people are valuable assets to society and should be treated as such. What about this would I not like? My main worry was that it wouldn't be different enough from the information that I had already found and read on the Internet. That was largely assuaged by the actual content; while I had found a fair amount of the subject matter already, the pieces included went into a lot more detail and even covered some new material. The fact that it covers a fairly wide range of topics makes it a pretty comprehensive guide to the topic. This doesn't make it a perfect resource though; I do have one main complaint that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly. My main issue with it is that it's very US-centric. While the broad issues are international, some of the essays do focus on specifics such as the American Disability Act, the Judge Rotenberg Center and assumes the widespread adoption of ABA therapy in schools. These issues, while relevant to disability rights, do make it feel a little distant for me as an autistic person who has no intention of ever living in the States. It would have been nice to have more of an international perspective to the essays. But otherwise it's a pretty solid effort and essential reading for someone thinking that they might be Autistic or neurotypical allies.

A solid read that covers a wide range of topics in surprising depth. Necessary reading for those interested in Autism and its community. 4.5/5

Next review: Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

Signing off,

Friday, 2 October 2015

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Part of me was a bit wary about starting Our Mutual Friend considering how little I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers, but after the almost insulting level of simplicity to be found in my last book I needed something a bit chunkier. Besides, it was Dickens, I felt I kind of had to give him another chance.

Our Mutual Friend is a novel consisting of several interweaving storylines, all connected to the mysterious circumstances surrounding a man named John Harmon. A young man returning to London in order to claim the fortune left to him by his miserly father, his corpse is instead fished out of the River Thames in what appears to be a murder. And so the plot branches out to focus on characters such as the Boffins, the people who inherit John Harmon's fortune in his absence, and the Hexams, responsible for fishing the body out of the Thames. Through these plots, the effect of materialism is examined on various sectors of Victorian society.
This is a bit slow to start, but I would highly recommend this. The characters are, for the most part, well-written if a little on the simplistic side. The main draw for me though was the way that Dickens managed to tackle the social issues that he had focused on, and the way that several of them still resonate uncomfortably today. One in particular that felt particularly relevant to today's Western world was the way that he spoke about the Poor Law and the workhouses. For me at least, it reflected modern society's uncomfortable attitude to the Benefits system, especially when it comes to Disability Benefit in the UK. I couldn't help but do a double take when Betty Higden, a character terrified beyond measure of the workhouse, said,
"Do I never read... how the worn-out people that do come down to that, get driven from post to pillar, and pillar to post, a purpose to tire them out? Do I never read how they are put off... grudged the shelter, or the doctor, or the drop of physic, or the bit of bread?" 
To read that and remember both the soul-crushing experience known as claiming Jobseeker's Allowance and the recent scandal about the number of people who have died after being deemed "fit to work", it did seem to hit far too close to home for my liking. I think that might be a key difference in my feelings towards Our Mutual Friend and The Pickwick Papers: the latter keeps matter far too safe and doesn't really feel relatable, while the social issues that Our Mutual Friend examines lends itself far more relevance regardless of time period.

With so many characters, you're pretty certain to find some plot-lines that you get really invested in. Additionally, the social issues discussed still hold water today, making it really interesting and relatable. 4/5

Next review: Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking 

Signing off,